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Democracy Mobilizes the Better Angels of Our Nature

Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., discusses the deeper roots of populism; the threat that nativism, protectionism, and isolationism present democracies; and why America’s policy towards China should be a contest of ideas about how the world should operate.

Interview with Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) July 21, 2020 //   17 minute read

Tom Malinowski served as U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor from April 2014 – January 2017. Before that role, he worked for Human Rights Watch and started his career working for the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Long before then, he immigrated as a young child with his family to the United States from communist Poland.

Now a Democratic congressman from New Jersey, the Berkeley graduate spoke with Lindsay Lloyd, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of the Bush Institute’s Human Freedom Initiative, Chris Walsh, senior program manager of the Bush Institute’s Human Freedom Initiative, and William McKenzie, senior editorial advisor at the Bush Institute, about the deeper roots of populism; the threat that nativism, protectionism, and isolationism present democracies; and why America’s policy towards China should be a contest of ideas about how the world should operate.

Below is an excerpt from his video interview.

How might Americans best respond to this crisis that has arisen after George Floyd's senseless killing. What do we want other democracies learning from our response?

The best argument for American democracy has never been that we are a perfect and just society. It is that we have mechanisms to correct our imperfections, to address injustices. The best lesson that I hope the rest of the world takes from this is that, despite all of our current frailties, American democracy can still do that.

We can do that through a combination of peaceful public protest, mobilizing of civil society, free elections that enable us to put pressure on elected politicians, and a free press that exposes these problems by showing video footage of police brutality that offends the vast majority of Americans. All of these things together combine to offer a solution to the problem. I would argue that it is already happening in an interesting way.

I don't think our leadership in the United States is doing a very good job of leading the world but the American people still are. Look at the demonstrations in Europe, not just in solidarity with Americans angry about George Floyd's killing, but also looking at policing issues in European countries.

Even with our unsettled situation politically in America, we're still showing we can lead the world by example. That inspires me.

Look at the demonstrations in Europe, not just in solidarity with Americans angry about George Floyd's killing, but also looking at policing issues in European countries. Even with our unsettled situation politically in America, we're still showing we can lead the world by example.

We are seeing a resurgence of nativism, protectionism, and isolationism around the world. What impact do you see these “isms” having on democracies, including our own?

They are a threat to democracy. I don't think they're a new threat. Throughout history, we see these cycles. Aspects of human nature do not encourage us to be kind and inclusive. They encourage us to be more selfish, to be more fearful of our fellow men and women. It is part of human nature and democracy cannot defeat human nature.

But democracy can still provide the greatest likelihood of mobilizing the better angels of human nature to prevail in situations like this. I'm still hopeful that will happen.

I do think we need to be focused on some particular trends that have made it possible for some of these nativist, populist, and increasingly authoritarian movements to spread across the world and to take hold even in the United States at a moment when one might have thought they were a thing of the past.

You mentioned populism. How do you see it affecting democracies? Is it just a reaction to people who are facing economic dislocation through globalization or automation? Or is there something of deeper concern?

It is a deeper problem in human nature. We have this tendency when we are feeling insecure to look for simple solutions to our problems, to look to blame somebody for those problems.

We have this tendency when we are feeling insecure to look for simple solutions to our problems, to look to blame somebody for those problems.

The problems can be economic in nature. It can be insecurity with regard to terrorism or immigration. And whenever people feel that way, we've historically seen leaders arise who take advantage of it for selfish ends by encouraging suffering people to seize upon a simple solution and somebody to blame. That's always been with us.

Of course, this is a threat to democracy, especially if you define democracy as not just the will of the majority, but a system that respects human rights, competing opinions, and that places checks on the authority of those who have been elected.

What is the effect when the United States is withdrawing from or threatening to withdraw from international organizations like the World Health Organization or international treaties like the Trans-Pacific Partnership?

It is terrible. Forces around the world are more than happy to fill that vacuum. The United States is still the only country with not just the will but the capacity to lead these institutions. And not just for our own narrow self-interest but for the common good.

People around the world look to us to do that. Our absence not only creates a vacuum that is filled by authoritarian powers such as China. It's also dispiriting to good people around the world who need the United States to be playing that role, who need to see this powerful country at least most of the time trying to do the right thing. If we don't, who will?

In my travels around the world, I've visited refugee camps and countries in conflict. I've never met a single person who walked up to me to say, “Tom, I'm really furious at France for not helping us. I'm really mad that China is not stopping this civil war or righting this wrong.” They are often angry at the United States because they expect better from us. They expect us to play that role. People still believe that America can be that country and want us to be that country.

When you think about the flow of people across borders for various reasons, what is the impact on the stability of democracy in our own hemisphere here, but also around the world?

I would have said until recently that it can only be positive. The more we get to know each other and the more ideas spread across the world, the harder it is for dictatorships to isolate their people from challenging ideas.

Sometimes, insecurity goes along with the free movement of people and goods. For every million good people who traveled, there's one terrorist who can do a tremendous amount of harm. Openness does create an opportunity for authoritarian populists to spread fearful ideas.

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The way in which information spreads across the world has changed very dramatically in the last decade. We now get most of our information through social media, not through mediated news sources that are open to multiple ideas and that are actually managed by human editors who make responsible decisions about what is truthful and what is fake, what is an important argument and what is just propaganda.

The information we're getting now is totally unmediated. It is directed at us not by responsible journalists, but by software algorithms that are designed to accentuate extreme views, to accentuate content that plays to our emotions, particularly our negative emotions. And the results are plain to see from America to Brazil, to India, to Western Europe. Politics is increasingly driven by the extremes.

The information we're getting now is totally unmediated. It is directed at us not by responsible journalists, but by software algorithms that are designed to accentuate extreme views, to accentuate content that plays to our emotions, particularly our negative emotions.

What should we do about this new information ecosystem?

That's something I've been struggling with and considering legislation to deal with. In addition to pressuring big social media companies to be more responsible, there is room for more regulation than I would have been comfortable with, say, 10 years ago. Should social media companies be entirely free of liability for the content that they publish? And I do believe that they are publishers. I don't think that they're just the community bulletin board that allows anybody to post anything and they're not responsible. They write these algorithms that promote certain forums that elevate certain forms of content over others that determine what news you and I receive every single day.

We need a serious conversation about limiting some of their protection from liability for algorithmically-promoted content that can lead to violence and cause people to follow harmful misinformation. That kind of legal pressure would, I hope, lead the companies to change some of their business practices to minimize that effect.

As you know, there's an element of fear when it comes to perceptions about the flow of people across borders. To what extent might that be rooted in the fear of a loss of national or cultural identity? And what might democracies do to address that fear?

We ought to be in a better position to do so in the United States because our cultural identity is based on an idea. It is not based on skin color, religion, and ethnicity. The idea of what it means to be American has always been, at its best, that we are a country dedicated to democracy, liberty, the rule of law, and a particular conception of rights and responsibilities.

...our cultural identity is based on an idea. It is not based on skin color, religion, and ethnicity. The idea of what it means to be American has always been, at its best, that we are a country dedicated to democracy, liberty, the rule of law, and a particular conception of rights and responsibilities.

People from all around the world can come here and become American instantly if they embrace that set of rules, that contract. Americans can still be inspired — and still are inspired — by that idea. Even if some of us unfortunately cling to the notion that to be Americans is to be white and Christian.

The United States has that advantage because we can point to our founding ideals to promote a more open and generous definition of national identity. This may be a little harder for some other countries that don't have the same traditions, but they can work to evolve in that direction. America got this right when we got started so many years ago.

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How can democracies help strengthen local communities that have experienced dislocation through automation, immigration, or the forces of globalization to see the benefits of a more globalized world?

We do have to take seriously legitimate fears and insecurities. On immigration policy, for example, I believe we need to be open to refugees. I would support generous asylum policies. I believe America is stronger when we welcome hardworking entrepreneurial people from all around the world. I think a wall on the Mexican border is a stupid waste of money.

At the same time, I believe that we are a rule-of-law country and we need to enforce laws that determine who can come here and who cannot. People like me who favor generous immigration, refugee, and asylum policies need to always start by reassuring folks — and believing this — that immigration laws should be enforced and that, of course, we should police our borders.

By the same token, an open liberal society needs to remember that there are significant dangers to our security, threats to our security coming from around the world. We do need to be concerned about terrorism. We do need to be concerned about problems halfway across the world, like the civil war in Syria, which created massive refugee flows that I think contributed to the insecurity that many Americans and Europeans feel.

We do have to invest in our military. We do have to be global leaders, in part, because if we don't address these sources of insecurity, it will be harder to maintain a consensus at home for a tolerant open and liberal society.

You wrote recently in the Washington Post that we should frame U.S. policy towards China as a fight between competing ideals, not between countries. So how do democratic capitalists best respond to China's authoritarian form of capitalism?

We have to start with understanding what the contest is. We're not trying to defeat China. In fact, in this contest, the people of China should be seen as allies, as people who largely share the values that we are trying to defend.

It is a contest between two different ideas about how the world should be run. We stand for the rule of law. We stand for the notion that people and countries need to play by a common set of rules that are rooted in principles of respect for the dignity and equality of every person.

Some of those are human rights rules. Some of those are trade rules. We don't want countries exploiting each other, stealing each other’s intellectual property. Some of them are national security rules. We don't want big countries invading small countries or claiming large parts of the ocean as their exclusive territory and excluding others.

We want these problems to be resolved by common adherence to a set of rules. That's what we're fighting about. And as long as we frame it in those terms, we're going to have allies from all across the world. Other democracies, ordinary people, including ordinary Chinese people will line up with us.

If we make it about the United States versus China, our nation versus your nation, we're going to lose everybody. We are going to lose every person living in China by definition, and even our closest allies are not eager to get involved in that kind of fight. Why should they favor the United States over China in some sort of nationalistic struggle?

Without allies, we can't prevail – not against a nuclear-armed, great power with the power to hurt us in all kinds of ways. The argument that I made is that we need to make it about broadly-shared ideas.

If you agree with that, then how you win is not a hard thing to answer. We win by being different from China, we win by living the values that we are championing. We win by being open to refugees. We win by showing the world that we can resolve our domestic problems because of the strength of our democracy, not despite being a democratic and open society. And we win by rallying allies to take on the Chinese in a principled way on issues of trade and security and human rights.

 

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