80,000 Hours Podcast

#97 – Mike Berkowitz on keeping the US a liberal democratic country

80,000 Hours Podcast

Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election split the Republican party. There were those who went along with it — 147 members of Congress raised objections to the official certification of electoral votes — but there were others who refused. These included Brad Raffensperger and Brian Kemp in Georgia, and Vice President Mike Pence.

Although one could say that the latter Republicans showed great courage, the key to the split may lie less in differences of moral character or commitment to democracy, and more in what was being asked of them. Trump wanted the first group to break norms, but he wanted the second group to break the law.

And while norms were indeed shattered, laws were upheld.

Today’s guest Mike Berkowitz, executive director of the Democracy Funders Network, points out a problem we came to realize throughout the Trump presidency: So many of the things that we thought were laws were actually just customs.

Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

So once you have leaders who don’t buy into those customs — like, say, that a president shouldn’t tell the Department of Justice who it should and shouldn’t be prosecuting — there’s nothing preventing said customs from being violated.

And what happens if current laws change?

A recent Georgia bill took away some of the powers of Georgia's Secretary of State — Brad Raffensberger. Mike thinks that's clearly retribution for Raffensperger's refusal to overturn the 2020 election results. But he also thinks it means that the next time someone tries to overturn the results of the election, they could get much farther than Trump did in 2020.

In this interview Mike covers what he thinks are the three most important levers to push on to preserve liberal democracy in the United States:

1. Reforming the political system, by e.g. introducing new voting methods
2. Revitalizing local journalism
3. Reducing partisan hatred within the United States

Mike says that American democracy, like democracy elsewhere in the world, is not an inevitability. The U.S. has institutions that are really important for the functioning of democracy, but they don't automatically protect themselves — they need people to stand up and protect them.

In addition to the changes listed above, Mike also thinks that we need to harden more norms into laws, such that individuals have fewer opportunities to undermine the system.

And inasmuch as laws provided the foundation for the likes of Raffensperger, Kemp, and Pence to exhibit political courage, if we can succeed in creating and maintaining the right laws — we may see many others following their lead.

As Founding Father James Madison put it: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

Mike and Rob also talk about:

• What sorts of terrible scenarios we should actually be worried about, i.e. the difference between being overly alarmist and properly alarmist
• How to reduce perverse incentives for political actors, including those to overturn election results
• The best opportunities for donations in this space
• And much more

Producer: Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel.

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