'The European Union is the great experiment of our time'

Jasmijn Snoijink19 October 2020

Last April, Anne-Marie Slaughter would have visited Amsterdam for a symposium on democratic resilience, and to accept the honorary doctorate awarded to her by Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. But her trip was cancelled at the last minute because of the pandemic. She will now accept her honorary doctorate during the Dies programme on 6 November. VU magazine spoke to her about the US elections, filter bubbles and democratic resilience. 

How has four years of Trump politics affected American democracy?

„The state of our democracy, which is the world’s oldest continuous democracy – and a liberal democracy, meaning we protect the rights of minorities – is under real pressure. Things have happened over the past four years that Americans like me would not have believed possible."

„It began with the President calling the press the enemy of the people – we have a President who lies the way a dictator would, who denies the possibility of truth. That’s the hallmark of a dictatorship: the creation of an information environment that is completely controlled. This hasn’t happened yet in the US because of course we do have a free press. But we are terribly divided, and there are so many Americans who get their news only from very politically biased sources. In a way, this is true for all of us. Because there is nothing at this point that isn’t biased to some extent."

„We have a leader who is saying that he will not abide by the results of the election, and who is clearly trying to rig the election."

„We have a leader who is saying that he will not abide by the results of the election, and who is clearly trying to rig the election. So this is a moment where a country that has been preaching its democratic values to other countries for a long time, and that has been convinced of the solidity and rightness of its own institutions, is now looking at countries around the world where democracy has crumbled and realizing: it can happen here. And it may happen here."

„Unless all of us, citizens like me, no matter where they are, vote. You’ve got to vote! You’ve got to protect the vote. You have to make sure that the votes are fairly counted. You have to make sure that they are recounted by a neutral body. You have to make sure that the victor is certified. And that’s up to us. Democracy means rule of the people – demos. And we are the people. We are the people mentioned at the beginning of our constitution, and it is up to us."

Will this appeal to voters be enough? 

„I think it does help to reach out to as many people as possible. When de Tocqueville travelled through the United States in 1830, he commented on our civil society, noting the large number of small organizations. And now you see that, across the country, smaller initiatives are gathering to get out the vote, to protect the vote, to watch the polling stations in various ways."

„And I do think it makes a difference. I think that it’s particularly important to reach out to minorities, especially people of colour, who are often convinced that their vote doesn’t matter. That no matter what they do, their lives won’t change. And interestingly enough, many Trump voters in 2016 were former democrats. They were people who had voted for Obama, but whose jobs were still disappearing, whose towns were still shrinking and whose children were still dying from opioids. They essentially voted for Trump as a protest vote. So it’s not just about getting people to vote, but we also have to ensure that their votes are then reflected in our politics in ways that actually make a difference."

How do we build democratic resilience? 

„I have written a lot about networks and how you need to deliberately connect people to build resilience. A well-networked society that has many different hubs – many different points of action – is more resilient than a society in which the power is concentrated centrally. And again, that is really the difference in many ways between a dictatorship and a democracy. A dictatorship tends to be a closed and controlled society, whereas our societies – the Netherlands, the United States and Europe – are open. But you can be open without being networked."

„With the protests, white Americans are realizing – I think for the first time – just how different life is for African Americans."

„What is important here is the recognition that you are not alone. While propaganda tries to convince you that you’re crazy and that nobody thinks like you, everybody agrees that the United States is falling apart. Networking says: no, I am going to find people who are like me. So if you look at the Arab spring, or indeed at many revolutions, what makes them happen is that suddenly social media makes many people realize that other people feel the way they do.

What we are doing now is about building new connections between whites and African Americans. With the protests, white Americans are realizing – I think for the first time – just how different life is for African Americans."

The US seems increasingly polarized. Is that your experience as well? 

„It is true that the divide between Democrats and Republicans is so much greater than when I was growing up. I had lots of friends who were Republicans. I lived in a neighbourhood where people had lawn signs for the Republican candidate and the Democratic candidate. Now you have Trump neighbourhoods and Harris-Biden neighbourhoods, and your friends are really very segregated."

„We know that Americans now feel very strongly about marrying somebody who supports the other party. That’s very dangerous, because it wipes out all our other identities. A Republican woman might be a lot like me in that she has children, cares about the state of education, probably cares about the environment and wants there to be good jobs. There are all sorts of ways in which we are more alike than different, but we are disconnected. And we can’t see any identity other than the political one."

It appears that our virtual filter bubbles are manifesting in the real world. How do we break out of our bubbles?

„The United States used to have something that was called the fairness doctrine, which stated that if you were going to present one point of view in broadcasting, you had to present the other point of view as well. We used to have three major broadcasting networks: ABC, CBS and NBC. Since all Americans got their news from one of those three stations, there were regulations on presenting a much more balanced picture. That’s gone, of course, but we need the equivalent of that for the digital age."

„Some of that has to come from real regulation for the social media platforms we use. Platforms like Facebook and Google have been saying for a long time: we’re not publishing anything ourselves, we’re just a platform for others. But when most Americans are getting their news from Facebook feeds, then Facebook and other social media companies have to actually take responsibility for shaping the public discourse."

How can democracies help each other?

„Europe right now has a unique and important global mission. Europe is much stronger than most Europeans or Americans realize. The European Union is the largest economy in the world. It really is. You know, no one ever talks about it that way. People talk about the United States and China, but it really is the European Union, which is made up of many old and strong democracies. It’s the leading part of the world for social democracy, and for actually figuring out how to put people at the centre of what you do while still having a capitalist system. Some parts of Europe are better at that than others. The Nordic countries are probably ahead, and the Netherlands has also done a good job."

„And so it is up to Europe to demonstrate how you move from being overwhelmingly white to a much more multicultural society."

„But Europe is also a whole set of individual societies that are undergoing massive change. And we are paying less attention to immigration in Europe than we do in the United States. My mother is from Belgium, so I have Belgian family. When I go to Brussels or Amsterdam now, they are totally different from the predominantly white cities I knew growing up. And so it is up to Europe to demonstrate how you move from being overwhelmingly white to a much more multicultural society – while maintaining common norms and understandings, but also the richness of that diversity."

„And the last thing I will say is that Europe still stands for the rule of law. Not only domestically, but globally. Europe still believes in global institutions, even as Russia, China and the United States have no interest in the multilateral order. So Europe has to hold the fort, but more than that Europe has to find a way forward. The European Union is the great experiment of our times – bringing together sovereign nations for some purposes, but not others. It’s the only way to find out how we can do what we need to do together, while still having enough separation to have our own cultures, countries and traditions."

On 3 November – US election day – Anne-Marie Slaughter will appear as a guest on a talk show about the state of democracy, together with Sigrid Kaag. The talk show will be moderated by Marcia Luyten and take place on the VU campus, with Slaughter joining remotely. The conversation will be live-streamed.