Just Politics: Actual strategies for saving democracy

In this episode of the podcast, Rachel Kleinfeld reflects on five strategies for supporting democracy, as well as the critical role Catholics have in saving democracy in the long term.

Democracy’s decline at the global level can prompt feelings of helplessness and despair. But inaction is not an option for justice-seekers, and fortunately, there are ways to take action. Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, has studied the issue and recommends five strategies for supporting democracy. She also names tactics that, while necessary for supporting democracy, are insufficient alone. In dialogue with Just Politics cohost Joan Neal, Kleinfeld reflects on her recommendations, as well as the group that she sees playing a critical role in movements to save democracy in the long term: Catholics.

You Can learn more about Rachel Kleinfeld and here work at the links below:

The following is a transcript of this episode of Just Politics:

Colin Martinez Longmore: In our last episode, we heard from our own government relations director, Ronnate Asirwatham, who explained the narrowly averted government shutdown and the historic ouster of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Joan Neal: We went deeper to examine what this all means for the health of U.S. democracy when the very people we elect are so fixated on stopping the functions of the federal government.

Colin: But where do these events fall within the wider narrative of the decline of democracy worldwide? And what can we do about it? I’m Colin Martinez Longmore.

Joan: And I’m Joan Neal.

Eilis McCulloh: And I’m Sister Eilis McCulloh. Welcome back to Just Politics.

Colin: So here’s something that might pass for good news. A study from Freedom House earlier this year found that global decline of democracy may actually be slowing.

Eilis: Wait, so Colin, you’re saying that democracy all over the world and not just here in the United States is still declining?

Colin: Yes, and it has been every year for the past 17 years.

Eilis: But it’s just not declining as fast as before?

Colin: Correct.

Eilis: Ah, so is this what passes for good news in 2023?

Joan: I’m afraid so, Eilis.

Colin: I’m just trying to take the wins wherever we can get them.

Joan: Yeah, Colin, and that’s why I was so glad to speak with today’s guest, Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld, senior fellow at Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict and Governance Program. An expert in the decline of democracy, Dr. Kleinfeld has written extensively on what it will take to turn that tide, particularly in her article, “Five Strategies to Support U.S. Democracy.”

In it, she outlined the current threats to our democracy and the strategies that can preserve, protect, and expand democracy in the long term. She even talked about tactics like traditional get out the vote campaigns that are necessary, but still insufficient. It was really an informative, but also a sobering conversation.

Colin: Let’s listen in on what she had to say.

Joan: Thank you. Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld, welcome to Just Politics. We are so excited to have you here today and look forward to a wonderful conversation.

Rachel Kleinfeld: So thrilled to be here, Joan. Thank you.

Joan: There’s so much to cover today. Let’s just dive in and see where we go. You conducted all of this great research and frankly, I found your report kind of frightening at times, just in terms of how much synergy there is between where we are in the United States today and failing democracies around the world. So that I found a little bit upsetting. But… we can’t defeat something if we aren’t aware of its existence. And so, can you tell us a little more about why democracies like ours, that seem so resilient, fail?

Rachel: Absolutely, and I’m sorry for the fright. I’m trying to scare people straight a little bit, you know? They should recognize the danger. But I must admit that when I go to dinner parties and out with friends, I absolutely refuse to talk about my work because we’re in a rough place right now, and I don’t want to bring people down if they can’t do something about it. What I love about groups like this is that you are doing something about it, and that’s the right time to talk about it.

So: we are in a global democratic decline. I sit on the boards of the National Endowment for Democracy and Freedom House, these big international pro-democracy organizations. For 17 years it’s been going down all around the world for different reasons in different places, but a very similar reason for consolidated democracies. That’s places like the United States, Brazil, and parts of Europe that kind of look like us, and have a decent amount of wealth. They are declining for a very consistent reason, which is they’re electing populist leaders.

And when I think about “populists,” I’m not just throwing that word around. It means something pretty specific. In the 1970s, they were mostly on the left. Now they’re mostly on the right, though their policies are really a mishmash. Even the pro-business ones tend to tank their economies. What unites politicians that use a populist strategy is that they use polarization to win elections. They create or harden interpersonal divisions and they eliminate the middle ground. There’s no nuance, no humanity. You’re with us or you’re against us. And then they position themselves as representing the will of the deserving group.

By doing that, first they reduce social trust. When social trust declines in a democracy, it’s harder for people to work together. Businesses hurt, violence goes up, and a lot of bad things happen as trust goes down. But also what they can do is say, well, I’m the representative of the legitimate real people, and there are these others who are less deserving of full citizenship. Anything that stands in the way of the majority against the will of the people is undemocratic. So they redefined democracy as majoritarianism.

And then they personalize and centralize power because they’ve got the popular support. They often are quite popular. They’re often elected quite legitimately. But by personalizing power and centralizing power, they start to destroy the rule of law. Violence tends to go up when you polarize your society—no surprise. They reduce rights because a majoritarian democracy doesn’t have invulnerable rights that can’t be trampled on. It’s whatever the will of the majority happens to want. And so rights go, and checks and balances go, because anything’s standing in your way is “against the will of the people.” So that includes judiciaries, and that includes oversight institutions. Often, statistical institutions get hit, because you can’t lie with numbers—so they want to just erase the numbers. And so pretty soon these populists who are elected democratically start destroying democracy. And we’re seeing this in Hungary, Poland, Brazil… Italy actually had a coalition of left and right populists that governed for a while. And of course, the U.S. has been on just this trajectory.

Joan: That’s a lot. But I’m curious because really, as citizens, the only way that we can prevent this kind of slide is by voting, it seems. But you say that democracy proponents risk fighting endless two-year battles each election cycle to equally failed results if they only concentrate on things like getting out the vote, registering more people to vote, and boosting turnout. Instead, you say, addressing these acute threats requires attention to both electoral and social drivers.

And in fact, you name five very specific strategies that we use to fight anti-democracy, as sort of insufficient. And if you don’t mind, for our listeners, I’d just like to list those. You say that these tactics are insufficient: increase voter turnout, help Democrats win, get more communities of color to vote, court more swing voters, improve election administration, increase economic distribution, and fix gerrymandering. But these are all things that a lot of organizations like us, like NETWORK, routinely do as part of our elections work. They’ve worked in the past. Why do they fail or fall short in moments like this?

Rachel: So let me be super clear. I hope every single one of your listeners votes. Doing all of those things is necessary. “Necessary but insufficient” still means necessary. It’s really important when you’re up against populists who are threatening to do all the things that I just listed for them not to win. And so it’s absolutely crucial that you win elections against that kind of populist authoritarian type leader.

But it’s also important to recognize that just beating those leaders doesn’t mean that democracy is restored. After all, in 2020, there was a sort of wave election that brought Democrats to power, none of them populists. And that was in the House and the Senate and the presidency and a lot of states. And yet at the state level, democracy kept diminishing. Lots of our fellow citizens stopped believing in elections. The populist candidates grew on the right as options. So what we were seeing was, you can win, you can kind of hold your finger in the dike, but it’s not going to stop the onslaught. And that’s because there’s a really deep cultural set of issues that are going on in America, and there are some deep political strategies at work that mean that we need two parties — or maybe even more parties, and I’ll get to that — that are both pro-democratic.

I don’t want to come off as if I’m shilling for the Democratic Party. I’m shilling for democracy. And a democracy needs anyone who competes to follow the rules of the game, respect civil liberties and rights and so on. And right now we have far too many politicians who are what’s called “anti-system.” They don’t believe in the structure of the system we’re trying to uphold. Now, that structure sounds really boring to a lot of people, especially a lot of young people. They say, you know what, I grew up and we’ve lost two wars and the economy is tanked and not much seems to be going in a direction that I like—we seem to be going backwards. So what’s so great about this system?

There’s a lot wrong with this system. And I’m not saying we should restore it. I think we need to reinvent it. On the other hand, I work all around the world and there’s not been a better system for peacefully changing power, peacefully picking leaders who can represent you. And that’s a lot to throw out. So before we just say, I’m going to sit this out, we need to get involved. We need to make it better. We need to reinvent. But it’s not enough to just win elections. There’s more that has to happen.

Joan: Yeah, I can appreciate that. In fact, you say there are five strategies that will help us to achieve that result, including: enable responsible conservatives to vote for democracy (as you said, this is not about a party affiliation or a party support, it is about our democracy itself); reduce the social demand from the right for illiberal policies and politicians; engage the left in defending democracy by making it deliver; build a broad-based, multi-stranded, post-pro-democracy movement around a positive vision concretized in local-rooted action; and then strengthen accountability to reset norms on what behavior is legal and acceptable. So, why do these tactics work to preserve, protect, and expand our democracy? And then, in terms of these five strategies, where do organizations like us start?

Rachel: So, it’s a big list and part of why it’s a big list is that there’s a lot of places to get involved. There’s a lot of Americans. I mean, there’s over 300 million of us and people should work where they work best and where their talents can best be used. But I wanted the democracy field to understand that this is much bigger than just elections.

As I wrote, there are plenty of Republicans who are pro-democracy, but we’re a two-party system. And that is kind of a problem. I talk a little bit about ranked choice voting, proportional representation, fusion voting, naming your preferred solution… but all of them allow for different flavors of party. You can be a pro-life Republican, but pro-economic equality, which is where a lot of kind of conservative Catholics might fall. You could be a pro-business Republican, so against economic equality, but more culturally liberal. You know, there should be a lot of different flavors that people can vote for. And part of that is that we can change our emotions degree by degree, but our parties, you have to change by 50% to leap into another party. And that means that it’s just really hard to affect that electoral marketplace. So I want there to be a place for pro-democracy conservatives—which a lot of our country is—to vote and to have a place to sit.

We also need democracy to deliver more for people who have been really left out. You know, there’s a huge amount of distrust in our democracy—just really overwhelming. When you look at what unites both parties, Americans on both sides of the aisle think that the whole system is rigged, that it’s rigged for elites, that people in power don’t listen to people like me in the phrasing of the surveys, all sorts of things that are huge warning signs. And part of that is because of party realignment. You know, the right had traditionally been the party of business and wealthier people, and the left had traditionally been about the working class. It was a class-based party system like in the 30s. And then it moved to more education-based. So now the right has fewer college-educated voters. The left has the vast majority of college-educated voters. But that leaves the working class with really no party representing them. Well, big surprise, they feel left out of a system and feel like it’s rigged against them. And so they go for cultural identity markers.

And that’s where we get to this… you know, a lot of people think, well, I can just do my little thing. I’ll just work in here, personally. I’ll just start talking to other people who are different than me. And that’s fine, but Catholics can do more. Catholics are really unique because almost every other religious group is on one side of the aisle or the other. It’s really quite stunning. Catholics are the only group that are pretty evenly divided in Republicans and Democrats. And what that means is that they have a third identity. In democracy, we talk a lot about third identity. It’s something that unites you with someone separate from your partisanship. So you both own dogs, you’re both mothers, you’re both living in the same city. “You’re both Catholics” is a pretty deep third identity. And that gives you a place to start talking.

But what all the research shows is that talking alone doesn’t change behavior, it doesn’t change how people vote, and it also doesn’t change the groups they join and so on. You know, those things are more sticky, as we say. You’re not going to just change your church or change where you work because suddenly you’ve had a change of heart.

So, what you need to start doing is both talking to people on the other side, but then working with people on the other side on things you find you agree on. And this is really important because finding those instances of agreement requires some deep conversation. It also requires constructive engagement with the system in which people learn to both have some more trust and understand the real problems versus the kind of “conspiracy” problems. It can show people that they can get government to work. It can show people the humanity of the other side. And ideally it eventually moves into more political change.

Just to give you a concrete example, the Washington Post has opinion columnists on the left and the right, like most newspapers. And just recently, one of the left-wing opinion columnists and one of the right-wing ones got together and said, look, we’re on very different sides of the abortion debate, but we all agree that once the kids are born, there should be pro-life policies, pro-family policies. And it was a very long, kind of a double op-ed that listed, here’s all these pro-family policies that we agree on, and here’s all these Republicans and Democrats in Congress who have put forward this legislation that’s just stalled. So there’s a policy set that Catholics could get behind from both sides of the aisle. And that interaction with the system, especially for young people who aren’t joining things, who aren’t getting involved in quite the same way, is really important to help them understand how the system works, how they can change it, and how they can make democracy theirs and not just this abstraction.

Joan: That’s really important. And, you know, certainly as a Catholic, I appreciate hearing your analysis about, you know, how our citizenship can show up in the political space. And you just mentioned so many things that we have talked about and thought about. But I guess the question for us is, How do we get at those really deeply-rooted cultural issues that divide us? How do we have those conversations with people who are on the other side of our position on these issues? NETWORK has traditionally worked towards an equitable society that has economic access for everyone, that is anti-racist, that has norms and policies and laws that promote the common good. If we just talk to ourselves, that seems to not be as effective as what you are asking us to do. But the question is, how do we cross the lines? Where is our “in” to have these kinds of important conversations?

Rachel: Well, it’s not easy. It’s not easy on an interpersonal level. And I’m the first to admit that. You know, it’s much more comfortable to talk to people who agree with you. But frankly, that circle can get smaller and smaller and smaller the more issues that get politicized. I remember at the beginning of COVID, my family was very pro-masking, pro-vaccine when they came out. But then as this latest round came up, we thought, that caused some harm to our kids, the social and mental toll of all of that. And this time we’re all vaccinated, so maybe we shouldn’t have to wear masks again. And the blowback, actually from our friends, was very, very strong. You know, “oh, have you gone to the other side?” And we thought, well, no, we’re just considering the full round of moral implications and implications for our children and for our society and our positions are changing.

So, I think a lot of what we need to do to start moving into this is having depth and empathy for our fellow human beings. You know, Catholicism talks about dignity a lot.  Recognizing that, yes, there are racists in this country, there always have been, there always will be, and there are sexists in this country also always have and always will be (although that’s probably getting a little bit better, I would say, maybe a little better and a little worse).  But, you know, that is real. But it is not everyone who disagrees with us. And there are levels at which people might have more nuanced, thoughtful ways of thinking about that. And one way I think to get into a discussion is just to recognize some of what everyone is carrying around as a burden.

I remember I had an emergency C-section when I had my first daughter. And you can’t turn around if you’ve had an emergency C-section. It’s really dangerous because you can pop open. And I had to take a bus to the hospital every day to be with my daughter who was in the neonatal intensive care unit. And so I sat in the handicapped seats at the front of the bus. And there was a woman who frequently rode the bus who was just nattering behind me. You know, I couldn’t turn around, so I couldn’t say anything. But I finally stood up at one point and I said, I’ve had an emergency C-section. Sometimes handicaps are not visible. And I think there’s a lot of that in our society. Sometimes things people are carrying with them are not visible.

So, if you look at the white working class who are often derided as racist and sexist, and these are the MAGA voters and what have you. Well, their life expectancies have actually lowered in the last decade. That’s never happened before in a developed country. We’ve never had a lowering life expectancy. But the white working class—suicide, opioid addiction, alcoholism… they’re called deaths of despair. And what that means is that, you know, while minorities are facing inequitable health outcomes because of doctors, something deep is going on with this white working class that is causing addictions, suicides, deep levels of depression at a level that’s never happened in a developed country.

We know that to men of all races, it’s easy to say, oh, sexism! Women should get ahead, the men are the problem. Men of all races without college degrees face low marriage rates, higher births out of wedlock, loneliness, loneliness at really epidemic levels where they just don’t have anyone to turn to. And women are out graduating men from college almost two to one. So we now have this big reservoir of men under 30 who are the most violence-prone in any society. You always worry about your men under 30 if you study political violence, which I do. They’ve got low levels of education. Their job prospects are awful. They’re not going to be able to get married. If they have kids, they’re not going to be able to be the fathers that they might want to be. And they feel humiliated. We’re a society that says, this is all your fault. And they expect themselves in working class culture to be providers. I’m a part of the upper middle class, and we expect a more equitable kind of situation. But if you expect the male to be a provider and you can’t provide, well, now you feel even worse. And if you’re white, you’re probably being told that you’re also privileged. And if you’re male, you’re being told you’re privileged. So how are these folks supposed to feel?

You know, I would guess they’re pretty angry. And that anger needs to have some outlet. Now, some of them might just be playing video games, but some of them are going to be listening to politicians tell them, hey, there’s a group to blame for this. There’s people to blame. And they’re very ripe for that. So what does the left do? The left says, well, you’re to blame actually. You’re racist, you’re sexist, you’re not part of our society. Well, now who do they go to? Well, I’ll tell you the people who welcome them with open arms are… real extremists.

I work on political violence. So you’ve got, you know, your Proud Boys and Oath Keepers and militias and white supremacists. And they’ll say, I’ve got a place for you in your anger. And that’s what we’re starting to see. We’re starting to see this growth of what I call a counterculture, just like the left-wing counterculture in the sixties. We’re seeing a right-wing counterculture that’s united by all this anger and grievance. And what we’re called upon to do is get behind some of that defense and see that there are humans that are hurting. And what they need is some real answers, and it might be hard, because hurting people are not always easy to reach out to, but let’s try to build what political organizers call a story of self, a story of us, and a story of now, together with as many of them as we can. Not the real hardcore racists and sexists, but as many of these people as we can. Because what we know from research overseas is that broad-based coalitions that cross as many lines as possible in society is what makes change, and we need change to make our democracy.

Joan: It sounds like to me that what you’re suggesting is something that we are working on, which is a new narrative of America, a new vision of America where everybody can see themselves, everybody has a place, everybody has opportunities, and the common good is served at both the systemic level and the individual level.

I want to just follow up on something you say in your report and as you just talked about, the extremists that act out of their feelings of being, I don’t even know what term to use, homeless, left out of the system, et cetera. One of your successful strategies calls for us to hold people accountable for their actions. I’m thinking particularly about the actions that undermine and destroy democracy—the attempts of January 6th, for instance, and at the local level, state legislatures sending fake electors to corrupt the outcome of the election. Now that some of these leaders of the anti-democracy movements that you mentioned earlier are beginning to be held accountable, such as the head of the Proud Boys organization, for instance, how do you think that changes our current situation? Does it make the threat less urgent? Are we called upon to do something different in light of these changes?

Rachel: So I’m a big believer in accountability. Not everyone is. Some people say, oh, America has such a carceral system, we arrest way too many people, we shouldn’t arrest more. I hear you on the arrests being too many, especially for people of color and the poor. But the people who are subverting our democracy are neither of those things generally, and they deserve to be arrested and held to account.

The fact that this is really a summer of accountability. I mean, it’s everyone from the January 6 leaders being accused of sedition and so on, and then getting sentenced 10 years, or 22 years for the head of the Proud Boys. People who called in threatening calls to election officials got 10 years in the case of one in Texas. So these are heavy sentences and real fines. If you look at people like Alex Jones and Eamonn Bundy, they’re getting fined tens of millions of dollars for their conspiracies and the ways in which they’re undermining our social trust. This is fabulous. And it’s really important because it sends a message about whose side the government is on. What we know from other countries is that when it looks like the government is on the side of violence, extremism, and so on, it gives license to those people to do what they’re doing. And you see those bad behaviors go up. When the government says, mm-mm, you’re going to go to jail, you’re going to have to pay millions of dollars, we’re going to find a way to collect… Suddenly that behavior looks less attractive to an awful lot of people, no surprise.

Now that said, there’s a reason it’s the last of my strategies. And the reason is that if it looks partisan, if it looks like it’s a witch hunt, if it looks like one side is punishing another side, well, obviously then people don’t accept that this is a societal norm or value that’s being reasserted. What they think this is one side’s value being asserted on the back of the other side, it can cause backlash. And so it’s really important to first do what I was just talking about, to first reach across the aisle, try to make it clear that this is not about partisanship. After all, there’s an awful lot of Republicans who have been threatened overseas. Violent groups also tend to go after their own moderates because their moderates are kind of the alternative. So there’s a lot of people across the aisle who also don’t believe in violence, who also don’t want to see this kind of conspiracy and distrust. So we need to reach out as we’re trying to hold accountable, so that the accountability is really, this is what the United States does. The United States does not allow this behavior—not “this is what Democrats do” or “this is what this faction does.”

Joan: It really sounds like our work, as NETWORK and other organizations, Catholic and otherwise faith-based organizations, have been trying to engender this sense of “we are all in this together”—a sense of solidarity. Pope Francis talks about solidarity quite a lot and it is a principle of our Catholic Social Teaching. And so some of the work that we are doing is towards engendering that sense of solidarity, in the hopes and in addition to those strategies that you talked about that were necessary even though at this moment in time somewhat insufficient. So it sounds like we may be at least at the beginning of the track that’s going to help to turn our situation around.

And so I wonder, as we conclude our wonderful conversation this afternoon, if I can ask, what are you hopeful about as we stand here today? What are you hopeful about in terms of the future of our democracy?

Rachel: I’m hopeful that there are so many people like your listeners and others who are starting to ask these questions. You know, I’ve worked in democracy and democratization for a couple of decades and it was not a hot topic for a while. Overseas people cared, but in America, we took it for granted. “This is just what we do. It’s not that big a deal.”

Well, it is a big deal. It’s actually really hard to have a country of over 300 million people with vehement disagreement keep passing power peacefully, keep making decisions that are always compromises. That’s how it’s going to be. I can barely agree with my husband, much less 299 point whatever million people. So it’s always going to be a process of coming to agreement and getting half a loaf.  But to move forward in that way, this is really hard. And people stopped caring for a long time. And now I think they care. And that gives me a lot of hope—particularly with your constituency, the Catholics on your call.

The other thing is that I think we’re starting to connect politics with the economy. For a long time, people in democracy just thought of it as about politics, about concentrations of power, but it’s also about concentrations of wealth. And our founding fathers recognized that. Jefferson talks about how you can’t have a democracy with big concentrations of wealth. Aristotle talked about that. I mean, this is an old tradition, about the connections between too much money and too few hands and what that does to the structure of a society. Catholics have always been the one group that really saw the economy as a moral construct. It was something we created. It was something that had moral value. And we needed to put it in the hands of people — not act like God created our economy, but recognize that people could change this to make it more equal, more fair, and not do that in a kind of communist way.

You know, it was the Catholics in Poland who led solidarity and really broke the totalitarian Soviet Union, because they saw there was this way to have equality while having democracy and capitalism and so on. And so Catholics, I think, play a really important role right now, because we’re in another Gilded Age and the Catholic focus on a moral economy is a real important counterweight to that and a really important message for people to hear—that we’re not stuck with this system or against the system. We can change the system.

Joan: We can change the system. Yes, thank you. And that is the work that we have been trying to do since our beginning 51 years ago, working for economic, social, and racial justice in our country.

Well, Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld, thank you so much for a very stimulating conversation this afternoon — an enlightening, but also sobering conversation. Thank you for all that you do to shed light on this pernicious threat to us and to our American way of life, and for offering some clear direction for how we can preserve, protect, and expand our democracy today and for the future.

If you, our audience, want to learn more about Dr. Kleinfeld’s work, we’ve included the link to her full report with this episode. Or you can just go to our website, www.networklobby.org, where you will find this and other resources on saving our democracy. Thank you again, Dr. Kleinfeld.

Rachel: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Eilis: Wow, that was a tall order. I think it’s a bit dizzying to hear about where we are and what it will take to right the course.

Joan: That’s true, Eilis. These anti-democracy forces are not going away. They will keep trying until they are decisively defeated or we are all too exhausted to fight. This is the most critical time for our country that I have ever seen. For NETWORK and faith-filled justice seekers everywhere, the question is clear. How can we begin to turn the tide? That’s why I’m so grateful for Dr. Kleinfeld’s insights.

Colin: You know, it was sobering, but also strangely encouraging to hear Dr. Kleinfeld speak so plainly about the role that Catholics have to play here.

Joan: That’s true too, Colin. It’s not just that our faith compels us to support a system of government that enshrines the dignity of every person and builds up the common good. We ourselves have a critical role to play in preserving, protecting, and expanding that system. For Catholics and all people of faith and goodwill, staying on the sidelines is not an option.