Democracy's Crises and Failure of Imagination

July 7, 2021

Discussion about democracy’s crisis and its perilous future are ubiquitous in the United States and around the world. But far less talked about is what it will take to move past those crises and build a democracy that will thrive in the 21st century. Why is that? And what can we do to change the conversation?

Hosts from The Democracy Group podcast network had a riveting panel discussion and Q&A about the obstacles to solving the crises that plague American democracy, and what it will take to move past them.

Featuring a panel of experts from throughout politics and media including Lee Drutman, Turi Munthe, and Carah Ong Whaley, and moderated by The Democracy Group's Founder Jenna Spinelle!


Lee Drutman

Politics in Question

Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the Political Reform program at New America. He is the author of Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America (Oxford University Press, 2020) and The Business of America is Lobbying (Oxford University Press, 2015), winner of the 2016 American Political Science Association's Robert A. Dahl Award, given for "scholarship of the highest quality on the subject of democracy." He is also the co-host of the podcast Politics in Question, and writes for the New York Times, Vox, and FiveThirtyEight, among other outlets. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California, Berkeley and a B.A. from Brown University.

Turi Munthe

On Opinion

Turi Munthe is the founder of Parlia - an encyclopedia of opinion, promoting civil discourse. Prior, he built Demotix, a free speech platform which became the largest network of photojournalists in the world. Turi has been a journalist, talking head, policy advisor and VC. He sits on the board of GEDI, Italy's largest newspaper conglomerate, and was a longtime trustee of Index on Censorship and open Democracy.

Carah Ong Whaley

Democracy Matters

Carah works in partnership with students, faculty, staff and community partners to embed civic learning and democratic engagement across campus through curricular and co-curricular programming. Carah has developed innovative pedagogy melding scholarship and experiential learning to teach courses on civic engagement, campaigns and elections, and state and local politics. At the heart of her research interests is a desire to understand and illuminate how the interactions of political actors and institutions structure public access and participation in policy- and decision-making processes. Carah holds a PhD in American Government and an MA in Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia.

Jenna Spinelle

The Democracy Group | Democracy Works

Jenna Spinelle is the Founder of The Democracy Group and Communications Specialist for the McCourtney Institute for Democracy. She is responsible for shaping all of the institute’s external communication, including website content, social media, multimedia, and media outreach. She holds a B.A. in journalism from Penn State and is an instructor in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications. Prior to joining the McCourtney Institute, Spinelle helped market Penn State to prospective students and families in the University’s Undergraduate Admissions Office.

No items found.


Jenna Spinelle  00:20

Hello to everyone who is joining us, we'll do everybody just a minute or two here to get started there to join and then we'll get started. Thank you all for making time to be here on a what I think is a hot sticky July afternoon in most parts of the country. So we'll get started here in just a minute or two. Okay, so welcome again, everyone. Thank you so much for being here today. My name is Jenna Spinelli. I'm the founder of the democracy group Podcast Network, and one of the hosts of the democracy works podcast. And I'm delighted to be joined today by some of my colleagues in the network for a discussion about democracies crises, and thus far, perhaps the failure of imagination to solve them. I have a lot of questions for our panelists today. And I hope you do too. Please put your questions in the zoom q&a box and we will get to as many as we can after some opening discussion. Today's event is being recorded and it will be available on our website democracy, which is also where you can go to check out all of the podcasts in our network, sign up to receive our newsletter, and check out the informational guides we put together on topics like misinformation and gerrymandering. One last piece of housekeeping here, some thank yous. First of all, a huge thank you to democracy group Network Manager, Brandon Stover and outreach associate Claire Denton for all of their work behind the scenes, not just on this event, but everything else that the network does. And thank you as well to the mccourtney Institute for democracy at Penn State for providing the financial support that makes the democracy group network possible. I think that's all of the housekeeping out of the way. So let's get to it and introduce the panel. First up is Lee druckmann, a senior fellow in political reform at New America, host of the politics in question podcast and author of breaking the two party Doom loop the case for multiparty democracy in America. Welcome Lee nextep. Joining us from London today is Terry amante, journalist, entrepreneur and founder of Parlier, which is a project to map the world's opinions and build a community to discover the ways in which they are connected. Terry is the host of partly his podcast on opinion. So Terry, thanks for taking time out of your evening to be with us today. To be with you. And last but certainly not least, is Kara on Whaley, who is Associate Director of the James Madison University Center for Civic Engagement, and host of the center's democracy matters podcast. She's also the vice chair of the civic engagement section of the American Political Science Association. So thank you for being with us, Kara. Thank you so much for having me, Jenna. Great to be with you all. So let's let's get to it. Apparently, the New York Times is on the same page as we are about democracy's failure of imagination. They recently launched a series called wake up America to explore how in the words of historian Daniel, Mr. America went from a country that's Spry and excitable to one that's creaky and soft and whose bold, expansive political imagination has atrophied and is peace Mr. was talking about in America, but I think you could make some of those same claims about other Western democracies too. And while we have been in this prolonged state of atrophy, it feels like an entire genre has cropped up around this notion of democracy dying and or in an ongoing state of crisis. You don't have to look very far to or very hard to find this sentiment on social media cable TV Ad pages and yes, even podcasts. Which brings me to my first question, and I'll ask Lee to get us started with this one and others can can jump in after that. So, you know, threats to democracy are certainly real. And we don't want to pretend like they're not. But I'm wondering how you think about the balance of, you know, how much should we be focusing on the crisis versus the the solutions or the ways that we might get ourselves out of these these crises of democracy?

Lee Drutman  05:33

Well, that's a great question, Jenna. And, you know, I think there is a challenge here in finding the right balance, because, you know, when it's crisis, crisis crisis, it we kind of develop this sense of learned helplessness almost that we're in this moment in which we, you know, we're sinking and we can't think about the future. And that's, you know, that's, that's a kind of poverty, of thinking really. But at the same time, you know, we we are facing a real crisis. And what's happening in many of the states is something that, you know, is really not democracy anymore, when you have one party that is using its power to try to entrench its advantage. Nationally, when you have one party that refuses to even acknowledge the violence that happened on January 6, and Tao and tolerates extreme anti liberalism and engages in a broad conspiracy, that's not democracy anymore. But we are in a moment, I think, of tremendous transition in this country, we are becoming a multiracial multi ethnic democracy, American politics is really fully nationalized, for the first time with a genuine nationalized two party system, which is a real threat. And it's a moment of economic transition. It's a changing global dynamic. So all of these things are kind of coming together. And, you know, there are, I think, important structural reasons why we're having this crisis at this moment. But those same structural forces also point towards a potential for re imagination, which is a word that has come up over and over again, in my conversations in the last few years. So I think we can do both, but I think the balance has fallen too far towards crisis. And we need more reimagining

Jenna Spinelle  07:57

Turi, Carah anything to add there? Perhaps how do we so you know, how do we move beyond you know, getting how do we get to that place of reimagining? Or what are some of the obstacles sort of standing in the way of that?

Carah Ong Whaley  08:18

So I think, and I think we already alluded to this, and it's a good transition, that, you know, there are a lot of really thoughtful conversations about how we can reimagine our democratic institutions, reimagine our democratic practices, reimagine our political systems and structures, I think the challenge is, you know, are those who hold power willing to change and listen? And what is it going to take to actually get that work done? I mean, I think we constantly need to reassess and critically analyze, you know, the sources of, you know, the crises and the challenges to democracy. You know, it's there's going to be a lot of changing dynamics, particularly in this in this phase of complexity and, and transition. But there, there are lots of ideas out there, there are lots of people wanting to be engaged and have thoughtful ideas. You know, the question is, you know, are the permission structure is going to allow us to actually participate and change those systems. And I think that's a much harder project, especially when we're talking about a political structure that has traditionally and historically been elitist, classist and racist.

Turi Munthe  09:36

So I should flag the fact that I just don't don't just come from Britain, I am in Britain and therefore I've my focus is very good. There's going to be very European. You've got Cara and and Lee to talk on the US side. So maybe I can bring some European perspective if that's okay. But there are certain parallels and the kind of historical trajectories of the last few years between certainly the UK and the US. 2016 for example, was a year in which you guys are like to Trump and we, we tried to leave Europe, it's taken us quite a long time to do that. But that referendum was in the sense as fracturing, to our sense of collective identity in the UK, as I think the Trump election was in the US. And I think like many of us, my first reaction, at least, I mean, takes you to both events was terror and panic and hyperventilation. And actually, I think in a slightly more measured way, this question of in an imaginative response to some kind of stagnation in the way that we think about democratic processes was occasioned by this great upheaval. So there is a I've made my peace with Brexit, which I stood very firmly against, precisely because it's, it was such a tremendously loud wake up call to a particular way of thinking about politics in the UK. From my perspective, it took me I suppose, eight years to realize that 2008 had completely upended the terms of the game, the nature of the conversation, what the Overton window was, in which politics was discussed. And so there is, we, it may actually be that the moments that we're in now, these last few years, where everything seems profoundly polarized, quite violent, that we're incapable of talking to each other across multiple aisles, is actually are just coming to terms with the fact that the tectonic plates of politics, and of economics have very, very much shifted across the west. So I look at these last few years is, in fact, something, having calmed myself down and taken my pills and gone for long runs. This is a moment in a sense of Revelation. And that is always a good thing.

Jenna Spinelle  11:52

So So does it follow then Terry, that from we will move through this this period of revelation to perhaps different new, imaginative solutions, you think that that's, that's inevitable?

Turi Munthe  12:10

Um, let's, let's hope again, talking talking in the US from the UK and European perspective, a major shift has taken place in sort of the constitutional structure of the UK, we've come out of the European Union, that is a major reimagining of what politics looked like. And it's a huge shout towards this notion of sovereignty, which, to many of us on the liberal side, simply was, was, was kind of an invention, a polite fiction, a polite, sort of a space of discussion, which is badly framed to start with. But there's a major shift there. There's been a series as you, as you all know, of really quite radical changes in the political makeup of European countries, which this I know is a point close to Lee's heart, do not have, by party politics, where the opportunity for new political parties emerging has created an extraordinary sort of upheaval across Italy, across Spain, across France, across Germany with the AfD and the Green Party. So we are here. When there is a political structural Constitution, which allows for new voices to bubble up, we are sort of spinning those up. And I'm an eternal optimist. But actually, if we looked four or five years ago, at what, what Europe was going to look like, there was this absolute terror that we were going to all end up looking a little bit like Viktor Orban in Hungary, or the kachinsky is Poland, where you end up with this sort of proto democracy, deeply anti liberal proto democracy. And in fact, at the last municipal elections in France a week or two ago, the the Assemblyman Nasional lapins party suffered massive defeats in the poll. So movement is, as I said, I'm an optimist movements feels like it's it's better than status full stop.

Jenna Spinelle  13:56

Um, Lee, what do you what do you make of the this kind of notion from the the American context, do you think that we there's sort of the groundwork in place to maybe move toward different solutions or, you know, different different ways of doing things moving forward?

Lee Drutman  14:14

Well, absolutely, I do. I'm also an optimist. Otherwise, I, you know, would be doing something else perhaps buying land in British Columbia and seeking to seeking Canadian citizenship or moving to New Zealand or something. No, I, the US has been through a series of ups and downs throughout our history. And the thing about the long arc of American history is that we've had these periods of remarkable democratic renewal. I think there are tremendous parallels between this current era and the the late Gilded Age. progressive era in which you see a flourishing of social movements, building on dissatisfaction with the status quo, and major changes, we have these moments of really transformational politics in the US every 60 years or so, really going back to the revolution, you could even even go further back, you know, but, but the, you know, revolutionary era of Jacksonian democracy, the era of expansion of the franchise, the Progressive Era, the civil rights era, and there seems to be something about something almost endogenous and Amina, you know, I think one should be rightly skeptical of cyclical theories, but at the same time, there does seem to be this pattern in which there's, you know, crisis, you know, it's almost almost an alien, you know, crisis kind of stability, and then you know, that stability creates a new crisis. I mean, if you look at European politics, and I mean, Western politics, generally, in the 1990s, there was sort of this consolidation on this kind of third way, neoliberal synthesis, and seemed like everything was stable, but things cannot be stable for long because at some, you know, consensus, fuels a new divide, and we see that new divide happening throughout it's it's a, you know, it is a cultural divide. It's an urban rural divide, and it's, you know, but it's it's up ending the kind of traditional political allegiances. And we see more flexibility in the more proportional European democracies in which the greens in the liberals are our, you know, kind of rising as well as, you know, some voices on the on the populace are those voices seem to be shifting away, it's only really in the, in the countries with more binary conflict, the US the UK, and you know, Hungary is also a country in which there's a clear binary divide between the Cosmopolitan and traditional turkey also is a country with a clear binary divide between the Cosmopolitan and the world, where there's not the space for that kind of necessary realignment. So the pressure builds, pressure builds, and either it will, you know, create a fundamental transformation in one direction, or a fundamental transformation in another direction. But at some point there, there will be a political earthquake in the US, and maybe we're in the midst of that.

Carah Ong Whaley  17:45

One thing just on that I would love to add in terms of thinking about the cyclical nature of this is also the ways in which we're seeing changing patterns of participation. So there have been these moments where we've sort of, you know, decried the the loss of, of participation in our civic life. Right, you know, more and more, most recently, you know, Putnam, I think, encouraged a lot of us to become more involved in 2010 kind of talked about the crisis of, of declining participation in civic life. And I think that is one area where I am hopeful that we do see more people looking to participate increasingly at the local level, because things are not happening in the United States, at least at the national level. And so especially among younger people, I think this is a moment where, you know, there are opportunities to get involved and to leverage power and to do participate, you know, whether it's in school board meetings, or or other city council, right. And, and so there's, there's greater opportunity, and I think, also a lot of interest in the neck thing and seeing how to make change on particular issues that people care about at the local level. And I'm even seeing this kind of percolate into the national conversation, like on climate change, for example, right, where the solutions to climate change, you know, even the New York Times recently, you know, talked about how the solutions to climate change, were going to be at the local level, right. So driving people then to participate more in local in their in local governments, and within with a range of actors. And so I think that's also kind of a positive trend. You know, where we haven't, you know, where there has been so much of a focus on nationalization of politics and and really less ability to to make change at that level. Yeah.

Jenna Spinelle  19:38

Yeah. And you're keeping with this this generational idea, care? I mean, do you get the sense that the students that you you work with are kind of receptive to this, this notion of getting involved at the local level, I imagine is also competing with the same pressures we all face in our media diets of you know, national, national, national, maybe not quite To the degree now that it was when, you know, Donald Trump was on Twitter every single day, but it's still as, as we've said, politics has become very much nationalized. So how are kind of the, the kids these days, so to speak, thinking about some of those, those points you were just making?

Carah Ong Whaley  20:16

Well, I'm only on one campus. So I can, I can only talk about our campus, but we do have a pretty comprehensive assessment program. And, and actually, we are seeing a change in our program has is only three full years old. But we are actually seeing changes already among the cohorts, and students are coming in more politically attuned. And they're also we're seeing changes over time, in terms of their political participation, as they're being exposed to opportunities for political and civic participation, especially at the local level. So we have, and we have assessment data to show that at least for our campus, I think more broadly, you know, from national surveys, you know, circle at Tufts, and the Institute for democracy and higher education, you know, has voting rates, you know, we are seeing, you know, an increase in political participation more broadly, but not always, and necessarily a connection between, okay, I care about issue x, and here's what I can do to solve it. Right. But there's also, I think, a great deal of skepticism that, you know, the the means of participation that are traditionally offered to young people, especially voting, really make a difference in terms of in terms of being able to make change on what they care about, right. So there, there is not really a great deal of confidence that, you know, they're in terms of, you know, their their ability, their efficacy and ability to change these change the systems and structures, through the kinds of participation that's being offered them. And so I think that's really, I mean, my area of focus is really thinking about how we offer and provide ways meaningful ways to participate, and really become part of the conversations and not just conversations and deliberations, but really meaningfully change the systems and the structures to be more responsive. Sure.

Jenna Spinelle  22:18

So, you know, we were just talking about the media. And I wonder, you know, again, going back to this whole crisis, framing, obviously, you know, crises sell, it leads to clicks, it leads to ratings, it leads to all of these things, I know that all of you have experience in, in media, and in some respects, whether as a journalist or people, you know, people who have interacted with the media as a source, etc, etc. What do you think about the role that the media might play here is, is this kind of crisis narrative being hyped up too much in in fee, you know, in favor of, or at the expense of more solutions focused or, you know, ways to maybe utilize the media to push forward new ideas, you know, regardless of what those might be? Did you want to take this for us? And then perhaps I can chime in?

Lee Drutman  23:15

or? Yeah, I mean, so I think to the extent that there's, you know, public nonprofit media, that's better. But I do think that we kind of put too much emphasis on on the media and a lot of these conversations, not that the media is unimportant, but I think that there is a way in which, you know, conflict will always sell I mean, that that is we are drawn to conflict, there's something about it at a at a psychological level. And, frankly, conflict is can be can be good in, in the sense that, that it draws us in, it makes us feel that, that, that there's something that we care about, and our consensus is, you know, politics. consensus, you know, is often exclusionary and politics is always going to be about the issues where we disagree. So it's not so much about conflict as it is about the type of conflict and the way in which we treat each other as part of that conflict. And you know, here I you know, I really come down hard on on the problem with with binary politics because the way that it charges our brains in this us against them thinking now on our on a recent episode of politics in question, or I guess, an episode that will actually we that we recorded, but we'll premiere we had Amanda Ripley on who has this new book, high conflict, you know, and she's done a lot of thinking and talking to people about the psychological effects of conflict. And you know, it's clear that when you get in this binary con That's really identity based, you know, you have a very hard time resolving that. So the key is really getting out of that. And this is, you know, a why I keep coming back to the political structure that the media can only report on the policy, the underlying politics. Media can't create, you know, you know, a different politics then takes that that exists. And there's this symbiotic relationship between the media and political figures, and they both think that the other side is has too much power. But we can't expect the, you know, the press to be entirely different and or, nor can we entirely change the structure of media, we can change the structure of politics and the media incentives, and narratives and and confrontations that, that flow from that. So I yeah, that's, that's where I come down. In short, I think that I mean, and, and more broadly, you know, the problem of disinformation and misinformation, that that we focus a lot on the supply problem, but we focus very little on the on the demand problem that we have to understand, like, why is it that this whole stop the steel narrative is so popular? And it's because political elites are selling it? And why are they selling it? It's because people want to buy it, because people want to feel like they're winners, even when they're losers?

Jenna Spinelle  26:28

Yeah, we did a really interesting episode of democracy works with Peter pomerantsev, which some of you may know, studies a lot about misinformation and, and propaganda. But he talked about precisely that, how do you address this from the demand side and give people a positive vision, something to look forward to, to, you know, feel hopeful about? So perhaps they might not be drawn into some of these darker, you know, rabbit holes, and conspiracy theories, and, and all of that. So if you're interested in this, I would recommend checking out his work. But, Terry, please.

Turi Munthe  27:01

We interviewed Peter as well, he's an old friend. And we should all probably make sure that when not doubling and tripling up, I guess sexually reinforcing marriage. Terrible indeed. But no, he's he's, he's super interesting, because of course, from his perspective, the the key problem is not conflict. The key problem is the relativization, of any possibility of truth. Right. And so when he talks about what Russia's Russia's misinformation campaigns, Russia doesn't need you to believe one thing Russia needs you to not be able to trust anything, because then the whole thing falls over. And yeah, so just to go back to Lee's point, we interviewed a wonderful guy called Ian Leslie, on, on opinion, whose book is called conflicted, where he will just accept that conflict is going to be around but he celebrates it his he has this great line, which is conflict has inflammation. And it's perhaps going back to the first thing that I said that actually, when you start seeing these sort of factions and tribes building themselves up and attacking each other, it tells you huge amounts of information about the society that you're, that you're in. And I'm excited by that. Again, the key point is to work out how you do it. And so to Carol's point about a younger generation, being deeply frustrated. And I think I see that here. And I see that with my European family across across continental Europe as well. There is this sense that the voting cycles are too long, that the split the values split, between old and new, or old and young, is just too big to be to be broached over a series of election cycles. the urgency of climate change is not something that can take gentle, ongoing, liberal, iterative discourse. And so that there's there's some really interesting conflict in its own right. What people my age and older see, is not so much that democracy is at threat, but actually that liberalism and the principles of liberalism are a threat. Everybody's still voting, if that's what we think democracy is. But what's happening is we're finding it very difficult to talk to each other. And when older people look at what's happening across universities, the D platforming issues and the roads must fall and the statues debate, etc, etc. What they see is the end of liberalism, the end of discourse, as we understood it, in the younger population, what I think makes much more sense to see this as is, I think, exactly the way that Kara i think is describing it, which is politics by other means. It's an acceleration of the conflict, just on different terms. And it's deeply disturbing, because we had a model to do this stuff we'd all you know, back, you know, I'm English, so we all wear our wigs, and we dress up in our phonepe gowns, and we agreed to address each other as the Right Honourable Lady and the right honorable gentleman and then we start flinging pots at each other that we can't do because The debate is being accelerated by an alternative form of discourse that that, I think, sort of fascinating.

Jenna Spinelle  30:09

And to kind of clarify, I was just gonna say, I think we also,

Carah Ong Whaley  30:14

for me, I also try to consider, like, why the debate the calibrating to and I think, you know, there's when I think about the statues debate, for example, you know, and this is an ongoing thing, here in Virginia, and I was in Charlottesville in 2017. And that the University of Virginia, you know, on the evening, and the days that 2017 happened, you know, I think there's, there's a real questioning, not just as politics of usual as usual, but who has had the opportunity to define the terms of the debate, and who had had the ability to make the rules of the systems and the structures. And I think that's, that is really kind of at the heart of it. You know, I think we're not even on the same page in many ways, in terms of what democracy is and what it means. And and that's, I think, generational, it's by education, it's by class. I see it kind of purple thing at many different levels. And I think that's also deeply problematic, but to, you know, think about and reinforce something that Tory said, you know, something that Robert Elise, who's been a guest on democracy matters and on democracy worked with Jeanette with Jenna, you know, this, this notion that the idea of civility, the protest is not incompatible with civility, conflict is not incompatible with civility. But I think we do kind of need to work out, you know, how can we come to agreement on what the rules of the game are going to be? And I think that's where, where it's going to be much harder, particularly in this moment.

Jenna Spinelle  32:06

And I'll go ahead, sorry,

Turi Munthe  32:08

no, no, I was going to, I was going to clap resoundingly and agree, Tony Blair, who has a unfortunately terrible reputation, although, you know, centrist, open, hyper liberal politician, he may have cocked up the Iraq war. But he recently wrote a long article explaining where we were in the world. And he was decrying the lack of radicalism amongst the young he was like there isn't. There's no really interesting politics coming out of the young. And that so we don't have religion, new economic theory, we don't have a new theory of international relations, we don't understand our place inside the world, we have worked out alternatives to globalization. And that's why the young, faff around arguing about the identity, which is to miss the whole point, because it be turned out that actually the debate that's being played out here is to repurpose carers, sort of formulation framing of this care if you don't mind them, please tell me if I got this wrong. But it's that actually this reformulation of what democracy is the biggest fight is around identity, who gets to articulate the terms of the deal, or the terms of interaction? That's fascinating. And that's super problematic, because one of the things that Lee was referring to right, sort of right at the beginning, this refusal to accept election results, the storming of the Capitol. What we're seeing there is a is a real concern about what the rules are, and a real concern that you can, you can't trust the umpires. So when you're on top of it, you've got a huge younger generation who are going to who is saying the rules are all wrong, we need to start them again, we need to write those things from scratch, before even appointing the new kind of umpires for it, which is, in a sense, what deep platforming is all about umpiring. We're at a meta level of argument which we're not even close to being able to figure out a way of doing to to Lisa's point civil

Jenna Spinelle  34:04

So thinking about this notion of liberalism and institutions and and who gets to just set the rules. Lee, I know you focus a lot on these topics on on politics in question. How are you feeling about the ability of liberal democratic institutions to keep up with this, this, you know, accelerating pace of change we've been talking about? And has your thinking on that perhaps changed as you've been doing the course of the show or your your other work in this area?

Lee Drutman  34:35

Well, I mean, this is a moment of both tremendous stuckness and tremendous instability. And those things are really two sides of the same coin to use a cliche that doesn't seem to actually fit here. So, you know, liberal democracy, you know, there's both the word liberal part and the democracy part. And as many people have noted, those things have become somewhat separated. And what we've lost in that is the understanding that those two points that those two pieces that have long been fused together, really need each other. Because liberalism conditions us to be okay with other perspectives, and to be okay with losing elections and to be willing to, you know, tolerate minority rights and dissent. And, you know, democracy only works if we can tolerate dissent. And we can tolerate losing. I mean, a minimalist definition of democracy is it's a system in which parties lose elections. And I think there are folks who have, you know, grown frustrated with either or both of those two pieces, there are folks who say, you know, particularly on the political right, who say, No, we don't need there's a an emerging strain of thinking in among, among conservative pundit saying, you know, we don't need democracy, what's important is having liberty. But what they fail to understand is that the strongest protector of liberty is democracy. There. So, you know, I think there's a loss there. And then, you know, from the kind of liberal populace, the, you know, aside that, you know, all we need is democracy. And we'll just elections and the people will decide there's a failure to understand that people are diverse, and are not one thing. And I, you know, I do think that there are historical cycles, and we constantly have to relearn these fundamental truths, because they, you know, it's it's easy to take things for granted. And I think in the US, there's a sense that, Oh, well, of course, the US is always going to be a democracy, because we've, we've always been a democracy. And there's a failure to understand that these things are are fragile. In the same way, I think there was a failure. In many ways. I feel like we're thinking about the collapse of democracy in the US in the way that we're thinking about the Coronavirus in January of 2020, which is a sense that this is this is a threat, but it couldn't possibly happen here, because we've never experienced anything like this in our lifetimes. And now, you know, as we begin to come out of the pandemic, we're taking public health, or a lot of us are taking public health seriously in a different way. So since we may have to go through another collapse in order to rebuild again, and that just seems to be the cycle of thing, I hope the threat of it is enough to lead us to rebuild. But my fear is that things will have to get worse before they can get better.

Jenna Spinelle  38:04

Right. So I have I have one more question for all of you. And I think we'll turn to some audience q&a. And just a reminder, if you do have a question, please put it in the zoom q&a box. We've had a couple come in so far. But you know, there are all kinds of of initiatives and efforts out there to try to do some of this reimagination that we've we've been talking about, you know, whether it's it's advocating for ranked choice voting or or multi member districts, or some of the efforts to reform money in politics, there's any any number of organizations I know, a lot of the people that listen to our respective podcasts are people involved in in those organizations. So but it's, it seems, at least to me anyway, and if you disagree with us, please tell me but it's a very sort of closed loop ecosystem right now, we're all very good at talking to each other. But maybe there's this whole other group of people out there that has no idea that any of this is happening, or even that things could be a different way. So what do you think that you know, some of these these efforts need it without maybe focusing on on one in particular, but you know, what is what are some of these new ideas need to be able to get that oxygen to get into more mainstream political thought and activity?

Carah Ong Whaley  39:32

I can be short and brief. I mean, they need access. They need access to positions of power and and then not to be changed once they get to the positions of power. Right? I think, you know, there's there's a tendency, and maybe I'm speaking from a position of pessimism at an institution of higher education, where I see people who tend to rise up in the ranks of power tend to not be as as progressive or As an imaginative, right, depending on, you know, as they rise in the ranks, and that sort of similar, right, it's there's sort of a moderating effect that our seems to have. And so I mean, I think at the larger level, that's an issue. You know, and also going back to an earlier question about the media, I mean, certainly the media could be providing more attention to a lot of these efforts and taking them seriously, which, you know, yes, we know, there's lots of studies showing that the media have a bias towards the most dramatic and and, you know, it's not sexy enough to do focus on a lot of these reform efforts. But, but certainly, we could, you know, try to do more to, to work and triangulate, you know, with the media with those in positions of power to really elevate these ideas. But I don't want to sort of, again, dismiss this notion that, you know, I think there's there's great ideas out there, there's there's great laboratories, particularly on like rank choice voting at the state and local level. And, and, you know, a lot of ideas, you end but like if I think about gerrymandering, for example, right, there's there's excellent data out there. You know, Lawrence Lessig had Sam, Sam Wang from from Princeton's gerrymandering project on his episode, I listened to that over the weekend, and there's some great work that's being done in that area. But the question is that, you know, will, you know, there's, there's a problem with those in power to actually accept the results, because it would mean, you know, they think it means they're thinking in terms of zero sum, and they think it means giving up our as, as they know it right. And, and power wants to ensure that, that they perpetuate their their own positions. And so that's a real challenge that even those of us, you know, those of us who are working for democratic reform, for for greater participation, I think face is that, you know, we're kind of locked out of out of the system, the way it is currently structured.

Jenna Spinelle  42:11

We carry anything to add there. Before we move to audience questions.

Turi Munthe  42:16

I'm going to defer to Lee, I can tell you about the problems of the Conservative Party in a one party state in the UK, but maybe that's not so interesting to your listeners.

Lee Drutman  42:23

Yeah, I mean, I'm eager to hear that hear the audience questions.

Jenna Spinelle  42:28

Okay. Okay. I know Claire has been keeping an eye on them. For us. Claire is a student at Penn State and has been doing a lot of work in for us in the network this summer. So what do we have Claire?

Clare Dentner  42:41

We have a lot of really interesting questions to start off. One viewer wrote, many people, especially older people complain that much of the breakdown today comes in the form of people becoming worse at listening to each other, especially listening to unfamiliar views. In other words, that too many people have lost any sense of curiosity. What do our panelists think of this notion?

Lee Drutman  43:08

Well, I'll jump in here. Um, you know, I, I think one of the challenges in the in the US certainly is that we've had this partisan sorting over many decades, in which the republican party has overwhelmingly become the rural party, you know, zarbin, you know, traditionalist Democratic Party has become the Cosmopolitan urban party. So we've had this process whereby more and more people are surrounded by people who have the same political affiliations and allegiances and identities as them, and that that leads people to kind of conform with each other. And there is a lot of research suggesting that when people are surrounded by like minded people, they tend to become more solid in their opinions and you know, less willing to venture alternative viewpoints, because that puts them out of step with people who they consider their friends and who are their co workers. And, you know, so I mean, we are social creatures As humans, we want to conform. Most of us. It's a few, you know, a few idiosyncratic folks who like to be contrarians, most of us want to conform and be with people who are like us now, a long standing classic finding in political science is that in order for democracies to be stable, you need what political scientists referred to as cross cutting cleavages, that is, you know, you need to kind of have different affiliations in different networks that point you in different ways. And that's what leads to the kind of uncertainty and and questioning and openness to alternative viewpoints. You know, I think there's a lot of tendencies to say, oh, people need to be better. Yeah, we need to be more open to alternative viewpoints. But the reality is that we are, you know, embedded in networks, we are embedded in communities. And, you know, to the extent that the communities push us into these, you know, very, for lack of a better word, very, very cocooned echo chambers, it's hard for us to break out of them, because to break out of them is to undermine our place in communities, you know, that are really isolated from each other. So I think we have to think more about the structure of the political system that pushes us into these echo chambers and epistemological cocoons. And that that's the that's the big problem here.

Turi Munthe  45:53

I mean, we've we built a company to try and address precisely this issue. I don't know who the who the questioner was here. But yeah, we built something called Parlier. We're building something called Parlier, which is trying to work as a sort of an encyclopedia of all ideas, all arguments, to try and better help each other, read the other side, engage with the other side. And talking to some of the things that Leah said here, we started off building this in a very sort of 18th century sort of enlightenment kind of approach as a Wikipedia and worked out that actually, the fundamental thing about opinions is yes, their form and the argument structures within them. But it's, but it's really the human part of it, which is the thing which triggers people one way or another. These just talked about this feature of sort of group polarization, the fact that when you get into your little gang, the more time you spend in there, all virtue accrues to you, the more radical you get inside it. So there's no possible social benefit and sort of crossing the aisle or being controlling or engaging with the other side. We see that in, in the US in the UK, these two party systems, the democratic system, in fact, it promotes that kind of sorting that he's been talking about. People talk about sorting, not as a bog, but as a feature of this two party democracy. And that's not at all a good thing. We mentioned the media in a couple of different ways, thinking about sort of responses to democratic democracies crises. But here, I very much feel like the media is a central part of the issue. We live in a moment of massive information surplus in a way that you know, people talk about every every generation, every time that you know, it's not the TV is the radio is not the radio. It's the invention of Gutenberg printing press. But we have way too much content at our disposal. And the our friends inside the artists community who now talk about a kind of an age of anxiety and age of the extreme self, we're constantly reflected back against ourselves, we're constantly reminded about what the world is around us. And I think it's deeply destabilizing. We're constantly trying to work out where we sit in the world. And therefore I think our desire to rush towards tribes that can protect us is, is accelerated. And you find that very much on these oppositional social networks like Facebook and Twitter, Twitter, perhaps most of all, but Reddit to where we're sorted, because actually there is threat in not being part of a team. And so I think that's a fundamentally problematic piece. And we were mentioning to Lisa earlier who would like us all to go off and fish with our buddy, who's on the other side of the aisle or go play bowls or whatever it might be. Yes, the response to democracy's crisis has to be local, but that feels like so ultra local that it doesn't count as a response. I mean, this is just too long again, to be playing. One of the approaches that we've taken and the reason for our podcast really is that my hope is that if people understand that the opinions that they hold are not really theirs, that the opinions that they hold, are really the product of context of parents of their social media, possibly even if their genes, there's a chance they're slightly more tolerant, and excited and interested in the opinions that other people who've also generated them in that entirely arbitrary way, will also hold. So that's the sort of fundamental driver here and then we go back to this question of the only point of from my perspective here in the UK, at least, the only the the one big thing that we can do is remind people what democracy is, which is democracy to use our cameraman who first comes up with this idea, but it's a lovely one, this idea of an infinite game, a game that you always want to keep playing that you cannot win, because winning isn't the process. And the way that you guarantee that it's infinite is By ensuring that the buck passes the ball changes side and that's a that's that that's the tricky one when you don't trust the rules anymore.

Jenna Spinelle  50:10

And that kind of brings up a somewhat cynical thought that I've had that sort of this, you know, if we really push on, there's opportunity for people in power to your point Kara to really like hype up this notion of Yeah, local, local, local, you know, go do these things with your neighbors, etc. And then all the while they're like over here doing this other thing. And so I think there's like a level of not just not your braveness and going against the grain and doing what's not what comfortable out of your tribe, but also like a vigilance about it to make sure that, you know, yeah, we're not getting played here, or there's there's not this sort of ulterior motive that's, that's going on.

Carah Ong Whaley  50:53

Yeah, I think, also, you know, a lot of what we have been talking about, also is steeped in literature, like psychology and literature and in group out group theory. And, you know, one of the things that psychologists have said, you know, to, to sort of overcome this, this problem, is to give some sort of overarching aim that both groups can work on together. So that's kind of what we have to figure out, you know, how can we bring the the groups together? And if you look at periods of, you know, going back to what Leeds said earlier, in terms of, you know, we have these kind of cycles in American history, you know, we do have these cycles of deep hyper partisanship and, and polarization that tend to only be broken when there's a war of some external threat. Right. And, and this sort of period in American politics, where where there is a consensus, you know, we've we've got the Cold War was happening, right. And so that kind of keeps things together, somewhat at the domestic level. And so that's, you know, a, both pessimists pessimistic views, but also one that might, you know, hopefully get us to think about, you know, what is some sort of overarching goal or aim, where both groups can can feel like they're contributing in some sort of common, mutual objective? And again, and also getting away from this zero sum thinking that really seems to dominate our politics?

Jenna Spinelle  52:24

Yeah, that's, I think that that topic of finding common cause is something that I'm interested in exploring perhaps in a future discussion like this, I think it often gets conflated with the notion of finding common ground, which may perhaps come from from our previous era. And so I'm, I'm excited to lean into those distinctions a little bit more with perhaps some other folks from from our network as well. But Claire, why don't you get one more question here for us to close things out? Great.

Clare Dentner  52:55

I'm looking more at specific ways to deal with this challenge. Michael asks, are non partisan combined primary primaries and multi member districts in either or, or could getting both be a good aspiration? A goal?

Lee Drutman  53:13

I tend to be somewhat skeptical of non partisan political reforms, because I think parties are really the essential institutions in politics and kind of give us structure. You know, I think more specifically, I'm obviously a big advocate for multi member districts with some proportional voting rule, which would allow us more parties in However, there's a challenge in the US Senate, which is that the US Senate is inherently going to be a single winner election. So for that reason, I think that the the new approach that Alaska is taking, which is a top for open primary with rank choice voting, ideally, I think that the advocates are moving more towards the top five model with rank choice voting. I think that's a good reform for the Senate with and with multi member districts plus rank choice voting for the house, which would get us to a more proportional multiparty democracy. So that would that would be what I would endorse.

Jenna Spinelle  54:22

And cara, Terry, anything to add there, there was I think we can maybe get one more question. Claire, why don't you queue up one last one, this will be the last question of the day. Great. Um,

Clare Dentner  54:37

so Odell has been thinking for some years about imagining a new system built from the concept of liquid democracy. He's come to believe that liquid democracy has a lot of potential, but it seems that most researchers treat it as an idea that is so silly, it isn't worth serious thought. Can any panelists recommend researchers books or journal articles that focus on the idea of liquid democracy so that he can better I understand the idea in general thinking, if anybody's familiar with it.

Lee Drutman  55:07

I'm familiar with the idea of liquid democracy, which is the idea that you kind of delegate your voting privileges to intermediaries who know more about specific issues, then you do. You know, I think it's an intriguing idea in smaller groups. But at a national level, I think political parties, you know, and other intermediary interest groups, like labor unions or like to serve that role, that there are a lot of ways to get information. And what we really need is just, you know, having having more choices in our democracy. I haven't done a ton of research into liquid democracy. And you know, maybe there's something that that I'm missing, but based on the conversations that I've had, I kind of share the more common skepticism that it's any that it's a something that's practice, to Kabbalah. add anything other than very local small scale level?

Jenna Spinelle  56:11

Well, perhaps that's something for all of us to think about. As we're planning the next seasons of our respective podcast, the topic to focus more on or, you know, revisiting some of these themes we've been talking about today. I know there were some questions that we did not get to thank you all for submitting them. But I do want to be respectful of everyone's time today. Just to reiterate, this, this event was recorded and will be posted on our website, democracy, which is where you can go to sign up for our newsletter, check out all of the podcasts and our network, all 14 of them. Learn more about what we're up to. And we do want to do, as I said, more of these conversations, I think there's a lot of expertise and interesting perspectives within our group. So I have some ideas, but I would certainly love to hear if you have have ideas for topics that we should should address in this sort of roundtable format. You can feel free to reach out to Brandon Brandon at democracy that will go to Network Manager, Brandon Stover who can help catalog those ideas for us. But thank you, Lee. Thank you, Tori. Thank you, Kara, for your time and your expertise today. Thank you, Brandon. Thank you, Claire, for your help. And thank you to all of you for joining us and enjoy the rest of your day, everybody. Thanks so much. Take care. Enjoy the football game. Tori. Thank you is hoping that nationalisms when you're ready, take care.

Presented by

The Democracy Group is a network of podcasts united around the goal of helping listeners understand what’s broken in our democracy, and how people are working together to fix it. We see the network as a public service dedicated to creating a more informed, civically engaged electorate.

The Democracy Group is organized and funded by The McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State, which produces the Democracy Works podcast in partnership with WPSU, central Pennsylvania’s NPR station.

No items found.


Subscribe to our Newsletter