Authoritarian democracy is on the march on both sides of the Atlantic. Despite alarming parallels, the U.S. remains better positioned to preserve and rebuild true democracy.
The election of Donald Trump shows what happens when democracy misfires. It echoes recent developments in Europe, most notably in Hungary and Poland, where elected leaders are attacking democratic pluralism, minority rights, and civil liberties, keeping the forms of democracy without the substance. The same trends are proceeding in France, the Netherlands, the U.K., and other European democracies where far-right parties under the banner of populist nationalism are pursuing racist and xenophobic objectives.
Having returned to the United States this fall after seven years in Hungary, I am struck by the shocking parallel between what is happening in Europe and here at home. The Trump election signals a sharp turn toward the populist far right. The presidential campaign was marked by the denigration of women and minorities and the rhetoric of racial extremism. The president-elect’s early appointments include people with these views. Civil liberties are threatened. Foreign alliances are in jeopardy. The risk of war is heightened.
Countless studies have shown that democracies are less likely to go to war, torture their own citizens, and censor the media. That's one reason why Western governments and philanthropic foundations funnel more than $10 billion every year into promoting democracy overseas. For example, donors fund efforts to help train election observers, educate voters about their rights, and train local media outlets to cover political issues.
In the last year, more than $70 million have been spent on such projects in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a poor and fragile country emerging from over two decades of armed conflict. That may sound like a lot of money, but in relative terms it's not. The American, British and Canadian governments alone spent more than eight times that amount on democracy promotion in Afghanstan during the country's most recent elections.
A specter of treason hovers over Donald Trump. He has brought it on himself by dismissing a bipartisan call for an investigation of Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee as a “ridiculous” political attack on the legitimacy of his election as president.
Seventeen US national intelligence agencies have unanimously concluded that Russia engaged in cyberwarfare against the US presidential campaign. The lead agency, the CIA, has reached the further conclusion that Russia’s hacking was intended to influence the election in favor of Trump.
"The Trump transition team asked the State Department last week to submit details of programs and jobs that focus on promoting gender equality. Maybe it’s for benign purposes — or better, a signal that the administration wants to make women’s empowerment a cornerstone of its foreign policy. But this seems unlikely, to put it mildly, given that such a commitment was absent from Donald J. Trump’s campaign, and alongside Mr. Trump’s vow to defund Planned Parenthood.
Whatever the reason for their request, Mr. Trump and Rex W. Tillerson, his pick for secretary of state, should remember that women’s rights are tied directly to national security. The State Department’s gender equality programs are not just politically correct fluff — they deal with matters of life and death, like rape during war, genital cutting, forced marriage and access to education. The State Department provides essential funding to combat these problems."
The Carr Center for Human Rights Policy launched an ambitious initiative in the fall of 2019 to advance the renewal of rights and responsibilities in the United States. The initiative aims to develop research and policy recommendations around six broad themes of concern: democratic process; due process of law; equal protection; freedom of speech, religion, and association; human sustainability; and privacy.
In the most recent Carr Center Discussion Paper, Mathias Risse looks at the Pompeo Commission as a jumping off point to reexamine the distinction between natural law, natural rights, and human rights in the modern day.
Recent presidents who threatened rights have been reined in. Richard Nixon used the power of the presidency to attack the Constitution and his political enemies, but the House of Representatives voted to impeach him. Ronald Reagan tried to overturn hard-won legislation on the rights of women and minorities, but civil society groups and a bipartisan congressional coalition beat back the attack. George W. Bush introduced the use of torture in violation of domestic and international law, but resistance inside the federal government led to reinstatement of the torture ban.
Following these examples, a new citizen movement must mobilize the assets of American democracy to protect basic rights and freedoms in the Trump era."
"When I was growing in St. Cloud in the 1960s and 1970s, I was already dimly aware that we were an immigrant community.
In particular, I knew the parents and grandparents of many of my schoolmates had come from Germany because I was always in the homeroom full of the kids with German last names — the Schmidts, Schneiders, and Schwartzs. A number of these students came from poor farms outside town. They had to be up very early in the morning before school to help on the farm, before the long bus trip to school, and they came to homeroom, the first class of the day, smelling like the barn.
If I could, I would apologize to those students today for my cruel remarks behind their backs; I, who had the luxury of spending too long every morning in the bathroom getting ready for school (according to my older brother).
Many of the immigrant families in St. Cloud were Catholic, not only from Germany, but from Poland and Ireland. To this day, Census figures show that well over half of the individuals in the St. Cloud metropolitan area trace their ancestry to those three countries."
"Amid the flurry of executive orders issued by President Trump during his first week in office, one remains a work in progress. A draft version of the executive order on the “Detention and Interrogation of Enemy Combatants” has been leaked. It is a complex document with many provisions — all appeared designed to make it possible for the Trump administration to return to Bush policy of secret kidnapping, detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists.
Although the Trump administration has publicly backed away from some aspects of the order, Trump’s decision to appoint Gina Haspel — who has been accused of running one of the Bush era secret prisons that tortured inmates — as deputy head of the CIA suggests that Trump continues to be interested in returning to past practices. The mixed signals coming from the administration mean that it is still important to explain what a return of the secret prison system might mean."
WASHINGTON — More than 130 members of America’s foreign policy establishment denounced President Trump’s revised travel ban on Friday as just as damaging to the United States’ interests and reputation as his original order that halted refugees and froze travelers from predominantly Muslim countries.
In a letter to Mr. Trump, the former government officials and experts said even the scaled-back order will “weaken U.S. security and undermine U.S. global leadership.” And they said it continues to signal to Muslim allies that — as the Islamic State and other extremist propaganda profess — the United States is an enemy of Islam.
Read the full letter in The New York Times, Carr Center Senior Fellow Alberto Mora is one of the letter's signatories.
Why does Donald Trump exaggerate the size of his inauguration crowd, brag about his election win in conversations with world leaders, and claim without evidence that voter fraud may have cost him the popular vote? Why does he dismiss protesters who oppose him as “paid professionals” and polls that reflect poorly on him as “fake news”? Why does he call much of the media the “enemy of the people”?
There are explanations for these things that focus on the individual, characterizing Trump as a self-centered reality-TV star obsessed with approval and allergic to criticism.
But there is also an ideological explanation, and it involves a concept that gets mentioned a lot these days without much context or elaboration: populism.
An authoritarian nationalist regime in Hungary is threatening a renowned international university in Budapest. Legislation introduced last week by the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban would fundamentally alter the legal status of Central European University and could force it to shut down or leave the country.
What’s going on in Hungary is not a local political dispute, but a frontal assault on liberal values essential to democracy and academic freedom.
On July 19th, we celebrated the 170th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention, a gathering that launched a global movement to secure the right to vote for women. As people in the US and around the world lament the state of our democracy, now is a good time to reflect on an anniversary that reminds us of how democratic change occurs.
Women’s suffrage was the most radical demand that Elizabeth Cady Stanton included in the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments in 1848. When Stanton first suggested a suffrage resolution at the Seneca Falls Convention, even her most resolute supporters were afraid that it might make the women’s movement look ridiculous and compromise their other goals. Voting was considered the quintessential male domain of action. Resolutions on other issues at Seneca Falls, such as equal access to jobs and education for women, passed unanimously, while the suffrage resolution carried by a small majority and only after eloquent speeches by Stanton and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. It would take decades of struggle, including parades, protests, arrests, hunger strikes, and force feeding, before the US acknowledged women’s right to vote in 1920. The struggle to secure the vote for African Americans is an even longer story that can be traced from the Civil War to current voter suppression in states like North Carolina.
Our appreciation of voting as a radical demand secured through decades of struggle has been lost in US politics today, as reflected in low voter registration and turnout. At Harvard, where I teach, 59% of eligible students voted in the 2016 presidential election and only 24% in the 2014 midterm elections. This spring, I did a small set of focus groups with Harvard undergraduates to gauge their attitudes toward voting in an attempt to understand these low numbers. In every group, at least one person clearly articulated the belief that voting is a privilege and duty of citizenship. A small number argued that there was no duty whatsoever to vote and that there might be good reasons not to vote. Most students, however, fell in between these two positions. They argued that voting is the right thing to do, but that it is optional and that there are many reasons why it is acceptable not to vote. These reasons include lack of compelling candidates, lack of information, lack of interest, and lack of a personal stake in the matter.
“All of us have to collaborate in helping people exercise their legal right and their civic duty to vote”
These students revealed disillusionment with the political system, saying their vote would not make a difference. Voting was one option for participation in a democratic society, but for many of the students it held little meaning or impact. The passion of Seneca Falls was missing. One student mused, “I wish that there was a way … to make people more enthusiastic about voting. … apathy is a huge problem…”
People often assume college students don’t need advice or help to vote, especially Ivy League students. But many of the students found the US voting system genuinely complicated, and antiquated, especially in the case of absentee voting. At times, what the students described reached the level of voter suppression.
We need to continue the struggles launched by the activists in Seneca Falls to expand voting. If some of the smartest and most motivated young people in America today find voting difficult, we have a responsibility to help them and many others as they navigate the often complicated and sometimes hostile terrain of the US voting system. Voter suppression has been a conscious and well-orchestrated set of policies in many states; voter encouragement must be no less conscious or collective. Ensuring that US citizens enjoy the right to vote is very much the work of our government and political parties, but should not be left only to them. All of us have to collaborate in helping people exercise their legal right and their civic duty to vote.
Kathryn Sikkink is the Ryan Family Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at Radcliffe
"Eight years ago, on the eve of the 2010 midterm elections, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell declared that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
McConnell’s declaration of war on the Obama presidency ushered in the age of extreme obstruction and polarization in Congress. It also foreshadowed an eight-year Republican campaign to suppress or dilute voting by the coalition that elected Obama. That effort has intensified in the Trump era and is targeted at groups with low or uneven voting participation rates, especially minorities, young people, and immigrants."