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    Martin Wolf and Anne Applebaum on democracy’s year of peril

    enJune 09, 2024

    Podcast Summary

    • Liberal democracy challengesThe liberal democratic system is under threat from both the right and left, with populist parties rising in various countries, challenging not just economically but culturally and politically, and the process of reversing illiberal trends is complex and controversial.

      The liberal democratic system is facing significant challenges from both the right and the left, as evidenced by the rise of populist parties around the world. Anne Applebaum, a journalist and author who has witnessed these shifts in America and Europe, shares her personal experiences of observing this trend in her home countries of America, Poland, and Great Britain. She notes that these challenges are not just economic but also cultural, and they involve attacks on the political system itself. One notable recent development was the defeat of the right-wing law and justice party in Poland, which had been moving the country towards an illiberal path. However, the process of rolling back this authoritarian interlude is not easy or without controversy, as some charge the liberals with attempting to pack the courts or undo previous actions. Applebaum reflects on this experience and shares insights into the challenges and dangers of reversing such trends.

    • Polish power struggleThe Polish government, led by Miaraswil Kuchinsky and the PIS party, maintained power for eight years through exploiting anxiety and paranoia, but their attempt to fully control all institutions was met with resistance and a large voter turnout in the 2020 election, leading to a legal struggle to restore neutrality to the institutions and address illegal actions.

      The far-right government in Poland, led by Miaraswil Kuchinsky and the PIS party, was able to maintain power for eight years through exploiting anxiety and paranoia over demographic and social change, loss of control, and EU membership. They took over various state institutions, including the media, courts, civil service, and state companies, but their attempt to fully control all institutions was met with resistance and a large voter turnout in the 2020 election. The election resulted in a Democratic coalition seeking to restore neutrality to the institutions, but it's a legally challenging process due to the former ruling party's continued control of the presidency and their entrenched positions. The restoration process involves retaking state television and addressing illegal actions, such as the misuse of Pegasus spyware, which will result in investigations and trials, leading to potential backlash.

    • Balancing neutrality and perceived partialityFinding balance is crucial in restoring democratic legitimacy, but it's a challenging task as those feeling excluded may sympathize with perceived persecution, requiring constant renewal and commitment to liberal values.

      Restoring a democratically legitimate state and society requires quick and decisive action. The Polish government, under Donald Tusk, has shown some success in this regard, but it's an ongoing process. The challenge lies in finding the balance between neutrality and perceived partiality, as those who feel excluded from the political system may sympathize with those who claim to be persecuted. This powerful political message, rooted in a sense of exclusion and a desire for revenge, will continue to be central to both the US elections and the situation in Poland. The durability of the attempt to restore a democratically legitimate state is uncertain, as it may require constant renewal and a commitment to liberal values. The public's attention and interest can easily be lost, making the process an uphill battle against bureaucracy, exhaustion, and cynicism.

    • Challenges for liberal democracies in EuropePoland faces challenges in maintaining democratic institutions and resisting external threats from Russia and other autocratic regimes, requiring rebuilding trust, dealing with internal discontent, and combating propaganda. Other autocratic regimes like China, Iran, and Venezuela also pose threats, necessitating a broader understanding of the challenge.

      Poland, as well as other European countries, face significant challenges in maintaining democratic institutions and resisting external threats, particularly from Russia and other autocratic regimes. These challenges include rebuilding trust, dealing with internal discontent, and combating propaganda. Poland sees itself as playing a broader role in inspiring other European countries to resist these threats and maintain a liberal alliance. However, the threat is not limited to Russia alone, as other autocratic regimes such as China, Iran, and Venezuela also work together to protect their interests and push their autocratic vision of the world. Understanding this broader threat and the role of internal and external actors is crucial in addressing the challenges facing liberal democracies in Europe and beyond.

    • Election lies and consequencesThe Biden administration's failure to effectively challenge the 'big lie' of the 2020 election being stolen could lead to serious consequences if Trump is reelected, including potential human rights abuses and civil service politicization.

      The Biden administration's failure to address the "big lie" of the 2020 election being stolen early and effectively has allowed it to continue dominating the political narrative, potentially leading to serious consequences if Donald Trump is reelected. The administration's focus on economic achievements, such as infrastructure bills and manufacturing resurgence, while important, did not sufficiently counteract the cultural narrative that the election was stolen. Trump's potential reelection could result in detrimental actions, such as building detention camps for migrants and politicizing the civil service, reminiscent of what occurred in Poland after 2015. The administration's delay in addressing this issue may have been fatal.

    • US authoritarian shiftA second Trump administration could lead to widespread political appointments, removal of civil servants, and even the creation of concentration camps, potentially influencing other countries to follow suit.

      The potential for a significant shift towards authoritarian governance in the United States under a second Trump administration is a serious concern. The discussion highlighted the potential for widespread political appointments, removal of civil servants, and even the possibility of creating concentration camps. This could have profound effects on the world stage and potentially encourage other countries to follow suit. The use of language of revenge, retribution, and insisting on absolute personal loyalty among military officials, civil servants, and the judiciary aligns with elements of fascism. However, it's important to note that the degree to which such a shift would occur and the level of competence within a potential new administration remain uncertain.

    • Erosion of Liberal Democracy in USThe current political climate under Trump raises concerns about the independence of key institutions, potentially leading to a world where US is no longer an ally to Europe and is instead challenged by major autocracies

      The current political climate under President Trump's administration raises concerns about the erosion of liberal democracy and the independence of key institutions within the United States. This includes the military, civil service, diplomats, and judiciary. The potential consequences of this trend could be profound, both domestically and internationally. Europe, in particular, is preparing for the possibility of a hostile United States, with some leaders considering the creation of a European nuclear umbrella and changes to military operations. The implications of such a shift could be significant, potentially leading to a world where the United States is no longer an ally to Europe and is instead challenged by three major autocracies: Russia, China, and the United States itself. This is a serious concern that requires careful consideration and preparation.

    • US elections implicationsThe US elections could significantly impact liberal democracy and global power dynamics, potentially weakening NATO and leading to further conflicts, while some Americans view this shift as positive despite the potential consequences.

      The upcoming US elections hold significant implications for liberal democracy and global power dynamics. The potential weakening of the United States as a reliable ally could undermine NATO's deterrent effect and potentially lead to further conflicts, such as in the Baltic states. This election could mark a decisive moment in world history, with profound consequences for the future of liberal democracy and the balance of power. Many Americans, however, do not fully grasp the importance of a liberal democratic system and the role an independent bureaucracy plays in its survival. Some view the potential shift as a positive, desiring a return to an imagined past America. This disconnect in perspectives could lead to further complications for international relations.

    • Cybercrime insulation of powerDespite cybercrime being a significant global issue with a large economic impact, those in power may be disconnected from its reality, while individuals and companies work on solutions to pressing challenges such as AI, environment, and financial systems.

      Those in power may be insulated from the reality of the world's most pressing issues, including the growing threat of cybercrime. Cybercrime is a significant problem, equivalent to the third largest country in terms of GDP, and the fastest growing economy. Meanwhile, individuals and companies are working on solutions to some of humanity's most urgent challenges, such as the potential of AI to make the world a better place, changing consumption habits for the environment, and creating financial systems that work for all. These efforts, as explored in the podcast series "Better Heroes," offer hope that humanity can address these issues and save the planet.

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