Tag Archives: dissent

Yellow vests and the “grand debate” in France



Cole Stangler
Cole Stangler

This episode is the second in our series looking at democracy around the world. France is the focus this week. Our guest is Cole Stangler, an independent journalist based in Paris who covers French politics.

The yellow vest movement, named for the safety vests that all drivers are required to carry in their cars, began in late 2018 over rising gas prices. The movement succeeded in having the gas tax repealed, but the protestors still took to the streets around the country every weekend. Why? Like a lot of social movements, it’s complicated.

Cole has been on the ground covering the movement and joins to discuss its origins, the reaction from President Emmanuel Macron, and where things might go from here.

Next week, we’ll focus on Brazil for a discussion about the appeal of Jair Bolsonaro, who has been called Brazil’s Donald Trump.

Additional Information

Cole’s website

Interview with Cole about French politics on the Commonweal podcast

Story from The Atlantic on the “Grand Debate”

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • What do you think will be the future of the yellow vest movement?
  • Will the “grand debate” be effective?
  • What are some of the challenges associated with large-scale movements like this one?
  • How can the movement overcome those challenges?

Interview Highlights

[5:03] How did the debate from Yellow Vest Movement in France come about? And what is President Macron looking to accomplish by doing it?

This great national debate was rolled out as one of many concessions that was designed for the yellow vest protest movement. In addition to the government canceling the fuel tax, in response to these mass protests the government also increased a state wage subsidy and some other more modest measures. One of the big measures they design here to deal with that is to meet with Mayors. The government is going to take into account the results of what they’re hearing from from citizens and what they’re hearing from Mayors.

[6:39] France has very high voter turnout levels. Do you think that that level of participation will carry over into this great debate?

I don’t think so. In general in France in terms of elections participation is much higher than in United States and over 70 percent was a big deal last year. People are worried about participation dropping below 70 percent, but it was still much higher than that in the United States.

[15:45]  What type of backgrounds do protesters have?

That’s the huge question because even in France people don’t know exactly who these people are coming from. They seem to be people that don’t have much background in politics. The profile seems to be people protesting core economic issues. People think they are being taxed too much, they think the government is treating them unfairly and being overly generous to the rich and not to themselves.

[22:09] Is there any consensus among protesters about what some solutions to these issues might be?

No, but the citizen referendum seems to be the clearest actual coherent demand. In terms of actual coherent demands it remains very vague.

[27:32] Where do things go from here for the movement?

It depends a lot on what city you’re in and what town you’re in because this moment varies a lot from place to place. I suspect when the weather gets nicer you could have more people coming. In France, historically students have played a pretty integral part in protests or partisan moments and we’ve seen unrest from students for a variety of reasons. One key issue among others is the government trying to hike tuition fees. I think it’s kind of silly to speculate about the movement because no one knows where this is going.


Satire is good for more than just a few laughs



Political satire has been around nearly as long as politics itself and can provide a much needed laugh in times of crisis.

Sophia McClennen
Sophia McClennen

But, as you’ll hear from our guests this week, it’s much more than that. Satire is a check on people in power and helps to engage the public around issues that might otherwise go unnoticed — both of which are essential for a healthy democracy.

But, are we reaching a place where the comedy has become the news? The success of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and most recently John Oliver suggest that we might be heading in that direction. What about fake news? It’s all fun and games until you can’t tell the real news from the satire, and that’s concerning.

On the bright side, people who consume satire tend to be more well-informed about politics than those who do not, suggesting that one needs a solid foundation of what the news actually is in order to get the jokes that are being made about it.

Steve Brodner
Steve Brodner

We discuss the current state of political satire and where it might be heading with Sophia McClennen and Steve Brodner.

Sophia, a Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at Penn State, writes regularly for Salon and recently appeared on StarTalk with Neil deGrasse Tyson. Steve is a cartoonist at caricaturist who has drawn every president since Ronald Regan. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and The Washington Post just to name a few.

Interview Highlights

[7:02] What is the role of satire in a democracy?

Sophia: It doesn’t have that big of a role because it usually comes into the picture when things aren’t going that well. Satire emerges in moments of crisis. Today it is playing an extremely big role. Largely because the news media has shifted in how it informs the public.

[8:01] What about the nature of a crisis makes satire more popular and come out more in political conversations?

Sophia: Satire tends to come about when people are faulty or are doing stupid things. Satire is typically a contrarian position.

[8:42] What are creators of satire trying to accomplish?

Sophia: Satire is typically used to get the audience to think critically. The idea is to get people out of the binary option mindset. Many see the satirist as someone trying to tell them what to think. However, what they’re actually doing is trying to call out the way in which a conversation it being framed and recommend a change to that.

[10:05] What do we know about the types of people who consume satire?

Sophia: People who consume satire tend to be smarter. They also seem to be more creative on average. Part of the reason for this is the fact that satire depends on irony, which is art of playing with language. In terms of irony, the ability to hear a word and be able to comprehend that it has multiple meanings is a sign of an ability to be brighter and more creative.

[12:07] Is there a “my team, your team” dynamic in the application of satire to politics?

Sophia: It is suggested that we have a better ability to detect irony if it confirms our political positions.

[12:38] Where does the First Amendment fit into the creation and use of satire in politics? 

Sophia: Following the ruling in the Falwell v. Hustler case, satirists were found to be protected under the First Amendment under a particular clause of creativity. This differs from what a newspaper might be able to get away with. A key component is how the creators frame their comment. A key in Huslter was the fact that the intent of the offensive comment was to make fun of the individual rather than attempt to make a factual claim regarding their actions.

[15:38] What other effects have you seen satire bring about?

Sophia: Satire does have “boundary heightening effects”. This is the idea that it is ok to make fun of certain groups depending on ones particular membership in that group. When you cross into different groups, this can anger members of that group, or supporters of a particular individual that those members support. Therefore, one downside to satire is that it can deepen certain political gaps.

17:20 Would one then be accurate in saying that satire increases political polerization?

Sophia: Yes, this will absolutely happen. Satire does have a blowback effect on those who think the system is working. This is because the purpose of satire is often to attack the current system and the norms in which a particular issue is addressed in. However, there is research that suggests that the use of satire can create political energy and momentum and a shared narrative.

[19:40] Have you done any research looking at how satire has evolved? 

Sophia: While it has changed, I’m not sure I would use the word evolved because that suggests that it is getting better. In light of the changes we’ve seen, it might be nice if there was still a difference between the news and satire. One measurable change is how news gathering and satire have merged. Today, many people use satirical displays and shows as their first source of news. Memes are also shaping public narratives. This mergering of news and satire is one that isn’t going away. In fact, it is increasing.

[21:00] Do you have any thought on where political satire might go from here? 

Sophia: One problem going forward will be the relationship between satire and “fake news” because satirical headlines, if not understood as satire, can become taken as hard reporting and as factual. For example, the top shared “fake news” of last year was a headline that read “Pope Francis Endorses Trump.” We’re in a situation now that things are  being shared around for the reason of tricking the audience come dangerously close to looking like satire news headlines. Years ago John Stewart on the Daily Show was referred to as creating “fake news”, and that wasn’t an insult at the time.


Is Colin Kaepernick a good democrat?



Abe Khan
Abe Khan

No matter how much of a sports fan you are, you probably remember seeing Colin Kaepernick kneeling during National Anthem. President Trump took the debate to a whole new level when he said that anyone who does not respect the National Anthem and the flag should be fired.

Kaepernick and those who followed him are the most recent example of athletes using their sports as a means to protest, but history is filled with others who have come before them.

In this episode, we talk with Abe Khan, assistant professor of Communication Arts and Sciences and African-American Studies at Penn State, about the impact Kaepernick’s actions had on NFL culture and the broader role that protest plays in a democracy.

Michael Berkman and Chris Beem draw parallels between modern-day sports protests and Dr. Martin Luther King’s civil rights protests, and discuss the public’s feelings on protests as reported in the McCourtney Institute’s Mood of the Nation Poll.

Interview Highlights

[6:28] Help us remember what happened with Colin Kapernick and where the issues have gone from there:

Kapernick’s first kneel came at the end of August in 2016, it was actually at the end of a preseason football game. It actually didn’t start as a kneel.

He used two phrases that came, at least in my mind, to define the substance of the protest. One is, bodies in the street.And the other is people getting away with murder.

[8:54] How did the protest spread after Kapernicks initial demonstration?

So I’ll admit to being surprised about how quickly the Kapernick situation spread, but the number of athletes included 48 NFL players, 8 NBA teams, 14 WNBA players, including the entire squad of the Minnesota Links, a gold medal swimmer, 45 high school teams, 22 colleges, a middle school, and a youth football team in Beaumont Texas. 34 states, 4 countries.

[10:10] To wrap up this section about the history of the protest, where do things stand now?

One thing that emerged immediately after this was of course huge outrage, especially among NFL players.

Where were at is essentially a split in the players coalition, because I think  that the NFL saw that the players coalition as an opportunity to co-op the force of the protest. Eric Reid (one of the earliest players to join Kapernick)  and Michael Thomas (player for the Miami Dolphins) left the players coalition after the NFL promised to spend 100 million dollars promoting an agenda on criminal justice reform. This was seen as a bribe.

[12:03] Let’s talk about that, NFL culture. Sports is is kind of the one non-partisan place in our society.

The problem is, is that all of the political place in sport had been consumed by simplistic and idealized images of the nation, especially in the 1980’s and 90’s. There’s been patriotic symbolism in sports forever.

Patriotism and nationalism frequently get coded as a-political. That underwrites a form of attack on the method of protest. So to the extent that the anthem ritual is apolitical, disrupting the ritual will always be seen as an inappropriate intrusion of politics into sport.

[13:04] Who were some of those [athlete protesters] that came before him [Kapernick]?

Athletes have always used moments of patriotic ritual to express dissent. Of course the most famous example is John Carlos and Tommy Smith at the 1968 Olympics.

[14:40] Kapernick and these other athletes are effectively “on the job.” What effect, if any, do you see this having on their actions?

The recognition that athletes are on the job is often used as the ground from which to criticize the protester.

[17:13] Do you think that Kapernick and those who have followed him were successful in making their points?

I think that the answer there is yes but I can understand those who say no.

[18:38] How do you think history will look back on Kapernick and the impact that he’s had?

It’s true that the problem of police violence and accountability got lost in the shuffle about free speech and angry screeds about patriotism but that, it seems to me, is a limited metric of success.