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Democracy in Crisis? Populism, Polarization, and Civic Engagement

May 22, 2018

By Ruth Norris - Resources Legacy Fund

In the last several years, a wave of populist leaders have risen—and in many cases taken office—around the world. As a globalized economy and the automation of work catapults winners and excludes losers, the world’s geopolitical stability has begun to falter. At the same time, we have witnessed a surge in political engagement and activism.

What can we learn from major geopolitical shifts of the past, especially in a future that feels more unpredictable than ever?

At the most recent Skoll World Forum, Anne-Marie Slaughter, President and CEO of New America, Emerita of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton, led a spirited conversation with Ece Temelkuran, Journalist; Ebrahim Rasool, Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University; and David Simas, CEO, Obama Foundation.

The panel opened by making a distinction between popular movements, arising from and engaging broad segments of society, and today’s populist movements, which exploit feelings of fear and grievance to impose autocratic power. The difference, said Ece Temelkuran, can be explained by seven easy steps to assuming power as a dictator:

  1. Create a movement.
  2. Disrupt and replace political parties.
  3. Challenge rationalism and rational thinking.
  4. Create a “post-truth” society in which alignment and identification are more important than facts.
  5. Dismantle the judiciary.
  6. Design your own citizen–that is, label and reward or ostracize people according to their support of you.
  7. Design your own country–equate yourself with the state, disregard totally all but your own supporters, criminalize dissent.

Exploring what to do about our presently developing crisis, panelists also enumerated countermeasures.

Regain faith in democratic engagement. Human beings are capable political actors. It is when we give up, and think that there is no alternative, that despots thrive.

Understand the power of narrative and stories. The populists are telling an oversimplified story, that speaks to people’s anger and fear. The antidote is not facts and numbers, but stories illuminating better ways to proceed.

Invest time and effort in mapping out the key issues, who has power, who influences the decision makers.  Understand that most issues are non-binary, and that people who don’t normally agree can have shared interests that make it possible to get to the root of anger and discontent and agree on what needs to change. Connect discontent to purpose – to working out solutions –local, national, global.

Build coalitions that engage people at deeper levels of citizenship–not just voting and asserting rights, but thinking about responsibilities and engagement in making things work.

Work to make sure all of society, not just politics and institutions, understands and values the roles of the judiciary and the press. Ensure that there will be opposition to eroding either.

Listen to each other. Practice hearing other people’s stories about who they are, their values, why they care about what they care about.  Believe that there is always an alternative, and humans can find it.

Full conversation, edited for length and clarity, below. We’ve also bolded our favorite bits.

Anne-Marie Slaughter: Sally Osberg ended her interview with Jimmy Carter yesterday asking him about the strength of American democracy, and he said he believes the system will hold. We’re going to start from that proposition but put a question mark on it. We’re talking about populism, polarization, and the answers to those problems, but we’re not just talking about the United States or Western Europe. We’re going to look at whether there are patterns globally. We’re going to explore the differences between populism and polarization, and then we are going to focus on what to do about it. My first question is to Ece, is there a global pattern of populism?

Ece Temelkuran: Well, the night Trump was elected, Turks weren’t laughing, but we were smiling sadly. I do think that there is a global pattern. People should be depressed a little bit. To come to their senses, and realize that they have to draw lessons from the countries that experience right-wing populism. There is a global pattern, and it’s seven steps. Create a movement because party is over. Disrupt rationale. Master the particularities of post-truth. Dismantle judiciary apparatus, and design your own citizen, and finally design your own country. These are my seven easy steps to be a dictator.

Anne-Marie Slaughter: Disrupt the rationale?

Ece Temelkuran: Attack the reasoning, the basic human reasoning.

Anne-Marie Slaughter: Master the particularities of post truth. It’s worth remembering that the founder of Breitbart in the United States actually learned a lot of his view of truth studying post modernism in the Universities.

Ece Temelkuran: And then dismantle the judiciary apparatus.

Anne-Marie Slaughter: Design your own citizen?

Ece Temelkuran: At the final stage, as a dictator, you don’t need any other citizens than your own supporters. That’s why Turkey is now experiencing a considerable amount of exile. Self exile, immigration.

All these steps are very applicable to the countries in Europe and the United States.

Ebrahim Rasool: I agree that there is a global movement. We’re moving from a world that was monocultural to a world that has become multicultural. We love the mobility of capital and goods, but don’t know what to do with the mobility of people.

David Simas: In some ways we’re not in a polarized world in the United States. We’re in an era of negative partisanship. There are as many people who define themselves for either party, not by what their party believes, but because of antipathy towards the other. [That] completely collapses any opportunity to talk about issue or fact in a way that makes people sit back and say I never thought about it that way. Maybe I was wrong, or maybe I should look at it differently.

Anne-Marie Slaughter: I would say that movements that challenger a corrupt status quo are populist and why aren’t they good?

Ece Temelkuran: I think it’s about the 1%. Populist leaders argue that they represent 100% of a country. Whereas popular movements, popular uprisings, they represent 99%.That 1% makes the entire change, entire difference between popular and populist. The most important argument for oppression is that the leader equalizes himself to the state, to the entire population, to the country, et cetera. That 1% is important.

Ebrahim Rasool: Before populism becomes dangerous, it is the canary in the mine. It warns of constrained oxygen, of noxious gasses, of something going wrong. I think that the middle ground is complicit in the sense that when it hears the canary warning, it becomes technocratic. It becomes boring. It does not respond in ways which deal with the sources of discontent. The middle ground is not the innocent victim. It is a passive perpetrator. We in South Africa, did not understand for example, the need for land reform, on services to be given to people, on dignity and nipping racism in the bud.

Anne-Marie Slaughter: I heard that what happens, you see issues being raised on the extremes before they are completely pernicious. Before you have somebody exploiting. Often a populist leader exploits grievances, but what I heard you saying, is they’re legitimate grievances, that the middle does not address. In the United States, the example would be trade, where s a mainstream consensus was in favor of free trade. Right and left was saying no, no, no, and nobody was really responding.

David Simas: In the United States, the most pro-trade are democrats. The most anti-trade are Republicans, and it’s been this way since the early 2000s. When you look at the institutions that feed ideas[and] funding for both of the parties, our friends on the left in Labor are completely anti-trade. On the right the Chamber of Commerce and other groups are completely pro-trade, so this creates this jarring asymmetry. Suburban or young urban voters who believe in concepts of globalization and what it means for them, are increasingly the core of the democratic party. Union voters, in some place in the industrial midwest, are becoming increasingly the core of the Republican party. Politicians are getting signals when their actual voters are thinking something entirely different. It’s a complete disconnect.

A couple of weeks after the election in 2016, we sat down and talked to people who voted for Barack Obama twice. Approved of his job performance on election day, and then voted for Donald Trump. There were three things they focused on. Both of them were complete outsiders. Neither came from the system and the elites that drive the party or Washington. Secondly, neither one of them interestingly enough was viewed as particularly partisan. In President Obama’s case, the primary of 2008, they saw as him taking on the institutional partisan democratic [party]. The third piece was hope and change, essentially the other side of the coin for drain the swamp. When they heard [hope and change, it] was in terms of my life isn’t getting better, no matter how hard I work, and I’m hoping that there is a way to bring people together, and then after eight years, that morphed into, you know what, actually there needs to be a confrontational way to make Washington think about people like me. This is where that sentiment of anger and frustration that life isn’t working out the way we said it should be working out, manifests itself in our politics. At least in the United States.

Anne-Marie Slaughter: We could spend the entire time on what’s wrong, but just to recap, I think it is important to note that there’s nothing wrong with populism per se, in the sense of a genuine politics of the people. There’s a lot wrong with the exploitation of a popular movement for extreme political ends or anti-democratic ends. We looked at the role of the middle, and how you get what are often very strongly felt reactions to globalization, to technology, to the feeling that your life is not working out as planned. It is beyond your control. You can see it in the Arab Spring. You can see it in the color revolutions, and now you can see it in democracies. With that backdrop, I want to hear, what do we do about it?

Ece Temelkuran: We have to remember why and when we lost our faith to create a better world, to create better versions of ourselves and to create a better democracy. Whatever the remedy is to the perils of our time, I think the cure is remembering those times somewhere in the 1970s that we thought of ourselves as capable human beings, as capable political actors. Not just audiences watching what’s going on in the world and thinking there is no alternative. There is an alternative. It’s going to come from the streets. The answer is collective thinking on this ground. If parties are courageous enough to connect to these people, then maybe parties can overcome the populist thinking. Let’s not forget, that this is a narrative that we are struggling against, and it’s a very good narrative. Bad man, good man, evil, villain. We are trying to beat this beast, with a PowerPoint presentation showing numbers. No, we need a story, a very good story, and we are actually capable of telling that story.

Anne-Marie Slaughter: One thing I question, is that from the streets as you say, very good at tearing down, not so good at building up.

David Simas: This is the difference between an activist and an organizer. Activism is necessary. It is stray voltage. It is energy. It is noise. Oftentimes it is anger or other types of emotions. Organizing is taking the stray voltage in a constructive way, directing it towards the power system in a way to bring change.
One thing we’re doing at the core of the Obama Foundation’s mission of inspiring, empowering, and connecting the next generation of leaders, is around deep lessons in civic engagement that have four very simple but complicated pieces.

One, you begin with your personal narrative. Understand that people learn and listen and process in story. If I know you or if I know people like you, it is harder for you to become an abstraction or to become the enemy. That is foundational.

Step number two. Issue mapping. Once you decide what you care about the most, please understand that it’s never binary. Force people to go through root cause analysis. Why? Because it shows you that people you disagree with, who care about the same thing, actually may have a good solution. It opens up the aperture of understanding. That’s your responsibility in a society.

Third, power mapping. Who makes the decisions? Who influences the decision maker? From where does the power derive? Understand fundamentally that power is temporary because all politics essentially is a reflection of that moment in time.

The final piece is coalition building, which is where the activist becomes the organizer. How do you build with people you don’t normally agree with, focus[ing] on this one thing that right now you have in common? That’s the transition from activist to organizer, and the power of this is that you can move people [from] my rights, to what are my responsibilities? I don’t mean voting. Voting is the minimum entry to civic engagement and citizenship. It’s about reconstructing a sense of civic and civil society where we come together. Those are the ways I think that we can begin to answer that challenge.

Anne-Marie Slaughter: To me that sounds like a politics manual. You figure out stories. You map your issue. You map the power. You build the coalition. You organize it. But I think in many countries, people don’t believe politics works anymore. The sense that there’s some connection between, what I a citizen do, and what actually happens, is broken.

Ebrahim Rasool: When you ask that question, I wonder what made South Africa survive and start the revival against the populist decade that we’ve just emerged from and it was the fact that our values and our purpose and everything, our freedom, democracy, and human rights were constitutionally founded. I once accused a late judge in the supreme court of reading through originalism, in the same way that Osama Bin Laden reads the Quran. Literally without alteration, stuck in a particular century.

Americans need not ditch their constitution but to utilize its founding precepts, and do battle for its meaning, and if necessary follow Thomas Jefferson’s advice, change every 19 years to catch up with what society wants. What made us survive, was that our values were inherent in our institutions. We had an activist judiciary. We had an investigative journalism, going deep and finding stuff, and, it was protected societally. This is where we mustn’t make a binary of parliamentary politics, and extra-parliamentary politics, because in our case the energy outside of parliament gave courage to parliament, to put the president to terms.

I think what we need is recognize and organize the discontent. Don’t let it be organized under our noses. Victimhood [is] based on anger and discontent and what we need to do as the middle ground is to give it a name, turn it into agency. One that has purpose, and one that has a program. Without these things, we don’t succeed in doing anything. The [next] thing we do, David’s point is, build partnerships. You enter into alliances with those who share your values and if you find those people work with them, but if you don’t find a sharing of values and lifestyle, and you find certain aspects abominable in your own mind, then go for coalitions, because you may share objectives, and if you even don’t share objectives with them, then go for quick partnerships, because you may share issues and projects.

If we don’t break it down like that, a Muslim will never be in the same coalition with a gay, in the United States, but both of them have problems with Trump. Black Lives Matter may become so exclusive, that they think that making coalitions with brown lives is a watering down of their purpose. How do we show them? These are practical stuff that we need to do, and then I end by saying that we must find the middle ground between, for example, a Mahatma Gandhi, and passive resistance which is absolutely crucial, and a Malcolm X by all means necessary. I think that Nelson Mandela, embodied for us the notion of militant non-violence.

The middle ground can’t be boring when we are fighting for our survival. The middle ground can’t be disarmed when we need to give people who feel the brunt of injustice some way of mitigating that injustice through militant non-violence. We need to understand whether all of these marches, and these petitions are going anywhere, or is part of what we need to do, to test the governability of the populists. Otherwise, we will simply be at the mercy of competing populisms. One on the margins, extreme in the deserts, in the mountains of Afghanistan. The other sitting in the White House, sitting in parliament, sitting in the governing seats of Hungary.

Anne-Marie Slaughter: In this conversation, there are a number of common themes about what to do. Starting very much with restoring the idea of human agency. Connecting it to purpose. Connecting it to a local purpose, but also a national or a global purpose. That’s part of how we inspire people with meaning. Civic engagement. Not just around connecting people to the idea of voting, but connecting people to a larger idea of what politics is, so it’s not just voting. It’s not just parties. It’s getting things done, and you can do that through government, but you can also do that by simply bringing people together in organized ways with institutions.

You all referenced [something] really at the heart of classic democracy — cross-cutting cleavages. You’re not going to agree with everybody on anything, I may be with someone who I really disagree with on reproductive rights or gun rights, but who I absolutely agree with on the need to take back our community or to get rid of money in politics. That is what weaves a fabric of a resilient democracy.

Questions and answers from the audience

Q: I didn’t hear education or youth engagement come up. To be frank, you’re developing your worldview, not when you’re 40, right? It’s something that’s evolving, and the narrative that you’re receiving, and the way that you learn to think critically or create networks, and connections and collaborations start much earlier. What needs to happen there?

David Simas: The Parkland students in Florida [are] the perfect example of civic engagement from an organizer’s mentality. The state of Florida recently introduced a civics curriculum, and when you watch those young people on TV, they are reciting chapter and verse of what they learned in the classroom. The move from individual agency to collective action, is actually predicated on something that maybe a couple of weeks before the tragedy occurred, they were hearing, and so in their minds, they were actors, and this moment called for it.

Q: I’m curious if you could reflect a bit on the conversation happening now in the U.S. around impeachment. In some ways, I think it represents the ultimate corrective in democracy [but] it may be the ultimate sign of an elite power grab, and could it have drastic and profound unintended consequences downstream.

David Simas: Fortunately, I am retired [from political advising]. However, let me speak based upon what I remember. I would listen to focus groups every couple of weeks throughout the country, essentially voters in the middle of the electorate. The one thing that would move them quickly into the Obama camp, no matter how angry they were at the President, was talk of impeachment. It immediately took the discussion out of policy or issues into what they saw as blue team versus red team.

Here’s a second example. Scott Walker, in Wisconsin, was subject to a recall. Voters who disagreed with the recall weren’t all of a sudden approv[ing] of the job he was doing. What they said is, look we just had an election. We’re going to have another election soon. To the extent that I disagree with him, I will take it up with him next election. This is what the system is for.

When you introduce a fact, or an issue, to a voter who identifies either as a democrat or republican that is contrary to the interest of their party, you’ll see that voter essentially discount the fact.

Ebrahim Rasool: I think the opportunity of impeachment is that it can short-circuit the nightmare. The danger of impeachment, is that the middle ground is demobilized into of a pageantry playing out at high level, not doing what should be done to reform the society. Don’t let [the impeachment process] be the substitute for substantive action and reflection and remaking of opposition parties. That will be.

Q: I want to ask [about] democracy in Brazil. Lula is in prison because of a PowerPoint and a crime against the city council that was executed in the streets of Rio.

Ece Temelkuran: I recently spoke to a friend in Brazil and I asked, what’s going on? What’s happening to Lula? Is this populace using this impeachment process as a political tool as well? He’s in prison. It’s so complicated. He said, yeah, he’s guilty, but he’s not the worst one. In this messy political situation, we always go through these interesting judiciary processes where people are prosecuted not for the reason that we want them to be prosecuted. It is really messy. I’m not an expert on Brazil politics. Although, about impeachment, I have to say something. In the early stages of this rise in populism, people have this virtual comfort when they think about impeachment. Probably it won’t happen. Be careful about this mind shelter.

Q: Some of the prescriptions seem to be predicated on the idea that there is an independent civil society. That people have a voice. Yet what we know about a lot of these populists, taking examples from Turkey for example, is that they shut down independent associations. They limit people from engaging politically and they try to cut the legs out from opposition political parties. In that sense, I struggle to understand how some of these recommendations are going to work.

Ece Temelkuran: Do you remember the time when Trump spoke about Meryl Streep, and he said, she’s overrated. I thought oh, he already started doing that. Taking down the intellectuals. Before they go to NGOs, they ridicule the intellectuals. My first recommendation would be be careful with your intellectuals and if you want to tease them or mock them do it inside the circle. Don’t give ammunition to the populist leader to ridicule them. Once the society is loses its respect to intellectual debate, then they start harassing NGOs, and the leaders of the NGOs.

Anne-Marie Slaughter: What do you do now? I heard the question as, once a populist is in power, and has systematically weakened the bulwarks of democracy, what do you do? If society really feels like it has no agency, where do you start? How do you push back?

Ebrahim Rasool: I think that in the U.S., the populist has also set the terms of the engagement. He tweets. Everyone else retweets. You can like on Facebook, and you can mobilize and get them into a place, but that doesn’t mean a quality of organization. I look at the way we were prepared in South Africa, how the civil rights leaders prepared for tear gas. Activism is a contact sport. We need to have a core of people that understand the purpose, are committed to the path, believe that some things are worth fighting for. Education is absolutely critical because the best remedy to the anti-intellectualism of populism is intellectualism. Facebook and Twitter and social media spread the message but [are] not the substitute for activism as a contact sport, and we’ve got to prepare people who are currently in universities, who feel it the most. How do we turn them into agents? We need to be able to do those kinds of things.

David Simas: You do not go into the church hall as the organizer and begin by telling people what you think they need. One thing that the populists completely understand is what people are feeling. The challenge is to take that sentiment and direct it in a way that builds community. Engage those elements of society where you are totally listening to people and to structure what you are doing around those sentiments, rather than the other way around.

The second step is, in each one of these communities there are ambitious young people who have something that no NGO has. Trust. Nurture, cultivate, build, empower, and then connect her with someone in the community next door. This is the way that we bridge local to national, and that’s why this isn’t an isolated activity. It’s part of a broader network. The beauty of social media and social networks, is that it now gives us the ability to take those disparate individuals, and 10,000 communities, up to something much much bigger.

Q: How do we really harness proximity as a solution for this?

Anne-Marie Slaughter: A great last question. I also want you to reflect on, is it better to have faith that the system will hold, or to fear that it won’t? Yesterday we heard Jimmy Carter saying it’s going to hold, and here’s my book, and it’s faith, and indeed faith is a belief in things unseen and in many ways the working of a democracy is that. It’s things that are seen, but it’s also norms, rules, ways, belief, that we can come together. But too much faith can breed complacency, which Ebrahim has also been saying. Talk about the power of proximity and reflect for a minute on faith and fear.

Ebrahim Rasool: I think that as a middle ground, we should not fear difference, but we should prevent it from becoming divisions. We should not fear diversity, but we should prevent it from becoming conflict. Sometimes I think we have an overwhelming fear of anything that is different, and therefore the blue and the red are forever separated. Men and women will never find a gender equity. Muslim and Kurds will never sit in the same organization and so forth, and we fossilize and we concretize what are differences amongst people. Therefore we’ve got to find ways to overcome those kinds of things. Maybe for example, in the U.S., it is the shared idea that we are all losers when there’s a trade war, and therefore, we’ve got to find the issues that [help] a factory worker in Michigan and a farmer in Ohio find common cause, in proximity to each other.

I would go so far as to say, with great respect to President Carter’s belief, when someone of his stature says, it’s going to be all right, someone of our stature may say, oh thank God. I don’t have to go to the next march. Therefore I would urge us faith is not just a belief as I believe in Islam, but always the Quran speaks about those who believe and do good. Unless the two are coupled there is no paradise for you.

David Simas: On the first night of the Obama Summit last year, we had something called the community supper, where we basically sat around a table and people who disagreed with each other began to talk about their family, their communities, their values. When you can do that with people that you disagree with fundamentally on political issues, and you can see them through the eyes of either their parents or their children or as a neighbor, it begins to break it down.

There’s a group called Narrative 4, and I urge everybody to look up this group. They have this training exercise, where essentially you have to sit knee to knee with someone else. You give them your personal story. They give you their personal story. You then stand up in front of the room and give their personal story in the first person. It is the most powerful exchange of empathy I have ever seen.

At the Obama Summit a young man from the South side of Chicago exchanged his personal story with a young woman from Aleppo, Syria. When she stood up and testified to the life of the young man from Chicago there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. When he stood up and testified to the young woman from Aleppo, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. The power there wasn’t just the poignancy of their stories. The power was that these two people from completely different places, had this moment of deep human and empathetic connection that transcended everything. All of us have that capacity. Rather than beginning by casting judgment on, I can’t even understand how you could possibly vote for someone like that, or my favorite, how could they vote against their self-interest? Stop that. We have no idea what their self-interest is, or their world-view or where they come from, or what they’re suffering through. Listen first. Connect. That’s the power of proximity.

To the question of faith, there’s an old line by an old boss of mine. His name is Deval Patrick, He’s a former governor of the great commonwealth of Massachusetts. Deval Patrick like another boss of mine would talk about hope, but he would always temper it by saying, hope for the best and work for it. Because without the latter piece, then the first piece doesn’t mean anything.

Ece Temelkuran: I’m not like Ebrahim, I don’t see God as source of faith. Unfortunately, I believe in humans. Humanity actually. Even though the humans refute my faith in them, I keep believing in humanity. Faith is not a blind belief, but it’s a moral duty for me. Moral, ideological, and spiritual duty for me to believe in human beings. Therefore I do believe in human beings and I do think that the only way for them to overcome the perils of our time is to believe in themselves and to remember that it is a lie that there is no alternative. There is an alternative, but the first thing is to believe in humanity and human beings.

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