Zac Gershberg

Paradoxes of Democracy and Illiberalism

Air Date: June 27, 2022

Idaho State University scholar Zac Gershberg discusses the future of democracy and illiberalism in America.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome to our broadcast today, Zac Gershberg. He is co-author of the new book “The Paradox of Democracy: Free Speech, Open Media, and Perilous Persuasion.” And he is a professor at Idaho State University. Congratulations on the book, Zac and thank you so much for being on The Open Mind today.


GERSHBERG: Alexander. Thank you. I appreciate it. Look forward to chatting with you.


HEFFNER: Zac, let me ask you to begin with, because I think this is such a fantastic and appropriately nuanced framing of our current crisis as a country. The paradox, because it is the paradox of wanting folks to be able to self-govern in a democratic or republican fashion, but then not necessarily agreeing with what those self-governed folks decide they want to do. I mean, the case in point is reproductive rights in this country. So I’ve been constantly thinking about the title of your book in just this contest of federalism. And I wanted to give you a chance from the opening to reflect on that question of what does this paradox mean?


GERSHBERG: Sure. So the paradox is kind of, we sometimes think of democracy as about rights in institutions, but in some ways it’s about this open culture. And what happens with that is sometimes you can almost guarantee, not just sometimes, you can guarantee that things aren’t going to go your way. And this is a problem in the sense that we can sometimes take for granted things in democracies that we think are stable and forever, but that sometimes become unmoored as others get to make decisions. And I think that certainly plays a role in, when it comes to reproductive rights, in the fact that precedents were set, and precedents seemingly are going to be overturned. And so the paradox is simply that there are challenges, structural challenges to how we communicate in democracies that precede all of the other institutions and rights we normally associate it with.


HEFFNER: And just to give you a little sense of my thinking through paradox. It’s been in this context of the institutions themselves and whether they are majoritarian or minoritarian. So in the case of Roe v. Wade, you have states that, you know, as soon as Roe v. Wade is overturned, even though if they are espousing state’s rights right now, if they had a majority and wanted to overrule the filibuster, even, on the federal side, that they would shift a position from state’s rights to, you know, the federal government has the authority to ban abortion. And I think about it in this context of these states that have made the argument that their citizens have favored this for many years, decades. So in the case of Oklahoma or South Dakota or North Dakota, that if you put it to a vote, abortion would be outlawed in those states.


And I’m asking those people at the same time to consider the United States, which elected through the Electoral College, a president on one occasion, most recently, President Trump who appointed three justices who actually didn’t have the support of the majority of citizens. And to me, this is really a fundamental paradox and nuance that you don’t hear a lot in the mainstream media. And I just want to give you a chance to comment on that, the idea that you have a majority in a state that favors a political outcome, and then a majority of the country that prefers a political outcome.


GERSHBERG: Well, I think our thesis to the book is you know, a little bit nuanced, but when it comes to American federalism, that gets even more confusing in some ways. But I guess what I would say is one issue we’ve had over the course of the last century is associating or conflating democracy with the perfect reflection of public opinion. We see that play out in cases, such as reproductive rights. And so that’s not actually what democracy… there’s no, there’s no ironclad rule or law that a democratic government has to follow the will of the people. And, unfortunately, we were sort of led to believe over the course of the last hundred years, kind of you know, a hundred years since Walter Lippmann published “Public Opinion” and that’s kind of what we’re pushing back a little bit against is that anything is possible and potentially, or rhetorically speaking, everything is permitted.


HEFFNER: I think what you’re getting at is the messiness you know, of democratic republican governance, or, you know, however you want to split the atoms so to speak. And the way we think of are we a democracy, are we a Republic? But the interesting thing, I don’t know if you think about it this way from the book, but, you know, we’ve had this explosion of imagination in media while for the same period of time we’ve had an, an implosion of imagination in government, right? A lack of imagination about, you know, let’s use different models of participatory governance. You know, we’ve just been at this constant stalemate in the way a lot of the governance occurs in this country.


GERSHBERG: Right. Well, I think the challenge we’re facing is sometimes one of scale. We sometimes have been led to believe that more speech equals better speech and everything like that. But in the 21st century, every citizen is armed with the power of mass communication. That used to be limited to only a certain number of news publishers with a printing press or broadcasters with a television license. And now we all have that ability. So in some ways the stalemate that you’re speaking of is almost a natural consequence of the fact that we face an in increasing an exponentially increasing volume of communication where people speak their mind and read and watch and share. And the problems that go along with it, I think, is…  So I’m not saying the stalemate is good. I’m suggesting in some ways it’s perhaps what we might expect given that multiplicity of media.


HEFFNER: Oh, fair enough. That, that makes good sense. I want to ask you about perilous persuasion for our viewers. What do you mean by perilous persuasion?


GERSHBERG: Okay. So one of the things we tie democracy, we start by looking at the Athenians in the classical democratic experiment of direct democracy. Then we look at the Romans in the Roman Republic, which fell into empire. And basically what we’re talking about is kind of the classic practice, classical practice of rhetoric. And specifically if we make, if we recognize that free expression is paramount to democracy, well, then that makes persuasion the primary variable in which democratic practices take place. However, it’s all well and good to convince your fellow citizens of something new, a new position to adopt. However, persuasion from ancient sophistry to fascist propaganda, to disinformation and misinformation in the digital world can be perilous. And so I think it’s important to tie free expression and perilous persuasion together because it shows how vulnerable democracy is to what makes it so significant.


HEFFNER: And to me, when I hear that term and read about it in your book, I think about how perilous it’s become to persuade people, right? And how dangerous it is to take a counter argument, especially when you are the sole member of the minority, or, you know, up against a super majority. And how unlikely it is, also perilous because how unlikely it is that you’re going to be able to persuade someone. That’s just struck me by the term, you know, because it’s perilous because it’s dangerous to be counterintuitive or to be against the grain. And to try to persuade someone, especially in kind of uncomfortable territory, not playing on your home turf. And it’s such a long-haul in becoming, you know, increasingly improbable to get to a place where you persuade someone successfully.


GERSHBERG: Right. It’s not easy. I think that’s a really important point. And not only that, even if you succeed, you could also face grave consequences. So, free speech comes with consequences for democracy, in society. It doesn’t take place in a vacuum. And we locate this you know, again, to go back to the Athenians, Socrates who had to plead for his life and did so unsuccessfully. But there were other; the term, very term ostracism comes from this. So the Greeks in their very early democracy had various different forms of free expression. But at the same time, those were vulnerable to just like today to lawsuits and, and ostracism. And sometimes the consequences were far more severe back then.


HEFFNER: And I think about you, in particular, being a scholar in Idaho, when, again, if you were just to ask the lay person who’s modestly or moderately informed, they would think on the basis of how much academics or intellectuals are scapegoated. And, there has been this culture war on the ivory tower, more so in deep red states than in blue states, although it is in blue states too, that you are right in the lion’s den, so to speak, when it comes to this very question of persuadability and the perilous perilousness of making an argument, or even, you know, listening to an argument, right, if it’s not the party line, if it’s not the conventional wisdom? And so I wanted to ask you if that is at all overstated or is it correctly understood that you know, in certain parts of this country it’s going to be more challenging to make an argument than in other parts of the country?


GERSHBERG: I think what’s particularly challenging sometimes is sometimes you see and hear about these bills that come forward in state legislatures. And sometimes the wording is cleverly put together. So, as to in some ways intimidate or chill, but not necessarily lead to cases where the law can actually be challenged. But it is something in the back of my mind sometimes. And you know, and I think part of it is wondering where this is going to go. And I think we are coming out of whether it was the Trump years or the global pandemic, or what we’ve seen in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we’re sort of transitioning from this convergent world of different media and stuff like that and entering this sort of new one where there are forces that want to dominate the public sphere. And I don’t know. I can’t say with confidence who is going to win this, or how we’re going to come out the other end. And we make this sort of point in the book, we better be prepared because we’re starting to see democracy as such as the age of liberal democracy has sort of frittered away. And so it’s exciting, but also scary if in fact we start seeing arrests for ideas or the exercise of state power against educators. And so, and I think it’s even more difficult because sometimes it’s hard to discern the performance of some of these elements from how it’s being bound in the law.


HEFFNER: You say in your introduction that we ought to think of democracy less of as a government type and more as an open communicative culture. And, you and your co-author are contending that, you know, democracy can be liberal or illiberal, can be populous or consensus based. And again, there are theorists and probably people in the political arena who might disagree that, you know, illiberal democracy is an oxymoron. And I’m asking you, it’s only because I wonder if it’s going to be more challenging to preserve democratic values or even basically human values, if we aren’t on the same page that illiberalism cannot coexist with democracy, in truth, if we’re just being honest about what these things are.


GERSHBERG: So I guess my response would be, my co-author Sean Illing and I certainly respect and would be considered, I think, champions of liberal democracy you know, in this grand traditional sense of the phrase. But it cannot be taken for granted. And, you know, we wanted, we initially set out to write a book about you know, the death of democracy and upholding liberal values. But when we started looking at this history, it was, we discovered that, actually, democracies have not necessarily always toed that line and we want it to, but we can’t take that for granted. And we can see in countries as different as Hungary and Turkey what happens when a democracy becomes an illiberal democracy and we can see sort of in Russia, what happens when an illiberal democracy becomes something and…


HEFFNER: And your, and your point, your and your co-author’s point, is that, you know, there was something of an illusion about democracy and it was, it was definitional in aspiration. It was not in reality ever necessarily a true democracy. And you can purport for something to be democratic or republican, again, lowercase r and d. But in truth it will be on some spectrum of liberal or illiberal or humane or inhumane. And just like other forms of government, we have the tendency and I think correctly, to associate autocracies and authoritarianism more with the inhumane spectrum. I mean, I think historically speaking, at least from a modern historical perspective, that’s correct. That’s, that’s accurate, but this led me to, again, this question of, if you are going to concede that there is such a thing as illiberal democracy and they’re not in conflict, you might have a harder time, you know, preserving democracy? You know, it occurs to me in the 2016 presidential campaign, there was an exchange about the integrity of our borders. And I thought that then Secretary Clinton, you know, running against President, then businessman, Donald Trump, had a strong position to say, at least in defense of democracy or the ideal democracy look in response to former President Trump’s comment – we don’t have a country anymore, right? If we don’t have borders. He was accusing her basically of being “open borders” and saying, if you elect Secretary Clinton, we’re not going to have a country anymore. And, you know, she didn’t retort. if we elect you, we’re not going to have a democracy anymore. And you know, that is the stakes of this right now, that we’re talking about democracy as kind of an existential crisis. And I wonder if, you know, if we give too much room to defining liberal democracy, that the folks championing democracy are going to, you know, find themselves on the wrong side of history.


GERSHBERG: Well, I think we’re trying to be radically honest about this, that it is going to be difficult. This is not, this is not going to be easy. And the threats we’ve seen globally, domestically, like what happened on January 6th, 2021, these are things that tend to occur in democracy. And so the, the one thing we, you know, we try to say is the existential crisis of democracy is permanent, that we will always have to deal with this and that even over the last, you know, 50 to 80 years where it seemed like we could take democracy for granted, and liberal values for granted and certain, you know, human or what you were mentioning about human rights and things like that. In some ways people can voice their opinion otherwise that don’t necessarily coincide with what we would connect to classical liberal values of human rights and things like that. And that’s, and, and that is frustrating. And I think that’s part of what we’re trying to do with the book is make that clear that it is a challenge and that we can’t take that for granted anymore.


HEFFNER: I want to just close in these last minutes we have about that delineation between an open culture, you say, open communicative culture versus, you know, democracy. And you know, you’re basically saying that that openness can exist. You’re not alleging it can exist with fascistic government in office, but you’re saying there can be an open communication culture up until what point, right? That’s really my question to you.


GERSHBERG: Well, you mentioned fascism, right? And I think you know, we have a chapter on Mussolini and the Nazis and one of the things we try to show, we focus on the early period of Mussolini, and the early period of the Nazis as they first got to power or in the decade leading up to it in each instance. And, so I think the pivot ultimately, to this sort of totalitarianism moment where democracy is truly done for, is as we have seen in the fascist examples from a hundred years ago, but then also what’s happening more recently in Russia, even though there is closing down all access to the open internet, all media outlets that that don’t follow government propaganda. And that’s the point at which it’s not even any longer an illiberal democracy.


HEFFNER: That’s a great point. And I think folks should definitely pay attention to that chapter of the book. You know, you’re, you’re basically saying that the first amendment at least in its modern interpretation, in our country, is going to protect us from the realization of fascism in that formulation, the people who are protesting the reversal or overturning of Roe v. Wade, which we anticipate and suggest that that is the first of other decisions, dominoes falling in the direction of illiberalism. Like ultimately the original text of the constitution is being defended to create those illiberal outcomes. If you go fall all the way to the last domino and take it to the first amendment, you still had the first amendment, right? How do you see the unraveling of Starry Decisis in Supreme Court decisions and jurisprudence that, do you see it as ultimately creating these illiberal outcomes? Or do you think there’s some even further direction where it could, it could not just create illiberal outcomes, but it, it could lead to that ultimate undermining of open culture in which case then, you know, you have a fascistic regime.


GERSHBERG: So thank you for, for bringing that up because I think it’s an important point because I think in some ways the Supreme Court and the law in general are sometimes connected in our minds as the saving grace of democracy. But in some ways the law and the Supreme Court, as its history is unfurled in the United States in some ways is a constraint on democracy. But this is paradoxical, right, because supposedly the Supreme Court says, oh, we just want the states to decide, which is technically more democracy. So it, so it gets very confusing. But I do think it’s really important that we, in some ways can show some appreciation for our first amendment because it’s not just freedom of speech of freedom, right? I mean, freedom of speech, freedom of press, the right to assembly and the right to petition the government, I think are all really important as distinctions under free expression and to which we can add the establishment clause and religion, even though that’s not necessarily tied to communications.


But I would, you know, the one domino has, or a number of dominoes have fallen, whether it’s the Voting Rights Act or Roe v. Wade and the Casey decision. But I am expecting in the next, over the next decade that the famous New York Times versus Sullivan case on press freedom and, and liable and actual malice that will probably fall as well. And so I’d be very concerned if we get to a point where state legislatures or the federal government can start to dictate to publishers what they can publish or what they have to publish. And, and that would be very worrisome. So I do see the first amendment as this great backstop, but in some ways, you can’t always rely on the law or the courts to fundamentally preserve those rights.


HEFFNER: And you said more democracy is the result of overturning Roe in the sense that each state can operate more fulsome more fully as its own laboratory of democracy but then does that dampen the fact that we can’t have a single democracy with the majoritarian outcome for all of the millions of people across the land?


GERSHBERG:  Sure. And I think that’s, that’s a concern is when you look at public opinion research on some of these big, hot-button issues is like, they go one way and then we’re seeing it play out somewhat differently. And that’s authority. Not that I, I don’t know how that is, is necessarily going to play out. And it’s, I, I think it’s, I think where we’re talking about going into that, we can’t have any sort of consensus in American democracy at a, at a national scale,


HEFFNER: Zac, thank you so much for your time. I encourage all of our viewers to check out his and his co-author, their new book, “The Paradox of Democracy: Free Speech, Open Media, and Perilous Persuasion” by the University of Chicago Press. Zac Gershberg, thank you for your time today.


GERSHBERG: Alexander. Appreciate it. Thank you.


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