Is the United States really a democracy? What will the EU look like in 50 years? What should 2020 candidates be doing to demonstrate civility? Those are just a few of the questions we received from Democracy Works listeners around the country and around the world. We close our third season by answering some of your questions about democracy and the topics we’ve covered on the show.
We’ll be on summer break for the next few weeks. New episodes resume August 12. In the meantime, we’ll be rebroadcasting some of our older episodes you might have missed and sharing episodes from other podcasts we think you’ll enjoy.
Much like our conversation with Patricia Roberts-Miller on demagoguery last week, neoliberalism is one of those fuzzy words that can mean something different to everyone. Wendy Brown is one of the world’s leading scholars on neoliberalism and argue that a generation of neoliberal worldview among political, business, and intellectual leaders led to the populism we’re seeing throughout the world today. But is it mutually exclusive to democracy? Not necessarily.
Wendy joins us this week to help make sense of what neoliberalism is, and where things stand today. We were lucky enough to get an advance copy of her book, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, which will be released in July. It’s a follow up to her 2015 book, Undoing the Demos, and you’ll hear her talk about how her thinking has changed since then.
Wendy is the Class of 1936 First Chair at the University of California, Berkeley, where she teaches political theory. You might also recognize her from Astra Taylor’s documentary, What Is Democracy? If you enjoy this episode, we recommend checking out the Political Theory Review podcast, produced by Jeffrey Church at the University of Houston.
What do you see as the relationship between neoliberalism and democracy?
Do you think it’s possible for two to coexist?
What do you see as the future of neoliberalism? Will Millennials and Generation Z move in a different direction?
[5:45] How do you define neoliberalism and how is it related to democracy?
North Americans are a little bewildered by the term, and we don’t have it as part of our everyday lexicon although I think it’s finally beginning to seep in. But having said that, I also want to suggest that we understand it at a social and political level and not just an economic level. We recognize it as the undoing of the Keynesian welfare state and the substitution of free market policies, low taxes, everyone’s responsible for themselves and getting rid of all the social supports except for a bare minimum safety net, but I want to add that it’s also a whole from of governing reason.
[7:45] How does neoliberalism relate to authoritarianism?
One of the things I felt compelled to understand with our hard right turn in the West over the last several years with Trump and Bolsonaro and Brexit and so forth was the connection of that to neoliberalism. One thing you can say is rising inequality and open borders produces rage about being at the bottom end of that inequality and also about immigrants, but there was something else on the horizon that I had never noticed, which is that the neoliberal scheme was not just to substitute markets for social policy.
It was also to substitute traditional moral values for understandings of social justice and institutions of social justice. And so part of what we’re experiencing now is what I call the kind of scorpion tail of neoliberalism — the lashing out against the inequality and the continued insistence that traditional morality, moral values, and traditions more generally from white supremacy to patriarchal families, religion in the public sphere, that those are more appropriate governors of human conduct than any state-mandated practices of equality or inclusion.
[11:04] How did neoliberal ideas make their way from academics to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher?
First, there was a very serious economic crisis often called a crisis of profitability in the 70s that was also often seen as a crisis of the welfare state. Too much taxation, unions that were too strong, corporations that were too large and lazy, and a real problem of stagflation. It was a moment where you could strike with a new set of ideas. At the same time, neoliberalism had already been experimented with extensively in Latin America. The IMF was already solidly neoliberal, so bringing it up to the north wasn’t so difficult once Reagan and Thatcher were in power.
[14:37] What will Millennials and Gen Z make of neoliberalism?
Millennials and Generation Z are living in a kind of schizophrenic subjectivity that comes from the rejection of capitalism and the sluggish, dinosaur-like pace of parliamentary or constitutional democracy that is now so deeply corrupted by neoliberal money and corporate power. One of the things I see coming from these generations is the rejection of those two things as the necessary coordinates of the political and economic future, and I think all the hope rests there.
[17:46] Is there a way for neoliberalism and democracy to coexist?
Why I’m impatient with a neoliberal conception of democracy as a way to redress either the gross inequality or the serious existential dangers that we face now is that it’s basically saying, “Go join something, go feel like you’re part of something,” but let the major powers that shape our lives run through markets that presumably run through no hands at all. We rather desperately need to get our hands on those powers.
[20:37] Is it possible to move past the neoliberal worldview given that it’s been dominant over the past generation?
Yes. The Keynesian system lasted for fifty years. No one thought it could be taken apart and everyone thought it was here to stay. The question for the neoliberals was always to try to figure out how to keep it from getting worse and how to prevent this straight on drive toward complete socialism, and keep some markets in the picture. So, one generation is not a lot of time. The second thing I want to say is that we are obviously in a very serious political crisis where there’s an impatience with the current system and a belief that it’s not serving people or the planet. not just the left and right edges, but left and right mainstreams now um, the impatience with the- with the current system, and the belief that it’s not serving people, or the planet, is very strong.
This episode begins a four-part series examining the state of democracy around the world. First up is Hungary, a country that’s often referred to in a group of countries in central and Eastern Europe that are seeing authoritarian leaders rise to power. You might have heard of Viktor Orbán or know that the country is in some way associated with George Soros, but beyond that, it’s not a place many of us spend a lot of time thinking about.
We could not have found a better guest to help us make sense of what’s happening there. John Shattuck is the former President and Rector of Central European University, which Hungary’s Prime Minister recently forced out of the country. He is currently Professor of Practice in Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
In this episode, John discusses Viktor Orbán’s rise to power, how he is waging war on democratic institutions, and what people in Hungary are doing to fight back.
What impact has Viktor Orbán has on democracy Hungary?
Is there anything that the rest of the world can do to constrain Orbán’s actions?
What does the future of democracy in Hungary looks like?
Do you notice any similarities between democratic erosion in Hungary and other countries?
[6:18] Can you start off by telling us a little bit about Hungary?
Hungary is a small country of about 9 million people in the middle of Europe. It’s been for centuries kind of prize for Invaders; Mongols, Turks, Russians, Germans, Habsburgs and the Soviets. It was a strong economy during the Communist period for 40 years. It had a communist government dominated by the Soviet Union and was a member of the Warsaw Pact. It has almost no history of democracy. There have been many people coming in from outside who are mixed with Hungarians, but it’s also fairly monochromatic homogeneous that language of Hungarian is extremely difficult, spoken pretty much only by Hungarians, and are very few people outside of the country who speak it. In 1989, it emerged from the Soviet era the Communist era and became at least initially a democracy and a market economy. And it was performing quite well in the early days of the post-cold war within 15 years that had joined NATO and also became a member of the European Union.
[10:42] Who is Viktor Orbán?
Viktor Orbán is a Hungarian politician and was Hungary’s Prime Minister from 1998 to 2002. He did not have a very successful term as prime minister, he was fairly unpopular. He was a moderate at that point and when he was defeated at the polls in 2002, he moved sharply to the right because he began to realize that he had an opportunity to appeal to Hungarian nationalism and thereby increases popularity because the party of the right was rising in Hungary. He turned a country that had the beginnings of the democracy and was doing reasonably well democratically into an authoritarian state by using the levers of democracy, the institutions of democracy, by basically taking over the country and taking over its institutions taking control of the courts, the media, civil society, the legislature, and eliminating checks and balances.
[13:12] What were some of the tactics that Orbán used to can gain power or to assemble the power that he has now?
One big factor was the financial crisis of 2009, which hit Hungary harder than almost any other country in Eastern Europe. Other major factor was that after all, Hungary had no previous real experience with democracy. Another factor was the what the isolationist victim mentality aspect of Hungarian culture and society that has been present throughout the country’s history.
[15:55] Was there an element of nostalgia in Orbán tactics?
There was certainly an element of that. Hungary after World War I had been divided up, so many Hungarians were no longer inside Hungary and the country have been made much smaller by the peace process in World War One and the Hungarians never forgot that. They felt they had all these Hungarians living in what then became Serbia or Romania or even Germany and other places, but they felt were part of their country. They felt they were victimized by Germany because Germany ultimately let them down and Germany lost the war. All of these feelings were out there for Orbán to be able to pray upon as he began to move into his authoritarian mode.
[21:47] How is Viktor Orbán getting this power? And what is he doing with it?
He says he is building and illiberal democracy, but he claims that he is building a democracy and in some ways he has a legitimate claim to that in the sense that he has been elected now, he’s been elected twice actually, three times if you consider his earlier election. He’s using the major institution of democratic governance, which is an election to seize the path to take power legitimately. But then this is where the “illiberal” term that he uses comes in to eliminate what are the basic elements of liberal democracy and that is checks and balances, freedom of the media, independent judiciary, independent civil society, and a pluralist governing system instead.
[31:06] What does civil society look like our people in Hungary starting to fight back or push back against any of these actions?
There’s been a lot of coverage of what’s happened in Hungary by the international media, by the American media, and there’s some evidence to suggest that people in Hungary are starting to push back against government actions they don’t like. Orbán has been constantly attacking the higher education, which culminated in the closing of Central European University in Budapest. The University is now located in Vienna and some of the faculty and students from Hungary commute back and forth. It’s another example of the political and intellectual hegemony that is being exercised by this authoritarian regime.
Around the McCourtney Institute, we like to say that we’re “partisans for democracy.” We can think of few people who better embody that notion today than David Frum. He was among the first people to talk about the Trump administration’s impact on democracy and remains one of the loudest voices defending democratic norms in the United States. David is a longtime contributor to The Atlantic and author of Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic. The book was part of our democracy summer reading list and we invited him to speak at Penn State earlier this fall.
In many ways, this conversation speaks to the very idea of this podcast. Democracy, no matter where it’s happening in the world, is most successful when people come together to build something greater than the sum of its parts. As you’ll hear, David is a strong advocate for joining organizations that require deliberation and working with people who might hold different political beliefs than you do — in person and away from social media.
The gradual shift away from those habits of democracy is one of the things that paved the way for the Trumpocracy that David writes about in his book. Rebuilding those habits, he says, is part of the cure for what ails democracy and must happen in tandem with voting to restore faith in democratic institutions and reduce polarization.
For more on democratic erosion, listen to our interview with How Democracies Die author Daniel Ziblatt.
[6:06] Was Trump’s candidacy the reason you started righting about the state of democracy in America?
David: It was a catalyst in the sense that a catalyst triggers a response between elements that were already present. In the spring of 2015 I was doing a story in Hungary where fascism has been on the rise. However, that story was cannibalized due to the fact that what we had observed over there was starting to happen here. I was sort of ready for what we’re seeing now.
[7:29] Can you explain your journey from being a well known conservative to someone who voted for Hillary Clinton?
David: I remain a very conservative person today. When the question next comes up in an election, people might be surprised to see me retain those conservative views. However, these values have to be able to play out in a stable democratic framework. The lessons of Europe should teach us that the institutions that we see today as being rock solid look a lot less solid today. It is important to protect these democratic institutions in part because of how this instability can impact global economic markets
[8:50] Would you say that is the through line that unites yourself and other conservatives who have come out against Trump?
David: Yes. But it is also a throughline which explains why this has become an international issue. Studying the European examples is very useful. Democratic institutions aren’t doing as good of a job producing for voters. This has led to a bit of a crisis around the developed world. This can lead the population to lean towards less democratic forms of government. While this is happening to the ideological right here and in Poland, it can also happen to the left, such as in England and in Italy.
[10:09] Do you feel like the message is being received that fascism could take root here?
David: It is happening here. We always think that when a reaver spreads that we in America will get it last. This is not just an American problem right now. In nations around the world, democratic institutions are weaker than they were just ten years ago. A country like Turkey which was clearly a democracy ten years ago is now an outright dictatorship.
[11:30] Who do you think is the leader to be able to bring back these democratic norms?
David: The search for leaders is the problem. The problem is that we have these charismatic figures popping up saying that they alone can solve the problem. When young people ask me how they can help, I tell them to join something. Join something that has meetings. This helps develop the habits of democracy. Social media is important here. What it offers and delivers is a completely personalized experience. You only see what you like and agree with. Actual politics couldn’t be more different. You have to be able to work with people who are different than you and who disagree with you.
[16:33] What do you make of some of the civic renewal efforts to get people engaged again such as with voting?
David: This is super exciting and important. The more local, the better. Also, don’t be consumed with the national questions and issues that you disconnect from the local situation. If following stories is distracting you from stories about local issues such as budgets, then it is becoming harmful.
[18:43] What do the “guardrails of democracy” mean and where do they stand today?
David: This is about a series of restraints that we imagined were there to protect democracy that have since been crashed through. One of the keys guard rails is the concept of ideology. What we thought years ago was that each side (liberal and conservative) were being more ideologically extreme and that ideology was mattering more and more. What this meant is that we were demagogue proof in that a candidate had to stand for something in order to get enough support to win. But in 2016 with Trump, we learned that ideology doesn’t matter that much. He routinely broke perceived ideological norms for conservatives.
[20:40] Does this action by Trump explain the split in the GOP between those who stuck with the party and Trump and those who broke away?
David: I don’t think so. One example is the issue of international trade. The support for open international trade has been a hallmark of republican ideology since Reagan. When Trump came out against this idea, I wondered if this would jolt the Republican Party out of support for him. It has not. In fact, he is changing the positions of the Republican Party.
[21:58] Why are these people going against the party norms and embracing ideas they opposed just a few years ago?
David: Because once you get on board with Trump, you’re a prisoner. You have to go wherever it goes. The farther you go and the more awful things you accept, the more you have to defend the driver to defend yourself. People say don’t condemn Trump supporters. When people do something, we should seek to understand it. However, we need to recognize that Trump succeeds by appeal to what is bad about people and what is cruel about the. This is also part of the story. However, it is wrong to then look down upon someone as a child given this reality. Instead, when we see someone who agrees or identifies with something that is brutal or cruel, we should seek to understand why that concept or position resonates with that person.
[25:22] Do you think there was ever a time in our nations history were we had a sort of peak of democracy?
David: I don’t think we should ever look back. This is our time. There is a lot to learn from the past, but the past also has deep flaws. We should focus on making it better. For example, one of the biggest tells for whether or not someone voted for Trump was their level of social isolation. If you were a member of a stable family, you were much less likely to be a Trump voter.
Daniel Ziblatt has done a lot of interviews since the release of How Democracies Die, the bestselling book he co-wrote with Steven Levitsky. But we asked him a question he’d never gotten before — about a line toward the end of the book when he refers to democracy as “grinding work.”
The idea that democracy isn’t easy is a central theme of this podcast. As How Democracies Die illustrates, it’s much easier to succumb to the power of an autocratic leader than it is to stand up and protect the institutions that serve as the guardrails of democracy. Ziblatt, a professor of government at Harvard, talks about how the book came about and the impact it’s had since it was released earlier this year.
This episode also starts a new feature on the podcast, where we end with a lightning round featuring our Mood of the Nation Poll questions. The poll is open-ended and allows Americans to respond in their own words to questions related to American politics. Some questions vary based on what’s going in the world, but we always ask these four:
What makes you angry?
What makes you proud?
What makes you worry?
What gives you hope?
We were very fortunate to speak with Daniel and encourage everyone to pick up a copy of How Democracies Die.
[5:40] How did this book come about?
Steve and I, we teach together, we’ve taught lots of courses together, graduate courses on democracies and crisis, democratic breakdown and democratization around the world, I work on Europe and he works on Latin America. We haven’t primarily focused on the United States in our work, but during the course of the 2015-2016 campaign season, really the republican nomination process, we kept running into each other and talking about the tenor of the political rhetoric.
[7:02)] Where does Donald Trump fit into all of us? Did this process of democratic erosion that you describe in the book, did it start before Trump? Or was he kind of a symptom of it?
In many ways I think that there’s a tendency to focus on Donald Trump, the spectacle of Trump and the latest offensive Tweet and whatever people respond to, but really one of the points of our book is to say that these dynamics long preceded President Trump.
[8:14)] What role do you see parties playing in this process of democratic decline?
Parties are really at the center of the story for us. One of the lessons from the book is that throughout American history there’s been around, at least in the 20th century period for which we have opinion poll data, there’s been around 30% of the American electorate that supports demagogic type of politicians.
[11:10] Can you talk a little bit more about what role you see the assault on the press playing?
In one of the chapters in our book, we lay out the strategies authoritarian inclined politicians have used around the world, and this is, again, drawing in lessons from other countries, and once in office, elected authoritarians often, we kind of have a sports metaphor; they try to capture the referees of the the court system, sideline the opposition, and go after the free press.
[13:39] One of the counter arguments to all this is that Trump is all bluster but no action and people on the left are ringing their hands over nothing. What would you say to that?
In our book we have this what we call an authoritarian litmus test, which is a set of indicators, which are questioning the legitimacy of the media, questioning elections, threatening violence or condoning violence; these are all things that candidate Trump rhetorically embraced before the election.
[18:04] You also say in the book that democracy is “grinding work” which ties back to the whole theme of this podcast, Democracy Works, so can you talk about what that phrase means to you?
It’s important to have big goals and big vision in politics, but it’s also about behaving in responsible ways. It’s a distinction between process and policy. At the end of the day, one has to remain committed to the process and forge alliances with people they may disagree with. That’s hard work and it’s grinding work.