Sara Wallace Goodman on Citizen Responses to Democratic Threats

Sara Wallace Goodman

 


Sara Wallace Goodman is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Irvine and the author of Citizenship in Hard Times: How Ordinary People Respond to Democratic Threat.

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If I could say one thing to every citizen, it’s to put country before party. Which is, you know, at this time it almost feels like a hollowed phrase, because we we’ve kind of heard it so often. But it’s like actually true.

Sara Wallace Goodman

Key Highlights

  • How much agency do citizens have in democracy?
  • The important differences between citizenship and partisanship and their implications
  • The role of both rights and duties for citizenship
  • Differences between citizenship in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany
  • What can citizens do to protect democracy?

Podcast Transcript

Over the course of this podcast, I find myself actively looking for ways to bring citizens into the conversation. It’s too easy to focus on the role of institutions and elites when we talk about democracy. But democratic governance is supposed to facilitate the means for citizens to govern themselves. 

So, I naturally found myself drawn to a new book from Sara Wallace Goodman, Citizenship in Hard Times: How Ordinary People Respond to Democratic Threat. Sara is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Irvine. Let me also add Sara is a comparativist. 

This is what makes our conversation about citizenship different. A lot of scholarship on citizenship comes from political theory. Another approach examines citizen mobilization. Sara compares how ordinary citizens think about citizenship in challenging circumstances. We touch on a lot of topics but one overarching question that we circle back to but leave unresolved involves how much agency or responsibility citizens have in their democracy. It’s a topic we’ll continue to discuss throughout future episodes. 

But before we begin I want to share a recent review from Apple Podcast. Puckl appreciates how the show “does a good job explaining or getting the guests to explain some of their academic jargon.” This is great to hear because my goal is to make some of the most interesting and cutting edge ideas about democracy more accessible. Hopefully, this show accomplishes that goal. So, here is my conversation with Sara Wallace Goodman…

jmk

Sara Wallace Goodman, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Sara Wallace Goodman

Thank you for having me.

jmk

Well, Sarah, I thought your book was so refreshing, because you place citizens at the center of the conversation on democracy. It sounds so simple, but I found that it’s actually unusual in political discourse. In fact, in the book you write, “Citizens have the power to defend democracy or deliver autocracy.” It’s such a powerful line, but here’s the tough question for you. Do citizens deserve the blame when democracies breakdown then?

Sara Wallace Goodman

So, it’s a really tough question. It is. And as social scientists, I think, we’re really trained to think empirically and not normatively. Right? So, we really want to sort of describe things as they are, what’s happening, and kind of relegate these kinds of thoughts to “concluding remarks” or sort of “big picture” and we’re really kind of trained out of that. So, I thought really hard about this question all throughout the writing. And, you know, there is a role for elites in conversation with what citizens do because citizens have this great mobilizing capacity. I mean, historically, time and time again, we see this. The power of social movements is really unmatched in terms of making and breaking regimes.

However, we live in a sort of information environment where citizens powerfully absorb, respond, and understand threat through elite cues. Media and elite cues are so central that citizens understand what is threatening as a function of how it’s presented to them. And so, democratic threats are a really hard thing for citizens to think about because we don’t think about our democracy or our civic obligation. It’s not like an economic threat where we understand in real terms how it affects us, how it affects our employer, how it affects our community. It’s not like a health threat where we can see sort of biological changes to ourselves and our community.

Democratic threat needs explanation, because it’s also something that most citizens don’t really experience. I mean, maybe they experience it in a polling booth, but not everyone. You know it’s working when you don’t have to think about it. When you don’t have to question if your rights are available to you. And so, it’s really hard for the everyday citizen to think about the democratic threat, to see how it’s threatening, and to see how they have agency in offsetting some of these things which are actually very big. You could see for example that there is interference in our election. But you may not know what you as an individual or even what a group of people can do to mobilize and offset these big institutions at a national level.

So, like citizens do have a role to play. They have a share of the blame, but also, they’re very dependent on the kind of messages that elites share with them and how they describe the democratic threat to them. So, you know, we could say, ‘This person should know better or like a Republican should know better, because they know that the 2020 election was actually fair and they know that the 2016 elections had interference. But when you think about the individual level, like this requires an individual who may not think about politics ever. But to do a lot of homework, to ignore cues, to seek out independent information, to potentially break with the conventional wisdom of their friends and social networks that’s just like a lot of heavy lifting from a starting position that something may not be a real threat.

jmk

It’s complicated because in a democracy we ask a lot of citizens just in elections alone. And I don’t want to distill it to this one institution, but if we look at an election, voters are going to go into that polling booth and they’re going to make decisions based on issue preferences. And even then, they might be thinking about wider ideological frameworks versus maybe a single issue that they care about. Other voters are going to think about the character of the people that they’re electing. And even then, it’s complicated because on one hand you want somebody who’s a good person, almost a saintly person. A person who’s better than you are. But then on the other hand, other people want somebody who’s relatable. Somebody that they can have a beer with.

So, it’s complicated because people want different things in elections. And to tell them throughout all of this, you need to also consider whether or not this candidate is going to uphold democracy that adds yet another variable that makes it difficult for them to decide. In a recent article in the Journal of Democracy, Robert Kaufman and Stephan Haggard said, “Even if opposition groups are aware of what is happening, the wider public may not recognize that the playing field has been decisively tilted until it is too late to mount a meaningful defense.” And they’re getting at the point that you just made. That maybe elites understand, maybe certain activist groups understand that democracy is under threat. But maybe the average everyday citizen doesn’t understand it until we get past a certain point that they can no longer do anything about it.

Sara Wallace Goodman

That’s right. You know, when I try to explain my book to my non-political science friends, which is a good test of coherence, but also a real challenge in terms of sort of conveying political information to people that don’t typically think about politics. And, you know, I use example of foreign interference in elections. And I say, ‘We might have this new bipartisan Senate Intelligence that tells us there was outside influence in the election. And the thing for you as a citizen is questioning whether you can trust the next election.’ Right? And so, I kind of explained to them, you know, ‘You can’t do anything about that election, but think about kind of the long-term effects.’

Trust in institutions is a very important part of democracy. We have to trust that rules are applied. We have to trust that authority exercises discretion. We have to trust that rights are guarded and we have to trust that institutions are uninterfered. That the elections proceed freely, fairly, infrequently. If you have evidence of interference and you think that the next election is like not going to be politicized or not going to be interfered with, then like you’re kind of a really special exception, I think. And so, I think that’s like a tangible way to kind of explain to people who don’t think about politics a lot in inviting them to think more critically about their relationship with the political system, the things that we take for granted which typically is political trust.

jmk

So, to dive in deep into some of the ideas in your book, Sara, there’s a lot of terminology going on. A lot of ideas kind of intersect one another that are floating through the book. And one of the biggest differences between ideas is between a citizen and a partisan. The idea that in good times democracies oftentimes encourage citizenship. During difficult times, they tend to fall back into partisanship. Can you talk a little bit about the difference between citizens and partisans?

Sara Wallace Goodman

Yes. So, that’s really the key takeaway. When you center citizens in thinking about democracy and democratic threat, it means thinking about what civic obligations are. So, you as a citizen, if you ever think about what your civic obligation is, you might think that it’s obeying the law, paying your taxes, signing up for selective service. When I ask my students, this is what they think about when I ask them what are the obligations of citizenship. So, typically, if you think about civic duty at all, it’s going to be those kinds of things, behaviors, maybe some of these attitudes. In hard times, I make the argument that citizens think about their partisan preferences. They think about their party. They think about what’s best for my party.

So, if I ask you as a citizen, ‘What is your civic duty?’ And you say, ‘Taxes or whatever, serving on a jury.’ During hard times, you wouldn’t say, ‘Serving out democratic party goals.’ But during hard times, I argue people see incentives in supporting their side. They default to ‘sideism.’ They think about what best serves my side. How do I meet my side’s goals? How do I protect the interests of my side? And that’s why centering citizens in hard times reveals this important fault line that citizens see incentives in defending their side either as challengers or as status quo beneficiaries. And they define obligation in a way that benefits maybe their party, but not democracy that that trade off becomes visible when they see their obligation as a partisan, as opposed to a sort of citizen without the sort of partisan priorities.

jmk

It reminds me of an article from Milan Svolik that was out there for a long time as a working paper. And I think he just published it in 2020, but he did this study where he tested the voting preferences of people in Venezuela where he asked them whether or not they would support a certain type of candidate. And he would describe them and make them clearly undemocratic, so they had to make a clear ideological choice between somebody they supported versus somebody who is democratic. So, the democratic choice would conflict with their ideological preference, but the ideological preference would conflict with their democratic beliefs. And he found that the more polarized people got, the more likely that they were going to be supporting these extreme candidates that were undemocratic. So, are you saying that in hard times that people are then making those decisions to prefer those ideologically preferable candidates, but giving up on their core democratic beliefs?

Sara Wallace Goodman

So, yeah, that’s certainly what his work in this article, there’s another piece that shows, you know, that people are more willing to elect authoritarians. So, I draw on that work and I have the argument that we don’t even have to look at these behaviors. We can look at norms that precede behaviors and we see that it’s not just the choices that people make in terms of the ballot box, but how they see their own role in that democracy. So, that for me is kind of really important that yes, people see their obligation as protecting their side which can be in conflict with democratic preservation.

jmk

That’s fascinating. The idea that you’re saying that it’s an even earlier, even stronger sense that defines who they are. Let’s go to the idea of hard times too, though. How is it that we go from normal times to hard times?

Sara Wallace Goodman

Right. And, you know, this is something that I discuss explicitly. That sort of every generation has had a democratic threat. The nature of that threat has changed. Right? So, in the 1990s, while I talk about them as the idealized west wing days of American democracy, you know, the problem for democracy was low participation. And so, I also studied the European Union and it was kind of very much the same concern particularly with respect to the parliament or institutions that govern the EU itself. It’s like the democratic deficit. So, every generation, every democracy sort of has these hard times. So, what I try and focus on in the text is the specific structural threats. So, you know, looking at foreign interference in elections, that’s like an institutional minimum.

So, we look at the institutional minimums, the participation in the contestation and where we see those as compromised is really kind of the line I drew between a hard time and like an okay time.  Hard times is really about kind of structural compromise to the kind of predicted institutions.

jmk

It reminds me a little bit of when I talked to Angus Deaton who co-wrote the book Deaths of Despair, because one of the misunderstandings about deaths of despair is that just a terrible event brings upon you the sense of despair that can lead to death. But he described it that it wasn’t like a singular event. It’s this hopelessness that’s almost pervasive. That you’re looking forward and you don’t see a way out. And from what I’m hearing from you, it seems very similar that when you’re in hard times, you’re looking forward and you think, ‘Wow, this is a very difficult moment and I don’t see how things can really get better.’ Am I understanding that right?

Sara Wallace Goodman

 I mean, that’s probably right, but it’s too depressing to think about.

jmk

But things get better. That’s the point. I mean, we worked through a lot of the challenges we’ve had in the past.

Sara Wallace Goodman

I mean, true. But when I think about the threats, the democratic threats, that I study in the book, they don’t seem like they got better. So, like I did the study in 2019. The survey was in the field. You know, when we think about what the real consequences were for interference in the 2016 election, I don’t feel warmed or heartened that we took reform seriously. In fact, I think while the accusations about voter fraud or interference in the 2020 election took a different nature, had different actors, et cetera, like the fact that we now can openly discuss elections as invalid seems to suggest like a real decrease in trust. That has not been repaired.

jmk

Yeah. I think that’s the point though is that we’re not out of that period.

Sara Wallace Goodman

Correct.

jmk

And so…

Sara Wallace Goodman

You think it’s cyclical – like Sheri Berman would share your view.

jmk

Yeah. Sheri Berman would. Yeah and if you think about it this way, during the darkest days of Jim Crow, you wouldn’t be able to see a way out. The only way out is to travel into the North and then you’re facing a lesser degree of racism. You’re still not completely out of the woods. But it wasn’t the passage of the Voting Rights Act that changed African American’s outlook on the future for themselves and for democracy. It was earlier than that. That’s what allowed people like Martin Luther King to inspire hope is they saw that there was a way out. There was a future.

It’s just difficult to be able to turn that corner is what I would assume. I guess that’s what I’m throwing out there is just that it’s not like a singular moment where you say this event happened. I would just assume that it would be, like you said, a structural situation where you don’t understand how to fix it. But hopefully you get to a point that things work themselves out somehow.

Sara Wallace Goodman

That’s right. But, of course, the issue with sort of questions about structural integrity is like, you know, how do you fortify the foundation? And that’s very much a part of the book is thinking about, well, how do we agree on what a threat is to democracy? So, that’s a challenge.

jmk

I think the key thing to remember is that we’re still in it.

Sara Wallace Goodman

Right.

jmk

We’re still part of it. So, it’s really hard to kind of see the horizon and I guess the only point I was trying to make was that I think the definition of hard times is that you don’t see the horizon.

Sara Wallace Goodman

Yes

jmk

If things were better, you’d be seeing their horizon.

Sara Wallace Goodman

That’s right.

jmk

I find it interesting when I think about citizenship, and you alluded to this already, is the distinction between rights and duties. Where a lot of times in the United States, a lot of the focus on citizenship is actually on rights. The things that you’re guaranteed as being a citizen. But when you’re talking about citizenship within a lot of the questions that you’re asking, a lot of the focus is actually on duties. So, in a democracy, are rights or duties more important when we think about citizenship?

Sara Wallace Goodman

So, you know, this was actually how I got into this project, because, you know, I had written a book in 2014 all about how immigrants become citizens comparing European countries. And then I did a series of work that examined the Americanization period in US history and how immigrants become citizens in the US and the emphasis is really on obligations. When we think about immigrants, when we think about people, alighting to a citizen status, it’s like what do you have to do to become a citizen? And in the back of my mind, it was always just so clear that. We go to lengths to articulate these expectations, for newcomers to articulate the obligations, the meanings, the duties of being a citizen and implicitly that means we have a set of expectations about what it means to be a citizen.

That we have sort of this implicit understanding. And so, this was always in the back of my mind when sort of studying immigrants. And so, I started to turn to think about those more specifically, like, well, what are the obligations of citizenship? You know, we ask immigrants to do stuff. So, what is it that we’re asking citizens to do? And so, I was always kind of thinking about that. And, you know, when I ask my undergrads, right, what does it mean to be a citizen? And you always hear rights. You get this, this, this, and this. And then you say, ‘Well, what are the duties? What do you, owe?’

And the thing was citizenship is you can’t say that one is more important than the other, you know. The work of Charles Tilly, for example, he would tell us that you have one because of the other. That you get rights from the state. So, you owe obligations to the state and the state has obligations to ensure that you have rights. So, both have obligations and rights and it’s in this transactional relationship with one another. So, when we think about the rights we have as citizens, we just sort of take it as implied that obligations come with it or that we just don’t articulate them explicitly.

And so, I really wanted to think carefully about, ‘Well, what do people think their obligations are?’ And so, that’s why I upgrade it to have equal screen time with rights, because we know that citizens get stuff. We know that they have protection of status rights and I really wanted to think about, well, do they see duties for themselves? And how are those affected by hard times?

jmk

I thought it was interesting how you went beyond the United States, because a lot of the conversations about citizenship, about polarization, the conversations in the mass media, I should say, get stuck in just thinking very parochially about what’s happening here. But there’s so much scholarship, so much going on that considers how things are different between different countries and real groundbreaking comparative analysis. And you contributed to that by analyzing the differences in attitudes between the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom.

And as we’re talking about the different rights and the duties for citizenship, one of the most interesting things that you found was that there’s differences between these different countries, especially between a country like Germany and the United States in terms of how citizens view citizenship itself. Can you just discuss a little bit about what you found about some of these differences between Germany and the United States? And if you want to include the UK, although there were a lot of parallels there with the United States, obviously,

Sara Wallace Goodman

So, the expectation is that there’s really nothing in democracy that would suggest that citizens behave or have different values. Right? Democracy is a set of rules, but it’s also a set of values. And so, we would kind of expect that these would be largely similar and we did see a lot of patterns both cross nationally as well as across parties within each country. The role of voting or obeying the rule of law, like these are shared values among partisans on the left in all cases, a higher emphasis on helping others or on associational life. So, these are kind of the expectations that we would have going in to this comparison. And it’s kind of largely what we see.

jmk

At the same time, I found it really surprising that despite the extreme polarization in the United States and the overwhelming fears of democratic erosion within the United States, the citizenship values were actually higher, very consistently above both the United Kingdom and Germany. Were you surprised by that finding?

Sara Wallace Goodman

No, because citizenship is like a religion in the United States. The emphasis on patriotism is so outsized in the U S compared to a European perspective. And that’s sort of expected and that’s kind of a long downstream consequence of World War II and sort of what happens when you have nationalism on the continent resulting in genocide. And so, America is kind of freed up to expressions of national pride and national identity that are just really outsized to its democratic. Brothers, sisters, I don’t know what the gender of democracy is. But the point being that that wasn’t a surprise because citizenship is the identity. And when you don’t have sort of things like long historical shared traditions or homogeneity this is sort of the political identity default.

jmk

But at the same time, it wasn’t just a raw patriotism. It was things like Americans felt that it was important as a form of citizenship to help others. You also pointed out that Americans felt that it was a form of citizenship to foster inclusion. It was things that in the United States we don’t Intuitively think of about ourselves and we might think of a country like Germany that seems to have a stronger social safety net that has less polarization at the moment, to have stronger values regarding these. But we actually found those values to be stronger in the United States. I was surprised by the conclusion there.

Sara Wallace Goodman

Yeah, I see that. I suppose I went in thinking that like institutions can compensate for those values. It’s more of a reflection of America’s Laissez Faire approach, I think, too, to community, to, you know, what the government should do. So, I expected like really high on the help others dimension. But these are welfare states. So, actually citizens don’t have to hold high values that they should help others, because there is a safety net in place. So, I think you have institutions kind of compensating for what individuals need to do in these settings versus in the United States, there is just such a high onus on individualism and for individuals to sort of center themselves in social problems and be responsible for that.

jmk

So, how much do you think institutions shape the way that people think about citizenship within these countries when we see these differences and I don’t want to overstate the differences…

Sara Wallace Goodman

I mean, a lot. I think that maybe this is a product of my initial training, because I’m an institutionalist and I look at behavior within the context of institutions. And I think that in political science, we’re very much sort of Invited to think of ourselves as one way or the other. That we study institutions or we study behavior. And I just very much viewed them as contextual and that institutions define, I don’t want to use the term opportunity structures because then that puts you into another bucket. But that, you know, they provide a context for making our behavior meaningful for understanding or for shaping our understanding of how the world works and what potential outcomes are possible. So, I very much view them in congress with one another.

jmk

Okay. So, the United States is considered to be undergoing a period of severe or pernicious polarization, if you will. Right now Germany is not.

Sara Wallace Goodman

Correct.

jmk

Why is there a difference?

Sara Wallace Goodman

Well, it’s like you’re my mind reinviting me to examine my research design three years ago. You know, it’s a real challenge to do cross national research, especially if you’re doing survey experiments, because you want to think about similar threats. Well, like polarization is not a similar threat in this sense. There’s just no way it could be, because Germany is not a two-party system and social conflict has not consolidated around partisan identity and partisanship is a much more fluid identity in a multi-party system than it is in a two-party system.

And so, when I think about how people talk about polarization in Germany, I really narrowed in on this idea of the breakup of social cohesion and that was a real meaningful threat. And while it doesn’t consolidate along partisan lines, it raises the idea that community is under threat when you have social fracturing or disintegration of cross-cutting ties. So, for me that’s the part of polarization that is most threatening for democracy. It’s not the fact that we exist in these separate lives. It’s the fact that we exist in these separate lives without these cross-cutting ties.

And so, I talk about in the theory that it’s these cross-cutting ties that make things like consensus possible. That makes things like deliberation possible. That makes compromise possible. Not saying we always need to compromise, but sometimes it has to be in the toolbox if the purpose of government is problem-solving. But it has to be a viable choice. And so, the absence of social ties, cross-cutting social ties, was for me the important part of polarization that could be compared across three cases.

So, while in the US that happens along partisan fault lines, in the UK it’s issue salience and I talk instead about Brexit as being the source that fractures the social ties. In Germany, I just focus on the disintegration of these ties based on sort of social fracturing. So, we can think about kind of poor areas with high unemployment or levels of educational attainment that these are sources of social fracturing that can undermine social cohesion in the German case.

jmk

So, obviously, every democracy is going to have some degree of polarization. If you don’t have any sense of polarization, there’s no sense of what people are voting for. There’s no contest between ideas. It’s just an empty contest between politicians saying that I have the best personality. I guess that’s what you’d be voting for at that point. In the book you have an interesting quote though. You write that, “Polarization is at its core, a problem of liberal democracy.”

And like I said, every democracy is going to have some degree of polarization, but it does oftentimes spiral into something more of a problem. And right now, in Germany, it doesn’t seem like as much of a problem. But just, I don’t know, 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago in the United States, it didn’t seem like much of a problem. Today it seems like one of the biggest political obstacles that we have to overcome is severe polarization. Is that really an inevitable outcome of liberal democracy?

Sara Wallace Goodman

I think when we are incentivized to organize exclusively around one identity, when that social identity is a catchall for all the other identities, then yes, I do, because it distills all nodes of conflict. You know, democracy is conflictual. Right? Democracy is disagreement institutionalized. It is contestation. So, when we distill all those differences, when we collapse them or flatten them to this kind of one catchall, then we lose all these other opportunities to find compromise. So, like I said if one of the core aspects of democracy is this competition is this conflict, and one of the core values of liberalism is mutual toleration, when you aren’t even practicing those, then you sort of have this built-in defect. If you can’t do the things that liberal democracy is, then it isn’t a liberal democracy. Right?

There’s all these quotes about democracy is a thing that you keep on doing. So, if you’re not doing the thing, if you’ve eliminated the opportunities to compete. And you’ve eliminated exercises of mutual toleration and you’ve distilled people’s identity to this one thing or all their interests and opportunities to this one thing. Then you really are losing sort of the practice that makes liberal democracy viable or endures.

jmk

So, we don’t just see differences between countries, in terms of attitudes about citizenship. We see differences between political parties or between ideologies. You really define it between Democrats and Republicans. It’s a little bit easier to differentiate between those. And I was really surprised by, at least one of the findings that you had. One of the most important here, I’ll just read the quote, “Democrats also express greater importance in obeying the law and vigilance. Republicans by comparison do not lean into liberal democratic norms. Instead, they reduce support for obeying the law in associational life.” I was very surprised. In this last presidential election, Trump wanted to be the law-and-order candidate.

Yet you find that Republicans don’t actually support the idea of obeying the law as much as Democrats do. Democrats are oftentimes demonized as being protesters and being very loose about the idea of the law. Help us explain this difference, the reason why Democrats are more likely to believe in the law than Republicans.

Sara Wallace Goodman

So, the thing is a law-and-order party connotes really different things than what I’m asking, you know. So, I asked do you think that a good citizen obeys the law. So, it’s kind of asking them specifically in the context of civic obligation. But rule of law in a law-and-order party is the police. I mean, let’s be clear, like following the law, obeying the law, those are sort of classically liberal values. Not liberal as in liberal versus conservatives, but as in liberal of liberal democracy. So, you know, following the rules is something that everyone who is a lowercase D democrat should do. And so, if that’s law, is just following rules, you want to make sure judges make decisions according to the law, make sure that people don’t, you know, speed. Like these are laws.

Then we should all want to follow laws, because they make predicted iterations possible. Right? That’s the thing about law. That’s why liberalism tells us it’s important. It lets us have repeated interactions with one another. And order in the law-and-order party is about strength. It’s not about repeated iterations. It’s about strength. So, a law-and-order party arguably is neither about law nor order. Discuss. It’s about strength and police. And I think that the phrase itself is a clear connotation of that to party insiders, because the phrase itself has a different meaning than what I’m actually kind of asking citizens directly.

jmk

I mean, I asked the question, but at the same time it’s pretty obvious once you think about it for a moment. Because it was right-wing Donald Trump, Republican supporters that were the ones at the assault on the Capitol on January 6th that were breaking the law. In their mind, breaking the law to be able to fulfill their duty as a citizen. So, in other words, they think in order to be a good citizen, you might even have to break the law, which is very much illiberal. It’s very reminiscent of the black shirts and Mussolini, in my opinion. I don’t want to say that it goes that far, but it definitely starts to move on the spectrum, I would say.

Sara Wallace Goodman

When you take it into your own hands, it is neither law nor order when you no longer respect the institutions that are in place to do those things. you know, I’ve been twirling the phrase of patriotism around in my head a lot as we approach the anniversary of the Capitol insurrection and like the first people to call themselves Patriots would be the people that stormed the Capitol building.

You know, they belonged to organizations like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers and, you know, Marjorie Taylor Greene was signing copies of the Constitution to defendants who were in prison. I mean, like you see all the signs of what would look like patriotism and we take signs and symbols very seriously in this country. But that’s not to say that that is patriotism. What it is to say is that we have very different definitions of what patriotism is. And in hard times those are informed by partisan preferences.

jmk

Why is the United States undergoing hard times and Germany isn’t? Is it literally just the feeling of polarization between citizens? Is there something fundamentally different during this era in today’s history?

Sara Wallace Goodman

I mean, there’s probably a lot of explanations here and I don’t think we have the time. But like, you know, certainly one of them, and I’ll center Germany, is that in recent memory they’ve had dictatorship. So, the experience of something makes it less desirable to have it again. So, if you have living memory, recent experience with dictatorship, then you are more vigilant in ensuring that the institutions do not slip into conditions that would be conducive for a resurgence.

And so, I think there’s more vigilance overall in Germany. Not just with respect to how institutions are designed, but practicing from everyday citizens to ensure that that scenario is less likely. And, you know, I think that the US, it doesn’t have recent experience with this. We also lack a lot of the institutional guard rails that were deliberately put into place in Germany in response to dictatorship.

jmk

So, are citizens in the United States or anywhere else, when you’re dealing with hard times in democratic governance in a democracy, is it because of economic, cultural conditions that precipitates the move into hard times or is it literally just the citizens just disagreeing with each other and just forgetting the importance of citizenship and falling into partisanship that brings about hard times itself?

Sara Wallace Goodman

So, I don’t think the defaulting happens on its own. I think a lot of different things can precipitate democratic hard times. Unchecked authoritarian creep like can also precipitate democratic hard times. You know, I often go back to this Vox article by Tom Pepinsky who writes life in authoritarian regimes is boring and tolerable. I mean, that by the time you get to this point, because it can be so slow and incremental and importantly, invisible, these are not changes that most citizens are paying attention to. That by the time you’re in authoritarianism, you’ve missed the opportunity to do something.

And so, democratic threats are unlike social or economic I mean, these big macro shifts. It’s unlike it because it needs that extra step of information and framing that citizens aren’t kind of always going to experience. If you have a presidential election every four years, the amount of time between those two in which you can slip out of practice, of vigilance, or you can slip out of the practice of being informed to values that we know citizens take seriously, because I asked them on the survey and they rate them as among the highest of civic obligations is to be informed and to vote. But when you have such a large gap between those two, you know, things can change in electoral reform. Things can change in appointing new electors. Like all of these devices, these institutional devices can change and the crisis could have already happened.

And so, like, I always think about that article because democratic threats don’t touch lives the same way that kind of these other upheavals can. I mean, the work of democratic threat to get citizens to care is really telling them about it in a kind of consistent, real shared way. A way in which both sides of the aisle think seriously about the consequences.

jmk

So, Sarah, your book is about citizenship in hard times. So how should we think differently about citizenship during hard or difficult times?

Sara Wallace Goodman

If I could say one thing to every citizen, it’s to put country before party. Which is, you know, at this time it almost feels like a hollowed phrase, because we we’ve kind of heard it so often. But it’s like actually true. And it’s true, not just at the high levels of party elites, but it’s what I see in my book when I asked citizens about what they should do is that when they put party incentives, when they put those first, the long-term effect that it has on creating a new norm for what’s allowable in a democracy.

Authoritarians can get away with authoritarian creeds, because citizens who benefit from the status quo exhibit allegiance, exhibit patriotism, think that their job is to support the government, don’t question the values of government, or exhibit less support for being informed that these norms start to shift then let elites get away with more stuff. So, it doesn’t mean throw up the barricades or marching on Washington, but like thinking about country needs before party needs. And that democracy is really about iteration. It’s coming back to the table. There has to be a next election when we stop having that horizon of the next election is when we’ve kind of crossed the threshold. But it’s really about thinking about the needs of lower-case d democrat versus the upper case d Democrat. So, to speak.

jmk

Well, Sarah, thanks so much for stopping by to talk to me.

Sara Wallace Goodman

Thank you for having me. This was fun.

Key Links

Citizenship in Hard Times: How Ordinary People Respond to Democratic Threat by Sara Wallace Goodman

Learn about Sara Wallace Goodman from Wikipedia

Follow Sara Wallace Goodman on Twitter @ThatSaraGoodman

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