Democracy Works is taking a few weeks off for the summer. While we do, we are going to share some older episodes you might have missed, along with a few from other podcasts we think you’ll enjoy. First up is our democracy summer reading list, which we recorded last summer but holds up well today. Since we recored this, we’ve been lucky to have a few of the authors on the show — David Frum, Salena Zito, and E.J. Dionne.
Finally, if you enjoy Democracy Works, consider checking out The Politics Guys. This podcast is hosted by a bi-partisan groups of academics and other experts who provide a weekly rundown of the biggest news and events in American politics and interview experts from a variety of fields. Check it out at politicsguys.com.
We tend to think about congressional oversight in very academic terms — checks and balances, the Framers, etc. But what does it actually look like on the ground in Congress? To find out, we’re talking this week with Charlie Dent, who served Congress for more than a decade until his retirement in 2018. He argues that amid all the talk about subpoenas, impeachment, and what Congress is not able to do, we’re losing sight of the things they can do to hold the executive branch accountable.
Dent is a lifelong Republican, but one that does not fit in with the direction the party’s taken under Donald Trump. We talk with him about why so few Republicans are willing to speak out against the Preisdent, and what the party’s post-Trump future might look like. He also talks about the difference between separation of parties and separation of powers — and where he thinks we are right now.
Dent was the chair of the House Ethics Committee and a member of the Homeland Security Appropriations committees. These days, he is a CNN political analyst and senior policy adviser at DLA Piper. He was a recipient of the 2019 Penn State Distinguished Alumni Award, which is the university’s highest honor presented to alumni.
Is there still room for moderates in politics? If so, where can they have the most impact?
What do you make of Charlie’s argument that the U.S. now operates like a Parliamentary system?
What do you think the Republican Party will look like post-Donald Trump?
[6:00] Can you describe the district you represented and your decision to leave office?
I represented a district in eastern Pennsylvania largely the Lehigh Valley for my first four terms and for my, my last three terms, the district included parts of south central Pennsylvania. It was what we’d call a swing or marginal district, had a pretty good mix of urban, suburban, rural communities. It was, in many respects, a bellwether for the country in terms of how it performed from an election standpoint. dI anticipated early on that House Republicans would be in the minority in the new session of Congress that they’re in now. The current administration was also a factor. Just dealing with the never ending drama and chaos.
[9:44] Now that you’ve had some time away, are there things you wish you would have done differently to speak out against things like increasing polarization?
I think about that quite a bit. There’s only so much you can do as one person to change the direction that the herd is moving in. Increasingly, Republicans in Congress are hesitant to speak out against President Trump because they’re concerned about a primary challenger, which has created a political paralysis. In my view, we have two political parties now — a pro-Trump party and an anti-Trump party. It’s no longer about ideology or specific policies, which is always what the Republican Party has been known for. It’s now about loyalty to a man. You have to figure out how to manage that and work within it.
[15:38] Have Republicans who oppose President Trump resigned themselves to holding their breath until the next election?
Yeah I think that’s true. Although if you’re a member of Congress in a swing district you simply can’t be labeled as a generic Republican or a generic Democrat. You have to develop your own brand. That was always my advice to my colleagues. You don’t survive that way in those types of districts. The fact that these elected officials can’t always be seen as rubber stamps for the President is something we should be talking more about.
[17:06] What does congressional oversight look like in practice?
In some respects, oversight is a serious responsibility of Congress, and it’s done on a daily basis. When I was on the Homeland Security committee, we spent a lot of our time really looking at what the department was doing. At that time, it was a relatively new department and there were growing pains so we exercised a lot of oversight. A lot of it wasn’t particularly glamorous or sexy, but it was necessary. Now I find that oversight seems be more about getting your name on television as opposed to the hard, mundane work of analyzing what these departments are doing and how they’re spending money.
[21:05] How do you explain the shift toward prioritizing partisanship over the institution?
I believe, in many respects, we no longer have a system of separation of powers, but a system of separation of parties. Whichever party controls the presidency, it seems like their obligation is to protect the president above defending institutional interests. It flies in the face of what Madison intended and it’s been a big problem. They’re behaving, in many respects, as if they’re operating in a parliamentary system rather than this system of separation of powers and checks and balances that we have.
[24:06] Where do we go from here?
I would always tell my constituents, “You elected me to be a member of Congress, not to be in the executive branch.” Until voters insist on change, things won’t change. I talk a lot about the pragmatism that’s necessary to get things done. You can be ideologically or philosophically conservative or liberal and and that’s fine, but at the same time, I worry about the capacity to be pragmatic. We need people who can set aside the things they disagree on, find common ground, and move forward.
To say Brazil has had a complicated history with democracy is a understatement. The country has bounced in and out authoritarian regimes for hundreds of years, with democracy never having quite enough time to really take hold. Following the election of Jair Bolsonaro in October 2018, many are wondering whether the cycle is about to repeat itself again.
Gianpaolo Baiocchi is a professor of individualized studies and sociology at NYU, where he also directs the Urban Democracy Lab. He’s from Brazil and has written extensively about the country’s politics and social movements. He joins us this week to talk about Bolsonaro’s appeal, the use of misinformation on WhatsApp during the election, and why Bolsonaro is often called the “Trump of the tropics.” We also discuss Brazil’s history of activism under authoritarian governments and whether we’ll see it return now.
Next week is our final episode about democracy around the world. We’ll be talking with Penn State’s Sona Golder about all things Brexit.
Do you think Brazil will retreat from democracy under Bolsonaro?
What is the role of the military in Brazil?
How is Brazil politically involved with other Latin American countries?
[3:07] What is the history of democracy in Brazil?
Brazil, a very unequal country, has had this relatively short and checkered history with democracy. Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery in the world. In 1964, Brazil had a military coup that lasted with a military regime that lasted until 1985. Social movements really played a very important role in the transition to democracy, but also in helping build the institutions of democracy. Brazil’s constitution of 1989 has some very progressive elements in it, has things about direct democracy, has gestures and participation municipalities, and have a lot of power.
[7:08] Where did social movements in Brazil come from?
Social movements comes in the mid-1980s. There are urban movements, the movement for the right transport, the movement against poverty, student movements, a lot of movements to the progressive church, so kind of Liberation theology, we have movements very important of patients and users of the health system.
[10:38] Who is Jair Bolsonaro and why was he appealing?
People are going to be talking about the Bolsonaro phenomenon for a long time. He’s been a politician for a long time and he’s mostly known for shocking statements. He’s been a guy who likes to say provocative things about rape, about affirmative action, and sort of anti-political correctness. His platform is law and order, it’s about God, it’s against political correctness, and it’s pro-business. He definitely has the elite support in Brazil, but because Brazil is an unequal country, that won’t go very far.
[16:18] Why is Bolsonaro compared to Donald Trump?
There are definitely similarities between Trump’s Make America Great Again rhetoric and some of Bolsonaro’s language. They’re both populists and have both been involved in scandals, yet always seem to skate by and remain in power. Trump and Bolsonaro have also sought to undermine democratic institutions. However, the institutions in Brazil were weaker to begin with because democracy does not have the long history there that it does in the U.S.
[19:05] Can you give us some examples of how institutions in Brazil are weaker?
The judicial system, the courts begun to play a very openly political role. The Minister of Justice was the judge and prosecutor over Lula, the former president of Brazil, who’s currently under arrest and during the process of the prosecution investigation. This judge was very openly partisan in social media and releasing things and it has given people the sense that the law is just something that you use. One of the things that has happened because of Bolsonaro being elected is that people has a free license to commit hate crimes. The only openly gay member of Brazilian Congress has had to flee the country.
[23:02] Did misinformation play a role in Bolsonaro’s election?
Yes. Social media and fake news were a huge part of the election. In particular, a WhatsApp investigation a few days before the election itself revealed that foreign money and industrialists had paid for all these bots to repeat these fake news.
[24:49] How is Bolsonaro playing throughout the rest of Latin America?
The balance of the continent has definitely shifted. All eyes are in Venezuela right now and early on in his campaign. Bolsonaro said he would be for a military intervention and I don’t think that’s actually going to happen, but Bolsonaro’s election does feel like the region has definitely turn right and turned authoritarian in a very real way.
[28:44] Social movements have risen up before in Brazil. Do you see the same thing happening again now or in the future?
Yes! In the weeks before the election as it look like Bolsonaro was really going to win, people came together in a way that hadn’t really been seen in a long time in Brazil.
We’ll be back with new episodes starting next week. This week’s episode comes to you from our friends at Trump on Earth, a podcast that’s taking a closer look at all the changes coming out of Washington on the environment — from what’s happening at the EPA to how our public lands will fare under the Trump administration.
This episode features an interview with sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild about her book Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, which chronicles her time with conservatives in Louisiana. Hochschild found people there who had become sick from industrial pollution or lost their homes due to an industrial catastrophe yet were resentful of the federal government.
From gerrymandering to record voter turnout, it’s been a busy year for democracy. This doesn’t mean that everything has been positive, but there’s certainly plenty to reflect on. This week, Michael Berkman and Chris Beem take a look a look back at some of the biggest democracy-related stories of the year and look at what’s in store for next year.
Thank you to everyone who supported Democracy Works this year. The show has been more successful than we ever imagined. If you like what you’ve heard this year, please take a minute to leave us a rating, review, or recommendation wherever you listen to podcasts.
We are excited to bring you more great discussions about all things democracy in 2019. New episodes will begin in mid-January. If you have suggestions for episode topics or guests, we would love to hear them! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or complete our contact form.
As we’ve previously discussed, there are a lot of books about democracy filling book store and library shelves right now. Norman Eisen could have written a book in the vein of Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky’s How Democracies Die or David Frum’s Trumpocracy, but chose to go in a different direction.
In The Last Palace, he tells the story of the Petschek Palace, where he lived while serving as U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic. The palace and its residents sought to defend liberal democracy throughout both world wars and the Cold War. The book, which one review calls a “love letter to liberal democracy,” also shows the ways in which ambassadors do the hard work of democracy abroad.
Eisen describes the cycles of democracy that occurred as public support waxed and waned over the years. He says that we are now an inflection point that will determine support for liberal democracy moving forward. Ever the optimist, he’s confident that democracy will come through this seemingly dark period to triumph once again.
Eisen is a senior fellow in Governance Studies at Brookings and chair of Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington. Prior to becoming ambassador, he advised the Obama administration on ethics — a job that earned him the unofficial title “ethics czar.”
What impact do you think corruption has on democracy?
Where do you see democracy being harmed by corruption around the world?
There have been claims that corruption is harming democracy here at home. Do you agree?
During the interview, Norman Eisen spoke to the ability of democracies to be strong and fight back against corruption. Do you think the United States is in a good position to be able to fight back against efforts to undermine our democracy both at home and abroad?
What do you make of the large number of vacant ambassadorships currently in America?
[5:20] What made you want to tell the story that you tell in your book The Last Palace?
Eisen: There were multiple objectives in wanting to tell this story. Before even arriving, I heard so many stories about the residence itself. I continued to collect such stories while I was there, and I thought these would be something people would like to hear. However, I also thought there was a larger story about democracy itself in this place over the last hundred years. I wanted to tell that story as well. So the book is really a story of five people, an amazing house, and the history of transatlantic democracy itself.
[6:00] There is a quote on the back of the book of a love letter to liberal democracy. Was that your intention with this book?
Eisen: I didn’t realize the story of democracy that would come out of the research of past ambassadors and the unique residence. By the time I finished the book, yes, I intended it to be a love letter.
[7:40] In your book you take about the ebb and flow of democracy over time. Where do you think we are at right now?
Eisen: We’re at an inflection point. There have been three great surges of democracy in the past century. One was the post-WWI boom that included the founding of the League of Nations. The second was after WWII when the modern security structure of NATO was established securing Western Europe. The third was the post-cold war era. We had hopes after this third boom of greater growth of democracy into Eastern Europe and maybe Russia itself. However, unlike following WWII, we didn’t create anything like the Marshal plan to ensure growth of democracy into these new territories. Also, the United States looked away. One of the key stories of this century is when the United States looks away, trouble brews. That is where we are now with Putins rule and his partner Donald Trump.
[10:02] Your book tells the stories of ambassadors who have lived in the Petscheck Palace. What lessons can we take from their stories?
Eisen: One story is that democracy has endured in the face of much greater challenges than we face today. However, another important takeaway is that we can’t assume this will happen on its own. Over the last hundred years, it makes all the difference when the friends of democracy fight for democracy. We need to continue to fight that good fight if we want democracy to succeed.
[11:40] Has our ability to fight for democracy become weaker than that of past generations?
Eisen: In the initial days of the Trumps administration, those same tools of social media which he utilized to win office served as a vehicle to bring people together. Hopefully, these tools will lead to greater oversight of the president with the new Congress. Our polarization is no worse now than it was following the Civil War.
[14:00] We currently have many ambassador positions that are not filled. What impact does that have on the role of promoting democracy that ambassadors do?
Eisen: The fact that this administration has failed to at least nominate people for some of the most important ambassadorships does lead to a democracy deficit. It is incredibly important to have some sort of head executive, confirmed by the Senate, who can work on the behalf of our values and democracy in a foreign capital city. They are there to speak up for our Wilsonian post 1918 idea of western values. Having an ambassador established in a foreign nation enables us to work with civil organizations to promote all of the core tenants of a democratic society.
[16:00] What is the relationship you see between authoritarianism and corruption? How does that impact democracy?
Eisen: It is a problem that authoritarians, including our own president, always see it as part of their initiative to get control of the public’s purse. We’ve seen this through world leaders such as with Mr. Putin who some have said has become the worlds riches man through corruption. We’ve also seen this with President Trump who has tried to benefit himself and his family. That is a sign of autocracy.
We are heading the first ever case in which a judge has found a cause of action for accepting forbidden government cash benefits relating to the president. This has helped established a climate in the public where people are now keeping an eye on these issues. Another key part of this effort to control corruption is the Muller investigation. We are now awaiting his report as to whether the president obstructed justice or not. I think the rule of law system is working as it should.
[19:30] In your book, you show how you’re more optimistic while your mother is more pessimistic. Do you think democracy works better when both points of view are represented?
Eisen: Perhaps if we had been a bit more pessimistic following the Cold War we would have put in place some sort of Marshal Plan for Central and Eastern Europe. At the same time we have to be aware of the profound difficulties we’ve overcome. It all fits in together. I try to lay out this balance in the book.
[22:00] Can you expand further on the dangers posed to democracy by corruption?
Eisen: Corruption in a democracy infringes upon the voting freedoms as well as others that are critical in a democracy. You can see this playing out here in the form of campaign contributions. The special interests have more money to spread around than average people. They spend more on elections, they get people elected, then they call in favors of those they helped get elected. This is legal corruption.
In the effort to understand the people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, a style of reporting has emerged that Chris Hayes recently described as “Trump pastoral.” You might not know the phrase, but, but you’ve probably read a piece or two like this in the past few years:
A reporter from a national media outlet based in a big city visits a small town in a rural community and spends a little bit of time there trying to understand the people who live there and why they are attracted to Trump. That sounds great in theory, but the life of an urban media professional and a small town working-class person can be pretty different, which makes it difficult to build the trust needed for a true window into emotions and motivations.
We traveled to Pittsburgh to talk with Salena about how she gets to know people and what everyone can learn about trying to understand those who live different lives than we do. The lessons she’s learned apply far beyond journalism. We also talked about the coalitions that Salena and co-author Brad Todd argue helped Donald Trump become president, and whether they will remain in tact moving forward.
This is the first episode of two that will look at what’s going on in “Middle America.” Next week, you’ll hear from Lara Putnam, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who offers a different take.
Many of the voters Salena interviewed said that the 2016 election was about something more than Donald Trump. What were those bigger ideas?
Did Trump create the new coalition Salena describes, or was he in the right place at the right time?
What does the new coalition Salena describes say about the future of political parties in the U.S.?
Think about a time when you went outside of your comfort zone to attend an event or have a conversation. How did you feel and what did you learn?
Will Trump be re-elected in 2020?
4:40: What motivated you to write this book?
Salena: We wanted to look and see if the Trump victory was a fluke or an example of a more significant change within the country. I went out to the five Great Lake states that voted for Obama twice then switched to vote for Trump. We wanted to get beyond the media stereotype of what a trump voter was. What we found is that these voters we much more complicated and diverse.
6:04: How did you get people to trust you enough to be willing to open up to you and explain their voting decision?
Salena: This is where my geography and upbringing helped me greatly. I live in Pittsburg. With this more Midwest background, I was able to connect with these people better than say someone who came to them from New York or Washington.
7:13: Did you have anyone skeptical of you and asking if you were part of the “fake news”?
Salena: The shocking thing I found was that democrats have the same misgivings about the news media as republicans do. They also have the same sentiments about larger institutions as republicans. I think this new populism is a healthy pushback to all things big across media and business.
8:08: Have you kept in touch with those you interviewed?
Salena: Yes, we have. Also, no one has changed their position on who they supported from 2016. An interesting development we saw was how these people reacted to the media’s coverage of events in the administration thus far. Specifically, I’m referring to Trumps tweets. What we hear from these people is that they’re sick of the cookie cutter politicians statements. While Trumps comments aren’t clean and crafted, they are more representative of how normal people actually speak. This is something that those we spoke with could identify with. I think sometimes my peers have a hard time understanding this largely because of geography. They aren’t from these types of places.
10:35: You sort of exist in both words by interviewing these people in middle America while also appears on CNN panels as part of the media cloud. Do you see yourself as sort of an ambassador for middle America?
Salena: I want to help people understand that just because someone consumes things different than you do doesn’t make them your enemy. They just have a different life. We don’t allow people to coexist.
12:25: Fox News was mentioned many times in your book. Is that something that came up a lot in your interviews?
Salena: There was a cross section of what these voters watched as far as news. However, most of these people get their news from their local stations.
14:30: We talk a lot about a split happening between classical liberalism and populism. How do people you speak with see the recent electoral developments in middle America?
Salena: I think those in this coalition see it as still the idea of classical liberalism that we’ve always see in American democracy. This is the first time we’ve seen a new major coalition form probably since the new deal amongst democrats. I think that coalition broke apart in 2012. This happened in part because of the push from the left of ideas like multi culturalism and the idea of global citizenship. People on the coasts simply missed this realignment.
16:52: What do you think these new coalitions look like?
Salena: The new coalition within the republican part has a lot of the old new deal democrats. This means that things like entitlement reform aren’t happening in this generation. The suburban voter is still in the republican tent. However, what matters here is where your suburb is.
18:22: Those who study democracy have been looking at Trump as a new sort of autocrat. Do the voters see him that way?
Salena: They don’t see that at all. While people in the press take him literally, the people I spoke with simply don’t. While they take him seriously, they don’t take him literally.
21:11: You’ve been able to get to a deeper level of dialogue with these people by cutting under the rhetoric at the national level. What is your advice to those who wish to do the same?
Salena: Challenge yourself by exposing yourself to something or a situation that you aren’t familiar with and that you don’t know. First, step back and just be an observer. Then watch how people interact with each other. This gives you a better understanding of people and who they actually are. This will help prevent a snap judgment about them.
24:10: Do you think that anyone you spoke with would vote for a democrat?
Salena: As the party exists right now, no. They would have to make some fundamental changes. The thing about this coalition is that they simply don’t feel welcomed by the current democrat party.
If you’ve been to a book store or the library lately, then you’ve probably seen at least a few books on democracy on the shelves. The 2016 presidential election spurred a lot of conversation about the current state of our democracy and where things go from here. These books are not what most people would call beach reading, but they are important to understanding what’s happening in the U.S. and around the world right now.
We know you probably don’t have time to read all of them. Hopefully this episode will help you choose one or two to tackle. Here’s the rundown of the books we discuss:
Thank you to everyone who supported us on the first season of Democracy Works. Season two will begin in mid-August with a look at Confederate monuments and public memory on the anniversary of last summer’s riots in Charlottesville.