D4 Class 5.2

Feb 25

Talk It Out

In a recent New Yorker article, historian Jill Lepore argued that the current crisis of faith in democracy isn't the first the world has faced. If you have trouble getting access, I've added the essay to the readings posted on the Lecture class's Blackboard site.

Lepore's article details parallels between the present day and the 1920s and 30s, an era of economic collapse that saw the rise of both Communist and Fascist regimes. But Lepore finds reason for hope in the vigorous public debates about democracy's future that arose in the 1930s in the US: "It’s a paradox of democracy that the best way to defend it is to attack it, to ask more of it, by way of criticism, protest, and dissent."

Homework: post a brief, 1¶ response to one of the following prompts.

  • Lepore doesn't insist too strongly on the historical parallel between the early 20th century and the present day. How close a parallel do you see between the worldwide threats to democracy in the 1920s and 30s and anxieties today? In answering, focus on a particular instance.
  • Lepore suggests that questioning democracy is the best way to save it, pointing to the impact of public forums that spread across the US starting in Des Moines, Iowa. How might we apply the lessons of 1930s civic debate to our present difficulties? In answering, make a specific proposal.
  • After reading Lepore's account of 1930s civic debates, held in lecture halls and broadcast over the radio, some might question whether new media have rendered that lesson obsolete. Is a 1930s solution still viable in the era of social networking? In answering, focus narrowly, noting a particular aspect of modern-day interaction on Facebook, Twitter, etc.

19 responses to “D4 Class 5.2

    • Despite the many variants of the definition of democracy, I believe one thing that can be agreed upon is that democratic ideals allow for free speech without collusion or persecution. The journalistic institutions we collectively select have long enjoyed, if nothing else, the freedom to report on topics that expose the actions of powerful politicians (one could say that this is the very lifeblood of such institutions).German public news agencies also enjoyed this freedom– that is, until the late 1930s when the infamous Fuhrer Aldof Hitler rose to power, wielding a broadsword of totalitarianism that effectively sliced free speech in half. Without the ability to spread ideas contradicting the Third Reich’s actions, opposing political parties were quickly squashed under the Nazi boot. If we fast forward to 2016, the election of Donald J Trump, we observe some bone-chilling correlations in Trump’s political strategy. He aims to sow doubt in the press. He aims to sow doubt in the vehicles of American democracy. Flawed as they might be, they are the crutch upon which our freedom stands. The catch phrase “fake news” closely resembles Hitler’s tactic of spreading propaganda through simple two-to-three word phrases in order to deauthenticate his opponents. Although he is no longer in office, the damage he ensued and agitprop he spread continues to threaten our democracy just as it threatened German liberty nearly a century ago.

    • Though Leopre doesn’t state it outright, she implies that there are very close parallels between threats to democracy in the present day and in the early twentieth century, particularly with regard to white supremacy. Adolf Hitler’s anti-jewish rhetoric in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s is remarkably similar to that of former president Donald Trump’s comments about Latino people, African American people, Asian people, Muslims, and Jews. Adolf Hitler wanted to drive out “inferior” races from newly conquered lands and eliminate the Jewish race entirely. Donald Trump has been much less open about his intentions but has made many hateful comments and enacted xenophobic legislation. Under his administration, right-winged organizations like the Proud Boys have been more vocal, race relations in the country have suffered, and hate crimes were at an all-time high. The parallels between the two show how under a single leader, a country can turn on itself and can become a threat to either the rest of the world or its own people.

    • Lepore acknowledges a prevalent parallel between the threat of democracy today and that of the 1920’s and ’30s. It is as though, essentially a century later, democracy still needs to prove to the world that it is a just regime. The democratic system today is being challenged by radical and fascist dictatorships or individuals like Kim Jun Un of communist North Korea. Just as in the early twentieth century, with the infamous fascists Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, the definition of democracy has been distorted to justify the authority of these radical individuals. Their agendas were made possible via propaganda and the manipulation of many peoples. This challenging and resulting debate arises as a result of everyone having an opinion; this is extensively demonstrated by Lepore’s account of the many public forums in Des Moines, Iowa and eventual involvement of “43 states” (Lepore) and 2.5 million Americans (Lepore). Today, exasperated by the heavy influence and presence of the media, many more are involved in the debate despite it not being handled the same way previously. With the fluidity and constant change in interpretation of democracy, democracy will always be up for debate; and the “paradox” (Lepore) that is the debate over democracy will remain unsolved, just satisfied until a strong enough opposition comes along and challenges democracy once more.

    • I feel that if you want to compare threats to democracy in the 20s and 30s today you have to look directly at Donald Trump. With that said, I always come back to the election when I think of threats to democracy. The example of Adolf Hitler’s rule is an easy example of an authoritative regime- Hitler ruled with an authoritative regime- he took control and kept it under the threat of violence and only left because he had no choice. President Trump on the other hand took his rule peacefully and one of the things that pushed Trump into the category of authoritative leader is through Trumps threats to voter security. When Trump claimed that he wanted to have the votes from certain states that voted against him thrown out, he directly attacked democracy in an authoritative way. While Hitler had the German society under his thumb via violence, Trump had to fight for his control and he did that by trying to remove certain American votes. Once the power to vote is taken away, a society can not freely speak its mind, and the power of a democracy gets taken away.

    • I think that there is a similar threat to worldwide democracies today as there was in the 1920’s and 30’s. Lepore states that after World War I, many new democracies were created and the “spread of liberal-democratic governments began to appear inevitable.” But then in the years leading up to the Second World War, these nations quickly fell to authoritarian governments such as facism and communism. This is strikingly similar to the world at the end of the Cold War. A number of democracies were created in former Soviet states, but Lepore states that the “infant mortality rate for democracies was high” and some of these states again fell to authoritarian governments. More currently, nations such as the United States are seeing fascist ideologies take root in their populations. These two instances (post World War I and post Cold War) demonstrate a major event that dramatically affected the international system.

    • Although Lepore does not outrightly compare the questioning of democracy in the 1920s/1930s to today, there are obvious similarities. As pointed out in the article both the 1920s/1930s and today have had what is viewed as an “extreme” ruler- Adolf Hilter and Donald Trump, and both have expressed supporting some aspect of white supremacy within their ruling. Personally, I can see the similarities of both time periods, especially after reading Lepores article. At first, Hilter is who screamed more extreme in his mindset- leading the massmurder of millions of people based off his personal mindset; however, after consideration Trump did the same. During his presidency, the BLM movement became prevalent and he let thousands of people become injured at protests from the police he financially supported and armed with weapons. In both cases, innocent people were harmed from an leader who did not represent full democracy.

    • Jill Lepore, a history professor at Harvard and staff writer at The New Yorker wrote an article about a year ago named: “The Last Time Democracy Almost Died” in which she parallels today’s crisis on the decaying of American Democracy to the worldwide perishing of Democracy of the 1930s. In her article Lepore argues that the decade of the 30s experienced a set of events like the great depression, the recovery from WWI and the uprising of fascist states that started taking over certain territories that led to a fluctuation from Democracy to Communism and Fascism, even in Democratic America. Lepore explains in her article how F.D.R. together with the influential people at the time introduced his new policy of a”New Deal” for all Americans and how this national program played a major role in rescuing American Democracy at the time. Part of this program was to institute a national forum for where people from all across the country could connect through a radio network that enabled them to really criticize and question Democracy from multiple perspectives and eventually leading to a more unified country with a stronger sense of what democracy meant for everyone.

      I personally believe this method to be very effective and I am sure if we work together we could all benefit from something like this. In today’s modern society social media makes it so much easier than using the radio to create a collective mission of fixing our current problem of a mediocre democracy. The government or the people itself as group can organize forums like the ones used in the 30s through national television or even through social media platform tools, such as facebook or instgram lives and twitter polls. If we get people from different contexts with diverse perspectives to address a certain topic in a mannered way we can appropriately educate the population and clear the air on what democracy means in our current situation. I believe that a major thing for this to work is representation, to make sure every group, every idea, every perspective is included so that together we can build a more appealing democracy for everyone. What I pictured was a televised and moderated forum where 10 experts of different fields speak on a specific prompt that is relevant to our present day, with a 10 min news update on the topic before the debate guided to the audience at home. And after the debate is done the spectators at home could answer a set of questions and polls on the topic thorugh their phone and also open a digital forum where they can also share their opinions on the topic and on the debate( for this this to work we would have to adjust certain restrictions so that everyone’s opinion is heard and respected) like a ban on aggressors or the prohibition on the usage of certain slang terms, etc.

    • While social media has unfortunately been used as kindling in the dumpster fire that is current political discourse, it does still possess the capability to be used for good. Platforms like Twitter and Instagram are able to unite and connect billions of people around the world instantaneously, all who are able to openly share their opinions. If we decided to reinstate the public forum model as a way to air political grievances and discuss solutions, social media would be the perfect way to do that. There is actually a politician who is already making use of this tool very regularly, and with very positive results. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez does Instagram Lives a few times a month, in which she takes questions from viewers, incites lively debates, and has guests speak from their expertise as well. There are arguments and disagreements, but they are resolved in peaceful ways and all viewpoints are able to be heard and analyzed. If more politicians were to do this and their constituents were able to actively participate in and contribute to democratic discourse, democracy as we know it might not be holding on so tenuously to remain relevant and powerful.

    • Social media today will not hinder the 1930s solution. Lectures or other creations of rhetoric can be uploaded to many popular social medias such as youtube. By youtube, the video can instantly be seen by people all over the state. The internet is faster than any single method of 1930s. There’s no doubt that once people initiate civic debates now, the existence and assistance of social media will immediately heaten the discussion, causing unprecedented attention to this topic.

    • In her article, Lepore revisits a period of time when the United States faced an identity crisis. At the time, radios and public forums were the major forms of spreading news and communication for large audiences, and it is because of these tools that the people of the U.S. were able to come together. In today’s society, technological advances have amassed numerous platforms in which people can share their opinions with one another more efficiently. While the radio can broadcast news from one state to another, its frequency has limitations. Facebook, on the other hand, one of the most used social media platforms today, can connect individuals globally and has features that attract a wider audience. Not only are people able to convey the same messages that they would have in the 1930s, but with added visuals, they are able to strengthen their claims and bring more people together than before. Additionally, many public figures are able to connect on a more personal level with their fans. Especially in times of distress and chaos like right now, Facebook among other social media platforms have enabled a continuous voice to be heard on various global issues.

    • In 1930, lectures, newspapers, and radio broadcasts were the main distribution platforms for information regarding our democracy. Back then, these methods were extremely effective because they were used universally across America. When an event took place, such as a civic debate, every attendee was either seeing, reading, or listening in to the conversation. In today’s world, social media covers all of these platforms and condenses them into one, a cell phone. Instead of having information spread out in different forms, we now have a way to bring a diverse set of accounts into one place that is accessible to many. Instagram, for example, has an option to broadcast an event live. It’s also possible to post an IGTV video, a video longer than one minute, to spread information. Because of these advancements in technology, there is no longer a reason to rely on newspapers or the radio to recount impactful events. There are not as many people listening to the radio or reading the newspaper as in the 1930s, and there will surely be a lesser amount in the future as our world begins to rely more and more on digital devices.

    • In my opinion, sadly, the civic debates in the 1930s are probably not viable to do in the modern world by using social media. Social media today is very messy. A lot of things that happen on these applications such as Twitter are very mob-centric. For example, If someone disagrees with something or someone else, that person may get mobbed by a negative response immediately with no reasonable ability to refute. Also, most responses that are given on these social media platforms are very short, usually capped at a sentence or two. Twitter has the word cap and requires either multiple tweets or a separate application if someone does want to say something in a longer response. The civic debates in the 1030s were civil. There can be an argument and a refutation from both sides of a debate, they would be able to clearly spell out their arguments. Neither person would get mobbed by negative responses for no reason. Generally speaking, because it is basically impossible to get a civil environment on social media, it is probably not viable to go back to the 1930’s format.

    • Social media sites allow people to directly communicate with people from long distances, and may allow them to communicate directly with people in charge of the government. Former President Donald Trump frequently used social media, specifically Twitter, throughout his presidency to bring up controversial issues that he believes need to be discussed. People could comment on his posts and even communicate with people who share, or don’t share their same political views. I think a modern form of this 30’s system could be effective if used properly. Democracy demands controversy, and the easy access to people from different political views, including political leaders may allow democracy to run more effectively, and with greater acceptance.

    • There’s no doubt that social media has become the worldwide medium through which to spread, commend, and criticize political views. However, the nature of these interactions is distinctly one-dimensional. A typed Twitter post or Facebook update misses out on the combined power of verbal cues, facial expressions, and hand gestures characteristic of a pre-COVID face-to-face conversation, which is why Leopore’s depiction of 1930s civic debates could still be feasible. I am convinced that the success of “America’s Town Meeting of the Air” stemmed from every attendee’s ability to associate an opposing position with another human being who had different life experiences and, as a result, different beliefs. This understanding is a critical aspect of politics and conversation in general, often overlooked throughout online communication in the interest of winning the debate or trolling the other side. Moving the discussion back to lecture halls and public libraries might just be the breath of fresh air our nation needs to once again engage in a meaningful exchange of ideas.

    • The ways societies functioned and interacted a century ago starkly contrasts the ways in which we collaborate and communicate in the present day with thanks to the advancement of technology and the rise of social media. In the 1930 they used highly censored forms of networking like radios broadcasts and the post. However in todays world, while some sites may also have censorship, it is no where near the degree of the days of the 1930s. With social media the world is your oyster and the internet your playground- you have unlimited resources to share your ideas and get in touch with the globe. This can however have negative consequences, a great example of this is the concept of cancel culture. Such that when a group of people disagree with something you did they collectively cyber bully that person. Additionally with so many extreme contrasting options that are put on the internet regarding politics everyday on twitter, reddit and instagram that can cause political instability, I just don’t believe that the 1930 model could be successful in todays society.

    • The method applied in 1930s will not work in contemporary society for a few reasons. In 1930s, due to the undeveloped technology people had, it was quiet difficult for people to freely express their opinions to others, either supporters or opponents. There weren’t any other convenient ways like holding speeches in hall or on radio that enabled people to spread opinions in public. However, with the enhanced technology nowadays, people are no longer restricted in place where they locate. They are now able to openly communicate with others from all around the world, talking about anything they would like to. It won’t be necessary for politicians to hold speeches since they are able to spread their thoughts online through social media. Yet, there exists problems with social media: everything spreads rapidly online, including positive information and deceivable information. For example, Donal Trump often used his Twitter to express his personal attitudes toward international incidents. However, his opinions were being misleading most of the time.

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