Ezra Klein, the founder and editor-at-large of Vox, and contributing editor at New York magazine, blogger and author Andrew Sullivan debated the question of how democracy dies.
In an Oct. 3 conversation moderated by Prof. Liz Anker, English, the two panelists sparred over the root causes of the current political landscape — and what may be done to fix it.
“The country is changing too fast — [people] don’t recognize it anymore,” Sullivan said. “and that’s why the most winning slogan in Brexit was ‘take back control.’”
Klein, on the other hand, had a more optimistic take. For him, even though “there is a feeling of crisis, rupture, and fracture … most institutions are doing reasonably well” in light of the social progress since the 1970s.
“We are probably more of a democracy today than we were in the 1980s — 1985,” Klein said.
Hosted by the Cornell Political Union in conjunction with Cornell Law School, the forum featured the two speakers debating concerns and solutions to problems with democracy, including the rise of “fake news” and the question of whether a liberal democracy is better protected by the elites or the people.
“Liberalism is a commitment to a set of universalistic rules that protect minority rights and protect generalized rights within larger democratic system,” Klein said to the room, which was filled with 200 people.
But that commitment has withered, as the ideals of liberalism and democracy have come to increasingly diverge, Sullivan argued.
Paradoxically, “we are less liberal because we are more democratic,” Sullivan said. He asserted that authoritative institutions which traditionally have held people together, such as the Christian Church, have slowly lost ground to more individualistic forces, like social media.
Klein, however, rejected that sentiment. When asked if well-educated leaders — the elite — would serve as better protectors of our current system, he argued that the masses are still equipped to be liberalism’s best defenders.
According to Klein, if democracy is reformed so that people can more effectively lobby their politicians to address people’s needs, voters will be increasingly compelled to pick centrism over populism.
The problem of fake news — and whether we currently are in a “post-truth” era — similarly divided the panelists.
According to Klein, the phenomena represents nothing new, noting that sensationalist reporting has been an ongoing feature of American life since its founding.
“News have mostly been fake for most of human history,” he said. ”The founding fathers, a bunch of them, ran newspapers that were just publishing lies about all the others.”
But this take was met with skepticism by Sullivan, who said the concept of “fake news” instead marks a deeper, more fundamental rift between news and democracy itself.
“Accepting truth requires to some extent acceptance of authoritative truth,” Sullivan said. “It requires a certain level of obedience to authority. Democracy despises that — doesn’t like that at all — doesn’t like being corrected.”
Both panelists did, however, find one area of agreement: The media must exercise better judgement.
“The inability for editors to apply judgement … to say, ‘this is news and this isn’t’ — that everybody is chasing their tail around the thing Trump tweeted this morning — is really bad,” Klein said.
In particular, the panelists thought that the media must report politics clearly, and with less partisan emotion, so that both parties could see each other as humans.
For instance, Klein pointed out that “if you look at all of the policies across Democrats, and all of the policy of the presidential contenders, there’s reams of border security,” highlighting that, even on an issue embraced by conservatives as a priority, there still exists broad policy similarities across both parties.
In a similar gesture to comity over division, when asked by an audience member on what the best way to promote interaction and understanding is, Sullivan responded with a plea to the students in the room: “to break down this [the culture of] elites constantly gravitating towards the coast,” students need to go “back home and help rebuild the communities you left.”