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A look at why a dysfunctional world needs American democracy to work.

If the Democratic debates told us anything, it’s that some of our would-be leaders don’t see the proverbial forest for the trees.

So many signs indicate that our democracy is not working. The infrastructure of our electoral system is failing, the Supreme Court just Ok’d gerrymandering for political gain, Russians keep interfering in our elections, climate change is an existential threat, kids are afraid to go to school for fear of being shot, China is on the verge of controlling the next generation of our communications, and the global world order that held things together since the end of World War II is tottering.

Our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast is Larry Diamond, a Princeton professor and author of Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency. A longtime student of democratic processes around the world, he says that nothing short of a radical transformation can save our system.

Diamond rejects the notion, put forth last month by our podcast guest, Yale professor Ian Shapiro, that we need to revitalize political parties. He says it’s unrealistic to think we will ever return to the era of party bosses and smoke-filled rooms.

Indeed, he believes that the old standard of simple “majority rule” elections is an antiquated model which is being abandoned by most progressive democracies around the world. In its place, he argues that ranked-choice voting — where voters list multiple candidates in order of preference — can reenergize democracy.

Putting our problems in a larger context, Diamond talks about the impact of climate change and global migration, as well as the escalating conflicts with Russia and China — and how any solutions to these problems must involve the US.

If we are to contribute to this effort, we must first put our own house in order, says Diamond. In other words, reforming the American political system is an indispensable first step toward saving the world.

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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.

Jeff Schechtman: Many have made the case that we should not be overly concerned about the current crisis we face as a nation because we have been here before. The nation has faced civil war, the rise of Hitler, the Red Scare, the Cold War and Khrushchev’s threat to bury us, as well as multiple political assassinations, the corruption of Richard Nixon, the upheaval and death of Vietnam, and the social dislocation of the ’60s. We have survived all of it, sometimes coming out stronger on the other side.

Jeff Schechtman: Yet the threats we face today somehow seem different, if not in kind, then in complexity. The dissembling of norms at home, the incredible interconnection of global economics, the strengths of powerful adversaries in Russia and China, and the disruption of technology, information, and social and economic upheaval create a kind of perfect storm that may be perhaps unlike anything we’ve experienced before. That uncertainty and its resultant fear has given rise to authoritarianism around the globe and why democracies, including our own, the very system that helped us steer out of those past crises, is under siege and fragile everywhere. But democracy begins at home and, until we get our own electoral house in order, the world teeters.

Jeff Schechtman: We’re going to look at this today with my guest, Larry Diamond. Larry Diamond is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. He’s also a professor of political science and sociology at Stanford and a past director of its Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. Diamond served in Baghdad as a senior advisor on governance to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. He’s the author of numerous previous books. His most recent is Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency.

Jeff Schechtman: It is my pleasure to welcome Professor Larry Diamond to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.

Jeff Schechtman: Larry, thanks so much for joining us.

Larry Diamond: Thank you for having me, and good morning, Jeff.

Jeff Schechtman: Could it be that the complexity of the world today, that the way the world has changed the nature of our adversaries today, the things that are taking place, both economically and socially, make the traditional idea of democracy, certainly the Madisonian system,

simply untenable for the world we live in today?

Larry Diamond: No, I don’t think it’s untenable. That would be even a much grimmer assessment than the worrisome picture I painted. But I do think that these realities, the rise of social media, globalization, the vulnerability of our democracies to new forms of digital penetration and manipulation, all of the polarization that’s being driven by rising social and economic inequality and by flows of immigration and the deindustrialization, these are putting new stresses on our democratic institutions, and we can’t be complacent. We have to adapt and respond.

Jeff Schechtman: Do we have a system though, both domestically and globally, that is able to respond to the strength of those stressors that you’re talking about?

Larry Diamond: Well, I think our political democracy is outmoded in some respects and needs reform and rejuvenation. Electoral reform, in particular, I think could heighten and improve our ability to respond. I think part of the problem now is that we have settled increasingly into a pattern of weakening and hollowing out of our political parties and of nomination of the candidates of these two parties in very low turnout primary elections where the Republican party has been moving increasingly further and further to the right, and now you see the Democrats tending further and further toward the left. We’ll see what happens in the presidential primaries. A lot of voters are left kind of somewhere in the middle, whether they lean left, lean right or really feel that they’re kind of moderate centrists without feeling like they have a really good and satisfying alternative or worried about the country being pulled to the extremes and our legislators being unable to compromise.

Larry Diamond: I think if we could move to ranked-choice voting where people don’t vote for a single candidate in these races, but they rank their choices one, two, three, four. If their first choice doesn’t make it, and no one gets a majority, then their vote can be transferred to their second choice. Then they’re no longer wasting their vote if they vote for a creative alternative. It could be the Green party, it could be a libertarian, or it could be an independent candidate somewhere in the middle who’s trying to offer voters a third way between these two extremes. Once that happens, I think we’ll see two things: many more moderates coming forward and running as independents without being spoilers and offering voters another alternative and many existing Republicans and Democrats saying, “Well, you know, I have a different path to victory. If I’m going to be punished by my party for embracing compromise and being too moderate, I’ll come back and meet them in a general election as an independent and show that voters will reward that.”

Jeff Schechtman: Some have made the case, including people like Ian Shapiro at Yale, that the solution is kind of the reverse, that we need to strengthen the political parties and make them more the kind of big tent that they used to be so that there’s compromise within the party, which creates a framework for more compromise later on. Talk a little about that.

Larry Diamond: Well, I think it’s a very intriguing and learned argument that Ian Shapiro and his coauthor have put forward in their new book, Responsible Parties, but I just disagree with that. I think that that ship has sailed several decades ago. We’re not going to return to an era of smoke-filled rooms and party bosses choosing moderate candidates who will be able to appeal to the median voter and govern from the center out, and then exercise party discipline over them.

Larry Diamond: The momentum is increasingly shifting to party primaries that are dominated by the activist wing of both the Republican and Democratic parties and by independent but often very wealthy donors. Or, in the case of the two parties, increasingly highly motivated small donors who are more ideologically driven. These are pulling the parties to the more ideologically defined positions and not to the center-leaning tendencies, compromise-inducing tendencies that Shapiro and Rosenbluth, in their book, would like to see.

Larry Diamond: Without abandoning this antiquated model, which increasingly is being abandoned by other democracies in the world of first-pass-the-post, you vote for only one candidate and whoever gets the most votes wins even if they don’t have a majority of the vote. Unless we move away from that, I think we’re just trapped in a downward spiral of increasing polarization and really toxic and counterproductive incentives.

Jeff Schechtman: You mentioned money before. That’s certainly one of the factors that have added to this. In your view, what do we need to do in that regard to strengthen the system?

Larry Diamond: Well, I wish we could get rid of the really bad supreme court decisions that have made it more difficult for us to regulate the unlimited flow of money into our election campaigns. Even with those supreme court decisions equating unlimited corporate spending with free speech, I think there’s a lot we can do. First of all, I believe we can legislate even within the confines of the Supreme Court decisions to demand transparency in all political campaign spending even so-called independent spending by these so-called uncoordinated political action committees.

Larry Diamond: Secondly, I think that you can drive a truck through the loopholes in the current campaign finance arrangements that are really not enforcing the requirement that these independent political action committees not be coordinated with the partisan political campaigns that they are, in effect, supporting and providing a vehicle for unlimited financing. The Federal Election Commission needs to be much more empowered and much more rigorous in this regard.

Larry Diamond: Third, I think that a lot of other jurisdictions such as Seattle with their political voucher system for citizens to make contributions to local election campaigns are showing the way to creative alternatives for public financing our campaigns.

Jeff Schechtman: To what extent is globalization and the interconnectedness of the global economy, to what extent has that played a role in the democratic problems that we face here? Talk about it in terms of its impact on democracy and nation building around the world.

Larry Diamond: Well, we can say multiple impacts, but two that I’ll note for now are, first of all, the economic impact of a lot of people losing their jobs as a result of economic integration and the shift of manufacturing to other countries around the world. I think that this requires not high tariff barriers that are going to leave us all worse off collectively and push us back to a regrettable area and regrettable era of protectionist one-upmanship that really contributed to the global economic depression of the 1930s. Rather, the response should be training our workforces and providing economic assistance to displaced workers so that they can acquire new skills for the new era we’re entering.

Larry Diamond: But if you don’t give them that retraining, and you don’t give them that support, and you don’t give them a transitional period of adaptation, then the result is economic marginalization, and insecurity and a growing sense that their kids, who have not been well-educated and well-trained either, are going to have a worse economic prospect than they did. That’s a formula for some kind of pretty serious and angry economic backlash.

Larry Diamond: Another dimension of globalization is that capital and manufacturing are not the only thing moving across borders. People are as well. We’ve got a rising pace of immigration that has created a nearly record high proportions of the population in many European countries and nearly a historic high in the United States of foreign born as a percentage of the population. I think immigration is what has made us a great and resilient democracy. I’m in favor of a liberal and expansive policy toward immigration, but it can’t be without some sensitivity to the concerns that these existing populations have about democracies having control over their borders and being able to, at least, modulate the pace of immigration. All of these are putting new stresses on established and liberal democracies.

Jeff Schechtman: Of course, the overlay to all of this, which we haven’t touched on and it relates to this whole issue of immigration and the movement of people around the world, is the continuing impact of climate change.

Larry Diamond: Well, this is the biggest existential threat not only to the future of democracy and to the acceleration of all these stressors because, keep in mind, what is climate change going to result in? In Africa, we’re already seeing in Central America, we’re already seeing in the Middle East. Extreme variations and crises of climate, of agriculture, of water supply and so on are going to drive more and refugees from unlivable circumstances and economic deprivation induced by radical swings in climate and rainfall and so on and so forth. It’s going to create a new and more severe flooding, desertification, water shortages in other areas. Extreme weather is what we’re looking at. We’ve got to get a grip on this problem before it becomes unstoppable. This is going to require very far-reaching policies to slow carbon emissions and switch to a carbon zero economy, automotive system, manufacturing system, and so on. We can do this but we can’t do this unless we fix our politics and enable our legislative process to put forward more far-reaching legislative solutions.

Jeff Schechtman: As you talk about it in a broader sense beyond just our own borders here, is that all of these stressors, everything that we’ve been talking about here, has resulted in this rise of authoritarianism everywhere? Talk about that.

Larry Diamond: Well, the hollowing out of the economy, the growing inequality and the surge of immigration for segments of the traditional population and in rural areas which were just kind of not socially and culturally quite ready for it, has fed the rise of an illiberal populist and, in some cases, authoritarian political alternatives.

Larry Diamond: Now, you have for the first time in the history of the European Union, a member state, Hungary, that not only is under Viktor Orban what he claims to be an illiberal regime, but it’s now a nondemocratic regime. Orban has so aggrandized power and politicized the courts, politicized the civil service, and politicized the administration of elections that the country, a member country of the European Union, is no longer even a democracy. Under the Law and Justice Party, another right-wing nativist, illiberal ruling party, in this case in Poland, Poland is headed in the same direction. There are some trends in this regarding the Czech Republic and elsewhere.

Larry Diamond: More mainstream and progressive parties and parties with a more inclusive vision of what their democracy should be are going to have to listen to citizen concerns and insecurities, and maybe moderate the pace of immigration for a while. Give the societies time to absorb it and assimilate it or the reaction in a nativist and xenophobic direction, particularly in Europe but even potentially in the United States, is going to gain momentum.

Jeff Schechtman: With respect to other forces that are there, you spend a lot of time in Ill Winds talking about the impact of both Russia and China. Talk a little about that.

Larry Diamond: Well, in Russia, we know from extensive evidence and the painstaking documentation of the Mueller report, and the Senate Intelligence Committee, and intelligence agencies and so on, intervened gleefully, cynically, and very destructively in our 2016 election campaign both feeding and intensifying through fake posting and very extreme mobilization of prejudice and political resentment and even hatred on all sides of the spectrum to destabilize and further polarize our American political dialogue in the United States.

Larry Diamond: They also, of course, stole a bunch of documents from the Democratic Party and released them to try and discredit the Democrats and Hillary Clinton, and help elect Donald Trump. They were in the voter registration databases of 20 states. According to the FBI, they didn’t do anything but what might they do is they prepare to intervene in 2020. The situation is only going to be worse in 2020 as the Kremlin has kind of taken stock of what worked and what didn’t in their manipulation and digital intervention in 2016.

Larry Diamond: Now we’re coming on, the congress is worrying about this, the new era of deep fakes where the Kremlin or other actors can generate videos of major political personalities that have them saying completely false things, but looking like there’s video evidence that they really said them because of the ability to use artificial intelligence to wholly manufacture these kinds of videos.

Larry Diamond: In the case of China, they haven’t intervened in our elections in this way, but they’re penetrating our universities, our think tanks, our mass media and subverting free and open expression, intimidating criticism of China, and trying to shape the global narrative and reporting to be favorable to the Beijing party line. Right now, in the United States, there’s very little in the way of Chinese language media that isn’t favorable to or even parroting of the Chinese Communist Party line. You go to universities and you find that overseas Chinese students are being monitored. They’re being intimidated. They’re being warned that if they criticize the government of China, their parents could be pressured and punished back in China. This is not what should be happening in a free country and it’s something we need to push back on.

Larry Diamond: As the congress is warning, we have to be even more concerned about the relentless 30-year campaign of the Chinese Communist Party state to steal our technology and to plow it back into their military modernization, plow it back in their efforts to dominate the new generation of 5G telecommunications infrastructure in the world, and then use their domination of this 5G telecommunications to capture all our data and plow it back into Chinese Communist Party supercomputers compromising our individual privacy and our national security. We’ve reached really a kind of Sputnik moment here in terms of our national security.

Jeff Schechtman: Do we have the ability nationally to combat this or do we need to be looking towards either existing or maybe institutions that don’t exist yet, global institutions to deal with the scope and complexity of all of the things that we’ve been talking about?

Larry Diamond: Well, obviously we do want to, whenever we can, use the UN and other institutions, but China’s playing increasingly a blocking role there. I think we’ve got great potential to respond to this in the United States, both legislatively and administratively with the new societal vigilance as well, but we can’t do it alone. We need our democratic allies in Europe, both in terms of responding to Russia, but also the Chinese ambitions to penetrate and dominate economically and politically, and we need our democratic allies in these days, Japan, Korea, Taiwan. This is why President Trump’s repeated denigration of our alliances and demeaning of our fellow democracies and democratic leaders in Europe and Asia is just not productive, and it’s not good for American national security.

Jeff Schechtman: Is there any reason, in your view, and we’ve talked about so many of these problems, is there any reason to be optimistic? Do you see anything that gives you cause for hope in terms of solving even some of these crises we’ve been addressing?

Larry Diamond: Yes, I think there’s real hope and I think the biggest hope is that both the Russian and Chinese dictatorships have overreached here and have provoked a very bipartisan sense of alarm and constructive reaction in the US congress and now I think we’re seeing in European parliaments as well. Other than the threat of radical Islamic terrorism, there is no foreign policy issue that is bringing Republicans and Democrats together across the deep divide to begin to think about and cooperate on legislation to respond and to expose Chinese penetration efforts and to secure our technology and restore American leadership in confronting Chinese projection of power in the world. Nothing is bringing Democrats and Republicans together more vigorously than China’s imperial overreach.

Jeff Schechtman: Larry Diamond.

Jeff Schechtman: Larry, I thank you so much for spending time with us today here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.

Larry Diamond: Thank you, Jeff. It’s been a pleasure to be with you.

Jeff Schechtman: Thank you.

Jeff Schechtman: Thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to

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