Podcast Episode 2: Solutions to Polarization
Issue 68: Part 2 of our podcast on polarization and democracy with interviews featuring Evan Mawarire, Dr. Hahrie Han, Uriel Epshtein & Joshua Fryday
Welcome back for Part 2 of our special mini podcast series on political polarization. If you missed the first episode, The Roots of Polarization, please check it out.
In this episode, we discuss the importance of citizens' involvement in democracy and the need to protect it. We bring together experts who discuss concrete solutions for sustaining democracy and reducing polarization.
To protect democracy and civil rights, Pastor Evan Mawarire argues that “the loss of democracy is not an event, it’s a process”. He says that even small cracks in democracy must not go unchallenged — and draws on his personal leadership and community building as effective ways to protect democracy. “To say the institutions will look after themselves. Well they don't, it's people who look after democracy through the institutions.” He learned this first hand when he led an uprising against a corrupt authoritarian dictator in Zimbabwe.
You can listen to the full episode here or via Anchor, Spotify, and Apple podcasts.
In this newsletter, we preview the episode by sharing a few snippets. Dr. Hahrie Han, Director of the SNF Agora Institute, opens the episode by pointing to how democracy requires the acceptance of uncertainly and loss.
Hahrie: “Democracy requires that people accept uncertainty over outcomes in order to have certainty over process. So I don't know if my policy's going to get passed, but I should have confidence that there's a certain set of protections, civil liberties, processes that will be upheld.
The opposite is true in authoritarianism, that when Russia has an election, we know who's going to win. It's going to be Putin.
As we see rising income inequality, if people feel like the outcome they might have to accept is they can't feed their family, then yes, I don't think it's an unreasonable choice for people to say, ‘I don't want to be part of the system where I might have to face that outcome.’
Then, if we're in a situation where people feel like the other side is an existential threat to their existence because of that layering of social and political identities that we see, then again, it's not necessarily an unreasonable choice to say, ‘I'm unwilling to accept this other side because it feels like it's an existential threat to me.’
And so I think that very often when we talk about polarization in the mass public, we don't have that conversation about the extent to which it's layered in with people's feelings of their own agency in that process and how that shapes their willingness to accept the kind of uncertainty that is necessary for politics to work.”
Pastor Evan Mawarire, Dissident in Residence at the Agora Institute, talks about the lessons he learned fighting for democracy in Zimbabwe. Evan lived under the violent and corrupt regime of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, and responded to it by founding #ThisFlag, an enormously influential, citizen-led prodemocracy movement.
Evan: “Amongst the biggest lessons that I've learned from Zimbabwe that can be applicable here, where democracy is facing challenges is, first of all, not allowing the small cracks or what people feel are not big issues to go unchallenged, because essentially in Zimbabwe, that's what allowed us to eventually have a full blown dictatorship, is that people became apathetic concerning their involvement in the process of democracy. Which is not just voting, it's the whole process of voting and then remaining engaged, holding the people that you have elected accountable, or at least working with them to deliver the kind of democracy you want.
So when I see people stand back or I see people not take an interest in very important processes here, it's a moment for me that's a teachable moment to say, the eventual collapse is a result of these kind of small beginnings, or these moments where we feel like, well, it doesn't matter, let's leave it alone. The loss of democracy is not an event, it’s a process. That's a big lesson, that it is a trick of how democracy is lost to say your disengagement is not a problem. Democracy will take care of itself. To say the institutions will look after themselves. Well they don't, it's people who look after democracy through the institutions.”
Joshua Fryday, Chief Service Officer for the State of California, speaks about his first-hand experiences of community service bringing diverse groups of people together, helping to reinforce support for democracy while reducing polarization.
Josh: “And it's been my experience as a military veteran, and for anyone who was in the Peace Corps or have served in their community, that service is a really powerful tool to bring people together where you get to have a common experience with someone who may be very different than you, may have a very different background, a very different perspective, a very different ideology.
But because you had a common experience around a common purpose, which was doing good or accomplishing a mission, you then have a baseline of understanding each other and understanding that they're not the enemy. They may think differently than you and they may act differently than you, but you have something that creates an understanding of common humanity.
And if we can create more service opportunities, more opportunities for people to have this common experience, to work together around helping their community, we feel like we can make a real dent in the polarization and division that exists in the society.”
Civic engagement, having conversations, finding shared identities with others, and engaging in service are a few pathways to depolarization. While we were not able to feature all interviewees in our newsletter, we’d love for you to listen to the rest of the podcast to gain their insights.
To listen to the rest of the podcast, scroll up to the media player above or visit the links to save our show on Apple and Spotify!
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