Challenges to American Democracy, with Michael Waldman

Mar 5, 2019

"We're all really proud of our system. It's the world's oldest democracy, and we've always had to fight to make it real," says Michael Waldman of NYU Law School. "But in the last 10-20 years and especially recently we've seen challenges to the right to vote and challenges to the role of big money in politics. That means we have to fight for democracy all over again." What can young people do to help get our democracy back?

TED WIDMER: I'm Ted Widmer. I'm really happy to welcome Michael Waldman here. He's the president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, my old friend from speechwriting in the Clinton White House years.

Thank you so much for being here, Michael.

MICHAEL WALDMAN: Great to be with you.

TED WIDMER: When we were speechwriters I remember with some embarrassment how we always thought more democracy was coming. It just would never stop coming. The Cold War was over. These were sunny days in the 1990s, and we were building this bridge to the 21st century.

But we've had a lot of problems with democracy in the 21st century. How do you feel about where democracy is right now?

MICHAEL WALDMAN: Democracy is being challenged all over the world. It's being challenged in Europe, it's being challenged in Asia, and unfortunately, it's being challenged here in the United States right now in ways we never would have dreamed possible.

We're all really proud of our system. It's the world's oldest democracy, and we've always had to fight to make it real. The Declaration of Independence said that government was legitimate only if it had the consent of the governed, and that was a radical idea at the time, and they weren't living up to it. There was slavery; only white men who owned property were allowed to vote when they wrote that. But it set up this goal, and we've been fighting toward a democracy ever since.

But in the last 10-20 years and especially recently we've seen challenges to the right to vote and challenges to the role of big money in politics. That means we have to fight for democracy all over again.

TED WIDMER: I want to thank you for your work on all these topics. Your books have helped me to understand much better the Second Amendment and voting rights.

Maybe we should start with voting rights. It seems so simple. We have elections. People can go vote. Why is it so hard for us? Why can't we get it right?

MICHAEL WALDMAN: The vote is the heart of democracy, but it's also the case that the vote is power. Throughout our history, people who have had power who have been around have fought to make it harder for other people to have that chance to be part of the democracy.

We started out with only white men who owned property being able to vote. Ben Franklin, when they had the Revolution in Philadelphia in 1776, actually fought for ending the property requirement so poor white men could vote. He said: "There's a man who owns a jackass, and it's worth $50, so the man can vote. Then the jackass dies. The man is older, he's wiser, but the jackass is still dead. So the man can't vote." So Ben Franklin asked: "Well, who really has the right to vote, the man or the jackass?"

In Massachusetts John Adams represented the other strain against broader democracy. He was writing the constitution for that state, and they said, "Hey, you ought to do the same thing," end the property requirement. And John Adams said: "If we do that, women will demand the right to vote. Lads of 18 will demand the right to vote. Men who have not a farthing to their name will think themselves worthy of an equal voice in government, and they will demand a right to vote." John Adams said, "There will be no end of it."

That's really the American story. There is no end of it. Every generation, people have had to fight for the right to vote, fight for the right to be heard, and fight to be equal, truly equal, in our political system.

TED WIDMER: How did things fall apart only in the last 20 years? Maybe that's a little extreme, but it felt like in the 1990s we'd gotten through the Civil Rights Movement and globally we'd gotten through the Cold War, and it just seemed like we knew what democracy was. It wasn't perfect everywhere. It wasn't perfect here. But it was pretty good.

It seems like there has been retrenchment. Gerrymandering has increased. Big money has diluted politics for a lot of individual voters. How did it all change so much?

MICHAEL WALDMAN: I think that we took a lot of the progress of our democracy for granted for a long time as it was sort of sweeping the world, as our system was the model for so many people.

A few things happened. In the 2000 presidential election, there was basically a tie. It all came down to one state, Florida. There was a recount, and it was ultimately decided by just a few hundred votes, the presidency, by the Supreme Court.

I think at that moment a lot of people realized that you could win power by suppressing the vote, by making sure your side could vote, by making sure the other side couldn't vote, and that the way we did elections in this country was really ramshackle.

It has also been the case that a lot of people have seen political advantage, a political strategy, to go after democracy, to go after voting rights. When the Supreme Court in 2010 did the Citizens United decision, that basically said that big individual donors, wealthy individuals, and corporations had the unlimited ability to spend money in campaigns, and then three years later that same Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, which was the most successful civil rights law in American history.

It both turned out to be that we have kind of a rickety system based on paper, not using digital technology, and that some people as a political strategy are actually trying to make it harder for other people to vote.

TED WIDMER: We can leave aside whether these were accidents, part of a coordinated plan, a sinister plan, or just politics as usual, but how do we get our democracy back? What are the things young people listening to us can go out and do to feel more involved in politics?

MICHAEL WALDMAN: I think young people are well ahead of everybody else on this. Young people today see the stakes and know what it means to have the right to vote and know what it means to have it threatened.

Things have gotten a lot worse with dark money, with low voter turnout, with vote suppression, with racially ugly laws that make it harder for some people to vote. But we've also seen the beginning of a real response.

In the 2018 election we saw the highest voter turnout since 1914 despite voter suppression, despite long lines, despite gerrymandering and dark money. We saw ballot measures pushed by citizens all over the country to end gerrymandering, to make it automatic that people are registered to vote, to give back the right to vote in Florida to people who had criminal convictions, 1.5 million people, in a remnant of the Jim Crow era racist laws. This was all done not by politicians but by the people themselves. And now a lot of the political insiders, a lot of the politicians are really responding.

The House of Representatives, the very first bill they've taken up in the new Congress is H.R. 1, and it's very big, sweeping democracy reform. When Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questioned some of the witnesses at a hearing on this democracy reform bill, it was so compelling that the video of this was viewed ultimately by 37 million people on Twitter. It's the most-watched video by a politician of all time.

So when someone says: "Oh, this stuff's boring. It's process. Nobody really cares about this democracy stuff. Young people don't get it. Young people don't care." That's nonsense. It's the people in power who want everybody to think nobody cares.

TED WIDMER: It would be tempting—I'm a Democrat and you are—to blame the right, but I agree with you. I think the American people from both parties and from neutral backgrounds do not want to vote for voter suppression. They want the vote to be as free for as many people as possible. So when there are restrictions it seems like these are back room deals done by cagey political operators.

MICHAEL WALDMAN: It's a very divided time. People go to their tribes of being a Democrat or a Republican or none of the above.

It's true that a lot of insiders see political value in trying to suppress the vote. The public really has a deep continued belief almost in a patriotic way in "One person, one vote" and in the meaning of democracy.

It's the case that right now as a political strategy it has tended to be conservatives who have pushed, for example, for more restrictive voting laws, who have pushed against restrictions on campaign spending.

But when the doors close and the caucus doors close, very often it's Democrats and progressives behind closed doors who say, "Hey, you know, I don't really want to give up the campaign money, either." It turns out that making sure there's real pressure on the people in power of both parties is what makes the difference.

TED WIDMER: In that spirit, are there ways we can stop demonizing the "other" as much as we do? We see it in political language at the highest level. We see it in newspapers. We tend to read our news in silos. If you're a young conservative, how can you take steps toward the progressive side and vice versa?

MICHAEL WALDMAN: I think we're all living in a very divided time, and there have been other times in our country's history where there have been divisions like this, but they didn't have social media. People by and large are very comfortable talking to other people who agree with them, and it's much harder also for people to screen out what's real and what's fake.

This is where young people can make the biggest difference. Digital natives—people who have grown up with Facebook, with WhatsApp, with Snapchat, with Twitter, with all the ways people communicate now—have a better detector for what's not real than a lot of older people do.

I think the challenge is that people are living with people, growing up with people who are just like them. We've had sorting out not just by political views but even by where people live. On college campuses and in high schools people really aren't always so tolerant of hearing from somebody they disagree with.

I think we all are so much stronger when we learn how to argue, even fight with people we disagree with rather than shutting them down. So we all have a responsibility to kind of hear something we don't like and argue back but keep the debate going.

TED WIDMER: When we were speechwriters the Internet was just coming in, and we largely thought of it as a benign force. It was incredible. And yet, we've seen the darker side of the Internet and what it can do to undermine democracy, including negative social media.

How do we do a better job going forward to get the best of the Internet, to have this incredible communication, but to minimize cyberbullying, foreign actors telling us who to vote for, and just all of the swirling pressures of entertainment companies distracting us? How can we have a good Internet that will help our democracy?

MICHAEL WALDMAN: When the Internet started it seemed like this Utopian thing, that suddenly the whole world was going to be a free library, that everybody could get all the information, and in so many ways the Internet and social media have been really amazing, amazing, positive developments, and they kind of have a halo that has lasted for a long time.

But I think we see better now than we used to that there can be real problems, that social media turns out to be especially vulnerable to something like Russia or some other foreign enemy of the United States coming in and spreading lies and nobody knows who's paying for what. Social media is a place where it turns out to be especially well-designed for racism or bullying or hatred being kind of weaponized in ways that people might have always wanted to do before, but they now have a much more powerful tool. And some of these companies are so big and so powerful, and we're coming to see how that can be a problem, too.

So I think part of what has to kind of happen is we have to treat this like a normal era, just like any other technology, any other communications technology, any other kind of rearrangement of the economy. People have to speak up. They have to organize. They have to pass regulations and laws. And they have to learn how to use this stuff. Hopefully, again the younger people who know this from the start will not be surprised by everything and will take the lead on this.

I think it's also the case that it's still true that social media offers opportunities to spread the word and to organize really fast without the established political parties or business interests or power structures getting in the way. That can be bad, but it can also be really good. There's a democracy movement in this country right now. We're seeing people focus on these basic issues of who has power and who has a voice in a way that has often been the case in the country's history but not lately, and social media is still an incredibly powerful tool when used right for people you never heard of to change the world.

TED WIDMER: That's really inspiring.

One problem with social media is that it values quick emotions so highly that thoughtful discussion of issues can take a backseat, and it might even value hatred more than admiration.

We've seen a lot of success in politics about people describing their adversary in politics as an enemy in very strong language, or a bad person, or evil—Democrats are evil or socialists and all these sort of strong buzzwords. How do we tone down social media?

MICHAEL WALDMAN: I'm not sure it's worse than it has ever been. Everybody's been yelling at everyone else forever.

What you used to have was three television networks, and everybody would watch the same networks and agree on there being facts.

During the Vietnam War, there's a famous maybe true story, when Walter Cronkite, who was called "the most trusted person in America"—he was the news anchor on CBS—went to Vietnam during the war and came back and said: "You know, the Army is lying. We're not winning the war." When President Lyndon Johnson saw this, he said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost America," and stepped down from office soon after that.

You could lose diversity of viewpoints in those days, but at least people agreed there was such a thing as a fact. So I think we have to find ways to really insist that people don't spread fake news, don't spread myth, and don't spread hatred, but facts will beat fear if we all insist on it.

I also think that social media gets a lot of understandable blame for being especially usable for hatred. You look at something like the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar, where rumors led to massacres that spread through social media, the demonization of immigrants in the United States. But let's remember that it isn't just stuff being spread on Facebook; it's stuff being spread on Fox News that gets people riled up about some immigrant caravan coming to despoil your town.

A lot of the worst hatred is still being pushed not by newfangled social apps but by talk radio, by major corporate-owned television networks, and by politicians, who know better. Social media is new and a problem, but a lot of the old stuff has jumped into this cesspool with a lot of enthusiasm.

TED WIDMER: That's probably an area where the Internet accidentally weakened our democracy. I don't think it was intentional, but as classified sections of newspapers vanished with eBay and Craigslist a source of income for newspapers vanished, too. Small papers especially weakened or just vanished. Coverage of statehouses at the state level vanished.

How do we get stronger journalism covering local politics?

MICHAEL WALDMAN: The collapse of local journalism, as you say, local newspapers, people covering city hall, people covering statehouses, is really bad, and is going to really affect the environment. It's going to affect the rich getting more and more of our taxes. All the things people are fired up about are happening in plain sight but without any reporter reporting on it. The question is, what can be done to fix that?

One thing, for example, that's happening is there is a lot of non-profit journalism now looking especially at local and state things. The new non-profit Report for America is placing young people in newsrooms around the country to report on local politics and local issues. You have a place like ProPublica, which is another non-profit. The CUNY journalism school in New York City, which is supported very heavily by Craig Newmark of Craigslist, is really looking at ways to rejuvenate the coverage of local issues and what's really going on.

I have no doubt that we're going to find a way, but right now it's pretty scary what's happening in the news media, and if we're not careful, we won't have newspapers and we won't have anything to replace them.

TED WIDMER: How do you feel about democracy in other countries? In some ways it feels like the decline is a global phenomenon. We see a lot of similar things in very different countries. Do you agree with that? How do you see us getting past it?

MICHAEL WALDMAN: For a long time, it looked as though democracy or what we call "liberal democracy," meaning democracy with a respect for human rights and the rule of law, was really on the march. It was spreading all over the world, and it brought prosperity to many people and seemed like it was inevitable.

But there has been a reaction to it and a pushback. Part of the reason that pushback has been successful is that the systems of government and the systems of democracy have themselves not been working. They've been eroding, and they haven't really done for people what people want. You've seen all over the world and in the United States a real rise in economic inequality, an inadequate response to the financial crash of a decade ago, demographic changes—in Europe it has been the refugees coming in from Syria and other places—and a lot of angry people rising up against the democratic institutions themselves.

You've seen that in Europe. You've seen people like Vladimir Putin pushing and supporting anti-democratic parties throughout Europe. You've seen in places like Turkey the rise of a government that is much more authoritarian. You've seen a real turn toward totalitarianism in China.

And you've seen in the United States the rise of Donald Trump, who ran claiming—lying—about millions of people voting illegally and saying he wasn't sure he was going to accept the results of the election, and when he has a rally—he had his first rally of his 2020 presidential campaign—spurring his crowd on to physically attack the reporters who were there covering it.

Democracy is not just about voting. It's about having institutions like the media, like independent courts, things like that, the rule of law, that stand up in different ways for democracy, and those are all under attack in the United States and in Europe and elsewhere.

TED WIDMER: Do you think our democracy will be stronger if Congress becomes more powerful? That's not a partisan question. But as you know—you love history, like I do—the presidency became very, very strong, and to a remarkable extent the president not only dictates the political agenda but the news cycle. We cover this president all day long. It just never stops. Do we need Congress to maybe step up and assert some of its historic political power?

MICHAEL WALDMAN: Congress is a coequal branch. In fact, the Constitution assumed it would be the leading part of the U.S. government. But over many decades, a lot of it due to wars and the Cold War and then the endless wars since 9/11 in places like Afghanistan, the presidency has become more and more powerful, and Congress has given away its power.

For example, people wonder, Can a president really declare an emergency whenever he wants to? Well, it turns out presidents have huge power to declare an emergency, whether it's a real emergency or not a real emergency, a fake emergency.

We're seeing this debated with Donald Trump saying he may declare an emergency to build the wall on the Southern border, even though there's no emergency—border crossings are down, and nobody really thinks it's some sudden new crisis. Congress has a law that says that presidents can declare emergencies in a lot of different ways, and Congress has the power to overrule that, but Congress never has. [Editor's note: This interview was recorded before Trump declared a national emergency on the Southern border.]

Young people see the incredible polarization, the incredible partisanship that exists right now, people acting like Democrats or Republicans mostly, and that's not always the way it has been. It has sometimes been the case that Congress as an institution has stood up to presidents. That's really what has to happen now. I keep waiting for the Republicans to stand up to Donald Trump. He keeps saying he likes having cabinet officials, for example, who are not confirmed by the Senate, acting, because he can push them around more. That's one of the basic things that Congress, that the Senate is supposed to do.

I do think increasingly it does seem that a number of Republicans are standing up to the president. When a Democratic president comes in, I hope the next Congress doesn't just roll over for that president, too. We don't have a monarchy; we have checks and balances, and the elected representatives are supposed to be the main people running the show.

TED WIDMER: There's a way to reach young people—you just mentioned them—and to get them excited about bringing new life into our democracy, and that's civics education. Even the phrase sounds a little tedious, and I remember it wasn't my favorite class to go to, but there must be ways of engaging with young people as they're learning American history and other topics and just teach the basic rules of democracy. Do you think that's a good idea, and have you heard of any special programs that work?

MICHAEL WALDMAN: I think the fact that we don't teach civics anymore or the basics of history is a real, real problem. When Dr. Martin Luther King spoke in the middle of the really dramatic and radical events of the Civil Rights Movement and spoke at the Lincoln Memorial and gave the "I Have a Dream" speech, what was the first thing he said was the dream? He said, "I have a dream that one day this nation will live out the true meaning of its creed, that 'all men are created equal.'" He knew, and his audience knew, that he was quoting the Declaration of Independence, and that he was standing in front of the statue of Lincoln, who had also quoted the Declaration of Independence as the charter for equality and for freedom. But he knew that his audience knew that.

If we don't have a common language about freedom and democracy and a common understanding of what it means, we're going to fly apart as a country. We're growing more and more diverse. The country is changing. We have to have some common things we all understand.

It isn't the case, as Donald Trump has said in a lot of ways, that what makes America great is sort of the "blood and soil" and the white ethnicity of what true Americans are. What we've always believed is what makes you an American is if you believe in the Declaration of Independence and you believe in the Constitution, and you fight for those values of freedom and equality and liberty and democracy, knowing that it has never really been where we've ever been at.

If we don't have that common civic language, we're going to have a very hard time holding together as a country. So we should teach it, for sure.

We should know that this stuff isn't boring. The musical Hamilton, one of the things that was so great about it was that it reminded us that these were young people making a Revolution who founded the country.

I think what we've seen in the political renaissance of the last year or two, the mobilization—some people would call it "the resistance"—the incredible group of diverse young women and men being elected to Congress all over the country is a reminder that politics can change really fast if young people get in the game. But at the same time, everybody's got to take responsibility. We've all fought for so long for the right to vote, but people turn 18 and they don't register, and they turn 18 and they don't vote.

One thing that can be done is we urgently need automatic voter registration so that when you turn 18 and you're a citizen, you're on the rolls. We should even start pre-registration at age 16 and 17 as New York State is now going to be doing. People should graduate high school and get their voter card at the same time. It's part of being a citizen. It's part of being an adult.

But people have no excuse to say, "Oh, I don't know about that stuff. It doesn't matter to me." It matters a lot.

TED WIDMER: Michael, I cannot thank you enough for those beautiful thoughts, which added a lot to our common language today. I hope you'll come back, and thank you for this conversation.


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