The World Unpacked

Protests, Polarization, and the Pandemic

Episode Summary

Rachel Kleinfeld joins Laura to talk about how the coronavirus pandemic is exposing and exacerbating challenges to global democracy, including polarization, lack of trust in government, and systemic inequities.

Episode Notes

Managing the coronavirus has been a challenge for both democracies and authoritarian regimes. In particular, the pandemic has further exposed the inequities and lack of trust present in many democratic countries, including the United States, where protests against police brutality and systemic racism come amid the wreckage of COVID-19.

This week, Laura sits down with Rachel Kleinfeld to talk about how the coronavirus pandemic is amplifying worrying trends worldwide, including a rise in autocratic power grabs, increased polarization, and the reemergence of nativist rhetoric. The two also talk about the links between the pandemic and the protests in the United States and how to leverage pockets of progress.

Episode Transcription

Laura Lucas Magnuson (00:00):

I'm Laura Lucas Magnuson, and this is The World Unpacked.

Media Pack (00:08):

[Music Playing]

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[News Reel] In other news, China closed off Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, in an unprecedented effort to contain a deadly virus. At the same time, Italy has overtaken China to have the world's highest reported death toll from the coronavirus.

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[News Reel] “Aarogya Setu” is the Indian government's COVID-19 contact tracing app. The mandatory use of the app led to a huge outcry from data privacy and anti-surveillance activists.

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[News Reel] Despite limited resources, Vietnam has been able to bring the outbreak under control so far.

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[News Reel] Let's turn to the coronavirus pandemic, which clearly continues as the number of confirmed cases here in the United States is now approaching 2 million. The World Health Organization...

Laura Lucas Magnuson (00:52):

This week, I'm joined by Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow in Carnegie's Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program. She was also the founding CEO of the Truman National Security Project. Rachel, thanks so much for joining us.

Rachel Kleinfeld (01:04):

A real pleasure, Laura.

Laura Lucas Magnuson (01:04):

Rachel, the coronavirus pandemic has put a strain on governments around the world, whether they're democratic or authoritarian. We've seen some Western liberal democracies, Belgium, Spain, UK, Italy, France, certainly the United States, really struggle with the coronavirus. Why do you think this is?

Rachel Kleinfeld (01:23):

Well, actually, when you compare how democracies and authoritarian countries have handled the virus, there's really little correlation. Some democracies have done wonderfully, like Australia, Germany, Canada, and New Zealand, and some authoritarian countries have done well, like Vietnam. And, by the way, that also shows that how developed a country is matters less than how much it's invested in a well-functioning public health system.

Rachel Kleinfeld (01:46):

So you have more developed countries like the US with much more underdeveloped public health systems than a relatively poor, smaller country like Vietnam. The countries that have done really badly have one big thing in common, and that's less trust. There used to be this really tight correlation between trust and democracy during the Cold War. You had your open societies that had much higher trust in government and civic society and so on, and you had your authoritarian, totalitarian states that were closed, that had spies in your apartment buildings where people didn't trust one another. That is gone. The highest trust society in the world by a long shot is China. And yeah, well, while you can't trust all the stats coming from China by any means, numerous researchers using numerous methodologies are finding the same thing. Meanwhile, after 2008, after the financial crisis, trust just fell in France but not in Germany and Italy and Spain. In the US, it's fallen off a cliff. Around 17% of our country trust the government now. Trust in our fellow citizens, by the way, is really tightly correlated with trust in government.

Rachel Kleinfeld (02:52):

And so that means it's not just that people don't believe what the government says, don't follow public health advice. It also means they engage in a lot of antisocial behavior like hoarding, not wearing masks to protect other people, and so on. The least trusting groups, actually, are not the people not wearing masks that you see in the media all the time: the least trusting groups in general tend to be the most marginalized. All the countries that are having real trouble with the coronavirus are also having real trouble with inclusion. So you have a country like Singapore, an authoritarian country, which was doing pretty well with the virus. It forgot about the vulnerability of its migrant community, and that's where its second level outbreak happened. France, with its suburban slumps. The US, sadly, it goes without saying. These more marginalized groups are more liable to get the virus.

Rachel Kleinfeld (03:40):

They have less access to remedies, they're less trusting of authorities, for pretty good reason often. And so it's like...having that level of inequality is like having this open wound in your body politic that just can't let the country heal.

Laura Lucas Magnuson (03:53):

Let's talk more about the United States in this context. We're recording this podcast during a week of protests that were sparked by police brutality and pain, anger over systemic racism, but [the protests] were probably exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic and the inequalities that it's deepened. How are you thinking about this moment in this context?

Rachel Kleinfeld (04:14):

The US wound has been open for a very long time, and every time it starts healing a little bit, scabs over something pulls it off again and now we're pouring in a lot of salt, to continue the metaphor. I mean, if you're an African American, over the last three months, it's not just that you see the stats over the last number of years, that you're the last hire, the first fire; that you're entrepreneurs who managed to pull themselves out of poverty and build, find small businesses have been the worst hit by the coronavirus closures, that your people are getting this virus and dying from this virus at the highest numbers. You know, I'm a mother of two girls. Imagine you're trying to raise your kids in this environment. What do you tell them? Then, all of a sudden, this string of horrible racist incidents ending with a police murder. It's a lot of salt to take. I think that the takeaway is, first of all, that it's also an opportunity for change that every crisis carries within it, that opportunity, and I hope our country can use it. One part of that opportunity is practical, one part is philosophical. I was raised in a family that argued kind of the Reaganomics era that a rising tide raises all boats. As long as everybody's getting wealthier, if everybody's getting better, it doesn't matter if some people are pulling very far ahead. The research actually...

Laura Lucas Magnuson (05:46):

If only!

Rachel Kleinfeld (05:47):

The research actually doesn't support that at all. That's true for some level of inequality, but when inequality gets too great, we're just...humans are social animals. We care a huge amount about our status relative to other people. When you get immense inequality, you get immense problems. You get elites that capture the state and start using tax policies and other policies to their benefit and creating this vicious cycle where the state more and more benefits those who are elites. From people who tend to turn inward with their problems, you get depression and other diseases, and we're seeing those diseases of despair among the white underclass. We're actually seeing mortality grow in America among the white underclass. You also see violence when people turn those feelings outward. And so, both from African Americans and from whites who can't get ahead, you're seeing this bubbling up of anger at themselves because they can't get ahead, anger at others. It's incredibly destructive to our community. When I look comparatively at other countries, I started work on political violence much earlier this year because I saw things in our country that were mimicking what we see in countries leading up to conflict, and our intelligence community has been seeing the exact same things.

Laura Lucas Magnuson (07:11):

And we'll come back to this, but I also wanted to follow up on the point about authoritarian governments. You know, there's some instances of them, you know, using the pandemic as cover to pursue other policies that perhaps were already in train. Is there any particular case or cases that you're looking at and watching closely?

Rachel Kleinfeld (07:33):

Oh, sure. I mean, there's been numerous examples of authoritarian governments using the cover of the pandemic to take these extraordinary measures, from Russia banning its protests to China undermining the laws that were supposed to govern Hong Kong for the next quarter century. When I talk about this to philanthropists and to governments who are interested in the problem with democracy, I say, you can think about it as the health effects of this pandemic are probably acute for the next year to three years. Hopefully within that period, we will find a vaccine. The economic effects of this pandemic might last 10 or 15, maybe even 20 years. But governance patterns, the solidifying of these authoritarian systems, that can last 50 years. That can last a hundred years. Paying a huge amount of attention to the governing effects is worthwhile. It's also, by the way, not just in authoritarian countries: it's in so-called democracies, democracies that have been losing some of their democratic qualities over the last decade, which we've been in; a democratic recession.

Rachel Kleinfeld (08:40):

A lot of countries have been losing some of their democratic norms. Israel had an indicted prime minister [and] couldn't form a government after two tries. Now he's on top of a shared government where less than half of Israelis expect him to honor his agreement and leave when the sharing arrangement is supposed to switch. Hungary's Orbán used emergency powers to end elections altogether. They've actually been downgraded from a democracy to partly free. And to answer your question about where I'm watching, I'm actually most watching India. It's the world's biggest democracy, nearly one in seven people on earth live in India. It's more people than the entire continent of Africa, just to give you a sense of scale. Just before the pandemic, they passed these draconian laws on citizenship that stripped a good number of the Muslims in that community of their citizenship. There were pogroms against Muslims. And now, Modi, the head of India's government, his ratings are soaring. They're in the 80 to 90th percentile of approval. Paying attention to whether India is going to get away with these very significant anti-democratic moves because of its handling of the coronavirus is something worth watching.

Laura Lucas Magnuson (09:50):

We'll be right back.

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[Music Playing]

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[News Reel] We will do everything in our power to keep the infection and those carrying the infection from entering our country. We have no choice.

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[News Reel] In the last two weeks, crowds of people protesting against stay-at-home orders have popped up across the country.

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[News Reel] I was at the hospital the other night where I think there were actually a few coronavirus patients, and I shook hands with everybody.

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[News Reel] As coronavirus tears an unforgiving path across the country, numbers show it is especially devastating to one group: African-Americans. When you look at...

Laura Lucas Magnuson (10:35):

Rachel, let's talk more about polarization. In the United States and elsewhere, we've seen leaders use the pandemic to further their own political agendas. Can you tell us a little bit more about where we're seeing this phenomenon and what it means for those countries?

Rachel Kleinfeld (10:48):

Yeah. You know, we've seen polarized countries using the pandemic in two ways. They're taking two different paths. You have South Africa, for instance, highly polarized, that came together during the pandemic. The prime minister actually donated part of his salary to a unity fund and got his other ministers to do the same thing. They're creating this whole narrative around unity, and they've gotten the virus much more under control. Similarly, places that were really divided, like Australia with Morrison, a very divisive prime minister, have been using much more inclusive rhetoric, putting scientists out front, getting control of the disease. South Korea, same thing with transparency and good communication, overcoming really, really deep polarization.

Rachel Kleinfeld (11:39):

Those countries were polarized, but those politicians were not relying on polarization to gain and remain in power. In countries where the politicians are using the polarization in order to stay in power, where it's a weapon rather than an artifact of the way citizens have divided themselves, you have a very different story. This is the United States, this is Brazil. Those politicians are still trying to use that weapon to further divide their countries. These entrepreneurial politicians who have found their wedge can use that wedge, whether there's a real divide or not, by the way. I mean, whoever cared about whether they wore a mask before or not, suddenly that's a political issue. That political type who is gaining ground on the polarization is the type that is causing the problem more than the underlying polarization of the country itself.

Laura Lucas Magnuson (12:34):

Rachel, you also write a lot about nativism, which is the tendency to define a country not by laws or values, but by ethnic or religious terms. It's clearly being weaponized during the pandemic. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Rachel Kleinfeld (12:46):

Sure. Nativism is something that's thrown around, a word that's thrown around a lot without a lot of definition. So first, let me just clarify what we mean by it. When I use nativism, it doesn't mean just a disagreement over immigration policy: "I want more immigration, you want less immigration". You can disagree about things like that in any democracy. What nativism is is a fundamental belief that citizenship is confined to an ethnic religious or racial group, and that other groups can't be full citizens. So, for instance, the Pew foundation in 2016 polled and found that about a third of Americans felt that someone had to be born in the US to be a full citizen and had to be Christian. So someone like me, who's Jewish, too bad: you can't be an equal member of society. Among the demographic that propelled Trump to win in the primaries, not the general election but the primaries, 47% of that subgroup also felt that you had to be of European descent. So, white.

Rachel Kleinfeld (13:46):

The majority of that subgroup, by the way, are not Republicans. More than half of them had also voted Democrat. They're swing voters, and we think of swing voters as independent-minded, but all the information we have on swing voters today actually suggest that what they want is something that neither party has yet been willing to give them. It's this nativist sort of policy platform. More redistribution, usually left-wing policy, but only for their group and less for everyone else. Trump finally gave them that, and so they've been extremely supportive. But this kind of nativism, it absolutely undermines democracy because it undermines the tenant of equality under the law. You can't have equality under the law, which means you can't have the rule of law. When politicians weaponized nativism, which is common in many ethnically defined parties, whether they're in Malaysia, Kenya, or now the United States, it undermines the notion of equal citizenship and it undermines the very rule of law, which is, I think, what we're seeing in our streets right now.

Laura Lucas Magnuson (14:45):

Yeah. I mean, we've already mentioned the pandemic is hitting, you know, some communities significantly harder than others, communities that are poor, people of color who have a history of does this impact polarization in the United States, particularly?

Rachel Kleinfeld (14:59):

I promise we should talk about some more positive things by the end of this week, we can get to.

Laura Lucas Magnuson (15:04):

We will, we will. I agree.

Rachel Kleinfeld (15:06):

There's a horrible governing pattern that I write about in my book "A Savage Order", and the governing pattern is the 'savage order' that I'm referring to. What it is is this: you have highly unequal, highly polarized democracies that really privilege some parts of their society and really marginalize others. By marginalized, I mean very concrete things: there are fewer streetlights, there's worse public services. You can see it visually here in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I live. Who has brown un-irrigated grass in their parks that's dry and unappealing to sit on, and who has green lush grass? You know, it's very clear. One area where services are most unevenly distributed is policing.

Rachel Kleinfeld (15:43):

The privileged parts of town get real policing, and the more marginalized have fewer police. The police tend to be more brutal toward those societies, those citizens, and more predatory, whether it's in Brazil, where some police are running, drug gangs, or Baltimore, where over 300 police have been flagged for accusations of drug trafficking to assault. These marginalized communities have much more trouble turning to the police for help in that case. It just makes sense, you’re scared. Do you go to the police and they help you? Do you go to police and they brutalize you? That's really the mark of the rule of law: do you turn to the police or do you fear the police? People are both under-policed and over-policed, and what happens is two things. First, gangs and other criminals gain credibility for solving some problems, a lot of crime goes unpunished, and violence rises.

Rachel Kleinfeld (16:31):

Here's where the polarization part comes in because, as violence rises, some portion of society says the more marginalized parts have to be included in the social contract. They need an end to the violence that's plaguing them. They need to be protected by the state rather than harm by the state. Another part of society says lawbreakers need more law and order, double down on the current policing, go harder. That side, that 'law and order' side, is actually very popular whenever offered. They're offered a choice in every country around the world. "Iron Fist" policies, they're known as "mano dura" in Latin America, that side wins electorally, and that deepens the savage order because you're just creating this vicious cycle. But, let me be clear: even if the other side wins, it doesn't always help because what you need is actually a "both, and" rather an "either, or". You need an inclusive state that gives equal justice. The marginalized are most at risk from violence, so a far left solution of avoiding policing is just as bad, possibly not just as bad but bad in a very different way, as the far right solution of encouraging impunity for the police. What you need is to end impunity and encourage the state to come back to these areas and these citizens, but to come back fairly.

Laura Lucas Magnuson (17:43):

And we'll be back in just a moment to talk about where we go from here.

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[Music Playing]

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[News Reel] In remarkable show of solidarity, protests against racism and police tactics are showing up around the world. We will march as a department with everybody in this community. I will march until I can't stand no more.

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[News Reel] Our commitment is to end our city's toxic relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department, to end policing as we know it, and to recreate systems of public safety that actually keep us safe.

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[News Reel] No justice, no peace! No justice, no peace! No justice, no peace!

Laura Lucas Magnuson (18:35):

Rachel, as we were just saying, we've outlined many, many problems, but let's turn to what's next. I've been particularly struck by the differences between state, local, federal responses to the recent crises, not just coronavirus but the protests themselves that we've seen over the last week. Some mayors, other local authorities, police chiefs, you know, seem to be able to build trust at their level. So that's positive. How can we leverage some of this local success to achieve progress at the national level?

Rachel Kleinfeld (19:02):

So you're absolutely right. I think the local and state levels are real bright spots and we should be thinking about how to leverage them. I mean, one way is just, hopefully those people will run for higher office eventually, although they can't take our governor here in New Mexico, we are very attached to her. But, it's in societies that have these really negative democratic trends but that have real federalism where people can learn that some parts of government work, that helps cut against the distrust and it helps build some trust in some level of government.

Rachel Kleinfeld (19:34):

That's really good from a civic standpoint. It also means that leaders and politicians can learn on the job. They can learn how to be better leaders and politicians. I'm a big believer in politicians, by the way. I think the rhetoric against politicians is basically anti-democratic. You can't have a democracy without someone running for office. You want good people to run for office, you have to stop slagging politicians all the time. Having politicians that people say, you know, whether it's Hogan in Maryland or a Republican in a traditionally Democratic district who's getting a lot of approval, or Beshear in Kentucky, a Democrat in traditionally more Republican or more white collar Democrat area who's doing quite well and getting a lot of approval. It's helping people bridge differences. It's helping people overcome polarized divides, and it's letting them see that government can work. Those are all incredibly healthy trends.

Laura Lucas Magnuson (20:25):

Even though it doesn't seem like a bright moment, there are pockets of hope. Where else can we go from here?

Rachel Kleinfeld (20:32):

So, first let's recognize the many pockets of hope. I mean, it's not just the ones I've outlined, it's also that states are banding together to figure out how to reopen together. They're sometimes banding together across red and blue lines. That's great. Despite the problems at the national level, some states are actually healing their people and have really controlled the coronavirus. That's great. Despite the provocateurs and these protests that are causing the media to focus all their reports on violence. And, by the way, those provocateurs were both Antifa but also a number of white supremacists posing as Antifa online, as well as anti-government militias who are also anti-police, so they're coming from both sides.

Rachel Kleinfeld (21:15):

Despite those provocateurs, a lot of people of all races are mobilizing for a more inclusive society and looking at issues like qualified immunity for police that can cut into impunity. That's great that those issues are on the agenda. My research shows that the first step for real change is a broad middle class that starts caring about the more marginalized. The coronavirus, for all of its devastation to the marginalized, is also really highlighting the inequalities and the ways that our futures are linked. So, a lot is good. Second, it's possible to depolarize societies. We know that while the fringes make the media and the media tends to lump extremes with broader groups in a ways that makes the extreme seem much bigger than they are, actually if you look at polls, there's a growing number of Americans really looking for unity. That's great. We haven't seen that in a long time, that Americans want to come together. They're looking for politicians to help them come together.

Rachel Kleinfeld (22:09):

As for where we go, we have to define those extremes and we have to give those Americans that want a more unified society the chance to vote for that unity. Now that's hard structurally. Primaries are the main way that extremes have taken over our politics. You get very low turnout in primaries, and so you've gotten more and more, and extremes tend to turn out your activist base on the left and right, tend to turn it. So, you have these small numbers of people, 3%, 5, 6% of your state defining who's going to run for either party. Then, because we're so sorted as a society now, you know, if I tell you what I drink, you know exactly where my politics are.

Rachel Kleinfeld (22:50):

My brother is conservative. We were joking the other day, he was talking about having a beer after he finished his workday and I said, "well, I'm having a hard kombucha". You know, you know exactly everything else about us. We're so sorted in so many ways now that it means that if your primary has picked your party's person, you're probably going to vote for that person almost no matter how extreme they are, even if you don't agree with a lot of those belief sets. Altering the primary system is a key way that voters can actually vote their beliefs, not their identity. In my mind, ranked choice voting is the best solution. We have it here in Santa Fe, Maine just voted for it, a number of cities have identified it. Really the absolute best solution is one that Michael Porter of Harvard and Katherine Gehl have come up with. It's having a non-partisan primary, which Democrats and Republicans can both run in. You take the top five, regardless of their belief set, and then you have rank choice voting.

Rachel Kleinfeld (23:49):

So that means that if you're in a very, you know, if you're in Berkeley, California, you might have five people running, five different flavors of the left. If you're in the deep South Alabama, you might have five different flavors of the right. Whoever ends up winning, you actually get a real sense of what their beliefs set is: is this a socially conservative place or an economically conservative place? Is this a progressive working class place that wants more economic justice, or is it more about abortion and social justice issues or racial justice issues? If you're a mixed place, you actually get to vote for people who represent both sides, people who are perhaps more centrist rather than having an extreme take over, as happens in Wisconsin all the time. It's not crazy to change these systems. People often, when I brought up rank choice voting, they say "oh, changing the system seems really esoteric and crazy". We've changed our voting system many times. Primaries really only started taking off in the twenties and thirties and really only solidified in the sixties, so this is not anything new, to change our systems. A number of citizens are starting to do it well.

Laura Lucas Magnuson (24:59):

That is encouraging pockets of hope indeed. Thank you, Rachel.

Rachel Kleinfeld (25:03):

Thank you so much.

Laura Lucas Magnuson (25:04):

Until next time.

Laura Lucas Magnuson (25:07):

Thanks for listening to The World Unpacked, produced by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. You can find us on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Don't forget to rate and review us: it helps other people find the product. Our audio engineer is Tim Martin and our executive producer is Maya Krishna-Rogers. For more information, or to send us feedback or ideas, go to We'll see you next time.