Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong pleads guilty to illegal assembly


“But I am persuaded that, neither prison bars, nor election bans, nor any other arbitrary powers would stop us from activism. What we are doing now is to explain the value of freedom to the world.”

Wong was not a leading figure in last year’s pro-democracy and anti-China protests, but his continued activism has drawn the wrath of Beijing, which sees it as a “black hand” of foreign forces.

He disbanded his pro-democracy group Demosisto in June, just hours after China’s parliament passed a sweeping national security law for Hong Kong, punishing anything Beijing considers as subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, with up to life in prison.

His long-time activist colleague Agnes Chow has already pleaded guilty to charges related to the same June 2019 protest, while Ivan Lam, another former Demosisto colleague was also expected to plead guilty.

Wong also faces charges of participating in an unauthorised assembly in October 2019 and on June 4, 2020 over a vigil commemorating the crackdown on protesters in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

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Earlier this year, Wong was disqualified along 11 other pro-democracy politicians and activists from running in a since-postponed election for the city’s legislature.

Wong spent five weeks in jail last year for contempt of court, before being released on June 16 when protests were already in full swing.

Wong’s and other activists’ repeated arrests have drawn criticism from Western governments who say China is not fulfilling its obligation to allow Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy, agreed with former colonial master Britain when the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

China denies the accusation and says Hong Kong is its internal affair.



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Is American democracy suffering from an overload of politics?


The polls tell us that roughly a third of all U.S. citizens believe — wrongly — that U.S. president-elect Joe Biden’s victory was achieved through fraud.

That finding is more alarming than surprising. Trust in the federal government dipped below 30 per cent among Americans at the beginning of this century and has only declined since then.

Canadians, meanwhile, have much more trust in their governments and public institutions. So what explains the difference?

Political scientists on both sides of the border say the current U.S. crisis of trust is partly the consequence of a system that permits partisanship to run wild in the name of unfettered democracy.

An independent election authority, a non-politicized judiciary and a non-partisan media might all be pillars Americans could cling to to keep from being sucked deeper into a vortex of mistrust and dysfunction.

But there are no such handholds, say experts — since the bodies that administer elections, the media that report on them and even the judges that may ultimately decide them are now all associated with one party or the other. So are the prosecutors who might bring charges in cases of malfeasance or fraud.

“The solution to the problems of democracy is more democracy,” said American philosopher John Dewey. But a lack of institutions that all Americans can agree to trust is showing the limits of that notion.

Constitutional experts say Canada has always had a lot less raw democracy than the United States — but may do a better job of actually implementing voters’ wishes.

Top-down or bottom-up

“Authority flows in two diametrically opposed directions” in the two countries, said constitutional expert Philippe Lagasse of Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

“In the United States, since its founding, sovereignty, authority, politics have very much flowed from the bottom up. That seemed to be a far more democratic system, and it’s seen as one where people have more influence over certain decisions and you’re able to have referenda, binding term limits, election of different office-holders.

“Whereas our system is much more top-down. We have, federally, one body that’s elected, the House of Commons, and every other office effectively is appointed or contractual.”

Americans can vote for everyone from the president to local sheriffs and dog-catchers. Canadians can only vote for their local representative. 

Consequently, says Lagasse, “in the United States, large numbers of offices that would be neutral — or should be neutral — are elected offices. We rely on apolitical office-holders to make these decisions.”

A supporter of President Donald Trump holds a sign during a rally in front of City Hall in Dallas, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. (LM Otero / Associated Press)

3,000 systems

No one personifies that apolitical role in Canada more than the chief electoral officer, who is empowered to spend whatever it takes to conduct elections and only has to account for the budget afterwards.

Jean-Pierre Kingsley served as Canada’s chief electoral officer for 17 years.

“Their system was set up by their Founding Fathers, whom they revere, and it’s very difficult for Americans to change this system,” said Kingsley. “They thought that by diffusing authority throughout the land, they would be able to prevent any kind of fooling around with the system.

“The effect of that is that you get 50 different laws, but you also get 3,000 different election authorities, because the elections are run at the county level.”

Kingsley said the system provided more opportunities for politicians and parties to put their fingers on the scale during elections — as southern states did through a century of Jim Crow voter suppression tactics following the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment that gave African-Americans the vote.

“The appointment of the officials that are responsible is done through the political network, and we see this being used by the president right now,” he said. “If the electoral authorities were appointed by Democrats, he’s making comments about that.”

Awash in money

The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics estimates that candidates and outside groups spent $18.4 billion Cdn on this U.S. election cycle.

The total spent by parties on Canada’s election last November was somewhere in the range of $75 million. So the U.S., with nine times Canada’s population, has nearly 250 times as much election money sloshing around.

The decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2009 case of Citizens United v. the Federal Elections Commission gutted a 2002 law that sought to reform campaign finance, using the argument that campaign money is protected political speech.

In his dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens warned that the decision “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation … A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.”

“If the system doesn’t control the money, then the money controls the system,” said Kingsley.

Supporters of President Donald Trump cheer as his motorcade drives past a rally of supporters near the White House, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

Billions for ads, peanuts for elections

Spending limits for parties and candidates in Canada are imposed by the bureaucrats at Elections Canada, based on a standard mathematical formula.

Kingsley points to the billions of dollars spent by candidates, Super PACs and outside groups in the U.S. and contrasts it with the often miserly budgets given to local authorities who have to administer an election during a pandemic.

“They’re caught having to go and ask for additional money and so on,” he said. “If the lines are long, the lines are long. They can’t afford to open more polls. People just have to wait in line for five, six or 10 hours.”

All that inconvenience has an effect. The turnout in the recent U.S. election was 66 per cent — the highest turnout in a century but still below the average turnout for federal elections in Canada.

Lines on a map

Jonathan Rodden, a political scientist at Stanford University in California, is an expert on gerrymandering — the practice of drawing election maps to favour one side over another.

“I draw a lot on comparisons with Canada in my work,” said Rodden, “to think about what might we get if we had a Canadian-style commission, as opposed to what we get when we have districts drawn up by self-interested incumbent politicians.”

He notes that in both Canada and the U.S., urban voters skew progressive and rural voters skew conservative. But in the U.S., political parties use redistricting as a wedge to drive those two solitudes even further apart and give themselves an advantage.

He said Pennsylvania — ground zero for the recent post-election chaos — is a classic example of a GOP gerrymander, in which the goal is “to stuff as many Democrats as possible into as few districts as possible.”

The Democrats have played similar games in states like Maryland and Illinois (though less effectively).

Strange bedfellows

Rodden said Cincinnati is an example of a city where gerrymandering has combined with racial politics to produce an outcome that appears intended to deprive African-American voters of electoral clout. Ohio Republicans split the city in two and attached each part to a suburban hinterland, he said, producing two GOP-leaning districts and effectively nullifying Cincinnati’s heavily black Democratic majority.

And Republicans have sometimes found allies among incumbent Democrats who want to create districts they can’t lose, Rodden said.

“There can be strange incumbent bedfellows in that process,” he said.

Rodden said U.S. voters tend to dislike seeing state legislators draw up federal election boundaries and have voted to replace the partisan system with bipartisan or citizen commissions on several occasions when the topic has come up through ballot initiatives.

Canada already has an independent body drawing electoral boundaries.

“Our system is less susceptible to partisan influence in the drawing of those boundaries,” said Lagasse, “and this is in keeping with the Canadian tradition of neutrality of the civil service.”

Powers that aren’t separate enough

The confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court again revealed the all-too-narrow wall that separates the American judiciary from the other two branches of government.

Like many nominees, Barrett — widely seen as arch-conservative — spent much of her confirmation hearing sidestepping questions about her political views. The 6-3 partisan split on the U.S. Supreme Court is hardly a state secret.

In a recent speech to the Federalist Society, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito waded even further into politics while discussing his dissent in the ruling that legalized gay marriage.

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, shown with other justices at the White House on July 23, 2019. (Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press)

Nowadays, he claimed, “you can’t say that marriage is a union between one man and one woman. Until very recently, that’s what the vast majority of Americans thought. Now it’s considered bigotry.”

(Of course, the First Amendment protects Americans’ rights to say anything they want about marriage.)

Alito also used his speech to attack five senators, all Democrats.

So it’s not hard to see why many Democrats doubt that a Justice Alito would rule impartially on the outcome of the 2020 election, should he be called on to do so.

Meanwhile, the attorneys-general who run the justice system in individual states are even deeper in the political fray. For proof, just take a look at the “Lawless Liberals” ads run by the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA).

“If hurricanes Kamala and Joseph make landfall, the Republican attorneys general, as the nation’s ‘insurance policy,’ will defend America from complete annihilation,” said RAGA executive director Adam Piper.

Canadian judicial appointments are much less controversial — but this is one area where some experts say Canada is slipping toward a more partisan approach.

The federal government is currently defending its nomination process in court from allegations that it gives politicians too much discretion — a concern voiced just two weeks ago by the Canadian Bar Association.

But Canada’s system of appointments is still a far cry from what’s in place in the U.S., where 90 per cent of state judges must run for office.

“Some might see that as less grassroots, but there’s wider public trust [in Canada] that these office-holders view their jobs in terms of the public interest, as opposed to advancing the perspectives of a particular subset of the population,” said Lagasse.

“This effort to constantly devolve decisions down to the grassroots seems more democratic, but it ultimately ends up having nefarious effects on your politics. It allows smaller groups of people to take hold of nominations of candidates. And similarly, this decision to replace the vast majority of the executive branch with every change of chief executive does not bring stability to the system.

“But primarily — and paradoxically — this constant effort to devolve power has actually left people dissatisfied. Strangely enough, in our system, we centralize power but we end up with governments that can do things, that can provide for people, and it creates more public trust.”



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Adityanath govt, Centre ‘murdering’ constitution, democracy: Newly-appointed UP BSP chief


By: PTI | Ballia |

November 16, 2020 5:21:57 pm





Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath

Newly-appointed Uttar Pradesh BSP chief Bhim Rajbhar on Monday accused the Yogi Adityanath government and Centre of “murdering” the country’s Constitution and democracy.

He claimed that Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati will become the chief minister of the state after winning the 2022 Assembly election.

Addressing BSP workers at the party office in Phephana, Rajbhar attacked the BJP government over the “deteriorating” law and order situation in the state and claimed that anarchy was prevailing everywhere.

“Almost everyday, there is murder, loot and incidents of rape. This proves that the rule of law in the state has ended”, he said.

Rajbhar said the people of Uttar Pradesh are now looking towards BSP chief Mayawati as an alternative because the party believes in taking along every section of the society.

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Why Obama Fears for Our Democracy


Barack Obama was describing to me the manner in which the Mongol emperor and war-crimes innovator Genghis Khan would besiege a town. “They gave you two choices,” he said. “‘If you open the gates, we’ll just kill you quickly and take your women and enslave your children, but we won’t slaughter them. But if you hold out, then we’ll slowly boil you in oil and peel off your skin.’”

This was not meant to be commentary on the Trump presidency—not directly, at least. In any case, Obama has more respect for Genghis Khan than he has for Donald Trump. He raised the subject of Genghis Khan in order to make a specific, extremely Obama-like point: If you think today’s world is grim, simply cast your mind back 800 years to the steppes of Central Asia. “Compare the degree of brutality and venality and corruption and just sheer folly that you see across human history with how things are now,” he said. “It’s not even close.”

We were sitting at opposite ends of a long table in his office suite in the West End district of Washington. The offices were empty, except for a couple of aides and a discreet Secret Service detail. Obama was in a good mood, happy to discuss the work that has consumed him for more than three years: the writing of A Promised Land, his presidential memoir—or what turns out to be (because he has much to say about many things) the first of two volumes of his presidential memoir. The first volume’s 768 pages carry him from childhood to the bin Laden raid of 2011. A publication date for the next installment, which will presumably cover such issues as the Syrian civil war, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the Iran nuclear deal, has not yet been announced.

A Promised Land is an unusual presidential memoir in many ways: unusually interior, unusually self-critical, unusually modern (this is the first presidential memoir, I believe, to use the term ethereal bisexual to describe an unrequited love interest), and unusually well written. The book does suffer at times from a general too-muchness, and it has its arid stretches, although to be fair, no one has yet invented a way to inject poetry into extended explanations of cap-and-trade, or Mitch McConnell’s motivations.

We covered a lot of ground in our face-to-face discussion, which took place on Wednesday, and in a follow-up call on Friday. The broadest subject of our conversation was the arc of the moral universe: Does it still bend toward justice? Does it even exist? When Obama was elected 12 years ago, the arc seemed more readily visible, at least to that swath of the country interested in seeing someone other than a white male become president. But he now recognizes that the change he represented triggered an almost instantaneous backlash, one that culminated in the “birther” conspiracy that catapulted its prime propagandist, Donald Trump, to the White House.

“What I think is indisputable is that I signified a shift in power. Just my mere presence worried folks, in some cases explicitly, in some cases subconsciously,” Obama said. “And then there were folks around to exploit that and tap into that. If a Fox News talking head asks, when Michelle and I dap, give each other a fist bump, ‘Is that a terrorist fist bump?,’ that’s not a particularly subtle reference. If there’s a sign in opposition to the ACA in which I’m dressed as an African witch doctor with a bone through my nose, that’s not a hard thing to interpret.”

For Obama, though, the overarching story of America, and all humanity, is one of fitful progress—and nothing about the past four years has seemed to change his mind. Joe Biden’s election is proof that America moves forward; the persistence of racial animus and resentment-driven populism represents the difficulty of maintaining momentum.

Obama’s you-think-you-have-it-so-bad invocation of Genghis Khan was prompted by a passage I read aloud to him. It is a brief peak-Obama, “Ozymandias”-inflected passage about a visit to Egypt. Obama recalls brooding over a face of a forgotten figure etched into an ancient wall, a face that resembled his. “All of it was forgotten now, none of it mattered, the pharaoh, the slave, and the vandal all long turned to dust. Just as every speech I’d delivered, every law I passed and decision I made, would be forgotten. Just as I and all those I loved would someday turn to dust.”

I noted the presence in this passage of a kind of paralyzing self-awareness (“True,” he said), but he told me he included this rumination to make a point about the long view. “That scene of me going through the pyramids—it’s not an empty exercise; there’s a purpose to it. So much of whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic depends on the time frame,” he said, invoking the specter of Genghis Khan. He went on: “What I’ve always believed is that humanity has the capacity to be kinder, more just, more fair, more rational, more reasonable, more tolerant. It is not inevitable. History does not move in a straight line. But if you have enough people of goodwill who are willing to work on behalf of those values, then things can get better.”

Which brought him to his main point: “America as an experiment is genuinely important to the world not because of the accidents of history that made us the most powerful nation on Earth, but because America is the first real experiment in building a large, multiethnic, multicultural democracy. And we don’t know yet if that can hold. There haven’t been enough of them around for long enough to say for certain that it’s going to work,” he said.  

The threats to American democracy—and to the broader cause of freedom—are many, he said. He was withering on the subject of Donald Trump, but acknowledged that Trump himself is not the root of the issue. “I’m not surprised that somebody like Trump could get traction in our political life,” he said. “He’s a symptom as much as an accelerant. But if we were going to have a right-wing populist in this country, I would have expected somebody a little more appealing.”

Trump, Obama noted, is not exactly an exemplar of traditional American manhood. “I think about the classic male hero in American culture when you and I were growing up: the John Waynes, the Gary Coopers, the Jimmy Stewarts, the Clint Eastwoods, for that matter. There was a code … the code of masculinity that I grew up with that harkens back to the ’30s and ’40s and before that. There’s a notion that a man is true to his word, that he takes responsibility, that he doesn’t complain, that he isn’t a bully—in fact he defends the vulnerable against bullies. And so even if you are someone who is annoyed by wokeness and political correctness and wants men to be men again and is tired about everyone complaining about the patriarchy, I thought that the model wouldn’t be Richie Rich—the complaining, lying, doesn’t-take-responsibility-for-anything type of figure.”

Two issues that run deeper for Obama than Trump’s personal deficiencies concern the changes he sees in the Republican Party and the broader conservative movement. “I did not believe how easily the Republican establishment, people who had been in Washington for a long time and had professed a belief in certain institutional values and norms, would just cave” to Trumpian populism, he said.

He traces the populist shift inside the Republican Party to the election that made him president. It was Sarah Palin, John McCain’s 2008 running mate, he said, who helped unleash the populist wave: “The power of Palin’s rallies compared with McCain’s rallies—just contrast the excitement you would see in the Republican base. I think this hinted at the degree to which appeals around identity politics, around nativism, conspiracies, were gaining traction.”

The populist wave was abetted by Fox News and other right-wing media outlets, he said, and encouraged to spread by social-media companies uninterested in exploring their impact on  democracy. “I don’t hold the tech companies entirely responsible,” he said, “because this predates social media. It was already there. But social media has turbocharged it. I know most of these folks. I’ve talked to them about it. The degree to which these companies are insisting that they are more like a phone company than they are like The Atlantic, I do not think is tenable. They are making editorial choices, whether they’ve buried them in algorithms or not. The First Amendment doesn’t require private companies to provide a platform for any view that is out there.”

He went on to say, “If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis.”

We talked about much more: the Iowa caucus; Ta-Nehisi Coates; climate change; the art and science of presidential memoir-writing; Michelle’s views on race and optimism. It’s all below. The Q-and-A is long but, I think, useful, if only as a reminder of what a thoughtful president sounds like. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.  


1. The Cost of Donald Trump’s Petulance

Jeffrey Goldberg: How much of the death and destruction we’ve seen—over the past five or six months especially, after the beginning of the pandemic—do you blame on President Trump?

Barack Obama: This would have been a really hard thing to deal with for any president, and we’ve seen countries that have acted responsibly and taken the right steps and they’re still seeing an uptick, because we haven’t seen this disease before. This is a really well-designed virus to maximize damage. This is not as deadly as Ebola, it doesn’t transmit as rapidly, but it is just deadly enough that it takes a huge toll.

What I think is fair is to take a look at what’s happened in Canada, where they still have had big problems but their death rate per capita is about 61 percent lower than ours. There are a whole set of explanations around that—universal health care in Canada, and in some areas they may not have the same population densities. But it is a comparable country on the same continent.

There is little doubt that if we had had a White House that from the start had said, “Let’s follow the science, let’s take this seriously”—if they had reinforced the message coming from people like [National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director] Dr. Fauci and not politicized basic preventive measures like wearing masks, if they had not been intent on rushing the reopening and downplaying the severity of the pandemic across the primary channels that a big chunk of the country gets its news from—some lives could have been saved and we would have had better control of this.

It’s also fair to say that had we taken better steps to contact-trace and set up testing protocols earlier, it is likely that we would not have seen severe outbreaks everywhere and we might have been able to reduce the severity of the pandemic in certain portions of the country.

The good news is that Joe Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, was my point person on Ebola. He knows how to work on these big public-health issues, and they’ve already surrounded themselves with the right people who are going to be applying the very best science and technology and organizational measures to this problem. The vaccine looks hopeful. It’s going to be a challenge both distributing it and also overcoming some of the mistrust that has developed from misinformation and bad messaging early on. We’ll get through this. But we’re making it harder than it should be. It would have been hard no matter what, but we’ve made it harder.

Goldberg: Talk about the transition issues.

Obama: For all the differences between myself and George W. Bush, he and his administration could not have been more gracious and intentional about ensuring a smooth handoff. One of the really distressing things about the current situation is the amount of time that is being lost because of Donald Trump’s petulance and the unwillingness of other Republicans to call him on it.

2. Sarah Palin Brings Nativism and Conspiracism to Mainstream Politics

Goldberg: Let’s get to the book. What didn’t you know about your presidency until you started writing?

Obama: I have to say that when I came to the end of the book and I looked back, my views on my presidency were surprisingly consistent. When I started, I had a basic sense of trajectory of the presidency and the narrative I wanted to write, and during the course of it I didn’t find myself thinking, Huh, I didn’t think of that, or Gosh, upon reflection I feel this. The thing that did surprise me was the degree to which the undertow of resistance to the idea of my presidency dates back to Sarah Palin during the campaign, and emerges through the Tea Party all the way until the end of the book, which ends with the bin Laden raid.

Goldberg: This wasn’t clear during your presidency?

Obama: During that time we were so busy and so focused. I also think I very much internalized and believed that presidents can whine privately but not publicly.

Goldberg: Billionaires and presidents.

Obama: People are going through much more serious struggles than anything you’re going through. We had all internalized that idea. But when I wrote about the Joe Wilson incident, a congressman yelling “You lie!” in the middle of a joint address to Congress—

Goldberg: That was novel.

Obama: It had never happened. I remember our general attitude was “On to the next thing.” But as you’re writing, you think, Was that indicative of something that was building and growing? And I’m writing in the middle of the Trump presidency, and I’m seeing that many of the things that had happened in my presidency foreshadowed what would happen during the Trump presidency.

Goldberg: In the book it’s very clear that for you Sarah Palin was the first horsewoman of the apocalypse and Rick Santelli, the CNBC reporter who helped spark the Tea Party, was the second horseman. And then the cast grows.

Obama: At the time that it’s happening, you get a sense that this is a strain within the Republican Party or the conservative movement that has always been there. It dates back to the Birchers and elements in the Goldwater campaign, but you also sort of feel that all of this is behind us.

Goldberg: Your presidency was supposed to be proof in a kind of way that America was moving on.

Obama: Right. But what happened is that these things unleash or liberate some of that energy. The power of Palin’s rallies compared with McCain’s rallies—just contrast the excitement you would see in the Republican base. I think this hinted at the degree to which appeals around identity politics, around nativism, conspiracies, were gaining traction. As I was writing, the clarity of those patterns became more obvious.

A corresponding concern as I was writing was the realization that the structural impediments of the U.S. Senate and the filibuster in particular were preventing big things from happening and causing a cynicism to arise, a realization that even after a landslide victory in 2008, or in the midst of a huge crisis, it’s still really hard with big majorities to move a legislative agenda forward. This is something that, by 2011, we had overlearned, from [Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell’s behavior. It was hard to anticipate just how quickly McConnell and the Republican caucus in the Senate would shut things down and the degree to which that kind of obstruction for the sake of obstruction would become the norm.

Goldberg: I’m thinking about the moment when you had to demonstrate to [then–Democratic Senator] Max Baucus that [Iowa Republican Senator] Chuck Grassley was just not going to support you on health care no matter what you conceded to him.

Obama: By that time I had already figured it out. Max Baucus hadn’t yet figured it out. This is something I had understood before I started writing the book, but the examples kept coming as I was writing. The combination of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh—the entire right-wing media ecosystem—had changed the Republican base in such a way that Republican elected officials did not feel as if they could afford to cooperate with me or cooperate with Democrats. They couldn’t take anything less than a hard line; they had to tolerate conspiracy theorizing that they knew wasn’t true—obviously that’s pertinent today.

We’re looking at the aftermath of an election now in which Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won pretty decisively. It wasn’t a blowout, but it was as clear a win as I ended up having in 2012.

And almost every Republican elected official knows that. There were no howls of voting irregularities the first day or two. They waited to get the signal from Trump.

Goldberg: In The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum and others have been writing about the issue of complicity. I’m wondering what you think of people who are smarter than Donald Trump—Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, these sorts of politicians—and their role in all of this.

Obama: This is the thing that has surprised me the most over the past four years. Donald Trump’s character and behavior haven’t surprised me. This was all evident before the 2016 election. I didn’t expect him to significantly change.

I did not believe how easily the Republican establishment, people who had been in Washington for a long time and had professed a belief in certain institutional values and norms, would just cave. You think about John McCain: For all my differences with him, you would not have seen John McCain excuse a president cozying up to Vladimir Putin, or preferring Russian interpretations of events over those of his own intelligence agencies. And to see figures in the Republican Party do a complete 180 on everything they claimed to believe previously is troubling.

I’ve said this before: The problem facing the Republican Party, the conservative movement, whatever you want to call it, goes back to the attitudes of the base—attitudes that have been shaped by right-wing media. And so essentially what Republican elected officials have done is to say to themselves that in order to survive, we have to go along with conspiracy theorizing, false assertion, fantasies that Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh and others in that echo chamber have concocted, because people believe them.

Goldberg: In the book, you describe what Santelli did on CNBC—his call for a new Boston Tea Party—as “bullshit.”

Obama: You can tell if you watch it that it’s shtick. It’s no different than Celebrity Apprentice. It’s entertainment. Except what I noticed watching that clip at the time, and rewatching it as I was writing the book, is that the traders—he’s doing this shtick at the Chicago Board of Trade—the traders believe it. The sense of grievance, the sense that “we”—and define we however you want: white Americans, working-class white Americans, conservatives—“we” are the aggrieved party and that “we” are being victimized, that sense is notable. You have billionaires and CEOs starting to feel like they’re being victimized. And it was interesting to recognize how powerful that impulse was, how readily people would embrace this kind of aggrievement and anger, the resentment that Palin and Santelli were peddling.

So the Tea Party becomes a genuine manifestation of that. It’s rooted in very real frustrations that folks are having about stagnant wages and communities that are deindustrialized. Folks feel like the insiders are taking advantage of them, and there’s a sense of loss of status and identity. It was becoming apparent very early in my presidency that you could take anger and frustration and direct it in what I consider to be a pretty unhealthy direction.

3. Trump Is Richie Rich, not John Wayne

Goldberg: Have you explained to yourself the Trump phenomenon in such a way that doesn’t cause you to write off the Americans who voted for him?

Obama: I will say that I’m not surprised that somebody like Trump could get traction in our political life. He’s a symptom as much as an accelerant. But if we were going to have a right-wing populist in this country, I would have expected somebody a little more appealing.

Goldberg: Not a man-child?

Obama: Yes. If you think about populists from the past, someone like Huey Long—he wasn’t from the right; he was a classic populist, rooted in the earth; he knows the lives of the people he is rallying; he genuinely understands them. I guess I would not have expected someone who has complete disdain for ordinary people to be able to get attention and then the following from those very same people.

I guess I’m also surprised by, and this is not an original thought on my part—but I think about the classic male hero in American culture when you and I were growing up: the John Waynes, the Gary Coopers, the Jimmy Stewarts, the Clint Eastwoods, for that matter. There was a code. This is something I always emphasize. I may be African American but I’m African and American. This is part of me. The code of masculinity that I grew up with that harkens back to the ’30s and ’40s and before that—there’s a notion that a man is true to his word, that he takes responsibility, that he doesn’t complain, that he isn’t a bully; in fact he defends the vulnerable against bullies. And so even if you are someone who is annoyed by wokeness and political correctness and wants men to be men again and is tired about everyone complaining about the patriarchy, I thought that the model wouldn’t be Richie Rich—the complaining, lying, doesn’t-take-responsibility-for-anything type of figure.

I think that indicates the power of television in the culture that sometimes I miss because I don’t watch a lot of TV. I certainly don’t watch reality shows. And sometimes I’d miss things that were phenomena. But I thought there was a shift there. I write about it to some degree. I actually have great admiration for a lot of those traditions, what were ascribed to be masculine qualities. When you think about the greatest generation, you think about sacrifice.

Goldberg: A colleague of mine says that in some ways you’re a never-Trump conservative.

Obama: I understand that. There’s this sense of probity, honesty, responsibility, of homespun values, that I admire. That’s the Kansas side of me. My grandmother’s a stand-in for that. The folks we celebrate at Normandy, including my Uncle Charlie, who was a member of one of the units that liberated parts of Buchenwald, those were men who, whatever their limits, whatever their constraints in terms of their emotions because of what they were told they could and couldn’t feel and be as men, however their relationship with women was skewed by all this—they sacrificed for others. And they never bragged, and certainly they would never make cheating others or taking advantage of them a calling card. So I guess the answer to your question is, I’m not surprised there was a market for populism, not just in the United States but around the world. Globalism is—

Goldberg: You’re just surprised by the horse populism rode in on.

Obama: Yes, and it’s this indication of parts of popular culture that I’ve missed. It’s interesting—people are writing about the fact that Trump increased his support among Black men [in the 2020 presidential election], and the occasional rapper who supported Trump. I have to remind myself that if you listen to rap music, it’s all about the bling, the women, the money. A lot of rap videos are using the same measures of what it means to be successful as Donald Trump is. Everything is gold-plated. That insinuates itself and seeps into the culture.

Michelle and I were talking about the fact that although we grew up in very different places, we were both very much working-class, lower-middle-class, in terms of income, and we weren’t subject day-to-day to the sense that if you don’t have this stuff then you are somehow not worthy. America has always had a caste system—rich and poor, not just racially but economically—but it wasn’t in your face most of the time when I was growing up. Then you start seeing Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, that sense that either you’ve got it or you’re a loser. And Donald Trump epitomizes that cultural movement that is deeply ingrained now in American culture.

You mentioned earlier that I’m in some ways a never-Trump conservative. That’s not quite right, but what is true is that temperamentally I am sympathetic to a certain strain of conservatism in the sense that I’m not just a materialist. I’m not an economic determinist. I think it’s important, but I think there are things other than stuff and money and income—the religious critique of modern society, that we’ve lost that sense of community.

Here’s my optimistic view. This gives me some hope that it’s possible to make common cause with a certain strand of evangelical or conservative who essentially wants to restore a sense of meaning and purpose and spirituality … a person who believes in notions like stewardship and caring for the least of these: They share this with those on the left who have those same nonmaterialistic impulses but express themselves through a nonreligious prism.

When you look at the younger generation, Malia and Sasha’s generation, you see that more clearly. It’s more often articulated, what they want out of life. They’re much less likely to have a  need to be on Wall Street by such-and-such date. That is not how they seem to be defining themselves quite as much. That makes me more optimistic.

4. How Power Actually Works

Goldberg: I want to talk a bit about the writing, and writing choices. By the way, I went back and looked at Ulysses S. Grant and he definitely did not use the expression “ethereal bisexual’ in his memoir. I believe you’re the first president to use this expression—

Obama: Maybe the last.

Goldberg: I’ll let the readers of the book find the reference to an ethereal bisexual for themselves.

On writing choices, one of my questions has to do with the tremendous amount of contextualization you do, and specifically the way you contextualize your opponents. This book feels like a hinge between a distant political past and the political present. You generally represent your positions with restraint; you contextualize everything, including the positions of your enemies—you are actually nicer to your enemies than Trump is to his friends. Maybe this is just characterological, or maybe this is a choice to be “presidential” in your writing style? I’m thinking about this scene on your first Inauguration Day when you’re in the car with President Bush, people are jeering him, and you’re feeling sympathy for him.

Obama: There is no doubt that one of the themes of the book is me just wanting to hang on to who I am—my soul, my sense of right and wrong, my character—while operating at the highest level of politics.

Goldberg: This is the question of how any president stays human, given the absurd nature of the job.

Obama: There is the father, the friend, the husband. The title of the first section is “The Bet”—I’m making a bet first about the nature of America and the power of democracy, a belief that it is possible that a big, diverse, contentious, multiracial, multiethnic country can make its union a little more perfect and set an example for the world. And the second big bet is that I can participate in this process without being hopelessly corrupted. And so some of what you see in the book is me grappling with the inevitable choices and compromises that come up.

Goldberg: Starting with your first campaign—

Obama: Starting with my first political race, having to decide whether to try to knock someone off the ballot who had gone back on her word to me but at the same time didn’t have the signatures to run. This is a ballot-access issue. Signatures were used to help insiders stay on the inside—how do I feel about that? And this goes all the way to the end of the book, and to the end of my presidency.

Part of what you’re sensing here are times when I make decisions to be gracious, when I assume the best in people, not because I’m naive but because this is how I choose to operate in the world, because I think the world would be better if more people operated that way. Sometimes I fall short and am disappointed in myself, but at least I think it’s important to be anchored in ethics and morality and basic human decency in how you behave.

People during my presidency oftentimes had a misunderstanding of what the effect of wielding power is. They thought that bluster and being nasty somehow get more stuff done. And I remember parts of my presidency when my own base would get frustrated, at least among the intelligentsia. They would contrast me with Lyndon Johnson: “Even though he was a son of a bitch he got the Voting Rights Act passed,” and so on. “And that’s how you need to be, Obama, you’re too nice”—

Goldberg: Hyde Park law professor—

Obama: Yes, what have you. And not publicly, but privately, I would remind people that Lyndon Johnson got stuff done because he had the votes. Simple. FDR got stuff done when he had the votes. And the truth of the matter is that most of the time, what we think of as arm-twisting and brow-beating—what it really comes down to most of the time is: Do you have the votes? When you look at getting the Affordable Care Act passed, not just getting it through the Senate but then working with Nancy Pelosi to get House Democrats to pass a Senate bill that they thought was not progressive enough, I worked my caucus effectively, and not once did I grab someone by the lapels in an elevator or engage in a bunch of dirty tricks to get someone to do something.

It turns out that where I fell short in getting everything I wanted, it really comes down to the factors we’ve already discussed—the filibuster in place in the Senate, which meant you had to get 60 votes on everything. That was true in my first month in office. We had a huge and an obvious economic crisis, and we were able to squeak out a few Republican votes to get [the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] passed. And one of those Republicans, Arlen Specter, was chased out of the party for having voted for an emergency package that we know now Republicans didn’t ideologically oppose, because they just passed a $2 trillion relief package with a Republican as president.

Goldberg: There will be renewed Republican interest in deficits come January 21.

Obama: Absolutely. As I was writing the book, there wasn’t a time when I was reflecting back and thought that I was too nice here or there.

Goldberg: Should you have been caught trying more?

Obama: What do you mean?

Goldberg: Meaning, drinking with McConnell more often, working the opposition—

Obama: Look, this comes out more in volume two, and I will be more explicit on this, but take [former House Speaker] John Boehner for example. He and I had a perfectly good relationship, but he had to act a certain way for his caucus. He would badmouth many of them to me, in private. Much as John McCain did. The issue was never personal—Mitch McConnell is not buddy-buddy with anyone. I’m enjoying reading now about how Joe Biden and Mitch have been friends for a long time. They’ve known each other for a long time. I have quotes from Biden about his interactions with Mitch McConnell. The issue with Republicans is not that I didn’t court them enough. We would invite them to everything: movie nights, state dinners, Camp David, you name it. The issue was not a lack of schmoozing. The issue was that they found it politically advantageous to demonize me and the Democratic Party. This was amplified by media outlets like Fox News. Their voters believed this, and over time Republicans became so successful in their demonization that it became very difficult for them to compromise, or even be seen being friendly.

Goldberg: Charlie Crist in Florida is an example.

Obama: This happens very early. You asked me what surprised me when I wrote the book. I had forgotten how fast everything takes place here. I am sworn in, and within a month we pass the Recovery Act. In two to three months we had bailed out the auto industry; we had fixed the banking system so that it didn’t collapse. And I meet Charlie Crist, at the time a very popular Republican governor known for bipartisanship, and me shaking his hand and giving him a modified bro hug, it destroys him in the party. That was within a month of me being sworn in, at a time when my approval ratings were still around 63, 65 percent. I am, at that point, a very popular president in the midst of his honeymoon, and congratulating somebody, and just being polite and courteous to them. This is a person whose state is hemorrhaging, and he chooses to support an economic-bailout package that will save jobs and homes in his own state. He is immediately vilified and driven out of the party. And that’s the beginning of Marco Rubio’s career, going after Charlie Crist as a RINO, a “Republican in name only.”

And John McCain giving a standard platitude, saying, after an election, “I’m praying for President Obama’s success,” this gets an immediate rejoinder from Rush Limbaugh, which echoes through the conservative media-sphere. This notion that this stuff wasn’t baked in, that if I’d just had a few more scotches with Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan, that that would have done it …

5. What’s the Matter With Iowa?

Goldberg: It’s obvious from the writing that you have great enthusiasm for Iowa. It’s the state that really launched you, but it’s more than that. It’s a moment in time before we seem to enter a different phase of history, and it’s also, at least to my reading, a chapter about the last unalloyed good time you had in the run-up to the presidency and the presidency itself.

Obama: Iowa is this golden moment, when it feels the way you want politics, and the way you want America, to feel. I really enjoyed writing that chapter. It moved me. And Iowa still moves me. You’ve got this band of kids from every walk of life: Black kids from Brooklyn, Asian American kids from California, farm kids from the Midwest. We’re just dropping them off with a duffel bag or a suitcase in a bunch of little towns in Iowa—places that would very much be considered part of red America. And these kids set up card tables in front of grocery stores and go to Rotary Clubs, and they’re coaching Little League, and they just win over a town by listening and caring and making connections. And we ended up creating this movement that was premised on the idea of participatory democracy. It’s this movement that catapults me into being a credible presidential candidate.

Goldberg: Iowa subsequently went for Trump twice.

Obama: I don’t want to get cynical that fast. I won Iowa twice. I won Iowa when unemployment was still 8.5 percent, in 2012. And the demographics of Iowa have not changed. I won Iowa comfortably. This notion that somehow everything in this country has flipped—I think it’s more complicated than that.

Iowa was the last time I was able to interact directly with voters who might not immediately be predisposed to vote for me. The first time I did that was when I was running for the Senate. Downstate Illinois is like Kentucky or southern Ohio or Indiana or much of Iowa. And what I discovered in that Senate race—and this was repeated twice in Iowa—is that I could go into culturally conservative, rural or small-town, disproportionately white working-class communities and I could make a connection, and I could win those votes. The reason I could is that I didn’t have a filter between me and them.

The notion of me just being a decent person and courteous, and telling people my story and me listening to theirs—that was still possible in Iowa because it was all retail politics. That’s part of the irony to me, the idea of me not schmoozing enough in Washington. It probably is true that there is a certain Washington establishment that I didn’t give enough love to compared with the love I gave to people in Iowa. They reminded me of my grandparents and Michelle’s parents. There is an affinity that is there.

What I discovered post-Iowa is that you’re running nationally. It’s heady stuff, to be filling auditoriums of 20,000, 50,000 people.

Goldberg: You become this symbol.

Obama: This is what [David] Axelrod would call, dismissively, “Obama the icon,” because he knew that this was dangerous. What happens is that they see you through the dominant filters and news sources, and those news sources have changed. Even as late as 2008, typically when I went into a small town, there’s a small-town newspaper, and the owner or editor is a conservative guy with a crew cut, maybe, and a bow tie, and he’s been a Republican for years. He doesn’t have a lot of patience for tax-and-spend liberals, but he’ll take a meeting with me, and he’ll write an editorial that says, “He’s a liberal Chicago lawyer but he seems like a decent enough guy, had some good ideas”; and the local TV station will cover me straight. But you go into those communities today and the newspapers are gone. If Fox News isn’t on every television in every barbershop and VFW hall, then it might be a Sinclair-owned station, and the presuppositions that exist there, about who I am and what I believe, are so fundamentally different, have changed so much, that it’s difficult to break through.

I come out of this book very worried about the degree to which we do not have a common baseline of fact and a common story. We don’t have a Walter Cronkite describing the tragedy of Kennedy’s assassination but also saying to supporters and detractors alike of the Vietnam War that this is not going the way the generals and the White House are telling us. Without this common narrative, democracy becomes very tough.

Remember, after Iowa my candidacy survives Reverend [Jeremiah] Wright, and two minutes of videotape in which my pastor is in kente cloth cursing out America. And the fact is that I was able to provide context for that, and I ended up winning over a huge swath of the country that has never set foot on the South Side of Chicago and was troubled by what he said. I mean, that’s an indicator of a different media environment.

Now you have a situation in which large swaths of the country genuinely believe that the Democratic Party is a front for a pedophile ring. This stuff takes root. I was talking to a volunteer who was going door-to-door in Philadelphia in low-income African American communities, and was getting questions about QAnon conspiracy theories. The fact is that there is still a large portion of the country that was taken in by a carnival barker.

6. Tech Companies vs. Democracy

Goldberg: Is this new malevolent information architecture bending the moral arc away from justice?

Obama: I think it is the single biggest threat to our democracy. I think Donald Trump is a creature of this, but he did not create it. He may be an accelerant of it, but it preceded him and will outlast him. I am deeply troubled by how we address it, because back in those Walter Cronkite days—

Goldberg: Forget Walter Cronkite days; how about 2008 Iowa? I’m not sure that a person with your name and your background could walk into Iowa today and get a 10-minute fair shake.

Obama: It’s a pretty drastic change. Part of the common narrative was a function of the three major networks and a handful of papers that were disproportionately influential. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. You’re not going to eliminate the internet; you’re not going to eliminate the thousand stations on the air with niche viewerships designed for every political preference. Without this it becomes very difficult for us to tackle big things. It becomes hard for us to say, “Hey, we have a pandemic here; it’s deadly; it’s serious; let’s put partisanship aside; let’s listen to Anthony Fauci because he’s been studying stuff like this for a long time. We may not get everything exactly right, because science works iteratively, but let’s hew as closely as we can to the science. Let’s do what science tells us to do to save lives.” That becomes harder to do.

Goldberg: Do you hold the companies responsible?

Obama: I don’t hold the tech companies entirely responsible, because this predates social media. It was already there. But social media has turbocharged it. I know most of these folks. I’ve talked to them about it. The degree to which these companies are insisting that they are more like a phone company than they are like The Atlantic, I do not think is tenable. They are making editorial choices, whether they’ve buried them in algorithms or not. The First Amendment doesn’t require private companies to provide a platform for any view that is out there. At the end of the day, we’re going to have to find a combination of government regulations and corporate practices that address this, because it’s going to get worse. If you can perpetrate crazy lies and conspiracy theories just with texts, imagine what you can do when you can make it look like you or me saying anything on video. We’re pretty close to that now.

Goldberg: It’s that famous Steve Bannon strategy: flood the zone with shit.

Obama: If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis.

I can have an argument with you about what to do about climate change. I can even accept somebody making an argument that, based on what I know about human nature, it’s too late to do anything serious about this—the Chinese aren’t going to do it, the Indians aren’t going to do it—and that the best we can do is adapt. I disagree with that, but I accept that it’s a coherent argument. I don’t know what to say if you simply say, “This is a hoax that the liberals have cooked up, and the scientists are cooking the books. And that footage of glaciers dropping off the shelves of Antarctica and Greenland are all phony.” Where do I start trying to figure out where to do something?

7. What Genghis Khan Teaches Us About Life Today

Goldberg: Let’s stay on the subject of the optimism-pessimism continuum. I’m just trying to figure out where you are. Sometimes it’s confusing. You have this “Ozymandias” moment at one point. You’re visiting Egypt, you’re staring at this ancient etching of a face that looks something like you, and you write about the ephemerality of everything: “All of it was forgotten now, none of it mattered, the pharaoh, the slave, and the vandal all long turned to dust. Just as every speech I’d delivered, every law I passed and decision I made, would be forgotten. Just as I and all those I loved would someday turn to dust.”

I mean, putting aside the fact that this level of self-awareness can be paralyzing—

Obama: True.

Goldberg: —You’re also still what could be called a realistic optimist. You make it clear at the beginning of the book that you haven’t swerved from the belief that America is imperfect but perfectible, that there’s more good than bad in the American story, and that tomorrow can be better than today. But even with Biden’s win, how does Trump as a phenomenon change your view of what America is?

Obama: That scene of me going through the pyramids—it’s not an empty exercise; there’s a purpose to it. So much of whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic depends on the time frame. If you were looking across millennia, then humans have advanced. Read a biography of Genghis Khan, who led a superpower for a long time—they were a superpower for longer than America’s been around. You know, when they raided a town, they gave you two choices: If you open the gates, we’ll just kill you quickly and take your women and enslave your children, but we won’t slaughter them. But if you hold out, we’ll slowly boil you in oil and peel off your skin. Compare the degree of brutality and venality and corruption and just sheer folly that you see across human history with how things are now. It’s not even close.

Let’s take this particular golden age right after World War II, when America was unified but the rest of the world was in rubble. Every economic indicator was on an upward trajectory. Everyone’s life was improving constantly. But maybe things didn’t look as good if you were Black or a woman or a gay person. Things definitely look better now than they did in that golden era. A lot of what looks optimistic or pessimistic depends on what we’re measuring against.

What I’ve always believed is that humanity has the capacity to be kinder, more just, more fair, more rational, more reasonable, more tolerant. It is not inevitable. History does not move in a straight line. But if you have enough people of goodwill who are willing to work on behalf of those values, then things can get better. America as an experiment is genuinely important to the world not because of the accidents of history that made us the most powerful nation on Earth, but because America is the first real experiment in building a large, multiethnic, multicultural democracy. And we don’t know yet if that can hold.

There haven’t been enough of them around for long enough to say for certain that it’s going to work, but if it can work, that’s a good thing, because we’ve got almost 8 billion people on the planet, and because of all this technology, and because of the stresses and pressures of climate change, we’re going to be all up on one another. We have to figure out how to live together, and we have to figure out if we can do this free of caste systems and the inevitable conflict that the kind of social stratification that has existed for most of human history creates. That genie is out. We’re past the time in which some peasant in a feudal system is starving and looks up on the palace and there’s a king somewhere, and the peasant thinks, Yeah, that’s okay. Now all those peasants have phones and they can see how the lord of the manor is eating, and some of them are going to say, “Why him instead of me?” The willingness to accept one’s fate or lot in life because of your skin color or gender or religion or sexual orientation—that you are going to accept being less than someone else—that’s over.

Goldberg: There’s a small irony here. You write about the first year of your presidency, of keeping the pitchfork brigade at bay when they’re coming for the Jamie Dimons, for the leaders of the financial industry.

Obama: Yeah, and they weren’t that grateful.

I think it is possible to be optimistic as a choice without being naive, and that is how I’m built temperamentally. And Michelle, as I write in the book, tends to be a little bit more pessimistic about human nature—

Goldberg: Hawaii versus Chicago?

Obama: It might be. It might just be the way we’re wired.

You do raise something that connects to this question about whether we should feel pessimistic or optimistic, or how our system can function or not function in a global economy.

One of the things I was reminded of in writing the book was just how many of my earliest choices were premised on the very specific circumstances of being in a global financial meltdown and trying to avert a depression and the political costs I paid. I would probably make those same choices again, because averting a depression is a good thing. But it did hamstring me. For example, I actually think that it is entirely legitimate to push China much harder on trade issues. I didn’t come into office as a knee-jerk anti-trade guy, but if you looked at the facts, China consistently ran mercantilist policies that violated international trade rules to help build up their economy from the late ’80s through today. And if we hadn’t been going through a financial crisis, my posture toward China would have been more explicitly contentious around trade issues. But I couldn’t have a trade war in 2009 or 2010. At that point I needed the cooperation of China as well as Europe as well as every other potential engine, just to restart the global economy.

8. Is There a Moral Arc to the Universe, and Does It Bend Toward Justice?

Goldberg: I’ve been witness for a long time to your intermittent argument with our friend Ta-Nehisi Coates, the argument about whether the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, or whether there is even a discernible moral arc. Ta-Nehisi’s view, I think, is that if there is an arc at all, maybe it just bends toward chaos.

I’m still trying to place you on this optimism-pessimism continuum. When you were in the White House, it was easy for you to win the argument. We’re in the Roosevelt Room and you can say, “By the way, Ta-Nehisi, there’s a Black president.” But now, in the Trump era, it seems as if maybe Ta-Nehisi had more of a point.

Obama: First of all, I love Ta-Nehisi. I love his writing; I love him personally. He’s such a gracious, thoughtful, humble person. He’s a good-hearted person, very open-minded, trying to figure this stuff out. I think the world of him.

I think the dialogue he and I had is one I have with myself. Being optimistic doesn’t mean that five times a day I don’t say, “We’re doomed.” You would not be paying attention if you weren’t concerned about how in the heck we are going to get our act together in order to avert a climate disaster. How are we ever going to figure out how to do a true accounting of the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow and segregation, and truly provide equal opportunity to the tens of millions of kids trapped in poverty across this country? You can’t just blithely say, “Oh, we’ll figure this out” without taking a look at all the institutional, economic, structural, and psychological barriers to us solving those problems. You’re operating in fantasyland if you do that.

The point I’ve always made to Ta-Nehisi, the point I sometimes make to Michelle, the point I sometimes make to my own kids—the question is, for me, “Can we make things better?”

I used to explain to my staff after we had a long policy debate about anything, and we had to make a decision about X or Y, “Well, if we do this I understand we’re not getting everything we’re hoping for, but is this better?” And they say yes, and I say, “Well, better is good. Nothing wrong with better.”

The discussion I had with Ta-Nehisi typically revolved around the basic belief that, in fact, things had gotten better. This is not a cause for complacency but rather a spur to action. It doesn’t mean that things can’t get worse, either.

Let’s take it out of the American context. When I came into office in 2008, even in the midst of a global financial crisis and recession, the continent of Europe was probably enjoying a level of peace and prosperity unmatched by any group of people in human history. So you cannot argue that Europe is not better than it was in the 1800s or in 1920. That’s not subject to debate. This doesn’t negate the fact that the continent went through unimaginable tragedy and anguish and human folly before things got better. Both things can be true. And so the issue is not whether things can get better; the question is how much pain do we have to go through to get there? How much more racism, how much more callousness, how much more disappointment, how many more wasted lives, how much more backlash? How much of that do we have to endure before things get better?

This goes back to the issue of time frames. If you’re an African American in 1866, maybe you’re feeling optimistic. If you’re an African American 15 years later, you’re not feeling so optimistic. That’s the issue. Within the time we’re here on this Earth, can we keep things getting better?

Goldberg: So there’s nothing that would cause you to give up hope?

Obama: I mean, anyone who reads this book will recognize the stress and discouragement I sometimes feel. I’m fighting this with gallows humor. My staff in the White House, we all had a little bit of that—using laughter to fight off despair. This will come in the second volume, but after Sandy Hook, when Congress would not do anything—that was one of those moments when I thought, You know what? There’s something here I don’t understand. Maybe I’m just barking up the wrong tree.

I could not comprehend a society not responding at all to mass shootings generally. It’s bad enough, the daily toll this takes on Black male teenagers in the inner city, or just the cumulative anguish it’s causing families across the country. But to have 6-year-olds in the classroom gunned down mercilessly? The police and first responders had to take time off and get counseling, just having witnessed the aftermath. And we literally did nothing. My administration tried through executive orders to do something, but legislatively we did nothing.

There are moments like that where you think, I’m not sure whether the basic premises I’ve been operating under still hold. But then something happens where you make things a little better and someone comes up to you and says, “My kid had a job that didn’t have insurance, and the ACA passes and I nag him and he gets a checkup and he’s got a tumor, and it’s removed and now my grandkid is being born next week.”

9.The Role Racism Plays in Politics

Goldberg: There’s an amazing moment in this book when Michelle turns to you and says, “It’s a trip, isn’t it? That they’re scared of you. Scared of us.”

By the way, there’s a move you have where you always give the best lines to Michelle or Reggie Love, your body man.

Obama: Michelle always has the best lines because she has great lines. Reggie has the best lines even though he’s unaware he has the best lines. That’s the difference.

Goldberg: Your wife has always had a slightly different view on the salience of race here, and you don’t dwell on race in this volume, but how much of the opposition to you had to do with the fact that you’re a liberal Democrat, versus you being a Black president?

Obama: I actually write about how hard it is to allocate percentages here, because American history and culture are so shaped by our racial history. If someone is in favor of “states’ rights,” it’s very hard to disentangle this statement from race. Maybe they just believe in local government and local control. On the other hand, this debate started as far back as debates between northern and southern states and the maintenance of slavery, and Jim Crow and opposition to busing, you name it. It’s difficult to clearly say how much of this was race, as opposed to opposition to liberalism. The Clintons, for example, generated similar venomous attacks. A lot of that had to do with the culture wars that dated back to the ’60s—Vietnam, pot, sex, rock and roll, the debate between Phyllis Schlafly and Bella Abzug.

What I think is indisputable is that I signified a shift in power. Just my mere presence worried folks—in some cases explicitly, in some cases subconsciously. And then there were folks around to exploit that and tap into that. If a Fox News talking head asks, when Michelle and I dap, give each other a fist bump, “Is that a terrorist fist bump?,” that’s not a particularly subtle reference. If there’s a sign in opposition to the ACA in which I’m dressed as an African witch doctor with a bone through my nose, that’s not a hard thing to interpret. And look: Well into my presidency, you would have sitting Republican officials caught trafficking emails in which they’re comparing Michelle to animals or suggesting that I was the product of my mother’s bestiality—these were Republican officials, not just random folks. So that undercurrent is there.

Do I think that it was determinative? No. I think these issues have been at the heart of this country’s debate for a very long time, around not just race but class—although we don’t like talking about class—around gender, around the sense that some people are more American than others, more worthy of citizenship than others. Who do we include under the label “We the People”? This has always been contested, even when you don’t have a Black president. Those themes have a lot of power.

10. Why This Book Took So Long to Write

Goldberg: Did this book take longer to write because you’re self-consciously a writer?

Obama: There was a time when I was writing when I was scolding myself because I was obsessing over a paragraph for a day. I realized, I do not have time to do this; I have to stop.

Goldberg: When you’re writing about cap-and-trade, did you just say to yourself, Okay, this is just going to be prose, no poetry here? Not that poetry about cap-and-trade might even be possible.

Obama: What I’m trying to accomplish in this book is both history and a story. There are certain things that, had I been just writing a narrative, I would have left out. If I was just writing a story, I wouldn’t get into the weeds of cap-and-trade. I wouldn’t need to venture into the weeds of Dodd-Frank. But as a historian I do need to provide those details. This is my best shot at giving future writers and historians and scholars at least some sense of how I was thinking. It’s my version of events, and I want to make sure people understand this.

Conversely, if I were just trying to provide a chronicle of events, then I wouldn’t be as concerned about whether this chapter ends on a cliffhanger so that people will turn the page, or did I accurately capture that particular tic of a world leader that makes the person seem more vivid and real. I think what ended up taking a long time was trying to do both. There are parts of the book where I’m explicitly sacrificing some narrative flow because I just need to explain this as clearly as possible. And then there are parts of the book where I just had a really nice description I wanted to leave in and the editor was like, “Do we really need this, like, do we really?” and I said, “Eh, I like it, sorry. That’s just a pretty description and I want to leave it.”

Goldberg: The crappy pens at the G20.

Obama: You’re at the G20 and you’re doing your thing, but you’re also thinking, How does this work? There’s a commemorative pad and pencil, and there are mints, and then there are these disappointing pens. I made the point because you’re at the G20 and there’s all this pomp—and, really, a lot of the conventions are not that different than the trade show at the convention center in Dubuque. There’s the tchotchkes and the cheesiness. I put all that in there to make things recognizable to people. I don’t want people to think of all this as foreign. It’s discernible and understandable.

Goldberg: I’m saving most of the foreign-policy talk for the next book, which is a way of noting that we’ve gone almost two hours without talking about Bibi Netanyahu. But I wanted to ask you a writing question about him, and other people you don’t like. I thought you were calibrating in your writing about Bibi, and McConnell, and some others, and doing so much extra contextualization.

Obama: It’s not a secret that Netanyahu and I did not share worldviews. The same with McConnell. But I think Bibi is a fascinating character the same way that Putin is a fascinating character. I think you can’t understand them, or Russia or Israel, without looking at the history out of which they arose, what shaped them. Providing that sense of context is not actually a matter of me trying to engage in political calculation. The nice thing about being an ex-president is that stuff doesn’t really matter. I want the reader not to just simply say that this guy and Obama are antagonistic, and since I’m reading Obama’s book I’m siding with him and the other guy must be a complete jerk. I want someone to read this and say, I understand how it is that the Israelis, given the world they are in, given the history they have experienced, and given the genuine threats that surround them, can turn to a figure who represents strength of a very particular kind and why that might clash with Obama’s views about certain things. My hope is that there is going to be some young future politician in Israel who is reading this book and is reading for this context and sees that I’m paying attention to this context.

Goldberg: Do you think you captured the cosmic weirdness of being president? Did you ever feel constrained by the fact that this is a presidential memoir?

Obama: The essential strangeness of the presidency is the isolation, both because of security issues and the nature of the job—suddenly you can’t go take a walk, or sit in a park and eat a sandwich, or go to a concert. I talk about a recurring dream I had during my presidency that simply involved me walking down a street and nobody knowing who I am. And you don’t fully appreciate some of the value of anonymity until you’ve lost it, just not being the object of attention. And look, this is a high-class problem to have; I’m not complaining about it. It’s an unusual experience.

Having said that, there is a gift given to a president, or someone running for president, in that you see a bigger cross section of the country, you meet more people and gain a better sense of the variety of our people and our commonality as a people. And that fills you up. All of those voices become a part of you, if you’re listening. And that is a profound gift, and it’s part of the basis for the optimism I continue to feel.

11. The Entire World Is High School

Goldberg: Actually there is one category of person you seem to have real contempt for: some of the Wall Street people in the financial crisis who are rich and just want to be richer, in your view.

Obama: If you read those sections over again, I am sympathetic to them. But they’re being oblivious. I do explain that they worked hard, they played by the rules as they understood them, but there is that sense of not understanding how the rest of us live, and not being interested. There’s a lack of curiosity there that is frustrating and dangerous. An example of that is the former head of BP during the oil spill, who explicitly says that all he wants to do is get back his life. He says this as fishermen’s livelihoods are being destroyed, the coastline is being destroyed. There is a cluelessness there.

But more than anything, I wanted this book to be a way in which people could better understand the world of politics and foreign policy, worlds that feel opaque and inaccessible. Part of my goal is describing quirks and people’s family backgrounds, just to remind people that these are humans and you can understand them and make judgments.

It’s interesting. You’re in high school and you see all the cliques and bullying and unfairness and superficiality, and you think, Once I’m grown up I won’t have to deal with that anymore. And then you get to the state legislature and you see all the nonsense and stupidity and pettiness. And then you get to Congress and then you get to the G20, and at each level you have this expectation that things are going to be more refined, more sophisticated, more thoughtful, rigorous, selfless, and it turns out it’s all still like high school. Human dynamics are surprisingly constant. They take different forms. It turns out that the same strengths people have—flaws and foibles that people have—run across cultures and are part of politics. This should be empowering for people. My ideal reader is some 25-year-old kid who is starting to be curious about the world and wants to do something that has some meaning. I want them to read this and say, “Okay, this is not all rocket science; this is something I could contribute to and make a difference in.”



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The day of the troll: Taste-testing Queensland’s democracy sausage


While campaigning in South Brisbane during the Queensland Election, Dr John Jiggens encountered the nasty side of political trolling.

ELECTION DAY in Queensland this year was 31 October — Halloween. As I prepared to head off to the polling booth for my final bite of the democracy sausage, I wondered what the day would bring. Would it be trick or treat?

As it turned out, it was neither.

Instead, I drew the troll.

I first noticed the troll from a distance as I put out my corflutes with their striking cannabis leaf design at the West End Primary School. He was standing at the entrance to the polling booth where the candidates and their supporters were giving out how-to-vote cards, displaying a large and offensive anti-abortion sign that read ‘abort Trad’.

Queensland only decriminalised abortion in 2018 through the Termination of Pregnancy Bill. Jackie Trad, who was Deputy Premier when the Bill was passed, was unashamedly pro-choice and was an important champion for the Bill. She argued that abortion should be treated as a health issue, not by police and laws, which is a sensible policy for abortion and would be sensible policy for cannabis, too, in my opinion. On the other hand, Brisbane’s Catholic Archbishop, Mark Coleridge, likened the bill to Nazi Germany.

The payback came in the 2020 Election when an anonymous right-to-life group distributed leaflets in the South Brisbane electorate that compared local member Jackie Trad and Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk to Nazi death camp guards and claimed they rejoiced to see unwanted babies thrown in the garbage bin. These leaflets asked rhetorically: ‘If they murder the children now, the elderly tomorrow, how do you know you will not be next?’

(Image supplied)

These hate-filled trolls also smeared me and my campaign for the legalisation of cannabis. The troll carrying the ‘abort Trad’ sign was wearing a cape with a cannabis leaf on it and he had put another cannabis leaf at the bottom of his poster. Because of the cannabis leaf, many naturally thought he was associated with the H.E.M.P. Party, who have used the cannabis leaf as its symbol in West End for 27 years and with my campaign. Some even thought the troll was me — what a sickening insult.

One man who thought the troll represented the H.E.M.P. Party and was disgusted by the treatment of Jackie Trad was John, a Big Issue seller.

When I informed him that the troll did not represent H.E.M.P., he began pointing at the troll and addressing everyone within earshot:

I mistook this man for a representative of the Cannabis party, which he isn’t. He is also slandering Jackie Trad who is for women’s rights. He has no right to speak on behalf of women’s rights. He’s a man. Do not let him confuse you. If Jackie is pro-women’s rights, I support that. Avoid this man, he is using false and misleading advertising and saying abortion is murder. Bullshit! Abortion is a woman’s right!

I found the situation extremely shameful. It was terrible to see the lovely cannabis leaf so defiled by being associated with this ugly insult to a person so many of the South Brisbane community respect and love, one who has suffered being pilloried over many years by the Murdoch empire, who own all the newspapers in Queensland.

My campaign was grossly defamed by this troll and by the decision of the Electoral Commission of Queensland (ECQ) to allow him into the polling grounds at West End Primary.

Queensland Election: South Brisbane and the Murdoch influence

I confronted the troll, but then Jackie Trad, who the troll had positioned himself within eyesight of, came over and asked me quietly to step back. I explained the outrage I felt by his gratuitous misuse of the cannabis leaf to insult her and she replied: “How do you think I feel? I put up with this all the time.”

The troll had also positioned himself in from of a Sky News cameraman, so I realised the optics could turn ugly.

I agreed not to make a scene and decided it would be best if I left. My corflutes displayed a large cannabis leaf and the troll was cowardly sheltering behind the same symbol, so naturally everyone would associate me with this despicable creep and his hateful sign and loathe me.

I decided to find another polling booth and leave West End Primary to the troll, so I picked up my corflutes and walked across the oval. But by the time I reached the gate, I had decided that I could not allow this troll to so dishonour the cannabis leaf. After all, I was a candidate in the Election; I had paid my fee and campaigned over several weeks, whereas this creep was just a troll.

Surely as a candidate, I had my rights. I would go to the ECQ and ask them to explain why they had let this troll loose in the West End school ground.

At the West End office of the ECQ, I spoke to Gaysley Hagan and explained the problem that the troll created for me: he had appropriated the cannabis leaf that has been the symbol of H.E.M.P. in West End since 1993, gratuitously associated it with his vile Jackie Trad trolling and in doing so, associated my candidature with despicable little him.

People hated him, with his top hat and his crude cannabis cape, but most of all for that ugly ‘abort Trad’ sign. The ALP had already complained about that and I wanted to find out why the ECQ had allowed it.

Cannabis is the wild card at the Queensland Election

Ms Hagan was polite and attentive and this is a criticism of the ECQ rules, not her. According to Ms Hagan, under the ECQ’s new sign laws, third parties have equal rights with candidates to display signs. As long as the signs were authorised with a name and an address, they were lawful. All it needed was the troll’s name and address and the words “authorised by”, which it did and they had no objection.

I spoke about how offensive the sign was and Ms Hagan replied: “Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to take any priority this year whether they are offending people.”

My other concern was the gratuitous misuse of the cannabis leaf, the symbol of H.E.M.P., which had disastrous consequences for me as a candidate for South Brisbane because my corflutes, via the cannabis leaf, associated me with the troll. The troll misrepresented me, he misrepresented H.E.M.P. and he dishonoured the symbol. He brought such disgrace to the cannabis leaf that I would not put out my corflutes.

I wanted him removed.

This complaint, too, was dismissed on the grounds that the hemp leaf wasn’t a trademark.

Going home, I consoled myself with the thought that at least Jackie Trad and Labor knew I was offended, too, but that was little consolation and there was no doubt who had won.

It was the day of the troll.

While the Queensland Labor Government was returned with an increased majority, Jackie Trad’s South Brisbane seat went to the Greens’ Amy MacMahon, which was not unexpected. With Jonathan Sri as the local councillor and Amy MacMahon now the state member, the Greens have established a strongpoint in South Brisbane. However, it was the Greens’ only gain, even with the LNP preferencing them over Labor sitting members.

The sub-editors of Murdoch’s Sunday Mail celebrated Trad’s defeat with headlines such as ‘Hit the road, Jack’ and the Shaun Micallef worthy, ‘Voters say they really have Trad enough’. No doubt they will find some other decent human being to beat up.

Congratulations to Amy MacMahon for her victory. Farewell and best wishes to Jackie Trad, Deputy Premier and Treasurer (2015-2020), member for South Brisbane (2012-2020).

This is Dr John Jiggens, courageously taste-testing for your edification the sometimes-disgusting ingredients that constitute Queensland’s democracy sausage.

Dr John Jiggens is a writer and journalist currently working in the community newsroom at Bay-FM in Byron Bay.

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The Crisis of American Democracy Is Not Over


Biden has earned more votes than any other presidential candidate in history—with Trump a close second. As in 2016, tens of millions of Americans will look at the results knowing that their compatriots voted for a candidate whose campaign was premised on their mere presence in the United States being an existential threat to the country. For many of them, the sense of relief they find in a Trump defeat will be coupled with the understanding that much of the electorate does not recognize them as truly American, and that the faction that supports Trumpism has not only grown, but grown more diverse than it was in 2016. The outcome is ultimately bittersweet—not only because of the institutional obstacles to any lasting change, but because America’s rebuke of Trumpism was paired with a reminder of the ideology’s lingering potency. That the president spent the last few weeks of the campaign making his own supporters sick with a deadly disease, simply to feed his own ego, did not begin to dampen the devotion they showed him.

With Biden’s victory, American democracy has earned a reprieve from its most immediate threat. But the tasks Biden faces when he assumes the presidency are daunting. Biden will have to contain the worst pandemic in a century and revive the economy, but he must also restore faith in American democracy. The sole blessing, perhaps, is that these tasks are closely related to the crisis that summoned him to the fore. To succeed, Biden will have to do more than secure Americans’ right to vote, ensure that workers’ wages rise, and return life to some semblance of pre-pandemic normality, although those are all necessary. He must also remind Americans that the government can serve the people, and not just the ambitions, avarice, and ego of its leader.

The moral core of Trumpism is the ethnic and religious chauvinism that the president has espoused since his descent from the escalator at Trump Tower in 2015, when he announced that Mexico was sending “rapists” and “drug dealers” to America. As that campaign unfolded, Trump’s list of domestic enemies grew, as he vowed to ban Muslims from coming to the United States, and embraced police brutality against Black Americans. But what sustains Trumpism is cynicism about the workings of government and the promises of democracy. If every politician is a crook, if every program is a boondoggle, if every initiative is graft, then absolutely nothing is lost by elevating a strongman who seeks to stuff his own pockets. Perhaps, unlike the crooks currently in charge, he could get something done.

This cynicism was perhaps easier to sustain before the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis it created. The American people needed their government to be effective, responsive, and generous. The Trump administration needed to contain a deadly outbreak, communicate clearly and effectively about the risks of infection, prevent the economy from collapsing, and dispatch resources to states to keep them from being overwhelmed. Instead, after a crucial initial stimulus, the president and his party held up further aid on the grounds that it would amount to “blue-state bailouts” that would assist the enemy—that is, the Americans who live in states whose electoral votes did not go to the president in 2016. It will not be a simple matter to purge this poison from the body politic, if it is possible at all.



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saving democracy is everybody’s business.


Metrics of democracy across the globe have found the project in decline for years now. Trump is where this gets you, not what causes it.

Scott Morrison and Donald Trump (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

There’s a very real chance democracy as we know it may not survive the lifespan of the discussion I want to have, but here it is: we must immediately examine the mechanisms by which the essential structures of modern democracy can be separated from the venality, incompetence and corruption of the politicians in charge of them.

Note I do not say we must discuss the desirability of this separation. It’s moving too fast, and we are enraptured in witness to the assault, in real time, on democracy over there, whilst astonishingly complacent to it over here.

To be fair it’s compelling over there — the Michael Bay movie of democracy in all its vivid migraine inducement.

At this stage, the destination of this election is really less important than the journey. To his credit, Donald Trump did tell us this was coming.

There was a promise to lie, to foment illegitimacy if results were not satisfactory, and to try and send a whole election to a politically adulterated constitutional body now utterly designed to only dance with the one that brung it.

And now there are armed protestors outside election offices. People with large guns are pointing them at votes and vote counters. Wild eyed with an imagined sense of legitimacy and entitlement.

The coup clux clan.

I realise hyperbole has robbed words like terrifying of its impact, but it really does feel like epochal moments are apparent. But they’re not necessarily the ones we’re noticing. Is that how it always happened?

The Republicans have also been honest, for what feels like decades: minority rule is the dream. Democracy not abandoned, but bent and broken to serve a specific end. They’ve boasted about it, financed it, fought for it, and their moment might be now.

A Trump win, however and whenever it comes, would mean the electoral roll will be purged, courts stacked, and gerrymandering turbo-charged. The ability of a political party to govern without the majority of people supporting them will be entrenched, possibly for a generation.

Historians and political scientists reaffirmed their concerns in an open letter released at the weekend.

However, at this stage, a Trump loss is still a good result for the many Republicans who loathe the man but have gained three Supreme Court judges, huge tax cuts, and possibly held the Senate all while gaining enough fake grievance to justify obstruction and pettiness for the next four years.

These aren’t modern problems, just the latest incarnation of the fragility of democracy and the myriad ways we have become too busy, too tired, too cynical, or too apathetic to challenge the means by which the structures designed to provide checks and balances in the system have been co-opted or corrupted.

Metrics of democracy across the globe have found the project in decline for some 14 years now. Trump is where this gets you, not what causes it.

America has found itself quite shocked at just how much many of the foundational principles of its democracy have relied on something as simple as shame.

Look at what can be achieved when you simply deny a Supreme Court candidate a vote eight months out from an election, then force a different candidate through within days of the next one. Because you can. All you have to do is accept the charge of hypocrisy and you can change the fundamental balance of constitutional law, and potentially elections themselves.

Accountability, so underrated for so long as to be thought to be inherent in the system, is now found wilting through a prism of fanaticism, polarisation, and gerrymandering. Without electoral accountability, the structures holding civilised society together have found themselves at the mercy of the awesome power of shamelessness.

The question, then, is how to put structural integrity back at the heart of democracy.

Politicians own the ability to claim a mandate from the people after every election. But that does not mean/should not mean/was not designed to mean they then own the very essence of the concept of governance.

Yes, the US version of democracy is at the precipice, but there has been a mesmerising, dizzying run of concerning trends in Australia as well. In the last week or so the sheer scale of governance matters requiring coverage has been extraordinary, involving business, politics, the judiciary, and media.

Accountability and/or shame would reasonably have cost a sizeable number of the current federal cabinet their jobs, in normal circumstances. It’s a clever political calculation to judge people will not hold the government ultimately responsible for this level of misdeed. Too much is attributed to apathy, when the devastating truth is most people are simply too busy trying to get by, a charge that has echoes for us in the quiet march of authoritarianism in our region.

It’s why we must look to remove some of the boundaries of good governance from what makes good politics.

A crappy ICAC is good politics, decimation of the ABC is good politics, polarisation is good politics, bad accountability is good politics.

Good luck to Donald Trump getting that many people to vote for him. Good luck to Australian politicians and back-room hacks gorging on pork barrels, internecine party warfare, donor appeasement, union factionalism. If you can do all that and still get people to vote for you, you’ve done good politics.

But it should be obvious that you should not be in charge of democracy. It’s not anti-democratic to seek to separate you from the structures that protect it, quite the opposite.

There is no more obvious example than allowing politicians to decide whether there is a corruption body investigating them, or what form one should take. Or the fact that the bodies that do exist are subject entirely to the funding choices, or lack thereof, of the government of the day.

The need for a robust external commission tackling corruption and abuse and mendacity is obvious, as is the realisation that in the maelstrom of modern life no one is going to cast their definitive and precious vote on that issue alone. They shouldn’t have to.

So you find the will and the way to make structural shifts. Here’s another: in absolutely no way should the funding of the public broadcaster be subject to the whims of the government of the day.

I work for the ABC, and in every pore of its essence it is a servant of the people, and a servant of democracy (Editorial Policy 4.2 is worth a separate chat sometime), not a servant of the politics of the day. Fairness is too often false balance at the expense of evidence and objectivity, and “relevance” relies far too much on metrics that simply have no place in a serious discussion when journalism is correctly framed as essential to the existence and proper functioning of the state.

“News is for citizens who belong … it is not a digest of consumer need.”

Mark Damazer, former head of BBC Radio 4.

A democracy without an informed citizenry will not stand. It will absolutely tear itself apart. The antidote to destructive ignorance is an open, trusted and accessible media, and we are allowing that to be taken away. The symbiotic relationship between good governance and good journalism has for too long been implicit, or placed in the hands of those that gain from its denuded form.

It needs to be made explicit, and its true value needs to be recognised with firm structural support: an independent mechanism for funding and governing public sector broadcasting; innovative pathways to design and maintain a diverse, trusted, and sustainable commercial and community media environment.

Other models are apparent, and the best ones start with the truly democratic principle that the worth of truth and news and an informed electorate cannot be measured in short-term ways by short-term people.

It’s not an easy discussion. But it’s increasingly obvious that to protect — let alone nurture — democracy requires more structural care than we’re giving it.

Changes in the system to embed integrity and principles of good governance are entirely doable.

We’ve just been asking the wrong people.

Glynn Greensmith is a journalism lecturer at Curtin University and an ABC broadcaster.

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False start – Aung San Suu Kyi was supposed to set Burmese democracy free | Asia


THE MEMORY of Myanmar’s most recent election, in 2015, still cheers Kyaw Zayya. Even if he had not been covering the results as a journalist, he would have gone to the headquarters of the National League for Democracy (NLD), which swept the polls, to celebrate the end of more than 50 years of military rule. Like so many of his fellow citizens, he placed his hopes in Aung San Suu Kyi, the long-persecuted leader of the NLD, who promised to bring peace, prosperity and democracy. “We had been suffering for decades under the military regime, so we were eager to see changes,” he says. “I was very delighted.”

On November 8th Myanmar will vote again. This time Mr Kyaw Zayya will not be taking part. He belongs to a small but growing number of Burmese who have decided to abstain because they are bitterly disappointed with the NLD. He is outraged that the commission administering the election, which is appointed by the government, has cancelled the vote in parts of the country that it says are too dangerous. In fact, not all the areas in question are plagued by violence. And the cancellation disproportionately affects ethnic minorities, many of whom are unlikely to vote for the NLD. Some 1.5m voters have been disenfranchised, out of a voting-age population of roughly 35m, although the commission has reinstated polling in a few spots.

The “no-voters” join a swelling chorus of discontent. It includes activists and journalists hounded by the authorities, ethnic minorities brutalised by decades of violent conflict and workers left behind by rapid but uneven economic growth. Then there are the Rohingyas, a persecuted Muslim minority who have been ghettoised in squalid refugee camps on either side of Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh after a series of pogroms led or cheered on by the army. The majority of Burmese still revere “Mother Suu” and will probably return her to power. But neither she nor the NLD have proved the champions of liberal ideals that many imagined them to be. In the eyes of a growing number of Burmese, Ms Suu Kyi, having kindled the flame of democracy, is now smothering it.

The wild hopes borne aloft by Ms Suu Kyi’s victory were always bound to collide with gunmetal reality. For one thing, Ms Suu Kyi presides over a system designed by the generals towards the end of their half-century in power, which preserves a big and inviolable role for them in government—what they call “discipline-flourishing democracy”. The constitution gives them control over their own affairs, as well as the right to appoint the ministers of defence, the interior and borders. A quarter of the seats in the national and regional parliaments are reserved for members of the Tatmadaw, as the armed forces are known. It also controls a majority of seats on the National Defence and Security Council, which can declare an emergency. Ms Suu Kyi has no control over the Tatmadaw and, in particular, cannot force it to cease hostilities against the various ethnic insurgencies that have long racked the country.

Ms Suu Kyi naturally wants to release her government from these manacles. In March the NLD put forward several constitutional amendments, among them one that would gradually reduce the number of seats in parliament reserved for military appointees. But the generals had foreseen such a move. Constitutional amendments need the support of more than three-quarters of MPs. With a quarter of the seats, the Tatmadaw can block any it does not like—and so it did.

Within these restrictions, Ms Suu Kyi has tried to nibble away at the Tatmadaw’s authority. She has given the previously meek anti-corruption commission some teeth and repealed a few repressive laws. She has refused to convene the security council. She has also taken the power to appoint bureaucrats in the national and local governments away from the Ministry of the Interior.

Nonetheless, the only institution capable of returning the army to the barracks is the army itself, and it will not do so until it is convinced that the civilian government is both capable of governing and committed to protecting the Tatmadaw, writes Andrew Selth of Griffith University in Australia. “Discipline-flourishing democracy is the only game in town,” says Ian Holliday of the University of Hong Kong.

But even in areas where Ms Suu Kyi has unfettered authority, she is no liberal. Take the NLD. She runs it like the Tatmadaw ran the country: with an iron fist. “There is no democracy in the party,” says Thet Thet Khine. She should know: a member of the NLD for seven years, she was sacked from the executive committee in 2018 for publicly criticising government policy. (She later quit the party to form one of her own, which is contesting the election.) Ms Suu Kyi does not delegate and is not cultivating a fresh crop of leaders, even though she is 75 and has no clear successor.

Ms Suu Kyi’s authoritarian streak extends to the government’s relations with civil society. It has repeatedly attempted to muzzle its critics in court. In 2017 two Reuters journalists, investigating violence against the Rohingyas, were sentenced to seven years in jail for breaking a colonial-era national-security law. According to Athan, a local watchdog, the government has filed 251 suits against its critics, twice as many as under the previous army-backed government. The NLD’s spokesman, Monywa Aung Shin, points out that many of these cases were initiated by army-run ministries. Yet the NLD has sued critics of Ms Suu Kyi, and could easily repeal the laws used to silence journalists and activists if it so pleased.

The government’s litigiousness has had a chilling effect. The press is less free now than it was during the final years of military rule, says Zeya Thu, the editor of The Voice Journal. “We are scared,” says Saw Alex Htoo, an activist.

Ms Suu Kyi is also not proving the ally many minorities hoped. She spent years working with political parties that champion assorted ethnic groups as they struggled against their common enemy, the Tatmadaw. She promised to defend their rights and to broker an end to the many small wars that have raged around the periphery of the country, in areas inhabited mainly by ethnic minorities. To that end, she has held several inconclusive peace conferences.

But Ms Suu Kyi does not have “any clear vision” of what a less centralised, federal state might look like, argues Hla Myint of the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD), which advocates for Rakhines, an ethnic group from the state of the same name (see map). During the NLD’s failed attempt to amend the constitution, ethnically based political parties recommended more than 3,000 changes, many of them related to devolution. The NLD did not endorse a single one. And just like the military-backed government that preceded it, the NLD appointed one of its own as the chief minister of Rakhine state, even though the Arakan National Party (ANP), another Rakhine party, won a majority in the state election in 2015. “We don’t see any difference so far between the previous and current government when it comes to their style of governing our Rakhine state,” says Hnin Yu She of the ALD, which split from the ANP in 2017.

Ethnic minorities are also upset because the peace process is flagging. Fighting between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army (AA), a Rakhine guerrilla outfit, has escalated dramatically since 2019, to become the most serious conflict in the country in decades. Fighting also smoulders in Kachin and Shan states. Ms Suu Kyi is not primarily responsible, in that she cannot control the army. But she stood mutely by when it ruled out the prospect of negotiations by declaring the AA a terrorist group in March and when it excluded it from its covid-19 ceasefire. She seems not to wish to broaden her dispute with the Tatmadaw by questioning its handling of insurgencies.

In 2013, when she met Ben Rhodes, an adviser to Barack Obama, he underscored the importance of ending the country’s many conflicts and evinced concern about Rohingyas. He says she replied, “We will get to those things. But first must come constitutional reform”—for which she needs the acquiescence of the army. “The NLD’s first priority”, says Mr Saw Alex Htoo, the activist, is “to make peace with the military, not peace with the country”.

Minorities are losing faith not just in Ms Suu Kyi but in the political system itself. Aung Kaung Moe (not his real name) is a Rakhine student activist who was recently jailed for protesting against an internet blackout in the state. Your correspondent asks if he has ever considered going into politics. Yes, he says, often. But sometimes he wonders if he would not be better off throwing in his lot with the Arakan Army. Ethnic parties’ success at the polls does not translate into real political power, he says: just look at how unfairly the NLD treated the ANP. By contrast, ethnic groups like the Wa who seize territory and successfully defend it are able to carve out autonomous enclaves. “In Myanmar, in the reality, [ethnic armed organisations] are more powerful than the ethnic electoral political parties,” says Mr Aung Kaung Moe. The AA, which is wildly popular among Rakhines, governs swathes of northern Rakhine state, he notes. Many young Rakhines have given up on the idea of a federal union. Now they dream of independence.

In the border regions, where most minorities live, Ms Suu Kyi has been knocked off her pedestal. In the heartland, where Bamars, the country’s biggest ethnic group, predominate, support for “Mother Suu” is strong. But even here, cracks have begun to appear. More than twice as many Burmese surveyed by the Asian Barometer Survey (ABS) last year prioritised the economy over democracy. At first glance, there is much for them to be cheerful about. Until covid-19 struck, growth had averaged 6.2% since 2015. The share of the population in poverty fell by half between 2005 and 2017. A middle class is emerging.

But growth is still slower than in the final days of the military regime (see chart). The IMF reckons that the economy is underperforming by a percentage point or two, owing to weak domestic demand and sagging foreign investment. Many Burmese have yet to see the prosperity that Ms Suu Kyi promised. One in four remained poor in 2017, according to the World Bank. The precariat is growing. Nearly half of those polled by the ABS last year were worried about losing their livelihood, more than twice as many as in 2015. Some 54% said they were unable to access basic services, such as water, public transport and health care, up from 48% five years ago. “Gains from the economic reforms and growth under the NLD government have yet to be widely perceived by ordinary citizens,” the authors of the survey wrote.

Part of the problem is the government’s lack of capacity. When the NLD took up residence in Naypyidaw, the army-built capital, Ms Suu Kyi stuffed the cabinet full of the party faithful—men (and they are all men) whose only qualification was their loyalty to her. Their ineptitude, combined with an inert bureaucracy staffed by ex-soldiers, left the government floundering and unable to achieve anything much.

Matters have improved somewhat as incompetent ministers have been replaced with technocrats. Yet the government still has few tools to help the poor, according to Gerard McCarthy of the National University of Singapore. It “inherited a really skeletal social safety net”, he says, and its capacity to improve matters is limited. Tax revenue has hovered at around 7% of GDP since 2016, less than half the average in South-East Asia. Myanmar’s covid-19 stimulus amounted to a miserly 3.4% of GDP, also far below the regional average.

Keeping ethnic minorities in line

The NLD discourages the poor from relying on the state, argues Mr McCarthy. For decades it has cleaved to the idea that people are morally obliged to help themselves and others through acts of charity, an ethic born of both Buddhism and necessity. During the austere years of army rule, political organisations were outlawed and there was no public safety net. People in need could turn only to charities. But this ideology is in growing conflict with the expectations of the public, a majority of whom believe that democracy should lead to better public services, according to the ABS.

Just five years after civilians took power, Burmese have muddled and ambivalent views about their hard-won political freedoms. Although 87% of those surveyed by ABS say that they support democracy, two-thirds believe it does not effectively promote economic growth or maintain order. People also harbour wistful thoughts about military rule. Nearly half support a role for the Tatmadaw in politics—up from 39% in 2015. Confusingly, 56% also back military rule, compared with 48% five years ago.

Younger, rural Bamars who care about the economy and security are more likely to admire the men in uniform. They are less likely “to remember the really bad times,” notes Bridget Welsh, one of the authors of the ABS report. What they do remember is that Thein Sein, an ex-general who began the process of opening up the country, was a better steward of the economy than Ms Suu Kyi. These Burmese believe that Muslims pose an existential threat to the country’s survival, and that the army is necessary to repel them and keep order in a fractious nation, says Mr Holliday. The surveys he conducted with Roman David, of Lingnan University in Hong Kong, suggest that a growing minority of the Burmese population do not see democracy and army rule as antithetical to each other, but as systems of governance that can co-exist. Ms Suu Kyi, in other words, is undermining her own legacy.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “False start”

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‘No one would have thought that one man could do so much damage to American democracy’ – former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson


The eyes of the world are on America, where a combination of pandemic, byzantine voting system, an army of lawyers and a president openly questioning the legitimacy of the poll itself is complicating life.

The real fear of violence, the talk of civil war, the dystopian predictions – none of that helps either.

This is a battle for the soul of the nation and a deeper question: is American democracy still fit for purpose?

We speak to the former Republican Arizona senator Jeff Flake and author and former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson.



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