Timothy Snyder: Is democracy doomed? The global fight for our future

Recorded atOctober 14, 2022
EventTED Membership
Duration (min:sec)32:43
Video TypeOriginal Content
Words per minute225.21 very fast
Readability (FK)54.38 medium
SpeakerTimothy Snyder

Official TED page for this talk


If you think democracy is some kind of inevitable, default setting for the world, then you aren't going to have it for very long, says historian and author Timothy Snyder. From World War I to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Snyder dives into the structures that uplift and tear down political systems, offering a historical perspective on the current state of democracy around the world as well as the patterns of thought that lead to tyranny. Learn more about a new approach to democracy that could help create and protect a future of freedom. (This conversation, hosted by TED current affairs curator Whitney Pennington Rodgers, was part of an exclusive TED Membership event. Visit ted.com/membership to become a TED Member.)

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100:03 I'm speaking to you from the United States, and my mind is often on the United States.
200:08 I'm speaking to you as a historian of Eastern Europe, among other things, a historian of Ukraine.
300:14 So that helps a bit to define where I'm coming from.
400:19 So the topic that I've been asked to address is whether democracy is in decline, whether democracy is doomed and what can we do?
500:27 I think where I'd like to start is with the question itself, with the word democracy and how we think about the word democracy.
600:37 What I worry about is when we treat democracy as a noun, as a thing, and ask questions about it. Is it advancing, is it receding, is it ascending, is it declining?
700:49 We are separating it from ourselves in a way which is unhelpful.
800:53 Democracy is not really out there in the world as a thing.
900:57 Democracy, if it exists at all, exists inside us.
1001:01 Democracy has to begin with a desire for the people to rule, which of course, is what democracy is all about.
1101:08 So I tend to think that in a way it's more useful to think of democracy as a verb rather than as a noun.
1201:15 I realize grammatically that's incorrect, but I think you understand the spirit of what I mean, that democracy is something that you do.
1301:23 It's something that, when you speak the word, you have to be taking responsibility for it.
1401:27 Because ... if you’re talking about something that's just out there in the world, something that's a result of larger forces, something that's a result of some constellation of influences that doesn't have to do with you or with the people, then you're not really talking about democracy.
1501:44 Or, what's worse, if we talk about democracy as something that's out there in the world, as something that's a result of larger forces, such as, for example, capitalism, I think we're not just making an analytical mistake.
1601:58 I think we're also committing a kind of ethical and political suicide.
1702:03 I think the moment that we say democracy is the result of larger forces, democracy is somehow natural, democracy is the default state of affairs, we’re not just making a mistake, we’re making ourselves into the kinds of people who aren't going to have a democracy.
1802:21 So to be clear about what I mean, obviously there are some conditions which favor or don't favor a democracy, I wouldn't doubt that.
1902:29 Modernity does tend to bring larger-scale politics that makes democracy possible, perhaps, but it certainly doesn't bring it.
2002:36 Capitalism is certainly consistent with democracy.
2102:39 There are plenty of capitalist democracies, but there are also plenty of states that are capitalist and are quite tyrannical.
2202:45 So capitalism is consistent with democracy, but it doesn't bring us democracy.
2302:50 And I think in the West, at least, and especially in the English-speaking West, this has been one of the chief mistakes of the last three decades, to believe that larger forces in general, or capitalism in particular, are going to bring us democracy.
2403:05 The belief which was so widespread after the revolutions of 1989 or the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, that there were no alternatives or that history was over.
2503:16 The problem with that, I think we've seen in the last 30 years, is that if you think democracy is being brought to you, then you lose the sense that democracy is a struggle, as it always has to be, as Frederick Douglass said.
2603:27 You lose the muscles and even the muscle memory of what it means to carry out that struggle.
2703:32 And maybe slightly more subtly, but also, really importantly, you lose the past and you lose the future.
2803:37 Because if you think that democracy is inevitable, that it’s somehow being brought about by larger forces, well, then all those things that happened in the past don't really matter.
2903:46 They just kind of become cocktail-party conversation.
3003:48 And if you're sure that there's only one future, a democratic future, then you lose the habit and the ability to talk about multiple possible futures.
3103:55 And you also, along the way, lose the capacity for recognizing other kinds of political systems as they emerge, as they have emerged in the 21st Century.
3204:04 And then finally, and this is a little tricky, but I think it's quite crucial.
3304:08 You also lose your ability to process facts.
3404:11 We're in a world where the whole notion of factuality is questioned, and I think this is related to our problem with democracy.
3504:17 If you think that democracy is coming inevitably, if you tell stories about, for example, historical arcs that have to tend in a certain direction, then what you'll tend to do is move the facts so that they fit the narratives.
3604:28 And soon we find ourselves only talking about narratives and not talking about facts.
3704:33 Or we find ourselves in countries that claim to be democracies, but no longer have the journalists who are out there producing the facts that we need to have for democracy.
3804:41 So we have what we have.
3904:43 I mean, the answer to the question, is democracy doomed? No.
4004:47 Obviously, we can do things. But is it in decline? Certainly.
4104:50 By any measurable, by any meaningful metric, democracy is in decline in my home country and on average around the world.
4204:58 And we're also in the very specific situation where a non-democracy, Russia, is fighting to destroy a democratic country, Ukraine, which is a sign that things have gone pretty far.
4305:10 Now, the Ukrainians, I would suggest, have given us some indication of what we ought to be doing.
4405:16 What the Ukrainians are doing in resisting this invasion, is that they're resisting the larger forces.
4505:21 If we think back to the beginning of the war, everyone assumed that Ukraine would collapse in a few days.
4605:26 That was the wisdom, not only in Moscow but also in Washington, DC.
4705:31 In defending the basic idea that you choose your own leaders, the Ukrainians are reminding us that democracy isn't about the larger forces.
4805:39 It often involves ignoring the larger forces, resisting the larger forces, ignoring the people who tell you that it can't be done.
4905:47 And here I think we see a sign of our crisis, which is that many people, at least in my country, and I think more broadly, the reason why they thought that the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, would flee or the reason they thought that the Ukrainians wouldn't resist is that they themselves would have fled and they themselves wouldn't have resisted.
5006:06 That is to say, the idea that democracy is something that you do yourself or for which you take risks had receded so far out of our imagination that we couldn't really imagine that a country would take risks for democracy.
5106:19 Now, of course, I'm citing the example which is close to me.
5206:22 There are many other people around the world taking risks now for freedom, for example, women in Iran.
5306:27 What I'm trying to say is that that ethical point, that democracy is about wanting democracy is essential.
5406:35 Without that, nothing else matters.
5506:37 Without the ability to think of democracy as a verb, as something that you do, as something for which you'll take risks, nothing else matters.
5606:45 If there's that commitment, if we think of democracy as something for which we take responsibility every time we speak the word as opposed to something that's just coming to us, then it's like we're doing politics in a different dimension, a fifth dimension of ethics.
5706:58 And once we've done that, we can start to speak about how we would change the larger forces.
5807:04 Once we make that commitment, then we can say some basic things, like, for example, we have to also have the fourth dimension, the fourth dimension of time.
5907:13 We need to have a sense of the future for democracy.
6007:16 We have to care for the Earth.
6107:17 We have to care specifically about global warming, because if the future collapses in on us, it becomes impossible to have the kind of reasonable conversation that we need for democracy.
6207:27 We also need the fourth dimension in the sense of the past.
6307:31 We have to have history.
6407:32 We have to be able to reckon with forces, like, for example, colonialism, which is so important in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but also so important in the history of the United States. ...
6507:41 We need the past so that we can reckon with ourselves and self-correct because self-correction is what democratic decision-making is all about.
6607:50 We also need the first three dimensions, simply being able to move about in the world in all the senses of moving about that one can imagine.
6707:57 And all of those ways of moving about are hindered by economic inequality.
6808:01 Economic inequality, oligarchy, makes it very hard to have conversations about democracy, the future, or the past.
6908:08 A lot of the space is monopolized by things that are simply ridiculous, but happen because of the way that wealth is distributed.
7008:15 And economic inequality, in very simple sense, also hinders social mobility, economic advance.
7108:21 Finally, democracy, at least in my country, but not only in my country, has to be understood as a spirit.
7208:27 That is, the way that the laws should be interpreted, the way that the future should arrive, rather than as a matter of legalism.
7308:34 In the Supreme Court of the United States, but not only, this has advanced much further in other countries like Hungary, taking the procedures as being more important than the democracy, more important than the right, is a way of leading the country away from democracy.
7408:48 And in my country, it could lead us all the way away from democracy as soon as the next couple of years.
7508:54 It doesn't have to do so.
7608:55 We can think about these larger structures.
7708:58 We can think in a non-legalistic and in a more ethical way.
7809:01 We can get our minds around this.
7909:03 Whitney Pennington Rodgers: Maybe a good place to start is, and it's sort of a big question, but just how did we get to this place?
8009:09 How did we end up here where we are grappling with these questions, especially, you know, you're based in the United States, as am I, and lots on this call are from all over the world, but I think are struggling with these things wherever they are.
8109:24 But how did we find ourselves in this place?
8209:26 Timothy Snyder: I think in our country, we have a big empty middle space between, you know, complacency, the view that we just are a democracy because we're America.
8309:38 You know, by definition, or the past has given it to us.
8409:42 The Founding Fathers did something two and a half centuries ago, and therefore we just are a democracy.
8509:47 Or as I said, we have capitalism, therefore we just are a democracy, or we just say it over and over again, and therefore we are democracy, right?
8609:54 We have ... various flavors of exceptionalism.
8709:57 We have that.
8809:58 And then on the other side, we have a history that reminds us of how difficult it's been for us to be a democracy where women were excluded from the vote for more than half of the history of the country, where African-Americans are still de facto excluded from the vote in much of the country, right?
8910:14 The entire thing has been a struggle.
9010:16 So there's this gap which can only be filled, I think, by historical knowledge and by ethics.
9110:22 I think we've had trouble getting through that gap, partly because in the last 30 years we sort of convinced ourselves that the facts about the past don't really matter.
9210:30 And then the other thing which I think is going on, which is related, is that people are so worried about the future that it's hard for them to imagine that like, counting votes and representation and these basic things are really what matters.
9310:43 And I think that, you know, everyone, almost everyone is afraid of the future, whether you’re afraid of climate change, which I think is reasonable, or whether you're afraid of demography, which I think is not reasonable.
9410:54 It's all part of one big sense that the future is crashing down.
9510:57 And if you think the future's crashing down, then democracy becomes a kind of secondary concern.
9611:02 And then you kind of look up and look around and you think, “Oh, it’s slipping away.”
9711:06 WPR: I think to this idea of thinking about the future, so in 2017, you released the book “On Tyranny,” which was positioned as a sort of a guide to resistance.
9811:17 And you start that book by saying "history does not repeat, but it does instruct."
9911:22 And I'm curious, just maybe as a place to jump off to other questions, to think about how you, as a historian who gives a lot of thought to the current moment, use that thinking to guide you.
10011:36 TS: Oh, thank you, that's a really kind question.
10111:39 I appreciate the assumption that history matters.
10211:42 I think you've named the way that history matters the most, which is pattern recognition.
10311:47 So, for example, when the book was invented, that caused 150 years of mental chaos and religious war.
10411:57 And now books are a very nice thing, right, now we all love books.
10512:00 And we're in the internet and we're kind of in that same stage where it's causing all sorts of chaos.
10612:06 Eventually, we'll probably get it under control.
10712:08 But we shouldn't be surprised it's causing all kinds of chaos.
10812:12 Another good example is the way that, historically speaking, the people who have cared about democracy have also been the ones who have talked about risk.
10912:23 And, I cited Frederick Douglass, there's a whole African-American tradition of this.
11012:27 But there's also a deep tradition which goes all the way back to the meaning of the word democracy in ancient Greece, where, when Pericles is talking about democracy, he can't talk about democracy without physical risk.
11112:39 There's not an assumption that democracy is just brought.
11212:42 There's the conviction -- this is important -- there's the conviction that it's better.
11312:46 And then there's the assumption that it will take lots of work, right?
11412:50 And that, you know, democracy ... usually fails.
11512:53 History shows us it usually fails.
11612:55 But when it's out there, when it's on the rise, there's this knowledge that it's difficult and then there's this conviction that it's better.
11713:02 And in my talk, my little tiny talk, I was trying to get across this conviction. ...
11813:06 You can’t just say it’s like, out there and it's either there or it's not there.
11913:10 Because the moment that you think it's brought by the outside forces, if the outside forces aren't going your way, then you just turn tail and run.
12013:17 But if you think, "Actually, I'm convinced this is much better than the alternatives," then you might react a little bit differently.
12113:23 WPR: It's better, but harder.
12213:25 TS: Better, but harder.
12313:26 WPR: Better but harder.
12413:28 Well .. you have a book out now, “The Road to Unfreedom,” and it looks at basically how tyranny has been able to thrive in spaces in Europe, particularly, you know, you talk a lot about Russia.
12513:47 And this book came out in 2018, which preceded the war in Ukraine.
12613:51 But there are a lot of things there that I think sort of signpost what's really to come and what's been happening there for, as you detail, many, many decades.
12714:01 And, you know, I think one thing that you outline in there is this idea of two different types of tyrannical politics that I think is sort of helpful in thinking about how we might see these threats to democracy that are happening globally.
12814:16 You know, you talk about this idea of inevitability politics, and eternity politics.
12914:21 And I’d love for you to spend a few minutes sort of describing these two.
13014:24 How did they come to exist and what is the threat that they each pose?
13114:30 TS: Thank you for that.
13214:31 So the politics of inevitability is what I was talking about earlier in my little talk, just without using the name.
13314:38 It's the idea that everything is coming to you.
13414:41 It's the idea of progress.
13514:43 It's the idea that there are no alternatives, that history is over and that we’re all just kind of on a vector where things are going to turn out OK.
13614:53 And the problem with that is not just that it's not true, but that it paves the way for worse things.
13714:58 So if you think there's only one future, it's a short step to thinking there are no futures.
13815:02 If you think technology is always going to be good, it's very easy not to notice when technology starts to turn against you or against democracy.
13915:10 If you think capitalism is going to bring democracy, then you're not going to be as alert to inequality as you should be.
14015:15 Or you might say inequality is fine, it's a sign the system is working, which is, I think, completely wrong.
14115:20 And then at some point, all of this snaps and you lose the one future you thought you had and you make a turn towards, as we've already seen in the US, a politics of eternity, where suddenly nobody's talking about the future.
14215:32 Everything's a cycle back towards the past.
14315:35 The leading politicians are talking about how to make the country great again, you know, which is, I think, senseless.
14415:41 The ability to make connections across different kinds of people is lost because it's all about nostalgia
14515:49 and it's about the innocence that we once lost rather than the good policy that we might make.
14615:54 And then there's a third kind of politics, which follows after that, which we’re edging into if we’re not very careful -- I think of as the politics of catastrophe.
14716:02 Because one of the features of the politics of eternity is that it almost always denies climate change.
14816:07 The politics of inevitability says, yeah, there's climate change, but it's going to be okay, we're going to figure it out.
14916:13 The politics of eternity tends to deny science in general and climate change in particular, which then sets us up for something much worse.
15016:20 You can pretend that politics is all about the past, but while you're doing that, climate change is still happening and that means that a real catastrophe is coming.
15116:28 So the politics of eternity sets us up for something which is worse even.
15216:33 WPR: And I mean, you have detailed how sort of, these types of politics including the politics of catastrophe, have existed for quite some time.
15316:42 And I think when you think about this moment that we're in right now and sort of the present threats that might exist to democracy, how do you compare the way that we're experiencing these types of politics today versus other moments in history, for instance around either of the world wars or, you know, when you think about the Great Depression and other global crises, how are we positioned in a better place or a worse?
15417:06 TS: That's a great question, too.
15517:08 I think one way that it's better is that we do have the history.
15617:13 So things aren't exactly like 1933.
15717:19 Things aren't exactly like 1917 or 1939.
15817:23 But when we have that history, we can at least look for some patterns.
15917:27 And if we're serious about it, then we realize that, oh, look, there were moments where it seemed like the larger forces were definitely pushing away from democracy.
16017:37 And those larger forces are important.
16117:39 You know, you can recognize them, you can say, aha, economic inequality mattered a huge amount in the 1930s, and it certainly did.
16217:46 The sense that there was no future mattered a huge amount in the 1930s.
16317:50 That made it very tough for democracies.
16417:53 But we can also see that democracies came back from that, right?
16517:58 That democracies recovered from that.
16617:59 Countries which were at the very bottom, like Germany, within a few decades were at the very top, if we're considering how well their democracies work.
16718:06 So we have that history where we can diagnose and we can see that recovery is possible.
16818:11 And I think that does give us an advantage if we choose to use that advantage.
16918:15 I mean, one of the things I worry about us is that we tend to say like, everything is new, like, nothing has happened before.
17018:22 And of course, nothing is exactly like what's happened before.
17118:25 But the past gives us this terrific possibility to say, OK, things can go very, very, very wrong.
17218:30 They can go so wrong that it seems hopeless.
17318:33 And yet, recoveries can be staged.
17418:36 WPR: TED Member Pedro asks something that's somewhat connected to this.
17518:41 They say, "The forces against democracy today make use of advanced technologies and methods and the, dare I say, romantic democratic behavior of speaking, acting, protesting don't seem to be enough.
17618:51 What do you think about a more proactive or even defensive democracy like we see in Germany, for instance?
17718:56 Do we need to do more to update mindsets?"
17819:00 TS: Yeah, I'm all aboard for that.
17919:02 Number one, I'm going to go back to my obscure book comparison because this is one of the things that historians do.
18019:09 If we look at the book, like, I’m looking at a bunch of books, in my background, there are a bunch of books, they're in covers, they have copyright, they have authors.
18119:17 All that stuff had to be invented.
18219:19 When the printing press was created, there wasn't copyright or authorship.
18319:22 There was all kinds of plagiarism and slander and libel and abuse.
18419:26 And it did, in fact, lead to war.
18519:29 It led to wars in which a third of the population of Europe were killed.
18619:32 So here we are again with another communications technology.
18719:36 And with this other communications technology, we cannot think, oh, let's just let it do whatever it does.
18819:41 And like, the magical free market of blah blah, you know, there is no magical free market of blah blah.
18919:46 You have to have conventions which allow people to express themselves in a way which is consistent with basic decency and with the kinds of institutions that you want to have, like democracy.
19019:57 So the web is set up, the internet is set up in the way it is basically accidentally.
19120:02 There's no reason to say like, oh, this accident has some kind of foundational magical power and it can't be changed.
19220:09 There's no reason why social media has to be the way that it is right now.
19320:13 There's no reason why Facebook, for example, can't propose that, you know, algorithmically, that you go to local investigative reporting.
19420:23 There's no reason why we can't use proceeds from social media's huge profits to prop up that local media reporting, which would give people access to facts.
19520:31 In other words, it's a kind of magical thinking to say that the internet is the way that the internet has to be.
19620:37 And, you know, this is -- so I'm very much on board with that because I think that one of the things we got wrong in the last 30 years was the idea that like, this "high technology" would necessarily advance us.
19720:49 But in fact, a lot of this high technology is basically incredibly low-tech behaviorist brain hacks, which are just carried out on a massive scale and have the result that people find themselves more alienated, more isolated, and with more extreme views than they would have had otherwise.
19821:05 And so if we take the position that I started with, namely that democracy is a good thing and we need to commit ourselves to it, take responsibility for it, then we should say, "You know what?
19921:14 It's actually not that important that big, profitable countries get to carry out, infinitely scaled behaviorists brain hacks.
20021:21 That's not that important.
20121:23 What's important is that we have means of communicating with one another, which allow us to have the kinds of political systems which are worth valuing.
20221:30 So, yes is my answer to that question.
20321:32 WPR: TED Member Tore asks, "Processing narratives that support your beliefs rather than facts is a big issue for the US and other countries.
20421:38 Historically, what has been the self-correcting process to move back towards fact-based judgments?”
20521:43 Which I think is in some ways connected to this idea of the ways we use social media.
20621:49 TS: Yeah, that question is, I mean ... but that question is bang on.
20721:53 And one of the answers is we have to change the algorithms.
20821:56 But another answer is that we used to have -- not just in the US, but in other countries too, although it’s really striking here -- we used to have investigative reporting, and we really don’t anymore.
20922:08 We're in this very weird situation where all of us stare at screens all day long and what we're looking for is the news, you know?
21022:14 And me too, I do this, too.
21122:15 I’m looking for the latest thing that's happened in some region of Ukraine.
21222:19 But we don't actually have our system set up in such a way as to make it a way that people can make a living and actually go hunt down those stories.
21322:29 So we have this mechanism, the internet, which reproduces and which spins and which aims for profit.
21422:34 And the reason the facts are important is not just so that you kind of have them.
21522:38 It's also because facts are surprising.
21622:41 Like, the only thing that can challenge a narrative is a fact.
21722:44 My narrative, your narrative, doesn’t matter.
21822:46 But if there aren't any facts, our narratives are just going to rush forward unchallenged, right?
21922:50 And ... if I have a narrative and you have a narrative, those two aren’t going to correct each other.
22022:55 The only thing that corrects the narrative is surprising things that come in from the outside, which you're not really ready for, but which you kind of can't deny are maybe true, right?
22123:04 Like, that there’s mercury in your water or that your city council member just took a 50,000-dollar bribe or whatever it is, those things you’re not going to find out without the investigative reporting.
22223:14 So I agree with that, with the premise to this question, I'm giving investigative reporting as my answer.
22323:19 There are other answers, but I'm going to move on because I know there are other questions.
22423:24 WPR: We still have a lot of great member questions coming in.
22523:27 This one sort of looks at an issue that we haven't gotten into very much yet.
22623:31 TED Member Gabriela asks, "How serious is the role of fossil fuels, particularly oil, in threatening democracies in countries all over the world and consequently basic human rights?" TS: Yeah, it'll bring it to an end.
22723:44 I mean, one of the categories that I used in my book, "Road to Unfreedom" and in the new book that I’m writing -- which is a philosophy book about freedom, where I'm trying to sketch out a positive view of freedom and what freedom actually is ... and how the world could be better -- one of the concepts I use in these books is hydrocarbon oligarchy, which -- actually I think I've stripped it down to fossil oligarchy because that sounds a little bit -- maybe a little more, more easy to grasp or something.
22824:12 But I completely agree, we're never --
22924:14 The hydrocarbons, first of all, as I said before, they collapse the future and democracy needs a future.
23024:21 It's like oxygen for democracy.
23124:23 I mean, if you'll forgive the simple metaphor, it's like, if you can't see a future, then you don't see the point of negotiations and long conversations and balances.
23224:33 And, you know, if you don't see the future, then you think, "I've got to take something right now."
23324:38 You know, "I've got to take something right now," which is where climate change will inevitably drive most of us.
23424:43 Climate change is going to affect the least privileged people first.
23524:48 It's already doing that, but it will eventually drive all of us into this space where we think, "OK, I don't have time to talk.
23624:56 I have to look after, number one, I've got to look after my children, I have to take what I can take."
23725:02 And in that spirit, democracy can't thrive.
23825:04 And then secondly, hydrocarbon oligarchy leads to a situation where you have these people who, whether they have to be dictators or not, have this sort of whimsical power over the rest of us.
23925:16 So Vladimir Putin is the world’s leading hydrocarbon ... oligarch and like other hydrocarbon oligarchs, he has weird political ideas.
24025:24 He's not the only one, though, right?
24125:26 I mean, there are hydrocarbon oligarchs in the United States who think things like, well, there shouldn’t really be a government ... and let's all be libertarians, even though the only reason they have their own rights to exploit is that the state intervened on behalf of them, their company or their predecessors at some point.
24225:43 So hydrocarbons tend to concentrate wealth, and by concentrating wealth they also warp conversations and we end up then dealing with Russia invading Ukraine, which wouldn't be possible without hydrocarbon dependency.
24325:56 Or we end up in the US with these weird conversations about whether there should be a government or not, which wouldn’t be possible. ...
24426:03 The fact that in the United States money has a vote or money is considered to have freedom of speech is a direct result of hydrocarbon oligarchy.
24526:11 It's a direct result of that, right?
24626:13 So no, democracy will not make it with hydrocarbons.
24726:15 And I think these things are in a very intimate relationship, where we have to move on to different kinds of fuels, not just because of simple physical survival, but also in order to protect or really to advance or to make possible the kind of freedom we would want in the future.
24826:33 WPR: And we have a question from TED member Tau, which I find really interesting.
24926:37 Really interested to hear how you respond to this.
25026:39 They ask, "Why should democracy survive?
25126:43 Democracies have proved to be unstable, corrupt, filled with voter ignorance and finally, do not prevent wars or violence.
25226:49 Why should we hold on to this imperfect ideal and not instead make room for a new system that might emerge?" TS: To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the new systems that are emerging are all just a hell of a lot worse on all those criteria which were just mentioned, whether it was corruption, ignorance or disinterest of voters, there wouldn't be any more voters to be disinterested, for one thing.
25327:08 So, I mean, if we could look off at planet Venus and say, well, gosh, there's a system where people are happier and freer and live longer lives than our democracies, then maybe, yeah.
25427:17 But I’m looking at the really existing alternatives like China and Russia and so on, which are pushing themselves as a kind of model in the world that we actually live in.
25527:26 And on all the criteria that were just mentioned, they do worse.
25627:30 So the reason that -- I mean, I appreciate the question because of the "should" part of it, because I think it's indispensable in these conversations to answer the "should" question.
25727:40 The reason why I think democracy is a better kind of system is not because it's perfect, obviously.
25827:45 It's because I think that it, as the conceptual and ethical framework, gives us a place to aim for where we then can end up with better things than we have.
25927:56 So premise number one, democracies are flawed, but they can be made better or worse.
26028:01 And if you say, "Oh, they're all just doomed," or they're not really any better than like, you know, they’re not really any better than dying young in a prison in Russia ... or they're not really any better than being observed your entire life from cradle to grave and being homogenized like in China.
26128:16 If you start from that premise, then you're not going to get anywhere.
26228:20 But whereas democracy is the idea that the people will rule.
26328:23 And I think that's a better idea than that the people will not rule.
26428:27 And the reason why I think it’s a better idea is that ...
26528:30 I believe there’s something special about humans where we prosper and thrive and add something to the universe when we're free.
26628:38 I think democracy is the best framework for that.
26728:40 An improving democracy, a better democracy.
26828:44 So that's the first premise, right?
26928:46 The fact that things are imperfect doesn't mean that you toss them away.
27028:51 And the second premise is that these alternatives are actually really bad.
27128:56 So ... I’m happy to make room for better forms of representation, happy to make room for local assemblies.
27229:03 But I'm not happy to make room for hydrocarbon oligarchy.
27329:07 I'm not happy to make room for one-party rule.
27429:10 I'm not happy to make room for the things which are actually out there.
27529:14 WPR: And we actually have a couple of questions from a couple of members about kids and children, basically how to help them think about democracy, from both TED Member Areigna, and TED Member DK.
27629:26 How do we teach our kids to "do democracy?"
27729:30 TS: Yeah, I love that question.
27829:32 It's one that I struggle with all the time.
27929:34 But also it's one where I learn things from my own kids all the time, like, they say some pretty fresh things which help me out, some pretty clarifying things.
28029:45 So, I mean, with kids ...
28129:49 Look, I think you teach ... if you're dealing with young people, so I deal with younger people in my line of work and like, they can maybe, you know, tell me how wrong I am.
28230:02 But my general sense is that you can't tell young people, students or kids, that everything's going to be OK.
28330:08 Like, the politics of inevitability is obviously dead.
28430:11 And so stories about how, you know, everything's going to be OK, whether it's like, citing Martin Luther King or referring to the Founding Fathers, I think that's off the table.
28530:21 I think you have to talk about democracy as a struggle where there are really good examples and you teach the examples of democracy.
28630:31 I do think it's important, in teaching it as a struggle, to also be teaching it as an ideal.
28730:37 So America could be a democracy.
28830:40 Here's some of the ways that people have pushed in that direction in the past, ... that we need to be pushing in the future.
28930:46 And sorry that I'm talking about America.
29030:48 It's just that as soon as kids come in, I narrow down right away to my own country.
29130:54 So that it's a struggle and that it's a possible future.
29230:58 But I think maybe even more important than all those things is modeling democracy.
29331:03 Not in the sense that you have a vote about what you do with your kids, because then it's always like, let's eat a bag of candy or whatever.
29431:10 Not in the narrow sense, but modeling democracy in the sense of ...
29531:15 In the way that parents talk with their friends and in the way that, like, people around the house behave, that you get a sense of like, horizontal conversation and different interests being taken into account and things like that.
29631:27 That's about as well as I could do.
29731:29 I mean, if I had a magical answer to this, I'm sure my children would be much better behaved than they are.
29831:34 But, I mean, to repeat, I think in a way, it's kind of the other way around.
29931:38 Like, I try really hard to make sure I am listening to my kids, because in a way, all this is all about them.
30031:44 Like the big collapse that could happen where democracy and climate and all these things get intertwined.
30131:50 I mean, one of the premises of my book, which you were kind enough to ask about, is that we will either be free and secure or we will die under tyranny.
30232:01 That freedom and security go together.
30332:04 I think that freedom, democracy, security actually go together.
30432:07 If we're going to get out from under climate change, it's going to be as free people.
30532:11 And if we end up in tyrannies, those things are going to tend to accelerate climate change and profit from it so there's a negative intertwining over here and a positive one over here.
30632:22 I think that's something that we can stress with kids.
30732:25 Not say, “Oh, you’re going to be in this terrible future where you’re going to have to choose between security and freedom.” ...
30832:32 I think we have to teach, "Look, if we get the freedom and the democracy part right, we can get the climate part right.
30932:37 And if we get the climate part right, that's going to help us get the democracy part right."
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