Zizi Papacharissi discusses her book After Democracy with host Justin Kempf. Zizi has worked at the forefront on political communication in the digital age. She is a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago. A transcript of the podcast is below.
What Comes After Democracy
Political theorist Takis Pappas has described the formation of liberal democracy as an elite project. Its creation was dependent on the decisions of political leaders rather than the public. But over the subsequent decades the space between politicians and their constituents has grown smaller. It is now unclear whether elected officials remain political leaders or whether they simply follow the opinions of their constituents.
Democracy is in the process of a transformation. Politicians have abdicated responsibility for political power to the people, but the people do not share a sense of responsibility for this newfound political power. So, everyone blames each other for political conflict, but nobody accepts the responsibility to resolve it. It is not clear anyone completely understands what democracy is or what it will become.
Robert Dahl imagined the possibility of a third transformation of democracy into something deeper, thicker, and richer. But he never explained how this new sense of democracy might manifest itself. Dahl thought more about democracy than anyone has before or since.
So I have searched for the next incarnation of Robert Dahl but have failed to discover her or him. These conversations are my attempt to piece together the ideas from multiple perspectives about democracy to offer an updated theory of democratic governance.
Populism, of course, is the great challenge for democracy today. Many scholars have offered institutional solutions as an antidote to populism. But the challenges democracy faces are not an American problem. They exist across the globe. They persist in Presidential and Parliamentary systems. It is a deeper challenge within the demos itself.
I believe democracy will inevitably overcome the populist challenge. It will emerge from this crisis stronger and healthier. Fifty years from now democracy will be different than it is today. And in five hundred years, its institutions may even be unrecognizable. But I believe the answer exists.
Introducing Zizi Papacharissi
Zizi Papacharissi has dared to imagine what our future may hold After Democracy. The research for her remarkable book took her around the world where she asked one hundred everyday citizens three simple questions:
- What is democracy?
- What is citizenship?
- What might make democracy better?
The answers she received helped her imagine what might come after democracy. Zizi offers us a dream. She explained to me that she “wanted the book to have a dream-like feel, like a dream many people were having together or a polyphonic story they were simultaneously telling and listening to.”
Zizi Papacharissi is a professor of communication and political science at the University of Illinois-Chicago. She was among the first to study social media and has shaped the scholarship on political communication on the internet. Her name is a familiar sighting in the footnotes of many of the books and articles I read.
Our conversation explores the ideas in her book from many different angles. We talk about the meaning of democracy and the role of citizens. We think about how democracy might be reimagined. And she invites you to dream of what might come after democracy. This is my conversation with Zizi Papacharissi….
Zizi Papacharissi, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Well Zizi, near the end of your book, there’s a passage where you write, “If the recent past is any indication, this book will be published as populous tensions and tendencies reorganize how we think about democracy.” Kind of feels like an understatement in today’s climate, doesn’t it?
Yes. Now that you mentioned it and that you reminded me that I also said that in the book, it sounds awfully prescient. You know, the interesting thing about this book is that when I wrote it, I had no idea that it would be published at sort of the tail end of the pandemic or that it would come out, maybe just like a couple of weeks after this unforeseen, unheard of singular experience that we had in the United States. Crowds of an angry mob storming the capital building. I had some sort of, you know, gut feeling that things were coming to a climax. Obviously, this is why I wrote the book. I was interested in how democracy was morphing, how people were interpreting the changes that they were seeing around them.
But. If I can have a moment, I’d love to tell you how I got to the idea for the book, because one hears After Democracy and one assumes that I started from a very ominous point, but I started from a very optimistic point. I got the idea to write the book not – many people think during the Trump administration or after the turbulence that we had in Europe – but that’s not the case. I actually was inspired to write the book during the Obama administration.
When I say After Democracy, I do not mean what happens once democracy is over, once democracy is dead, although that’s often the context in which this title is interpreted, because there are so many books that have come out in the past four years that are called the death of democracy, is democracy dead and so on. But I wrote the book because during the Obama administration, I kept looking at a president who seemed to me like he was wrong for his time.
I kept getting the feeling that I wasn’t sure where this man Obama had come from. And perhaps he came from outer space, but I kept feeling like this person is not of our time. Perhaps he has come from the future. People do not get what he’s doing, and he’s struggling with a system that is dated and is not helping him any. So, he’s struggling with these vestiges of democracy that are becoming tentacles that are stopping him from these things that he’s trying to do that are very forward thinking that are very progressive and that many of us are not fully understanding. So, what if there is something better out there better than this form of democracy that we have?
And if this form of governance were around just a little bit earlier, he, Obama that is, might be a better fit for it. And we might be able to better understand what he’s trying to do and help him along the way, and also have the polity work together, with him as president, to do things a different way.
And then of course, a lot of different things happened and I’m very happy that the book retains its relevance despite the many different developments that we’ve seen. It’s certainly been an eventful past four years, not just for the United States, but around the world. And many of these events have culminated over the past year, year 2020. So, I’m glad the book has retained its relevance. But for me personally, it’s interesting that it came from a place of optimism. My hope was to end it at a similar place of optimism.
I feel the optimism comes through in the book very clearly. I don’t want to give the impression that it is a pessimistic or a nihilistic work. You definitely do not come across as anti-democratic, but I also think the way you described democracy and the way you think about After Democracy – I’m not entirely clear that it’s something that’s, that’s apart from democracy. It’s almost like a reimagination of what democracy is, a transformation of democracy, almost like Dahl imagined, that third wave of democracy where it continues to become something new as it renews itself, even in the places where democracy is strongest. It’s – it’s going to take another leap so that we become even more democratic.
That’s what I think of when I read after democracy, that it’s in some ways not aptly titled because maybe it’s not after democracy. Maybe it’s just a deeper, thicker democracy that we haven’t figured out yet.
No, it’s, it’s, it’s very true. I think it’s difficult for any one person to come up with the response to that question, “What is democracy and what might follow it?” And it is part of the reason why I took the approach that I took; why I decided to travel and have conversations with people, but still I struggled a little bit when trying to pull all the pieces together and come up with a coherent response to what is democracy. But more importantly, what is that next stage, for various reasons, but especially these two.
People did not want to talk so much about what might follow democracy. They were more interested in complaining about what they were not happy with then. And I wanted to indulge them because I wanted to listen to what they have to say. And often a way of a way of getting to, you know, what you desire for is by complaining or articulating the things that you’re not happy with… and then in the very end, I, myself struggled with a process of trying to predict what might follow democracy or what that something, that might be better than the democracy that we generally encounter in many countries these days, might look like. So, what I have decided in the end is I think that I was overly ambitious.
It takes the brains of many people to, to answer that question. And just this past year, we’ve had so many books come out that presents solutions to the very, the very same problem that – You in fact interviewed the author of Open Democracy for your podcast. And she presents a fascinating set of recommendations that might push democracy to the next stage.
Hélène Landemore definitely has some ideas that I’ve found very appealing. I like how her sense of deliberative democracy has a sense of inclusion that goes beyond – Like, the problem I have with sortition is there’s an alienation between the people who are selected and everybody else, if you’re not selected, you don’t have any influence. And I like how Hélène gives the average common citizen, some measure of influence on the governance while it still includes opportunities to elevate voices that are not normally heard.
I also find that in your book, your sense of, of change is very slow, even though it feels like everything is happening so quickly. For example, you write that. “Revolutions often lead away from and not toward democracy.” So, you kind of see the transformation as being gradual rather than something that would be super-fast because if it is so quick, it’s not necessarily going to be something that we want. Can you explain your insights on revolution?
This is something that I say often that, ‘Revolutions often lead away from, and not toward democracy.’ The French revolution, for instance, it led to democracy. Yes, but it did not lead to the wealth redistribution that had motivated it. The Russian Revolution, it was a revolution. Yes. But it also led to a radical reinterpretation or misinterpretation of Marx’s ideas. The Egyptian revolution, just a little less than 10 years ago, something that we were all very enthusiastic about, and we were looking forward to seeing what outcome that would yield. I don’t think it’s even that an outcome that the people of Egypt are quite happy with. The Occupy Movement, the Indignados Movement, they haven’t led to the reconsideration, reimagining of capitalism that their founders hoped for. Especially in the case of occupy. I think most people are still quite confused about what that movement sought to accomplish.
What I mean by saying that revolutions lead away from democracy often is that we have to understand revolutions as long and, and they have to be long in order to attain meaning. If we rush them in order to be impactful, then we often end up diving into easy solutions that provide only temporary satisfaction. They only end up quenching our thirst for immediate gratification. And we are a bit of the problem here. You see, we expect too much change in too short, a timeframe. We are impatient as citizens. We have to be, as I say in the book, we have to be better civic adults to a certain extent. We behave like impatient civic, teenagers, no offense to teenagers. It’s a fascinating age, but it’s also an age of impatience.
That’s the beauty about it. So, we have to learn to persevere, to wait. And to never give up. But then again, that’s our, that’s our life’s journey, right? That’s what life is about. Democracy is not too different from life in the end.
So, your approach is very different than many have taken. You mentioned how a lot of people write about the death of democracy, the end of democracy, plenty of books on democratic theory. And generally what you do is you read as much as you possibly can formulate your own ideas and write out a huge text about what you think you should be able to accomplish. And your book is very well-researched. You’ve read plenty of sources on this. You have great insights on democracy yourself. But rather than focusing on you, you elevate the opinions of others through a series of interviews. The book definitely comes across as though the method is part of the message. Can you explain what the book gains from this approach and even what the approach itself maybe says about your thoughts on democracy?
Well, it becomes a different book. I think it’s a deeply democratic approach. So, it’s a book that practices what it would advocate in a sense. It’s also a book that I wanted to write and, you know, I’ve written a book on how the internet can facilitate, but also restrict democracy. And I’ve also written another book on social movements and social media. And what sort of role or impact social media might have for social movements, revolutions in the making, social change in general. So I did not want to write another book like that. And at the same time, I was traveling the world giving lectures about these books and getting caught up in conversations with strangers.
You know, I would have a conversation with a taxi driver. Taking me from the airport to the location of my talk or to my hotel, or I would have a conversation with someone who was hosting me, or I would have a conversation with the receptionist just with, you know, Ordinary everyday strangers. And sometimes it’s easy for us. Professors who study social media to have conversations because oddly enough, people think that social media – I don’t know why – are a fascinating thing to talk about. Whenever I’m asked, ‘What are you doing?’
I say, ‘A professor.’
‘And what are you study?’
‘I study social media.’ Without a doubt conversation ensues.
So, I ended up getting caught up in all these conversations about what’s the meaning of social media, what’s the impact of social media, politics. And eventually, I started thinking, sort of like a daydream playing in my head, ‘What might happen if I had some way to do this in a systematic fashion, in a systematic manner and traveled the world and have these conversations with strangers in a way that would not scare them or appear manic, but in a way that would be geared towards engaging them in a very natural, light conversation that they might have similar to the one that they might be having with family members or with friends or with somebody interesting that they met at a café?’
I started playing with that idea and that motif in my head and eventually I found ways to make it happen. I came up with the research protocol to submit to my university that so that I could get the research project started and then I ended up interviewing an unsuspecting cab driver in Mexico City. Who was, I write about this interview in the book who was driving me in the middle of traffic in a very heated day. And I hesitated a lot before I started the conversation with him, but he, he was talking about, Oh, you know, taxi drivers are, you know, they’re a fascinating group to converse with.
So, he was commenting on politics on his own. He was taking me to a TV station to do an interview. I started chatting with him and asking about that particular TV station and the anchor who we’re going to be interviewing may trying to get the scoop. And this is something that I typically did before starting the interviews.I will just start a casual conversation to get a feel for the personality of the individual I was conversing with. And also try to get a feel for the politics a little bit so that I could diversify my sample. And then eventually I would say, ‘Well, this is what I’m studying.’ You know, ‘Do you mind if I ask you these three questions?’
And some of them would be my mildly amused. I don’t think I had anybody who was irritated. You know, when you ask about trying to understand what you get either a mildly amused or mildly cynical response. So those are the two categories that the responses oscillate between.
How do average everyday people’s opinions differ from academics who study it on an ongoing basis. How did your approach bring about answers that maybe are different than people who spend all their time talking to scholars who researched democracy?
Well, I’m trying to think how I can answer this politely, but I can’t. So, you know…
Nope. Drop the politeness, drop the politeness. Let’s hear the honest truth.
Yeah, so I guess, you know, academics have egos It is what we do for a living. So, when we start to give you a response, it’s about things that we’ve been studying for a very long time. So, it’s only natural. We’ll have a bit of an ego about them. So sometimes the conversation becomes a competition, but very often it becomes very specific and it ends up using theoretical terms.
Now the conversations that I had with everyday people, I encountered were similar to the ones that I have with academics in their depth, in the sense that, you know, they acquired the same depth, but they were different because they used more simple words and often they surprised me with the simplicity and the accuracy of the vocabulary that they used. It was a striking accuracy to what people told me, no beating around the bush. Very immediate responses, you know, straight to the point.
How did these conversations change how you think about democracy?
In many different ways. You know I talked to many different people with different backgrounds, so my reaction of varied a lot. You see when I talk to refugees from Afghanistan, from Syria, from Pakistan you feel a little bit awkward out of place. You know, I will, I will say stupid. Although one of the people who helped edited my book said, don’t use that word. You know, I’m sure you didn’t sound stupid, but you do feel silly.
You know, when, when you speak to someone who’s fled a regime with nothing but the clothes that they were wearing and fled to a different country you feel silly when you ask them, what is democracy and, and what is citizenship and what might make democracy better. And they respond to you with a dignity that’s moving, and you have to work really hard to. To hold the tears back. It’s a deeply moving dignity that they, an honesty lucidity, they’re very candid in their responses. It’s a humbling experience.
Often, it was a funny experience. Sometimes it was a little game, you know, I felt like we were on a scavenger hunt together with my co-conversant. Quite often the conversations were playful. They involved a little bit of humor, you know. I can’t think of any conversation that I had, even the ones that were more poignant, where we didn’t make some kind of joke, even if it was a cynical joke where we didn’t laugh a little bit. I think it’s very important to, to laugh, to know how to laugh and cry at the same time without sounding crazy or manic. So, I learned a lot from listening to the different people. I learned a lot about myself and how I can converse with others. I learned a lot about the practice of conversation.
I learned a lot about the art of listening and how important it is to learn to listen. Well, if you want to figure out what the finer points of these stories are, of these very disparate and different stories are as you’re trying to weave them together. And this is why then you hear me talk in the book so often about listening. I think I ended up learning to listen a whole lot better. And I ended up valuing the process of listening, looking at the process of listening and its democratic marriage with, with different eyes, different ears as well.
I think listening is so underrated within our society. And it’s more than just hearing the words that somebody said. It’s listening to the intention. And listening really involves trying to truly understand what it is that they’re saying to you. And that’s complicated. It’s much more difficult than people realize.
I want to turn the tables on you. Zizi, your first question is what is democracy? Tell me what is democracy?
Democracy for me is consensus… And now this is, you know, this feels really odd because in the course of the 100 interviews, believe it or not, not once that anybody asked me, ‘What is democracy to you?’ This is the first time someone is turning the tables and asking me the question.
So, for me, democracy is consensus building, which is something different from, from majority rule. I think majority rule is a fair compromise, and there’s nothing wrong with majority rule, but it ends up creating a majority and a minority or often creating many majorities and many minorities. And majority rule is often used and it’s unavoidable, but I think if it’s used to an excess, then it ends up leading to the cynicism and the polarization and the disconnects that we see today.
So, I’m a firm believer in consensus building because through consensus building, we have the option to converse and to collaboratively decide on what the best way is to move forward. And because you don’t vote in the end, but you end up just arriving to the conclusion that this is the best way to move forward. It may not be necessarily the point of view that I entered the conversation from, but it is the point of view that I’m going to leave this conversation with. It’s what I’ve acquired through the process of conversation. This is why I think consensus is a more. Democratic and non divisive way to go.
But now what is the problem with consensus is that it’s not scalable. We cannot practice it, you know, in groups that are larger than 10. I am department head in university of Illinois, we try to go with consensus most of the time. We rarely vote and we’re able to get away with it, but you know, there’s like 10, 15 of us This is part of the reason why at the end of the book, when I make certain recommendations for moving forward, I talk about consensus and I also talk about micro communities, micro publics, micro democracies at work.
Many people who I spoke with emphasized explained to me that the aspect of. Democracy that they found most gratifying, involved participating in conversations within their own communities. That’s where they felt they had the most impact. That’s where they felt that they could be the most resourceful, the most useful. And so I took from that the recommendation that perhaps we focus on: Creating a consensus out of the smaller communities and finding a way to channel that up to meso or intermediate communities, and then to micro communities and a sort of multilevel multi-part multichannel version of democracy, consensus building at work.
Now, your second question is about citizenship. You’re talking to citizens, people who would be involved in democracy, you were asking them to explain what citizenship is. What do citizens offer governance that experts can’t?
I just have a one-word answer and that’s authenticity to that question. Authenticity.
Have you stumbled on the work of James Fishkin before?
Yes, of course.
I like his concept of deliberative polling. Yeah, because it brings people together to, to work out ideas. And I feel like now, not only does it bring out exactly what you just said, authenticity, but it helps us understand where the conversation would go if we broaden it out.
Yes. He developed that if I’m not mistaken, it was in the late nineties, I was doing my doctoral work at the university of Texas at Austin. And I believe that’s where he started developing some of the early experiments that played with that. And, of course, now he’s scaled them up in a, in a very different way, but I’m very influenced by that line of thinking for sure.
Yeah, it’s, it’s interesting because talking heads will come up with their ideas and try to predict the direction they go. What we really want to know is how are people going to really react to things? And we’re looking for those authentic voices. So I would agree citizens do all for authenticity.
But when you ask the question about citizenship, you get a large list of expectations that people are expected to follow. In many ways it feels like there’s a disconnect between the ideal citizen and what the reality of citizenship is like. Is this, is this somewhat a failure of prioritization in terms of how to behave as a citizen? Is it a failure of recognizing our own limitations or maybe something else?
And I know you’re right. When you say that the, you know, there’s a failure, there’s some sort of disconnect between the ideal and the real something that was quite striking when I was conducting my interviews, is that everybody told me that it’s very important to vote. And so now you see, I interviewed a hundred people. That was my magic number. And every single interviewee said to me that it’s essential to vote. And they said so with a certainty that made it seem that they voted. But yet we know from statistics that about half of the citizens of any country in the contemporary world don’t vote.
So, I often wondered, well, what happened here? Have I accidentally stumbled on all the voters? What’s going on? But I do think that there’s a disconnect between the ideal and the real, and it’s not so much our fault it’s because we often find ourselves in the position where we struggle between the two where we want to do the ideal, but we’re faced with a reality of the options that we have. And the options that were given are nowhere near our ideal aspiration.
And so, let’s say yes, we want to vote. But the options that were given for voting nowhere near match our criteria or our needs or understand where we’re coming from. So then we end up with this aversion to voting that we have developed in contemporary societies. But all of this I think is interconnected. It has to do with how we are civically socialized, how we approach voting, how much we value it and therefore, whether and how we expect it to deliver instant change. Because again, I think that is part of the issue and the problem here and what defines this This distance between the real and the ideal.
And while I’m not saying that we should devalue voting, in fact quite the opposite, I think we might even offer opportunities for voting more often, not referenda, more opportunities for providing feedback. I also feel that we, as citizens, should temper our expectations in terms of what we expect elected officials to, to accomplish in terms of how we select who we vote for. Now, I’m not saying lower the bar, lower the standards. That’s a completely different thing. Aim high, but also temper the expectations.
And let me give you an example, you know, in your job or in our jobs, when we take over and exactly how impactful are we in a month in a year in four years often, we don’t get promoted. In a year or two or more, or we spend the first year learning the jobs. Sometimes we get disenchanted and leave. Often, we spend most of our time correcting the mistakes of others who had the job before we got here, before we get started on our own agenda. And then there’s life.
There’s things that happen to grab our attention. Things that keep us from meeting our goals. Things that we have to fix before we get started with our own agenda. So why is it that we have these supernatural other worldly expectations from the presidency? Why do we expect the person who gets elected and thrown into DC who faces the same, if not more challenges, to be impactful so quickly. So suddenly, you know. These people are not magicians. They’re not messiahs, as I say in the book. Yet, we elevate them, you know, we placed them on this pedestal and then we just keep elevating that pedestal, elevating that position, elevating our expectations only to be ever more disillusion, disenchanted, when those blown out of proportion expectations are not met.
And this is why I say in the book let’s forget about Messiah. You know, let’s forget about magicians. Let’s have reasonable expectations and let’s let someone into office who has experience and a reasonable amount of knowledge to do this particular job, not someone who we want to go have beers in the bar with, and not someone who we think did a nice interview on television because that’s not part of their job. And being on TV is not what we’re, we’re electing them to do. We’re electing them to run a country. So, it’s a different set of qualifications for those two particular jobs.
I get a little frustrated with the complaint that there aren’t enough options because it’s never going to be possible to offer you the ideal option. And even if it’s available, it doesn’t mean that your ideal option will be what’s selected in the end. If we had 13 people run for president, only one of them gets selected. If we have a parliamentary system, a government will still be formed that will come up with the policies going forward. Your ideal selection will not automatically become what’s chosen.
And oftentimes, it’s going to be… it’s going to be a system of compromise and coalitions that tempers what you were hoping to accomplish no matter what. So, is there a necessity within citizenship to establish a sense of responsibility in how you pursued democracy? I mean if government is of the people, I mean, that means that the responsibility really rests in the people, not necessarily the politicians.
Yes. Yes, absolutely. I mean, this is why I returned to this point and say, let’s be civic adults about it and understand, you know, often when we use the word compromise, we think about it as something, something bad or we think a of a compromise is a process that involves giving up something, lowering the expectations, lowering the bar. But a compromise need not be about that.
Compromise is part of consensus building. And in fact, I would prefer to use the term consensus building rather than a compromise. Through consensus building you learn to listen to what the other side or the other sides, the other people want, and then compare and contrast that to what you want. And you are committed to letting go of something that you’re deeply committed to. And try to see the world through the other person’s eyes. So it’s not necessarily a process of compromise, but rather learning to understand how other people think and also trying to get them to understand your thinking process.
I completely 100% deeply agree with your own sense of fatigue to the response of, you know, there aren’t enough choices or there aren’t enough options. Our options are only as good as we are. We have the options that we deserve and when we become better, we will have better options. I think it’s our tendency to expect these extraordinary individuals to appear on television, or the internet of all media, which are both, you know, personality destructors.
I mean, tell me one sane person who can appear on television or social media and without any training or practice come across as authentic or as normal or as conversational, or basically as who they are, you know, feels comfortable when you put a camera in their face, very few people. I mean, it’s quite rare. I think we have one person who feels very comfortable in front of television and that’s her current soon to be outgoing president, but most people feel deeply uncomfortable with that level of public exposure. And there’s a reason for that.
So, we set up all kinds of expectations for people to be gifted and talented in a variety of ways that often are completely removed from the process of governance. And then we ended up choosing, we ended up leaving rather for ourselves, no option. But to choose the one who presents as, as a person who can do everything as the Messiah, as you know, the magician. And then we ended up committing the error of course, of voting these people into office. I think were it not for our expectations being. Extraordinary otherwordly were it not for us being so demanding in what we expect our politicians to do and how we expect them to perform on TV, not in office. We as a country, the United States we had, we would not have gone down the road of electing Donald Trump as president.
It’s interesting because I’ve hired a lot of people in my life. And when you do a job interview, it’s not a contest of who does the best job interview. You’re.. you’re trying to figure out who’s going to be the best in the actual job. And an election is the same thing. You’re trying to figure out who’s going to be the best president, not who’s the best campaigner. And sometimes we lose sight of that. A democracy in a Western sense has overemphasized elections in my opinion.
And in the United States, of course we have a campaign process that is far, far too drawn out and long. It’s exhausting for the candidates. It’s much more… it’s exhausting for the journalists and the media. And it’s much more exhausting for the public. I mean, it’s a, it’s impossible for a person to sound original and authentic and new when they’re on the road for over a year and involves all of these set up an effective performative aspects.
Of course, though, there’s problems around the world…. Israel is going into its fourth election in what a year and a half, maybe within 12 months, they’re struggling to be able to establish a government under a parliamentary system. So, it’s… It’s not just about the institutions. A lot of it is about the citizens who are involved. I found it interesting how a lot of people thought that it was the politicians who needed to be better educated about civics, especially because we’ve had some politicians who are very well-educated who understand quite a lot about civics.
You were inspired by Barack Obama. He was a constitutional law scholar. I’m not sure who would be more qualified to talk about civics as president than Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton ran against Donald Trump. She was eminently more qualified. Are the criticisms that people have about leaders and democracy not matching the way that they actually vote?
Yes and no. You know, it comes from a number of different places. So a lot of the people who are saying that we need the representatives who are elected or who are placed in power to be better educated there, some of them are coming from regimes where there was some sort of movement to put a democratic regime in place that failed, or there was a democracy and then there was some kind of coup and then they had to flee that state. So, they’re obviously speaking about people who are in power who are not very well educated and don’t know very much about the process of democratic governance.
So that’s one part of it. The other part of it involves people who are referring mostly to officials who were elected at the local level, so, they had some issues with those officials. And then there’s also specific people who are referring to higher level officials, premiers or presidents who may have the education, but may not have the experience in governance. So, you have to read it in a layered way and keep in mind the international makeup of the population there, you know, interviewed people in Brazil and Mexico, some people in Ecuador. So, there’s a number of different schools of democracy, a number of different stories and struggles with democracy that are being reflected in that particular response.
A lot of those leaders though, are still educated at Western universities. the past president over in Afghanistan was somebody who is very highly educated. I think at Ivy league universities in the United States. In a lot of these developing countries oftentimes leaders have American educations from very prestigious universities as well.
So, it’s true. You know we were speaking before the interview about the fact that I’m bilingual. And sometimes we hear the word for something in Greek appears in my head before the word in English, but there’s also the issue that we have some, some words in Greek to describe things that simply don’t exist in English.
But in Greek we draw difference between an education that you acquire from going through school and then education that you acquire by being well, the process of cultivation of being cultivated into a democratic individual. So, I think often when I received that response, people are seeking to make that distinction between an education and then an education that cultivates that sense, that belief, in a democracy within you. So, I think we’re looking for people who both have, who might have some education, but also have that strong sense of commitment that, you know, that democratic conscience.
That’s completely fair because when you look at somebody’s resume, the experiences they have are far more important than the education, where they went to school. So, I can completely understand how the experiences, the actual background in governance and understanding how democracy will function and how they’re going to react to different events within a democracy does matter a lot more than just reading about it in books.
So Zizi, the digital age has obviously been boarded people with a lot of information. We were just talking about how politicians may not have the civic education they need. Obviously people oftentimes were unsure where to turn for information. Yet fewer people subscribe to local newspapers, fewer people go to sources that are established specifically as forms of media that you’re supposed to trust. Is it possible that the path forward might require us to move backwards towards more traditional solutions?
No, you make an excellent point about local newspapers. I think if we, there are many of us who study the trust deficit between people in the media, citizens in the media and, and then citizens and politicians often a key point on that continuum is the period of time during which many local newspapers were bought out by larger conglomerates. And then many of the local communities lost that connection to storytellers of the neighborhood, storytellers of the local community that they trusted, people that they trusted getting the news from. So that’s, that’s it. That’s a huge point in that trust continuum. We no longer have a local newspaper.
There are very few to begin with. It’s part of the problem. They all got bought out. Most of them in the eighties and they, many of them, I mean, produced the award-winning journalism. So that’s one example. When, when we look back and try to figure out what went wrong. We might try to spread the wealth a little bit and, you know, spend less on grand media conglomerates and then reinvest in local journalism and try to use social media when we try to reinvigorate local journalism and that effort is well underway, of course, the smaller news media startups, they will get their start locally and then eventually grow into something larger.
I also, I have a few more recommendations. I think one way for us, for our scientists, to become more impactful is to learn, to speak in a language that’s more relatable. And so I would like for journalists to make room for science, yes, to involve scientists and their processes of storytelling. I mean, granted, you know, putting commentators and analysts on air can make for more dramatic news and might increase ratings and so on, but eventually it drives away audiences and it leads to cynicism.
So, to this end, I think scientists must learn to tell better stories about their findings. That was part of my motivation in writing this book. I wanted to tell a really good story with scientific findings. And we need to learn how to make our research more relatable. And then, you know, we’d love for journalists to find ways to tell interesting stories with less drama and more science, you know, an interesting story doesn’t need incredible little bit of drama, but not, you know constant drama. And another part of it is also to understand the place of social media in society. And sort of let social media be places for conversation. They’re not places for journalism, nor are they places for truth-telling.
As citizens, let’s not assign something that we heard on social media a greater weight than something that we overheard in a neighborhood bar or at the local coffee shop or from our next door neighbor. Let’s put social media in their place, understand where they belong. Let’s not turn them into things that they were never designed to be. They are places for conversation, so that is the level of credibility that we must afford them.
And finally, I think we might, re-examine what we mean when we say, “Truth.” But also, when we say ‘Objectivity,’ because journalists have this expectation of objectivity, but then we also develop this expectation when we listen to the news. So, there’s this misconception that objectivity is about telling both sides of the story. And that is not the case. First, there are more than two sides to just about everything. And second objectivity is about covering all important sides in order to tell the most accurate story. It’s about telling a story with a proper context. So, some parts of a story may be biased. Other sides may be inaccurate. Some parts may be true, but they may need to be processed from a certain point of view. For instance, we might need to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes to understand their view.
On reality in science, we often assign statistical weights to attain objectivity. So, objectivity is not about devoting equal time to all viewpoints. It’s about studying the context and assigning proper weight to each part of the story. So, you want to think of truth as a puzzle and not all pieces of the puzzle have equal size or occupied center stage. Some of them are. In the periphery and that’s where you might find the conspiracy theory. For instance, they’re part of the truth story. They just don’t belong in the center and they don’t need to occupy the time or the space that they occupy in today’s news when they do that ends up leading to loss of trust, growing cynicism, skepticism towards the media. And rightly so.
So, in order for us, you know, to develop truth narratives that make sense and help people come together. I think we need to rethink how we define objectivity and what objectivity means.
So, we started the conversation, talking about how recent events have been kind of crazy to say the least. Has the storming of the Capitol, Donald Trump’s efforts to undermine the election, and any other events, since you finished writing the book caused you to rethink the conclusions that you made in the book… or have they strengthened them?
They’ve made them stronger. This is it’s, it’s fascinating for me again, as I mentioned at the beginning. I never thought all of these events would transpire and they all transpired after I turned my book in, I turned my book in, in the last version I turned in right before the beginning of the pandemic in February 2020. And it’s been a monumental year to say the least I was having this conversation with my publisher recently because I very, I very much wanted for the book to be published before the election. I wanted the book to be part of that conversation. I had a lot of things to say that I felt at the time were related to how the election was going to unfold.
In the end the book is coming out after the election. And I think that’s for the better it’s it definitely has retained its relevance. It will have a longer shelf life. I think, as I like to say, it’ll have a life beyond the shelf.
And I think a lot of the recommendations that I make in the end, I make 10 recommendations for better democracy, will be more meaningful because a lot of the conversations we’ll be having will be about rebuilding the infrastructure of truth; rebuilding the architecture of trust; reimagining some of the pathways for conversations; understanding how we tell stories; realizing how the process of listening or not listening to each other often creates a lot of distance that’s not necessary between us; and in general, relearning to come together as a collective, as a nation. As a group, a large group of democratic citizens who are trying to do their best, who are all after the same thing: A better democracy but are not sure exactly where the desire lines of getting to that converge.
It’s a brilliant book.
Thank you so much. Thank you so much for saying that.
It’s incredibly well-written. There’s a line at the end that I just want to quote, because I think it sums up a lot. You say, “Democracy lies within the individual,” and I think it’s something that we all need to remember because it, something that I’ve seen in the readings that I’ve done and the thinking that I’ve done, is just how important it is for people to take that responsibility on themselves and recognize how important it is to do that. And as we reimagine what democracy will be in the future it’s going to be very important for us to harness what’s inside of ourselves to make democracy possible.
Thank you so much for your kind words. Thank you for reading the book so carefully and so thoughtfully. It’s such a compliment and it’s such an honor to have one’s work read with the thought and the time, and the care you put into it. I’m deeply, deeply flattered and deeply moved and have so much enjoyed this conversation.
And the questions that you put to me, that I didn’t have perfect answers do by the way, and I realize I often gave you sermons about the things that I’m passionate about, but I hope they will make for an interesting conversation. It made for interesting conversation.
No, I think this was wonderful. Thank you so much, Zizi.
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