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Democracy

  • Can American Democracy Survive?

    Written on November 5, 2018

    Our guest author today is Eric Chenoweth, director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe and principal author of the Albert Shanker Institute’s Democracy Web, an extra-curricular resource for teachers. He also edited the journal Uncaptive Minds from 1988 to 1998.

    “Which world is ‘natural’? That which existed before or the world of war? 
    Both are natural if both are within the realm of one’s experience.”
    - Czesław Miłosz​ The Captive Mind, 1953

    It was a political eternity ago.

    In 2016, several political commentators (myself included) warned about the potential consequences of electing a presidential candidate who relied on authoritarian tactics and appeals — mass rallies of adoring crowds, nationalist slogans, race-based electoral strategies, and promises of strong leadership and repressive policies to solve the country’s problems. As the popularity of that candidate, Donald Trump, rose, there was serious alarm that America’s citizenry might choose an outcome damaging to American democracy and world security.*

    Trump’s victory, determined by a close and unpopular outcome, was greeted with both shock and acceptance. According to tradition, it was the only possible reaction. The serving president from the opposition party welcomed Trump to the Oval Office, signaling a peaceful transition to power. The editorial boards of America’s newspapers, nearly all of which had advocated Trump’s defeat, now appealed to readers to accept the electorate's decision. That the “will of the people” in a presidential election was so distorted by its antique Electoral College system — with the “winner” losing by nearly 3 million votes in the national tally — had no bearing on the matter. Nor the fact that the republic’s Founders had established this unusual system to protect against the people selecting an inexperienced, unfit demagogue to national office. Trump was inaugurated on January 20, 2017.

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  • Teaching – And Defending – American Democracy

    Written on August 27, 2018

    If recent history demonstrates anything, it is the old truth that American democracy is a work in progress, and that it can suffer reversals as well as advances. The teaching of civics in our schools should convey the complex and fluid character of American government, and the concurrent responsibility of citizens to be actively involved in politics in order to defend and expand the rights and freedoms of American democracy. At a moment of great risk for democracy, both in the United States and abroad, it is especially important for young people to understand that the moral arc of history does not bend on its own, but only by the active intervention of ordinary people. We may still have a republic, even in this moment of dangerous turmoil, but—as Benjamin Franklin famously opined—only if the citizenry can keep it.

    Seen in this light, the crash course on how to teach civics offered by the Fordham Institute’s Checker Finn is an exemplar of what NOT to do. In an age of the rise of authoritarian and racist populisms of the far right, including that found at the pinnacle of American government, Finn is exercised about the emergence of an embryonic democratic socialist current in American politics. Of particular concern is what he sees as an “appalling” New York Times op-ed by two young editors of the socialist journal Jacobin, which argued that “subversion of democracy was the explicit intent of the framers” of the Constitution, and advocated constitutional reform to make the American system more democratic. 

    The idea that the 1789 Constitution contained significant anti-democratic elements seems to be anathema to Finn. Armed with an exegesis of Federalist Paper 10 which misses the essence of James Madison’s argument, he asserts that the purpose of the Constitution was the promotion and defense of democracy, full stop, and that is how it must be taught in civics courses.

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  • For A More Just And Prosperous America

    Written on January 16, 2018

    Our guest author today is Michael Maccoby, an expert in leadership. His most recent books are The Leaders We Need, And What Makes Us Follow and Strategic Intelligence. He is a member of the boards of the National Coalition on Health Care and the Albert Shanker Institute.

    It can be argued that President Donald Trump’s marketing skills accounted for a large part of his electoral success. He fashioned an ideology embracing right-wing values and a vision that connected with his supporters’ anger, fear, resentment and hope. In contrast to Trump’s message, which was weak on facts and policies but strong on emotional appeal, Hillary Clinton’s was strong on facts and policies, but weak on vision and emotional appeal. Although she ended up with the larger popular vote, Clinton failed to connect with key voters in the Midwestern states that gave Trump his electoral college victory.

    Recent polls report 31 percent of voters identify themselves as Democrats, 24 percent as Republicans, and 42 percent as Independents. By appealing to Independents as well as Democratic voters in this year’s congressional election, Democrats might be able to take a large step toward bringing this country closer together.  Given the recent negative messages of the Republican Party, Independents could be especially likely to vote for Democrats who offer an inspiring vision and compelling ideology based on the best of American values and who present their policies in a framework of progressive adaptation to a changing world, emphasizing human values as well as economic growth.

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  • The Importance Of Civil Society And Civic Education: The Bulgarian Example

    Written on November 2, 2017

    Our guest author today is Tatiana Vaksberg, one of the founders of the 1989-90 Bulgarian students movement and an award-winning investigative journalist based in Sofia, Bulgaria, concentrating on issues of human rights and transitional governance. This post was adapted from her remarks to the ASI’s recent Crisis of Democracy conference.

    My country is one of those places in Eastern Europe that said “no” to communism 28 years ago in an attempt to build a new and democratic society. Back in 1989, I was among the young students in Bulgaria that formed the first free student organization in 40 years. We struggled for a new constitution that would allow a multiparty system, freedom and respect for human rights.

    In 1991, I started working for Bulgarian television’s central news desk. I have worked in the field of journalism ever since, which obviously changed my perspective. I started reporting on the way the new constitutional provisions were implemented and on the way other people continued to struggle. But what has never left my mind was the importance of one repetitive and persistent question which is common to many Bulgarians today: have we achieved what we struggled for?

    The quick answer is “yes.” In 28 years, we achieved almost all of the main goals that we had in the beginning of the 1990s: Bulgaria is now a NATO and European Union (EU) member and all of its citizens’ rights and freedoms are constitutionally guaranteed. Even if Bulgaria is the poorest country in the EU —with an average monthly salary of only 420 dollars — the country has the fourth highest GDP growth rate in the EU. Technically, we live in a democracy with a poor but growing economy. Like Germany, we have elected for a third time the same conservative government, which could be seen as a sign of political stability. Nevertheless, something is terribly wrong with our achievement. The more we look democratized and stable, the worse are our achievements in the field of constructing a true civil society and true democracy.

    I want to speak about this discrepancy.

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  • Democracy Under Siege

    Written on October 19, 2017

    Our guest author today, Mac Maharaj, is a former African National Congress (ANC) leader, friend and prison mate of Nelson Mandela’s, who smuggled the first draft of Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, out of Robben Island. Over the past 50 years, he has been an anti-apartheid activist, political prisoner, exile, underground commander, negotiator, bank director, professor and a cabinet minister in South Africa's first democratic government. This post was adapted from his remarks to the ASI’s recent Crisis of Democracy conference.

    I come from the generation that negotiated South Africa’s transition from race rule to a constitutional democracy that has been acclaimed throughout the world. We put together a constitution founded on an entrenched Bill of Rights, with a separation of powers, bolstered by a set of independent institutions. Having entrenched freedoms, such as that of expression, the media and assembly, and having secured the protection of the individual from arbitrary arrest, we believed that we had established a system that would enable the mediation of conflicts of interest that are immanent in society—evading the civil strife that degenerates into violence and preventing any group from having to go to war.

    But our democracy is only a little over two decades old, and there are already growing concerns that our system has not delivered and is under threat.

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  • The Authoritarian Challenge: The Concordance Between Trump And Putin

    Written on September 22, 2017

    Our guest author today is Eric Chenoweth, co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe and primary author of ASI’s Democracy Web civic education resource. This post was adapted from a longer essay, which can be found here.

    Since November 8, 2016, American citizens and international observers have faced a startling new situation. On that day, the United States, the longest continuous representative democracy in the modern world, elected the seemingly authoritarian-minded Donald J. Trump to a four-year presidential term. Trump, a man with little apparent knowledge of, experience in, or appreciation for either representative government or America‘s international treaties and alliances, promised to upend U.S. domestic and foreign policy and reshape the international order. He has succeeded.

    In the face of the decade-long rise of dictatorial leaders and nationalist and chauvinist parties in a number of countries around the globe, Trump’s election brought broad acknowledgement of a crisis of world democracy. Given its position and role in the world, the United States is now center stage in that crisis.

    One of the most troublesome aspects of the election was that the rules of the U.S. Constitution awarded Trump victory based on the preference of a minority of voters using an antique and unique electoral college system that overrode a substantial national vote margin in favor of the election’s loser. Notwithstanding Hillary Clinton’s supposed unpopularity, the Democratic Party candidate won 2.85 million more votes in the national ballot, 48 percent to 46 percent, while Trump’s electoral college victory was determined in three decisive states by a total of 77,000 votes (out of 13.4 million). Putting aside that the results were influenced by foreign intervention (see below), the election process itself should be a cause for serious concern over the state of American democracy. For the second time in recent U.S. history, a national minority government has been imposed on the majority. No other democracy elects national leadership in such a manner. Yet, there is still little discussion of addressing this structural weakness in our political system.[1]

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  • Not Our President

    Written on January 25, 2017

    That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

    Last Friday, Donald Trump took the oath to become the forty-fifth president of the United States.

    Civil rights icon and U.S. Congressman John Lewis spoke for many when he declared that the Trump presidency was not “legitimate.” He was right.

    The democratic tradition captured in the words of the Declaration of Independence is unequivocal: It is the consent of the governed that provides a government with legitimacy, with its just powers. That consent is expressed through free and fair elections in which every citizen has the right to vote.

    The Trump presidency fails this test of legitimacy on four substantive grounds.

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  • Trump And The Authoritarian Temptation

    Written on July 5, 2016

    Our guest author today is Eric Chenoweth, co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe (IDEE). He is also principal author of Democracy Web, a civics education curricular resource project of the Albert Shanker Institute. This article is adapted from a longer version that appears on IDEE’s new website.

    In 1976, the French political theorist Jean François Revel critiqued what he called the “totalitarian temptation” among intellectuals who attacked Western political democracy at a time of severe threat. Forty years later democracy is again under threat.

    Revel wrote when the Soviet Union was at the height of its military strength and international influence. In the West, Eurocommunist parties were rising in popularity and non-communist political parties on the Left were developing a strong anti-American sentiment, with some political leaders and intellectuals equivocating in their defense of NATO against the Soviet bloc. Revel, himself a socialist and humanist, argued that one had to be “inoculated to the virus of reality” not to see that communism brought only mass political repression and economic misery. He had a dark theory for his colleagues’ blindness: “Does there lurk in us a wish for totalitarian rule?” he wrote. “If so, it would explain a great deal about how people behave, about the speeches they make, and the times they remain silent.”

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  • A Quick Look At U.S. Voter Turnout In International Perspective

    Written on June 9, 2015

    At quick glance, voter turnout in the United States seems quite low. Over the past 30 years, the turnout rate among eligible voters has fluctuated between 50 and 60 percent, whereas barely two in five eligible voters turn out in midterm elections. And this is not getting better. Turnout in the 2014 election was just under 36 percent, the lowest since the Second World War (these national percentages, of course, vary considerably between states).

    It is important, however, to put these figures in context, and one way to do that is to compare U.S. turnout with that in other nations. The Pew Research Center compiled data from recent elections in 34 OECD nations, and the graph below presents those data. The election to which the data apply is noted in parentheses. There are two rates for each nation: One is turnout as a percentage of the voting age population; and the other as a percentage of registered voters (i.e., the proportion of people registered to vote who actually cast a ballot).

    The first major takeaway from the graph is that turnout among those old enough to vote is relatively low in the U.S. Of course, the sorting in the graph may obscure the fact that several countries, including Spain and the U.K., are ranked considerably higher than the U.S. but the actual differences in rates aren’t massive (and the U.S. would have ranked much higher in 2008, or if turnout was expressed as a share of the voting eligible population, which, due mostly to felon disenfranchisement and non-citizen residents, is a few percentage points higher). Nevertheless, U.S. electoral participation doesn't look too good vis-a-vis these nations.

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  • In Defense Of The Public Square

    Written on April 30, 2015

    A robust and vibrant public square is an essential foundation of democracy. It is the place where the important public issues of the day are subject to free and open debate, and where our ideas of what is in the public interest take shape. It is the ground upon which communities and associations are organized to advocate for policies that promote that public interest. It is the site for the provision of essential public goods, from education and healthcare to safety and mass transportation. It is the terrain upon which the centralizing and homogenizing power of both the state and the market are checked and balanced. It is the economic arena with the means to control the market’s tendencies toward polarizing economic inequality and cycles of boom and bust. It is the site of economic opportunity for historically excluded groups such as African-Americans and Latinos.

    And yet in America today, the public square is under extraordinary attack. A flood of unregulated, unaccountable money in our politics and media threatens to drown public debate and ravage our civic life, overwhelming authentic conceptions of the public interest. Decades of growing economic inequality menaces the very public institutions with the capacity to promote greater economic and social equality. Unprecedented efforts to privatize essential public goods and public services are underway. Teachers, nurses and other public servants who deliver those public goods are the object of vilification from the political right, and their rights in the workplace are in danger. Legislative and judicial efforts designed to eviscerate public sector unions are ongoing.

    In response to these developments, a consortium of seven organizations—the Albert Shanker Institute; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the American Federation of Teachers; the American Prospect; Dissent; Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor; and the Service Employees International Union—has organized a to bring together prominent elected officials, public intellectuals, and union, business and civil rights leaders “in defense of the public square.”

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