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Democracy Works

135 EpisodesProduced by Penn State McCourtney Institute for Democracy/The Democracy GroupWebsite

Examining what it means to live in a democracy


Andrew Sullivan on democracy’s double-edged sword

This is one of the most pessimistic episodes we’ve done, but it’s worth hearing. Andrew Sullivan, New York magazine contributing editor, Daily Dish founder, and former editor of The New Republic, is a longtime observer of American politics who does not shy away from controversial opinions. In this episode, we discuss the tension between liberalism and democracy, and how that tension manifests itself around the world.

The way Sullivan sees it, the “us vs. them” rhetoric and attitudes in our culture have gone so far that the moderating values and virtues of liberalism will no longer be able to intervene. We also discuss the relationship between dignity and identity politics, and the parallels between the United States and the United Kingdom.

Thank you to our sponsor, Penn State World Campus. Learn more about their Master of Professional Studies in the Psychology of Leadership at

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More from Andrew Sullivan

New York magazine column

His lecture at Penn State on “American Democracy in the Age of Trump” 

Interview Highlights [6:18] How do you think about democracy in your work?

There are two core types that I think about, liberal democracy and illiberal democracy. Democracy itself I think is a two-edged sword. Pure democracy, Plato would tell you and so would Aristotle, is extremely unstable and the founders certainly believed that as well. They were very cognizant of what happened to the Rome of Republic.  Liberal democracy requires certain virtues. It requires the ability to have a deliberative conversation to use reason, as well as emotion, but reason is the core function of it, and openness to other ideas and toleration of radical different world views than you, within the same culture. And that’s hard. It’s really, really hard. It’s harder than we think.

[7:56] Of those things, what concerns you most right now?

I think that it is human nature in fast changing societies and fast changing economies and the world is changing extremely fast, to seek security. Democracy’s promise is not ultimately security, it’s freedom. And there are moments in history where freedom is more popular than non-freedom. And I think the massive migrations across the world and the globalizing of the economy has created the seeds for the need for not having every view represented and not being tolerant of everything. And actually stopping things that might otherwise be associated with liberal democracy.

[10:20] What role does dignity play here?

I think one of the eternal human demands is meaning and youthfulness. And I think large numbers of people in the West, especially those who are unskilled. Who’ve earned their livings in the past by rather honest labor, but aren’t educated or intelligent or in the new media. I think they’re confronting the fact, and it’s not that they’re inventing this or imagining this. The fact that they’re not really needed anymore for the economy, for the society. And that’s a terrible thing to feel. I think that simultaneously, we see a decline in religion and that also helps people keep it together. You see across the West, but especially in the U.S., a huge crisis in opioid addiction in these very communities that feel that meaning has disappeared.

[13:40] Is democracy equipped to respond to our current political moment?

One can certainly hope so. It’s certainly been rather resilient facing other crises, but the last time we had a major, huge global economic crisis, the 30s, it didn’t do too well. And liberal democracy has also been I think held up somewhat by the generations  who still remember that and don’t want to return to it. But as generations emerge who don’t remember that at all, liberal democracy will seem like as if, maybe we should do away with this.

That’s why I’m concerned that younger generations seem to have much less support for democracy than older generations. I don’t think they see very clearly, what the alternative actually is, and it tends not to good. I mean, democracies are actually better adapting than authoritarian societies to change. But authoritarian societies can arrest change more successfully. They can seal off a country, they can make it so that, they’re more resilient against it and that changes that are happening also don’t happen there.

[17:54] Can small-scale efforts to reform democracy add up to a greater change?

Yes, they do because liberalism is also about the maintenance of rules and norms and institutions that keep a society free and open. And what you saw for example in the decline of the Roman Republic was small, tiny little breaks in tradition. That suddenly created a new baseline for future actions politically. So the minute a consul, for example, overstays his term limit because of some emergency or some question, suddenly the whole idea of term limits is open and the next one will be three year until you get someone with six years as consul. This is laying the grounds for someone permanently in control maybe if that’s the essential question.

[29:40] We’ve identified several problems with the state of liberal democracy around the world. Which one needs to be tackled first?

The rule of law. As simple as that, really. And constitutional norms. And you must defend them against these forces that want to undercut, undermine them. The other thing is simply the force of moderation. Liberal democracy emerged as a response to religious warfare, in which groups of people, again, consumed internally with their own cult, their own religion, could not tolerate  living with another. And therefore, fought, for hundreds of years, creating incredible change.

It was the moment when western Europe decided, “You know what? We just don’t think it’s worth it. Let’s just live and let live.” That was when liberal democracy began to emerge. If we go back to these warring religions, whether they be political or actually religious, then we’re back to what liberal democracy was supposed to solve. I am not an optimist. Liberal democracy is alien to human nature. It’s existed in a sliver of human history — a few hundred years at most, in only a few countries, with a particular culture. It’s not really what most people find emotionally satisfying.

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