Abbreviated Pundit Roundup: Defending democracy

Abbreviated Pundit Roundup: Defending democracy

July 24, 2022 0 By Ellen Novack

Brian Klaas of The Atlantic gives a diagnosis that American democracy is dying.

I’ve spent the past 12 years studying the breakdown of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism around the world, in places such as Thailand, Tunisia, Belarus, and Zambia. I’ve shaken hands with many of the world’s democracy killers.

My studies and experiences have taught me that democracies can die in many ways. In the past, most ended in a quick death. Assassinations can snuff out democracy in a split second, coups in an hour or two, and revolutions in a day. But in the 21st century, most democracies die like a chronic but terminal patient. The system weakens as the disease spreads. The agony persists over years. Early intervention increases the rate of survival, but the longer the disease festers, the more that miracles become the only hope.

American democracy is dying. There are plenty of medicines that would cure it. Unfortunately, our political dysfunction means we’re choosing not to use them, and as time passes, fewer treatments become available to us, even though the disease is becoming terminal. No major prodemocracy reforms have passed Congress. No key political figures who tried to overturn an American election have faced real accountability. The president who orchestrated the greatest threat to our democracy in modern times is free to run for reelection, and may well return to office.

Jonathan Swan of Axios presents another installment for Axios’ “Inside Trump 25” series, the horrific look at what’s being planned in the event of a second Trump Administration,

Kash Patel, who is set to play an influential role in a second Trump administration, has described a new approach to ensure Trump does not repeat these mistakes.

“Everybody that gave us the [Attorney General] Bill Barrs of the world, that gave us [FBI director] Chris Wray, that gave us [former Deputy Attorney General] Rod Rosenstein, that gave us [former CIA director] Gina Haspel … everybody that said ‘these are Trump people’ should be put on the list and we’re never going to listen to them ever again,” Patel said on a conservative podcast, “The Lee Smith Show,” in April.

“That’s Step 1,” Patel said. “Step 2, you listen to guys that have proven themselves to be, I don’t want to say loyal to the president but loyal to the democratic process. … You need guys like [Trump loyalist and former director of national intelligence] Johnny Ratcliffe, Ric Grenell, Devin Nunes, Jim Jordan, Mark Meadows, [Rep. Matt] Gaetz … you need folks like that.”

Jim Jordan told Axios he thinks it likely Trump will bring back some of the final team who ran the Department of Homeland Security — such as Tom Homan, Mark Morgan and Chad Wolf — “because that was an agency that cleaned it up, did it right, secured the border.”

Heather Cox Richardson writes for her Letters to an American blog about the efforts of President Joe Biden to defend democracies worldwide.

When he took office, Democratic president Joe Biden recognized that his role in this moment was to prove that democracy is still a viable form of government.

Rising autocrats have declared democracy obsolete. They argue that popular government is too slow to respond to the rapid pace of the modern world, or that liberal democracy’s focus on individual rights undermines the traditional values that hold societies together, values like religion and ethnic or racial similarities. Hungarian president Viktor Orbán, whom the radical right supports so enthusiastically that he is speaking on August 4 in Texas at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), has called for replacing liberal democracy with “illiberal democracy” or “Christian democracy,” which will explicitly not treat everyone equally and will rest power in a single political party.

Biden has defended democracy across the globe, accomplishing more in foreign diplomacy than any president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Less than a year after the former president threatened to withdraw the U.S. from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken pulled together the NATO countries, as well as allies around the world, to stand against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The new strength of NATO prompted Sweden and Finland to join the organization, and earlier this month, NATO ambassadors signed protocols for their admission. This is the most significant expansion of NATO in 30 years.

That strength helped to hammer out a deal between Russia and Ukraine with Turkey and the United Nations yesterday to enable Ukraine to export 22 million tons of grain and Russia to export grain and fertilizer to developing countries that were facing famine because of Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports. An advisor to the Ukrainian government called the agreement “a major win for Ukraine.” When a Russian attack on the Ukrainian port of Odesa today put that agreement under threat, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Bridget A. Brink called the attack “outrageous.”

Jon Allsop of Columbia Journalism Review evaluates the first “season” of the Jan. 6 Committee hearings.

Still, with the committee’s scheduled run now over, it’s worth reflecting on how it succeeded, not only substantively but also at what amounted, effectively, to an exercise in media production. In terms of format, any future hearings will be unlikely to deviate too much from what we’ve seen so far—indeed, the format has remained disciplined and consistent since the committee aired its first televised hearing, also in prime time, last month. As I wrote then, it’s a format that has innovated without being totally revolutionary, which I mean in a positive sense; each individual hearing has dispensed with the worst aspects of the genre—partisan mudslinging, preposterous grandstanding, a bloated running time—while retaining others, remaining recognizable as a Congressional hearing and thus retaining a basic aesthetic of institutional gravitas. (Not everyone will welcome this, but it makes sense for the committee given that its work is aimed at preserving institutions.) And the hearings arguably have been revolutionary when taken as a whole—radically reshaping the idea of what a long-running Congressional probe can look like.

I likened the first prime-time hearing to a long-form magazine article, in the sense that it synthesized things that were, for the most part, already public knowledge in a way that added fresh perspective and emotional depth. Since then, it’s been more common for media critics to compare the hearings to a prestige TV miniseries. Last night, that metaphor kicked into overdrive, with talk of a “finale” hearing and a possible “second-season pickup” (a reference to the prospect of future hearings). The structure of the final hearing, in fairness, invited such comparisons. It even featured a final-episode blooper reel of Trump struggling through a video message to supporters after January 6—though of course, what he said was scary, not funny.[…]

As I (and others) have written before, none of this is a bad thing, even though talking about deadly serious events through the prism of television techniques instinctively sounds trivial; as James Poniewozik, the Times’s great TV critic, put it after the committee’s first hearing, “storytelling is a tool for engagement, not just distraction.” Ultimately, that’s what the committee has done these past few weeks: tell a story. What matters above all, in real-life storytelling, is that the story is true—and this one demonstrably has been. As I see it, the committee has laid down a blueprint for how Congress might rethink future hearings and investigations to better engage the public on all manner of questions of public concern. It has also shown that TV can still be a useful vehicle for that type of engagement. “Many analysts have downplayed its importance with the rise of the Internet and social media,” CNN’s David Zurawik noted last night. “But these hearings have shown the enduring political and cultural power of the medium.” (Not that this is an either/or question: the committee has proven adept at viral clip-making, too.)

Natalia Contreras of the Texas Tribune reports that a group of conservative volunteers have begun examining the votes of the 2020 election in Tarrant County, TX.

Volunteers with the group, the Tarrant County Citizens for Election Integrity, told Votebeat Friday that their goal is to ensure the results of the election were accurate. Members are specifically counting votes in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, in which Sen. John Cornyn won with 73% of the vote in Tarrant County over his closest challenger, who won 13% of the county’s votes. The group also alleges a range of fraudulent activities related to the 2020 November general election in Tarrant and other counties across the state but has offered no evidence to support the allegations.

“We’re not here as Republicans or Democrats,” said John Raymond, a volunteer with the group. “A lot of people don’t have faith in our elections, so we’re just here counting, making sure that what the secretary of state’s numbers say are right.”

“There’s nothing wrong with the election,” Tarrant County Election Administrator Heider Garcia said. “But the ballots are now public and it’s their right [to inspect them], and we will do everything that we have to do to make sure they can exercise their right to inspect public records.”

The group’s tallying of ballots — spurred by unsupported claims of voter fraud and of flawed election audits in Texas — began more than a week ago. In contrast with high-profile reviews of ballots elsewhere in the country, such as the 2021 review ordered in Maricopa County by the Arizona state Senate, the Tarrant ballot inspection has until now attracted almost no notice. In fact, even the secretary of state’s office said it had previously been unaware of Citizens for Election Integrity’s ballot review. But it’s unlikely to be the last such effort.

The examination of ballots in Tarrant County might have something to do with the fact that Joe Biden was the first Democrat to win Tarrant County in a presidential election since Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Katy Swordfisk writes for about a study that shows that overconfidence bolsters anti-scientific views.

“Our research suggests that there may be a problem of overconfidence getting in the way of learning, because if people think they know a lot, they have minimal motivation to learn more,” Light said. “People with more extreme anti-scientific attitudes might first need to learn about their relative ignorance on the issues before being taught specifics of established scientific knowledge.”

The paper examined attitudes about eight issues with scientific consensus on which anti-consensus views persist: climate change, nuclear power, genetically modified foods, the big bang, evolution, vaccination, homeopathic medicine and COVID-19. Light said they found that in general, as people’s attitudes on an issue get further from scientific consensus, their assessments of their own knowledge of that issue increases, but their actual knowledge decreases. Take COVID-19 vaccines, for example. The less an individual agrees with the COVID-19 vaccine, the more they believe they know about it, but their factual knowledge is more likely to be lower.

“Essentially, the people who are most extreme in their opposition to the consensus are the most overconfident in their knowledge,” Light said. “Our findings suggest that this pattern is fairly general. However, we did not find them for climate change, evolution, or the big bang theory.”

The degree to which attitudes on an issue are tied up with political or religious identities could affect whether this pattern exists for that issue, Light added.

Helen Branswell of STATnews reports on the World Health Organization declaring monkeypox a worldwide public health emergency.

In an unusual move, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made the declaration even though a committee of experts he had convened to study the issue did not advise him to do so, having failed to reach a consensus. The same committee met just one month ago and declined to declare a public health emergency of international concern, or PHEIC.

Though the committee does not formally vote, a survey of the members revealed that nine thought a PHEIC should not be declared and six supported a declaration. When the group met in June, the breakdown was 11 against and three for. […]

Monkeypox is endemic only in about a dozen countries in Central and Western Africa. But in May, public health officials in London reported six cases in people who had not traveled to endemic countries. Four of the six were in men who have sex with men.

The number of cases internationally has ballooned in the ensuing weeks, now reaching more than 16,000 in over 75 countries throughout Europe, North and South America, the Middle East, new parts of Africa, South Asia, and Australia. The United States has recorded nearly 2,900 cases.


Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermayer, writing for Der Spiegel, were the two journalists that were first contacted by a whistleblower about the Panama Papers story. Here, the journalists conduct the first-ever interview with the still anonymous whistleblower.

DER SPIEGEL: Tax havens seem to be of crucial importance for strongmen in autocratic regimes.

Doe: Putin is more of a threat to the United States than Hitler ever was, and shell companies are his best friend. Shell companies funding the Russian military are what kill innocent civilians in Ukraine as Putin’s missiles target shopping centers. Shell companies masking Chinese conglomerates are what kill underage cobalt miners in the Congo. Shell companies make these horrors and more possible by removing accountability from society. But without accountability, society cannot function. […]

DER SPIEGEL: Do you fear Russia might seek revenge?

Doe: It’s a risk that I live with, given that the Russian government has expressed the fact that it wants me dead. Before Russia Today’s media presence was curtailed due to Russia’s attack against Ukraine, it aired a two-part Panama Papers docudrama featuring a “John Doe” character who suffered a torture-induced head injury during the opening credits, after which a cartoon boat sailed through the pool of his blood, as though it were the Panama Canal. However bizarre and tacky, it was not subtle. We have seen others with connections to offshore accounts and tax justice resort to murder, as with the tragedies involving Daphne Caruana Galizia and Ján Kuciak. Their deaths affected me deeply, and I call upon the European Union to deliver justice for Daphne and Ján and their families. And to deliver rule of law in Malta, one of Mossack Fonseca’s former jurisdictions.

Vince Chadwick of Devex has an exclusive that an internal EU document shows that the European Union is recalibrating their diplomatic approach to the African continent over the war in Ukraine.

On the one hand, the report calls for “understanding and empathy for African challenges, and willingness to help find concrete solutions.”

But it also underlines that Europe is “the main indirect victim of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s war of aggression,” citing “dramatic consequences in all aspects (security, economic, financial, social, migration – 7 million refugees, unemployment).” And it opens the possibility of calibrating foreign aid from Europe according to Africa’s stance.

“Becoming more transactional in our approach, we should be clear about the fact that the willingness of Europeans (governments and taxpayers) to maintain higher levels of financial engagement in African countries will depend on working based on common values and a joint vision,” the report reads.

Despite billions of euros pledged to Ukraine, EU officials have so far said publicly that African countries will get the same amount of development assistance from the EU institutions as that initially agreed in their 2021-2027 country plans. However, the latest report points out that “it is clear that the longer the war will last, the less resources there will be.”

Joseph Steib of War on the Rocks details the failure of interventionist narratives and practices in the Global War on Terror and its effects on U.S. policy in Ukraine.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, neoconservative and liberal narratives built bipartisan support for a highly interventionist response. Despite their differences, these narratives converged in concluding that the solution to terrorism was transforming the countries from which it emerged, specifically through the application of U.S. military power in the Middle East. But when the war in Iraq turned into a violent quagmire, anti-interventionist critics from the nationalist right and progressive left got a new hearing for their ideas. Both sets of critics rejected the idea of transforming foreign societies, and were more skeptical of military intervention in general.

Indeed, the larger crisis of the U.S. political establishment is linked to the failure of the interventionist visions of the Global War on Terror. Support for the Iraq War became a political liability, as figures like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush discovered in the 2016 primaries. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both gained political momentum from their once-marginal critiques of an elite that had misconceived and misled the response to terrorism while neglecting domestic problems. Former interventionist intellectuals now focus on defending liberal democracy against assaults from within and without rather than on efforts to democratize the world.

In short, the constituency for post-9/11 dreams of global transformation has collapsed. In response, the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations have all sought to limit U.S. interventions. Now, as President Biden seeks to rally political support for his policy in Ukraine, it remains to be seen just how much the Global War on Terror and its backlash have transformed debates over U.S. foreign policy.

The independent Russian media agency Meduza received the permission of St. Petersburg media outlet Bemuga to publish the inspirational story of an opposition politician in St. Petersburg who came out as gay last month.

On June 24, in an interview with the LGBT+ health website Parni Plus (“Guys Plus”), Troshin came out as gay. While some may see his timing as imprudent— after all, the Russian government is currently both waging a war of aggression against Ukraine and preparing legislation that would further demonize LGBT+ people — Troshin saw coming out as both an important move towards a more progressive Russia and an important step in his personal journey.

“No matter what time you choose, there will always be someone who says it’s the wrong time,” Troshin said. “[But] all coming-out announcements, especially those of public figures, help to reduce homophobia and move society closer to living up to European values. The government is trying to lead the country in a completely different direction right now, of course, but I’m confident that progress can’t be stopped.” […]

There’s no question that LGBT+ people have become a scapegoat for the Russian government as it seeks to justify increasingly illiberal policies as necessary measures against an attack on “traditional values” from the West. Troshin recognizes that while still maintaining his belief that equality will prevail in Russia. “I don’t think you can stop progress,” he said. “And that means that the LGBT rights situation will inevitably improve. I’m confident that it won’t be long before there are gay parades on Nevsky Prospekt and rainbow flags on government buildings, including Smolny, on pride week.”

Finally today, Michelle Young of The Wilson Quarterly writes about the efforts to preserve Ukraine’s artwork and cultural heritage.

In Lyiv, local volunteers worked rapidly to protect historical monuments in the old town, one of seven UNESCO World Heritage sites in Ukraine. The effort, according to Lilia Onyshchenko, who serves as the head of historical preservation for the city and spoke to the Los Angeles Times, involved using “whatever materials they could find—ideally fireproof.” She told them, “They built scaffolding around iconic structures, hoisted cranes to affix plywood to protect delicate stained-glass windows, stowed away gold-lacquered panels from the churches in basements and hallways and cached foam-wrapped artwork in bunkers.”

Marc Young, an experienced disaster relief operator, who assisted in bringing in vehicles for rescue efforts in Ukraine says, “Almost all cultural heritage sites, churches, and government buildings had some level of protection initially. Obviously it took some time after the bombing started to fortify them [with] sandbagging around foundations and boarding or corrugated metal covering of windows. This lasted for a short term at some sites in the West and Kyiv, as some had been removed during my three months. The ‘protection’ for the most part would have been from incidental contact. In my opinion a missile strike in close proximity would have rendered most of the efforts worthless. In Bucha and Irpin I did see indiscriminate damage that included churches and sites of historical importance.”

Cities in eastern Ukraine did not have as much time as the ones further west. Kyiv and Kharkiv were hard hit, and artworks there could not be moved in time. The Washington Post reported that “the windows of Kharkiv’s main art museum have been blown out, subjecting the 25,000 artworks inside to freezing temperatures and snow for weeks. . . . Twenty-five works by one of Ukraine’s most celebrated painters, Maria Prymachenko, famed for her colorful representation of Ukrainian folklore and rural life, were burned when Russians bombed the museum housing them in a town outside Kyiv. Other museums in the capital are boarded up, their works still inside because those who would have evacuated them have fled.”

Have a good day, everyone!