DAVID BATEMAN: I'd like to thank you all for being here. We are nearing, Inshallah, what will be the beginning of the end of what might be the longest presidential campaign in American history. One that, for some, started on November 9, 2016 and which for the president began on January 20, 2017, the day he was inaugurated and the day he filed the paperwork for his 2020 candidacy with the FEC.
We can't say for certain when the campaign will end, though. Both because of the unprecedented context in which this election is taking place, with millions more absentee and mail in votes cast this year than ever before, and because the uncertainty produced by the president's repeated suggestion that he will not accept the results of the election. And in repeatedly hedging on this question and actively calling the integrity of the electoral system into doubt, the president has raised the specter of a contested election. Active disinformation campaigns and fake news further contribute to a distrust in the electoral process and in the country's political institutions.
We've had contested elections before in the United States, though. Nor is the United States the only country to have experienced some of the dynamics we've seen over the course of this campaign. There is much to learn from history and from comparative politics in this regard.
For that reason, we're very excited to bring together an expert panel of Cornell faculty with deep expertise in Democratic institutions, voting rights, and the challenges confronting democratic regimes around the world. Together, we hope they can help us all make sense of what's going on and what might come. So let's start with some introductions and then open it up to the panelists.
Kenneth Roberts is the Richard Schwartz Professor of Government and teaches Comparative Latin American Politics with an emphasis on democracy and the challenges to it in different parts of the world. Alexandra Cirone is Assistant Professor of Government, the Himan Brown Faculty Fellow in the Department of Government and the faculty fellow at Cornell's Institute of Politics and Global Affairs. Alexandra teaches Post-Truth Politics, an undergraduate class in fake news, and serves as the editor of Broad Street, a blog on historical political economy.
Julilly Kohler-Hausmann is an Associate Professor of History and is currently writing a history of US democracy since the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which focuses on people assumed to be outside of politics, those who abstained, those who deterred, and those who are officially barred from electoral participation. And I'm David Bateman, Associate Professor in Government and moderator of tonight's program.
We're going to proceed tonight by first inviting the palace to respond to a series of questions that are intended to frame the conversation. But we really want to hear from all of you, the audience. And so we invite you to use the question function at the bottom of your screen. I'll then pose those questions, the questions you posed, to the panel.
So we're going to start off now by posing the questions to the panel. The first one I'd like to ask is one I'd like to ask of all of you. And perhaps we'll go-- start with Ken, then Julilly, and then Ali.
For all of you, the question is what is it that makes the democratic process in this election so heavily contested right now, both in this election, but also beyond it? If, Ken, you would like to take a start at that? Ken, I think you need to unmute.
KENNETH ROBERTS: Sorry. You'd think I would know that by now.
I just wanted to say thanks to everybody for being here tonight. And I think there are a number of reasons why this particular election cycle is this unusually heavily contested. And of course, we should keep in mind that democracy is intended to be contested. I mean, the whole essence of democracy is to provide institutional channels to process and to manage political conflict or political competition. And in essence, democracy is designed to institutionalize political competition.
But I think this particular election, the level of contestation is unusually high. In part because we're no longer in the democratic game where the two parties both represent what we call catchall coalitions, or broad, socially heterogeneous coalitions that are cross sections of American society and where the two parties basically compete in the center space and overlap programmatically. I think what we've witnessed over the last 20 or 30 years is the process where the two parties have pulled apart and are increasingly polarized. And their polarized in terms of their social constituencies, where the two parties really represent different sections, slices of American society. And they're also polarized programmatically in terms of what they stand for and the kinds of policies that they propose.
And so ultimately, I think the stakes of the election are high, just in terms of who wins and who loses, what will be the kinds of public policies that are adopted by the federal government. And I think you see this there's considerable variation between the Republicans and Democrats in terms of what they're offering when it comes to taxes, economic policymaking, when it comes to health care policies, when it comes to immigration, so a wide range of policies. There are very significant differences between the two political parties.
People used to say in the old days, well, it doesn't matter who wins. They're going to do the same thing. I don't think that's the case today. There are significant differences between the two political parties.
And I also think that the two parties, a victory by either side would have significant implications for the way in which American democratic institutions function. I think the Trump administration, clearly, he's the kind of political leader who, to put it mildly, he's not someone who looks favorably upon institutional checks and balances on executive power. He doesn't believe in constraining executive power.
I think if the Democratic Party were to win elections, we're likely to see significant debate and significant political pressure from the social basis of the party for major institutional reforms of democratic institutions themselves that are designed to weaken some of the institutional constraints on political majorities. And so things as basic as the electoral college, the filibuster rule in the Senate, the composition and the tenure of Supreme Court justices, even things as basic as the possibility of statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are likely to be on the political agenda. So I think whichever side wins, there are significant implications, not just in terms of public policies, but in terms of the kinds of ways in which our democratic institutions function. I'll stop there.
DAVID BATEMAN: I'm going to do the same thing. We have all been teaching for months now.
And we're still going to do it. My apologies. Julilly, I'm going to turn it over to you. Same question, what makes this election in particular so heavily contested? What's going on here?
JULILLY KOHLER-HAUSMANN: So I think I'm not on mute, correct?
It is a tricky button. It catches me, like, six times a day. Thank you all. I am so excited to be-- I'm the historian hanging out with the political scientists, which is one of my favorite ways and places to be. And so it's a super honor to be part of this panel. And I'm excited that there are people here to discuss this really challenging question.
So since I'm a historian, I would say it's my job to think about the way these things are rooted in the past and come out of the past. I think there's a really interesting debate right now how to think about this intensity and volatility. Do we think of the president, for instance, as the cause, the man himself as the cause? Or do we think of him more as the symptom of, the result of long, moving trends?
And so, again, mostly just because I want to be loyal to my discipline, I'll just say a couple of trends that I think are worth thinking about. And there's a lot of different ones that we could talk about. But these are three that I think maybe sometimes fall out of the equation a little bit.
The first is probably, in some ways, the most recent issue, which is that the political process in a pretty fundamental way has failed recently to address effectively a lot of hardship, broadly felt hardship in society. There is incredible racial and social and economic inequality at a very profound level and a lot of actual material hardship. And there's also an existential threat to humanity in the shape of climate change.
And up until this point, the political system, in a lot of ways, has really not addressed those fundamental problems. And that's refracted and created a lot of unrest, I think, across the political spectrum in different ways. So that's the first thing. That's sort of the baseline, kind of most recent thing.
But when we think about the contestation around the actual electoral system, I think the one thing that is really important to just talk about is that we are in a moment where there's really been a sort of precipitous decline in of faith in the state, which has really plummeted since the 1970s in pretty profound ways. So many attribute this to Vietnam or Watergate. But there have really been unrelenting attacks on the competency and the capacity of state institutions to deliver services in a fair manner.
And this is sort of the state across the board. But I think this has implications for the way that we feel about the electoral system. So when Ronald Reagan made a joke in 1986 and I think many of us have heard this. And he tells the joke, he says, the nine most terrifying words in the English language is, I'm from the government and I'm here to help.
And that joke sort of makes sense to all of us right now. But it really wouldn't have made sense in the same way in the middle of World War II, for instance, or after the New Deal. So I think we really have to understand the unrelenting attacks on the election apparatus in that context. They wouldn't make sense without decades of politicians questioning and undermining faith in the state. It comes from lots of different places, that critique.
And it's not just a critique of the state, per se, I mean, of the state's competence. But it's also a critique that the state is serving and serves the wrong people, which I also think we see refracts in some of these debates about the election. And that's a highly racialized debate, it's critical to notice.
So all of these attacks on the state have been accompanied, of course, by the fiscal starving of a lot of these state institutions. Which becomes, of course, the sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, where the state is having more and more challenges delivering social goods. So that the rhetoric and the kind of loss of faith in the state kind of circles on itself. So those are the two things.
The last thing I'll mention very briefly, and maybe we'll talk about more, but I think that we have to understand the intensity of the lies about voter fraud and the voter suppression as, yes, intense and new in a lot of ways. But US political history has always been marked by fights over the size and the shape of the electorate. And I just think it's really tempting to think that this is new, that sort of trying to game the rules of the game is sort of a new way of fighting in politics. But actually, it really has been, in varying ways, a sort of through line in American politics.
And David Bateman has actually worked a ton on this question. I'm not going to put you on the spot. But the idea that US politics is really as much about fighting over who can participate and on what terms as is it has been about fighting over your voters within the electorate. So there's really a continuity in that way. And I think it raises a lot of questions about our commitment to our democratic culture that maybe we can talk about as we move forward. So I'll stop there.
DAVID BATEMAN: [INAUDIBLE]. Great. Thank you so much. Ali, I'm going to turn the question over to you. Why this election-- why is it so contested right now?
ALEXANDRA CIRONE: Great. Thank you. So here at Cornell I teach a class on fake news, misinformation, and how this is affecting politics. And so I think I would say that democracy is under threat because we are struggling to ensure access to accurate information. This is both during the election cycle that we're in right now and also for the past few years. And this could be anything from problems with fake news, fake websites trying to deceive voters and citizens.
But also, it's related to a broader issue about the collapse of local journalism. So local newspapers are going under. And generally, we're seeing that journalism is now driven by advertising. And journalism driven by advertising is driven by click bait.
And so those two things plus, and something we're facing new in the past four years, is now we have the undermining of the media by elites. So not by foreign actors, not by nefarious domestic groups, but our actual elites in government are challenging the media.
And the thing is that you actually can't really contest democracy properly without information. You can have multiple candidates, as many candidates as you want. But if voters don't have enough accurate information to judge who is a good candidate, who is a bad candidate, then democracy crumbles. Right?
And this goes to something that both panelists have already said, which is that many of the rules that govern our democracy are really norms. We assume that local or national politicians won't blatantly lie. And mainly they don't, because they want to get re-elected.
But then when one does lie and breaks the norm that it's OK to lie, we realize that we don't have as many tools as we thought to stop this type of behavior. And the one tool that we do have is to vote them out of office. But the problem is if voters aren't informed, they can't do that. If a politician is not competent in an office, he does a bad job, he or she does a bad job, or does something bad while in office, so he's corrupt, and then claims the media is lying, voters might not know what to do. Who do you believe, right?
And so in all democracies, particularly in the US, given its founding, given its Constitution, the media is supposed to hold leaders accountable. The media is supposed to hold any type of politician accountable. And if we don't have access to a truthful stream of information, and if voters don't have the information they need to hold these leaders accountable, democracy crumbles. So I think that would probably be my take on contested democracy. And I'll get to what we can do about this maybe later in the panel.
DAVID BATEMAN: And I absolutely look forward to getting to the what we can do about it. There is, like, sort of snippets in each of your comments. I want to pull that out. And hopefully, we will get to that.
So I guess the next question I would be especially interested in thinking through, and this was sort of related to a variety of things that each of you have said, was thinking through how is this different than what we've experienced in the past in the United States, as well as how might this sort of compare to things that we've seen elsewhere. So I say I'd like to start the question off with how does this compare to things we've seen in the past? And I'll pose it to Julilly first. [INAUDIBLE].
JULILLY KOHLER-HAUSMANN: It's funny. I'm tempted-- when I think about that question, I sort of just go back to what I was saying when I left off, which is there's always been-- if we're talking about contested elections, and I'm thinking a lot about voter suppression and the intensity of the attacks against the smooth functioning of this process, for instance, I think that what's interesting for me is it's actually not that surprising. And I hope people will disagree with me.
This builds on Ali's point-- it's actually not that surprising that politicians want to choose their voters, right, or that they would like the people who are going to vote against them to not show up. But I always joke about this. I'm a professor. And I get student evaluations.
And I would prefer that the negative student evaluations don't go in my tenure review file. Because it's embarrassing when they say mean things about me and my colleagues all get to read it. I would prefer for that not to happen.
But it's functionally impossible for me to do that. I can't take those voices out. It would be incredibly embarrassing. If I got busted, the costs would be so high to me professionally. So I feel like the question for me isn't so much why is this happening.
It's why is it not more toxic politically? Why is it a valuable or an effective strategy? Why is it worth the kind of-- I mean, there is, obviously, some negative consequences to these political strategies and all this contestation. But why isn't it more, you know, consequential or more offensive?
And one of the questions that I think is sort of worth asking is, and this is why this does get back to sort of how deep these problems go, is maybe the question is more how into democracy are Americans? How offensive is it when these sort of norm violations, what we would consider these flagrant sort of lies and violations of norms? And I think, obviously, democracy is considered both the foundation of America and we also talk about it as very fragile.
But I do think we have to remember that there's a whole host of things that Americans accept that are arguably quite undemocratic. So we have an unmajoritarian electoral college. We have an unmajoritarian Senate. We have extreme levels of legalized corruption in our campaign finance system. We have heavily gerrymandered districts.
We have disenfranchisement of the citizens of Washington, DC. There's 3.5 million people living in Guam, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, American Samoa that are not able to vote. We have millions disenfranchised because of felony convictions or that are currently incarcerated. And for decades, our voter participation rates were approaching 50% in presidential elections.
So I think maybe the question is exactly what is the sort of democratic cultural norms that we share, actually? And so what is this rubbing against? And I think that that's really one of the questions that this election raises. And I do see some deep continuity here. And so that's where I go with that question.
DAVID BATEMAN: Perfect. Thank you. So I do think that-- I take very strongly and seriously the point that there's a lot of undemocratic elements to American politics, in general. And there long have been. And I want to sort of get a sense, and I think that there is sort of deep roots to these, but I was struck by something that both you and Ali highlighted. And I want to put this into a question and turn it to Ken.
But you highlighted the failure in the erosion of the state. And Ali highlighted the undermining of trust in the media and the undermining of trust in the media coming from elites. And so I would like to hear from Ken, from a broad comparative perspective, what do you think, about those aspects, makes this moment, if anything, in the United States unique? We've had contested elections before. What about this election makes the prospect of a contested election seem more dangerous than 2000 for instance?
KENNETH ROBERTS: Did it again. From a comparative perspective, I think the United States is not unique in this sense. But I think that what we're seeing today is, in some ways, an intensification of some of the patterns that Julilly was just talking about in terms of some of the undemocratic practices that have become the norm within American politics. And in some ways, I would argue what are arguably authoritarian currents that exist in American society, as I think exist in just about any society.
And I think part of what's different today is that there's been a percolating upward of some of these authoritarian currents in ways that they're affecting the functioning of our national democratic institutions in ways in which we haven't necessarily seen in the past. And there's been quite a bit of debate within our discipline and in political science in recent times about whether or not there is some sort of erosion of democratic norms and democratic practices and ways in which the regime itself, if not necessarily breaking down, and you get what we often call in comparative politics "democratic backsliding," so a movement away from what we recognize as being the proper functioning of democratic institutions.
And I think when you look internationally, around the world, what you see in this most recent cycle of democratization-- there've been several cycles of democratization historically around the world-- in this most recent cycle, when democracy breaks down, it rarely breaks down because of some actor from outside the system who overthrows the Democratic regime. In other words, the old model, it was the military coup or insurgent revolutionary forces from outside the system who attacked democracy and bring it down. That's not been the pattern in recent times.
The pattern has been a pattern you would argue is much more endogenous. In other words, there are actors internal to the democratic process itself who use democratic mechanisms and institutions to come to power. So they win elections. They come to power.
But within the democratic regime, they use every institutional lever that they control to whittle away at the checks and balances of liberal democracy itself. So that you concentrate power in the hands of a single ruler or a single political party. You undermine the political opposition. So you erode minority political rights. And then you tilt the democratic playing field so that it's not a level playing field to where other actors can legitimately contest political power.
So that's what we've seen repeatedly in the part of the world that I work on, in Latin America, places like Venezuela, countries like Hungary in Eastern Europe. And there are many other countries that we could point to that have had some process of democratic erosion led by actors elected into office within the democratic institutionality who then proceed to undermine the regime itself. And I think part of what makes a lot of political scientists worried in contemporary times, and Julilly was mentioning this, it's the politicization of the institutions themselves, the institutions that are supposed to be above partisan politics and neutral with respect to the partisan competition, so institutions like the FBI, other investigative commissions under the Congress, the court system, obviously, the Supreme Court.
So these are not institutions that are thought of as being part of the partisan competition. But they have been so heavily politicized. And you see, then, that what is happening is that they're losing their credibility, or their legitimacy, in the eyes of the public.
And so ultimately, one of the problems we face today, if we end up with a heavily contested election with some sort of irregularities, who are the umpires? Who are the neutral arbiters that will oversee the rules of the game and enforce the rules of the game? Who are the arbiters who are recognized as being legitimate by both political parties or both political camps?
And I think what we're seeing is this politicization of all the institutions so that there's no longer a consensus as to who would have the legitimacy to resolve conflicts that might emerge if the elections themselves, if there's some sort of irregularity. And indeed, the electoral process itself has become so heavily politicized that the trust in the institutionality has begun to break down. Even though, as Julilly was saying, we have a long tradition of electoral manipulation and voter suppression and things in the United States, I would argue, as a scholar of comparative politics, United States was not a democratic regime at all until the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in 1964 and 1965. There's no way in comparative terms you could pocket United States as a democratic regime if you are systematically disenfranchising a significant sector of the society on racial grounds.
But I think what we're seeing today is sort of the new forms of voter suppression that, in comparative terms, are extraordinarily unusual. It is very difficult-- I can look around the world. I can identify places where you see electoral fraud and irregularities. It's very difficult to come up with anything that you would think of as a democratic regime elsewhere in the world where you would have a partisan effort to suppress the vote, to make it difficult for certain sectors of society to vote. There are very few parallels to that around the world today. And I think it is very indicative of where we stand in American democracy.
DAVID BATEMAN: That's incredibly helpful. One of the points you made about a lack of trust in neutral institutions is very much one of the things that has me sort of worried about this election. That the anxiety I have is precisely that there is a contested election. And that there is a process by which that will play out. And nobody believes that process.
And you know, at the very roughest edges we can sketch out a process that runs through Congress and a process that runs through the court. And I can't imagine one side accepting one or the other. And so whichever way it goes, someone is going to be deeply unhappy. But perhaps the problem is more than just unhappy. It's that they won't believe the outcome. And they won't accept the legitimacy of the outcome.
And so I want to turn now to a question from the audience, from Laura [INAUDIBLE], who asks is now more consequential because of the different worlds we live in, Fox News, The Wall Street Journal versus the rest of America. And so I want to ask this question to Ali, specifically about the degree to which-- are we in media bubbles? And do those media bubbles, have they really shaped the way in which we perceive, or that we might perceive something like a contested election? How serious of a threat and danger is that?
ALEXANDRA CIRONE: Yeah. So that's a really good question. This is something I actually teach in class. I have a whole week devoted to historical fake news. And you know, is this something new, right?
And I teach my students that fake news is actually nothing new. So Ben Franklin was a big proponent of fake news back in the day and actually was enabled by the fact that when you own the only printing press, you can basically do what you want. But also you've got to think of the yellow journalism in the 19th century, the [? combating ?] newspapers in the war with Spain.
And then, just in general, propaganda is nothing new. So one side highlighting what they've done to targeting a certain subset of voters and ignoring what the other side has done. I mean, this is just part of democracy.
And even when the US was founded, the founders knew that this would be a problem. They knew that it would be difficult to eliminate lies and foster a culture of free speech. And so the marketplace of ideas was an essential part of the US system. And it was enshrined in the Constitution.
However, things have changed, for better and for worse. So we have access to more information there are more news and media outlets. Obviously, more individuals are literate. They can process higher levels of information relatively quickly.
But this also means that this idea, this marketplace of ideas is challenged, right? And so technological advances almost means that the marketplace of ideas is crowded. It's clogged. There are almost too many.
And so we worry that the problems that we're facing now are new with respect to the fact that there's just so much news, so many bad things going on in the world. But you know, we're not alone. Other countries are facing populism and economic downturns and the rise of celebrity candidates.
But the problem is, if the marketplace is clogged, it's difficult for us to disaggregate fact from fiction. And voters might be disengaging. And so technological advances have limited us in that way.
However, on the bright side, trying to be positive, especially for this week, social media has allowed for coordination in politics in ways that we've never seen before for positive things. So in the US, which is in the context of campaign finance, it's really expensive to run a campaign. If you are a minority candidate, if you're a candidate with a new voice, you're not part of the elite establishment, you might not be able to compete. But now, with Twitter, with Facebook, with social media platforms, you can reach a larger base than you would be able to. So we're seeing the entrance of new candidates with grassroot movements like we've never seen before.
And similarly, talking about kind of authoritarian regimes and backsliding, social movements and protests, peaceful protests are now enabled by social media. You can see when they're happening. You can join. And so we are in a different world technologically. But if we do our job right, we might be able to channel some of these challenges into opportunities, opposed to just letting them threaten our democracy. It was a good question.
DAVID BATEMAN: Perfect. Thank you so much. I really appreciate that this is-- I think, Ali, you may have turned off your video. Sorry.
ALEXANDRA CIRONE: I'll try and get it back. Sorry.
DAVID BATEMAN: No worries. So we've heard a lot already about what's new and what's old. And one of the questions that comes from Avery August is just about what lessons we might learn, sort of perspective lessons going forward from other countries that have experienced democratic backslide?
So instead of simply asking the question of does it happen, is the United [? States ?] relatively new? I think Ken's point about the United States being a new democracy that sort of has emerged since the 1960s, and that that democracy is in the process of deconsolidating, asking the question of, well, given these experiences, what can we learn from them?
And the United States itself has a process of democratization and de-democratization. So what can we learn from the American past that has perspective lessons for us? And what can we learn from comparative politics that has perspective lessons for us? So let me ask the question first to Julilly and then to Ken and then to Ali. Because I'd like to hear from all of you on this.
JULILLY KOHLER-HAUSMANN: Can I first hear from the comparativists? Because I actually really am-- can I amend your question, too, and throw it-- I'm breaking all the rules. I would be interested, in addition to Avery's question, is there examples of backsliding and then unbacksliding in comparative? Do you see that there's a slight difference? Is it a resurgence of norms that can-- like, what are the processes that sort of move the other direction again? I'd be curious if there's any talk about that and any work on that, wisdom of that from comparative.
DAVID BATEMAN: So we can call that front sliding or electric sliding or something.
JULILLY KOHLER-HAUSMANN: Back, front, like the slide. Like the slide, like the dance.
DAVID BATEMAN: Ken, I'm going to turn it to you then.
KENNETH ROBERTS: Julilly, I think we're like the American democracy. There are no rules here that we're bound by.
JULILLY KOHLER-HAUSMANN: I won't take your question. But I'll ask a new one.
KENNETH ROBERTS: Let me just say-- let me respond to Julilly's point. Are there examples of not backsliding, but democratic breakthroughs, let's call them? And absolutely. I mean, I would argue the United States in the mid-1960s, in response to the Civil Rights Movement which put those issues on the agenda and basically took what was, at best, a limited segmented democracy-- I mean, maybe you could argue we had democracy for white Americans before 1965. But we did not have a national democratic regime. But the pressure of the Civil Rights Movement forced the regimes, the institutions to respond in ways that opened up the American democratic process and made it more inclusive and certainly made it more democratic.
And you look around the world, just one of the countries I work in, a couple days ago Chile, in response to a mass protest movement against the constitutional order left behind by a military dictatorship, Chile is now, after 30 years, going to open up and hold and elect a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitutional rules of the game. All right?
So there are certainly possibilities for democratic breakthroughs within the institutions. But we also see around the world many examples of democratic backsliding within the institutions. I mentioned Hungary before.
You could throw Poland in there. You could throw Turkey in there. There's a lot of concern as to where India might be going. There's concern as to where Brazil might be going. So there are a lot of countries, the Philippines.
So this process of elected democratic rulers using democratic institutions to whittle away at the norms and procedures of the regime itself is a very prevalent process we see around the world today. And I think if there's any basic lesson that I would bring home for understanding American politics today, I have to say, as a comparativist, I think there is incredible naivete in the United States in thinking that the institutionality protects us, and that there's something intrinsically democratic about the society or about our institutions that protect us from going through what a Hungary has gone through.
And what's extraordinary about Hungary is Orban has dismantled democracy without breaking the law and without violating the constitution. He has used democratic procedures at every step of the way to dismantle democracy. And what he's taught us is that there is nothing intrinsic about any of our checks and balances that guarantees that they will function as checks and balances. Every institution that is a check is also a potential instrument of partisan advantage. Whether it's the courts, whether it's congressional investigative commissions, whether it's the FBI, whether it's the Justice Department, they can all be used to insulate an executive from checks and balances or to go after your political opponents.
And that's what we see in places where democracy has backslid in many parts of the world. And that's what a lot of people are concerned about when we look at the impact of this polarization today in American politics.
DAVID BATEMAN: Yeah. That's deeply terrifying, the idea that every check can also be an instrument. Ali, I want to put it to you, the question that was posed by Avery of what lessons we can learn, both for understanding what's going on, but also perspective going forward.
ALEXANDRA CIRONE: And so I agree with Ken in that one of the interesting things here is we're seeing a longstanding stable democracy backslide a bit, or the use of authoritarian tactics. And we don't like that. That's scary.
We expect struggling democracies, democracies in other regions to do it. Even though democracy has not been around that long, we forget because we're the generations that grew up with all these freedoms. But that's when countries like Hungary take us by surprise.
Because if you happen to get a majority, especially majoritarian institutions, you can start changing the laws to then reinforce the fact that you'll be in power. And we're having arguments about the courts in the US right now. That's been one of the big election topics in the past month.
So in that case-- that's one of the reasons why the idea that our democracy is not as stable, it's a little bit more fragile than we thought, it causes us a lot of concern. But we do, and as a comparativist, you can look to other countries to see what techniques are in an autocratic playbook. And you learn from them. And then you try to recognize when they're happening in your country so you're not asleep at the wheel.
And so this idea when elites are calling mainstream media fake news, that's a tool from the autocrat's playbook. Autocracies interfere with the flow of information. Russia and China, they do not let their citizens have access to critical information, particularly about the regime. Right? This helps keep democracy down.
And the US politicians didn't invent this. But they're learning it. And so they're learning from authoritarian regimes that if you make people distrust the media, they're slow to act. Right?
They're not unintelligent. Voters can figure things out. But if you're not sure what's going on, you're more likely to take a step back, wait until you can figure out what's going on. And then while you're waiting, while citizens are waiting, that is when democracy is being dismantled.
And as we mentioned, it's usually dismantled in ways that voters might not see. These are not coups. These are making it harder to elect a certain type of judge, or dismantling one of the checks, a check that's boring that voters don't care about that doesn't make it to Instagram. That's kind of how this works.
And so on the bright side, we can look at the many countries that are facing democratic struggles to learn from them. But kind of on the dark side, this is not something that we anticipated would happen in a longstanding, stable democracy. And that's where a lot of the fear is coming from.
DAVID BATEMAN: I'm more scared than I've been, than I was. Julilly, raise my hopes a bit.
JULILLY KOHLER-HAUSMANN: Well, it's funny. Because I so appreciate hearing from my co-panelists that I'm actually tempted to make David, you talk about these things. Because you've actually thought about this within US history, really, in profound ways, about the process. I think there's a tendency for us to think about the arc of history as one that moves towards greater democratization. And I think, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think you've thought about the fact that we maybe shouldn't conceptualize American history that way. And we need to think that this isn't the way that all nations progress, I mean, certainly not across the world, but even in this country.
But I also think we should be careful to not overdraw-- I think it's completely accurate to talk about how incredibly disturbing a lot of these trends are. But I think we have to remember, or I think it's worth thinking about how, for instance, how little faith and engagement there was in US democracy, how incredibly powerful money is in this democracy, and the extent in which there is groups of people that have been silenced and degraded within the polity, both through formal mechanisms and informal mechanisms. That those are things that have been longstanding and I think set this-- also I want us to keep those things in place.
We have to understand, and I think we all would agree with this, that if we're talking about a robust, multiracial, egalitarian democracy, we're not trying to rewind to 1999 or 1957 or 1969. And that's one of the things that, when I'm hearing a lot of discourse in our sort of popular media, that there's sometimes I feel like we're sort of saying if only we could go back to President Obama. And I think that there were some deep, deep challenges to our democracy, to sort of a robust participatory democracy that's thought about beyond where you go at once every four years or once every two years, but really what it means to have some democratic control and democratic ownership of the fruits of the nation. So is that a positive spin? I don't know.
DAVID BATEMAN: It's positive enough. I'll cling to anything these days. And I am the neutral arbiter. I am the neutral institution.
JULILLY KOHLER-HAUSMANN: I'm going to drag you in.
DAVID BATEMAN: I am the Supreme Court sometime before 2000. That's my role.
KENNETH ROBERTS: David? Can I just briefly follow?
DAVID BATEMAN: Please.
KENNETH ROBERTS: Because I also want to give a positive spin. I don't want to be overly negative. I think we are going through a very, very rough period and obviously highly contentious period in American politics. That's why we're having this discussion. But if I project out six months or a year, two years down the road, it's possible that we just sort of muddle through this, although I don't think that's terribly likely.
My hunch is that either we may be in line possibly for some backsliding. But I think there's a real chance that we come out of this with a real advance towards the kind of more multiracial, more inclusive, more egalitarian democracy that Julilly was just talking about. And for me, that's the hope that I have is that through this difficult period that this becomes an opportunity for breakthroughs and for dismantling some of those anti-democratic features that Julilly was talking about a little while ago.
Because they are real, in terms of the impact of private money on the democratic process, the lack of citizenship rights for people who live in certain places in the country, voter suppression elements. I think we need to revisit things. Whether or not we revisit the composition of the Supreme Court, we should revisit the tenure of the Supreme Court, the electoral college.
There are a series of things in the United States that skew representation and basically that allow minorities to govern against democratic majorities. All right? So there is basically some highly disproportional elements in our electoral institutions, starting with the electoral college, but including representation in the Senate, some mechanisms that lead to high levels of disproportionality and that skew the democratic process. But I think we do have an opportunity to begin to rethink our Democratic institutions and think, are there things we can do to make them more democratic?
And I think there are some identifiable things that we can do. You can start by looking at the article in The New York Times the other day by Levitsky and Ziblatt and that basically laid out an agenda for that. And for me, the best hope to get there without question is an engaged citizenry. I don't have a whole lot of confidence in the institutions to figure out how to do it and how to reform themselves.
But a mobilized citizenry, that's what brought us the reforms of the mid-1960s to lead the United States at least in the direction of a multiracial democracy. And it's an engaged citizenry that is the best hope to try to come through this difficult period with democratic progress rather than democratic regress.
JULILLY KOHLER-HAUSMANN: I think that's such an important point to underscore-- and the role of social movements. I mean, I think that's such an important point, Ken. There's a lot of talk about institutions. But I think that it's always been social movements and organized citizens that have held those institutions to account. And I think that to the extent that we're looking for hope, I think organized social movements are going to be one critical place where that will happen. Citizens demand-- we be the democracy.
And that also means other democratic institutions. Like, there's an institution that is democratic in workplaces. It's called unions. There's all these places, there's all these democratic institutions that have been at a much slower slide.
That it hasn't been since 2016 that we've seen sort of erode. So there's a lot of mechanisms where we can sort of democratize American life. And I think that that's a key place where that sort of vitality has to come from.
DAVID BATEMAN: I find this an extremely illuminating conversation. In part because I think it has helped me, at least, think through what has struck me as really one of the tensions over the last several years in discussions about democracy and democratic breakdown and norms. And that has been in some sense, you're sort of trapped.
Once non-democratic elements in the political process start to break norms and start to repurpose institutions, on the one hand, you want to avoid a process of escalation, whereby you just turn around and break norms yourself. And so that seems to be this real worry, that you don't escalate. But on the other hand, you can't simply sit back and allow them to sort of be undermined and broken down one after the other.
So one of the questions I was going to ask you, but it seems that at least some indication of a direction forward seems have come out of this discussion, the question I was going to ask is can you revitalize American institutions, repurpose them, re-strengthen their democratic practices and democratic credentials without breaking norms, without really having to engage in the types of processes that have been critiqued? And perhaps pointing to what both Ken and Julilly point to as the role of social movement and an engaged citizenry is another way to think about that. It's less about sort of breaking norms than it is about repurposing and refounding new institutions.
So one of the questions that I want to end on-- and we have about 10 minutes left-- one of the questions I want to end on is how each of you would rank your thoughts for what is the most important institutional reforms? There's a question from the audience that sort of requests a bit more discussion on what the process of a contested election looks like and how it operates and how it plays out. And I want to turn this question to Ali.
Because I would be very interested in knowing, especially from the perspective of disinformation and fake news, what is the worry that people have? And this is a grounded worry for, say, November 4, we don't know what five pivotal states look like. What's your worry in that [INAUDIBLE]?
ALEXANDRA CIRONE: So I think-- and also, apologies. My radiator has decided to join the conversation. And it's broken. It's being very loud. So let me know if you can't hear me. I'll try to be quick.
So one of the things when we're thinking about reform, there's reforming formal institutions, which is maybe getting rid of the electoral college to make it more representative, or changing how states vote, like adopting ranked choice voting, which allows more of your preferences to be recognized in a single kind of voting shot. And then there's rebuilding these norms, so making sure that when crimes are committed, justice is served. Or making sure that politicians who lie don't make it into the next electoral cycle.
And so in terms of both of these, how fake news kind of relates is that fake news-- and particularly, I want to warn you guys about fake news and electoral fraud. Because you're going to see that. Next five days, it's going to be rampant. And you're going see two types.
So in the big news ecosystem, we have disinformation, which is false information but that's spread with the intent to deceive or mislead. And then we have misinformation, which is equally false but sometimes spread on accident. Right? And the problem is that both of these actually have the potential to undermine our trust in these formal institutions, let alone informal norms.
And so some of the fake news you might see might just be blatant lies that hopefully, all of you guys as engaged consumers, if someone is telling you that one side votes on November 4 and the other votes on November 3, that's a lie. Right? That's a blatant lie.
But something else we've seen is that so many folks are charged about this election, worried about this election, there are accusations of electoral fraud coming around, is that you might see speculation about potential reports of fraud on the ground. And so this actually happened last week in Virginia or maybe two weeks ago-- time is meaningless now-- where an online voter registration site went down. And there was an accusation that the cables had been cut. This is voter sabotage.
And so given our social media ecosystem, this tweet that was questioning whether there was goes viral. Turns out it was misinformation. So it was not electoral sabotage.
Verizon cut the cables, cut the cables to the entire neighborhood. It had nothing to do with the election. It was just an accident. Right?
However, the correction to that tweet, saying, hey, guys. It's fine. It's not electoral fraud. There is very, very little evidence of electoral fraud. Our democracy is highly functional. We all know that.
The first tweet goes viral. The correction does not. And the first tweet might make you think, as a voter that, oh, oh, no. Something is going on. Maybe it's not safe to vote.
Maybe it's not worth voting. This is all awful. Let me go watch Netflix. Whatever it does, however the mechanisms [INAUDIBLE], it might undermine your trust in mainstream institutions.
And so this is something that next five days, you're going to see a lot of. Because if you don't have trust in institutions, you don't participate in those institutions. And that's how fake news can really play a role.
And so while I have all of your attention, make sure to stop, read before you retweet, and don't get your news from social media over the next few days. Bookmark your local electoral commission. Bookmark your local newspaper.
Make sure it's your actual local newspaper and not a Russian troll pretending to be your newspaper. And if you see something, don't retweet it. Report it. So 1-866-OUR-VOTE is the electoral voter hotline.
Because there's going to be a lot of hot air about electoral fraud. Nefarious actors want you to believe it. And so you need to be strong. Have courage in the upcoming weeks.
DAVID BATEMAN: I take that very seriously. Again, I think going to the question from the audience was requesting some serious discussion of the political constitutional processes for a contested election. And just briefly say that, in case of a contested election, it really depends. The court could intervene before a certain date. After that, it goes to Congress.
And one of the things that I think Ali nicely highlights is just that, if you don't trust the court, whether because of misinformation or because of the processes that Ken and Julilly have been talking about, of undermining sense of belief in the democratic legitimacy of the actors and the belief that they have been taken over by one party or the other, if you don't believe the court or you don't believe Congress, then the capacity to accept whatever that contested election result produces is greatly diminished. And I think that that's one of the big worries for the next month if November 4 doesn't have a sort of relatively clear picture.
So we have about five minutes left. And I'd like to ask each of you for a couple of reforms, what you think would be maybe the top two or three things on your agenda for strengthening American democratic institutions going forward. So I'll start with Julilly.
JULILLY KOHLER-HAUSMANN: Oh, no. I was wanting to hear. I just wanted to say I like this. Well, it's funny. I don't study the news. But Ali's gotten me inspired.
And I do actually think that I would put something about the news in my top three. My husband actually studies the history and future of journalism, so I hear a lot of about this after our kids go to bed. But we have a structure-- I mean, Ali referenced this.
But we have a structural crisis in journalism in this country. We don't have time to get into the details. But I think Ali was referencing this. Newspapers used to be subsidized largely by advertising revenue in print papers, which has completely evaporated as the news has gone online. So online advertising pays pennies on the dollar.
And so basically, journalism is in crisis. Literally, since the early 2000s, nearly 2,000 papers have closed in the past 15 years. That's almost a fifth of all newspapers.
And during this same time, newsrooms have been cut by half. It's incredible. So we have whole communities that have no local news. That's what Ali was referencing when she said, make sure it's your local newspaper. Huge swaths of this country just literally don't have a local newspaper.
So when we talk about we need information to be able to make informed decisions in democracy, I think we're in a structural crisis about the access to that. We have entire state houses that have one reporter watching them. I mean, it's truly phenomenal what's happened.
And so the news that does exist, because of all the financial pressures, increasingly is behind paywalls. So misinformation is quite cheap and proliferates quite easily. But the information from The Washington Post, even these legacy news outlets, are behind paywalls.
So I think one thing is we need to think about news as a public good. And that the state should actually subsidize local journalism and investigative journalism. And there's 1,000 examples in other countries and I will let my comparativists talk about how we do that. But where it's locally controlled journalism.
I think money in politics-- so that's the one thing that I wouldn't have planned to talk about. But Ali got me inspired. The other thing that I would say is I think we can't talk about democracy without talking about money in politics and money in voice and the power of corporations and just money. I think that we absolutely have to talk about the democratization of the political economy, not just of actual institutions. And so I've sort of referenced unions earlier in different ways in which that participatory democracy sort of comes from the bottom up, through a whole host of institutions, not just your electoral, not just where you show up once every year or once every couple of years.
And then we don't have time. So there's actually a whole host of things about registration. Registration should not be a citizen's responsibility like it is in the United States. All over the world, the state takes that responsibility.
So we essentially have a sort of 2-step democracy, meaning we have to show up twice to be able to have your role. And so there's lots of universal voter registration things that would dramatically change the electorate. But it had been really sort of not enthusiastically pursued by other either party, frankly.
So anyway, I could go on. But those are the things that I'll say. And then I want to hear what other people have to say.
DAVID BATEMAN: Perfect. I'm going to turn it over to Ken. Two or three reforms, what would be at the top of your list?
KENNETH ROBERTS: Let me second everything that Julilly just said. She's put her finger on a number of very, very important potential reforms that I would love to see. Other things, Ali mentioned the idea of rank voting, which I think would definitely be a step in the right direction.
If we can't get to my wish list, which would include proportional representation, I think plurality, winner take all elections lend themselves to a whole range of distortions in the effective and proportional representation of different interests in society. I think it's a big problem in American democracy. So ranked voting would address part of that. Proportional representation even better, although that doesn't fit well with presidential [INAUDIBLE]. That's a huge set of issues.
More concretely, the things that I think are likely to be debated, the electoral college is without question an anti-democratic legacy of the past. There is no modern democracy that has anything like that. They have an indirect election of the president. It is inexcusable in a modern democracy to have the distortions of the democratic process that the electoral college creates. It should be scrapped absolutely without question.
The other key thing, just in terms of sheer democratic grounds, getting rid of the electoral college and giving citizenship rights to people in Puerto Rico, citizens in Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. There is no conceivable grounds to which you can legitimize having a colony in 2020 in the Caribbean of the United States. That is democratically illegitimate. And we need to give citizenship rights, full citizenship rights to the citizens of the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
DAVID BATEMAN: All right, Ali. What are your top two, top three?
ALEXANDRA CIRONE: So I agree with the panelists. So electoral college and some sort of proportional representation system, but those are actually the hardest things to do. Right? Because winners don't like to reform. And the checks and balances also mean that it's difficult. You'd have to have all three organs.
But two things I think we should do, go after the gerrymandered districts. So we have a huge issue where a lot of districts, probably a majority or our districts, are not competitive. And when districts are not competitive, voters aren't represented because the politicians don't need to. They feel isolated. New candidates, female candidates, minority candidates, different viewpoints don't even try to run, because there's no way that they would win in our type of system. so that is something we can do.
If our district looks like an animal, then that's too far. It should not look like a snake. It should look like a relatively contiguous block.
And also, mandatory voting! Hey, guess what? Let's just have everyone vote, have everyone registered, [? gets ?] [? rid ?] of voting rights. Other countries have done it. And you'll see that mandatory voting countries, citizens are engaged, you know, because you have to vote.
But also, I would take heart in the fact that we are a federal system. And so even if top down reforms are extremely difficult, getting rid of the electoral college is going to take a massive reform. But individual states in a federal system have the power to implement things like ranked choice voting.
And so for all of you in the audience, whether you're voters, whether you're future politicians, really, politics are local. You can effect a lot of cool, innovative, institutional forms at the state level that could then catch on. Someone sees that your state is doing really well with this type of-- you know, you're more likely to be able to achieve it at the national level. And so those would be my wish list. If Santa could come early, that'd be great.
DAVID BATEMAN: Thank you so much. If Santa comes early.
JULILLY KOHLER-HAUSMANN: I forgot to say felon disenfranchisement. Sorry. I had to throw it in. That's a really, really a core illness in our sort of democratic theory. Sorry.
DAVID BATEMAN: That would be felon re-enfranchisement.
JULILLY KOHLER-HAUSMANN: Yeah.
DAVID BATEMAN: Perfect.
JULILLY KOHLER-HAUSMANN: Ending-- but I mean--
DAVID BATEMAN: Ending disenfranchisement.
JULILLY KOHLER-HAUSMANN: Ending the idea that you ever trade away your voice in the polity.
DAVID BATEMAN: This is great. I really appreciated all of this discussion. I really appreciate the opportunity to hear from all of you and to learn from all of you. That's all the time we have. So I thank you very much. And I hope everyone takes care and is well.
JULILLY KOHLER-HAUSMANN: Thank you all.
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David Bateman, associate professor of government in the College of Arts and Sciences, moderate "Democracy Contested?" in an online Cornell community forum with three fellow faculty experts, Oct. 29. Panelsts: Kenneth Roberts, the Richard J. Schwartz Professor of Government; Alexandra Cirone, assistant professor of government; and Julilly Kohler-Hausmann, associate professor of history.