Rob’s intro [00:00:00]
Hi listeners, this is the 80,000 Hours Podcast, where we have unusually in-depth conversations about the world’s most pressing problems, what you can do to solve them, and my favourite clips from 2012 late-night comedy shows. I’m Rob Wiblin, Head of Research at 80,000 Hours.
Last year, my colleague Arden Koehler wrote a post that listed over 30 pressing global issues beyond the ones we talk the most about, which we think our audience might consider focusing their career on tackling.
One of those was ‘Safeguarding liberal democracy’. Arden noted a great deal of effort already goes into understanding the conditions under which liberal democracy is typically strengthened, and the ways in which they get undermined, and that we didn’t really know what was most effective way to help.
So, continuing our theme of exploring new problems areas, we wanted to find out what could really be done, from someone actually working in the area.
When we asked around it seemed like one of the best people in the world to talk to about this would be today’s guest, Mike Berkowitz, a philanthropic advisor who works on ensuring the US remains a democratic country for the long term.
To my knowledge this is the first long-form interview Mike has ever done, and I think we’ve uncovered a real gem here. He’s both highly informed and a great speaker.
Mike and I cover his picks for the three most important levers to push on to try to shore up the political situation in the United States:
- Reforming the political system, such as introducing new voting methods
- Revitalizing local journalism
- Reducing partisan hatred within the United States
We also talk about:
- What sorts of terrible scenarios we should actually be worried about
- How to reduce the incentive for representatives to attempt to overturn election results
- The best opportunities for charitable giving in this space
- And much more.
If you’re curious, you can find those dozens of other potentially pressing global issues beyond our current priorities at 80000hours.org/problem-profiles/.
Finally — yep, your eyes do not deceive you, the show has a new logo. We hope you like it!
Alright, without further ado, here’s Mike Berkowitz.
The interview begins [00:02:01]
Robert Wiblin: Today, I’m speaking with Mike Berkowitz. Since 2010, Mike has led Third Plateau, an advisory group for impact-oriented philanthropists focused on social and political problems in the United States. He is a certified philanthropy consultant and has counseled numerous individual donors, family foundations, and institutional foundations on their philanthropic strategy.
Robert Wiblin: More recently, in response to the rise of political populism in the United States, Mike has become the executive director of the Democracy Funders Network, a community of major U.S. donors concerned about the underlying health of American democracy. He has also co-founded Patriots & Pragmatists, a cross-partisan coalition of donors, writers and advocates focused on ensuring the U.S. remains a liberal democratic country.
Robert Wiblin: Many years ago, Mike studied history at Brown University. Today, as you might guess from the above, he is focused on helping donors figure out how they can use their resources to ensure that the U.S. remains a functional democracy. Thanks for coming on the podcast, Mike.
Mike Berkowitz: Thanks for having me.
Robert Wiblin: I hope to get to talk about the work that you’ve been doing over the last four years and how listeners might be able to help with your mission. But first, what are you working on at the moment and why do you think it’s important?
Mike Berkowitz: I’ll start actually with a couple of things that you already touched on. Broadly speaking, as you noted, my work at the moment is really focused on sustaining liberal democracy in the United States for the next 50 to 100 years, which is a big challenge that I’m excited to talk more about today. One mechanism that I’m doing that through is a group called Patriots & Pragmatists, we refer to it as P&P. P&P is a cross-ideological network and convening space for civic leaders and influencers to make some sense together of what’s happening to American democracy and what to do about it.
Mike Berkowitz: It emerged organically after the 2016 election, when my client/colleague/friend Rachel Pritzker and I realized that there was nowhere to go to engage in an ongoing strategic conversation about American democracy across disciplinary and ideological lines. The key insight here was that when it comes to saving democracy, that can’t be something that only happens on one side of the political spectrum. If it does, then democracy is as polarized a political issue as anything else. And we can talk more about whether that is the case at the moment. The political scientists Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky, in this great book How Democracies Die, talk about this actually. They say that the way that you save democracy is not through coalitions of the like-minded, it’s through coalitions that bring together people with dissimilar views. And so that’s been a key part of my work.
Mike Berkowitz: The Democracy Funders Network emerged from Patriots & Pragmatists as more and more donors came to realize that American democracy is not a guarantee, it’s actually something we need to fight for. And so we’re a cross-ideological learning and action community for donors who are concerned about the health of American democracy. So those are the kind of big projects that I’m working on at the moment.
What we should actually be worried about [00:05:03]
Robert Wiblin: What are the sorts of future terrible scenarios that you’re trying to help avoid becoming real, just to try to make things concrete?
Mike Berkowitz: That’s a great question because I think one can be overly or properly alarmist about these questions, and I try to be properly alarmist about them. I don’t think that the threat is a dictatorship or totalitarian state as we saw in the 20th century. We don’t see the decline of democracy or the deterioration or deconsolidation, as political scientists refer to it, of democracy around the world. We don’t see a lot of violent conflict. We don’t see coups or revolutions. We actually see a much more subtle chipping away at the foundations of liberal democracy.
Mike Berkowitz: So the things that worry me are kind of a version of illiberal democracy, where we might have elections, but we don’t have some of the protections of small-l liberalism, the rule of law, separation of powers, individual rights, things like that. Or we might think about it as sort of a soft authoritarianism. Those are the things that I’m worried about. And we see them in other states around the world. You see these things in places like Russia, Turkey, Brazil. You might have elections, but are they free and fair? You might have separation of powers on paper, but as we are seeing in the United States, more and more power is being vested in the executive branch. I worry about restrictions on civil society that we see around the world, the consolidation of media into the hands of the few. These are the kinds of things that I worry about much more so than a sort of prototypical 20th century authoritarian state.
Robert Wiblin: How much do you worry about trends like say, significant increases in voter suppression, or say, significant increases in gerrymandering or perhaps state legislatures taking over the role of appointing the electoral college, such that there’s still elections, but they are significantly less reflective of the views of the American public?
Mike Berkowitz: Yeah. So I’ll say two things here. So one is just as a contextual point because I think it often gets lost in discussions about democracy. I want to say that democracy is about more than just voting. And one of the challenges that I think we had prior to 2016 is our conception of what a healthy democracy looked like in the United States was pretty narrow. We thought a lot about voting, gerrymandering, and campaign finance. We didn’t think a lot about the issues that the United States was actually working on abroad to help countries develop their democracies.
Mike Berkowitz: But the second thing that I would say is I’m really concerned about efforts to suppress the vote, to create minoritarian rule in the country. And I think that there are a lot of ways in which the efforts that we’re seeing at the state level, in a variety of states… There’s over 250 bills that have been introduced this year across 43 states to roll back voting rights to make it harder for people to participate in democracy and to warp what representation looks like. I think those are real threats, and they are characteristics of elections that are not quite free and fair.
Robert Wiblin: What motivated you to switch into working on this issue? I think beforehand, you’d been doing more traditional progressive campaigning or campaigning in favor of issues that the Democratic Party has supported, but you’ve now moved onto something that is aiming to be significantly less partisan than that.
Mike Berkowitz: Yeah. So one of the major disjunctures for me in my career was actually I had started out really in politics, I’d done some work on political campaigns, including on John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004 as a consultant. And when Kerry lost, I realized that I really wanted to focus on long-term efforts to create political and social and cultural change. I didn’t want to just work on campaigns where if you lost, you had nothing to show for your efforts. And so I got really involved in building the progressive movement and building what we refer to as progressive infrastructure. I was a consultant to a group called the Democracy Alliance — which is a network of major progressive philanthropists — from its launch in 2005 up until about 2009. And that work was really intended to strengthen the ability of the progressive movement to create change on the issues that we care about.
Mike Berkowitz: I left that work to start my own firm in 2010 with a broader mandate than just working in progressive politics, but there was also something about the experience of being part of an ideological community that — while I still believe deeply in the issues that we were working on — in some ways felt intellectually stifling and a little bit narrow. So I was probably predisposed when the 2016 election came around to be thinking about it, not just in conventional partisan terms.
Mike Berkowitz: And this was the most striking thing to me actually about 2016, is that there weren’t that many of us who fell into that camp. There were certainly a number, and interestingly, they were on both left and right, but what really led me into democracy work was a sense that we weren’t taking the threat seriously enough, that we were only really looking at it as a society or, within the progressive movement that I had come out of, in very conventional terms. People were talking about how Democrats were going to win in 2018 and 2020. While that was really important, I felt like we needed to pay attention to some of the deeper drivers and deeper challenges that were afflicting American politics and democracy.
January 6th, 2021 [00:11:03]
Robert Wiblin: What have you thought about the events over the last six months? I guess I’m particularly thinking of the protests or the riots on the 6th of January. I suppose they suggest that there’s a lot more work to do, and maybe we’re nowhere near fixing these issues. But it also suggests that you’ve maybe been prescient by five years ago getting on board with issues that seem to have become more pressing over time.
Mike Berkowitz: It’s interesting because I think on the one hand it does feel somewhat prescient and on the other hand, one didn’t need to be particularly prescient to see it. And this is to go back to alarmism, one only needed to be properly alarmist to see what was happening. I don’t want to say that January 6th was inevitable, but for those of us who were paying attention, we knew that something like that was going to happen. And I’ll just say this in two ways.
Mike Berkowitz: One is that we knew that there was going to be a continued rise in political violence. And we can talk a bit more later about some work that I helped to do that really started to take seriously the issue of political violence within the United States. But those of us who were engaged in that work knew that that would happen and that elections in particular are flashpoints, as we’ve seen around the world for violence and in particular for political violence. And so it was somewhat inevitable in that respect.
Mike Berkowitz: The other way is that we knew that there was going to be some contestation of the election results by Donald Trump. He had telegraphed that quite clearly, going back all the way to 2016. And I’d been involved in a number of efforts to really think through what that might look like and what it might do to our politics and to our society. And so the events of January 6th in some ways were, again, an almost inevitable culmination of an attempt to say that the election was stolen by the person who was about to have his electoral victory certified as it were by Congress.
Mike Berkowitz: So I find what happened on January 6th really disturbing. In some ways the most disturbing part to me though, is the way in which it too has become a polarizing partisan issue. There are folks on the left who sort of properly can see what that set of events were. There are some folks on the right, but the large majority of the Republican Party is in some version of denialism about that, with the former president even as recently as a week or so ago claiming that there was no real violence associated with January 6th. We saw Senator Ron Johnson from Wisconsin make comments that he felt comfortable on January 6th because he knew the people who were coming in. So it’s disturbing not just for the set of factors that led to it or what it produced itself in terms of death and destruction or the symbolic challenge that it offers around the world, but it’s also the reaction to it that causes me a lot of concern and leads me to agree with your point that we’re not out of the woods in any sense of the word.
Robert Wiblin: The polling I’ve seen suggests that if you survey a broad cross section of Americans, that the great majority of them have a negative view of what the rioters were doing on the 6th of January. But it seems like there is a meaningful minority, I guess overwhelmingly Republicans, who have either a delusional view or they recognize what happened and think that it’s good. It’s very scary to see. It seems like most elected Republicans are siding with that group, I guess because they’re most worried about that group because they’re the most activist and the most likely to primary them or hassle them. So even if they’re going against the views of 70% of the population, they’re kind of cowed by this very vocal minority.
Mike Berkowitz: Yeah. I think that’s right. I mean, I hesitate to make any guesses as to what is going on in the minds of Republican politicians these days. But I think it is clear enough that they are really scared of the base. And not without some cause. If your goal is to maintain power, then it’s reasonable — even though I think it’s the wrong calculus on many levels, moral, ethical, and otherwise, it’s the wrong calculus to me, to be cowed by them — but it is a real factor and it is a real force and I think it’s leading to all sorts of bad behaviors. And in some ways, this I think is one of the key challenges that we face in American democracy, at least right now. It should be clear and obvious that if a member of your party is breaking from the norms, traditions, values, institutions of liberal democracy, that that’s an opportunity for you to break away from that person or that set of actors and not just to stick with them because they have your party or your tribe’s name next to theirs.
Mike Berkowitz: But that’s not what’s happening. What’s happening is that democracy really is becoming polarized. And we see people largely sticking with their political coalitions, though not entirely. And this is where I think there’s some opportunity, but by and large, they’re sticking with their coalitions and just to put it really bluntly, Republican voters are largely staying with the party even though it is abandoning a lot of the principles that this country was built on and that Republicans cared deeply about as far as I can tell up until the last decade or so.
Trump’s defeat [00:16:44]
Robert Wiblin: In a minute we’re going to zoom out to the bigger picture and hear what you think should be done with this 50- or 100-year timescale perspective. But yeah, to begin with, let’s continue thinking about the concrete situation that we’re in now with Trump and the 2020 election and the fight over its legitimacy. How important do you think Trump’s loss was in the general global fight against democratic decay that we’re seeing today?
Mike Berkowitz: I think it was very important. The scholar Yascha Mounk has said, I think correctly, that we don’t often have the chance to defeat authoritarian populists. And so just to see it happen and to see the massive effort both obviously on the political side, but even just on the civil society side, where folks were fighting, not against Donald Trump, but to protect the norms, values, and institutions of American democracy. I mean, there’s a lot to learn from that. And so I think symbolically in that sense, it was really key.
Mike Berkowitz: It’s also key because Yascha and others have pointed out that it’s really in their second terms that authoritarian populists start to really undermine democracy. And so we saw plenty of bad things in Trump’s first term, but I would have been very worried about what we would see in the second. And yeah, we saw this with Hugo Chávez. We saw it with Vladimir Putin. The gloves come off after you get reelected. And so I think that’s another reason why I’m very pleased to see that. I think it mattered a lot for democracy. That said, I think we shouldn’t be sanguine about this.
Mike Berkowitz: There was some really interesting but disturbing research that came out in 2018 in a paper by Rachel Kleinfeld and David Solimini called What Comes Next? Lessons for the Recovery of Liberal Democracy. And one of the key headlines there was that recovery from an authoritarian populist can take a really long time, decades. And that often the leaders who are elected right after them face just such immense challenges that they become very unpopular and that leads to cycles that make it not a clean break, it gets very messy.
Mike Berkowitz: So whatever one’s assessment of Joe Biden and how he’s doing so far — and I would say from my vantage point that he has done pretty well — I’m worried about the set of challenges that he faces. I would have said that even if COVID hadn’t added so much more to his plate and the racial justice reckoning added so much more to his plate. Just having to dig out from four years of an authoritarian populist is really difficult. And so there’s a lot of challenges that we still have to face that mean that I think we should continue to be very vigilant and committed to these issues.
Robert Wiblin: I find it interesting that you are really focusing on the civil society aspect. I feel like that’s one area where Trump didn’t seem to matter, like he hasn’t managed to gag the press. It seems like nonprofits, political groups, are more vocal than ever. It’s not as if there’s any lack of opposition to Trump and his views. And to be honest, I’m not even sure how much they made a sincere effort to do things that would violate the First Amendment. Yeah. What worries you about decay in civil society? To me it seems reasonably healthy at the moment.
Mike Berkowitz: Yeah, I think I agree with your point. I think there is a lot that we were concerned that the administration would do on the civil society front, in part because I think Donald Trump and all of the forces that we’re experiencing in the United States are part of a global trend of authoritarian populism that’s manifesting in many countries, including of course, in some ways in the U.K. and India and the Philippines, Hungary, Poland. So there is a trend here and in many of those countries and others we see what’s called ‘closing space.’ We see greater restrictions on civil society. And we haven’t seen a lot of that in the United States.
Mike Berkowitz: Some of that I think is a little bit of a fluke of Donald Trump, which is that Donald Trump in my estimation was a little bit lazy. He wasn’t really committed in the ways that I worry about the next demagogic leader in the United States. He wasn’t really committed to the agenda of undermining democracy with quite the verve that he could have been. He was almost instinctively authoritarian, as others have said. And so they didn’t go nearly as far as I worried that they could have. That said, there were some attempts, for instance, to limit the ability of groups to organize on national land. Some restrictions in terms of free speech. And certainly a lot of rhetorical elements that I think made it really clear how the former president felt about certain communities and civil society organizations and efforts. So it was rhetorically pretty bad, I would say, with some intermittent attempts to restrict rights, but by and large, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been.
Robert Wiblin: How much do you worry about lack of interest in democratic principles among people on the left and the progressive movement or centrists as well, I guess? To what extent does this cover the political spectrum?
Mike Berkowitz: Yeah. This is where I think it’s useful to understand the term liberal democracy. To cite Yascha Mounk again, in his book The People vs. Democracy, he really pulls these two concepts that go together — and that make up what we think of as democracy in places like the United States and the U.K. — he pulls these two concepts apart. So if we take democracy, democracy is about participation in the electoral and decision-making processes by the people. And of course, in the United States, we’re actually a representative democracy or a republic, so our participation as people is mediated through elected representatives. But the liberalism part is about a set of commitments to principles like freedom of speech, the rule of law, separation of powers, individual rights. And it’s that piece where I think the left can slip a bit. I don’t see the left slipping on its commitment to democracy.
Mike Berkowitz: I think many of us on the left would like to see more democracy, more participation in politics of course. But the liberalism piece is where I think there are more challenges. And I don’t want to say that these are symmetric in any way. I think that the challenges from the right to both sides of liberalism and democracy are much greater, but I do worry about some of the things that we see on the left. I don’t love the term ‘cancel culture,’ but I think there is clearly something happening in progressive spaces and in spaces that are heavily influenced by progressive voices, that whatever the motivations and intentions — and I tend to think that those motivations and intentions are quite good in trying to actually create a better society — that there are ways in which we are moving away from some of the commitments to small-l liberalism that I think are really fundamental to the kind of government and the kind of system of norms and values that I’d like to see the United States continue to be committed to. So I do worry about that.
Robert Wiblin: Do you think Trump did basically everything that he was able to do to try to undermine the election result and remain in power? Or do you think to some extent we got lucky that he didn’t go further and perhaps the effort wasn’t quite as sincere as it might have looked on the surface?
Mike Berkowitz: Yeah. I’m torn on this question, because I think on the one hand, he went pretty far. But he went pretty far without violating any laws. Maybe one could quibble about that point a little bit. But he didn’t try to overturn the results of any of the judicial decisions, the large majority of them in the post-election environment, which didn’t go his way, some in the pre-election environment, many that didn’t go his way. That was a thing that people were worried about. He wasn’t able to mobilize law enforcement. We were really concerned about what he might do with DHS. We saw a version of this in Portland last summer and fall and I think there was a lot of concern that we would see a kind of similar mobilization of law enforcement communities that he had a bit more sway over. There wasn’t a lot of real concern that the military was going to do anything.
Mike Berkowitz: As far as we understand, he didn’t try to go as far as we worried that he might in that regard, but he also continues to contest at least rhetorically the outcome of the election and he led that all the way up to the certification in Congress. And again, we’ve talked about what that resulted in in the halls of Congress on January 6th, which he was stoking that very day until some of his advisors somewhat haphazardly convinced him to walk it back a bit. So did we get lucky? Maybe. There may be, as I was alluding to earlier, a version of laziness that helped out here, but I would say at the end of the day he was pretty much constrained and stayed within those constraints by law.
Mike Berkowitz: And it’s also worth noting that the Republican actors who he was trying to pressure, people like Brad Raffensperger and Brian Kemp in Georgia and Mike Pence, the line that they wouldn’t cross either was what their legal obligations were. So what worries me going forward here is when those legal obligations change. And we were talking earlier about the voting rights, laws that are being rolled back and many of the bills to really restrict voter access that’s happening at the state level. The other things that those bills are doing is trying to shift power to more partisan bodies. So there was this Georgia bill that passed last week, I believe it was, that takes away some of the powers of the Georgia Secretary of State. Well, why is that the case? It’s clearly retribution for Brad Raffensperger. It also clearly will mean that next time around when it’s Donald Trump or someone else trying to overturn the result of the election, I think they might get much farther than Donald Trump did in 2020.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I think we have to be incredibly thankful to people like Raffensperger. People in positions like his basically risked their lives, their careers, or took on enormous amounts of abuse in order to in effect ensure that politicians who they incredibly strongly disagree with on the issues were elected, because they thought it was their legal and moral and patriotic obligation. And it is really quite terrifying that there are efforts to oust people like that so that next time the people who are making these calls about whether to throw the U.S. into a constitutional crisis are going to be far more partisan and might just not be willing to stand up to that. Yeah. You can imagine in 2024, if you have a very close election and there’s all of these bodies and individuals who are partisan actors potentially casting doubt or throwing out the results of the election, in effect, where they could lead things.
Mike Berkowitz: Yeah. And I mean, I think this really illustrates the distinction between norms and laws, which is a problem we really came to realize throughout the Trump presidency. That so many of the things that we thought were law were actually just custom. And once you had someone who didn’t feel any obligation to abide by those customs, they went away. You apply that lens to the actions that we saw by Republican politicians in particular, in the aftermath of the 2020 election, and it’s quite interesting because, as I said, folks who were asked to violate the law didn’t do it. People who could violate long-standing norms without breaking laws, many of them did. And that’s how I think about the actions of the 150 or so members of Congress who voted not to accept the results of particular state elections. There was no consequence to them doing that.
Mike Berkowitz: And so I don’t know what the right thing is in this particular realm going forward, but one of the things that I do think is going to be really important for protecting American democracy going forward is to do more hardening of norms into laws so that we give actors in the system a bit less opportunity to violate customs that are there for good reason. Some of them are not. I’m all for re-imagining our norms, but some of them are really important. They are what actually upholds our system. So we need some combination of the moral courage that we saw exhibited by some Republican politicians in particular, this last cycle, who did, as you said, put their political careers, sometimes their lives and their family’s lives in some jeopardy. On the other hand, they did it because it was their job and it was the law. And I think the more hardening of norms that we can do within reason, the more people will be able to take those politically courageous stances.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So I guess it is hard to know exactly what Republican members of Congress think. But I imagine that many who voted to effectively ignore the election results or to throw them out, in fact, didn’t believe that the election was fraudulent and were doing it just to save their skin and to avoid getting primaried in future elections.
Improving incentives for representatives [00:30:55]
Robert Wiblin: Is there anything that we can do to improve the incentives that senators and congresspeople face so that they are less likely… Because, I mean, it does seem possible that in a future election… What if you do end up with a really unhinged elected group in the House of Representatives and they decide that they don’t want to lose their seats, and so they’re going to vote to overturn the election results? It’s pretty terrifying.
Mike Berkowitz: So this is where I think both political leadership and political structures and incentives really do matter. On the one hand, one can look at leadership here and say, if Donald Trump hadn’t been making the claim and pushing others to make the claim that the election was stolen, we wouldn’t have seen hardly any of the actors who abided by that falsehood do so last year. I just really don’t think we would have seen that. Donald Trump’s popularity and power within the Republican Party also forced their hand to some extent. Again, I think it was the wrong calculus on many levels, but he really did box many Republican politicians in by taking that position.
Mike Berkowitz: But to your point, this is also where incentives and structures really do matter. And I think we’ve realized that even the best politicians, even the most courageous and moral, and ethical ones are working within a system that has particular incentives to it. And so there’s a lot of political reform efforts that are out there right now that are really looking at this question. For instance, there was just a report that came out, I believe it was called The Primary Problem by a group called Unite America, just out this week, and they really talk about the problem of partisan primaries, where you have the most ideologically committed voters within a party turn out in what’s almost always a low-turnout election. This is the way primary elections are. And the incentives, then, if you are trying to win a partisan primary, are to be more partisan. You’re trying to get your base.
Mike Berkowitz: And so therefore you wind up with more ideologically extreme candidates in general elections. And again, because people largely vote based on the hat that they wear, the R or the D in American democracy next to a candidate’s name, it almost doesn’t matter how extreme a candidate is in many districts because those districts are so safe, they’re going to win regardless. So I do think political reforms are important here. I’m a little agnostic personally about which ones, we could talk more about this, but I do think some reforms to the system are really key to get at the structures there as well.
Robert Wiblin: The primary thing is very notable. As far as I know, I think all of the Republicans who voted to convict Trump either were retiring or weren’t going to face a primary election anytime soon. I come from Australia and now live in the U.K., which are two countries where largely we don’t have political primaries. Parties appoint candidates. And in general, they tend to choose candidates who are pretty close to the center of the seats that they’re running for, because that makes them most likely to get elected in the party, and therefore most likely to hold power.
Robert Wiblin: So it creates this kind of centrist tendency to not have a small minority of 5% or 10% of people in a seat choosing who the candidates are on either extreme. The primary thing is a little bit harder in the U.S. Because of your first-past-the-post system, which Australia doesn’t have, there’s an incredibly strong tendency to have only two parties, which then means that whoever would happen to end up controlling one of those two parties could then potentially have very outsized influence over who gets selected, and that would have a degree of arbitrariness to it. Where in Australia, and to some extent the U.K., because it’s a more multi-party system, it’s possible to potentially get rid of a party that’s not representative in a way that’s very hard in the U.S.
Robert Wiblin: But I suppose I would love to see a reduction in the frequency, I suppose, of these kinds of political primaries. Well, one option might be in the House of Representatives to just move to a cycle of only… I mean, the House of Representatives is very unusual in the modern world for having everyone elected every two years, that’s very peculiar. I almost don’t know a country that has a national government reelected that frequently. And potentially you could move to a cycle where the primaries only occur every four or six years.
Mike Berkowitz: I think there’s a lot of ways that we could reform the House of Representatives, or elections there, as well as elections throughout the system. I mean, one reason that I’m a bit agnostic on which reforms, is I think number one, there are some very, very smart people who I trust, who are proponents for different reforms. And whether it’s ranked-choice voting or having a multi-party system, or something along the lines of final-five voting… I look at these very smart people who I trust and say, “I don’t know what the right answer is here, and therefore I’m personally not going to be a proponent for one over the other. I think we should try them.”
Mike Berkowitz: We have this federal system in the United States that gives us the ability to do things at the state level. And in fact, our elections, even our national elections, are actually state elections. And so there’s a lot we can do to actually test these reforms and see what works, and I think we should do that. I also think that we need to recognize that any reform is going to have unintended consequences, and so we need to have a lot of humility as we think about these possibilities.
Mike Berkowitz: And to your point about the U.K. and Australia, and obviously this goes for many other countries as well, there are other systems of government out there that are also facing real challenges from authoritarian populism, for instance. And so this is where I think it’s just an incredibly complex problem to think about. We need to change some of the structures and incentives in the United States, no doubt, and we also need to recognize that even some of the systems that we might want to emulate abroad are also facing real legitimacy crises from authoritarian populism around the world. And so there’s no silver bullet solutions to these challenges.
Robert Wiblin: One thing that a lot of people, including me, were worried about last year was that there would be large-scale voter intimidation efforts at polling places. And it seems like that basically just didn’t happen at all, despite I guess, meaningful threats that people were making to go and do this. Why do you think that that was? And is there a lesson here about… It’s very easy to get hyperbolic and worry about absolutely everything, but sometimes we do have fears that just are not realized, like Trump not really doing that much to restrict the media from criticizing him. How do we avoid worrying about mirage problems?
Mike Berkowitz: Well, so one thing I don’t think we should do is look at the 2020 election for instance, and say, “Well, because we didn’t see the kinds of voter intimidation problems on election day that we were expecting, at least not the magnitude, there certainly were some, that therefore we shouldn’t have been alarmed.” I mean, one could expand that to all sorts of things related to the functioning of the 2020 election. The thing that I was really worried about was that broadly speaking there would be chaos, that there would be intimidation and violence at polling places, that people would be so confused by all of the different ways that they could vote, by the restriction of polling places…
Mike Berkowitz: There were a lot of changes to election law last year, and of course we were voting during a pandemic. So we were really worried about chaos. And I refer to the 2020 election itself as a civic miracle, because most of the concerns that we had did not come to pass. but I don’t look at that and say, “Well, we were overly alarmist.” I look at it and say we were properly alarmist, and we invested in lots of different areas within philanthropy and civil society to really try to prevent some of those worst-case scenarios from happening.
Mike Berkowitz: And there were lots of people in the system, from really responsible media actors, to civil society groups and philanthropists, to election administrators who I think were really the heroes of 2020, to people who signed up to be poll workers. I mean, there were a lot of people who contributed, of course, to the smooth functioning of the election. But I think that at the end of the day, it was a combination of those collective efforts, number one. Number two, I think at the end of the day, Donald Trump was just such a polarizing figure that he really drove an incredible amount of turnout. I mean, it happened on the right as well as the left, but I think there were a lot of people who just weren’t going to stay home when Donald Trump was on the ballot, and so they overcame a lot of barriers that we might’ve seen have more of an impact otherwise.
Mike Berkowitz: And then finally, I just think there were so many changes to voting laws that made it easier for people to participate, that they just were going to show up and do it. And they were basically facilitated in participating by a lot of these rules that made it easier for them to do so. But why we didn’t see more intimidation on election day is a little bit hard to say. I guess that my only other supposition here is that there were a lot of attempts on the right prior to the election itself, primarily using legal means to restrict voting rights and restrict voting access, many of those attempts were thwarted in the courts.
Mike Berkowitz: And so it may be that that was the primary vehicle, because it had some legitimacy behind it to try to prevent voters from turning out in large numbers. And that come election day, the kinds of things, even in this crazy political environment that may have been acceptable in some places in say the 1960s, just really weren’t acceptable now, and so we didn’t see those kinds of attempts at the scale that we worried about. But it’s certainly a confusing picture. All I know is that we were right to be alarmed, and I think that alarm certainly contributed to a good outcome.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, it is interesting that despite the fact that… Maybe because of the fact that people are so concerned about voting access now it’s possible that actually voting access is maybe as good as it’s ever been, because people maybe underestimate just how much voter suppression and just how difficult it could be to vote, especially for some people in their 50s and 60s. And in fact, the trend has mostly been in the right direction over a long period of time.
Robert Wiblin: With the benefit of hindsight, are there any specific actions that you wish people had taken back in 2015 and 2016 in order to try to curtail this problem before it became worse?
Mike Berkowitz: Yeah. I really wish the Republican Party had taken Donald Trump more seriously as a candidate. I think they could have done that at multiple stages along the way, including when it became clear that he was going to be the nominee. I try not to make too many analogies to Nazi Germany, but I think there is a really interesting analogy here from the early 1930s where von Papen convinces von Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as chancellor and himself as vice chancellor, and von Papen thinks that he’s going to be able to control Hitler, and of course he’s not able to.
Mike Berkowitz: And I do think there’s an analogy that’s worth understanding here in terms of the Republican Party’s — at least in 2015 and 2016 — orientation towards Donald Trump. Even though I think there was a period of time where they simply just didn’t take him seriously as a candidate, even once they came to take him seriously, and when he became the nominee of the party, I think the reigning thinking at that point was, “We’ll be able to control this guy.” And the lesson for me is you can’t control someone who does not feel restrained by democratic norms and values. And I think it almost always comes back to bite you when you try to do it. Instead what happens of course is Donald Trump takes over the Republican Party.
Mike Berkowitz: And again, I don’t purport to have any idea of what’s going on in the heads of Republican leaders right now. But I have to think that there was a point at which they really saw that as a bad thing, as not what they wanted for their party. And now even if they might say that behind closed doors, they’re certainly not doing anything to counter Trump’s supremacy within the Republican Party.
Mike Berkowitz: So that’s the only thing I could imagine. I really don’t know that there’s much outside of the conservative or Republican coalition in 2015 and 2016 that could really have been done differently. I think this is the kind of thing that was up to the right to do well, and I think they missed the critical opportunity to keep Trump and Trumpism contained. As, by the way, they had done not completely effectively, but pretty effectively for many decades prior to that. It’s not as if the Trumpist strain, even though it has particular manifestations in this political era, but it’s not as if there wasn’t that kind of anti-elitist populist thread with lots of white supremacy and other elements built into it, that existed within the Republican coalition. But this is part of the point of actually having political parties, is that they can restrain and moderate the more extreme fringes of their coalitions. It’s really when you let those extreme voices take over that you have a problem. So that’s what I wish had been done differently in 2015 and 2016.
Signs of a loss of confidence in American democratic institutions [00:44:58]
Robert Wiblin: Okay, let’s zoom out from just the Trump era and think about what can be done to shore up the U.S. system of government more generally. When you look at all of the evidence out there, what are the strongest signs, I guess, other than these kinds of topical events, that there are underlying social problems and a loss of confidence, loss of robustness in American democratic institutions?
Mike Berkowitz: So I think there’s a number of ways to look at this. And my theory of the case is actually a metatheory, which is that I think the effort to protect democracy, to sustain it over the long term, is a wicked problem, which is to say a deeply, deeply complex challenge that can be articulated in many different ways, by many different smart people, and therefore can have lots of different solutions. But when I look out at the set of factors that we’re facing right now, here’s what I see. And this is one of the reasons that I tend not to think that there’s one or even two solutions that are just going to solve everything.
Mike Berkowitz: I mean, we have had a dramatic decline in civic education and learning in this country. It used to be part of curricula throughout schooling, certainly public schooling, and that’s really gone away, and now there are attempts to revive it. We have seen the decline of local news over the last 20, 30, 40 years, local newspapers which were major sources of information for people and connected them to things that were happening in their communities, that were happening with their local elected representatives, they’ve just been decimated by changes in media. That’s a real problem in terms of the kinds of information that people get in their connection and their sense of connection and agency in American democracy. That obviously runs parallel with a rise in disinformation, which has always been a problem. But what we are facing now is really rapidly increasing speed when it comes to disinformation, it travels much more quickly online. And then we have partisan broadcast channels, talk radio, YouTube channels, obviously television stations like Newsmax, OAN, Fox News that are really spreading this much more widely.
Mike Berkowitz: We have a new form of polarization in our politics which we refer to as toxic polarization, where we’re not just fighting anymore on the issues. It’s not just that we have really different views about abortion, or gun control, or democracy, it’s that our identities are becoming stacked on top of our political differences. And so we have these really tribal differences. We no longer see one another as part of a common project. And so it’s no longer about how we can find compromise. It’s about how we can defeat one another. And that’s a really challenging situation.
Mike Berkowitz: As we talked about earlier, we have bad political incentive structures, and we also have the diversification of the United States and other countries, which is causing a white identity backlash. So we have all of these things happening at the same time, whether they are probably… As I would say they are all intertwined causally, but I don’t know that we can really tease apart a clean path where one simply affects the other, affects the other. I don’t think that they’re wholly distinct from one another. To me, they’re all jumbled up together as challenges, and they’re just a manifestation of the complexity of the challenge and the reason why we need to understand that there is no silver bullet solution to this problem and that it’s going to take a long time to solve. This is not the kind of thing that you fix in one election or even one electoral cycle, it’s going to take many decades to get this right.
Mike Berkowitz: And then also, even as we, and by we I mean people in civil society or in philanthropy, have our particular focus areas, we need to understand the work that we’re doing in a broader context. So folks who are working on local journalism need to see themselves as part of a broader effort to revive American democracy. Likewise, with the political reformers who have their chosen or preferred reforms, we all need to see ourselves as part of a broader effort here.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, it’s interesting, to prepare for this interview I was just taking a quick look at some political polling in the U.S. and other countries, seeing how committed people are to liberal democratic values. I guess it was slightly heartening to see that, I guess, just the great majority of Americans in polling centers say that it’s very important to have regular elections, very important to have a largely free press, very important to have religious freedom, very important to have the rule of law. But I guess there are other trends where you see just big declines in trust in political institutions, or indeed across basically all institutions in the study. Except, interestingly, the military. But the media, the courts, Congress, the Senate, just across the board, compared to the 1950s, people just have much less trust in their competence and their truthfulness.
Mike Berkowitz: Libraries are the one other institution aside from the military that still has pretty high levels of trust.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. And as you’re saying, there are just big increases in people thinking that members of the other party are bad people. That used to be a fairly minority view and is now a very mainstream view, which is pretty troubling. So it’s an interesting mixed bag. I’ve seen so many explanations that people have put forward for this trend over the last five years. Some people talk about how the internet is radicalizing people perhaps, or allowing people to end up having unusual ideologies that previously would have been cut out of the mainstream, some people talk about increases in economic inequality or dissatisfaction with the job market and wages, so some people have an economic theory.
Robert Wiblin: Some people think it’s a cultural backlash to progressivism and immigration and culture changes, challenges to masculinity and traditional values…that you’re getting a backlash to that. It seems like we almost have too many explanations and I don’t really have a very strong view one way or the other on which of these underlying trends is causing this political change. Do you, and maybe your colleagues, take any position on this or are you maybe fairly agnostic on what are the underlying social drivers?
Mike Berkowitz: Everyone wants to understand these challenges. And I think those who come to firm conclusions about them at this point are probably jumping the gun a bit. I mean, I just think we don’t know. I think it is clear that all of those trends are factors in one way or another. Part of the challenge of trying to figure this out is really looking at both the domestic and the global context, as we were referring to earlier, because there are particular things that we see here.
Mike Berkowitz: So for instance, when you talk about immigration and the cultural backlash there, that is certainly a factor in the United States, and yet you see similar dynamics playing out in a place like Poland, which doesn’t really have an immigration challenge, it is a very homogenous country, and yet some of the same kind of racist or nativist sentiments are part of the populism that is taking place there. And so I just think we don’t know enough yet to know why these things are happening in the ways that they are, how this stew of issues actually is manifesting, what are the drivers, what are the symptoms, what are the underlying causes. We just don’t know enough, and I don’t know that we need to.
Mike Berkowitz: I mean, I guess this is where I come out on it. It’s not that we shouldn’t aspire to get more clarity about it over time, I do think we should. There’s plenty of research going on in that regard, and I think it is very, very, very worthy, but I also think we need to avoid a reductionist impulse to really try to figure out, is it culture, is it economics? I just think those are too simplistic. However they come out in the wash, those bifurcated ways of understanding the problem are just going to be too simplistic. And so I’m quite comfortable saying that those are all part of the problem. And I think there are very smart people who would say this one over that one, and there’s another person who would say that one over this one. And I think that’s just a… Again, it’s a manifestation of the wickedness of the challenge, we just don’t know.
Robert Wiblin: One other big theory I forgot to list there is The Big Sort’s theory that you’re getting a big… The people with particular personality and education characteristics are sorting into the same counties and then are meeting one another, and then people who have a very different personality are all sorted into rural areas, and that causes polarization because people just don’t meet in their social circles people who are different, and there’s fewer cross-cutting pressures of you might meet a conservative at church, but like them, even though you have different politics, that kind of thing.
Robert Wiblin: I just don’t really have a strong view here because it seems like the empirical picture is extremely complicated, you can find both evidence supporting and contradicting or in tension with all of these theories. And so it does seem like we have to proceed thinking, well, all of these things could be playing into it and we’re not going to get a really clear answer anytime soon. Social scientists might figure this out sometime down the road, but it’s not easy.
Most valuable political reforms [00:54:39]
Robert Wiblin: Given all that, what do you think are the most important levers to push on to try to shore up the political situation in the United States?
Mike Berkowitz: So I would say a couple of things here. One, as we talked about, I think, political reforms are really important. I mean, I think we have to change some of the incentive structures and see what happens. It was noted that Lisa Murkowski, a Republican senator from Alaska, was the first senator on the right to come out in favor of Donald Trump’s impeachment after January 6th. Well, that also happened after Alaska had passed a set of voting reforms, including final-four voting, where there were no longer going to be partisan primaries, there will be an open primary and the top four vote getters will move on to the general election and there will be ranked-choice voting. So you’ll get to list your preferences among the final four candidates. And that is thought to enable more candidates to appeal to a wider segment of the population. So it was noted that this reform may have played a significant role in Murkowski being able to come out as quickly as she did and as forcefully as she did on Donald Trump’s impeachment. So political reforms I think are key.
Mike Berkowitz: Second is I really do think we need to revitalize local journalism. We have so little accountability right now among elected officials in Washington DC, or in state houses. We forget sometimes we used to have entire delegations of reporters covering the actions of elected representatives. With the decimation of local journalism, that has gone away. We also just have less connection and knowledge about issues within local communities.
Mike Berkowitz: I was talking with someone the other day who made the observation that we’re much more likely now to know what’s happening in somebody else’s community than we are in our own, because in somebody else’s community, maybe there was something that was just so shocking that it made the national news. And so we’re focused in all the wrong places with our own kind of civic energies in that regard. And it’s impossible to imagine how we really combat disinformation or get to any shared fact base — which we need in a functioning democracy — without a much healthier, or a much more robust and rebuilt set of local journalism institutions. Newspapers, online publications, et cetera.
Mike Berkowitz: And finally, I think in order to overcome toxic polarization, we need to build social cohesion in this country. When I talk about social cohesion, I don’t mean just how we can all just get along better. That’s an overly simplistic view of what I think social cohesion should mean. It’s actually, how can we disagree while still seeing each other as part of a common project and part of a common political community? How do we still see each other as human, despite our political differences?
Mike Berkowitz: And right now we’re losing that capability and it’s causing a lot of the challenges that we’re seeing, including an increase in extremism and violence. And I think it contributes to the rise of authoritarian populism. As I said earlier, tribal loyalties are superseding the commitment to democracy. So this is an area of work that I think needs much more attention from philanthropy and from society at large. And it’s hard for me to imagine at the civic and cultural level, how we can continue to function if in fact we are in such warring tribes. And I do worry about the warring piece of that continuing to not just be in name or name-calling only, but really in continued acts of political violence.
Robert Wiblin: Okay, so we had three there. The first one was, I guess, changing things like voting methods and how people are appointed and what incentives they face as politicians. The second one was local journalism and the third one was building social cohesion and getting people to have some more fond feelings towards people who they disagree with on politics. Maybe let’s go through those one by one.
Robert Wiblin: What do you think are some of the most valuable structural changes that we could make to the political system? I guess you mentioned earlier that there’s lots of smart people who disagree on these questions, but are there any options that you feel more positive about than others?
Mike Berkowitz: One of the most promising ones on the voting front, for instance, is automatic voter registration. It’s a little bit odd and probably not coincidental in the United States that when a boy turns 18, he’s automatically drafted into the selective service. That happens without him doing anything, and means he could be on call for military service at some point. But one has to proactively register to vote to avail oneself of that right in our system. I should note, it’s not a constitutional right, there is no right to vote in the U.S. constitution, which I think is also a challenge here.
Mike Berkowitz: And so automatic voter registration is at least one I think quite popular reform — not just on the left, but it actually has some adherence across the political spectrum. It basically says that when you go to get a driver’s license, for instance, you’re automatically enrolled to vote. So that’s a really, really key reform on the voting rights front. I do think expanding the ability to vote by mail is really key, I think we saw a lot of that.
Mike Berkowitz: I would love on the redistricting front to see us get rid of partisan redistricting. I think that the incentives there are just all wrong. And I think it’s clear that we need independent [missions], not that they’re easy to implement or figure out, there’s still lots of challenges, but I would like to see us move away from partisan redistricting. When it comes to reforms about how we elect our representatives, that’s where I’m much more agnostic. So I’ll just spend a minute on three of the key reforms.
Mike Berkowitz: My friend and colleague at Stanford Larry Diamond is, for instance, a real proponent of ranked-choice voting. And the idea behind ranked-choice voting is that you don’t just have to win a pluralistic election by getting the most votes out of all the candidates, but you actually have to win a majority. And the way you win a majority is by counting people’s second, third, and sometimes fourth place choices and aggregating those votes until you have someone who has earned a majority of the votes.
Mike Berkowitz: And the idea there is that that actually is a moderating influence on the election. It means that when you’re running for office, you want to appeal beyond just your partisan base, because you want to get people’s second, third, and fourth choice votes. Lee Drutman at New America is a real proponent of a multi-party system, where we would actually create some changes to the system to in some ways break up the coalitions from within the large party structures that they operate and actually give some more ability for those components of the coalitions to actually be represented by parties themselves.
Mike Berkowitz: And then you have another friend and colleague, Katherine Gehl, at the Institute for Political Innovation, who has an excellent TED Talk and a book out on what she calls final-five voting, which is, I referred to this earlier, but it’s where you have a nonpartisan primary where the top five vote getters move into the general election, and then you use ranked-choice voting to select among them. So those are a number of the key reforms that folks are out there debating. Again, I think it’s important to have some humility with these reforms, but I do think that there is a need to change the way that we’re operating at the moment.
Robert Wiblin: We have a long episode, episode 34 with Aaron Hamlin, where we go through a lot of voting theory and different voting methods and discuss different possible reforms there, and some of the complications, some ways that they can potentially backfire. I do think there are promising opportunities for the U.S. to improve its voting system because [it’s choosing the one that in theory is the worst, just as like two bodies] and first-past-the-post using primaries. It’s just so problematic that it should be possible to find something that’s better than that. Although I suppose changing the voting method when you have partisans deciding what the new voting methods should be, they could potentially shift it in their favor, right? Once you start opening up these questions, potentially things could get worse because people are deliberately making them worse.
Mike Berkowitz: Yeah. Well, I’ll just say really quickly on that point, I think that speaks to the need for us to actually build commitment across ideological lines to democracy and to reforms to our system. I mean, if this really just remains the province of the left, then you’re only going to see progress on it when the left is in power and in places where the left is in power and you will see a lot of opposition to it on the right. And certainly that feels in many ways like what we’re experiencing now at both the state and federal level. But I think the real promise, the real need here is actually to create greater buy-in across lines of political division.
Robert Wiblin: I guess it seems like the future for voting reform in the U.S. is referendums at the city, county or possibly state level to change things or trying to build up from lower levels and then get people to test them out, feel confident about them, and then scale them up to higher levels. I guess, I don’t know of any states that are seriously considering, say, switching to approval voting or something like that for the presidential election or for members of Congress and things like that. But I’m more aware of cities that are interested in changing their voting methods, is that right?
Mike Berkowitz: Yeah, it’s true that a lot of the key reforms are happening at the state and local level. Again, partly that’s a manifestation of the way elections happen in the United States. Even the presidential election is in many ways a state-by-state election process. And so that’s certainly true, and there are many states that have the ability for ballot initiatives and referenda to be on there, and that is how many advocates have gotten reforms passed at both the state and local level.
Mike Berkowitz: I think there’s some challenges to that over time. I mean, I live in California where we have a very robust ballot measure system in place, and I find it to be a really bad way of making policy. And I think there are a number of reforms from the progressive era. This is one of them, by the way, getting rid of primaries that were controlled by partisan elites and putting them into the hands of the public, which at the time seemed like a great idea. I mean, there are a number of unintended consequences of these reforms and I think this is one of them.
Robert Wiblin: I guess ballot initiatives are a mixed bag, but it does seem like there’s good theoretical reasons to expect them to go off the rails, and we’ve definitely seen that in some states where ballot initiatives that are just incredibly destructive have been passed and then it’s very hard to get rid of them. So it’s one that sounds really good on the tin, and then it’s a lot more complicated in practice, I suppose. It’s exactly why we should be humble about forecasting what effect our reforms will have.
Mike Berkowitz: That’s right. And look, at the end of the day, this is where even as someone on the left, I really do appreciate the representative nature of our democracy. We are not all meant to make policy for ourselves, there is expertise that is needed on these issues. And so I can’t help feeling every time I pull up my very long ballot guide and read the language, and the descriptions, and the arguments for and against the measure, that I really shouldn’t be making these decisions. It’s not my job. I should be tasked with electing the people who I trust to make those decisions on my behalf.
Robert Wiblin: There are some issues where potentially it’s appropriate because they don’t require much technical knowledge, but others where yeah doing a ballot initiative is very much the wrong way to do it.
Mike Berkowitz: And look, again, it is the mechanism by which a lot of this change is happening right now. And so I want to both say, I think there are challenges with it and I give its due. It’s been a very important vehicle for getting reforms passed at the state and local level that do ultimately inform efforts to implement these things more widely.
Robert Wiblin: A benefit of ballot initiatives is that you can… So obviously the existing politicians are benefited by the current system because they were elected… And ballot initiatives will give you a way of reforming the system that routs around their own selfish interest to keep things exactly as they are.
Mike Berkowitz: No question.
Revitalizing local journalism [01:08:07]
Robert Wiblin: Let’s move on and talk about the second thing you mentioned, which is rejuvenating local news, and I suppose attention to local politics. Do you think that focusing on local issues maybe reduces partisan rancor because the issues at the local level are famously these issues of like, who can pick up the trash, where they don’t have these hot-button cultural issues which seem to dominate at the national level? Many more people could imagine voting for one party or the other just on the basis of the basic competence of the people, like, are they going to be able to pick up the trash at a decent price, and are they going to be able to get things done. And so possibly focusing on those practical bread-and-butter issues will get people to be willing to work across partisan lines more.
Mike Berkowitz: Absolutely. I think our politics, at least here in the United States, are much less polarized at the local level than they are at the federal level. And so when we are paying attention to federal politics, we’re seeing the worst manifestations of political polarization and that is affecting the way that we understand our democracy and understand our politics right now. And so the more that we can be focusing at the local level where there is, as you said, a lot of common concerns that don’t fall along traditional — and traditional in this sense really means national or federal — political lines… And that’s part of what we need to overcome the polarization in our country, is to cross-cut some of those standard divisions.
Mike Berkowitz: The other thing is that there’s a presumption, which I think is probably true, that one of the challenges that is afflicting American democracy is a lack of felt agency. That as people look out at the world they see a growing federal government and bureaucracy, and that bureaucracy includes many parts of it that are unelected, because you elect the president, you elect the senator and you elect your representative, but you don’t elect the other members of the executive branch, for instance. And the executive branch is huge, it has lots and lots of employees and different departments, and so there are a proliferating number of decision-making bodies that people literally have no control over.
Mike Berkowitz: And then you get to an environment in which we, for good reasons, have to be engaging with other countries to make international policy on things like human rights or climate change, and that is even less connected to people’s ability to influence things. So then when you think about, “Where can we actually have an impact in our democracy, where can we feel connected to it?” it’s at the local level. There are just so many more opportunities there to see and touch and feel, to have an impact, to get to know people, to know the issues. And so I think we need more of that. It’s actually a weakness, I would say, of progressive politics.
Mike Berkowitz: Over the last half century, we’ve put so much effort…I don’t want to malign the reasons why this happened, but we’ve put so much effort into national politics. And by the way, also into the judicial system, where again, people don’t have an ability to control or influence that. We’ve put so much emphasis there that we’ve moved people’s attention away from the things that they can feel connected to that are really the bread-and-butter of democracy.
Robert Wiblin: It’s an interesting thing about progressives in the United States. I mean, obviously I’m not American, so I’m slightly looking at this as an outsider, but I had the impression that liberals in the U.S. are very focused on doing things at the national level, if at all possible, and quite resistant to the argument for decentralizing to a state level or a county level. I understand the historical reasons why liberals may look at the idea of doing things at the state level with quite a jaundiced perspective, because it was horribly abused in the past. But it seems like that attitude has maybe extended beyond what is really justified by that history.
Robert Wiblin: I mean, if you think it’s okay for Australia to run its education system without reference to other countries all that much, then why can’t Florida do the same thing? And it’s true that if you decentralize things, do things at the state level, that means that there’ll be some states that will do things that are worse from your perspective, maybe because people there have different views. But it also means that there’ll be other states where people agree with you more, where you’ll get more of what you want. And maybe it should roughly cancel out, but people will feel like perhaps they have more agency because it’s being done at this more local level where they can have more influence.
Mike Berkowitz: And I think there’s actually some pretty exciting movement taking place on both left and right in terms of how we think about these issues. So it’s notable to me, for instance, that a couple of years ago, two folks out of New America produced a report called The New Era of Progressive Federalism, which was really looking at the question of how we might draw more attention and do more policymaking at the state and local level, not just at the federal level, and where that would offer opportunities actually to advance many progressive ideas. At the same time, you have a book published last year by David French, the conservative columnist, called Divided We Fall, which also makes the case for federalism as possibly the key solution to dealing with the divisions in our country right now.
Mike Berkowitz: And so it’s really interesting to see people on both the left and right playing with ideas around federalism with a recognition that in a country of 330 million people, we’re not going to be able to mitigate all of our political differences at the national level, and we might do well to focus much more of our attention at the state and local level.
Mike Berkowitz: This also connects to a book that came out last year I believe called Politics Is for Power, actually by my wife’s cousin, the scholar Eitan Hersh. He argues that a lot of the ways in which Americans are interacting with politics right now is not actually doing politics, we are voyeurs. We think participating in American democracy and politics is reading the newspaper, following the campaigns, and engaging in debates and discussion or re-tweets on social media. He argues that that’s not politics. Politics is actually getting together with other people in your community to fight for things that you care about and trying to implement them into policy and law. That is politics.
Mike Berkowitz: And that inherently, again, for most people involves local politics, it involves local issues. So I’d love to see us put much more emphasis there. And to circle back to the point around local journalism, I think local journalism is a key compliment to that. We need the information ecosystem that can inform our understanding of what’s happening and that can also report back out on it to others.
Robert Wiblin: So I think it seems almost universally believed, many, many people believe that it would be great if we had more local journalism like we used to have before the internet. But the commercial model for that has just been completely obliterated. How can we fund anything like the level of journalism and attention to local politics that we used to have?
Mike Berkowitz: I think that one of the key things that we need to understand is that right now we need philanthropy to be a major, major revenue driver for journalism. It just is where we are because the business model, as you said, has collapsed. And I think if we want there to be local journalism right now, that’s going to have to be funded by philanthropy for some time. And so one thing that I’d love to encourage any donor out there, whether you’re giving $25 or $25 million, is to give to a local journalism outfit, to an online or print publication in your community, regardless of how you focus your giving otherwise. I think that’s a really key thing that we should each be doing in our philanthropy.
Mike Berkowitz: The other thing is that there are a lot of innovations taking place in the revenue models for nonprofits. I think it’s likely that journalism will continue to happen more and more so through nonprofit entities going forward, to enable some amount of philanthropy over the long term. But we’re seeing all sorts of really interesting revenue generators taking place, whether that’s doing events and bringing in speakers, whether it’s having membership models. There’s lots of different things that organizations are trying right now.
Mike Berkowitz: There’s a really important nonprofit that was started a couple of years ago called the American Journalism Project, which is a venture philanthropy partner to local journalism, which is really trying to invest in both some of the best local journalism outfits, but also to help them do that in ways that they can test and scale their models. So there’s a lot of promise there, but I think right now one way or another philanthropy is a really key piece of the puzzle for local journalism.
Robert Wiblin: It’s interesting. Journalism is surprisingly cheap to produce, I guess it often runs at a loss, but not that large of a loss in absolute monetary terms. So you can potentially prop up a local newspaper perhaps for surprisingly little money, because it’ll get some of its revenue from ads and some of its revenue from sales, and then I guess you can make up the difference with philanthropy.
Robert Wiblin: It’s also interesting that journalism is so cheap relative to the size of some other industries. I was looking at the numbers, I can’t remember off the top of my head, but it would cost a pittance for the tech industry or people involved in the tech industry to just double the size of the newspaper industry. So small are the budgets in the scheme of all business in the United States, which is an interesting situation where I guess you see this with Jeff Bezos buying up The Washington Post for an amount that’s absolutely trivial to him, but then The Washington Post has this enormous cultural influence. I mean, that has its own problems having very rich people dominate this. But I guess it also has some benefits and maybe it’s better than an alternative of nothing.
Mike Berkowitz: And two of the other things we’re seeing here, I mean, there is a greater push for public funding of local journalism. I can’t remember actually now whether this bill passed, but I recall that there was legislation in New Jersey for the state of New Jersey to be creating a fund to support journalism in the state. I think there will be more emphasis on that going forward. And the other, to your point a moment ago, is there are some efforts to try to get the big technology companies — particularly the social media platforms — to be contributing some of their revenue to local journalism. Because they are obviously one of the main reasons why the newspaper industry is suffering, and they also rely on the existing journalism industry obviously as well. So there’s a relationship there that I think offers some incentives that are not just altruistic in nature. So there’s some effort to get that implemented as well.
Robert Wiblin: Like I said, I’m from Australia where we have the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which is, well, the great majority is just publicly funded through taxation. And likewise in the U.K. you’ve got the BBC of course, which is, I guess, funded perhaps partly through tax receipts and partly through this interesting subscription thing called the television tax or the…I can’t remember exactly what it’s called but basically every house that has a television has to pay some tithe to the BBC each year, which I was quite surprised to learn when I moved here.
Robert Wiblin: I guess people are constantly bickering about this in Australia and Britain about whether they’re doing a good job. It basically seems to me like they are doing a good job, and that the fighting back and forth is all just part of the healthy dialogue that you get in order to keep these things on the rails. So there’s a lot more resistance to publicly funded journalism in America. And I think because of this perhaps structural problems with the United States where it is a more divided country and people are more… Well, I don’t know whether it’s the case, but you really would worry about politicians doing things underhandedly where they fund what are in effect propaganda networks that support the existing incumbents. And I think that’s one reason why you get a lot of resistance to this publicly funded journalism. Do you have any views on that?
Mike Berkowitz: Well, look, I mean, we do also have our own national publicly funded journalism. We have NPR, we have PBS, they are contested in some of the same ways in part because the right, not without some reason, sees them as being liberal media. But it is notable that they continued to exist even through the Trump Administration, and not as propaganda outfits for the government. They maintained their editorial independence there. I haven’t actually even heard about any efforts by the Trump Administration to change that.
Mike Berkowitz: Now, the administration did a lot, unfortunately on our overseas communications, things like Voice of America, that’s an entirely different situation. But to your point, I think it’s less likely that we’re going to see a continued or growing national public financing of media. I think what we need to see is more at the state and local level, which again is less politically contested and really the kinds of media that we need. We don’t need another NPR, we don’t need another PBS, we need people to have access to media about their own lives and communities.
Reducing partisan hatred [01:21:53]
Robert Wiblin: Let’s move on to the third thing you suggested, which I guess is reducing partisan hatred. It’s a challenging one because the United States is a very diverse country where people have very different political views. And there are many people in the United States who, to me, seem to have values that I really do disagree with, and from my point of view, the things that they’re advocating for are very harmful. So in a sense, it’s only natural that I would have some antipathy towards people who are advocating this stuff and vice versa.
Robert Wiblin: Many people in the United States would think that the things that I advocate for are very harmful and immoral, and maybe I’m just a bad person for doing it. Despite the fact that it’s rational on this individual level to have this antipathy towards people whose values or empirical beliefs you think are very bad, it’s so destructive on the societal level when everyone indulges in something that’s perfectly sensible at the individual level. How can we get there to be less hatred without asking people to just close their eyes and pretend that the world isn’t the way that it is and that there aren’t people who deeply disagree with them on what society ought to do?
Mike Berkowitz: So the key thing in some ways to me is that I think we need to get out and meet each other. There’s this theory called contact theory, which basically says that it’s very easy for us to make assumptions about people that we don’t know because we don’t interact with them. But when we do actually interact with them, we learn that they almost never stand up to the stereotypes. So this isn’t to say that there aren’t people who we have deep disagreements with, it’s not to say that there aren’t bad people in the country, but it is to say that we’re actually really, really bad — both on left and right, at least across this one divide in our society — we’re really bad at understanding the views of the other side. And this has been demonstrated over and over again. So one thing is we just have to find ways to get out of our bubbles.
Mike Berkowitz: Now, this is really hard to do right now, because as we’ve talked about, we are geographically sorting, and so we live with fewer and fewer people who we disagree with, but it’s a key piece. We also have to understand that in a pluralistic democracy, certainly one like the United States that has 330 million people, people are going to have different views, we’re not all going to see things the same way. And part of the project here is we have to get comfortable with that, we have to be okay with it. And when we are in a social cohesion/building frame in particular, we need to not see our project as trying to convince other people to see things the way that we do. There has to be tolerance for different views, that is what pluralism is.
Mike Berkowitz: We have to be able to live together in a society, in a political community, recognizing that we have differences, and fighting for those differences. And by the way, this is not a call for trying to get along all the time for a consensus — we should have deeply held political beliefs, and when we have them, we should fight for them. But we also need to recognize at the end of the day that other people are fighting for their deeply held beliefs too. And however wrong we might think they are, we’re going to have to accommodate one another in one way or another. We can’t have total defeat in a democracy, certainly not in a pluralistic one.
Mike Berkowitz: I think as we were talking about in the local political context, we need to get out more and do things together that take us outside of our standard partisan divisions. There’s a group I often like to point to in this instance called the One America Movement, which gets people across lots of different lines of difference in their communities to actually go out and do projects together of common interest and concern — volunteering, community service, helping rebuild after a natural disaster.
Mike Berkowitz: When you take people out of the red/blue partisan divide and actually put them in their communities doing things where they have shared concerns, you cross-cut, again, those political identities and build new identities. And it’s in those new identities that we can start to find some way to cohere. We also need more in-group moderates. So this is a term of art and it doesn’t actually refer to political moderates or centrists, what it refers to is people who are willing to stand up against the worst impulses of their own side. It’s very easy to criticize the other side of the aisle, but it’s much harder to criticize your own — but it’s actually the key thing to creating political communities that are willing to act with some moderation and some forbearance for the other side.
Mike Berkowitz: And so we need more of those kinds of people. When you remove them, you see greater and greater extremism, and greater extremism makes it easier to do bad things. By the way, in Rwanda, for instance, who were the first people to be killed in the genocide in the mid 1990s? It wasn’t the Tutsis, it was the Hutus who were pushing back on Hutu power. They were among the first to be killed because they offered a puncturing of a bubble. And so you often see a move to get rid of in-group moderates. On the positive side, it’s because they do have a really important role to play.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, they’re powerful. Interesting. I’m a little bit pessimistic about this one happening, because it does just seem like meeting people who have very different political views to you and hanging out with them and talking to them, people find that kind of stressful and perhaps a bit aversive and a bit unpleasant. And there’s so little pressure or like personal gain, I think that people get from that, unless you’re in the minority of people who really enjoy meeting people who have very different views and talking about it and enjoy having an ideologically diverse friendship group. But yeah otherwise why would you do that, how are we going to get people to do that? Some people will be very animated by this issue of how we have to bring America together, we have to get people to get along. But I just suspect that the number who are so motivated by that that they’re going to go out and meet people who are strong supporters of a politician they really dislike, maybe just isn’t enough. So I’m not sure how we make this happen at a grand scale.
Mike Berkowitz: So this is where I go back to thinking about local politics and its connection to democracy, because yes, that’s true. If the idea is that we need to get everyone to participate in bridge-building activities across our political differences, that is only going to appeal to so many people. And it’s really difficult to do at any meaningful scale. But when we start to actually think about it a little bit differently and go back to this idea of what happens in local communities… And again, there’s a challenge here in that we are so geographically sorted right now. That’s one that I don’t know how to disentangle, but there are still plenty of places where you have Republicans and Democrats living side-by-side or as part of one political community. And it is in those places and it is in those ways that we take people out of the kind of national and standard and really polarized political identities and get them doing things that they have shared interest in.
Mike Berkowitz: We might not call that bridge building. We might not call that building social cohesion, but that’s exactly what it is. And by the way, it happens every day, all across the country, in lots of different communities and lots of different community spaces. That’s the kind of thing that I think we need to build on and do more of. There’s some really interesting thinking going on… For instance there was a recommendation in a report called Our Common Purpose, which came out of a task force that had been stood up and managed by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. One of their recommendations in this report, which came out in 2020 was to build a national trust for civic infrastructure. To really try to build out the spaces and the leadership models and the opportunities for people of various backgrounds to get together in libraries and in parks and in community centers…to build out the ability of those types of places to actually do cross-cutting programming, to do training for people who can lead those kinds of efforts.
Mike Berkowitz: So the thing that I would say in conclusion on this point is I think there is a lot happening. Part of what’s needed to do more of it is actually more money. The social cohesion space, whether one thinks about it formally through bridge-building organizations like One America or Braver Angels or groups like that that have some national prominence or whether one thinks about it as being the aggregation of a number of different kinds of projects and organizations happening at the local level throughout the country, we do need more resources put into this, and we’re just really at the beginning. And I would say this across a whole host of issues within American democracy. It’s what gives me hope that philanthropy and civil society working with other actors can actually make a difference on these issues. We’re just at a very early stage. We just haven’t been at this for very long and so we need more money and we need to keep at it for some time. But I think there’s lots of things that we can look at as good examples to be hopeful about.
Should workplaces be political? [01:31:40]
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Some people will hate this idea, I’ve seen some pushback back on it, but this is a point in favor of having workplaces be less political spaces, or encouraging workplaces where maybe you don’t talk about politics because you know that people have views that if they were to talk about them too much, that they would end up fighting and finding it hard to work together. Like going back to a norm where you have workplaces where people come from all different views, but you just try to get along anyway. That’s very much not the trend at the moment. And I totally understand why that is, there’s benefits to having workplaces be political or having people be able to express their views and stand up for what they think is right. But it does create some problems that it’s like one less cross-cutting environment where you might meet and be friends and work together with someone who has very different views from you.
Mike Berkowitz: That’s exactly right. So, from a company perspective, I run a philanthropic and nonprofit consulting firm that the projects that I’ve mentioned are part of. We think about this a lot in the makeup of our own company, because we don’t want to be a values-less company. We do want to have values and we want those values to be clear so that we understand for ourselves what it is that we’re doing here so that as people are deciding whether to come work for us, they understand what we’re working towards. But we also don’t want those values simply to be standard political values, because we know that there are conservatives, for instance, who share a concern about climate. And we know that there are people on the left who share a concern about free speech.
Mike Berkowitz: And so we need to have values that are capacious enough, if you will, to bring in people from lots of different backgrounds and perspectives. And in fact, certainly we talk about this a lot and think about this in civil society and the nonprofit world and in the corporate world, the value of racial and ethnic diversity. But we want to see that also apply in terms of gender diversity, in terms of LGBTQ+ diversity, in terms of religious diversity. There’s all sorts of ways, and ideological diversity is just another one of those things. We want to have a container in which we can fight for and work on the things that we care about and do it in a way that is a welcoming space for people who might think about some of these questions differently than I might, for instance.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Over the last couple of years now, I’ve seen quite a lot of companies kind of stake out that they want to be political and then they take an active political stance and they expect their staff to adhere to particular political values as well. And that kind of seems fine to me because it’s like, if you want to join a company and work there, maybe you would enjoy it much more if there were like-minded people there. But there’ve been others, I guess, who have tried to stake out that no, we’re going to try to remain a less political company. We’re not going to have strong political views or political stances that a large fraction or meaningful fraction of the population disagrees with.
Robert Wiblin: And that’s not to say that politics isn’t important, rather it’s to say that our staff have all kinds of political views and they’re going to pursue that, just not at the office, they’re going to do it in the rest of their life. And that kind of seems fine to me as well. There’s room for a lot of different kinds of work environments, some that are more political and some that are less that provide people with a range of choice of the kinds of places that they might want to work.
Mike Berkowitz: I would just say… So, my observation is that a lot of the companies that are taking political stances are actually doing it at the direction or the behest of their employees. There is actually not a lot of — I’m not saying there are none, but not a lot of companies where the leadership is deciding that they want to come out and take a stance on something or position themselves as a company in a certain way. I think it’s really driven by employees. And I appreciate that on the one hand for the reasons that you just articulated. And I think it can be really dangerous for the reasons that you articulated earlier, which is it does make everything kind of a more politicized space. And for me, I’d be much more comfortable and I’d love to see companies draw lines around democracy than around politics. So I think it’s really good and heartening to see Delta for instance, come out and take a stance against this Georgia law.
Robert Wiblin: The voter suppression effort.
Mike Berkowitz: Yeah the voter suppression effort. It was good to see companies come out and say after the January 6th attack that they weren’t going to support politicians who had voted not to certify the election. I think that’s really good. I also think, of course, it’s good to see companies taking stances on racial justice issues. I’d like to see them actually do things and not just make pretty statements in that regard. But by and large, I kind of draw the line there. It isn’t a bright and clear line. I’ll be honest about that. It can get fuzzy, but I’d love to see more companies taking stances in favor of democracy and opposing different forms of authoritarianism — which by the way, I think is also in their own self interest — then I would see them wade into every kind of political issue of the day.
Mistakes of the left [01:36:50]
Robert Wiblin: You mentioned earlier that you think it’s really valuable to have moderates within each side willing to criticize their inside. I guess you’ve mentioned a couple of different ways that you think perhaps your political fellow travelers are potentially promoting the wrong ideas or causing harm inadvertently. Are there any others that you’d like to mention that are worth noting?
Mike Berkowitz: So the only thing that I would say here is that I think prior to 2016, the work that was done in the United States on democracy was very much wrapped up with a progressive ideological agenda. And the organizations that worked on it were kind of understood in one way or another to be sort of on the left. I mean, there’s groups like the League of Women Voters, Public Citizen, Common Cause, at the very least one would not say that those organizations are part of a conservative community. And if you were going to plot them somewhere, even though they’re non-partisan, you’d kind of see them more on the left. And so there’s a way in which I think we had mistakenly wrapped up a democracy agenda too much with a progressive agenda. And this is happening again, by the way, in some respects now. I mean, there are organizations that I really respect like Indivisible, which is a group pretty squarely on the left, when they polled their members after 2018 to see what issues they wanted Indivisible to work on, the answer, the number one issue was democracy.
Mike Berkowitz: We have a little bit of a debate now around the For the People Act. There’s a wide coalition — I’m certainly in this camp — that sees this bill as really, really important for democracy. And again, we need to be able to distinguish our views about democracy from our political views. But there is another camp that says this is a thoroughly Democratic bill. It was a Democratic leadership bill. There was no effort to get Republican engagement on it. There aren’t really a lot of conservative ideas in there. And so it’s actually a partisan effort.
Mike Berkowitz: And so there’s still this tension to this day, between creating a democracy agenda that lots of people can buy into and doing the work to get them bought into it. And just seeing it as part of a very easy and natural progressive agenda. There’s a really strong fit there. This is not an easy thing to do, and it’s not a perfect suggestion, but I think in tying those things so closely together, we’re making it harder for some voices on the right. The challenges to democracy vis-a-vis the right are much more the fault of the right, don’t get me wrong. But I think we are making it harder to bring conservative voices in. And this is one of the challenges that just fundamentally, I’m trying to work on through things like Patriots & Pragmatists to create a space where conservatives, for instance, can engage with progressives around these kinds of questions. I think that’s really key going forward.
Risk of overestimating the problem [01:39:56]
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. One argument I sometimes see on Twitter is people saying well everyone is so worried about the future of the United States, they point to all of these negative trends as ways in which things could go really badly in the future, but people have always been worried about the United States. And people have written off the U.S. so many times over it’s 230- or 240-year history, but it keeps on chugging on and it’s still one of the world’s most successful countries by many measures. Are there any reasons you think maybe we’re at risk of perhaps overestimating the scale of the problem? Because we just see all the ways that things are going wrong, but we don’t pay attention to positive trends as much, or maybe the United States is in some fundamental way more robust than it initially appears.
Mike Berkowitz: Again, I go back to my earlier comment about the proper level of alarmism. I do think we should be alarmed. I think one of the things that we have learned over the last four years is that a lot of the things that we thought were law in this country are actually normative. They’re customs. And so when you have leaders who feel no adherence to those norms or customs there at the moment is nothing preventing them from violating them. And they’re very important for the functioning of our democracy, right? For instance, the division between the White House and the Department of Justice and how they interact with one another, the president is not supposed to be telling the Department of Justice what actions to pursue and what not to. And likewise, the Department of Justice is not supposed to be foregoing prosecution because the president wants them to. So that’s a normative area to which we have to pay some attention. And so I think that’s one reason for some measure of alarm, is that so much of what has made the United States a successful democracy is normative.
Mike Berkowitz: And we’ve just seen the first presidency in the United States — at least in my lifetime, one could argue about things that Richard Nixon and other presidents have done — that just threw many of those norms out the window. So that’s one reason to be concerned. The second related one is that American democracy is not an inevitability. Which is to say the institutions don’t just protect themselves, they need people to stand up and protect them. This was, I thought, one of the more interesting debates of the last four years. Your question was, well, do we really have to be worried? Do we really need to fight for these institutions when they’re so much more robust than in other countries that are facing democratic decline? And the answer I think very clearly and obviously is yes. We have institutions that are really important for the functioning of democracy, but they don’t fight for themselves. You actually have to proactively work to sustain them. So that’s another reason I think that we should have some measure of…
Robert Wiblin: Not be complacent.
Mike Berkowitz: Yeah, not be complacent. And I guess the last thing I’ll say here is that I think it’s clear that the exceptionalism that one might have ascribed to the United States in previous eras is not quite accurate. That many of the forces that we have just very obviously witnessed in other countries — whether it is restrictions on media, or not having free and fair elections, or the rise of sectarian violence — I mean, we’re seeing those things in the United States now, in ways that we just had never imagined would be problems here. And so it’s another reason why I really don’t think we should be complacent or think that we’ll get by without fighting for democracy. Now, the thing that gives me hope is that we are a really dynamic country. We have a robust civil society. We have a very generous philanthropic sector. We have agency on these issues and we’re just getting started trying to solve them. But that agency has to be leveraged. We actually have to do the work in order to make it happen.
Robert Wiblin: One take might be that the fact that the U.S. has managed to have continuity as a country for so long shows something fundamental about the United States, that it has allowed that to happen. Another thing would be, well, there’s been a lot of countries over the last 230 years and some of them are going to get lucky again and again and again, and it could just be that the United States has repeatedly kind of skated by, almost had major problems, but then made it through. And that was going to happen to a country, but you’re going to get regression to the mean and it’s luck may run out at some point. And so you shouldn’t be too cocky I suppose.
Mike Berkowitz: There’s a lot of analogies that people make historically to other societies, democratic societies of some variety that have declined. The Roman Republic, the Weimar Republic… I think those historical lessons offer a lot. They tell us a lot about deep structural trends, and I think we need to learn from those. The thing that I think gives us some opportunity here is that we can learn from them. And in that sense, I don’t think anything’s inevitable. We should understand that the trends are deep and structural. It’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to happen in one, two, three, or four years. But we actually can learn the lessons from the past, and we can respond accordingly. And I think that at least gives us a fighting chance at overcoming some of what we might otherwise think are kind of inevitable historical processes.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. What specific lessons do you take away from these historical analogies or these analogies from other countries in the 20th century that maybe guide your thinking or prioritization?
Mike Berkowitz: Well, some of them we’ve talked about already, for instance, when you see the rise of populist leaders, you need to figure out ways to marginalize them rather than trying to co-opt them or think you’re co-opting them when in fact they’re co-opting you, that’s one. I think recognizing as a society when you are kind of reaching a certain level of decadence, when people aren’t as concerned with or connected to politics, in a sense. Here, I don’t mean people not paying attention to national politics, but not engaging in local politics. You need some course correction there. I think we also have to understand that what the United States is doing is historically unprecedented. There really aren’t any other examples of a country that is trying to build an inclusive multi-ethnic democracy. We’ve seen multi-ethnic countries that are held together through the use of power. I think of the Sunnis and Shias in Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, as one example. We’ve seen some unequal or non-inclusive multiethnic societies where one ethnicity or race has much more power than another. That’s the way the United States has been.
Mike Berkowitz: We’ve been a kind of non-inclusive and certainly unequal multi-ethnic democracy for some time, but we’re now moving into this period where there is going to be shared power across racial and ethnic lines. And that is just, it’s an incredible promise. It’s one of the things that I think is most exciting about America and about American democracy, and it offers all sorts of challenges that are deeply ingrained in human societies. And so I think that is another thing that we need to understand is there are the lessons from history, and then there’s also the disjunctures. And unfortunately there aren’t a whole lot of great examples of countries doing anything along the lines of what we’re talking about here. There are some very kind of small examples for instance, where a majority ethnicity gave up power to another ethnicity or other groups in aggregate, but there’s not a lot of great historical analogies there. And so I think understanding this as also novel and new and grappling with the realities of that transformation is also really key.
Charitable giving [01:48:13]
Robert Wiblin: So let’s push on from this discussion of what people can do in general, to thinking about what listeners might specifically be able to do in light of all of this. If I were a listener and I had $1 million that I was hoping to give away in order to improve American democracy and preserve America’s future… Perhaps I’d like to ensure that, say, the U.S. has a fair election in 2032. What sort of things would you suggest that I fund?
Mike Berkowitz: I’d mostly look at the state level. I think, again, there’s so much attention, as we’ve been talking about, in national politics, and that includes within philanthropy. But you can get a lot more done at the state level. If there were one thing that I would probably put resources towards right now, it’s something I alluded to earlier, which is building support among Republicans for voting rights and other democracy-related reforms. I just think that that is unfortunately the main division that we have right now, that’s harming democracy. And I think there are ways actually to bring Republicans into the fold. And it’s really a necessity to do. There are groups, for instance, one at the state level called the Voting Rights Lab, which is really doing that. They’ve been working the last few years to build Republican support. That played out in some helpful ways last year, and is also helping in some key respects in the current battles that are going on.
Mike Berkowitz: There are also, as we talked about, other opportunities at the state level, for instance, through ballot measures. So putting money into a ballot measure campaign to expand certain voting rights or to implement some of the kinds of reforms that we’ve been talking about, as well as things like public financing of elections. There are a whole host of reforms that one can do through ballot measure processes, and that’s a great place to spend money. I would also have, again, some humility that even with $1 million, there’s only so much that you can do to have an impact on these issues.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Are there any other specific groups that you’re currently recommending to people who you give advice to, that you could name here that people could potentially look into?
Mike Berkowitz: Sure. Look, there’s lots of great organizations that are working on a whole host of issues here. One other that I’ll raise right now is a group called Protect Democracy, which was created in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election with a realization that there are a set of challenges to a liberal democracy that we are going to be facing in this country. And we want to try to prevent it from becoming a more authoritarian or autocratic form of government. It was started by a number of lawyers from the Obama administration, and has since grown to be a truly cross-ideological organization. What I think is so powerful about what they’re doing is that they have been defending democracy in a set of ways, using the law in particular, that just wasn’t part of the agenda prior to 2016. We have always had organizations focused on ethics and transparency, but we’d never had organizations that were thinking about how an aspiring authoritarian could actually subvert American democracy in all sorts of subtle ways within the executive branch and outward.
Mike Berkowitz: Protect Democracy is expert at that. They’ve done a lot of work to really stop some of the worst abuses or potential abuses during the last few years, but they also recognize that this is a longer term challenge. And so all the kinds of issues that we’ve been talking about in terms of reform and in terms of how we sustain American democracy over the long term are the kinds of things that they have been and will be working on. And over the last four years, they had a major impact through their litigation, through getting sign-on on letters, to put pressure on the Department of Justice for instance, when the attorney general would step out of line on something. So they are a great organization that I would certainly point to. There’s a group called the Campaign Legal Center, which was founded by Trevor Potter, a former McCain staffer and a commissioner at the FEC, the Federal Elections Commission. I think he might’ve even been the chair.
Robert Wiblin: I think I recognize that name. He did a fantastic series of interviews and clips on The Colbert Report.
Mike Berkowitz: That’s right.
Robert Wiblin: I watched them again recently. I’ll put up links to those, if people want to entertain themselves, but sorry, go on.
Mike Berkowitz: Absolutely. Campaign Legal Center does a lot of legal work and advocacy for voting rights and other reforms to democracy. And I think they’re just a really critical player. There are a number of national organizations as well that are D.C.-based that work on a host of voting rights and racial justice issues, like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law… These are really critical institutions. In the social cohesion space, I’m a big fan of the One America Movement, which I mentioned earlier, which really brings people together in their communities to cross cut the standard political identities and actually do common projects that can create new attachments to one another and new identities.
Mike Berkowitz: And then a group called Over Zero, which was started by a woman named Rachel Brown, who had done a lot of work overseas on elections and political violence, and started to see a lot of the same concerns in the United States over the last few years, the same kind of warning lights that she had seen flash in other countries prior to episodes of violence, starting to flash red here. And so she’s been doing a lot of work to really help bring attention to political violence issues. Their particular focus is on the communications front. And so she’s been helping philanthropy and civil society organizations to understand these issues, to figure out how to message around them. They’ve actually got a great partnership in place with One America.
Mike Berkowitz: And then finally, I’ll reference a group called More in Common, which is actually U.K.-based, although they have work here in the U.S. and do work in a number of other countries, including France. Their first report in the U.S. was a piece that came out in 2018 called Hidden Tribes, which has really given a quite different look at the political landscape and how people fall in terms of their political beliefs. And it’s really informed… I mean, as we were talking earlier about the political landscape here, it’s really informed our thinking about what they refer to as the ‘exhausted majority,’ which is to say that there are many, many people in this country and they have different political leanings, and they’re not a monolithic block, but the majority of people in this country don’t fall into the progressive activist or traditional conservative camps. There’s a couple of other identities that they talk about on the extremes, but they really aren’t engaged political actors. What they are is tired of seeing the kind of bickering that they witness day in and day out and the lack of progress on a variety of issues.
Mike Berkowitz: And so that understanding has been really helpful for those of us who work in democracy to think differently about the American public. It can be very easy to get sucked into thinking, for instance, that Twitter is real life or that what many of us experience in our blue bubbles is real life when the reality is much more complicated than that. So that’s another great organization that I’d draw people’s attention to.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. That’s an amazing answer. Often I ask people who to donate to and they equivocate the answers, but you’ve just rattled off a whole bunch of organizations that we can link to there.
Mike Berkowitz: Well, I should say there are many other excellent organizations out there. These are just some that come to mind and provide, I think, a representative sample of the kinds of organizations that work across an array of issues in the space. And I’ve referenced others during this conversation, American Journalism Project, for instance, that I think are great as well.
How to shortlist projects [01:56:42]
Robert Wiblin: How do you go about shortlisting those projects? Is there maybe a research process that the network goes through where you look at the caliber of the people who are leading it, maybe what results they might be able to claim from the past, or whether their strategy makes sense? Obviously there’s probably a whole bunch of other organizations, some of which maybe you’ve looked into and have decided not to go out and actively recommend.
Mike Berkowitz: We as a network don’t make funding recommendations to our members, in the sense that we’re not saying this is the list of the best organizations, you should go fund them. But we do try to identify projects and efforts and organizations that we think are really exceptional and where we feel comfortable saying to a donor, if you give money to this organization, you can feel good about it. You can feel like your money is going to be well spent and that it will have an impact.
Mike Berkowitz: The way that we do that is largely through the development of personal relationships with organizations, as well as what I would describe as a network of trust. Which is to say when I talk to people… For instance, to come back to Protect Democracy… When I started to engage with them — and I’ve helped facilitate some of my clients and others through the Democracy Funders Network and otherwise to give to Protect Democracy and other organizations — but when I first engaged with them, part of what started happening is not only did I appreciate their strategy and their leadership and did I find it interesting, but I started to hear from people I trust about the organization.
Mike Berkowitz: It becomes very easy when you have these circles of trust, these networks of trust, to be able to rely on a collective chorus to validate your own judgments. Now, I have to be careful that we’re not all falling into groupthink here. We want to always, as we’re looking at organizations, we want to press them appropriately to make sure we understand what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, what reason they think that they’ll be successful. And even when we trust an organization, we may not always agree, but that’s okay. We feel like sometimes we’re going to have different views than the organizations, but at the end of the day, we need to place our trust in them. They’re the ones doing the work.
Mike Berkowitz: When we start to get more conflicting signals, then it gets a little hard. Sometimes someone I trust will say this is a great group and someone else might have more issues with it. That gets a bit more difficult. But otherwise I find that for the large majority of organizations, there’s actually a lot of agreement on who’s doing good work. And the other thing I guess I would say is there are some realms of this work where one can evaluate and one can look at short-term performance. For instance, there are a number of evaluations underway for organizations who did voter registration and voter turnout work in 2020, that really lends itself to that kind of evaluation and tracking.
Mike Berkowitz: You can see who you reached out to, who you touched through your campaigns, and you can see who actually voted. There’s a voter file and the data is there. There are a number of areas that we’ve been talking about that are just not susceptible to that kind of evaluation. So I tend not to put as much emphasis on metrics or short-term impact in areas where I don’t think those are quite meaningful. And instead, what I’m looking for is some version of progress, some progress in the direction of travel. You want to have some sense that there’s momentum building, that the organization has a strategy and is pursuing it. And it’s having some, even if they’re just outputs and not outcomes yet, that they’re at least moving or starting to move in the right direction.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I was going to say in what cases do you have the luxury of being able to just look at what a group has accomplished and you have a reasonably good measure of that? It sounds like things to do with voting specifically is where that happens, but maybe inasmuch as you’re trying to bolster local journalism or increase cross-party friendships it’s a little bit harder to measure. But I suppose you could try to measure friendships per dollar or something like that.
Mike Berkowitz: You can certainly do it with local journalism. You can track the existence of journalism in communities. You can track the number of publications, the number of reporters who are being hired, the number of stories. There are things there that you can certainly track, but in the journalism context, tracking revenue is also really key because of course that’s the entire problem. That’s the reason that they have gone away to such a great extent. So yes, there are a number of areas that do lend themselves to that kind of measurement.
Robert Wiblin: Which are the hardest projects to evaluate or to assess?
Mike Berkowitz: One category of them is really around advocacy and policy. On the one hand, you’ll often see organizations take credit for policy wins, and those that work on them should. But policymaking is also very idiosyncratic. You can have the best strategy on an issue and make no progress on it for a long time because there just isn’t a window of opportunity for action or reform. Sometimes that window of opportunity comes up without much warning and you need to be ready for it, and when you’re ready for it, and if you have good strategy and the right political relationships, then you can quite often actually be successful. But policy is so idiosyncratic that it’s one thing to take credit for bills that have passed or policies that have been implemented, but I certainly wouldn’t take anything away from an organization that had been doing that same work, but hadn’t had success, just because the window was not right for something to get done.
Mike Berkowitz: So policy is a big one. I do think, as you were noting, figuring out social cohesion as an area is really going to be difficult when it comes to actually measuring impact. I think it’s going to be a while before we have the most meaningful measurements in place. And I don’t know that they’re going to happen within organizations. They might happen across communities. They might happen through broader academic studies. I’m not sure yet what’s going to be most meaningful there, but I can say I don’t know that the number of people who came to a workshop that one organization did is a particularly meaningful metric. I mean good to know in terms of the scale of what an organization is doing now, but not entirely reliable or important in terms of the broader change there. Those are two areas. I do think across an array of things related to civic education or combating disinformation, there are some pieces of that work that will be measurable and some pieces that won’t, at least not easily and in short order.
Speaking to Republicans [02:04:15]
Robert Wiblin: You mentioned efforts to build support among Republicans, and I guess Trump supporters, for voting rights and democracy in general. What’s the pitch that these cross-partisan or Republican efforts make, in order… If I was being told all the time that these elections are a sham, my vote wasn’t counted, it’s all fake. Then it might be quite hard to convince me to trust the system and support voting rights. So I’m interested in what message they’re trying to adopt.
Mike Berkowitz: I would distinguish two things here. When it comes to voting rights at the moment, I actually think the project of convincing Republicans is less about the public or the Republican voting base and more about a set of Republican elites. So for instance state legislators, which is where a group like the Voting Rights Lab has had a lot of impact. Or we can think about election administrators or local election officials. One of the really interesting things last year was the Republican-elected election officials did not have any of the same qualms as national Republicans or even some of the state-level Republicans. They understood what they were doing. They knew that many of the reforms that had been implemented were good. They didn’t buy into the Trumpian hype about the election being stolen.
Mike Berkowitz: So it’s really at the elite level right now where I think we need to create more attachment. And some of that is… Look, because a lot of these issues have been housed in one way or another on the left, there just hasn’t been a lot of attempts to try to get Republican legislators, for instance, certainly not at the state level, to care about these things. And it’s almost an inevitability just based on the way our politics are weighed right now that if you don’t engage with them, you’re not going to find the way in.
Mike Berkowitz: There’s also a lot of message testing that’s happening right now to figure out how we talk about these things in ways that don’t turn off conservatives or Republicans. And this now is both at the elite level, but also among the public. One of the things that we learned last year through some of this message testing was, for instance, that when we talked about mail-in voting, that was a real trigger for folks on the right, as opposed to just talking about absentee voting. Absentee voting was very popular. They understood it. It was a thing we’d been doing for a long time.
Mike Berkowitz: And there are some subtle distinctions that one can draw between absentee voting and mail-in voting. But the point there is that the language was actually a barrier. Understanding how to talk about it in the right way was key. One of the other efforts last year that was really important and that we’re going to need to resuscitate, is the data on mail-in voting or absentee voting was pretty unequivocal in that it doesn’t help one party over the other. Last year, the turnout among Democratic voters was tremendous, it was enormous, but so was turnout among Republican voters. It’s clear that whatever the marginal difference was in that election between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, at the end of the day these reforms didn’t uniquely help the left.
Mike Berkowitz: So helping sort of puncture this idea that voting rights or an expansion of the voting population is inevitably going to help the left, that’s another way to bring the right into the conversation. When it comes to democracy more broadly, so when we’re not just talking about voting rights, that’s where I really do think we need efforts that are talking to conservative voters or Republican voters. And you have some non-(c)(3) efforts. Like in the 2020 election, Republican Voters Against Trump. There’s an effort now, the Republican Accountability Project, that is really trying to hold the Republican party’s feet to the fire around democracy.
Mike Berkowitz: And that’s really key because we do need to have conservatives. And I think we do. This is where I would argue that the conservative base is actually much better on these issues than one would think looking at the elites. I do think there is more attachment there, but it’s not enough. It may be enough to do a lot, not just politically, but in terms of saving democracy, but there’s still too many people on the right who are abandoning their attachment to democratic norms and institutions.
Robert Wiblin: If I were a big donor focused on this problem, one strategy I might consider adopting is just holding onto my money and then waiting, or looking around for politicians who are trying to get elected to office who just seem especially despicable, or especially disinterested in democratic values, and perhaps especially likely to support anti-democratic measures that might really roll back voting rights in a very meaningful way or liberal legal protections, and then just throwing my money at trying to make sure that they don’t get elected. Because once they’re elected, they’ve got a huge ability to promote their message. They’ve got all of this power that they can potentially use to undermine democracy. What do you think of that approach of just literally trying to support anyone who’s opposed to this, the worst candidates in the primaries or general elections, to try to edge them out?
Mike Berkowitz: Yes, taking off the hats that I wear through Patriots & Pragmatists or Democracy Funders Network, and just as someone who separately advises donors on their political investments, I would say absolutely. One should spend money to elect candidates who support democracy and spend money to oppose those who don’t. At the same time, we need to recognize the limitations of such a strategy. Limitation number one is political primaries, partisan primaries. You have to be able to get such a candidate defeated in an environment in which they’re often rewarded for their extremism. Which leads us to problem number two, which is both partisan gerrymandering and demographic sorting. I think it’s something like 80% of house districts in the United States are not competitive. Which means once you win the primary, whether you’re on the left or right, depending on the district, your chances of winning the general are essentially above 98%. They’re very, very high. It’s really in the primaries where you have to defeat such a candidate, and there are a number of reasons and a number of places in which that’s really difficult to do.
Mike Berkowitz: And the last piece here is we should also have some humility about how much money can do in certain environments. When I think about the 2020 election, I think a lot about Lindsey Graham’s Senate race, and I think a lot about Mitch McConnell’s Senate race. Those are two Republican politicians, who everything else aside, did a lot, I would say to harm American democracy over the last few years. They were certainly targets for Democratic strategists who wanted to defeat them. There was probably more of a sense in the community that Graham was beatable than McConnell.
Mike Berkowitz: So when you talk to really sophisticated folks, there weren’t a whole lot of them who were trying to defeat McConnell. Because I think they saw that as largely hopeless. But that didn’t stop some insane amount of money…I can’t remember the exact amount, maybe somewhere around $50 million being spent on Amy McGrath, who was his challenger, who lost by double digits. Likewise, Jaime Harrison, who ran against Lindsay Graham, just raised an astonishing amount of money and also went on to lose by double digits. We just have to have some humility that South Carolina is South Carolina, Kentucky is Kentucky and money only goes so far, not just in those places, but at the end of the day, money, despite the current populous moment, can have a lot of influence, but not necessarily always decisive influence.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah.
Patriots & Pragmatists and The Democracy Funders Network [02:12:51]
Robert Wiblin: Let’s talk a bit more about how your projects work, exactly. The Democracy Funders Network, was that started up in 2015 or 2016, and I guess how does it work internally in trying to make a difference?
Mike Berkowitz: The Democracy Funders Network actually grew out of Patriots & Pragmatists, which preceded it in early 2017. Patriots & Pragmatists, as I described earlier, was this effort to bring together people from a variety of political and disciplinary backgrounds to do some collective sensemaking about what’s happening in American democracy and what to do about it.
Mike Berkowitz: The core insight there was that because of the polarization in our politics that had really accelerated over the Obama years, there just were not a lot of places where people from different political backgrounds were getting together to talk. That’s actually a really key thing for saving democracy for some of the reasons that I alluded to earlier, and so creating that space was really important.
Mike Berkowitz: One thing I’ll say that differentiates Patriots & Pragmatists from some of the things that did exist is that we are not just a group for moderates. There certainly are moderates and centrists within the network, but it’s also a group that has true conservatives and true progressives and liberals.
Mike Berkowitz: That’s part of the value proposition, is that one should be able to be a real partisan for your side and still believe in American democracy and still be willing to work with people who are your political adversaries, because they’re not your enemies. We are actually part of a common project.
Mike Berkowitz: Part of what happened after we created Patriots & Pragmatists, I describe it as a cross-disciplinary space, and I should clarify that that means that there are people in philanthropy, funders and philanthropic professionals, there are civic leaders, there are scholars and opinion influencers, there are strategists and advocates and political operatives all within this network.
Mike Berkowitz: What happened was in creating this space, which was very hopeful and intellectually engaging and eye opening and gave a lot of us a sense of agency on these issues, was that more and more donors, as they over the course of the Trump presidency came to realize that the institutions don’t fight for themselves, that the issues that we have been as a society working on in other countries were actually problems here, they went to look for the spaces to engage with other funders, to engage with organizational leaders, to learn more about these issues. There really weren’t very many. And because Patriots & Pragmatists is really this cross-disciplinary space, we knew that there needed to be a funder network that could really do the work, that philanthropy needs to engage on these issues.
Mike Berkowitz: Which is to say, sometimes funders need to have conversations that really get into the weeds about an organization. Sometimes we have to be able to kick organizations out of the room to have those kinds of conversations.
Mike Berkowitz: We need to do relationship building specifically across funders. Even within the Democracy Funders Network… Democracy Funders Network is a cross-ideological group, and people are coming at it from a variety of different focus areas. You have the journalism funders and the social cohesion funders and the political reform funders. We’re trying to knit together a community in philanthropy that altogether is trying to repair the fabric, revitalize, re-imagine, protect, defend, do all of the positive things to American democracy to sustain it over the long term.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Is the model that all of the different participants go away and do their own research to try to figure out how they’re going to allocate their funds best and then share the information with everyone else? Then come together to discuss, to figure out what the best funding options are?
Mike Berkowitz: Yes, something along those lines. There are some funder network models where the network itself creates a set of organizations and says, these are the best ones. This is what everyone should be funding. We really focus much more on the learning aspect of what we’re doing.
Mike Berkowitz: Which is to say, because we think that the set of issues that we’re facing is so new, in a sense, in the United States, and because our grappling with them as a community is so new, that… Not to say that we don’t help funders with their philanthropic strategies. We do, I’ll come back to that, but we also think we need to be spending time understanding the problem or the problems.
Mike Berkowitz: We do a lot of programming for funders across issues like the information environment, so disinformation and local journalism, across authoritarian populism and how to combat it, across toxic polarization and social cohesion, around building a greater civic culture and expanding civic education around reform. What we’re doing is being a resource, so we’re in constant conversation with the groups in the space.
Mike Berkowitz: We field questions from funders. When we see a common set of interests or questions coming up, we’ll do some focused research and sometimes tool development and resource development for funders. For instance, the number one topic that donors have been asking me about since the election is disinformation, and we have been doing what we are calling a rapid issue brief for funders on this topic. So a quick and dirty research report over the last few weeks, where we’re really going to be trying to help funders understand what’s going on in the space, how they can choose to orient themselves on these issues, and some of the groups that they might fund. We’re trying to knit together a community.
Mike Berkowitz: We do this both through events, sometimes in person, currently virtual, as well as just creating connections among funders so that they can be sharing information with one another about the organizations they support, but also about their theories of change, their strategies, the ways that they think about these issues and the values that they bring to the table on them.
Robert Wiblin: Are there any projects that the DFN ended up funding that you think were especially successful, and it would be interesting to talk about?
Mike Berkowitz: Well, I won’t say that DFN itself, or as a pass-through, funded anything. Two areas that are related that I’ll touch on from 2020 that added up to both the civic miracle that I talked about earlier of the 2020 election itself, and also that prepared us for the aftermath of that election… Number one, when the pandemic descended on us in March, there was a mad scramble in philanthropy and in civil society, as there was in other fields, to figure out what this was going to mean for the election and how to prevent the pandemic from either leading to the election needing to be postponed or driving down turnout.
Mike Berkowitz: There was a big effort, and this really was led outside of the Democracy Funders Network. There was an initiative called the Partnership for Safe Voting that really drove a kind of aligned agenda within philanthropy to protect the elections, to expand temporary voting rights so that more people could vote by mail so that there were safe options for voting, etc.
Mike Berkowitz: Democracy Funders Network did a lot to help funders understand the key organizations that were working in that space and drive resources to them. We are thrilled at the outcome. There are some downsides there, I’ll say, before I come to the second part, which is that philanthropy wound up having to play a role in election administration itself for the first time in history. This was a function of greater need by all of the local election bodies.
Robert Wiblin: Just to be clear, you’re saying philanthropists were funding the operation of the election, like the existence of polling places and things. I saw that and I couldn’t believe it. I’m glad that it happened, but it’s crazy that this isn’t funded through tax revenue in my mind.
Mike Berkowitz: Yeah. There was a $400 million allocation that was in the CARES Act, which was the first major COVID relief bill to pass last year. The House then had another I think $1.6 billion in the HEROES Act, which was the second COVID relief bill that actually never made it to the Senate. Together with the $400 million, it would have equated to close to the number that experts thought would be needed for election administration.
Mike Berkowitz: But because that money wasn’t there, we really had to turn to private philanthropy in ways that I, to your point, hope we don’t have to do again. It was on the one hand, a great thing to see philanthropy step up to ensure that we could run elections smoothly, that new equipment could be purchased, that poll workers could be recruited and paid, etc. But it’s not a great thing for our democracy.
Mike Berkowitz: The second area that I feel good about, where DFN did a lot in terms of driving funder attention, was around potential post-election crises. We were thinking about all manner of crises that could have happened, including things on election day. If there had been violence, if there had been extreme examples of voter intimidation or suppression, if we’d seen widespread foreign interference to natural disasters… What happens if there’s a snowstorm in Philadelphia and Philadelphia has to close down a bunch of its polling places for a while? There were just a lot of potential crises.
Mike Berkowitz: Then all the way over to the kind of crisis that we did in fact face with the president refusing for some time to concede the election, and then even when he left office, saying that it was a fraudulent election. There was a lot of really careful planning that went into that. There’s been some writing on it.
Mike Berkowitz: For instance, there was an actually not great Time magazine piece by Molly Ball on this a few weeks ago that talked about it in really conspiratorial terms, which I find ironic considering the entire point was to prevent conspiracies from overturning the election. It was a cross-ideological effort in ways that I find really heartening. It wasn’t just the left getting together and saying, we want to make sure that our guy actually gets into office. It was actors from across the political spectrum saying, regardless of who wins the election, the important thing here is to ensure that it’s free and fair and that the person who is duly elected becomes inaugurated on January 20th. That, I thought, was a really key effort.
There were lots of parts of it that weren’t needed at the end of the day. there had been plans for mobilization if Trump had really tried to overturn the election or had brought law enforcement into the mix, but that wasn’t necessary. Instead, we were able to celebrate the election, and also hold firm at the various checkpoints along the way, where a really determined actor could have gone further than Trump did to try to overturn things. I feel really good about that set of work.
Robert Wiblin: Are there any projects that people in the DFN say, “I wish that someone was doing X, because I would be really keen to fund that”? I’m thinking maybe that perhaps a social entrepreneur or someone who has a strong drive in the audience might be able to start a project and then get funding from people who are involved in DFN.
Mike Berkowitz: Great question. I wouldn’t say that there are a lot of obvious gaps in this space, and I want to be clear about this because I think on the one hand, I really think the need for political and civic entrepreneurship is great. It is powerful when people start organizations that are filling gaps or pursuing visions that they have in the country. I think that’s a real strength of American democracy. The ironic thing about the last four years is that it has been one of the most active periods of civic entrepreneurship in the country’s history. I think that’s wholly a good thing.
Mike Berkowitz: On the other hand, there are a lot of organizations, and the inevitable thing that happens after a period of entrepreneurship is a period of consolidation. I was around in the 2003 to 2005 and 2006 era when a lot of new organizations were started, particularly on the left, some in response to the reelection of George W. Bush. Those organizations, many of them still exist, and many of them wound up closing or merging, and that’s just an inevitable process.
Mike Berkowitz: I would hesitate a little bit to say there’s a lot of gaps and people should go after them. What I would say is the area where I think there’s the least clarity about what to do really is around mis- and disinformation, and in particular disinformation. The one thing that I have always, for over a decade now, heard people talk about, and there are some folks who have been working on it and some folks coming at this with new lenses, I’m sure, is what to do about Fox News, and now one might bucket in Newsmax and OAN into that as well. These broadcast platforms that are highly partisan, but that have huge audiences and huge audience loyalty within them. They’re a real problem in terms of warping the public’s perception, or a portion of the public’s perception, about American democracy.
Mike Berkowitz: Likewise, when we think about disinformation and we think about it in the context of social media, what to do, not just about how to track disinformation, but how to slow it down and how to not have it ingrain itself into people’s brains in the ways that say the QAnon conspiracy theory seems to be doing. That’s maybe one of the areas of opportunity right now. I think figuring out how to not let half of our population fall under the sway of completely ungrounded conspiracy theories would be a huge advancement. There’s not a lot of clarity on how to do that right now.
Robert Wiblin: I know you’ve got to run away in just a second. One last thing I wanted to ask about is Patriots & Pragmatists, as you said, was this rainbow coalition of people who had very different views. Sometimes strongly conflicting views, and it wasn’t something where people were going to be wishy-washy and pretend that they didn’t disagree. How did that experience go, in general, trying to get people who had very different views to cooperate and collaborate, and hopefully maybe even be friends? Were there any times when it was difficult for you? Where it was potentially confronting to work with someone who you actually fundamentally disagree with on many things?
Mike Berkowitz: Never. In part, because the people that I’ve met on the right… We’ve talked about the writer David French, for instance, who I probably can’t think of too many people that I know who I have more political disagreements with, but David is an extraordinary person and an extraordinarily thoughtful person and is extraordinarily thoughtful about questions of American democracy. We’ve both found lots to discuss. We’ve found lots to debate, but we also just know that whatever we’re doing in conversation with one another, it’s in good faith and it’s among good people. There are a lot of people on both sides of the aisle who, we might instinctively think for one reason or another are not great people, who really are. I think when you get to know folks on a personal level, it does make it easier.
Mike Berkowitz: I have not had any problems in that regard. In fact, I would say it’s been really eye opening and refreshing. I think this is true, both for people on the left and on the right. In part, because it can be really stifling to be within a political community where everyone thinks the same as you and is focused on the same things. Just to hear the way that other people talk about a set of issues or to push back on you, can be really intellectually engaging and really fulfilling. I think that’s been part of it.
Mike Berkowitz: For the conservatives in Patriots & Pragmatists, these are folks who are clearly being dislocated from the Republican Party right now, because unlike many of their compatriots in the party, they do care about democracy. They are concerned with what’s going on. They don’t think the election was stolen. They don’t think we should be rolling back people’s voting rights. They do think racism is a problem in American society. They’re in this very odd moment where their tribal loyalties are shifting. That affects their personal relationships, their professional standing, and I think to be in a welcoming community of people who understand to some extent that political dislocation, I think has been really empowering for them.
Mike Berkowitz: The last thing I’ll say here is I think the reason this works is because we are in a political transformation in our country right now. We’re in a transformation that I don’t think any of us have any real clarity on how it’s going to shake out. This is not just about democracy, but it is about our political alignments. It is about how we think about these issues. Again, my agenda is not to get Republicans to think more like Democrats or Democrats to think more like Republicans. By and large, I think that people have stayed true to their deeply held political beliefs. But we also do see some ideological dislocations taking place.
Mike Berkowitz: Conservatives, in some cases coming to feel, for instance, that race really is a bigger issue in the United States then they realized, or on the left, us coming to realize that the aggregation of executive authority within the president can have some benefits when you’re the party in power, but some really bad things for the system when you’re out of power. Therefore, we need to take the balance of power between Congress and the presidency and the aggrandizement of political power within the executive branch much more seriously.
Mike Berkowitz: I think those are just early manifestations of a transformation that is underway, that we just, we’re not going to understand for a number of decades. Here’s where my background in history comes in, is we need to think historically, to understand that we’re living through history and also that we’re not really going to understand what that looks like or how it’s likely to play out for a number of decades.
Robert Wiblin: My guest today has been Mike Berkowitz. Thanks for coming on The 80,000 Hours Podcast, Mike.
Mike Berkowitz: Thanks for having me.
Rob’s outro [02:32:58]
In case you missed it, we just launched a new podcast feed that might be useful to you and people you know.
It’s called ‘Effective Altruism: An Introduction’, and it’s a carefully chosen selection of ten episodes of this show, with various new intros and outros to guide folks through them.
Basically, as the number of episodes of this show has grown, it has become less and less practical to ask new subscribers to go back and listen through most of our archives.
We’ve got over 200 hours now, and that number’s only going up.
So naturally new subscribers want to know… what should I listen to first? What episodes will help me make sense of effective altruist thinking, and otherwise make the most of the show today?
We hope that ‘Effective Altruism: An Introduction’ will fill in that gap. If you’ve joined us in the last year or two and haven’t had a chance to go through our older episodes, it might be just what you didn’t know you were looking for.
Across the ten episodes Keiran and I picked out, we cover what effective altruism at its core really is, what folks who are tackling a number of well-known problem areas are up to and why, some more unusual and speculative problems, and how we and the rest of the team here try to think through difficult questions as clearly as possible.
Of course, as is usual for our interviews, there’s all sorts of other eclectic topics thrown in as well to keep things spicy.
Like 80,000 Hours itself, the selection leans towards a focus on longtermism, though other perspectives are covered as well.
Another gap it might fill is in helping you recommend the show to people, or suggest a way to learn more about effective altruist style thinking to people who are curious about it.
If someone in your life wants to get an understanding of what 80,000 Hours or effective altruism are all about, and prefers to listen to things rather than read, this is a great resource to direct them to.
You can find it by searching for effective altruism in your podcasting app, or by going to 80000hours.org/intro.
We’d love to hear how you go listening to it yourself, or sharing it with others in your life.
Of course there’s other introductions to effective altruist flavoured thinking out there too.
Will MacAskill’s book Doing Good Better is a good one, and naturally there’s an audiobook version, though having been written in 2014 it’s a little dated now and focuses much more on charitable giving and global poverty than we do.
Toby Ord’s The Precipice covers a lot of similar material, though it’s exclusively about threats to humanity’s future, and has less to say about what listeners might do to take action.
There’s our 80,000 Hours Key Ideas page which is faster to read through, but can’t offer the same subtlety you can get over the course of ten real conversations.
Oh and there’s a range of other written and audio resources you can find at effectivealtruism.org.
So, bottom line, we hope you like ‘Effective Altruism: An Introduction’. You can let us know what you think by emailing [email protected] If things go well we may make an advanced course or other similar resources in future.
The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering by Ben Cordell.
Full transcripts are available on our site and made by Sofia Davis-Fogel.
Thanks for joining, talk to you again soon.