With authoritarians dominating worldwide – Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Orban, and Kaczynski, among many others – it is time for their democratic critics to unite, or at least carefully compare notes about the authoritarian threats, considering ways to oppose them, and ways to support each other. That is the purpose of Democracy Seminar 2.0.
I proposed the seminar more than a year ago. Since then, we have been developing it here on Public Seminar, as I explained earlier this year. The organizers of this “worldwide network of democratic correspondence,” met for our first face-to-face meeting on October 4 and 5. We gathered in New York, at The New School, on the occasion of its centennial festival , to access our progress thus far, to chart our plans for the next two years, as well as to take part in The New School’s celebrations. Ours is one of many efforts to create networks of scholars and intellectuals committed to defending democracy in dark times. What distinguishes our effort is its grounding in the experiences of the New School, beginning with its University in Exile of the 1930s, and our commitment to leverage and expand the scholarly networks that the New School has nourished since the 1980s, especially in Eastern Central Europe. At The New School festival, this grounding was commemorated with the re-conferral of Adam Michnik’s 1983 honorary degree (because he sat in a prison cell, he couldn’t then receive in person). We also enacted the connection when the Democracy Seminar 2.0 conveners had an open public discussion.
Coming from Turkey, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Georgia, and the United States, we shared the judgment that we are all in the middle of a global recession of democracy, with important variations on this common theme. Although the authoritarian leaders and their regimes have significant differences, they present a common challenge, and they often support each other, motivating us to work together urgently.
We proceeded from the specific to the more general and comparative, from observations to an exploration of the key question: “what is to be done?”
Only days after we convened, Trump facilitated Erdogan’s attack on Kurds in Syria, with helpful assistance from Orban and Putin, the significance of which Turkish seminar organizer, Utku Balaban, reported here . In response, our group also organized an international letter of protest.
Andras Bozoki expressed the judgment that the passive nature of the transition from communism to democracy in Hungary has provided the grounds for the very active transition from liberal democracy to authoritarianism, which Orban misleadingly calls “illiberal democracy.”
Jacek Kucharczyk ,who recently reflected on the question “Democracy in Poland?” here, maintained that the Polish roundtable agreement of 1989 was the bedrock for the establishment of democracy in Poland. A miracle of compromise, the memory of this agreement has been increasingly tainted by official accounts painting the compromise as an attack on Polish traditions of political struggle and armed resistance to “foreigners.” The foundational moment of Poland’s new democracy is now under attack. Irena Grudzinska Gross further reflected on early missteps that helped lead to this, as she describes in some detail in her contribution to the seminar, “How Poland Ruined its 1989.”
Jan Urban argued that the political parties coming into existence since the collapse of the Communist regime are fundamentally corruption alliances extracting government contracts. He also reported a staggering amount of media censorship.
Michal Vasecka noted that unlike Hungarians, Poles, and Czechs, Slovaks know they are on the periphery of Europe, and act accordingly. The kind of corruption Urban described has developed, but it apparently is now being tamed. In 2018, a young generation took to the streets after the murder of an investigative journalist, protesting against corruption. In 2019, Zuzana Caputova was elected President, the first woman and the youngest person ever to be elected as the head of state. The joke of the seminar was that Slovakia is our case study of hope, but Michal cautioned against excessive optimism about his native land. The situation looked bleak a bit more than a year ago, and its prospects could again darken.
Maria Bucur reported that Romania is different from the Visegrad countries. In Romania, there was a stronger continuity of the communist party and a less definitive break with the past, thus delaying change for five to ten years. Romania entered the EU in 2007, missing out on many opportunities for foreign investments, resulting in a much harsher face of neoliberalism. Kleptocracy was disguised as democracy with a party of nepotism in power, the Social Democrats. Sustained anti-corruption protests and an anti-corruption prosecutor, Laura Codruța Kövesi, make it so that the upcoming elections in May could turn things around. There is some hope that Romania may be taking a Slovakian road.
My colleagues were speaking about the situation of their own countries, and as they did, I heard echoes of Trump’s America. Jeff Isaac underscored this at our gathering, and he, along with others, have developed these connections in greater depth in Public Seminar posts.
At our meeting, we wondered whether there might be a fundamental reason why our experiences were so similar, even as they differed in their specifics.
Adam Michnik, as is his custom, got to the heart of the problem. The crisis in democracy began when democracy began, he maintained, because democracy, as a matter of principle, is the only system that tolerates its enemies. Michnik believes that it’s a mistake to maintain that the weaknesses of Eastern European democratic systems are primarily a result of communist legacies. In Poland, it rather has to do with how Polish democracy has been destroyed from within. Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Poland’s ruling Peace and Justice party, has managed to transform political conflict into a religious war. An enemy was needed, and while in the past, it had been communists, liberals, or Jews, Kaczynski has recently decided to focus on LGBTQ people and so-called “gender ideology.” Kaczynski’s single-minded concern is with what he is convinced has always constituted the essence of the Polish soul. Michnik went further and declared: Kaczynski’s propaganda is comparable to Goebbels’, and behind it is a wall of religious conservative ideology, and money.
With these reflections in mind, we discussed turning points, pivotal moments, issues, and events when we perceived democracy’s self-destruction and the enduring social, political, and economic problems revealed in these events. Jeff Isaac noted that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the United States, which opened the franchise to the descendants of slaves, also generated a backlash that culminated in the election of Trump. Michal Vasecka pointed to “ the night of long knives in Slovak parliament,” which opened the gate to escalating corruption only recently closing. Irena Grudzinska Gross highlighted the introduction of religious education in the public schools of Poland in 1990, which has come to support a deeply conservative and xenophobic understanding of the Polish nation and its history, with the government and its supporters openly displaying fascist symbols.
These and other events, we agreed, were manifestations of fundamental problems: corruption, fear, scapegoating, chauvinism, perceived marginalization, economic breakdowns and breakthroughs, inequality, sexism, racism, and xenophobia.
And Julia Sonnevend underscored an important dimension of all this: events and problems are mediated by digital means of communication that erases boundaries of time and space and create new possibilities and new dangers. Mentioned were highly publicized media events, such as Smolensk for the Poles, the murder of Kuciak in Slovakia , and the activities of Kovesi in Romania . How such events are mediated can work to support or to undermine democratic institutions and activities.
We are developing our committee of democratic correspondence in a time of fractured and polarized public life in our home countries and worldwide. While new media very much contribute to this polarization, we plan to use new media forms to develop our seminar and to expand its reach.
I perceived, among my colleagues, a shared understanding of our dangerous circumstances. It goes something like this: rapid change has yielded winners and losers, and the new authoritarians appeal to both. New cultural opportunities and perspectives have left many confused and resentful. Longing, especially among the older and the rural, for the good old days when men were men, and women were women, and when subordinate groups and foreigners knew their place, is pervasive in our countries. But it is not only the old and those in the hinterlands who see it this way. In major cities, as well as the remotest villages, both among the poorly and the well educated, old reactionary myths and phobias are finding fertile ground. They are supported by the seamy side of religious traditions, and by the hothouse generated by new media. And they are opportunistically exploited by cynical politicians. Some of the new authoritarians seem to be genuinely committed to their paranoid style of politics , believing their imagined conspiracies are very real. I think this may be the case of Kaczynski. Others seem to believe little beyond their narcissism. That, in my judgment, is Donald Trump.
The main outcome of the seminar discussions was the enthusiastic commitment of all concerned to continue the conversation, via the sharing of posts and essays, and further meetings, and efforts in our home countries to use Public Seminar to build networks of like-minded democratic public intellectuals. We agreed to further explore the topics we discussed and to welcome new ones as they arise. We also agreed to invite contributions and responses to them by colleagues interested in joining our branch seminars, and by others who would wish to join us (starting with pitches as described here ). Significant contributions further developing our discussion themes will be published in the Democracy 2.0 series of Public Seminar .
We are inventing our committee of democratic correspondence as we go along. I think we made significant progress at our first meeting, and we look forward to more conversations online and in person. We know, of course, that what we do together will not directly lead to dramatic political change, as the American Committees of Correspondence did in the 1770s. But we are committed to working together, to support each other, to illuminating publicly relevant insights into the problems of our dark times, and to cultivating pockets of hope.
Even as we know that the work of Democracy Seminar 2.0 will not on its own lead to dramatic political change, initiatives such as ours do create a kind of power that can indirectly lead to major change , the power of the powerless , as Vaclav Havel put it. His major premise, presented in 1978, was that if people act in a way that is truthful to their own experiences and self-understandings, and do so in concert with others, they create a power that could challenge post-totalitarian states, as indeed happened. Our goal is to constitute this power now, among our democratic correspondents, as we are embedded in struggles in our own countries and as these struggles are interconnected. We hope that this can inform the work of journalists, academics, policymakers, activists, and citizens, as they confront the new authoritarians.