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How to Renew and Rebuild After a Brush with Authoritarianism

Mar 7, 2023 51 min listen

In the last few years, democracies around the world have experienced dangerous brushes with authoritarianism. Countries such as the U.S., Brazil, and Sri Lanka saw their institutions bend but not break under the weight of illiberal forces. This virtual panel builds upon a special roundtable of essays on healing and reimagining liberal constitutional democracy published in the most recent issue of Ethics & International Affairs, the quarterly journal of Carnegie Council.

Bhavani Fonseka is a human rights lawyer and senior researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives.

James Sasso is a former senior investigative counsel for the U.S. House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack.

Oscar Vilhena Vieira is the dean of the School of Law at São Paulo of the Getulio Vargas Foundation.

Aziz Z. Huq moderated this discussion. He is Frank and Bernice J. Greenberg Professor of Law at The University of Chicago Law School.

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AZIZ HUQ: I want to start by welcoming everyone to an event hosted by Ethics & International Affairs, which is a journal at the Carnegie Council and which provides the spark or the inspiration for the call that we are hosting today. The panel comes about from a special issue of Ethics & International Affairs with a collection of essays by academics on the problems of reconstructing and repairing liberal democracies.

With an eye to the issues and challenges documented in the various essays in that issue, we wanted to put together a panel that drew upon both a multinational and a multidisciplinary kind of expertise to discuss the practical ways on the ground in which actors in democratic countries around the world are striving to renew and rebuild their democratic institutions after a brush—or worse—with authoritarianism.

I am honored to be joined in this discussion by three panelists. I am going to introduce them very briefly. I apologize that I am not offering the extensive details that their biographies warrant. The Carnegie Council has more elaborate and properly detailed biographies on their web page.

Our first panelist is Bhavani Fonseka, who is a human rights lawyer and senior researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives, which works to achieve a liberal democratic Sri Lanka.

Our second panelist is James Sasso, who recently served as a senior investigative counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives January 6th Committee, where he worked on the connection between domestic extremism and the storming of the U.S. Capitol.

Our third panelist is Oscar Vilhena Vieira, who is the dean at the Getulio Vargas Foundation School of Law in São Paolo. He is an expert in constitutional law and politics in Brazil.

The format of today's panel is that I will start by asking our panelists a couple of very general questions that I hope set the scene and invite them to offer their expertise with respect to their particular countries and their own perspective and experience. At about 45 minutes past the hour I will look to our feed from Zoom for questions, and I encourage all those attending to use the chat feature to submit questions for our panelists, and I will try to wrap as many of those up in that last 15 minutes.

Maybe I can start by asking each of you what I think is a very big question. I am going to push you to offer a pithy answer given the timing of the panel: In the country in which you focus on most closely what do you think the underlying dynamics or symptoms are that are exacerbating threats to democracy today? If you had to pick one or two of those, what might you focus upon?

Perhaps I can start with Bhavani and then go on to James and Oscar.

BHAVANI FONSEKA: Thank you, Aziz, and thank you for inviting me to be on this panel. I will speak very much from my experience in Sri Lanka.

The many challenges we face in upholding the rule of law and protecting democracy in the last couple of years I would say has really tested us. In that one of the key dynamics and biggest challenges that I would say is when power is centered around one individual or one institution. In Sri Lanka it is the executive presidency, which has very limited checks and balances, and in the last couple of months we have seen the economic crisis that has been reported in the media very much linked to the powers of this office.

When power is centered around one arm of the government and one institution that carries immense dangers, and one of the things in a functioning democracy is to have the checks and balances to ensure that there is oversight, there is accountability, there is transparency, all of those issues that are required in order to fully function. That is one dimension.

The other I will say very quickly is this kind of complacency that a strongman can address all of these issues. That is across the board, a strongman mindset. Those narratives also are very, very dangerous in terms of a functioning democracy.

AZIZ HUQ: Thank you, Bhavani. James, can I bring you in? Bhavani said underlying institutional and cultural dynamics. How would you characterize the causes of the problem in the United States from your perspective?

JAMES SASSO: Thank you, Aziz, and thank you to the Carnegie Council for having me.

In the United States we traditionally have held ourselves above having these sorts of problems about democratic backsliding. Part of what we did on the January 6th Committee was to look at exactly why we are experiencing those problems today.

If I had to pick one or two symptoms—because there are a lot of things going on—I would start with what I call "declining faith" in American political institutions. A lot of the defendants and rioters we interviewed talked not just about a stolen election—which in its own sense is a sign of broken faith in our political institutions if you are not willing to believe that you can lose an election—but they talked about things that started well before Donald Trump took the stage, a government that was not working for everybody, people who felt left behind by policies that left them jobless or that other people were unfairly getting ahead of them.

Obviously there was a lot of racism or racial animosity or whatever you want to call it tied up in a lot of these feelings, but I think overall if you have a system where people just don't believe that government is working for them it is very easy for a demagogic strongman, as Bhavani was talking about, to come in and take advantage of those insecurities and to say: "I believe you. You are right. This government is not working for you, so let's do something about it. Let's put me in power. Let's put my party in power."

We do have a national party here that has been willing to take advantage of those insecurities and to politically benefit from them, even though they are not doing much to address the root causes of those insecurities. That problem has lasting polarization, which I am happy to talk about more. It is impossible to say it is one thing, but I think a lot of our symptoms tie into that overarching lack of faith.

AZIZ HUQ: Thanks, James. That nicely builds upon the second point that Bhavani mentioned and amplifies the cultural aspect of the problem.

With apologies that you are at the end, Oscar, can I turn to you for your perspective on causes or symptoms with respect to the challenges to Brazilian democracy?

OSCAR VIEIRA: Thank you. It is a pleasure to be here and to participate in this debate. Thank you for the invitation.

Brazil emerged in a major political and economic crisis after 2013. Democracy was very stable and we were very optimistic in relation to changes that were happening in Brazil. However, mass demonstrations in the streets since 2013 were a sign that something was wrong. That impacted the behavior of institutions. We had the impeachment of President Temer. We had a mass corruption investigation that ended up with imprisonment of former president Lula, and this instability culminated with the election of a far-right proletarian populist. I think the Brazilian case demonstrated that instability and distrust in institutions opened the space for the election of a populist.

But what are the roots of this crisis that we saw? I think there are some institutional roots that we can debate in the case of Brazil.

One is the tension inserted in our political system. We have a presidential system with a multiparty system, which is fragmented. Today we have 31 parties in Congress, so every president that is elected must create a coalition, and this coalition can cost a lot. I think several of the corruption scandals that we saw after 2013 that fomented the political crisis are related to the costs of maintaining a coalition that supports the government. So it costs a lot to govern in Brazil. It depends in some sense on how you produce these coalitions. Also, Brazil has a very independent legal system, so there is conflict between a political system that depends on unorthodox and corrupt practices and a legal system that became very independent, so this shock of the powers, this shock between politics and law is one point.

The second point is obviously the question of unfulfilled promises of democracy in terms of well-being. You have on one side of the Brazilian society a lot of frustration in terms of improvement of their quality of life. However, the 25 years of democracy also made changes that are unpleasant to other parts of the population, so you have resentment.

The paradox here is that you have the left, the young, very frustrated because democracy did not produce an immense improvement in their lives. However, you have the conservatives—those who live in rural areas, those who are more religious—with a strong resentment of social change, of racial recognition, and of women's improvement. I think it is a paradoxical moment where the crisis is directly related to this conflict of frustration from one side and resentment from the other side.

AZIZ HUQ: Thank you so much, Oscar. Let me build upon the three perspectives that we have seen by asking a question that juxtaposes two ways of moving forward. One way would be to say that we need to reform existing institutions. That is a question of recalibrating perhaps at the edges. The alternative would be a more radical revision or a more radical transformation of existing institutions. What I want to ask is: Where on that dichotomy or if you prefer where on that spectrum do you think ideally your countries—Sri Lanka, the United States, and Brazil—ought to be?

Let me draw out something that is in all of your answers as a way of thinking about the reform-versus-radical transformation question, which is I hear two kinds of diagnoses in what people have said. The first is that our institutions are flawed. That suggests that you need to change something about the design of the institutions. Second, there is a cultural argument, and the cultural argument that a couple of you have expressed is about the way that a political system deals with disappointments of different kinds.

That makes me wonder whether the problem here is not the institutions or the outcomes, but actually people's expectations. In a democracy people will always be disappointed. Change will always be incremental. There will always be winners and losers, and even the winners will not feel like they have won enough. It is very easy in that context for a strongman to take that disappointment and leverage it. If that is right, then I am not sure whether that pushes you toward reform or toward radical transformation, but it does seem a rather deep problem for a democracy to deal with.

Maybe this time I can start with James and then go to Oscar and Bhavani, just to not have everyone go in the same order again.

JAMES SASSO: Aziz, I think that is a great point about expectations. In a democratic system you will always have in some sense winners and losers because some people have to give a little more than others, but the idealist in me thinks that you can minimize that disappointment enough so that people are not as susceptible to a demagogic leader. If you flatten out the benefits so that society is more or less working for everybody—if people are secure economically, if people can access childcare, if people don't believe that their neighbor is getting more benefits than they are—you can hopefully minimize that disappointment. I don't think you can ever get rid of it, so I am more on the reform side of institutions. I still hold onto the Madisonian belief that we can take this diverse country with a "multitude of factions," as he put it, and force them together in a governmental system that requires compromise and not all-out winning.

Part of the problem in that ideal view is that the way our government is structured it has incentivized us to have a bipolar party system. Two-party systems can be fine. Most people are generally moderate and politicians would end up having to move to the middle to get more votes, which brings about compromise, but for the last 50 years—and I think this partially has to do with disappointment—once our democracy started expanding to actually believing in equality for all people and not just white men it brought a lot of resentment that social benefits were going to others. So you see in the late 1960s and 1970s the beginning of a trend toward polarization that has to do with resentment and economic inequality that leaves a lot of people behind.

As Oscar was talking about, the costs of doing politics in America requires politicians to get money. They get money from the more extreme voices, institutional changes to how elections are run, all of these things have built up so that our institutions, instead of working we could hope they would be, which is toward compromise and deliberation, have pulled apart and become stuck.

At the same time we have technological changes that are also driving people apart, which doubles down on that resentment and doubles down on that anger and what we call "negative or affective polarization" in this country. A lot of the defendants we interviewed, a lot of the rioters I tracked, were very open about the fact that they saw Democrats, liberals, the "social elite," as actual enemies of the country. It is hard to believe that reforming institutions can do anything about people who want to start a civil war, but I think you have to start there, and you have to have the institutions actually work and move forward to minimize that resentment you are talking about.

AZIZ HUQ: Thanks, James. Can I turn things over to you, Oscar, and ask the same reform-versus-more radical transformation question?

OSCAR VIEIRA: I am certainly on the side of incremental reforms for two main reasons. First of all, the Madisonian institutions that organized the Brazilian political system certainly functioned against the strongman. Bolsonaro caused much less damage than we expected first of all because the same multiparty system that creates the malaise of the political system in the first moment was very helpful to contain him in the second moment.

Also, the Supreme Court played an enormous role in containing Bolsonaro. In fact, what we had here was much more a case of an intralegal authoritarianism because he was not able to approve an amendment or a major law to bend Brazilian democracy, so he abused his administrative prerogatives.

In one sense the very consensual constitutional system that Brazil has was sufficient to contain larger damages. This is one reason why we have to ameliorate this system, we have to reform it, but it functions against someone very undemocratic and hostile to a constitution.

The second is a more philosophical question of our times: Is it possible to open a constitutional assembly in a moment to make a great reform? I don't think so. The costs are immense, mostly in a very polarized environment. I think what we are seeing in Chile or what we saw in Europe at the beginning of the 21st century shows that it is much more difficult to do a larger profound reform in constitutional structures in the 21st century than it was in the 19th century, when you put together 60 farmers, white people, to discuss their differences. Now it is much harder.

I think we should reemphasize a notion of constitutional resilience, being very tough in terms of protecting the core structures of democracy and being much more flexible in terms of reforming the policies. This I think is how we should move in the 21st century, being bound to the basic structures of democracy and being flexible in terms of changing strategies for policies to deal with your sense of discontentment. Here is where we produce the change.

AZIZ HUQ: Thank you very much, Oscar. Just to flag, there is a book on the very issue of constitutional conventions that Oscar just touched upon that was released in the United States just a couple of months ago by former senator Russ Feingold that takes a very similar view and does a very nice job of recounting some of the factors that Oscar just identified in the U.S. context.

Bhavani, can I turn to you with the same question—reform, radical transformation, disappointments of the people?

BHAVANI FONSEKA: I think I will go back to something you raised, Aziz, in terms of expectations. I think people want quick fixes and quick results. There is this whole thing about who is able to deliver. Especially in the Global South I would say there are these different narratives: Did democracy really provide us the answers or was it overrated?

At least in Sri Lanka I would say there is this expectation that when something is delivered people go with their answer. Looking at our own history there was this great expectation that democracy could deliver and—in addressing post-conflict, postwar results—could address the economic situation, and it has taken a huge toll on Sri Lanka and on the society. There is great disappointment that institutions that are there are not delivering.

In 2019 with the presidential election a very populist leader was elected. This is not just for Sri Lanka. We are seeing that global trend of populism coming in and being a direct threat to democracy.

That said, there is Oscar's point about resilience. I think it is also important to remember that in the last couple of months particular checks and balances in terms of an independent judiciary, civil society, media, and elections have all been tested in different ways and shown us at least that democracy can be very messy and that expectations need to be managed, but democracy finally does deliver, so it is also managing expectations but also thinking in a post-Covid-19 context: What are the things that we should also be looking at into the future, whether it be strengthening institutions and citizens' roles.

I will end with this: In Sri Lanka we were on the precipice of authoritarianism. We are still struggling with that with this present crisis, but the citizens took control, went to the streets largely peacefully, and deposed a very popular leader who brought the country to economic crisis. For that you need to have a citizen who is also willing to robustly but peacefully challenge any notions of threats to democracy. I think there are different things to look at, but at the end of the day it is extremely important that the citizen is also there, to see what is possible and what are the tools to protect democracy.

AZIZ HUQ: Thank you very much for that sobering and helpful reflection.

Can I turn now to the question of actors in processes of democratic reform or rehabilitation? I am going to start with Oscar and then go to Bhavani and then James.

Let me frame the question as an extension or as jumping off from the last thing that Bhavani said, which is that a key actor in a process of democratic reform or reconstruction is the citizenry. Is that the place to look for the energy for democratic reform, or do we look to other institutions, the "intermediating institutions" that de Tocqueville identified, for example, and that Oscar mentioned when he discussed the robustness of democratic life during the Bolsonaro period as a consequence of the persistence of the multiparty arrangement, or do we look to nondemocratic bodies?

Again, to pick up on something Oscar said, perhaps unelected judiciaries have a role. Perhaps they have a role in Brazil that they may or may not have in the United States.

Where is the energy for democratic reform coming from, or, if you prefer, how do the different actors who almost certainly will be involved—some of them popular and dispersed, some of them elite and concentrated—who is taking the leadership and who is following? How is that dynamic working out in your jurisdictions?

Oscar, if I can turn to you. This very much I think is bringing in something you have already put on the table, but I would like to hear you defend it.

OSCAR VIEIRA: Obviously I would not be able to answer such a question, but my impression from Brazil is that most of the crisis is a consequence of the crisis of the intermediaries. It is lack of trust in the political parties, lack of trust in the media, and lack of trust in science and the universities. This is part of populism. Populism rises because of some problem with the intermediaries, and I think this is general in any major democracy, and what is the role of social media and how it impacts these intermediaries?

However, when we look at the resistance to populism in Brazil at least—and now I am being very specific about the Brazilian case—I think the change maker here was civil society in the hostility of Bolsonaro against institutions, basically the elections and the courts. Several important sectors of civil society—the financial system, industry, labor unions, very radical left-wing movements—sit together and say: "We have our differences that are enormous. Normally we are high in conflict. However, we sit on the same side of the table when we are discussing democracy and the constitution."

I think this obviously reinvigorated the civil society in Brazil. So I think, yes, the most resilient energy came from civil society. This is one aspect.

The second aspect comes from the institutions. I think the notion that everyone would lose made it possible for the creation of a large re-coalition with Lula at the head. His vice president is a central-right figure. This was possible because for civil society democracy is nonnegotiable, and political actors felt there was space for creating a political alliance. That was important.

Also there is a problem with non-majoritarian institutions. In Brazil these are the judiciary and the military, which were disputing in some way the leadership of the moderating power. Clearly what civil society and political parties indicated is that in a democracy the military would not be acceptable with a moderating function.

I think the connections between those who normally do not dialogue, to have the financial system, industry, unions, and other social movements, capable of dialogue. Here I think is the energy of the transformation, and it will be the energy for the renovation of democracy.

AZIZ HUQ: I think in order to shift around the order in which people speak in Bhavani should go next and then James.

BHAVANI FONSEKA: Aziz, the same question as Oscar?

AZIZ HUQ: Absolutely the same question: Who are the actors, how do they work together, and where does the energy come from, whatever combination of that approach you would like to take.

BHAVANI FONSEKA: I think there are different actors who need to be factored in. I mentioned this before that the citizen is critical. If the citizen does not take charge, who holds the elites accountable? That is going down a very scary path. In Sri Lanka at least the citizens stood up last year and pushed back very peacefully and reclaimed that space in terms of a functioning democracy.

There are different elements in the political opposition, different voices, trade unions, civil society, and I think it is critical to have those actors robustly but peacefully engaging in debate. I am not talking about violent means.

The other—and Oscar mentioned this—is to ensure that the military and public service play their role. We have not seen this so much as opposed to other countries, but the military taking over and encroaching into democratic spaces and processes is a very scary prospect. It is extremely important that the different actors play their roles and do not encroach into other areas. That really can undermine democracy.

Finally I will also say media and social media have a critical role in terms of information and responsible reporting. All of that fake news has a very scary way of threatening democracy, and this is something to look at.

The final actors are independent institutions playing their roles. The judiciary, for example, has played a key role in Sri Lanka over the years in upholding the constitution and in having a check on executive power. At certain times they have failed, but we are going to court. I am a practicing lawyer. As citizens we seek court remedies because we see certain arbitrary actions by the executive. Independent institutions also have a very, very important role that needs to be recognized. So different actors, different energies that come from them, but it is so important that they all play that particular role in terms of a functioning but sometimes fragile democracy.

AZIZ HUQ: Thank you very much. Can I turn things over to James?

Just to flag, what I think we will do after James has spoken is turn to some of the questions. What I will aim to do with the questions is be a little selective and pick out questions that all the panelists can respond to as a priority, and then if we have time, which I doubt, we will turn to the things that are focused upon one panelist's expertise.

JAMES SASSO: I don't know if I have a great answer to this question or anything more insightful than Bhavani or Oscar have already said, so I will just focus a little bit on the observations that we pulled out of our investigation.

It can be difficult right now in America to believe in the citizenry energy aspect, that reform will come from the bottom up. I think ideally in any democratic system you would not be able to do anything unless the people wanted it done, but I tend to be a bit of an institutionalist and believe that institutions can and are really the primary actors of what drives people's beliefs.

I am a bit concerned about the way our civil energy is in America right now. We have a lot of political violence and a lot of militia groups out there, and it is not just a right-wing thing; there are leftist groups that are also willing to engage in political violence. As I mentioned earlier, our citizens are tending to see people who disagree with them not as fellow citizens with whom they can have a discourse but as anonymous online identities that they are willing to say that they hate and willing to commit violence to. That is not the kind of energy that I believe will lead to—Aziz, as you wrote about—"front-sliding." Political violence is definitely not the way there.

That does not mean that I blame people necessarily. I think our institutions in a lot of ways have not done a great job. Think about the incentives that have driven our national media attention to go after certain more extreme voices because that's what gets the most clicks instead of focusing on local issues and local conversations where people still have a lot of agreement.

Thankfully our courts held after the 2020 election and prevented all of those challenges from moving forward. Thankfully a couple of secretaries of state and local Republican election officials were willing to do the right thing.

There is still an energy of people who prevented rioters like Doug Mastriano and election deniers like Kari Lake from winning local very important elections in states in 2022, so I am still hopeful that there is enough energy of the people who believe in democracy first to hopefully blunt some of the problems moving forward. I just think that if we don't start working on our institutions we might get overwhelmed by the negative energy that they are in part causing.

AZIZ HUQ: Great. Thank you very much to all the panelists.

I will go through the questions that are general in the order I see them coming in in the chat. I will invite any one of you to speak to this.

We have talked about members of the public who feel "left behind" by their democratic system. The question is: "Do you think in your context that those people are justified?" The further question is: "Do you think that varies between different countries?"

Just to put a point, we will link it back to the discussion we have just been having: Do you think it would matter if the feeling of being left behind is or is not justified? Does the fact of justification change the strategies that one adopts to reform and rebuild democracies? That is, if people feel left behind, then they are justified and you do one set of things, but if people feel left behind and they are unjustified, you do a different set of things.

I am not going to call on anybody. I am going to invite you just to leap out and speak. I will play traffic cop if needed.

OSCAR VIEIRA: It is interesting in the Brazilian case that the most radicalized, those who really confronted institutions, were not exactly the "left behind." They were mostly those who had resentment for what has changed in Brazilian society. The more conservative and wealthier were the ones hostile to democracy, to what has changed.

It is interesting that even though there is a very inefficacious democracy that did not provide a true [refereundum] on the wealth of the worst of the poor, they were not the ones who revolted against democracy. I don't know if it is a peculiarity, but the most radical groups were those who were left behind in a different sense, not the economic one, but mostly in the moral sense of desiring a kind of society that Brazil was departing from.

This is my only reaction, that there is an asymmetry between those who are left behind and those who are disloyal with democracy. It is not exactly like this.

JAMES SASSO: If I could jump in and build off that, just thinking about the people who stormed the Capitol, I think we define what we mean by "left behind." We had a mixture of professionals who are certainly not economically left behind in the same sense as a person who lost his job during Covid-19 and went down a radical QAnon rabbit hole and then decided to believe the election was stolen and that he needed to protect Donald Trump to save the country. There is left behind economically, and as Oscar was saying we have a different version of left behind.

The idea that one is more justified than the other? Maybe, like if you are feeling left behind for reasons of racism, that is not justified, but even people who are economically well-off can feel left behind in a different sense if they feel that they are shouldering the burdens of society through tax policies that take nearly half their paycheck while Jeff Bezos walks around paying zero dollars in taxation. That is a different kind of left behind that can still make them feel isolated out of the way the government works.

It is hard to say that would be justified. It is definitely not justified in storming the Capitol. There is no justification to political violence in my view outside the absolute crazy extremes of dictatorial systems, but in terms of a justified feeling of being left behind, sure. Being economically left behind is one.

Being that we can say it is justified, does it change our strategy? It probably should. It probably means that there are some policies that we can change to make those people feel less left behind. Other kinds of resentments and feeling left behind for moral reasons or just the fact that society is moving forward at a certain pace that you don't like or including people you don't like, I am a little more hesitant to say that policies can ameliorate that other than encouraging people to live with those who are not like them from a young age, but that is more like social manipulation than policy.

AZIZ HUQ: Unless Bhavani wants to speak out, let me put the next question that I see cued up to all of you. I think there are a couple of different ways of interpreting this but let me put it in a general way.

The question is, look, this is a moment of great mistrust with lots of what the questioner calls "conspiracism" and disinformation around, and a lot of that is focused upon our democratic institutions. This raises the question as to how does one rebuild trust—which I think the questioner takes as being necessary to democracy—at a moment when there is this intense distrust of democratic institutions that would preclude them from being the leaders in regenerating the trust that is necessary for democracy? How do you go about rebuilding trust in an age that has mistrust focused on democratic institutions?

BHAVANI FONSEKA: A media that is independent and able to report. I think we have all spoken about managing expectations so you know what is possible in the short term and in the long term.

At the end of the day, why do people have such limited trust and a trust deficit? Is it because we have been seeing such a decay in institutions and in the elites? I think it comes back to this fundamental question of: Where does power lie? In whose interests are the elites acting, asking some very, very tough questions and holding a lot of them accountable.

In a way, listening to the panel and looking at global trends, it is such an important time to take stock of things that have worked. In Sri Lanka at least we thought we had a constitutional coup in 2018, we had a crisis unprecedented, and Sri Lanka went bankrupt as a result. In all of it, however messy it got, key institutions stood strong and were resilient, and the citizenry stepped up at those very difficult moments.

I think it is also important to look at some of the success stories and realize that in some of the tough moments they do respond as long as there is something to function in these difficult times. To build trust I think one needs to look at some of the positive elements. I will end there.

JAMES SASSO: I think that is right, if people see government actually working. In the United States at the national level our government has been pretty stalemated, stuck, and rusted for a while now, and that leads to a lot of unilateral actions by the president, and those tend to be on policy issues that 50 percent of the country like and 50 percent do not.

I think if people could refocus on what their local governments are doing, what their state governments are doing, and also what the national government is doing positively for them—it is even hard for the federal government to sell the good things it does right now because everyone is talking about the negative—I think that would go very far.

AZIZ HUQ: Oscar, any reflections and conclusions from you?

OSCAR VIEIRA: I agree with my colleagues about the activity of the government working across the aisle. I think in federal states if you have the capacity for federal and local governments to work together across the aisles it is very interesting to address real problems, not counting with the ideological lines.

Also I think we have to deal with the most radical discourses and how they are potentialized in social media. I know it is anathema in the U.S. freedom of expression debate but taking a more "environmentalist" approach to the issue of freedom of expression at least to go through harmful discourse in terms of discrimination and antidemocracy I think is something for which regulation should be implemented because distrust is fomented and potentialized, and we have to deal with this. I just don't see how we can close our eyes to this dimension.

AZIZ HUQ: Let me close by thanking our three panelists, Bhavani, James, and Oscar, for their rich and provocative reflections from the front lines of three countries that have faced democratic backsliding head-on. I would encourage everyone to access our recording of this event by visiting carnegiecouncil.org and to take a look at the special issue of Ethics & International Affairs that provoked it.

Thank you to all for participating and attending. We look forward to seeing you at another Carnegie Council event.


Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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