Many say the current presidential race is the most uncivilized in modern American history. Civility in public discourse, why it seems to have hit a new low and long-term implications for the democratic process.
Citizenship and governance are the bedrock of a healthy democracy. But voter turnout is down and trust in politicians and public institutions is eroding. Governments in North America and Europe often seem crippled in their capacity to deliver what people want and need. That is the premise of a new report by the Transatlantic Academy. In the U.S., democracy is threatened by gridlock and polarization. In Europe, the legitimacy of the EU is being questioned. And Canadians worry about the unchecked power placed in the hands of the prime minister. Diane and her guests discuss the disconnect between citizens and government on both sides of the Atlantic and the potential for revitalizing democracy
- Seyla Benhabib professor of political science and philosophy, Yale University.
- Moises Naim senior associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, chief international columnist for El Pais and author of "The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn't What It Used to Be."
- E.J. Dionne Jr. senior fellow at Brookings Institution and author of "Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The U.S. has long considered its political system the best model in the world. But gridlock in Congress and polarization in politics had caused some to question whether democracy itself is in trouble. A new report from the Transatlantic Academy reveals a similar disconnect between citizens and their governments in Canada and Europe.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me to talk about new challenges to democracy: E.J. Dionne of the Brookings Institution and The Washington Post and Moises Naim of Carnegie Endowment and El Pais. With us from the NPR bureau in New York is Seyla Benhabib from Yale University. She's also a fellow at the Transatlantic Academy. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to all of you.
MR. E.J. DIONNE JR.Good morning, Diane.
MR. MOISES NAIMGood morning, Diane.
PROF. SEYLA BENHABIBGood morning, Diane.
REHMGood to have you with us. Seyla Benhabib, if I could start with you, first, tell us about the Transatlantic Academy. I gather it was formed in 2007. Tell me what its mission is and how it's funded.
BENHABIBThe Transatlantic Academy is part of the German Marshall Fund. Its mission is to encourage understanding about common transatlantic issues and problems. It was funded primarily also with the help of the Bucerius Foundation which is the foundation that sponsors the big German weekly Die Zeit. And as I found out only last week when we were in Hamburg, apparently there was a lot of concern during the first George W. Bush administration that the rift between Europe and the United States, in terms of understanding one another on political and other matters, was growing.
BENHABIBAnd so there was an attempt now to establish an academy which is, like, basically a think tank where scholars come together to work for one year on issues of mutual interest. In the past, the Transatlantic Academy has worked on questions such as immigration, Turkey's foreign policy as it impacts both Europe and the United States, the resource question. Our mission this year, or rather our question this year was the future of the Western liberal order.
BENHABIBAnd we address this in a comparative perspective by looking primarily at the U.S.-Canada and Central European governments as well and reflecting also on developments in the so-called MENA, Middle Eastern and North Africa, region. And next year, the academy will take up more, the issues about foreign policy and transformations in international institutions. So our focus this year was on this comparative political analysis on both sides off the Atlantic.
REHMI see. And the report, as I understand it, is titled "The Democratic Disconnect." Tell us briefly about the about the conclusion of the scholars from Canada, Europe and the U.S.
BENHABIBYes. Maybe historical perspective would permit us to understand this angst about democracy is not new. In the 1930s, democratists were threatened by the rise of collectivist, fascist movements: Mussolini's Italy, National Socialism in Germany and Stalin's Russia, et cetera. This is not the threat to democracies today, neither is the threat as the Trilateral Commission report of the 1970 said, ungovernability.
BENHABIBRather what we see with the democratic disconnect is that the concerned citizenry -- the concern of the citizenry for the common good is eroding. Trust in government is eroding, and also the capacity of institutions to deliver is eroding. And so we use several metaphors to express a challenge, this challenge. We say citizens have left the building. There is a scattering of political impulses.
BENHABIBAnd in particular, one thing that we see on both sides of the Atlantic is that there are democratic energies. On the part of the younger generation, there is significant Internet activism. There are challenges posed to government accountability with movements such as transparency. And yet, at the same time, the democratic disconnect seems to be that the formal institutions of government are in sort of atrophy, that there doesn't seem to be a movement for institutional reform or constitutional passions.
BENHABIBAnd in the United States, as we know, gridlock and procedural measures seem to be covering over, you know, a deeper (word?). What we see in Europe is a kind of, at the moment, an institutional stalemate that is not just economic in nature. It isn't just about the euro. It is also about the broader legal and constitutional vision of this new entity that is the European Union that will be emerging.
REHMSeyla Benhabib, she's professor of political science and philosophy at Yale University. She's also a fellow at the Transatlantic Academy. Turning to you, E.J. Dionne, you posed this question in a recent column. Is there something especially flawed about our democracy. What kinds of response did you get?
DIONNE JR.Well, I got a lot of response to this column. Some of it fell according to predictable lines. But I think there is this concern. And I want to thank Prof. Benhabib and her colleagues for this very important report because one of the points I made by using this report is to say we Americans are very impatient with our democracy with some reason. But this is a problem, I think, that affects the entire democratic world. And I think Prof. Benhabib is absolutely right to say this is not like the 1930s.
DIONNE JR.But I think a lot of people who love and care about democracy are very concerned with the alienation from democracy that we see. One reason I ended up writing this column about democracy -- there were two reasons, really. One is, looking around Washington -- it was a week when the media and our politicians had spent all their time arguing about an inter-agency fight over talking points about Benghazi.
DIONNE JR.And I was thinking, what does this look like to an unemployed 28-year-old, to someone whose income is stagnating, somebody who's worried about education? And then I had a conversation with a very wise gentleman called Ernst Hillebrand. He works for the think tank The Ebert Foundation. That's the German social democrats' think tank. That's a center-left party with a very brave tradition of opposing totalitarianism, whether Stalin's or Hitler's.
DIONNE JR.And he had also written something very interesting. He pointed me to a polling question, and here's what he reported. He said zero percent -- yes, zero percent -- of workers in Germany believe they can have a significant impact on how policy in Germany is shaped via the ballot box. Now, those of us who believe in representative democracy believe that it ought to give average citizens a real sense of efficacy, a real sense of control over things.
DIONNE JR.And yet I think you see in Europe, in the United States and in some of the other democracies of this sense that that control isn't there. And Prof. Hillebrand and I ended up talking about the democratic disconnect report, and I think it's something -- all small D, emphasize small D -- democrats have to worry about.
REHME.J. Dionne, he's at the Brookings Institution, columnist for The Washington Post and author of "Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent." Moises Naim, you've written very, very similar pieces about this issue of what's happening to democracies -- small D -- all around the globe.
NAIMIt's -- what we're talking about here is a global trend. You can find it in Europe and, of course, in the United States. But you can also find it in a lot of emerging democracies in -- around the world. Essentially, this disconnect, I trace it to the decline of trust on interest and competitiveness of political parties. By competitiveness, I mean the ability of political parties to attract idealists, to attract people that want to change the world, to mobilize and energize and train people to think about the big issues in the world.
NAIMThose Germans that said they have zero percent, zero percent of Germans who think that they cannot influence their government or their policy should join a political party. But they don't. I often -- when I speak to college students, I ask them -- I tell them, I'm launching an initiative to save a butterfly in Indonesia, an endangered species.
NAIMHow many of you will want to join? And a large majority of them raise -- you know, they're ready to go to -- and do whatever to save this butterfly in Indonesia. Then I tell them this one -- I don't know anything about butterflies in Indonesia, but I just wanted to test your commitment to do good for the world, to engage and to mobilize. But let me ask you something else, which is, how many of you would join me in going and join a political party?
NAIMAnd they run for the exits. Political parties have not been capable of attracting people and -- in the, you know, NGOs, non-governmental organizations and movements and initiatives have an easier time to mobilize and energize people than political parties. And unless we solve that, unless we get some innovation in all political parties, we're still going to have this lack of trust, this gridlock, this inability to get things done.
REHMMoises Naim, he's at the Carnegie Endowment and an internationally syndicated columnist for El Pais. He is the author of "The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Is Not What It Used to Be." When we come back, we'll talk about why all this is happening. Stay with us.
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, we're talking about democracy, what's happening to it, a new report from The Atlantic -- forgive me -- from The Transatlantic Academy titled "The Democratic Disconnect." With me from New York: Seyla Benhabib, she is one of the authors of that report and a fellow at the Transatlantic Council.
REHMHere in the studio: E.J. Dionne of The Brookings Institution, Moises Naim of the Carnegie Foundation, and he's an internationally syndicated columnist for El Pais. Back to you, Seyla Benhabib, what about democracies on all sides? Have -- what do they have in common that seem to be so problematic?
BENHABIBMaybe we can also address this question by looking at some of the factors that are challenging democracies on both sides of the ocean. I think principally, the new economic context has to be mentioned. Of course, Moises Naim is right that the function of political parties have changed, but that alone, I don't think, is going to get us at the whole picture. There is no question, I think, in my mind that the last, you know, 15, 20 years, as E.J. Dionne was also mentioning, that this particularly intensified financial economic globalization have rendered states very vulnerable.
BENHABIBAnd it has reduced the status of states to assure a collective prosperity and security for their citizens. The states are becoming one among many other players out there in the global marketplace. One phrase that we use in the report is the privatization of pain and -- privatization of gain -- I'm sorry -- and the collectivization of pain.
BENHABIBAnd in this respect, the United States government is in no different position than the European governments or many other governments all over the world, who sort of are anxiously watching their credit ratings being affected by the markets and so on. So there is this new economic situation and the toolkits of states to deal with these new economies seems to be the new economic challenges are either diminishing or states are not asserting them forcefully.
BENHABIBAnother thing is the emergence of the market paradigm as the paradigm for all social life, period. We see this in the United States with the privatization of schools, the privatization of hospitals, the privatization of prisons, and even the privatization of many functions of the army as we saw with the emergence of the contractors, you know, in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Add to this the rise of China, the rise of the security state as a result of the challenge of, you know, radical Islamism, the rise of religion.
BENHABIBAnd all of a sudden, democratic states are confronted with the kind of complexity that they are not very good at mastering, and I think that what's happening is that politicians are either treading water or they're trying to take least risky solutions. And if I may say something with respect to Europe, in particular -- in the United States media, the euro crisis is presented simply as an economic crisis in terms of the problem of having a monetary union without fiscal measures. That is true as far as it goes.
BENHABIBBut what this does not take into account is the fact that in order to be able to move towards a fiscal union, constitutionally, the European Union has to renegotiate a lot of the treaties upon which it is based. It has to re-imagine itself as a new political entity. And at the moment, I don't see any European political leader with the courage to come up and take the next step.
REHMAll right. And, Moises, I saw you shaking your head at one point. Tell me where you agree or disagree with Seyla's comments.
NAIMProf. Benhabib is, of course, absolutely right. The economic situation and the economic crisis, high unemployment rates are eroding the ability of governments -- support for governments and all that. That's undeniable and it's there. But then, think about what happened last week. Last week, we had riots in the streets in Sweden and in Chile. Those are two of the most successful countries in the world in terms of -- Chile, for example, is a model for developing countries in terms of its ability to lift people out of poverty. It's a model, and yet people are taking to the streets.
NAIMThey're protesting a wide variety of issues, mostly having to do with the costs of higher education and equality. And then we had a lot of immigrant-related, you know, turmoil in Sweden. And there is something going on there that is unrelated to economic performance. So I want to agree with Prof. Benhabib that the economy -- a bad economy fuels this. But let's be careful because even in countries that have a very strong economic performance, you also see this trend. So there is something larger going on here.
REHMAll right. E.J. Dionne.
DIONNE JR.But I think that where I agree Prof. Benhabib is that there has been a long-term trend, a transfer of wealth from income to labor. And most people make their livings from labor. Productivity gains no longer lead to wage gains the way they used to. That's creating resentment. And I think the point that in this new globalized situation -- and we've had globalization before. It's not brand new.
DIONNE JR.But in our current situation with technological change, it is harder for national governments to work their will. Just take taxes. If you're an average worker, your income is totally transparent. You can't hide your income. If you're very wealthy, you could move a lot of income to tax havens. Or let's take regulation. A country decides that conditions are unsafe in their factories.
DIONNE JR.It is at least possible now for somebody to say, OK, those regulations are too strict. I'm going to move my whole plant elsewhere to where the regulations are less severe. So there has been an erosion of the power of governments, if you will, to work the will of their own people, and I think that's part of this disconnect.
DIONNE JR.But I also think there's a wholly other element, which I'll be very brief about, where I think we're accustomed to rather quick responses in this new world of ours with computers in front of us. And we do think a lot like consumers. Democracy is more complicated because it does, by its nature, involve deliberation. And we need a better approach to deliberation. We need a combination, a greater efficiency of getting to decision but also greater patience with process at deliberation.
REHMBut let me ask you all, while we've talked about economics, what about politics? What about the disconnect between the people and the way they see the political system working? You talked with students who didn't want to have anything to do with political parties. Is it that the political parties are no longer representing the people? Moises.
NAIMThe political parties around the world have had a terrible run in the last 20 years or so. They have been having a hard time attracting people and -- as I said before, whereas non-governmental organizations...
REHMBut the question is why.
NAIMWhy is -- well, first is political parties have lost a very important tool for recruitment, and that is ideology. With the end of the Cold War, we had a, you know, before, you had a big clash of ideologies and ideas. I'm not talking about the United States, of course, where we continue to have a very powerful clash of perspectives and ideologies and so on. But surely, we have a combination of factors that include the media that include the way in which political discourse is taking place.
NAIMBut the great paradox here is that the same people that complain about lack of participation don't seem to have a lot of initiatives to participate. They participate in very local initiatives or very issue-specific initiatives -- the butterfly in Indonesia -- but you don't see them participating in political parties as much as they should.
BENHABIBMay I come in here just...
REHMOh, certainly, please.
BENHABIBI think that the decline of political parties is real, but I think it poses a challenge to democracy. If we do believe in representative democracy, the question is not whether political parties is the only -- are the only way to do it. The question is, how can we bring in the democratic energies that are out there in social movements, in women's movements, in the environmental movement, in movements for the rights of indigenous peoples, in movements for, you know, Transparency International?
BENHABIBI also teach students, you know, who do want to go and try to save, you know, the butterflies in Africa. You know, every Yale student wants to spend the summer trying to do something, let's say, against the AIDS crisis in Africa. The issue is how can the institutions now be flexible and imaginative enough to recapture these energies that are there and make them responsible and articulate in the political process via deliberation?
BENHABIBAnd, of course, now, the Internet has created this new technology, has created an outlet for the younger generation. And when we were presenting our report in Europe, the question that kept coming back to us, but why don't you think that the Internet could resolve some of the issues that you are talking about? I mean, could the Internet be a channel for giving voice? I don't think so.
BENHABIBI think the Internet can be definitely, and is, a wonderful means for disseminating information, holding those who exercise power, holding their feet, you know, to the fire, you know, increasing transparency and also a certain kind of, you know, enabling activism. What we need to do is find the loop back from these energies of the Internet in social movements the idealism of a younger generation, which is not to be underestimated. They are global kids. How do we -- how can we harness these energies back...
BENHABIB...into the -- yes.
REHMExcuse. I didn't mean to interrupt you. But, before we get to harnessing these energies back, E.J., explain the declining confidence in public institutions here in the U.S. What's happening?
DIONNE JR.Well, there's an old saying that nothing succeeds like success. And I would go back to where we started, which is I don't think you can understate how important the combination of the economic downturn with the long-term troubles that people have had in the economy, the decline in well-paying blue-collar employment and all that.
DIONNE JR.A lot of people expect the system -- and the system includes everything, from the economy to the democratic process -- to deliver them a decent chance in life. And I think a significant number of people just feel like that larger system isn't working. I think, here, we have seen a kind of radicalization on the right end of politics where there is skepticism about government itself and its capacity to solve problems. And we can get back to that after the break.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." E.J., finish that thought and add to it, doesn't the left deserve some of the blame?
DIONNE JR.Well, I -- people -- I am more on the center-left of politics, as you know.
REHMI understand that.
DIONNE JR.And I think in the United States, in this circumstance, I think -- and Bob Dole said it this weekend when he said that the Republicans should put up a little sign, go out of business for a little bit and rethink themselves. I don't think it's an eccentric view or a left-wing view to say that there has been much more radicalization on the right end of politics than on the left side.
REHMAnd even within the Republican Party, the traditional GOP versus the Tea Party seems to be holding things up magnificently.
DIONNE JR.Right. And the -- and you're seeing a lot of obstruction going on right now. The other thing, I think, is that there is a sense on the part of a lot of voters of a certain amount of manipulation, and I've always seen the difference between issues and problems. Issues seem to be what we talk about to win elections. Problems are what we try to solve. And I always like Arthur Schlesinger's definition of democracy, which is, ultimately, it comes down to the search for remedy.
DIONNE JR.But having said all this, I just have to share my favorite line from a frustrated politician, the idea of being -- there's a problem on the political side. There's a problem on the citizen side. Barney Frank, former congressman from my home district of Massachusetts, was once at a very difficult town meeting. And he finally looked at the people in the room, and he said, look, we politicians are no great shakes, but you voters are no day at the beach either. And his district was safe enough that he could keep winning.
REHMWhat do you think of that, Moises?
NAIMThere is no doubt that one of the issues is the polarization that the -- in the political discourse and the political debate that has become far more pronounced.
REHMAnd throughout the country.
NAIMAnd throughout the country. And that has one obvious force behind it, and that is that the proliferation of voices. We have seen an explosion of people, individuals. Talk show, radio and Internet has created a cacophony that often -- a lot of people have now more options to voice, more channels to voice their views, their grievances, their platforms. And then -- and in order to be noticed in that crowd, in that cacophony, you need to be louder.
NAIMAnd the way to be louder is to be more extreme, and that puts your other part in the position of countering by also going to extremes. And so we have this point-counterpoint framework for all conversations where you have to say something loud, extreme, and I have to counter with something that is even louder. And that then permeates voters, permeates the conversation, permeates the comments in general.
REHMAnd how does that affect the perception of the United States throughout the world?
NAIMThe world is baffled that this country cannot agree on how to tax and spend, you know, the notion that we invented something called the sequester because we felt that it was so dangerous and so crazy that no one would allow it to happen. And then the day comes, and it happens. It is very baffling to the world because this is supposed to be the most mature, sophisticated, institutionally-grounded democracy in the world.
DIONNE JR.You know, this is very depressing for an American who loves our democracy. I happen to be in London when the debt ceiling fight back in 2011 was reaching its conclusion. And the most painful thing was to encounter people there who absolutely love America, who are genuinely our friends and allies and who said, how in the world can you get to this? These are not impossible problems to solve. We've had budget problems before. Most of the time you have some balance of taxing and spending decisions, and it was crazy that we ended up where we did that summer.
REHMSo wouldn't one think that with that kind of feeling emanating from all around the world, this democracy would find some way to fix it? Short break. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd we're discussing what has happened to democracy, democratic institutions around the world. A new report from an organization called The Transatlantic Academy has recently published a report titled "The Democratic Disconnect." Seyla Benhabib who is a fellow at The Transatlantic Academy is with us.
REHMAlso, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, Moises Naim of the Carnegie Endowment and El Pais. I want to come back to you, Seyla Benhabib, because within that report titled "The Democratic Disconnect," you do talk about what's going on here in the United States. I'd be interested in what your group found.
BENHABIBLet me begin with a phrase from Benjamin Franklin, which we also cite in the report. Asked at the end of the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 what the delegates had achieved, he replied as, you know, "A republic, madam, if you can keep it." And I think this the spirit in which we also have to approach the problem of democracy. A democracy, if you can keep it. Yes, of course, it is on both sides. But on the other hand, before one goes about blaming the citizens as much as, you know, one does the politicians, one has to also realize how fundamental equality is to the project of democracy.
BENHABIBI don't mean to just simply push everything back to the economic question, not at all. But on the other hand, it is a very old wisdom since Aristotle, which the Founding Fathers also believed in, that in democracies, wealth differentials ought not to be so wide that one man or one human being had to sell themselves and the other person would be wealthy enough, you know, to buy them, to put it metaphorically.
BENHABIBAnd according to all the social scientific evidence that we are seeing, the Gini coefficients and so on, income inequality in the United States has increased over the last, you know, 20 or, you know, 30 years. And this is also related, I think, to the phenomenon that E.J. was talking about. Declining expectations of this entire generation, you know, I'm the mother of an unemployed law school graduate, and the declining expectation of a new generation whom we are very happy to just simply refer to as the lost generation.
BENHABIBI don't think a society can afford to lose its younger generation. So, we want to look at -- in the report, we looked at a set of political institutional measures. We talked about the problem of voter suppression. We talked about gerrymandering. We briefly touch up on the Electoral College, but we don't, you know, really raise the issue.
BENHABIBBut let's talk about questions of voter suppression and voting. Yes, this is in the hands of the states according to the U.S. Constitution. But these are the mechanics of democracy. One should be able to get the ballot straight. One should be able to get voter registration straight without constantly pushing people off their roles who should not be pushed off the roles. There is a lot of corruption here.
BENHABIBWhen we bring in the issue of independent redistricting, the question that is raised always, well, should judges do it? Who would do it? Well, there may be some very respectable independent commissions that could actually come up with a non-partisan way of redistricting that would make more sense than the kind of absurd gerrymandering that we see today. These are very, very minor issues, but they can help the health of democracy.
REHMVery important one. Yes, indeed. And, Moises, you talked about vetocracies. Talk about what you mean. It's a phrase coined by Francis Fukuyama.
NAIMYes, Prof. Fukuyama noted that increasingly around the world, democracies are becoming vetocracies, meaning places or systems where they have a bunch of groups, each one with just enough power to block what others are trying to do but no one with sufficient power to push through an agenda or a program. And Prof. Fukuyama called these a vetocracy. And we are seeing that around the world, and that's where gridlock and the inability to make decisions that are timely, that are effectively -- that are effective in denting -- at least denting the problems we're dealing with.
NAIMWhat Prof. Benhabib was mentioning, all those changes that she suggests are very powerful evidence of the need for innovation in politics. One of the striking situations in the world today is how we are surrounded by innovation in everything, the way we eat, the way we date, the way we -- everything we do has been touched and transformed by innovation, except the way we govern ourselves.
NAIMAnd nothing much has been happening there, and Prof. Benhabib points to the need to look at some changes. And what happened, I think, is that the vetocracies and the lack of innovation and all that is strongly related to the fact that we -- trust has been going down for years, as E.J. and -- has pointed out. And the lack of trust between individuals and in institutions has been replaced by checks and balances.
REHMAll right. I want to bring in a few callers. Let's go first to John in Ann Arbor, Mich. Good morning. You're on the air.
JOHN (CALLERGood morning. Thank you so much, Diane. It's a very interesting show.
JOHNWith our increasingly substanceless national campaigns, none of the actual issues we face will really be discussed in our public forum until we move away from our dysfunctional two-party system, which is not possible without changing our voting system. How can one engage people like a Diane Rehm or her guests on the issue of voting reform, which I have heretofore been unable to do?
REHMAll right. E.J.
DIONNE JR.With -- there is a whole debate -- first, thanks for the call. There's a whole debate about whether two-party systems are more democratic and responsive or multi-party systems. And what I found -- I was a foreign correspondent -- you often find people in countries with multi-party systems want to move more toward a two-party system because you can't really punish one side in election and put in the other side.
DIONNE JR.And also, it's a question of whether their coalitions are formed before or after the election. There are certain reforms I'm not unsympathetic to, like single, transferable vote, which they have in Australia, that kind of allow this system. But I'm not sure that system change of, you know, whether it's two parties or multi-party is the problem because when you look at our democracies, if you look at this report, both kinds of democracies are in trouble.
DIONNE JR.I think there is -- has been a decline in the idea of a common good, and it goes to these veto groups where we don't have the confidence we used to have that we are better off as individuals if we rise together and that there are policies that we can pursue in common that would actually be good for each of us, but that are good for the whole. And I just want to score one point that Prof. Benhabib made. I love that Barney Frank story, but you don't say the democratic republic by beginning -- by blaming citizens. People are angry because there's a good deal to be upset about.
DIONNE JR.But citizens need to take responsibility, nonetheless.
REHMTo Cincinnati, Ohio, and to Sean. Good morning.
SEANGood morning. I got a quick question and you kind of answer it already, but I'm afraid a little differently. What is the relationship between poverty and the strength of a burgeoning democracy? And also, that same question framed that's a -- the question of education.
REHMAll right. I think those are both important issues. Seyla Benhabib.
BENHABIBOh, that's excellent. Thank you for this. A democracy presupposes citizens' equality, government by the people for the people. And with vast differences of wealth and status, democracies as regimes change in ancient political thought. The danger is democracy can move towards an oligarchy of the rich, or it can move towards -- when poverty increases that it can move towards a kind of regime of the poor precisely because citizens have this not just legal but also political equality, a certain equality of status.
BENHABIBThe sense that you can look the other person in the eye and that you can have a sense of respect, I personally think that a lot of the protest energy behind the Tea Party movement is also motivated in some cases by an anger about that loss of respect and equality. I think they are going about it in the completely wrong way. But you have a sense of that humiliation of people who are losing their homes, foreclosures, mortgages, et cetera.
BENHABIBSo this is crucial. And, of course, an educated public is fundamental, you know, to democracy. And, you know, Moises Naim said something very interesting, that with the rise of the new media, what we also have is fragmentation and also competing polarizations whose voice is going to be louder. So that's also a challenge that we are facing.
NAIMProf. Benhabib, again, is right that in an ideal world, a democracy will be a democracy of equals both in power and in wealth and also of a well-educated and active population.
REHMBut isn't that an idealist image?
NAIMThat's an ideal. And, you know, we need to be careful how many conditions we put on democracy because I want to point out that the two most largest, most vibrant democracies in the world are very poor and very unequal. And that is Brazil and India. Brazil and India have the largest voting populations in the world.
NAIMAnd their democracies are very imperfect. They are corrupt. They are, you know, they are far from the ideal, but yet, they function, and they deliver and parties get ousted. And so, you know, let's be careful not to let the idea which we need to strive become the essential requirement for today's...
DIONNE JR.I just think that's a very important point because I think there is this dangerous idea that poor people are incapable of being good, small D, democrats. And that's just not true. India and Brazil is what I was thinking of as well. And again, they are imperfect democracies. All democracies are imperfect.
DIONNE JR.So I don't agree with Prof. Benhabib that radical inequality is dangerous for Democratic and Republican forms of government. But let's remember that, often, democracy arises from below and that poor people have managed to keep -- help keep those democracies alive in those two countries and elsewhere.
BENHABIBYeah. Let me just come in here.
BENHABIBI mean, my implication was not that poor people cannot be...
DIONNE JR.Oh, I know that.
BENHABIBBut it's just that we cannot avoid them. This is also particularly important in the context of Europe. European countries have made a commitment to social democracy. Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, they have a very -- they have much less tolerance for the kind of inequalities that, you know, we have historically tolerated in the United States. My point is that we may have come to kind of a critical point within the United States where, you know, the growing inequality may be endangering the quality of democracy.
REHMAnd here is an email from Joe, who says, "A continuing problem is the silent majority who are not involved in democracy. Instead our politics are ruled by extremes on both sides. What can we do to get more people involved in democracy? I thought social networks would break down walls, instead they seem to further insulate people." E.J.
DIONNE JR.Well, social networks do both. Social -- on the one hand, in this new world of ours, you can hang around solely with the people you disagree with or you can engage people solely -- I'm sorry -- with the people you agree with or you can engage people you disagree with. But, yeah, we still had 60 percent vote in 2012. That's a lot of people.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I know you want to add something, Moises.
NAIMJust to note that social, you know, the Internet and social media, of course, can contribute to democracy and participation, but there is a term that is now making the rounds in that subject called slacktivism, meaning...
NAIMSlacktivism means that you are an activist, but you're a slacker. So all you do is you, you know, you go to the Web...
NAIM...and you do likes or you don't like, and you sent tweets. And, you know, that's a very convenient, very comfortable low-cost way of feeling virtuous because you're participating. But, in fact, that's not enough. And again, all I'm saying, and all I hope, is that we will have a wave of innovation that will allow political parties to become far more attractive to the people that are now channeling their energies, their political energies to other movements.
REHMWhile I have you all considered the kind of riptide going on within the Republican Party, how do you see that resolving itself and contributing to the democracy instead of pushing its own way?
NAIMIt's very important that the Republican Party continues to be an important party, but it's losing it's edge, and it's losing it's ability to be attractive, for example, to Hispanics. There is no doubt that in the future of this country, the Hispanics are going to be a very important voting block. And the -- and, you know, from what we hear, even the attempts that -- and that is widely recognized by everyone.
NAIMAnd the Republican Party seems to be actively trying to find ways of becoming more attractive, more alluring and try to bring political -- politically active Hispanics. But even, you know, but at the same time, for every state that they go forward, then one of their leaders makes a statement that alienates. And often...
NAIM...often, you know, the notion that we recently saw, for example, in the debate about immigration. The Heritage Foundation just issued a report, and one of the leaders, the writers of their report essentially had written a doctoral dissertation of Harvard essentially claiming that the IQ of the Hispanics was structurally permanently lower, and therefore, they needed to be excluded in any policy.
REHMAll right. Ten seconds, E.J.
DIONNE JR.Just to build on that point, a Republican friend said, we're not going to win the Hispanic vote if we tell Hispanics, please vote for us even though we wish you weren't here. And I think you need the Republican Party to change that.
REHME.J. Dionne has the last word. Moises Naim and Seyla Benhabib, thank you all for an incredibly important program. Thank you.
DIONNE JR.Thank you.
BENHABIBThank you. Thank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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