If America frames its response to Russia and China as one of “civilizational struggle,” Diamond says, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping will only get stronger.
In his latest book “Ill Winds,” Stanford University professor Larry Diamond identifies three major threats to democracy: “Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency.”
Of Russia, he says that the country is a “fallen superpower” that has inserted itself into elections around the world “to make Russia listened to again,” pushing candidates who “shared Vladimir Putin’s extremely illiberal, anti-Muslim and anti-equality” worldview. And China, he said on the latest episode of Recode Decode with Kara Swisher, is an “increasingly authoritarian” state where “George Orwell meets Aldous Huxley,” powered by both ethical and unethical forays into emerging technologies like AI.
But at least in Russia’s case, there may be another way out. The technological prowess it has developed to do that could be redirected toward developing a “Silicon Valley in St Petersburg or Moscow,” Diamond said.
“I think that there’s great potential for Russia with its scientific and technical and computer science talent,” he said. “To compete in a serious and noncriminal way in the new global economy. So I think where this is going to end is that someday a growing proportion of Russians are going to figure this out and say, ‘We want a better, more genuine and more sustainable path to prosperity.’”
But there’s a serious risk, Diamond warned, that American policymakers could undermine the possibility of reform if they don’t “separate the leaders from the people” and demonstrate that their “criminal corruption” is not in the best interest of the people they rule.
“If we frame and pitch the response, which has to be a competitive response, it has to be a pushback, as a pushback on Russian society, on Russian people — and then by the same logic, the Chinese society and the Chinese people — that this is a civilizational struggle, we’re going to rally these two adversarial countries, in a way,” Diamond said. “We’ll rally their people around their leadership. We’ll make things worse and we’ll be at risk of sliding into a new Cold War.”
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Larry.
Kara Swisher: Today in the red chair is Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor at Stanford University. He’s also the author of a new book called Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency. Larry, welcome to Recode Decode.
Larry Diamond: Thank you for having me, Kara.
I love the Russian rage. It’s exactly right. Chinese ambition, American complacency. Let’s talk a little bit about your background, how you got to covering this very serious and problematic topic. It’s been one for several years, but yesterday the Mueller hearings were … Very clearly, he talked about this as a big problem going forward, whatever has happened previously. Let’s talk a little bit about your background. How did you get to discussing this topic?
Well, Kara, I’ve been studying the development and failure of democracies for 40 years.
Yes, you have.
I’ve been looking at how democracies struggle to emerge and improve and avoid failing in Africa, Asia, to some extent, Latin America. I spent three months in Iraq after the invasion trying to do what could be done to help the Iraqi people in that ill-fated situation. I never dreamed I’d have to worry about defending liberal democracy in the United States or that it would be at risk within the European Union, but the growing evidence that that was the case and that we were descending into something very deep and dangerous in terms of the trends for freedom in the world, that’s what motivated me to write the book.
What’s interesting is, after the Soviet Union fell, everyone thought the very opposite would take effect. It actually happened right around the same time the internet grew. It was all around the same time frame, because I remember traveling to the former Soviet Union then and using very early digital communications tools and they … That was where they began to spread. I want to link those two … I talk more about technology, but can you sort of set the table after that happened? I think most people felt that democracy was on the rise. You had Prague Spring, you had all these different governments that were now out from under authoritarian regimes, you had China opening up.
Democracy was on the rise for a great stretch, a 40-year period beginning in the mid-1970s when it was very gradual with the re-democratization in Latin America and southern Europe. And then you remember the People Power Revolution in the Philippines in 1986.
Sure. Corazon Aquino.
Right. And all of that of course is unraveling now under a real authoritarian personality, Rodrigo Duterte as president. And then, of course, the big bang of democratic expansion after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. And let’s not ignore the exhilarating changes in sub-Saharan Africa and South Africa and other parts of the African continent. It all looked like freedom was just going to continue to be on the march. But this trend of democratic expansion began to turn down, and first stagnate and then accelerate in its retreat after the US invasion of Iraq, the US-induced financial crisis that almost brought about a second Great Depression, and the acceleration of globalization and lots of people feeling like they were falling behind.
So for the last 12 years, freedom has been trending in a downward direction. I do want to say something, Kara, about the technology aspect, because I’ve founded a program at Stanford called Liberation Technology to study what were very exhilarating uses of technology to empower people …
That’s right, that was the idea at the beginning.
Yeah. To enable change and really to promote liberation all the way from the empowerment of grassroots action in the United States, in the Howard Dean and Barack Obama campaigns, the mobilization of protest and political innovation in both advanced and emerging democracies and many of the new People Power movements, including the Arab Spring movements, all of which were using digital tools to mobilize protest. And what’s happened, and I think has greatly deepened the retreat of freedom in the world and the downward trend, has been authoritarian regimes figuring out the code, if you will, and turning these tools in on themselves into mechanisms of surveillance and repression.
One hundred percent. I always say, someone was talking about the internet and dictators don’t like the internet. I go, “Dictators love the Internet. What are you talking about? You can control it in ways that are … and you can abuse it and use it in ways …”
If you’ve got the tools and the understanding.
That’s right, that’s right. That’s what I meant.
And increasingly, China has the tools and is willing to share them and the understanding.
Right, exactly. And so when you began to see this, your book is called Ill Winds, and you want to say saving democracy. Let’s go through, why Ill Winds? Why did you call it that? I just want to get a sense of … the idea is these are blowing in and it’s bad news.
Well, there are four ill winds that have been blowing now and that I think are accelerating. The first is the general march of authoritarian populism in Europe and now, unfortunately, the United States under pressure from globalization, the cynicism promoting features of social media. The second is Russia trying to make hay of this and intervene in the politics of European democracies, intervene in the politics of our electoral democracy, promote confusion, promote division. We know they did this in 2016, and even trying to tip the election to their favorite candidates, in this case, Donald Trump.
The third ill wind is China emerging as a superpower, wanting to control the narrative and co-opt people and preempt any criticism of it. And the fourth is the growing polarization and dysfunction of democracy in the United States, and then the new context of an authoritarian personality in the White House and complacency everywhere.
Right. There’s nothing we can do about …
And low voter turnout in people thinking that it’s just one more increment. There’s nothing special about it. And of course, complacency in the Republican Party just rolling back and letting this happen.
Right. So let’s get to each of these things because the first part I think is the, as the authoritarian populism moves into place combined with cynicism and people. Talk a little bit about that to begin.
Well, we’ve seen a rise in a number of European democracies. Even Sweden — we think of Sweden as such a liberal democracy. But the third largest political party in Sweden now is something called the Sweden Democrats, which is a right wing, anti-immigrant, nativist party that says, “Please don’t bring your Muslims and your” — if I can put it crudely — “your brown-skinned people here to white Sweden.” We now have a political party in Germany that, I think it’s an overstatement to say it’s a neo-Nazi party, but there are are neo-Nazis in it. It’s called Alternative for Germany.
And in the last German elections, they became the third-largest party. So we’ve seen …
Right, passing the Greens, right? Yeah.
And with Marine Le Pen and the National Front in France, with Matteo Salvini and his remarkable electoral success in the last Italian elections, and now in the European Parliament elections, is probably the most dynamic and influential party in Italy.
And again, he’s not a fascist, but he’s had awfully admiring things to say about Benito Mussolini, and he hates immigrants. And you look at one European country after another and you see partly as a backlash against what they see as a “crisis” of immigration. And there certainly were elements of a crisis with the flood of Syrian refugee immigration in 2016. These parties are gaining and they are playing on other dimensions of the unease that important segments of the democratic public have about inequality, about the failure to keep up with globalization, about feeling like they’re losing out in this global economic competition, worrying about whether they’re going to have jobs.
Many of the things that drove support for Donald Trump in the United States, men feeling like they’re losing their status in the sexual revolution and the gender revolution of women’s advancement, gay rights, minority rights, you know, everything. A lot of established, older, and more rural populations are having trouble assimilating all this and feel like they are the last minority left that isn’t being listened to or isn’t being given some help in this competition.
So there’s that. This is the first part, which I think is the most critical, is this shift, because of things that are reasonable to be worried about, in terms of especially income inequality and feeling like your job is at risk and everywhere in the world that probably most fueled by this immigration issue, these immigration problems that are throughout the world.
It’s been the hottest button and it’s been the most powerful trigger in both continental Europe and of course the United Kingdom with the Brexit movement and now the election …
Of Boris Johnson.
Of Boris Johnson, or the rise of Boris Johnson, as Trump-like a figure as there is in the United Kingdom, even looks a little like Donald Trump, to become the new prime minister of the United Kingdom. There’s a lot of similarity between what’s going on in Europe and this constituency and this melange of frustrations in the United States. And yes, immigration is a very powerful trigger, but I think it’s very important that we not ignore the deeper set of anxieties and frustrations that’s driving those, and that we recall how important general feelings of identity threat and identity resentment are.
I think an important reason why Hillary Clinton did not win the Electoral College — I’m reluctant to say did not win the election — but an important reason why she lost the Electoral College and narrowly lost the vote in many of these heartland states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and so on, is that there’s a large segment of rural and suburban and exurban voters in traditional occupations, in farming, in manufacturing, and so on. And even some in the more kind of modern edge globalized corporations and elements of the economy who feel disrespected by the so-called knowledge elite, feel demeaned and feel like they don’t matter anymore. They’re looked down upon. And that sense is really driving a lot of this political backlash.
That continues, that continues.
Oh, I think there’s no doubt that it continues.
It seems endless at some point. And it continues to be fueled by the way media continues to do that. The twitchy culture.
Yeah. And our segmentation into completely different media spheres, completely different social spheres, and different social media spheres. So we’re not talking to one another. And I think that, you know, if I can just bring it forward to 2020, if the Democrats don’t find a candidate who can transcend some of that and reach out to these people and draw some of them back into the Democratic Party, there’s a really good chance Donald Trump is going to be elected again in 2020.
Right. Absolutely. I agree with you. But there’s a lot of outward forces here.
Let’s start with Russia, because I was at this security conference and it was really interesting, Russia and China. They were talking about Russians almost as if they were mobsters, like that they had lost the Cold War, from a military perspective and economic perspective, and here was cyber attacks and these kinds of things were the way in in order to try to promote these, promote the things they had lost previously. They pulled the Chinese out in a very different way. So Russia is the short-term threat to create discord and China is the long-term threat with their ambitions all over the world with using tools, using all kinds of economic empowerment of areas. Can you talk a little bit about what you mean by Russian rage and Chinese ambition?
Okay. And I think the distinction you introduced and that dominated the Aspen conference is exactly the right one, and it’s the one that I build upon in the book. Russia is a fallen superpower, and that’s very hard for people in a country to go from being one of the two most-important countries in the world to being a kind of afterthought or also-ran. This is hard for the Russian elites who were used to thinking of themselves as a major player in the world, as highly relevant and as a domineering force, certainly within their geographic space, which at a minimum would include the whole former Soviet Union, but of course Europe and the Middle East as well. It’s hard for the people who not only saw their economy shrink much more dramatically and for much longer than happened in the Great Depression in the United States, but also feel as Russians that they’re no longer people in the world who are looked up to or considered highly successful.
Right. It also had a long-term history of xenophobia of nationals.
And there’s that, and intolerance and authoritarianism. So I think there is rage in Russia at both the elite level and frustration and, if you will, rage that can be mobilized at the broader national level, which is why Putin continues to be a substantially popular person, though with much more resentment against him than is sometimes acknowledged.
We just saw a little glimpse of that the other day. I forget where, there was some protest.
In Moscow. Yeah, over the effort to prevent any serious opposition candidate from running in the Moscow city council elections. So the Russian rage is part of an effort to restore, to make Russia great again, to make Russia powerful again, to make Russia listened to again and to give Russia significant geopolitical control and resources and leverage again.
And we see this in many ways. One thing they don’t want is to be constrained by sanctions. And so any effort of Europe and the United States to sanction them for their bad authoritarian and geopolitically irresponsible behavior has to be a very high target of pressure on their part. And so a big part of their strategy is to try to defeat and delegitimize the political actors and parties in Europe and the United States that would try and limit the Kremlin’s efforts to exercise inappropriate influence and control and restore some of the old Soviet ways to Russia’s presence and posture in the world.
And that meant going after Hillary Clinton, that meant going after some of the liberal centrist and Christian democratic and social democratic political forces in continental Europe and lifting up alternatives that were essentially pro-Russian and shared Vladimir Putin’s extremely illiberal, anti-Muslim and anti-equality, in a way, social equality view of the world.
Now the way they did this first, in Brexit and in continental Europe before they rolled this out in a highly visible way in the United States in the 2016 election, was through social media penetration and all of the masquerading as American actors and our social media debates and purchase of Facebook and other social media ads that Robert Mueller has documented and others have documented were done in the US election campaign. And that we know were done, by the way, in the Brexit campaign.
Yeah, they were the test. They tested other places and then Brexit was the big test.
And one of the most important right-wing illiberal leaders in Europe, Marine Le Pen, who wound up being in the final round of contention for the French presidency in 2016, has admitted that she received a very large loan from Vladimir Putin. So he is deeply, deeply intervening in the politics and in the media. And of course, again, the social media of Western democracies trying to confuse and divide them, trying to challenge the notion that there is any objective truth and trying to aid his natural political allies who are — if I can put it cryptically — Steve Bannon and everybody who thinks like him. And they’ve had a lot of success and they’ve learned a lot from their initial forays into our society and our political and social debates, and they’re coming back to do it with greater sophistication, greater masking of what they’re doing, so that it won’t be as easy to call it out this way.
Well, I always say it’s one of the things about the Russian incursion saying to Facebook, for example, is you’ll never figure it out and it’ll be so confusing that you’ll doubt it. You just don’t know where it hit you or where it affected you or where it had its point. That’s the point.
And you throw a lot of darts on the board and they don’t all have to land so you try a number of different things. But we need to ramp up our defense of this, both as social media companies and as the United States federal and the 50 state governments very rapidly, and I think we know what they’re doing now. We know what their goals and objectives are. We know at least what some of their techniques are.
What is inexplicable is that the Senate majority leader of the United States, Mitch McConnell, is holding up legislation that is widely regarded by experts as necessary to secure our electoral infrastructure for 2020, knowing the kinds of things that the Russians did, knowing the capabilities that they have, knowing that they were in the voter registration databases of 20 American States in 2016, and it almost certainly would pass the United States Senate if it got to the floor. Why is Mitch McConnell trying to block the United States from being more secure in its electoral administration and infrastructure?
Because if he loses, they could say it’s not secure, and if he wins it’s like, “Well, it was fine.” Like it wasn’t a problem. That to me is the most cynical reading of it.
Well, I think that is essentially it. And I would just put the cherry on the top of your sundae and say tragically, I think the only explanation that can really survive close scrutiny is that many Republicans, including the Senate majority leader, must think, “Hey, this is going to help us. Why stand in the way of it?”
And when you think that that amounts to an invitation, which Trump has kind of tongue in cheek given to the Russian leader to intervene all over again in our election in 2020, to have the foreign adversary and one of the greatest threats to US and European national security have a clear and unobstructed path to intervene in our election, I think is pretty close to treason.
That’s what many people think. So what happens with the Russian rage? Where’s the end point of it?
I think the end point will be a growing realization that the emperor Vladimir Putin and his corrupt oligarchy network around him, that they really were not close. They are frauds in terms of what they’re offering Russian society, people’s lives aren’t getting measurably better as a result, and that there is an alternative, more modern, responsible, transparent, and promising and innovative pathway for Russia to apply.
Kara, just think what this country could do if they took all the digital skills that they are using in the Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg and elsewhere to try and pervert and subvert and confuse American and European democracy and created a Silicon Valley in St Petersburg or Moscow or whatever to compete in positive ways in the global economy.
Oh Larry, they’re troublemakers. They’re always the troublemakers. You know that.
I think that there’s great potential for Russia with its scientific and technical and computer science talent …
To compete in a serious and noncriminal way in the new global economy. So I think where this is going to end is that someday a growing proportion of Russians are going to figure this out and say, “We want a better, more genuine and more sustainable path to prosperity.”
They’re just making trouble. Just cheating.
Yes. I just want to add, until then, we have to be careful. And this is an injunction that I think applies both to our relations with Russia and to our relations with China. If we frame and pitch the response, which has to be a competitive response, it has to be a pushback, as a pushback on Russian society, on Russian people — and then by the same logic, the Chinese society and the Chinese people — that this is a civilizational struggle, we’re going to rally these two adversarial countries, in a way. We’ll rally their people around their leadership. We’ll make things worse and we’ll be at risk of sliding into a new Cold War.
And that’s why in our messaging, in our outreach, in our engagement, in our framing, we have to look for ways to separate the leaders from the people and to show — not as an exercise in similarly cynical mischief to what Putin is doing in the United States but as it matter of forthright, transparent analysis — what these leaders are doing is, first of all, criminal corruption in terms of ripping off their societies. And second of all, not in the long-run interest of their people.
Right. Absolutely. So talk a little bit about China, though, because it’s a very different situation. I do consider this the new Cold War. We’re already in it. I think we’re in it and it’s a digital Cold War, essentially, and it’s a lot easier to do it from the Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg than it is to have troops all over the world. It’s a much more effective use of money.
But China’s different, because I think there’s a lot of innovation going on in China. There’s a lot of really interesting companies. You have a government that completely backs education companies, they have a plan. It’s a much different approach and I think most people feel like China is where the real game is happening.
Right. I think anyone who is focused on the long run of US national security or US international economic competitiveness sees this and I’d say the plan is fairly transparent. They want to be the global leader in high technology in the coming two decades, which is why they’re pushing very aggressively to provide and control the telecommunications infrastructure of the future, which is what the debate over the 5G cellular networks are about.
But of course it’s more than that. We know that they have been involved in a dedicated process over three decades to acquire by any means, fair or foul, everything from sending their graduate students over to learn our high technologies of communication and digital infrastructure satellites, drone technology, robotics, gene editing …
Yup, they control drone, they control robotics, gene editing. They’re ahead on pretty much everything.
Well, artificial intelligence. Yeah. They’re not ahead on all of this, but they are taking the lead in some of this and drawing even in other parts of this. And one of the things that’s so alarming about the technological element of it is that they’re plowing back all of these forms of technology into the People’s Liberation Army at a breathtaking pace of modernization and expansion of their military capacity. And that has …
Which is where its most ambitious citizens go, rather than to Silicon Valley. They’re facilitating the army. I mean, they have …
Certainly where some of them are going, and I don’t think it’s where all of the most ambitious go. A lot of the really ambitious Chinese …
It’s a tight relationship between the companies and the military and the government.
You know why? Because China is not a democracy.
No, I’ve heard.
It’s a deeply, deeply, and increasingly authoritarian country that now, with the social credit system and the expansion of the surveillance state and the emergence of these concentration camps in Xinjiang province and so on, is taking on some really chilling neo-totalitarian properties. So if the state says to Alibaba or Tencent or whoever it might be, “Hand over your data,” and they have no choice — Huawei or anyone — they have to hand it over. They may not be loving collaborators and compatriots of the Chinese Communist Party state, but they certainly are a reliable one because they know that they can’t exist if they aren’t.
It’s also interesting, pretty much a homogeneous society, too, that allows that control. What I found really most interesting was how much money, internal control, how much money they’re spending on internally controlling their citizens.
Be it a digital technology, whether it’s cameras everywhere, whether it’s these concentration camps, you can easily see it moving into chipping people. All kinds of stuff like that. The amount of money for internal controls, most of which is using technology, is really … It’s a number, it’s quite a number when you think about what it could be used for.
Well, they haven’t chipped people yet, but they’re getting close to it and in other ways in terms of taking iris scans.
Iris scans, yeah.
And collecting people’s DNA, and then you create a complete profile of a human being. You have their genetic information, you’re gathering all their digital information, you have super computers that are compiling a record of every financial transaction they’ve ever made, and of course you are collecting their political history of commentary on the internet and that’s what the social credit system is. You mash this all up and you can compute a score of political reliability that will enable you to determine how much you want to reward or punish people.
It’s a full surveillance economy essentially, I think.
And then we don’t even know where this is headed genetically, but they don’t have the ethical constraints — or at least there is worry among people who look at this that they don’t have the ethical constraints — in gene editing that we do. And this is why I say …
There was a controversy about that. It was a Chinese doctor.
Yes, exactly. This is why I say China is the place where George Orwell meets Aldous Huxley.
That’s really funny but horrible at the same time. So what happens with this? Where do you imagine it going? Because to me, the Russian thing feels like it will eventually be a traffic accident there in Russia, but in this case it’s quite organized and quite … except for the fact that they need to control their population, which is always not the greatest thing, because eventually you can’t control populations. Where does this go to?
So let me speculate on two places where I think it’s heading. One is internal and the other is external. The external is a kind of moment of truth in terms of China’s bad behavior internationally. It’s rising use of bullying, sharp power that is distinguished from the soft power that democracies had been exercising by the fact that it is — to quote the former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull — covert, coercive, or corrupting. The People’s Republic of China has been for some years now penetrating deeply into universities, think tanks, the entertainment industry, corporations, local government, and other sectors of advanced industrial democratic societies, with Australia and New Zealand — because of their proximity — being, I think, the canaries in the coal mine.
So one place where I think it’s going, Kara, is an awakening and a pushback by democratic societies. And although Trump has probably, I think, been too crude and too indiscriminate in his trade war — and I worry about some of the language and some of the mentality that his partisans are bringing to this because he can easily descend into McCarthyite ethnic stereotyping and something very, very ugly and dangerous — I think there is a growing consensus on Capitol Hill across party lines, Democratic and Republican, that we need to respond to this and draw boundaries around China’s ambitious effort to extend its influence into all sorts of arenas of social, cultural, and economic control. And I think this awakening is going to balance the playing field a little bit more in the coming years.
The more intriguing question is where is it headed internally in a country where most people support Xi Jinping and think he’s doing a great job and are proud that China is finally awakening and breaking off the mental and cultural, if not still economic and geopolitical chains of a century of humiliation that began in the 19th century with …
The Opium Wars.
… the Opium War and a colonial presence and so on.
It’s all great while the merry-go-round keeps going round of economic growth and simply dizzying transformation in the physical circumstances of people’s lives. What happens when economic growth continues to slow, as it’s significantly doing now? Possibly the economic growth rate of about 6.5 percent annually that they’ve announced as being their growth rate might be overstated by as much as two percentage points. What if there’s a financial crisis because of all of the extraordinary corruption in the banking system and in the state corporations and the lack of accountability there and so on? A lot of people think they’ve got enough money to see themselves through it, but there’s a lot of vulnerability, too, there.
If there is a crisis economically or financially and a lot of people lose their savings and the merry-go-round stops going around, people are going to start asking, “What have you done for us lately?” If you can’t continue to provide us with this dizzying material prosperity, at least give us freedom and accountability.
Right. Right. That’s what’s going to happen. Both of them have problems, but at the same time are marching forward.
Let’s finish up talking about American complacency. On one hand, one of the ways that we have done well is by competition and being fully aware of creating small businesses in order to compete where the best ideas win, but we’re complacent in our election security. We’re complacent in the impact of social media and on partisanship and our own mental states. We’re being complacent on moving forward on innovation and how to innovate into the next century. We have owned the technology century so far, perhaps not going forward.
Well, let’s start on the technological and economic fronts, since we’ve been talking about that with respect to the primary challenge we face from the People’s Republic of China, and then I really would like to get to the political dimensions of this.
A major report looking at China’s technology transfer strategy, and that was the title of the report from the defense innovation unit in January of 2018, came to the following conclusion: Yes, we need to tighten up restrictions on Chinese investment in the United States. We need much closer monitoring, a much more vigilant approach, but we also need to up our game. That’s the logic of what you’re saying, and upping our game, I think, Kara, has multiple dimensions to it. Promoting innovation in small businesses is part of it, and then there’s the question of how you do that when the two digital giants, Facebook and Google, have so much of the marketplace now.
There’s also the question of federal investment in research and development.
China is pouring money into the technologies of the future and our companies are, but our federal government is not.
It used to be the case that the United States …
It’s gone from 30 percent to 2 or something? It’s some incredible amount.
Yeah, [it was] 3 percent of gross domestic product in the United States in federal research and development spending, and now it’s 0.7 percent.
Right. It’s an enormous dip.
We need to get back to … The defense report suggests at least a federal investment level of 2 percent of GDP in research and development. I’ll give you a very specific example. We have now realized that we’ve been caught napping in the race to build the telecommunications infrastructure of the future, the 5G cellular communications platforms. We are way behind. I think that we’re not going to catch up without a massive federal investment that involves a public-private partnership between government and a variety of corporations, and I think we need both the federal government to provide the funding for that in collaboration with private companies. We may actually need to relax our rules on monopoly practices in order to get corporations at the scale where they can do this rapidly enough.
Which, we’re going the opposite direction on that, but go ahead.
Yeah. We have to be careful because we could stifle innovation by going too far in that direction, but we’re in an urgent situation where if we don’t recognize the need as we did in the immediate aftermath of World War II, as we did in the race to the moon that we’re now celebrating 50 years later, if we don’t recognize the need for concerted, scientific, and technological government investment now in partnership with our private entrepreneurial instincts, we’re going to fall further and further behind.
Some feel that they are too big. Their argument is we need to be big in order to fight, and a lot of other views — ours is — “You are this big and you made this mess.” You know what I mean? It’s sort of the two-edged — the double-edged sword, in that regard.
It is. It is an agonizing double-edged sword, but I will just say now we’re not going to get there rapidly enough without …
Powerful internet companies, powerful tech companies.
Yeah. Also, the technological companies probably like Qualcomm and so on that are our only bets on the 5G front. On the politics side, let me say that part of the complacency is just kind of sleepwalking into the future with our current models and not asking whether they’re working any longer. What is the magic of the two-party system at this point when the two political parties have brought us to this polarizing impasse of complete incapacity to pass legislation? We are just increasingly trapped in our foxholes on Capitol Hill, and I think this is what you get with the first-past-the-post electoral system where everybody is elected from a single-member district, and then whoever gets the most votes wins.
If it’s simple first-past-the-post, whoever gets the most votes wins, you’re not going to be able to exit from the polarizing trap of our two-party duopoly because one or the two of the other two parties is going to get the most votes almost everywhere because people are going to be afraid to vote for any kind of innovative third alternative because they will be fearful that they are wasting their vote.
We’re so polarized that you fear, my God, if you waste your vote …
“I’ll take Biden because …” Not because he’s best, perhaps.
Yes, if you waste your vote then you’ll be helping to elect the really monstrous alternative.
Now this interacts with what’s happened in our primary election system where the people who turn out in our party primaries are the ones who are most intensely ideologically motivated.
That is what is driving the two political parties increasingly further and further toward the ideologically defined positions, if you will the ideological extremes. This is why I put so much emphasis in my book, it’s the single most important America-centered recommendation in my book on ranked-choice voting. If you have enabled voters in single-member districts still to rank their choices, one, two, three, four, they are liberated from this trap of thinking, “I can’t vote for a spoiler.”
Now they can vote their sincere preference. It might be some moderate independent who’s offering a third way between the two extremes. It might be a libertarian, a green candidate, a candidate who wants to colonize the planet Mars. I don’t care. I want to enable them to have a voice and to have people be able to listen to them and not feel like they’re wasting their vote if they want to say, “That’s actually my first preference. If they don’t make it and nobody gets a majority of first-place votes, then we’ll have an instant runoff and my vote will be transferred to my second choice.”
Right. Which we did in San Francisco.
Which is the way London Breed was elected mayor of San Francisco and which is used in Oakland, in Berkeley, in Minneapolis, in St Paul, in Portland, Maine. It will be used in Santa Fe, and it’s being used in an increasing number of American cities.
Part of the, I think, hopeful story in my book is the way America is seeing a revitalization of grassroots politics around the cause of political reform. We had, in 2018, Maine become the first state in the United States to adopt ranked-choice voting. We’ve seen a number of voter initiatives to eliminate partisan gerrymandering of election districts, which is really a gross offense against democratic principles.
Well, they have to cheat. They’ll cheat until they can’t cheat.
Well, and then you’ll have the person who drew the district boundaries, like the Senate majority leader in North Carolina, walk out of the gerrymandering exercise and say — which he did — “The only reason why we drew a redistricting plan to give the Republicans 10 of the 13 congressional seats in North Carolina is because we couldn’t figure out a way to draw a plan to give us an 11th seat.” I mean, they’re not even being apologetic about it.
No, overt is the new corruption, just so you know.
We had Florida in 2018 vote to give felons the right to vote, to nonviolent convicted felons. We’ve gotten more and more states moving to mail-in ballots as the default option so that people have the freedom to vote whenever we want to.
Whenever they want. Do you have great hopes for digital voting on your phones and things like that?
No, I think it’s very dangerous, and for now, I think we need to be very wary about it because of the danger of hacking.
Right, right. Well, there’s two parts. A lot of this, I’m going up to Microsoft this week, tomorrow, to see their new voting system, which is encrypted and paper ballot, to a backup paper ballot.
That’s the key.
If you follow the logic of election security experts and an organization that I work with, Verified Voting, you have to start from certain first principles, and one of them is, there should never be an election of consequence in the United States that cannot be audited and recounted.
You can’t do that unless you have a trail of paper ballots.
Right. Both of them at the same time. All right. Let’s finish up. What do you think is the key thing to push American complacency out of it? What has to happen?
Well, I think a few things. No. 1, in terms of the reforms we need, I think that we’ve got to push now on a number of state fronts for ranked-choice voting. Massachusetts is going to put a voter initiative on the ballot, probably in 2020, to do this. There’s interest growing I think in other states in the United States to move to ranked-choice voting at the state level.
Federal action, I think we’re not going to get because to get it through both houses of the Congress I think is a long stretch now, but let’s do what we did in the progressive era in the early 20th century and start getting momentum at the state level, through grassroots action.
And eventually that can accumulate into pressure on the federal government. I think we’ve got to drive a stake through the heart of gerrymandering. The Supreme Court unfortunately abandoned what I felt was its constitutional imperative to do this and said, “Look, if you’re going to do it, you’re going to have to do it politically in the states,” but we’ve done it in some states. We need to do it in more.
We need to empower voting in the United States and expand it, and we need to fight what is, I think, the most cynical dimension of the era of zero-sum politics and defection from democratic norms that we have entered, which is voter suppression, which one party is doing in a number of different states and jurisdictions with all sorts of rationalizations that they offer about efficiency and cause and cheating and so on, but which they know in their hearts and probably in their private deliberations — and we can know from their actions — has the explicit and probably sole purpose of preventing minority voters from voting.
I don’t want to allow a situation in the United States where so many people marched and lost their lives in the American South to finally get to a full democracy in the United States where everybody could have the right to vote, only to retreat to the pre-1965 era.
They’ll keep trying, right?
I’m afraid so.
What is the one thing — and we’ve got to go — that technology people can do from your perspective? You’re right in the heart of technology.
I think they’ve got to moderate and vet content much more aggressively to try and find ways of transcending polarization and diminishing the scope for Russia or any other malevolent actor to poison our social media atmosphere.
All right, Larry, this is big thinking. Thank you so much.
Thank you, Kara.
I totally recommend this book. It’s a terrific book called Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency. Please read it. It’s a really important book to think about, and thank you for coming on the show.
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Author: Eric Johnson