I’d like to warmly welcome you to our second newsletter.
We are just a few days away from a momentous election that feels very much like an endgame, with the future of democracy at stake; the U.S. is, after all, the petri dish of democracy.
It was here that modern democracy took shape, it was here that democracy was celebrated as something lived, something experienced, something beautiful, to be found in people, in faces, in nature.
Walt Whitman was perhaps the finest voice of this democratic song, an egalitarian individualist, and a contradiction, just like the American Constitution is a contradiction, words of freedom written by slave-owners.
Whitman’s epic poem “Leaves of Grass”, in a lot of ways a song unto the nation, begins like this:
One's-self I sing, a simple separate person, Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.
Of physiology from top to toe I sing, Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse, I say the Form complete is worthier far, The Female equally with the Male I sing.
Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power, Cheerful, for freest action form'd under the laws divine, The Modern Man I sing.
The Modern Man I sing.
It is up to us to define what this means today, for our time. Our new programme “The Future of Democracy” will do exactly this, exploring ways to reconceive and reinvent some of the fundamental practices and aspects of the democratic system. The application process for this fellowship programme has just started: apply now!
One of the people who helped draft this call – and who will also be a future fellow – is Daniel Ziblatt, professor at Harvard and the author of “How Democracies Die” (with Steven Levitsky); Ziblatt was kind enough to join me for a Zoom conversation, below, on the state and fate of American politics.
What Ziblatt says about the history, but more so about the future of a multi-ethnic American democracy, reminded me of a passage from an essay in Louise Glück’s “American Originality”.
In it, this year’s Nobel-Prize winner writes:
We are, famously, a nation of escaped convicts, younger sons, persecuted minorities, and opportunists. This fame is local and racial: white America’s myth of itself. It does not, obviously, describe Native Americans and African Americans: though they are theoretically free to participate in mythic America’s notions of vigor and self-creation, to do so involves sustained acts of betrayal or disloyalty toward origins they conceivably had no communal wish to escape. Oppression, for these groups, did not define the past; it replaced the past, which was transformed into a magnet for longing.
There is a lot at stake in this election. But whatever happens, it won’t be the end. Working together, we can find a common purpose.
That is what we try to do here at THE NEW INSTITUTE: to be constructive, to be optimistic.
Let’s all hope, act, and be courageous.
Good night and good luck, America,
Hamburg is our home. The world is our habitat. The future is our concern.
Daniel Ziblatt on the Future of Democracy
Barbara Kruger Untitled (Questions), 1991 Photographic silkscreen on vinyl Courtesy Sprüth Magers
Daniel, how's your mood these days?
I feel a little schizophrenic. The street that I live on is very quiet. But you watch the news and it seems like we're on the verge of civil war. It's hard to make sense of the macro situation and my own micro experience on a daily basis.
The macro is your métier. In “How Democracies Die” you explain the mechanics of democratic decay. I am curious: Is there anything about the last four years that is constructive, positive, something to build on for change?
When the book came out, some people said that we were overly alarmist. I think in retrospect, we weren't alarmist enough. But you asked about hopeful signs.
If that is possible.
The most visible positive development in the last years is the Black Lives Matter movement and the response to the murder of George Floyd earlier this year – a mass mobilization of citizens. Overall, Americans have become much more liberal and inclusive and egalitarian on racial questions.
There are other movements that play a role in American politics, like the Sunrise Movement addressing climate change. How are these movements changing the political dynamic or the fabric of democracy?
I think there's a generational change. It is very clear that younger Americans are very skeptical of the kind of politics and policies that Donald Trump represents. There is the potential for a transformation in our politics.
If everybody plays to the max, then you get chaos.
In the book, you point to the importance of norms for democracy, the fragile construction of citizens having to agree actually on what is abstract in a concrete way. If we talk about the younger generation which emphasizes matters of climate change and sustainability: Is there potential for a new system of norms?
Here I am less hopeful. In every political system and every social interaction there are unwritten rules, guiding behavior - what we describe as norms. The first norm is the notion of mutual toleration – to accept your opponents as rivals, not as enemies. The second is the use of forbearance or self-restraint and the intentional under-use of power that you might have in a particular office, because often political offices are very powerful. There you actually have to use self-restraint, because if everybody plays to the max, then you get chaos.
Trump thrives on chaos.
In order for these two norms to endure, polarization has to be low, because if polarization is very high and you're fearful of the other side: Why would you show self-restraint or why would you regard the others just as rivals, not enemies?
What can be done about this?
We can think of these norms as the soft guardrails - when the soft guardrails break, it's time to build hard guardrails and pass laws, maybe make constitutional changes, to reconfigure the whole process. American norms, you wrote, were born in the context of exclusion. Danielle Allen, the Harvard political philosopher, describes the future challenge as building a multi-ethnic democracy where no particular ethnic group is in the majority. What do you think about that?
This challenge is not only confronting the U.S., but Germany and European societies as well. The demographic shifts that take place in advanced societies cause political turmoil. In the U.S., this problem is more acute because the legacy of slavery is very much present. Secondly, and this is a real difference between the U.S. and European societies: This real-authoritarian, hierarchical legacy is built into our political institutions.
There is a wonderful book by David Waldstreicher called “The Slave Constitution”. He identifies clauses in the Constitution that in some way or another are protecting the interests of slave owners. And those clauses are still in the Constitution. We're very much living with a document that was created in part by slave holders to protect slavery's interests.
This still shapes politics today.
The fact that we have a Senate with two representatives from each state, the way that the Electoral College is set up, and the way our presidents are elected, are all in some ways an outgrowth of that legacy. So it's harder to run away from that past. The way to move forward is really to allow the majority to rule the United States and the majority to govern.
The more people vote, the more inclusive our democracy is.
Which is not the case?
Only one Republican president in the last twenty years has won a majority of the votes. It was George Bush in 2004. Yet Republicans have controlled the presidency over twelve of the last twenty years. Republicans have a majority of seats in the U.S. Senate, although they don't have a majority of the votes for the U.S. Senate. 90 percent of the Republican Party’s voting base is white. So you have the potential where a white minority controls the political system without winning a majority. The Democratic Party is a multi-ethnic party. If we can allow the majority to win elections and then govern, this will allow formal multi-ethnic society to thrive - a multi-ethnic democracy.
Which would mean changing essential parts of the voting system.
I am a big advocate of potentially adding states to the U.S. Senate. Or abolishing the Electoral College to undo this weird overrepresentation of minority areas. And then finally expanding the right to vote and protecting the right to vote. The more people vote, the more the majority speaks, the more inclusive our democracy is.
Has your view on the question of majorities changed?
I'm less fearful of majorities than I may have been in the past. You might say: If you have too much mobilization, isn't this dangerous? I increasingly think that that's an overstated threat, that essentially there's wisdom in the majorities. I do think, on the other hand, that there are roles for gatekeepers, in media, science and social science.
All of these have come under pressure.
The decline of the traditional media outlets is a kind of democratization process, one might say, because now anybody can express anything they want and everybody can see it. But this does seem to open the way for demagogues, misinformation, conspiracy theories. I don't know what the answers to those questions are. Because in principle, more voices is good.
One last question: Who will take the oath as American president on January 20, 2021?
I'm hoping the same person who won the election.
(The interview was edited for length and clarity. You can watch the recording of the whole conversation here.)
Daniel Ziblatt will speak at the Deutsches Wirtschaftsforum on November 5 about the outcome and aftermath of the U.S. election. Please do sign up and take part, we are happy to be a partner of this event.
How can we reinvent democracy (in the US or abroad)?
In this section, as in all of our work at THE NEW INSTITUTE, we are looking for constructive answers, for optimistic perspectives, and for bold new ideas.
Today’s issue features a selection of ideas informed by the diverse challenges facing American democracy. We hope you’ll join use in searching for,publishing and working with ideas like these – to contribute just send me an email.
Multiracial organizing rooted in principles of representation, rather than strategy, is as dangerous as it is ineffective. Anyone who is serious about the project of building a multiracial movement must, as a matter of necessity and not just principle, work to uproot the anti-Blackness that exists in even the most radical of spaces. We have to acknowledge the ways in which all people of color are raised to understand themselves and their origin stories as in opposition to Blackness and Black people. Asians and Pacific Islanders are oppressed in this country, and yet many work hard to distance themselves from Black people and Blackness. All immigrants are taught to steer clear of Black people, lest they be considered one themselves. In a society where anti-Blackness is the fulcrum around which white supremacy functions, building multiracial organizations and movements without disrupting anti-Blackness in all of its forms is about as good for a movement as a bicycle is for a fish.
Eli Pariser originally coined the term “filter bubble”, a concept that remains utterly relevant to political and social analysis today. In his book “The Filter Bubble. What the Internet Is Hiding from You”, published in 2011, Pariser argues that the reconstruction of the internet, which has been broken by forces like national infringement and monopolistic corporations that extract, control and abuse data, is key to the future of democracy. In his essay “To Mend a Broken Internet, Create Online Parks” for “Wired”, Pariser, the executive director of the progressive advocacy group MoveOn.org, tries to move this discourse forward – by connecting it to an older metaphor for the public space.
“Let’s face it”, Pariser writes, “our digital public sphere has been failing for some time. Technologies designed to connect us have instead inflamed our arguments and torn our social fabric.” The park – as a metaphor and as a reality – offers a democratic alternative, the mixing and mingling, different realities connecting, colliding; in Pariser’s case his example is the Fort Greene Park around the corner from where he lives, in Brooklyn, originally envisioned in 1846 by Walt Whitman who “saw public spaces as critical elements of the new American democracy”, as Pariser writes, “spaces to celebrate individuality and build collective identity. Public parks, he argued, could help weave a greater, more egalitarian we”.
Public space is essential to a functioning democracy; privatization of both online and offline space has become a problem. To fix this, we must see the internet as what the scholar and activist Ethan Zuckerman “digital public infrastructure” – a term and a way of thinking also espoused by Francesca Bria and her work on THE NEW INSTITUTE project “The New Hanse” – which aims to create a more sustainable democracy on a local scale. For Pariser, this issue is a question of public imagination, the “Apollo mission for this generation” — “a decisive challenge that will determine whether our society progresses or falls back into conspiracy-driven tribalism”.
• Introduce ranked choice voting, in which voters rank their choice of candidates in order – and do away with the winner-takes-all system • Get the money out of politics - and limit the power of lobbyists and special interests • Create more tools, spaces, technologies for citizens and politicians to interact – and experiment with citizens’ assemblies to open up the democratic discussions to a wider public • Democratize data – and give the control back to the citizens
We have established the programme “The Future of Democracy” to address the current challenges and failures of the democratic system. Our ultimate goal is to find new ways to strengthen participation and to reimagine how democracy can better serve everyone. The call for applications is now open!
The key questions we’ll explore are:
• How can we strengthen democratic deliberation? • How can we enhance decision-making at the intersection of politics and knowledge? • How can we reconfigure social and political communication in the digital age? • How can we reinvent political representation?
The world is loud, and art is an amplifier. This is the logic of pop, and Barbara Kruger – we are grateful and happy to show her interpretation of the American flag above – takes this way of seeing the world, of listening and reacting to it, one necessary step further: By adapting Karl Marx for our times, she shows that it is not enough to present the world as it is – in order to change it, art must be confident, bold, aggressive and political, it must use provocation not as a goal in itself, but as a means to an end. Everything is strategic, even the aesthetic. More precisely: the words, slogans, and language that Barbara Kruger employs in the service of feminist or progressive causes open up the vision of a new and different world, at times doing so with an angry furor, but always with a clear set of values embedded in its visuals. This world could be different, she proclaims, and really, don’t you see it?
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