Protecting Democracy

[Music] one of the reasons we so many of us are concerned about democracy we are concerned about it and Ian basson is out to fix democracy he created a nonprofit that fights threats to Democracy in America he's a skull awarde and MacArthur Grant's genius Award winner in 2023 please Welcome to our stage Ian bassen welcome good to have you here hello hello it's nice to see you all uh I'm excited to talk about one of the gravest challenges I think we're facing as a nation and the world right now it's
the challenge to our democracy I want to go back to begin to the night before the American Presidential Inauguration in 2009 when I received an Urgent Message probably came through on a Blackberry back then right uh that said to go to a random address in Washington DC to pick up a package I was wearing a tuxedo I was at the inaugural ball because the next day I was supposed to enter the White House as a lawyer for the new president so I slipped out of the ball and I ran I think it was raining across Washington to the designated address where the doorman of the building handed me a plastic grocery bag that was bursting with three thick binders and it had my name written on a Post-It note on the outside of the bag it said Jason Bourne no didn't say that you got to let the nerdy lawyer have a little fun no it said my name on it um and I was supposed to bring these binders with me into the White House the next day
for the next three years those binders would become my Bible they contained in them memos going back to the Eisenhower White House at White House councils and Chiefs of Staff had sent out to executive branch officials explaining what people were allowed to do and what they were not allowed to do in the performance of their jobs if people in the White House had questions about what they could do I'd consult the binders and if the binders didn't contain the answer I called the lawyer who did my job for President Bush and if he couldn't answer the two of us called the lawyer who did it for President Clinton it didn't matter whether we were working for a Democratic or Republican president the rules were the same from Administration to Administration and they contained things like limits on when people in the White House can contact the Department of Justice so that we couldn't tell them who to investigate or who to prosecute because in a democracy those sorts of law enforcement decisions are supposed to be made at arms length from politics
so after the presidential election in 2016 my fellow White House Council alumni and I began to grow concerned what would happen if an Administration came into office that wasn't as committed to upholding the rules and those binders as every administration had before what would happen if a political movement was organized almost in opposition to them well we didn't really need to wonder about that because movements and leaders like that have been rising across the world in the 21st century these movements have been seeking to replace liberal democracy with more illiberal and autocratic forms of government and so my colleagues and I decided to launch what was a modest effort at first to try to preserve and enforce the rules that were in those binders for generations to come we called our effort protect democracy but over the last eight years as the threat has grown so have our
efforts we are now a team of more than 120 democracy advocates in more than 25 States we include progressives moderates and conservatives I have people on my staff who work for Senator Elizabeth Warren and people who work for Senator Ted Cruz if you want to come to a fun Thanksgiving dinner come join us there's a lot of mashed potatoes flying around but we are united in our commitment that our belief in democracy transcends our disagreement on any number of other issues so I want to explain a little bit about what we see as the dangers facing democracy both at home and abroad and some things that we all can do to protect it so the first thing to understand is how these modern authoritarian movements dismantle democracy because it's not like it used to be and we all read about in social studies class in school back in the prior Century typically democracy died at the barrel of a gun tanks rolled through the town square and abolished democ outright creating one party
dictatorships that's not what happens in the 21st century typically with Ukraine being an extreme exception democracy dies in the 21st century when an anti-democratic leader comes to power normally through the regular electoral process and then operates like a trojan horse dismantling the system from within and there's a playbook for doing so the authoritarian Playbook and it's the same if you look at it across the world from Venezuela to Hungary from Turkey to Brazil it contains seven steps first these autocratic movements politicize independent institutions like the Civil Service law enforcement and eventually the military second they spread disinformation including from the government third they grandis power in the hands of the executive and undermine checks on that power like legislatures or courts or the the enemy of the People
Press or importantly the private sector because businesses often operate as independent centers of power from government that can serve as important bullworks against autocracy just asked by berer and Disney about what happens when they try to do that fourth they quash descent fifth they scapegoat and delegitimize vulnerable and minority groups this has been the tyrant's favorite tool since Antiquity because if you pit people against each other on the basis of race or religion or sexual orientation it's easier to pick their pockets of money and power fifth they corrupt elections or simply deny their results and finally they Stoke and inight violence and yes we have seen all of this play out in the United States in recent years now
there's a reason why this Playbook can potentially be effective and it's not because people openly want authoritarian government it's not even like people privately secretly Pine for it no it's that in times of Rapid change when people feel anxiety about the future at times when our politics and our democracy seem broken and unable to address the challenges of a rapidly changing time it can be tempting to think if we just Empower someone a little bit more maybe they can smash through what's not working I alone can fix it we're told in times like these and the truth is an all powerful leader can cut through the morass they don't need to negotiate legislation overcome filibusters defend their policies in court they can just do it man
that more housing be built or do we train enough doctors that we make our system ruthlessly efficient maybe discard people who are unproductive or just old that we confiscate people's property in order to enrich and empower the leader and his allies that we imprison anyone who opposes or speaks out or questions the leader at all because that's how it always goes just ask the young person in Nicaragua whose father was abducted for saying the wrong thing about the government were the student in Turkey who was arrested for attending a band
Art Exhibit the family of Alexi Nal now there are many who say but this can't happen here that's what they all thought the truth is the only way it can happen here is if we think that it can't the good news is we still have time and the power to prevent that authoritarian Playbook from ultimately succeeding in the United States how by exercising the one thing democracies protect that autocracies take away the power to choose because Underneath It All democracy is simply based on choices and not just in big moments like elections but in the small ones that people exercise every day in a democracy right that's what I learned from the binders
choose to follow them or choose not to so I want to talk a little bit about some great choices that have been made in recent years to preserve our democracy some not so great ones and then end on choices we all can make to be the difference so first the Democracy protecting Choice Ruby Freeman and her daughter sheos stepped up to work as election workers to help help their fellow citizens in the state of Georgia vote during the 2020 election during a pandemic and they did their jobs with honor and with Integrity never imagining what was going to happen next that a candidate who refused to accept the outcome of election and his allies would Target them and falsely accuse them of corrupting the election they became the subjects of vile and racist harassment and intimidation one of them had to flee her heart home for her own safety on advice
on the advice of the FBI after what happened to Ruby and Shay it would have been completely understandable if they had retreated even more into their private lives and had they done that we would have moved just a little bit further away from protecting our democracy but they made a different choice they chose to stand up represented by our organization they sued the people who falsely defamed them recently winning a $148 million verdict again against one of the chief architects of that defamation former mayor of my hometown in New York City and in doing that they have achieved both a precedent and a deterrent against anyone doing to others what has been done to them unfortunately not everyone is making as good choices as Ruby and Shay most worryingly people with far more institutional power are making choices that are as bad had for democracy as
rubies and Shays were good a brief lesson from history the inter War period in Europe between World War I and World War II extremist extremist movements were Rising across the continent in Belgium and in Finland the mainstream center right parties saw the extremists on their flank for what they were threats to the very foundations of their Democratic systems and so they did the hard thing they formed an alliance with their traditional opponents on the left in order to block those extremists from power in Italy and in Germany the mainstream center right parties made a different Choice there they calculated that they could ride the energy of the extremists on their flank to power and then once there Seline the extremist leaders we all know how tragically that turned
out too many today in America's mainstream center right world have made a similar calculation that they too can ride the energy of extremists to power and then sideline the extremist leaders they still have time to make a different choice because protecting democracy requires people who disagree about politics and policy to put those differences aside when the very Foundation of self-government are at risk but when you look back on recent years and you add up all the pro-democracy choices people have made and the anti-democracy choices The Ledger is about even with our democracy teetering in the balance and I see that as an opportunity because that means that the choices that we all make can tip the balance and we all have incredibly important choices to make the most important of which to me is how we treat
each other as fellow citizens now it may seem quaint but how we regard one another as fellow Americans is fundamental to democracy Alexis daville when he tour this country in 1830 described these as the habits of the heart that he credited as being responsible for the maintenance of a Democratic Republic in the United States because at the end of the day how our elected officials behave is always Downstream of how we behave as Citizens if we meet each other and we see our differences as reasons for fear and hostility towards one another our elected officials will do that too and authoritarians thrive on that sort of division and hatred they want to Stu our fears because when we're afraid we're more likely to see a strong man as a means of protection but if instead we meet our neighbors and see our differences as opportunities for
curiosity and connection to build Bridges to one another eventually our elected officials will represent that as well and we will put democracy on HomeField advantage against authoritarianism but right now I worry we're acting too much out of fear fear our democracy is dying and it's causing us to be hostile to one another and I will admit there are times that I am guilty of this too so I want to offer something I've been reflecting on that has been helping me reorient how I think about this moment it's a verse from a song by Leonard con appropriately titled democracy and it goes like this and no I'm not going to sing it I'm a lawyer it's coming to America First the Cradle of the best and of the
worst it's here we got the range and the machinery for change it's here we got the spiritual thirst it's here the families broken and it's here the lonely say that the heart has got to open in a fundamental way democracy is coming to the USA democracy is coming to the USA you know we tend to think of the moment we're in in negative terms as a dark and scary time pretending the end of democracy but in our long history as a nation and as a world in our long journey to achieve the thing we've aspired to but never had a truly inclusive multi-racial multiethnic multi-religious democracy every major Advance towards that goal has been preceded by a crucible of crisis and
conflict when Brave black Americans marched across the Edmund Pettis bridge in Selma to secure the right to vote there's no downplaying the pain and suffering and cracked skulls that they endured but they LED our nation to the Fuller democracy on the other side I think we're living through a similar moment where the last gasps of an old order are rising up to stop our progress towards the Fuller democracy that we've always sought and if we do what the song lyrics suggest if we open our hearts in a fundamental way to one another as Citizens as fellow Americans I am confident that democracy true democracy is coming to the USA those binders that I inherited that night in 2009 they never made it past
the administration in which I served when the next Administration came into office there was no one for me to give them to who would honor them like so many had before so I'm going to give them to you to all of us if our 250-year experiment in self-government is to continue it is going to be up to us to choose to preserve it we the people we have that choice because that's what democracy protects democracy is about having choices authoritarianism is about not having them make the wrong choice we can absolutely lose that freedom but ultimately the final choice will be ours thank [Applause] you [Music]