Tag Archives: populism

What neoliberalism left behind



Wendy Brown
Wendy Brown

Much like our conversation with Patricia Roberts-Miller on demagoguery last week, neoliberalism is one of those fuzzy words that can mean something different to everyone. Wendy Brown is one of the world’s leading scholars on neoliberalism and argue that a generation of neoliberal worldview among political, business, and intellectual leaders led to the populism we’re seeing throughout the world today. But is it mutually exclusive to democracy? Not necessarily.

Wendy joins us this week to help make sense of what neoliberalism is, and where things stand today. We were lucky enough to get an advance copy of her book, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, which will be released in July. It’s a follow up to her 2015 book, Undoing the Demos, and you’ll hear her talk about how her thinking has changed since then.

Wendy is the Class of 1936 First Chair at the University of California, Berkeley, where she teaches political theory. You might also recognize her from Astra Taylor’s documentary, What Is Democracy? If you enjoy this episode, we recommend checking out the Political Theory Review podcast, produced by Jeffrey Church at the University of Houston.

Additional Information

Wendy’s books: In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, Undoing the Demos

Wendy’s website 

Our episode with David Frum

The Political Theory Review podcast

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • What do you see as the relationship between neoliberalism and democracy?
  • Do you think it’s possible for two to coexist?
  • What do you see as the future of neoliberalism? Will Millennials and Generation Z move in a different direction?

Interview Highlights

[5:45] How do you define neoliberalism and how is it related to democracy?

North Americans are a little bewildered by the term, and we don’t have it as part of our everyday lexicon although I think it’s finally beginning to seep in. But having said that, I also want to suggest that we understand it at a social and political level and not just an economic level. We recognize it as the undoing of the Keynesian welfare state and the substitution of free market policies, low taxes, everyone’s responsible for themselves and getting rid of all the social supports except for a bare minimum safety net, but I want to add that it’s also a whole from of governing reason.

[7:45] How does neoliberalism relate to authoritarianism?

One of the things I felt compelled to understand with our hard right turn in the West over the last several years with Trump and Bolsonaro and Brexit and so forth was the connection of that to neoliberalism. One thing you can say is rising inequality and open borders produces rage about being at the bottom end of that inequality and also about immigrants, but there was something else on the horizon that I had never noticed, which is that the neoliberal scheme was not just to substitute markets for social policy.

It was also to substitute traditional moral values for understandings of social justice and institutions of social justice. And so part of what we’re experiencing now is what I call the kind of scorpion tail of neoliberalism — the lashing out against the inequality and the continued insistence that traditional morality, moral values, and traditions more generally from white supremacy to patriarchal families, religion in the public sphere, that those are more appropriate governors of human conduct than any state-mandated practices of equality or inclusion.

[11:04] How did neoliberal ideas make their way from academics to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher?

First, there was a very serious economic crisis often called a crisis of profitability in the 70s that was also often seen as a crisis of the welfare state. Too much taxation, unions that were too strong, corporations that were too large and lazy, and a real problem of stagflation. It was a moment where you could strike with a new set of ideas. At the same time, neoliberalism had already been experimented with extensively in Latin America. The IMF was already solidly neoliberal, so bringing it up to the north wasn’t so difficult once Reagan and Thatcher were in power.

[14:37] What will Millennials and Gen Z make of neoliberalism?

Millennials and Generation Z are living in a kind of schizophrenic subjectivity that comes from the rejection of capitalism and the sluggish, dinosaur-like pace of parliamentary or constitutional democracy that is now so deeply corrupted by neoliberal money and corporate power. One of the things I see coming from these generations is the rejection of those two things as the necessary coordinates of the political and economic future, and I think all the hope rests there.

[17:46] Is there a way for neoliberalism and democracy to coexist?

Why I’m impatient with a neoliberal conception of democracy as a way to redress either the gross inequality or the serious existential dangers that we face now is that it’s basically saying, “Go join something, go feel like you’re part of something,” but let the major powers that shape our lives run through markets that presumably run through no hands at all. We rather desperately need to get our hands on those powers.

[20:37] Is it possible to move past the neoliberal worldview given that it’s been dominant over the past generation?

Yes. The Keynesian system lasted for fifty years. No one thought it could be taken apart and everyone thought it was here to stay. The question for the neoliberals was always to try to figure out how to keep it from getting worse and how to prevent this straight on drive toward complete socialism, and keep some markets in the picture. So, one generation is not a lot of time. The second thing I want to say is that we are obviously in a very serious political crisis where there’s an impatience with the current system and a belief that it’s not serving people or the planet. not just the left and right edges, but left and right mainstreams now um, the impatience with the- with the current system, and the belief that it’s not serving people, or the planet, is very strong.


Demagogues are more common than you think



Patricia Roberts-Miller
Patricia Roberts-Miller

When you think of the word “demagogue,” what comes to mind? Probably someone like Hitler or another bombastic leader, right? Patricia Roberts-Miller is a rhetoric scholar and has spent years tracing the term and its uses. She joins us this week to explain a new way of thinking about demagoguery and how that view relates to democracy. She also explains what she’s learned from what she describes as years of “crawling around the Internet with extremists.”

Patricia is a Professor of Rhetoric and Writing and Director of the University Writing Center at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of two new books on demagoguery. Demagoguery and Democracy is a short book in the style of On Tyranny that covers the basics of her argument in about 100 small ages. Rhetoric and Demagoguery is a longer, more academic book for those looking for more on the rhetorical roots of demagoguery and its relationship to democratic deliberation.

Additional Information

Patricia’s books: Demagoguery and DemocracyRhetoric and Demagoguery

Patricia’s website

Episode on civility with Timothy Shaffer of Kansas State University

A note to our listeners in the New York City area: Jenna Spinelle will be participating in a panel called “Podcasts to the Rescue! An Emerging Medium for Learning About Civics, Government, and the Social Contract” on Thursday, May 30 at the Metropolitan New York Library Council. The event is free and open to the public. We would love to meet you!

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • After listening to Patricia, do you feel better equipped to notice demagoguery in media you consume, or even in your own language and writing?
  • What do you see as the relationship between demagoguery and democracy?
  • Do you see parallels between the increase of demagoguery and the decline of civility we discussed with Timothy Shaffer?
  • Can you think of a time when you’ve tried to appreciate the other side’s point of view in a conversation or something you read? Did doing so change your perspective?

Interview Highlights

[5:18] How do you define demagoguery and why is it bad for democracy?

It’s useful to think about it as reducing all political issues or even all issues to questions of identity. And specifically in-group versus out-group. And it’s oriented toward providing a lot of certainty and reducing nuance. When you have a culture that is reasoning about everything in that way, you can’t actually explore multiple solutions. What I have to say about demagoguery in politics is pretty similar to what people will say about how a business should come up with a good business plan or how people should make decisions about health. It’s just better decision making.

[7:04] How does the media landscape influence the culture of demagoguery you describe?

We’re in an economy of attention and what matters most is w- whether you are doing things that get viewers and get likes, and get clicks and shares, and all that. It’s extremely difficult to do a good argument on Twitter, one that takes into consideration the nuance of a situation, what other people have said, represents the opposition fairly.

[10:44] Why is demagoguery so often associated with political leaders?

Because demagoguery is about reducing politics to identity. And so if you’re thinking about politics in terms of identity you’re going to be looking for a person on whom you can blame bad politics. And it better not be you. Right? So I think that’s one reason that we really like that notion the demagogue who is the source of all of our problems. And often when you have a culture of demagoguery, at some point somebody will come up.

[13:14] What are some strategies people can use to identify demagoguery?

We assume that demagoguery is going to be vehement, and we assume it’s going to be aggressive. And so we have a tendency to make that judgment on the basis of affect. The affect of the person speaking, but also our own. Do we feel threatened? And if we don’t feel threatened then we’re not likely to think of it as demagoguery. So I think, but what that means is that you don’t recognize the demagoguery on behalf of your in-group. People have to perspective shift and imagine how would we feel about this if we were in the other group? Would we feel threatened by it under those circumstances? How would we feel if exactly that same argument was made about our group? Um, how would we make, how would we feel about that kind of argument? Would we assess it as a rational argument if it was made on the part of the opposition?

[16:16] Is there ever a time when it’s not worth trying to understand the other person or side’s point of view?

One of the things you always have to figure out about anyone you’re interacting with is whether they are open to change and persuasion. One of the problems with conspiracy theories is by definition they’re not. They have a way of discounting any kind evidence that doesn’t conform to their beliefs. Often, the people don’t believe in climate change have an almost 19th century notion about a scientist is, and what science is. So if a mechanical engineer tells them that climate change is a hoax they’re like, “There’s a scientist who doesn’t believe in it.” Without understanding that a mechanical engineer is not actually an expert on either of those areas.Sometimes I get really interesting insights into people’s beliefs from doing that. And sometimes it’s sort of like kicking over a rock and just going, “Ew.”

[21:50 ] Do you think we’ll be able to move beyond the “us vs. them” rhetoric to a more deliberative model?

I’m really worried, but I’m hopeful that at least Facebook is starting to take this really seriously, and try to think through some better strategies that they have. What we actually need to emphasize is understanding other points of view. Instead of just relying on the facts I’ve been given by my in-group, to see what the facts are on other sides. And to see, especially why they reject the facts.


Immigration, refugees, and the politics of displacement



Jan Egeland
Jan Egeland

From Brexit to Hungary to the U.S. border wall, many of today’s political conflicts center around immigration. Moving people from one place to another is easier said than done, and as we’ve seen around world, there are inherent tensions between people who want to enter a country and the people who are already there. On top of that, climate change will continue to create situations where people are displaced from their homes.

Jan Egeland doesn’t have all the answers to these issues, but he’s committed to figuring them out. He is the Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council and former Special Adviser to the UN Special Envoy for Syria. Despite the challenges that immigration poses, he remains optimistic about the progress the world has made and the power of democratic governments to find solutions.

Jan visited Penn State as guest of the Center for Security Research and Education.

Additional Information

Norwegian Refugee Council

Penn State Center for Security Research and Education

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • How should governments and organizations address immigration?
  • What’s the relationship between immigration and democracy?
  • Did hearing Jan’s interview change the way you think about migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers?
  • How will climate change affect migration?

Interview Highlights

[4:58] What do the terms migrant and refugee mean and how they might differ?

Migrants are everyone who leaves a country and goes to another place. Refugees are people who flee from persecution. It could be political, religious, or cultural.

[6:38] What is the Norwegian Refugee Council and how this organization works with these various groups?

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) is a humanitarian organization working for both refugees and the internally displaced people providing them relief in the in the form of shelter (housing, water, sanitation, and food). We also provide legal help and legal advice, including civil documentation. There are two main solutions that we seek. The first one is to return the person, but this solution is very difficult when a war is going on. The other one is local integration. It could be that little by little they would be integrated, get their get jobs and education and maybe even citizenship, and the third solution is relocation to another place. Traditionally the United States generously receives more than a 100,000 refugees, but most of the rich industrial countries have become colder places for refugees.

[9:00] When did that that transition start and how has it evolved since then?

It’s always been there really in Europe, in the United States, and in places like Japan and in other industrialized countries. We are now in a new period of great difficulty for us who work for and with refugees because there is a wave of nationalism in very many places.

[10:50] What is the right balance between helping refugees and people in need while still paying mind to people who are already living in the countries where the refugees want to go?

First of all, we have to recognize that the main solution for people who have fled their homes is to return home. We need to have more work and diplomacy peacemaking conflict resolution to make it safe and protected for people to return home and help them then rebuilt.

[16:15] Do you find that the populism we’ve seen throughout Europe and elsewhere also extends to humanitarian efforts?

What I find now is that there is a race to the bottom. Really many countries are willing to give us money if we keep them away from from that country. Europe and North America have been traditionally the most generous places for receiving refugees, but there are many rich nations who are not receiving refugees.

[18:44] There’s a long-term strategy but there’s also a lot of things that come up that you can’t anticipate. How do you account for those unknown elements?

We have very good people who in the field try to meet every eventuality. We have preparedness programs as we have prevention programs. But but in the longer term, perhaps the most worrying longer term problem is that many more people will be displaced not by conflict, but by the forces of nature in the age of climate change and we have to be prepared for that.

[19:56] What role does civil society have to play in terms of refugees?

The civil society groups play an enormously important role. We work with civil society groups like women’s groups, student groups, church groups, religious groups, and tribal groups. We need to help people who are knocking on our door, we need to help them in their hour of greatest need!

[22:22] How do you see democracies countering these anti-refugee and anti-immigrant policies?

There are a few sensational stories about one or two immigrants doing something bad in the media and everybody believes that that immigrants are worse than others, but that’s not what statistics demonstrates. Europeans and the media is in panic with the amount of refugees. For example, Europeans felt overwhelmed when 1 million people came to a continent of 500 million. Let’s imagine you have a school yard of 500 kids and one girl comes in to the school. Should we panic for one to 500? We shouldn’t, but that’s what Europe did.

[25:26] You’ve said previously that you feel the world is getting better for most people. Do you still feel that way?

Absolutely, specially in terms of private consumption, public consumption, education, health care, life expectancy, dropping child mortality, equality between the sexes, and opportunity for girls. However, it is worse for those who live in war zone or in areas with gangs. The challenge moving forward will be to maintain this sense of progress and momentum.


Future Hindsight: Ian Bremmer on the failure of globalism



Future Hindsight podcast logoWe are closing out our series on democracy around the world with a bonus episode from Future Hindsight, a show that features deep conversations with guests who are engaged in strengthening our society. This episode is a discussion with Ian Bremmer, author of Us vs. Them: The Failure of GlobalismIan is a political scientist and president of the Eurasia Group, a political risk advisory and consulting firm.

In this episode, Ian talks with Future Hindsight host Mila Atmos about populism, authoritarianism, and some of the other trends we’ve heard about over the past few weeks. Think of it as a 30,000-foot view of what we’ve covered in individual countries like Hungary and Brazil.

Future Hindsight is in its fifth season and available at futurehindsight.com or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Here are the episodes from our series about democracy around the world:

 


Brexit and the UK’s identity crisis



Sona Golder
Sona Golder

We’re just a few weeks away from the deadline for the UK to reach an agreement on its plan to leave the European Union. Nearly three years after the infamous Brexit vote, things appear to be as murky as ever.

Rather than trying to predict the future, we invited Penn State’s Sona Golder to join us for a conversation about how Brexit originated, and the pros and cons of putting the decision directly in the people’s hands. Sona is a comparative politics scholar and co-editor of the British Journal on Political Science.

Listen through to the end of the episode for information about the Big World podcast, produced by American University’s School of International Service.

Additional Information

Sona’s website

For more on UK politics, check out The Guardian’s Politics Weekly podcast.

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Do you think that Brexit should have been decided via referendum?
  • If a second referendum happens, how would you phrase the question and the options people vote on?
  • Do you see similarities between Brexit and Donald Trump’s election? Or with the rise of authoritarian leaders in places like Hungary and Brazil?
  • How do you think Brexit will end?
  • How do you feel about the state of democracy around the world after listening to the past four episodes? Has you opinion changed since the beginning of the series?

Interview Highlights

[4:45] How did the original Brexit referendum come about in 2016?

When it comes to important EU initiatives, it’s not unusually to have a referendum. There were referenda in at least three countries back in 1992 when they were trying to get everyone to agree to the Maastricht Treaty. France’s treaty just barely passed and was known as the little yes. In the UK, various leaders have proposed having a referendum on whether to remain in the EU over the years but never followed through on it. Given that history, I don’t think it seemed out of place to the citizens of the UK.

[5:52] What was it about 2015-2016 that finally allowed the referendum process to happen?

Ever since the Maastricht Treaty was signed, there’s been a group of people in Parliament who are Euro-skeptical. That’s been going on for decades. More recently, countries from throughout Europe joined the EU. The UK was the only country that did not set restrictions on how people could move into the country so the UK ended up with a lot migrants that no one expected. On top of that, the financial crisis happened in 2008. David Cameron, the Prime Minister at the time, went into it thinking he was going to get a better deal from the EU and then there would be a referendum after that. He almost assuredly thought the outcome would be that the UK would end up in the EU.

[7:53] Is Brexit indicative of a larger trend around immigration and economic inequality?

One common issue that many countries are dealing with is the financial crisis, which gave people the feeling that they’d left behind and that political leaders on both sides of the aisle were not helping them. This feeling manifests itself in different ways based on the culture of that country. In the UK, people felt like Labour and the Conservatives were not really doing anything and the status quo doesn’t really seem very appealing.

[8:50] Can you give us an overview of the parties in the UK and where they stand on Brexit?

There are two main parties. Labour is on the left and is traditionally a socialist party, but you can think of it as akin the Democrats in the U.S. The Conservatives are on the right and are akin to the Republicans. The UK has the same voting structure as the U.S. does so those parties tend to get the most seats and one of them has a majority, even though there are other parties who will have smaller numbers of seats.

[9:45] What do we know about the people who voted for Brexit?

People who voted for Brexit tended to be more rural, older, and less educated. They were motivated by frustration with the current parties. Both parties have moved to the center. There was a sense that there was not much difference between them.

[11:37] What was the rationale that each side presented for staying or leaving the EU?

The remainers said it would be a disaster for the economy if the UK pulled out of the EU. They might have exaggerated it, but they thought it was so obvious that no one would want leave. The people who wanted to leave felt that the UK didn’t have control over its boarders and all of its policies were being set in Brussels.

[13:23] What are some of the ways Brexit could end?

After the referendum, it wasn’t immediate that the UK was going to leave the EU. They had to trigger Article 50, which Theresa May did in 2017. Since then, she’s been trying to negotiate a deal that would set up rules for the new relationship. If that doesn’t happen, there’s no deal and it’s unclear what happens. The UK is an island nation. It’s not clear what happens to goods at the border if there’s no deal in place.

[15:22] What are some of the obstacles to a deal being put in place?

Some members of Parliament still don’t want to leave and they’re hoping that a new referendum would be called or it would just be voted in Parliament that they wouldn’t leave. There’s some people who want the hard Brexit. Theresa May is having a hard time trying to build a coalition to back her deal. The people advocating for a second referendum hope that people will have come to their senses and change their mind. But it’s not clear that anything would change. The EU is trying to negotiate a trade agreement that would be beneficial to the countries that remain. My sense is that people will become more open to a deal as the withdrawal deadline gets closer.

[19:25] How does Ireland and the “backstop” figure into Brexit?

The issue is over the border between the Republic of Ireland, which is part of the UK, and Northern Ireland, which isn to part of the UK. The backstop is a way of saying the UK can pull out of the EU but not have a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. No one is quite sure how that would happen. The Good Friday agreement of 1998 went a long way toward solving the problems of terrorism in Northern Ireland. No one wants to go back to that, but it wasn’t a big part of the consideration during the Brexit vote. Most people who thought about the Good Friday agreement were confident that the UK would vote to remain in the EU.

 


Brazil’s tenuous relationship with democracy



Gianpaolo Baiocchi
Gianpaolo Baiocchi

To say Brazil has had a complicated history with democracy is a understatement. The country has bounced in and out authoritarian regimes for hundreds of years, with democracy never having quite enough time to really take hold. Following the election of Jair Bolsonaro in October 2018, many are wondering whether the cycle is about to repeat itself again.

Gianpaolo Baiocchi is a professor of individualized studies and sociology at NYU, where he also directs the Urban Democracy Lab. He’s from Brazil and has written extensively about the country’s politics and social movements. He joins us this week to talk about Bolsonaro’s appeal, the use of misinformation on WhatsApp during the election, and why Bolsonaro is often called the “Trump of the tropics.” We also discuss Brazil’s history of activism under authoritarian governments and whether we’ll see it return now.

Next week is our final episode about democracy around the world. We’ll be talking with Penn State’s Sona Golder about all things Brexit.

Additional Information

Gianpaolo’s website

Urban Democracy Lab

Brazil’s unraveling political institutions – article by Gianpaolo in Democracy Journal

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • What is the role of social movements in Brazil?
  • Do you think Brazil will retreat from democracy under Bolsonaro?
  • What is the role of the military in Brazil?
  • How is Brazil politically involved with other Latin American countries?

Interview Highlights

[3:07] What is the history of democracy in Brazil?

Brazil, a very unequal country, has had this relatively short and checkered history with democracy. Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery in the world. In 1964, Brazil had a military coup that lasted with a military regime that lasted until 1985. Social movements really played a very important role in the transition to democracy, but also in helping build the institutions of democracy. Brazil’s constitution of 1989 has some very progressive elements in it, has things about direct democracy, has gestures and participation municipalities, and have a lot of power.

[7:08] Where did social movements  in Brazil come from?

Social movements comes in the mid-1980s. There are urban movements, the movement for the right transport, the movement against poverty, student movements, a lot of movements to the progressive church, so kind of Liberation theology, we have movements very important of patients and users of the health system.

[10:38] Who is Jair Bolsonaro and why was he appealing?

People are going to be talking about the Bolsonaro phenomenon for a long time. He’s been a politician for a long time and he’s mostly known for shocking statements. He’s been a guy who likes to say provocative things about rape, about affirmative action, and sort of anti-political correctness. His platform is law and order, it’s about God, it’s against political correctness, and it’s pro-business. He definitely has the elite support in Brazil, but because Brazil is an unequal country, that won’t go very far.

[16:18] Why is Bolsonaro compared to Donald Trump?

There are definitely similarities between Trump’s Make America Great Again rhetoric and some of Bolsonaro’s language. They’re both populists and have both been involved in scandals, yet always seem to skate by and remain in power. Trump and Bolsonaro have also sought to undermine democratic institutions. However, the institutions in Brazil were weaker to begin with because democracy does not have the long history there that it does in the U.S.

[19:05] Can you give us some examples of how institutions in Brazil are weaker?

The judicial system, the courts begun to play a very openly political role. The Minister of Justice was the judge and prosecutor over Lula, the former president of Brazil, who’s currently under arrest and during the process of the prosecution investigation. This judge was very openly partisan in social media and releasing things and it has given people the sense that the law is just something that you use. One of the things that has happened because of Bolsonaro being elected is that people has a free license to commit hate crimes. The only openly gay member of Brazilian Congress has had to flee the country.

[23:02] Did misinformation play a role in Bolsonaro’s election?

Yes. Social media and fake news were a huge part of the election. In particular, a WhatsApp investigation a few days before the election itself revealed that foreign money and industrialists had paid for all these bots to repeat these fake news.

[24:49] How is Bolsonaro playing throughout the rest of Latin America?

The balance of the continent has definitely shifted. All eyes are in Venezuela right now and early on in his campaign. Bolsonaro said he would be for a military intervention and I don’t think that’s actually going to happen, but Bolsonaro’s election does feel like the region has definitely turn right and turned authoritarian in a very real way.

[28:44] Social movements have risen up before in Brazil. Do you see the same thing happening again now or in the future?

Yes! In the weeks before the election as it look like Bolsonaro was really going to win, people came together in a way that hadn’t really been seen in a long time in Brazil.


A brief history of “people power”



James Miller
James Miller

In his book Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea from Ancient Athens to Our World, James Miller encapsulates 2500 years of democracy history into about 250 pages — making the case that “people power” will always need to be at the heart of any successful democracy.

James is a professor of politics and liberal studies at the New School for Social Research. in New York City. He is the author of Examined Lives: From Socrates to NietzscheFlowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947–1977, and Democracy Is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago. He was recommended to us by Astra Taylor, and you’ll hear some similarities between how James and Astra view democracy and our role within it.

Starting next week, we’ll be expanding our focus to look at the state of democracy around the world, starting with Hungary. We’ve talked in broad strokes about how democracy is on the decline outside the United States and are excited to dive into what’s happening in a few specific countries.

Additional Information

Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea from Ancient Athens to Our World

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • What do you make of the notion that democracy is “people power?”
  • Based on the definition James provides, is the United States a democracy?
  • What are the origins of democracy?
  • Where do the ideas of democracy comes from?
  • What can affect democracy or democratic processes?

Interview Highlights

[4:50] In your book you talk about the ideal of democracy survives. What that ideal is and where it comes from?

The term democracy comes from ancient Greek and it’s not just cuddly abstract power. It really connotes people who have weapons in their hands and you have to respond to them. A literal translation of the word democracy in the English would be “people power.”

[8:34] What can history tell us about trying to marry this the ideal of democracy with what what it ends up being in practice?

It’s very misleading to try to draw direct lessons from history because so much in politics is situational. It depends on the context, on the culture, on the level of development of the people or a group that’s trying to become self governing. In the modern period the democracy is an idea and as an ideology, it’s inherently unstable because there’s a core ambiguity about to what extent it can be realized in practice and there’s a further ambiguity and that it’s proven to be a very powerful legitimating mechanism as an ideologies, and you end up with regimes that talk about democracy but don’t for a nanosecond really mean it and the cases of communist countries like North Korea and China are to most Americans self-evident.

[14:22] Where did the French get their ideas about democracy?

They obtained some ideas from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who grows out of a modern Republican tradition and ends up backing into a kind of support for democracy. There is an American version of democracy that does appear in the course of the 19th century and it develops on a different path than democracy in Europe and yet in the United States think we invented democracy. So the one of the more weird facets of the story of modern democracy is America preening itself on being the birthplace of modern democracy, which is false and being a place where the great protector of democracy which we’ve used repeatedly in the 20th and 21st century as a rationale for imposing by gunfire democratic ideals on foreign countries.

[18:40] Can you talk a little bit about what the people’s party and the people’s constitution in Rhode Island look like?

At the time of the Revolution after the Declaration of Independence most of the states, the colonies, drafted their own constitutions, but during this whole ferment Rhode Island basically just ratified as Colonial Charter and kept it in. A convention was declared and there’s a draft of the new Constitution which of course by the rules of the state legislature in Rhode Island was illegal. It ends up a short of the Civil War.

[22:11] In the 20th century, public opinion polls enter the picture. How did they impact perceptions of democracy?

The conception that allows that to happen is the notion that democracy is ruled by public opinion, and this is proposed as a definition of modern democracy by Woodrow Wilson in writings before he became president of the United States. This nascent science of the monitoring of public opinion takes root in the United States. First of all in commercial applications through market research, but very quickly spreads to politics and emerges as a kind of practices in the 20s and into the 1930s. Finally, in the 1936 presidential campaign for the first time you have newspapers and magazines printing public opinion polls on who supports the different presidential candidates for the first time in history. Is that public opinion polling? It’s a two-way street. You can find out what people think they want and then you can try to manipulate it and you can manipulate it in part by the questions you ask.

[27:29] Knowing what you do about democracy’s history, where do things go from here?

The vitality of democracy in a modern setting, in effect, depends on the continued irruption into the public sphere of the voices of ordinary citizens and that this eruption of voices will often be unruly and may even create chaos. That’s the nature of democratic revolts. I have no sympathy for people who keep denouncing what they call populism which to me just means it’s people power that they don’t like. It’s a group of people who are advocating policies they disagree with.


Middle America, Part 1: Populism and the Trump Voter



In the effort to understand the people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, a style of reporting has emerged that Chris Hayes recently described as “Trump pastoral.” You might not know the phrase, but, but you’ve probably read a piece or two like this in the past few years:

Salena Zito
Salena Zito

A reporter from a national media outlet based in a big city visits a small town in a rural community and spends a little bit of time there trying to understand the people who live there and why they are attracted to Trump. That sounds great in theory, but the life of an urban media professional and a small town working-class person can be pretty different, which makes it difficult to build the trust needed for a true window into emotions and motivations.

Salena Zito is trying to change that. She grew up in Pittsburgh and splits her time between small-town events and CNN’s airwaves. Along the way, she’s learned a thing or two about what caused parts of the country to vote for Donald Trump after voting for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. She captures those stories in a book called The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics, which was part of our democracy summer reading list episode.

We traveled to Pittsburgh to talk with Salena about how she gets to know people and what everyone can learn about trying to understand those who live different lives than we do. The lessons she’s learned apply far beyond journalism. We also talked about the coalitions that Salena and co-author Brad Todd argue helped Donald Trump become president, and whether they will remain in tact moving forward.

This is the first episode of two that will look at what’s going on in “Middle America.” Next week, you’ll hear from Lara Putnam, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who offers a different take.

Additional Information

Salena Zito’s book, The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Many of the voters Salena interviewed said that the 2016 election was about something more than Donald Trump. What were those bigger ideas?
  • Did Trump create the new coalition Salena describes, or was he in the right place at the right time?
  • What does the new coalition Salena describes say about the future of political parties in the U.S.?
  • Think about a time when you went outside of your comfort zone to attend an event or have a conversation. How did you feel and what did you learn?
  • Will Trump be re-elected in 2020?

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

4:40: What motivated you to write this book?

Salena: We wanted to look and see if the Trump victory was a fluke or an example of a more significant change within the country. I went out to the five Great Lake states that voted for Obama twice then switched to vote for Trump. We wanted to get beyond the media stereotype of what a trump voter was. What we found is that these voters we much more complicated and diverse.

6:04: How did you get people to trust you enough to be willing to open up to you and explain their voting decision?

Salena: This is where my geography and upbringing helped me greatly. I live in Pittsburg. With this more Midwest background, I was able to connect with these people better than say someone who came to them from New York or Washington.

7:13: Did you have anyone skeptical of you and asking if you were part of the “fake news”?

Salena: The shocking thing I found was that democrats have the same misgivings about the news media as republicans do. They also have the same sentiments about larger institutions as republicans. I think this new populism is a healthy pushback to all things big across media and business.

8:08: Have you kept in touch with those you interviewed?

Salena: Yes, we have. Also, no one has changed their position on who they supported from 2016. An interesting development we saw was how these people reacted to the media’s coverage of events in the administration thus far. Specifically, I’m referring to Trumps tweets. What we hear from these people is that they’re sick of the cookie cutter politicians statements. While Trumps comments aren’t clean and crafted, they are more representative of how normal people actually speak. This is something that those we spoke with could identify with. I think sometimes my peers have a hard time understanding this largely because of geography. They aren’t from these types of places.

10:35: You sort of exist in both words by interviewing these people in middle America while also appears on CNN panels as part of the media cloud. Do you see yourself as sort of an ambassador for middle America?

Salena: I want to help people understand that just because someone consumes things different than you do doesn’t make them your enemy. They just have a different life. We don’t allow people to coexist.

12:25: Fox News was mentioned many times in your book. Is that something that came up a lot in your interviews?

Salena: There was a cross section of what these voters watched as far as news. However, most of these people get their news from their local stations.

14:30: We talk a lot about a split happening between classical liberalism and populism. How do people you speak with see the recent electoral developments in middle America?

Salena: I think those in this coalition see it as still the idea of classical liberalism that we’ve always see in American democracy. This is the first time we’ve seen a new major coalition form probably since the new deal amongst democrats. I think that coalition broke apart in 2012. This happened in part because of the push from the left of ideas like multi culturalism and the idea of global citizenship. People on the coasts simply missed this realignment.

16:52: What do you think these new coalitions look like?

Salena: The new coalition within the republican part has a lot of the old new deal democrats. This means that things like entitlement reform aren’t happening in this generation. The suburban voter is still in the republican tent. However, what matters here is where your suburb is.

18:22: Those who study democracy have been looking at Trump as a new sort of autocrat. Do the voters see him that way?

Salena: They don’t see that at all. While people in the press take him literally, the people I spoke with simply don’t. While they take him seriously, they don’t take him literally.

21:11: You’ve been able to get to a deeper level of dialogue with these people by cutting under the rhetoric at the national level. What is your advice to those who wish to do the same?

Salena: Challenge yourself by exposing yourself to something or a situation that you aren’t familiar with and that you don’t know. First, step back and just be an observer. Then watch how people interact with each other. This gives you a better understanding of people and who they actually are. This will help prevent a snap judgment about them.

24:10: Do you think that anyone you spoke with would vote for a democrat?

Salena: As the party exists right now, no. They would have to make some fundamental changes. The thing about this coalition is that they simply don’t feel welcomed by the current democrat party.


A democracy reading list



If you’ve been to a book store or the library lately, then you’ve probably seen at least a few books on democracy on the shelves. The 2016 presidential election spurred a lot of conversation about the current state of our democracy and where things go from here. These books are not what most people would call beach reading, but they are important to understanding what’s happening in the U.S. and around the world right now.

We know you probably don’t have time to read all of them. Hopefully this episode will help you choose one or two to tackle. Here’s the rundown of the books we discuss:

And here are a few others\ we recommend but didn’t have time to discuss in this episode:

Thank you to everyone who supported us on the first season of Democracy Works. Season two will begin in mid-August with a look at Confederate monuments and public memory on the anniversary of last summer’s riots in Charlottesville.