The democracy of our discontent

Thank god for Eric Munson's photos Eric Munson /THE REVIEW
Speaker Sheri Berman (left), Moderator Daniel Kinderman (center) and Speaker Jan Zielonka (right) during the panel.

Staff Reporter

Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University, and Jan Zielonka, a professor of European politics at the University of Oxford, told students on Thursday that liberal democracy has a future despite its checkered history.

The term “liberal democracy” does not refer to the political spectrum. It instead refers to how democracy relates to liberalism and individual rights.

Berman and Zielonka recently published books about liberal democracy and explained their inspirations for writing them.

“I was very concerned about the state of democracy in the world today,” Berman said.

Her new book, “Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe,” is a historical nonfiction work that explains how democracy and dictatorships evolved in Europe. It spans a time period from the French Ancien Regime, the sociopolitical system in France from the 15th to 18th centuries, to the present day.

Berman said her main inspiration to write the book grew out of a class she was teaching about developing democracy in Europe.

“One of the things I had to do was to continually think about what my views of liberal democracy were,” she said.

Zielonka’s new book, “Counter-Revolution: Liberal Europe in Retreat,” is a historical nonfiction work that aims to tackle the many problems in modern Europe from a political, economic and cultural viewpoint.

“The reason the counter-revolutionaries are so strong is because we are so weak,” Zielonka said.

His reasons for writing the book stemmed from Brexit, the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, and his belief that the fundamentals of liberalism are in disarray.

Both Berman and Zielonka agree that it is important to address what went wrong with democracy in order to figure out how to solve the problem.

The two speakers explained what they called the “political discontent” about liberal democracy. Berman said that economic inequality and high levels of immigration are factors. She traveled to Sweden and noticed the prevalence of immigrants who became citizens

“Sweden currently has more foreign-born citizens than the entire United States,” she said. “Compare that to 30 years ago: nothing.”

Berman said wealth disparity causes people to feel resentful toward each other, especially if it is someone who is very wealthy.

Zielonka added that Poland and Greece both suffer from economic problems, but for different reasons. Greece continues to suffer from debt and an unstable market. Over the past 25 years, Poland’s GDP now counts for nearly 60% of the total GDP for Eastern Europe. Zielonka was alarmed by the high growth rate, saying that the growth is unsustainable and leads to wealth disparity.

“Poland is a champion of inequality,” he said.

Zielonka said that bad foreign policy helped to fuel the problems with liberal democracy, particularly when dealing with the ongoing crisis involving Syrian refugees.

“We pay people like [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan to keep refugees in detention camps,” he said. “It’s just stupid.”

Both Berman and Zielonka agreed that in order to solve the problems with liberal democracy the populace needs to accept diversity and be willing to acknowledge that the majority cannot always get its way.

Berman said that technology helps advance society, but the government needs to give citizens the tools and skills to be able to succeed, including access to higher education and job retraining.

“It would be foolhardy to hold back technological advancement,” Berman said. “They can adapt as the economy adapts.”

With regard to Trump, Berman said that most of his voters were “not educated” white men and that he won many of the swing states by a slim margin of votes. She did not say that she supports him, but she did say that he appeals to his followers.

“Trump has gone beyond dog whistling,” Berman said. “He’s good at stoking divisions and fears.”

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