D6 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 “D6 Class 5.2

    • Lepore states that during the early 20th century, “Americans didn’t find another word” for democracy, yet to this day, this is still applicable. The time from 2016 to the 2020 presidential election up until President Joe Biden’s election are examples that Americans have no unanimous definition of what democracy means. While Donald Trump and his supporters berating left-winged media and news outlets and called many of those against Trump communists, preached voter fraud, and Trump particularly stating he will fight for another term in office no matter the cost, anti-Trump individuals admonished Trump and his supporters for their lack of recognizing fault in his leadership, and their apathy and failure of supporting basic human rights. In another degree, during the 30’s, there were divides between defenders of the current political climate and those who questioned it, or, as Lepore put it, those who “went out and stopped the rain.” What the public shared in the ’20s and ’30s and what they share today is that in both time periods the catalyst of these divides was because of democracy. However, the common factor that divided the public during the past and divides them in the present is that both parties of people were fighting for a democracy that nobody shared a definitive definition for. This pattern occurring nearly centuries apart says a lot about the volatility of democracy, and therefore the search for a unanimous democracy may truly never reach an end, but will only become more complex, taking shape in many forms over the years to come.

    • White supremacy, nationalism, and capitalistic corruption have in the past lead to cracks in democracy. These issues create loopholes in a democracy that today has still have not been effectively abolished. During FDR’s first inauguration the biggest fear facing Americans as Lepore notes was the growing mistrust in democracy. Today is no different. The country is divided over a polarizing election. The Republican Party claimed widespread voter fraud and ran campaigns on fear of the other. The basic integrity of our institutions is constantly being questioned. Although there has been a clear change since the 1920s-30s the same threats to our democracy are still around and only continue to grow stronger as faith in our systems gets weaker.

    • History repeats itself, and nothing is more evident in this then the parallels between the plight of American democracy in the 1930 to today. Within Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article, “The Last Time Democracy Almost Died” Lepore discusses the near death of democracy during the chaotic time period of the 1930s where fascist and communist paranoia ran rampant throughout America. However, when Lepore was setting the context of America within her article, she makes several statements that also ring true to contemporary society today. When FDR delivered his speech, he gave it during a time of great doubt evident in “Americans’ own declining faith in self-government.” (Lepore). This mentality can also be felt in today’s society as the people’s faith in the government slowly begins to dwindle. Acts of violence and hatred left unpunished, the hateful rhetoric of our previous president, as well as the failure of the government to handle disasters such as coronavirus and natural disasters has left American citizens doubtful of our government. Americans no longer believe in the process of justice and law and have begun taking action into their own hands. Public movements such as Black Lives Matter, MeToo, LGBT rights, and etc. are all examples of how the public no longer believes that change will occur in the government but rather they must make change happen through their own hands.

    • The threats facing democracy today are absolutely nothing compared to those facing democracy during the 1920s and 1930s, and to suggest otherwise is laughable. One of our geopolitical rivals, Russia, is messing with our elections; a president had some separation anxiety from the office; there is a rise in reactionary thought the world over. However, none of these compare to the thought of having multiple industrialized fascist powers in Europe, all tearing through military limitations like paper. Today, American democracy has withered a bit. Americans need to talk about what’s ailing it, and figure out how to fix that, but it’s a statistically negligible chance that that includes sending American boys to their deaths in an actual war to defend democracy. It’s childish and melodramatic to compare the threats facing democracy today to those from the 1920s and 1930s.

    • In my opinion, civic debates of 1930 are exceptionally applicable today, through the extended activity observed in social media platforms such as Twitter. It is certain, that a huge part of present-day communication occurs online. With the advantage of anonymity, which the internet offers, even more people, than they were a century ago, decide to speak up, and want to be heard as they express their own opinion. In social networks people, feeling secure behind their own screen, discuss more freely about current political issues, or political ideologies in general, debate, and fight over them. In particular Twitter, was designed with the exact purpose of letting people exchange opinions based on “what is happening” in various fields, whether political, social, or even artistic.

    • I believe a 1930s solution is no longer viable in the current society. Because of the technological advancement in our society, there are more social media platforms where we can share our insights freely on the internet than we are in the 1930s. Or are we actually more free to speak up on Facebook or Twitter? It’s more likely that the conversation will deviate from the true topic and turn into a dispute without a conclusion when people try to discuss or debate a specific political view on Facebook or Twitter nowadays. While people are supposed to take the opportunity to share their insights on a political view peacefully, they quarrel or even threaten others who disagree with their opinions. Therefore, rather than directly addressing the issues related to politics, people on social media tend to mix their political views with their emotional feelings. Thus, attacking happens on social media actually increases the difficulty to discuss political views.

    • Danger, danger! Jill Lepore reveals how during the 1930s, when democracy was being questioned, civic debates helped save democracy. The civic debates held in lecture halls and broadcasted over the radio created unity and discussion between people with different viewpoints. Given current times with the uprising of social networking, it shifts the outlet of people exchanging information. While there may still be in person debates, discussions have shifted towards social media platforms. Social networking may be considered a positive thing as it makes it easy to share your opinions with more people. However, with social media, a problem lies with the spread of information. For example, take Facebook and its algorithm. It feeds people with content that is programmed for the user to continue strolling and use their site. As a result, in terms of democracy, it limits people from seeing different points of view as the algorithm provides posts that the user is interested in and agrees with. It creates an information cocoon where one only sees the same type of information, making them think that everyone agrees on the same points. In reality, due to advancements in technology, social networking is actually hindering our ability to communicate and have proper civic debates as we once did in the 1930s.

    • I believe the 1930s solution to save democracy would not be able to stay relevant in today’s era of social networking. Unlike in the 1930s, people today have a variety of different ways they can communicate with one another, especially through popular social networking apps where information can spread like a wildfire. Facebook and Twitter allow users to have discussions with a variety of people from all around the world, simply at their fingertips. Even though today’s access to widespread communication is easy, it can also lead to quick and careless responses due to its comfortability. This could create space for unproductive conversations because users face little to no consequences for their actions behind screens. It’s also commonly understood that Facebook and Twitter conversations can get out of control where the main topic shifts into something different, and can often expand into altercations among users.

    • In the 1930s, the lesson that Americans began to grasp during their public forums about democracy was that everyone must communicate and debate in the most honest way possible, and I think that social networking nowadays allows this to continue but on a much larger scale, involving millions rather than hundreds or thousands at once. In almost all social media applications, debates ensue in the comment section. This is structured just like the civic debates of the 1930s, everyone conversing about the post or issue they are commenting on, but there’s an inherent problem that’s in every argument: Are people listening to one another or are they just waiting to speak? This question fits better for an in-person situation, but the same goes for comments: Are you just replying to the post, giving your insight then scrolling past, or are you reading what others have written to enrich or challenge your own perspective? Ultimately, the outcome is based on the individual in both cases, however, the methods are similar enough that social networking is the grander, technologized version of public forums.

    • I believe that civic debates held in lecture halls and broadcast over the radio in 1930 are no longer viable in our society at the moment. Jill Lepore argues that this way of communicating helped people that had different viewpoints to unify and share their ideas and beliefs. However, due to technological development and social media, there aren’t reasons for people to have in-person debates and broadcast over the radio. Social networking allows people to share their beliefs with different kinds of people that are across the world. Unlike in-person debates, you can simply communicate with people across the world through social media such as Facebook and Twitter without actually physically being with them. Besides,I believe that people tend to participate more when they are on social networking compared to in-person debates and broadcast over the radio because people can simply share their views behind their cell phones. Without the need to face the person face to face, social networking gives people security and some sort of protection to “hide” behind their phones. However, there are negative effects of social networking as well. Because people can communicate behind their phones, they can be lazy and type things without thinking deeply, which leads to inaccurate information and ideas. Lastly, social networking can make people argue and create a mess. People tend to persuade others to be on their side instead of sharing their political views, which destroys the purpose of democracy.

    • With the new advancements of technology, the era of social networking is much more efficient with the shift from in person to online debates. However, there are many downsides as well. In today’s society, it’s very accessible through social media like Twitter and Facebook to engage in political conversation. Twitter, for example, enables for hundreds and hundreds of discussion posts for numerous different topics such as politics, music, art, and more. Thousands of people worldwide can instantly connect and speak up about their issues, their concerns, and their opinion through a few simple clicks. Yet because current day news across the globe can be accessed and learnt, controversial statements can be made under an anonymous name. Thus, this can result in the possibility of spreading misinformation and the allowance of many ineffective fights. Instead of a civilized political debate, there can be many aggressive opinionated people who take charge of the conversation and lead it to inadequate discussions. The internet is definitely a helpful method for civic debates, but it can be unreliable.

    • Although lessons can be taken from 1930s civic debates, it may be challenging to completely integrate live debates into today’s current society. With technology becoming such an integral part of modern society, it is difficult to imagine people all across the country forming groups to meet up with one another in person. The culture since the 1930s has drastically shifted towards a more physically distanced society as people rely more and more on technology to communicate with each other. Twitter has become a major source of political attention in the last few years, as former President Trump utilized this platform quite often to send out messages to the nation about his opinions and goals, shifting the role of social media to be even more essential for politics. This use of Twitter has caused conversations around politics to become much more casual, as people are far more comfortable with giving their opinions behind a screen rather than face to face in fear of being ridiculed. For these reasons, the 1930s civic debates would not be smoothly integrated into our modern society. Despite this, there are still many lessons that can be derived from these debates. It is in fact possible to blend these debates with current technology, using applications such as Zoom to debate with people from across the nation. Especially during the pandemic, using technology to communicate with others over a video chat would be much more effective than arguing over an application such as Twitter, where people are hidden behind their screens, just utilizing text. Video technology would allow people to form groups with each other even if they do not live near one another, bringing together people from various backgrounds to have productive conversations. In essence, the civic debates from the 1930s are not a solid solution for modern-day political meetings as it would be a dramatic shift to begin meeting in person, but the techniques of debating with your fellow citizens can be assimilated into our culture through video chatting platforms.

    • I don’t think that Lepore’s described idea of debates around democracy, like those of Des Moines in the 1930s, would work today in the public forum of social media. The biggest reason for this is the lack of a moderator, necessary for genuine discussion and debate in my view. Misinformation, a problem present in the 1920s and 30s, has become much more rampant with the advent of the internet and targeted advertisement. Most orators would find it hard to refute and combat each and every single piece of misinformation as well as make a convincing argument for their case. The action of berating your opponent with false and misleading facts will inevitably lead to some of them sticking. In most debates, a moderator would intervene to clear up misinformation, however this isn’t applicable for the internet. Many social media companies, in response to this, have tried to act as moderators; however, this, too, presents a troubling idea of big media companies, with their own interests and biases, growing too powerful and becoming, in essence, the arbiters of truth. In addition, the very nature of media platforms being based around likes and shares leads to sensationalist statements and arguments not informative discussion. A debate via social media is akin to a debate via newspaper headlines. Well-thought answers are ignored in favor of quick one-liners and entertaining attacks that garner traction. Perhaps Lepore’s civic debate could return and unify people today, but Twitter and Facebook will never be the place for it.

    • In my opinion, the solution which would have been pertinent in the 1930s would render obsolete today. On some social media platforms, it may be possible to conduct a somewhat productive civic debate. However, I believe that in today’s day and age social media has corrupted us and led to a steady decline in our abilities as humans to have meaningful debates. My justification for this claim is that social media such as Twitter has created a community where news spreads like wildfire and rather than opening doors to debate and conversation it has lead to a hostile environment for ideas to grow. On Twitter, the comfort of anonymity has allowed users to say or do anything with no consequences, allowing a toxic environment of bashing others. In a true civic debate, individuals are willing to listen to the opposing side and understand while also expanding upon their own opinion. Today this would create a Twitter battle that would be fought by many creating a divide, rather than a common understanding.

    • Since social media has become more prevalent in the 21rst Century, movements like the #MeToo and BLM have used social media in order to both organize and carry out their message. While the world is different now than it was back in the 1920s and ’30s, both in terms of technology and social standards, tactics from that time can still be used and be effective. While they may not be intended for our current day society, people can make them adapt to new technology like social media. Social media provides a platform for people to be able to share their ideals and opinions but also gives them a choice to be anonymous. Anonymity is both a dangerous thing but can also be beneficial. It allows for more people to speak out and feel comfortable doing so but that is not always a good thing. While social media can help people connect and organize and speak out against cruelty, it also allows for bad people to do the same. Social media also can lead to misinformation in this process. So while applying these solutions, one has to take caution because while Twitter and Facebook allow for people to make positive changes in the world, it also allows for people to create more chaos.

    • After observing countless times how almost every online debate on political issues turns out in the end and even participating in the debates myself, I can almost guarantee that the 1930s solution of civic debates is a lot harder to achieve in today’s social networking environment. Having the ability to argue with others virtually can be used to people’s advantage so they can make exaggerated claims that they would be too afraid to make in real life. So most arguments online often go downhill within a span of few back-and-forth replies. Whenever two opposite ideology clashes, the discussions can turn to a battle of dehumanizing and assaulting their opponent’s identity since the nature of internet platforms makes them unable to see each other’s faces. Eventually, the arguments become the contrary of the 1930s solution — uncivilized quarrel of irrationality and violence.

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