We are excited to bring you an episode from No Jargon, a podcast from the Scholars Strategy Network. Much like Democracy Works, No Jargon aims to break down some of the biggest issues in politics and society in a way that’s not partisan and not punditry. New episodes are released every Thursday, and we hope you’ll check it out if you enjoy this conversation.
We like to think that state governments make decisions based on their particular situations. But it turns out, often that’s not the case. In fact, three large conservative groups have gained massive influence in state houses across the country, working to pass legislation in line with their views and corporate sponsors.
In this episode of No Jargon, Columbia University’s Alexander Hertel-Fernandez explains their rise and strategies, why state governments are so susceptible to their influence, and what this all means for American democracy.
Joyce Ladner was at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi in the 1950s and 60s as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She was mentored by Medgar Evers, expelled from Jackson State University for participating in a sit-in, and failed Mississippi’s voter literacy test three times. She discusses those experiences with us, along with the disconnect between learning the principles of civics education knowing that some of them didn’t apply to her.
Joyce also describes how Emmett Till moved her generation to action, and how Trevon Martin is doing the same for a new generation of organizers. She visited Penn State to deliver the annual Barbara Jordan lecture, hosted by the Africana Research Center.
[4:44] What was the catalyst for you to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement?
The catalyst for us was the lynching of 14-year-old Emmitt Till in Mississippi
[5:15] How did that make you feel and how you did you translate those feelings into your actions?
I remember feeling very very powerless back then. Sort of visceral reaction came when I saw the photograph of Emmett Till on the cover of Jet Magazine. That photograph made me feel that I had to one day do something.
[9:42] Did you see any changes or any integration efforts following Brown v. Board of Education
No, what happened to the Deep South was that the Southern states immediately after the Brown decision came down rushed to build new schools for black children, so we got a new school.
[14:42] What do you think is missing from how civics education and democracy are being taught today?
I took high school history and social science civics to become good citizens. We were informed with a knowledge base in ethics and values, and about what democracy was. I think that one of the worst things that’s happened in subsequent years is the decline of civics education. A lot of social science type courses have suffered tremendously.
[16:55] What do you think about Black Lives Matter Movement?
Black Lives Matter is to this generation what’s SNCC was to my generation, and also Trayvon Martin is to this generation what Emmett Till was to mine. Here you have a case of a young man who was just shot and murdered and the response to it is a national outpouring of anger and eventually that anger was channeled by young people (college students and non-college students). I should say is the case in a manner that was very similar. I was so excited to see that finally we have some movement activity.
[20:16] What was the process to become a registered voter?
I tried to register to vote three times in Harrisburg, but I failed the voter register literacy test because all black people who went to register were failed. At the same time all white people were registered. I was required to write essays on two questions, one was an interpretation of section in the U.S. Constitution. They never gave us reasons. They just says “you failed to pass this test, you didn’t answer these questions adequately”.
[24:41] Was there something that united all the different organizing that you did, whether for civil rights, voting rights or all of those?
Freedom was the reason to do all of this. Equality was later added but freedom remain the constant.
[26:57] What advice did you have to say to young people or anyone who wants to get involved in organizing and trying to impact what they perceive as injustice?
Freedom is not free. Each generation has to fight for those same rights all over again because they’re not permanent.
Democracy and inequality have been at odds for as long as democracy as has existed. As the gap between rich and poor widens, so too does trust in political institutions and faith in democracy itself.
Chris Witko, associate director of Penn State’s School of Public Policy and author of The New Economic Populism: How States Respond to Economic Inequality, argues that states can step in to address economic inequality while the federal government is embattled in political polarization.
Witko argues that democracy and capitalism will never fully be reconciled, but lessening economic inequality will go a long way toward strengthening democracy.
What is the relationship between democracy and economic inequality?
Whose responsibility is it to address inequality?
What policies should be taken in order to reduce inequality?
Do you think that individual states are doing enough to reduce inequality?
Do you think that multiple states adopting politics like minimum wage increases will spur federal action?
[6:02] Why are income inequality and democracy closely linked?
We are going to have some inequality in a capitalist system, but when we are in a democratic capitalist system that assumes some level of equality, there is a concern when you have extreme levels of extreme inequality.
[6:53] Talking about problems of Democracy in United States, do you agree with the statement that we can’t start to fix what is wrong with democracy until we address the issue of inequality?
Yes. When you see the extremes of wealth and inequality, you see that wealthy people can use their money for politics, so that generates an unequal political influence.
[7:50] Whose job to fix the problem of inequality?
In the United States we tend to think that the public is not concerned about inequality and that’s relatively true in comparison with Europe, but according to survey data, the public is really concerned about inequality and they want the government to do something to fix it.
[10:15] If public opinion really does supports action on inequality, why isn’t it moving forward?
The polarization is preventing anything getting done, and when you have big interests and the wealthy has gib influence in politics, that makes it really hard to get any chance of getting any egalitarian policy in Washington DC.
[13:09] How can we use the tools of democracy to fight inequality?
We do have in the states that we don’t have in Washington DC is direct democracy, in which desires from majority are expressed, but sometimes terrible policies can restrict rights from minorities.
[14:30] If a state want to take action either in minimum wage or thru the earning income tax, it is a tipping point to take action at the federal level?
Yes. We have seen it in the past. A lot os states has a higher income wage than the federal minimum wage an at this point it is natural that there’s not an opposition at the federal level because a lot of businesses are already adjusted to that level of income wage.
[15:17] What is the Earned Income tax Credit? How that it be a solution for that states that are looking to solve inequalities?
It’s a tax credit that comes back to workers who don’t earn a lot of money so you can actually end up getting cash back from the government when you file your tax return. That’s something that started at the federal level and then has proliferated down to the states and now the states are doing more to expand their earned income tax credits. It’s another policy tool that you can use in a more conservative area where maybe you don’t want to increase taxes on the wealthy, but you want to bring up the incomes of lower income workers.
[16:49] Can you talk about how populism fits into this inequality conversation?
The public is concerned about inequality and a lot of the policies that would actually address inequality or that we’ve used in the past to reduce inequality are actually really popular with the public. Minimum wage increases and tax increases on Millionaires and billionaires are very popular with the public. There are policies that a majority of the people want and we’re not really getting them in Washington DC due to the political dynamics there, but some of the states are actually doing this.
[17:44] What are those points in history that let large-scale changes, like the New Deal, to move forward?
What happened during the New Deal is a unique set of circumstances, you had a massive congressional majority of Democrats, Franklin Roosevelt’s terrible economy and people were ready for action, but we don’t want to have another Great Depression. With those political conditions we really did see the federal government pioneering new policies to address problems and we’re not seeing that because you have the the influence of the wealthy and politics in Washington DC, which is similar in some states but not as great in other states, so the states have more room for action and you have the mass of polarization in Washington DC which prevents anything from getting done.
[19:54] Can people try to do in their own way to make progress on some of these issues?
Voter turnout is really important to the types of policy. We need to do more to mobilize lower income voters, so any supporting organizations to make that happen is a good idea.
[20:59] Is there any type of ideal that we should be looking for?
No. I don’t think we can specify a mathematical point at which we’re good and within 2 percentage of points of this it’s bad, and that’s part of the danger of this situation. You never know when things have gotten too extreme. I don’t think many Americans would support everybody earning the same income or pure equality and that’s not going to happen, but just avoiding extremes of inequalities.
[23:11] How things like the Affordable Care Act and some of the other kind of more drastic proposals like Medicare for All are a factor?
The Affordable Care Act is interesting because it is one of the few real major egalitarians policies that we’ve seen enacted. There are some problems with how the ACA was designed. We’re seeing a similar logic where liberal states expanded medicaid right away, but even some of the more conservative states have done so through the particularly, through the initiative, but in some some cases not even through the initiative.
[24:36] Do you think that we can really do anything to move forward on addressing inequality without talking about the current state of campaign finance and the influence of money in politics?
Yes. Stricter campaign finance laws would probably be a good thing. The problem is right now the Supreme Court and a lot of state courts are really against regulating money in politics. The other thing we can do is to just try to increase money from other voices into the system.
We begin our third season with a fundamental question: What is democracy?
Astra Taylor grapples with this question in a documentary of the same name and a forthcoming book. We talk with her this week about what she learned from traveling the world and talking with people from all walks of life. As you’ll hear, she did not set out to make a documentary about democracy, but kept coming back to that question.
Taylor is a writer, documentarian, and organizer. In addition to What is Democracy?, her films include Zizek!, a feature documentary about the world’s most outrageous philosopher, and Examined Life, a series of excursions with contemporary thinkers including Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler, Cornel West, Peter Singer, and others.
A companion book, Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, will be released May 7.
Her writing has appeared in The Nation, the London Review of Books, n+1, the New York Times, The New Yorker, The New Republic, and elsewhere. She is the editor of Examined Life, a companion volume to the film, and the coeditor of Occupy!: Scenes from Occupied America. Her 2015 book, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, won an American Book Award.
Does it matter that people have different views of what democracy is?
What do you see as the relationship between equality and democracy?
How do you practice democracy in your day-to-day life?
[5:36] Why did you want to make a film about democracy?
I kept coming back to democracy and I think for me the big takeaway of making this film and writing the companion book that goes with it is that I’ve actually become more of us, more democrat. It’s sort of inspired a deep conviction in the concept, in the practice, and things that bothered me about the term, it’s a vagueness? What does it mean? All sorts of people say that they believe in democracy. I mean North Korea uses the word “democratic,” but it is a vague use of the word.
There’s a sense that democracy was corrupted, that it was synonymous with bureaucracy so I would have been more attracted to words like freedom, equality and justice and even socialism, a revolution. Things are really changing, we are in a very different political moment. We are in a moment when people are feeling we are in a political crisis and democracy we had for granted is declining, and people’s reaction is “I better pay attention to this thing I was ignoring”.
[8:55] Did you see people’s perception of democracy change over the course of making film?
The last week of filming was the 2016 election. I filmed for a few days after Trump’s victory and you know like most people I was surprised. I think people became more concerned with democracy. They got more sort of panicked and yet, I think what’s interesting about the film and how it turned out in the editing room is actually the footage that I shot earlier was somehow more power it didn’t lose its relevance because so many problems existed and have existed for decades. The closer we got to the moment of crisis of the election. I found that people almost couldn’t think the interviews weren’t as good because people were just in the state of panic that was not very philosophical.
[11:57] Is it a problem that people don’t have a standard definition of what democracy is?
I think the fact people have different answers is a good thing, but I actually I didn’t find that people had answers that were particularly in depth, and actually nobody said democracy was equality to me. That was a word that I sort of expected to hear but it wasn’t something I encountered. So I found that when I really engage people started asking they could have quite interesting things to say about their lives and the political situation, but when I pose directly the question “what is democracy?” their answers could be kind of cursory or there could be platitudes and I think that’s a sign, a symptom that something is wrong. That people can’t really robustly or personally explain this concept that is supposedly so essential to our society. I don’t think democracy is something people really feel they experienced in today. And that’s part of why I think people have a hard time defining it.
[14:14] How does liberalism fit into the definition of democracy?
I think at different points there was a lot more about the rule of law and sort of thinking about because I sort of thought about different sort of tensions and democracy as I was going into it and sort of rule of law or the rule of the people rights with sort of and that it just didn’t end up being the most sort of compelling issues, so there is stuff about sort of structure. Nobody uses the word “norms” but there’s stuff about structure and rules will been throughout the film in sort of who writes the rules. Part of my attempt also was to raise sort of these fundamental issues, but in language, that’s not necessarily the typical academic or philosophical language because when regular people meaning just you know, we’re all regular people but meaning non-experts, meaning those of us who read and engage the scholarly literature. I mean people bring up these issues. They just don’t use the academic or philosophical or left-wing rhetoric. I think I feel like it’s sort of hinted at but it’s just in sort of common tongue.
[16:38] Do you have a sense of where the line between democracy and populism is?
I’m still thinking through the term populism because I think there’s also another word like liberalism and like democracy. There’s a huge literature around it and it’s up for debate and I think there’s a battle over different definitions of populism and there are attempts to claim populism on the left and the right. I think the right is making them a much more successful pitch. I’ve noticed actually a lot of conservative intellectuals actually calling themselves now populists and which is interesting. This idea of popular sovereignty is in the film.
[21:26] The film spends a lot of time looking at the relationship between inequality and democracy. Did you gain any understanding through the course of making this film about how we might address inequality?
I’m definitely of the mindset that you cannot have political equality, that people cannot enjoy the political rights that they have on paper under conditions of extreme inequality. So the question though how to rein in the engines that are producing these conditions and this immense concentration of wealth is a real challenge, so I think part of the film is and that’s the work I do as an activist.
[26:53] After doing all this work for the book and the film, what does democracy mean to you?
I think democracy is a promise going back to that. But I think it’s not a promise that the powerful make and then break right, they’re not doing our democracy for us. I really think it’s a promise that can only be fulfilled by the people. Taking the time and thinking, acting, and making it as real as it can be and I don’t think it can ever just be fulfilled. It’s not something that we ever just grasp and then we get to just relax and tweak on the margins. I really think it’s a perpetual struggle. We had our founding fathers, but I think we need to be perennial midwives birthing this democracy into being.