How Can We Solve Democracy's Problems?

Nov 4, 2016
Originally published on November 4, 2016 8:07 am

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode Democracy On Trial

About Jonathan Tepperman's TED Talk

After immersing himself in the politics of Brazil, Canada, Indonesia, and many other countries, Jonathan Tepperman emerges with an optimistic view: democracy is remarkably pliant — and resilient.

About Jonathan Tepperman

Jonathan Tepperman is the managing editor of Foreign Affairs. Tepperman's new book is called The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline. It explores ten of the world's more pervasive and seemingly intractable challenges and shows that, contrary to general consensus, each has a solution.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Do you think that democracy is in peril today?

JONATHAN TEPPERMAN: That's a really tough question. If you look at the long-term trend lines, I'd say no because there are so many more democracies on the planet today than there were 20, 30, 40 years ago.

RAZ: This is Jonathan Tepperman. He's the managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine.

TEPPERMAN: But, you know, there's the big fact that we see just a spectacular level of dysfunction here in the United States, which is scary because it is seriously tarnishing what is, after all, the greatest model for a successful democracy in the world.

RAZ: Right.

TEPPERMAN: And you hear - you know, you go to China today, or you go to Russia and you hear a lot of people saying - why should we look at the United States for an example? You guys can't get anything right.

RAZ: Right.

TEPPERMAN: So democracy is in trouble. Do I think the disease is a fatal one? No. Because there's not really much sign that the appetite for democracy is diminishing.

RAZ: So a few years ago, Jonathan decided to see for himself just how big a test democracy is facing and whether some countries around the world are figuring out solutions to those challenges.

TEPPERMAN: I logged up about 100,000 frequent flyer miles. Brazil, Mexico - I went to Indonesia, spent some time in South Korea. I went to Canada, although I didn't get a lot of miles for that and I got to stay with my parents when I was there. And I went to Botswana as well.

RAZ: OK. So let me ask you about Canada, which is a great example because Canada is, like, a cool country. Right? Like, everyone loves Canada.

TEPPERMAN: Isn't it the best?

RAZ: You guys are, like, the rock stars of the democratic world.

TEPPERMAN: We are, and I'm loving every minute of it.

RAZ: Needless to say, Jonathan isn't exactly impartial about Canada. But he went there to look at one major issue, an issue that is totally vexing for a lot of Western democracies but an issue that, in Canada, they seemed to have completely figured out - immigration. Jonathan picks up that idea from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

TEPPERMAN: Canada, today, is among the world's most welcoming nations, even compared to other immigration-friendly countries. If you ask Canadians what makes them proudest of their country, they rank multiculturalism, a dirty word in most places, second, ahead of hockey.

(LAUGHTER)

TEPPERMAN: Hockey.

In other words, at a time when other countries are now frantically building new barriers to keep foreigners out, Canadians want even more of them in. Canada wasn't always like this. Until the mid-1960s, Canada followed an explicitly racist immigration policy. So how did that Canada become today's Canada?

Well, despite what my mom in Ontario will tell you, the answer had nothing to do with virtue. The real explanation involves the man who became Canada's leader in 1968, Pierre Trudeau, who's also the father of the current prime minister.

(APPLAUSE)

TEPPERMAN: The thing to know about that first Trudeau is that he was a French speaker in a country long-dominated by its English elite. He was an intellectual. He was even kind of groovy. The guy did yoga. He hung out with the Beatles. But he nevertheless pulled off one of the most progressive transformations any country has ever seen. First, Canada threw out its old race-based immigration rules and it replaced them with new colorblind ones that emphasized education, experience and language skills instead. And what that did was greatly increase the odds that newcomers would contribute to the economy. Then Trudeau created the world's first policy of official multiculturalism to promote the idea that diversity was the key to Canada's identity. And these two influences soon combined to create the passionately open-minded Canada of today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TEPPERMAN: Immigration in Canada is at an extraordinarily high level today. Canada admitted three times more Syrian refugees in the last year than did the United States. And, by the way, Canada is now really the only country in the developed world which has had no populist backlash against immigration.

RAZ: OK, Canada, not bad, right? But what about a bigger and more complicated democracy? Well, another place Jonathan went is a country that often gets overlooked but a country with the fourth-largest population in the world, Indonesia.

TEPPERMAN: Indonesia is a very messy place. It's made up of 17,000 islands, people speak close to a thousand languages and is the world's single-biggest Muslim country. And the country's politics are quite shambolic. But for all of that, the country is a pretty decent high-functioning democracy, especially considering the fact that it has managed to conquer the rise of political Islam and Islamic terrorism as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

TEPPERMAN: In 1998, the people of Indonesia took to the streets and overthrew their longtime dictator, Suharto. It was an amazing moment, but it was also a scary one. Experts feared that without him keeping a lid on things, the country would explode or religious extremists would take over and turn Indonesia into a tropical version of Iran.

Since then, however, Indonesia has taken a surprising turn. While ordinary folks have grown more pious on a personal level, the country's politics have moved in the opposite direction. Indonesia is now a pretty decent democracy. Islamist parties have steadily lost support. As for terrorism, it's now extremely rare.

In 2014, I went to Indonesia to ask its current president, a soft-spoken technocrat named Joko Widodo why is Indonesia thriving? Well, what we realized, he told me, is that to deal with extremism, we needed to deal with inequality first. See, Indonesia's religious parties, like similar parties elsewhere, had tended to focus on things like reducing poverty and cutting corruption. So that's what Jokowi and his predecessors did, too, thereby stealing the Islamist thunder.

They also cracked down hard on terrorism. But Indonesia's democrats have learned that repression only creates more extremism, so they waged their war with extraordinary delicacy. They used the police instead of the army. They held public trials. They even sent liberal imams into the jails to persuade the jihadists that terror is un-Islamic. And all of this paid off in spectacular fashion, creating the kind of country that was unimaginable 20 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: OK, so if a place like Indonesia is figuring out how to handle this - right? - like, the challenges that democracy faces, I'm assuming that you are optimistic about the future of democracy.

TEPPERMAN: I am. Number one, there are solutions to all of these big problems. Number two, these solutions tend to come at moments of existential peril, just when things look like they're at their absolute worst. And that's for a really simple reason, which is those moments make people serious about actually doing something and they sweep away a lot of the obstacles that ordinarily block reform.

And, you know, the last lesson that I draw is, you know, we shouldn't give up hope because it's not productive and because it's not necessary because as I found time and time again, there are stories of many, many countries who came right to the brink and then not only managed to pull themselves back, but managed to make these fundamental changes that have allowed them to thrive in a way they never have before.

RAZ: Jonathan Tepperman is the author of "The Fix: How Nations Survive And Thrive In A World In Decline." You can watch his entire talk at ted.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S WORK TOGETHER")

WILBERT HARRISON: (Singing) Together we will stand, divided we'll fall. Come on now, people, let's get on the ball and work together. Come on, come on, let's work together, now, now, people. Say, now together we will stand, every boy, girl, woman and man.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show, Democracy on Trial, this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, go to ted.npr.org. To see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app. Our production staff here at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Brent Baughman, Megan Cain (ph), Neva Grant, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Casey Herman and Rachel Faulkner, with help from Daniel Shukin. Our intern is Camilo Garzon. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Kelly Stoetzel and Janet Lee. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.