Garry Kasparov & Uriel Epshtein

Renewing Democracy for Today

Air Date: July 6, 2020

Garry Kasparov and Uriel Epshtein of the Renew Democracy Initiative discuss authoritarian regimes usurping democracy across the globe.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome the chairman and the executive director of the Renew Democracy Initiative, world chess champion, Garry Kasparov and Uriel Epshtein. Welcome to you both. Garry, when did you really come to understand the threat of authoritarianism in this millennium as a global phenomenon, not specific to Putin and now not specific to Trump, but as a worldwide phenomenon?


KASPAROV: Look, you don’t have to be a strong chess player to analyze the trends in global politics. And I had also my experience growing up in the Soviet Union and living in Putin’s Russia. So all the signs were on the wall and Putin’s assent to power and, and the reverse of the trend of the 90’s when many countries decided to follow America and Europe in exchange for more authoritarian and, and more strict form of governance, it’s, you know, it was a clear indication that something went wrong. And I’ve been warning for many years that authoritarian regimes, dictatorships, they satisfy the control, justify the rule to explain why the economy is not working and the domestic policies are no longer satisfactory for the majority of the population they always look outside and they try to expand our, our influence. That’s why I believe that nobody was safe. Even the United States, the way Putin handles Russia and the neighboring countries with his hybrid wars and disinformation campaign was a clear demonstration that one day he would try to use the same technique, the same, the same mechanisms of fake news to attack Europe and the United States.


HEFFNER: And just one follow up, Garry, do you want to warn Americans, having had the experience of the Soviet Union and now Russia under Putin, that if you think that Donald Trump may just be a fleeting single-term president you may well be wrong because there was a perception, I guess I should ask you, was there a perception in Russia that Putin would succeed, in the normal sort of democratic succession? Was there the fear from the beginning that he would become the lifelong president, then dictator, tyrant or you know, it’s very, his first term was there some belief that it wasn’t going to turn in that direction?


KASPAROV: Unfortunately, many people thought that Putin would not be forever and people like me, we were just, there were a few of us who were literally shouting in the desert, pointing out at Putin’s KGB background and some of his statements even before he took over when he talked about the KGB officer, it’s always a KGB officer, about the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. His first action as the president of restoring the Soviet anthem. So my message to Americans after November 2016 was very simple. Yes, democracy, American democracy is very strong. It’s based on 200 years of experience, more than 200 years and institutions that guaranteed the balance of power, but it’s one man in the oval office could do a lot damage to it, and don’t take it for granted. And we could see that sets in the first three years of his presidency, Donald Trump succeeded in destroying so many pillars of American democracy and basically, you know, forcing some of the key institutions to work for him personally. So it’s not surprising that he talks about loyalty to him, loyalty to the president rather than to the loyalty to the constitution. And let’s remember he has been doing it you know, in his first term, hopefully the last one. So facing reelection, now imagine what kind of damage he can, he can do if he’s no longer if he, if he doesn’t care anymore about reelection. But also what bothers me that is, that’s it’s Trump demonstrated that so many American institutions, they based, they based their existence and their stability on custom, on honor, on traditions, and Donald Trump’s response to their symbols is so sue me. If it’s not, you know, it’s all in the books. If it’s not, you know, that the letter of the law, I don’t care about the spirit of law. So there’s so much work to be done to make sure that the conditions that made Donald Trump and his presidency possible will be eradicated to prevent another Donald Trump who could be younger, less corrupt, so more articulate to, to ascend?


HEFFNER: So Uriel, at the Renew Democracy Initiative, how are you combating those conditions?


EPSHTEIN: Well, look, the tagline that Garry and I and the rest of the board have discussed for RDI is that the goal for us is to become a home for the politically homeless. The fact of the matter is, this isn’t about one man. This isn’t about one political party. This is about a trend in the United States and around the world that pits different tribes against one another, where people’s political decision making is no longer based on actual policy arguments, but rather based on their personal senses of identity. And as a result, you have a number of different bad actors from any number of different political corners taking advantage of that and utilizing that in order to pit people against one another. And so, take the multimedia space online: the commentators, the speakers, the video editors, you know, the Instagram influencers, whatever, the ones who are getting the most views are the ones who are kind of promoting the most radical possible story. They’re the ones who are trying to encourage and induce a sense of rage in their, in their followers. And so what RDI is trying to do in order to combat that is we want to create a space specifically online, but you know, broader than that as well where people from diverse political backgrounds can feel comfortable coming together and working towards a more moderate view of the future. So the way that we see ourselves doing that is by creating exciting, creative content that’s engaging, that doesn’t feel boring, that feels new, but isn’t doing that at the expense of reasonableness. So in other words, we want to create an exciting online platform for reasonable people.

HEFFNER: The problem though, the problem, Uriel and Garry, and I’ll direct this to you Uriel first and then ask Garry to expound, is political diversity now includes tolerance for autocracy and that is the defining attribute of Trumpism. I don’t want to speak to Boris Johnson or other particular figures who have different degrees of demagoguery so we’ll just speak from the American experience. I think Garry would testify to that in Russia in a different context. But I think that increasingly in this country there is the defense of political diversity that includes, I’m conservative under Trump and that means I adhere to his autocratic vision. So my political diversity is representative government by autocracy in of course, an Electoral College system that denies the popular will. But how do you get at that? The fact that political diversity now is including people who are swearing an oath to autocratic behavior.


EPSHTEIN: See, I think that since the end of the cold war, the United States has, you know, we did a victory lap in the nineties, and while we were doing that victory lap, we failed to begin the hard work of reprioritizing, relitigating, reemphasizing the importance of what we would consider classical liberal democratic principles. Now again, right, liberal democratic principles have nothing to do with liberal in the sense of today of being on the left, but rather liberal in the sense of John Locke, liberal in the sense of believing in separation of powers, free speech, and these core principles that have underpinned both American democracy and democracies around the world for the last 200 years. And the way that I see us combating this trend of people being more accepting of autocracy is really in two different ways. The first is we need to actively, aggressively, and creatively articulate why core liberal democratic principles, why American principles matter and how they relate to people’s lives. So, in other words, this isn’t about you know, just doing what’s right for other people. It’s about what’s doing right, doing what’s right for yourself and your family. And if people can’t see why these principles are important to themselves, they’re not going to prioritize them. And so it’s our job to show everyone why these principles matter to them. But secondly, we want, yeah,


HEFFNER: I was just going to, on that note, Garry, how do you think that, what has been the template by which some governments have emulated the Putin experience and how do you undo the damage? Have they been using Putin as the playbook or something else?


KASPAROV: I wouldn’t say Putin as a playbook because Russian democracy was very feeble and we had little experience with democracy and that’s why it was not that difficult for Putin to pop all these weak democratic institutions and to establish here his personal cult. So the country that, you know could be used as the, as a sample to the United States, I will pick up Hungary. It’s a democracy. It’s a member of European Union. And still, you know, the countries that democratic institutions couldn’t resist the pressure from Viktor Orban elected prime minister who consolidated power and now using pandemics, concentrating enormous power in his hands and from what I know about authoritarian regimes, I don’t expect him to give his power back when pandemics is over. So another example is Turkey. The democracy there was not as stable as in other European countries, but still the way Erdogan built his personal dictatorship, it’s also, you know, quite the message because Turkey, let’s not forget, is a member of NATO. So and now Erdogan’s Turkey is, is not so different from Putin’s Russia. So we just have to recognize that even established democratic institutions don’t guarantee success of a normal democratic process unless people recognize the importance of that. And the growing pride bullies in American politics help Trump dramatically to consolidate his base of support. And that’s what we believe is, is one of the most important roles of RDI to actually move politics back to, to the center where people debate the issues. They, they agree to disagree, but it’s about issues. It’s not about I belong to this tribe. It’s, no, we shouldn’t, we should go back to normal politics and not, not to act like a, like football or baseball fans. This is my team and a stick was just no matter what.


EPSHTEIN: And if I could just add to that really, really quickly. I mean that brings us that brings us to the second key way to combat this kind of growing autocracy. So first let me be clear. RDI, we’re a 501©3, which means that we are a nonpartisan nonprofit. We fundamentally don’t believe that this is an issue that is just entirely endemic to one side or another. This is something that can potentially infect the left, can infect the right. I mean, we see it, we saw it happen in Venezuela with the fall of democracy there to the left. We saw it happen in Hungary with the fall of democracy to the right. But what’s important is that we offer a space for people who right now are not represented by the more extreme elements of society. So the way that you combat autocracy is you empower the people who don’t believe in it.


HEFFNER: Garry said something really critical too, I think, which is agreeing to disagree, but in those coalitions you don’t want to have, you don’t want to tolerate agreement with autocracy. And that’s where I go back to the rub of this and that is building a coalition. Is it possible to build a coalition with folks who accept and practice authoritarianism as their governing philosophy or their political strategy? There can’t really be that kind of melting pot or compromise that you’re envisioning if that’s part of the equation, right?


EPSHTEIN: Keep in mind the majority of Americans don’t believe in that, right? When you, when we look at surveys that have been conducted over the last decade or so, even with sort of the rise in autocracy around the world in the last few years, you still have the majority of American citizens who disagree with tenants of autocracy. And in fact, a super majority of Americans who fundamentally, you know, there’s this organization called More in Common, which did a survey and they found that a majority of Americans fall into a group that they would call the exhausted majority. So these are people who may well affiliate themselves with Democrats or Republicans. But when push comes to shove, they are not overwhelmingly extreme or overwhelmingly tribal in their identification. They are people that can be reasoned with, right, they are people that that can disagree with one another. And so to your point, if someone believes that liberal democracy has run its course and it’s not something that matters to us anymore, then that’s probably someone who would not be interested in working with us.


HEFFNER: Right. I’m not talking about the citizens. I’m talking about elected officials, namely Republicans who share a lot of culpability, with the acceptance of and the emboldening of autocratic behavior from Trump. So in order to kind of cleanse that, if you will, you have to get back to a point where the United States Senate is not just unwilling to perform its function in a separation of powers and a three-party system where there’s independence and courage and Garry, in effect, the United States Senate is operating as a one party institution so long as it is just beholden to Donald Trump.


KASPAROV: Yes. But you know, it’s these, while speaking about the very negative role-played by the U.S. Senate and Mitch McConnell and Republicans in the last few years when they ignored or actually refused to perform their duties on the Constitution to curb the excesses of executive office. So let’s not forget that the filibuster rules have been abolished by Democrats. So that’s the, the trends of pushing more power in the Executive Office has not started with Trump. Trump benefited from that. It’s very important for us to reverse the trend that unfortunately, after the end of the cold war you know, had been used excessively Bose by Democrats and Republicans. And it’s very important that we believe it’s actually to find a new, a new common ground, political common ground for Americans in the right in the left, those we agree on some basic principles and also we should recognize that while we want to keep the foundation that was left for us by founding fathers now more than 200 years ago, it’s 21st century. And we have to make sure that our, you know, our democracy will be renovated, to be adjusted to the challenges of the 21st century. And we should also learn a lot from Trump and from previous administrations to understand how we keep this very subtle balance of power. Because with all this new technology that allows government to fall on us, to spy on us, to collect data on us, the role of executive office keeps growing and we should be very, you know, creative to make sure that the legislation and also the judiciary will, will guarantee the full protection of our rights. But this is a debate we must have instead of cheering for our candidate against another candidate. And as you pointed out, we have few people less than on the right, but still few people on the left that also do not believe in representative democracy and they don’t believe in capitalism. And it’s very important to make sure that the people who are challenging the two pillars of American society, free market and liberal democracy, these people will not have the final say in the political agenda.


EPSHTEIN: And so long as we’re, and just to add, just to add to what Garry just said, so long as we’re divided into these two camps where it’s either one or the other and if one wins, the other necessarily loses, thereby setting up an absolutely zero-sum game that doesn’t allow for compromise, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. So the best way to combat sort of what you’re, what you’re describing and you know, the possibility that elected officials could become and to some extent have become both emboldened and adherents of a more authoritarian vision of American politics, the way to combat that is to move beyond this zero-sum, either you, either you win or I win, but we can’t both win situation. And the best way to do that at this point, we believe, is we need to try to start uniting people and making people recognize that the political coalitions of yesterday are not necessarily the ones that are going to survive until tomorrow.


KASPAROV: Yeah. You know, just adding to what Uriel said, you know it just, it reminded me of the first televised debate in this country, between Nixon and Kennedy you know, I wish people who could actually, you know, watch it again because the way it has been handled it’s just, it’s unheard by today’s standards. It’s a ton of respect for the opposite candidate Senator, Vice President. But what was important, these debates, they debated so that their vision for the future but not, you know, not the goals, they, they agreed on what they want to achieve for America. They argued about new ways to do that, about needs. So that was very important. The country had, it’s not just the center. The country had a gravitas, you know, from both political parties that guaranteed that, you know, extremists on either side could have their say.


HEFFNER: Absolutely Garry. And I mean, honestly, I don’t think you have to go far, as far back as 1960. I think you can go back to 2008 when John McCain and Barack Obama were running and there was a fidelity to patriotism. But under guarding that. Yeah, go ahead.


KASPAROV: You said patriotism. I want to use another word decency. I think this is, this is what had been lost completely because you can, like John McCain, dislike John McCain. You could like Obama, or dislike Obama, but nobody can argue about decency. So let’s see. That’s what has been lost completely. And that’s what, what’s Trump that was Trump’s goal. And I have to say he succeeded by normalizing abnormal. So, so many things that we believe were impossible in American politics, in terms of language and action, it has been normalized under Trump. And I, I think that is in 2016 elections, Trump’s political style has been normalized and the greatest danger of the 2020 elections, is that if Trump is reelected, he’s political methods will be normalized. And that could be, that could be a deadly blow to American democracy.


HEFFNER: Right. Uriel, I know one of the facets of the Renew Democracy Initiative is to target this online. What do you find to be the most pernicious exploitation and amplification of the tactics that Garry mentions?


EPSHTEIN: So, yeah, I mean, that’s a, that’s a great question. And you know, Garry and I, we, we talk about this a lot and, and I’m always torn whether to specifically reference people, individuals, organizations, and thereby give them more attention in order to combat what they’re saying or whether to ignore them and kind of try to plow ahead. And the problem is, unfortunately, we have to mention, we have to talk about some of the things that other organizations and individuals are doing in order to take advantage of people’s frustrations. And so the example that I’ll give the most pernicious way that this is leveraged is through individuals and organizations like Candace Owens, organizations like Prager University. What these groups do is they take issues that are already controversial and then they espouse the most controversial, the most aggressive, the most kind of far-reaching argument they possibly can in order to get people like us and people like me to respond to them. So for them, whether we respond negatively or positively, it doesn’t matter because attention is good for its own sake. And that brings me to sort of, you know, a little bit more of an underlying point here, which is insincerity. You know, I won’t name specific names here, but I have a number of former classmates of mine from college that I see in the news, day in and day out espousing God knows what, which I know for a fact they don’t believe, because I was with them, you know you know, in the Yale College Conservatives or whatever else and I know that they don’t believe some of these things, but they saw an opportunity to become rich and famous and they took it. And so insincerity in commentators online and on TV I think is probably one of the single most dangerous trends that we’ve been seeing in there. And what they’re doing is they’re leveraging kind of people’s natural tendency to reflect upon, to respond to and to then promote the most kind of aggressive take that exists online.


HEFFNER: In the seconds we have left, I just want you to maybe give our listeners and viewers hope; we really just have a minute left. How much worse will it get before it gets better? Bradley Whitford said in a commencement address recently, we have to make our democracy every damn day. We have to protect it. We have to, we have to make it possible. Do you see the light at the end of the tunnel? Garry In the closing seconds, we have.


KASPAROV: There is only one solution. It’s active participation of citizens in democracy. Nearly a hundred million Americans did not vote in 2016. So it’s very important that people recognize that no one can save them but themselves. And this is the, this is our only response. I’m an optimist, incorrigible, optimist by nature. And, and I think American democracy will be saved, but only by the active participation, active spirit of American citizens.


HEFFNER: Uriel Epshtein, Garry Kasparov, the executive director and chair of the Renew Democracy Initiative. Thank you so much for joining me today.


EPSHTEIN: Thank you.


KASPAROV: Thank you for having us.


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