A Conference on Democracy

“Democracy has dominated as a globally promoted and accepted form or governance not because it is perfect or because it, without fail, elects the best leaders or even very good leaders all of the time but because it is supposed to be self-correcting and potentially self-enforcing.”    ~Susan Hyde

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For some time now, citizens of the United States have increasingly begun to question just how “self-correcting” or “self-enforcing” American democracy might be. Some of our most prominent thinkers have begun to ask poignant questions about the state of democracy, both in American and throughout the world.

As referenced in the post last week, on October 6th of this year, Yale University hosted a conference on democracy bearing the title “How do democracies fall apart (and could it happen here)?” Organized by Bright Line Watch, a research group, some of the most preeminent political scientists, historians and journalists convened in order to express their concerns regarding the current state of democracy.

The conference focused on two primary questions:

  • What are the critical factors that have led to the degradation or destruction of democracy in other times and places? 
  • Could these factors conspire to have the same effect in the United States today?

american sandcastle - tallsmall.jpgThe talks were grouped together into three sessions with differing topics as listed below.  The panel presented some rather dense material as well as a few startling statistics delivered with both erudition and humor.  Each speaker was limited to about ten minutes each.  In future weeks, this blog will unpack some of this material as it parallels ideas presented in the ongoing Death of Democracy series.  For now, if you would like to “attend” the conference, below you can access videos of each session from beginning to end. (The started times of each individual presentation are noted with each speaker/topic).

SESSION ONE: “How democracies die

  • Adam Przeworski – “Lessons from History” (predictive factors contributing to democratic failure) [00:06:40]
  • Margaret Levi – “Importance of Intermediary Associations (such as unions) in Maintaining Democracy” [00:20:35]
  • Timur Kuran – “Forms of Democratic Erosion” [00:31:23]
  • Beatriz Magaloni – Democratic Collapse (1950 – present) [00:44:00]
  • Panel Discussion / Q&A  [01:03:00]

SESSION TWO: Signs and Instances of Democratic Erosion

  • Nancy Bermeo – “Democracies don’t fall apart – they are taken apart” [00:00:53]
  • Anna Grzymala-Busse – “Rise of Authoritarian Populism” [00:16:15]
  • Susan Hyde – “International efforts to promote and resist democracy” [00:28:45]
  • Daniel Ziblatt – “Norm Erosion” [00:41:17]
  • Timothy Snyder – “Democracy produces time” [00:52:51]
  • Panel Discussion / Q&A [01:10:00]

 SESSION THREE: Addressing the Current State of Democracy

  • Julia Azari – “Untenable Compromise ” [00:01:31]
  • Emily Bazelon – “The Challenge of Journalistic Norms” [00:12:35]
  • David Frum – “What is to be done?” [00:23:17]
  • Aziz Huq – “How does the Constitution meet the threat of democratic backsliding?” [00:33:55]
  • Tom Ginsburg – “What would a new Constitution look like?” [00:45:15]
  • Frances Lee – “Thinking about the unthinkable” [00:56:10]
  • Yascha Mounk – “What can we do?” [01:08:56]
  • Panel Discussion / Q&A  [01:23:23]

One of the most stirring speeches was given by Yascha Mounk during the last session of the conference.   He first delivered one of the most pessimistic lines of the entire proceeding, saying, “It’s clear to me that if the economic trends of the last thirty years go on to the next fifty democracy is toast.”  However, in his attempt to answer the question ‘What can we do [to preserve democracy]?” he also stated the following:

I think it’s really important for us to fight for a vision of a multi-ethnic society.  And I think that involves a dual fight.  It obviously involves a fight against the white nationalism of the right and some of its enablers who are sitting in the White House.  But I think it also involves us putting forward a notion … of what it can be for us to actually build a multi-ethic society together and for us to see what we have in common across racial and religious lines rather than just what divides us. I think at this point it is very tempting for us to only speak about injustice and discrimination…but I think we also have to offer a vision for what it would look like for us to have something in common to fight for those ideals and to domesticate nationalism rather than leaving the field of nationalism to the right to be exploited by white nationalists.  I think we have to build an inclusive patriotism that can occupy that space. ~ Yascha Mounk