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Democracy Works: A Summer Of The Individual Vs. The Collective Good

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The Democracy Works podcast is back after its summer break. Hosts Michael Berkman, Chris Beem and Candis Watts Smith catch up on what happened over the summer, from COVID-19 vaccine mandates to school board chaos to the refugee crisis in Afghanistan. The underlying theme of it all is one of democracy's central tensions — the collective vs. the individual.

The tension between individual liberty and the common good plays itself out in America's COVID response, debates over how race and history are taught in schools, and how we respond to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. We discuss all of those issues this week and reflect on what our responsibilities are as democratic citizens.

Democracy Works reflects the opinions of the hosts and guests.

Episode Transcript

Michael Berkman 00:03
From the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State University, Michael Berkman.

Chris Beem 00:08
And I'm Chris Beem.

Candis Watts Smith  00:10
I'm Candis Watts Smith.

Jenna Spinelle 00:12
I'm Jenna Spinelle and welcome to Democracy Works. So great to see all of you. We've been off for almost three months, if you can believe it, and great to be back with all of you to kick off our new season. I should also mention that, even though we've all been recording remotely for the past year and a half, Candace, is now at Duke University. So congratulations, Candis, and we're so happy that you are sticking with us on the show.

Candis Watts Smith  00:41
Thank you. This is the best part of my job at Penn State, so I get to keep it.

Jenna Spinelle 00:46
So there's been a lot going on this summer, I thought it would be good to catch up on some of what's happened over the past three months in the context of some of the themes that we've been talking about on the show. We'll touch on Afghanistan, and the ongoing debates over critical race theory, the census, perhaps some other things, but I want to start with COVID, I think we were all excited to put our masks away. At the beginning of the summer, everybody was talking about the hot vac summer. And we had a little bit of that. But now the masks are back out of the drawer. And there's ongoing debates and I think probably even stronger debates over mask and vaccine mandates, then there were at the beginning of the summer. So Chris, I want to start with you a couple of weeks ago, you wrote a piece for the conversation, which we'll link to in the show notes. Tell us what you argued in that piece regarding vaccination, and what has been the reaction you've received to it.

Chris Beem 01:50
I just was arguing that people who are vaccine hesitant, are making a self interested evaluation of the risks associated with taking the vaccine on the one hand, and choosing not to take the vaccine on the other. And they were deciding that for themselves. It was better for them not to take the vaccine. And I think the arguments they present are not even close to being good enough. There is no good self interested reason to not take the vaccine. But there are reasons and they're not completely irrational. But my argument was that it is not sufficient in a democracy, to make your decisions solely in terms of your own self interest that in a democracy, we have to concern ourselves with evaluate the choices we make and their impact on other people. So I'm saying vaccine refusal is not just immoral, it's unAmerican, I knew I was gonna get a lot of response. Right? And I did. And it was striking to me, I got a lot of people responsible, articulate, and some that were just the absolute opposite of that, as you might expect. But what I noticed, I'm thinking, and I cannot recall a single example, or somebody accepted the terms of my argument. In other words, where they said, Well, I have a right to not concern myself with others, or this is not what democracy demands. What I got was that I was not evaluating the risk assessment that they were making accurately, and that I could not make that judgment about their own circumstance. And therefore I was wrong in terms of this personal risk assessment.

Michael Berkman 03:58
So if I could suggest maybe a different framing that people understood that article or how people understood that article, a couple years ago, with the mood of the nation poll, a couple of my colleagues posed a question to Americans about what it means to them to be patriotic. And I wonder if thinking about what it means to people to be patriotic, maybe gets a little closer to what it means to them when you tell them that they're American or an American than it does to tell them that they're being good democrats or not. And when you ask people about what it means to be patriotic, I'm not surprised by some of the responses that you're getting, because the majority of Americans, according to our polling anyway, and we did this for regular listeners know the mood of the nation poll uses open ended questioning. So this was in their own words. And the majority of the responses that we got that when we ask people about what it means to be patriotic, have nothing to do at all with their behavior as citizens, but rather as sort of emotional response or a feeling response for themselves. They understand patriotism not as an action or a behavior, but a feeling or a public display. So I'm not surprised, actually that that was kind of the response that you got. Because that's not how people think about what it means to be American or not.

Chris Beem 05:19
I think that's right. And, well, let's face it, no one wants to be called immoral and unAmerican, right. And I did that deliberately to kind of get people to read the article. But I also think it's true, that patriotism, being an American ought to mean more. And really, in terms of Madison and the other founders must mean more than simply feeling of pride about your country truly requires certain behaviors from you. Yeah.

Candis Watts Smith  05:52
I think actually this distinction, Michael, that you're making, and maybe I'm hearing an additional distinction between being unpatriotic on American and undemocratic. Yes. So from what I'm getting from you about patriotism is about pride and a certain feeling. When I think about the on American part, or being American part, I think one of the values is individualism is a concerted, a very strong orientation toward individual rights, which perhaps, is still undemocratic. So I think that one of the things that we have to do is to maybe parse out even kind of our ideals about what America is and how we think about democracy, generally speaking, I don't think that they're mutually exclusive. But I don't think that they're one in the same either. What Chris has laid out is that democracy and I think we would agree on this, that democracy does require some form of communitarianism. And that we have to care about a larger societal well being. But we're kind of moving away from that, as Americans.

Michael Berkman 07:11
Yeah. Oh, absolutely. I mean, at another time, we asked people on the mood of the nation poll, what a democracy mean to them, or what was it they most valued about democracy and their campus, we get a majority of people, especially among older Americans, saying exactly what you just said that what democracy is about is actually individual freedom, it's to be able to do what you want. And we hear that rhetoric, obviously, quite a bit around vaccines. Now, I don't agree with this, I think that your freedom essentially starts to end when it's really affecting other people around you. And that's what a lot of our laws are based upon. But the idea that people see American democracy in terms not of your responsibility to others, but in terms of government's responsibility to leave you alone to do what you're right, then you're going to get exactly the kinds of responses that we get.

Chris Beem 08:04
Madison said, human beings aren't angels, right. And because they're not we need government. And so the idea that human beings are self interested, and are more interested in their own welfare than than they are others, is written into our political DNA. But those same founders also argued that that was not enough. And even though they were pushing hard against this kind of Roman civic republicanism, that demanded these incredibly high standards of civic behavior, and they said, that is not going to happen. It's just not possible for human beings to live up to that. They still said that we need more than just selfishness. And I agree with Qantas, I had this guy call me afterwards who was talking about the 20th anniversary of 911. And we all remember that the line for people to give blood in New York was hundreds deep, that was this kind of like, how can I help? Right? I mean, that was the first question that you heard. And I just wonder if any of that spirit is still out there operative in our society.

Candis Watts Smith  09:24
I mean, look, there are communities where 70 or 80% of people are vaccinated. And then there are communities where 2025 30% of communities are vaccinated. I do think that we do have millions of Americans who are concerned about themselves and others, for example, so part of my adventure at Duke is that I live in a dormitory and my son who's eight in third grade and therefore not eligible to be vaccinated also lives there. alongside my husband, and when the students see my son coming, if they're not wearing their masks, which they often are, they put it on immediately, because they know him, and they know that he is not vaccinated. So I do think that there is an ethos among a great many Americans, especially in this case, right towards being vaccinated. One thing that stands out to me is that just like, as you're saying that all men are not angels. And so we need institutional mechanisms to kind of reduce negative externalities. But that idea that we can have these institutional mechanisms is also reliant upon leaders who will do the right thing for the larger number of people. And we've come to this position where there are plenty of elected representatives, right, we're not doing their part, to use the institutional mechanisms for the betterment of communities. I mean, certainly individual citizens are responsible for doing the right thing. But there is also a role for our political leaders and setting the example in using policy.

Chris Beem 11:14
The most selfish inclinations within citizenry is exactly what the founders were most scared of, and which they tried their best to address in the federalist papers and to undermine in terms of the way the constitution was set up.

Michael Berkman 11:29
I mean, I think Madison was talking about people pursuing within the domestic and political and private sphere, their own interest, you know, whatever that might be. But I think we're getting into something a little bit different when we're telling people how it is, which is essentially what we're doing. And we should understand how fried it is, when telling people exactly how it is, they should assess what it means to take the vaccine or to do anything to your body that you might not want to do.

Chris Beem 12:03
I take the point that there is an individual risk assessment that everyone has to make, and no one is going to strap you down and put a needle in your arm. But it is not democratic, to make that risk assessment and not take into account the effects of your decision on other people. That's all I would want to say. But I would insist on that.

Jenna Spinelle 12:30
So some of these dynamics that we've been talking about this conflict between individualism and the collective good is also playing out across our school system, both in terms of mask mandates, which I think have many of the similar dynamics, but in this case, what people should or shouldn't do for their kids, with the exception, of course, that children under 12, are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. And it's putting a lot of school boards in a particularly tough spot, you read stories about breaking out people ripping out all kinds of things. Michael, I know you have done a lot of research on school boards over the course of your career, not necessarily on this masking issue. But how have you been thinking about some of these things playing out in the context of what you know about these organizations and the people who tend to comprise them?

Michael Berkman 13:28
The way I tend to think of it is who should decide what children and school boards and schools are sort of the bastion of local control in the American democracy. They have long been seen as the setting where communities and parents get to decide what goes on in schools. But there's always been a tension there, between first of all the states stepping in and through standards and other kinds of things say no, you really need to learn about this rather than that. And also where there is often a conflict between experts, and others. experts think that they have the authority to determine what should be taught in their subject areas. And in some areas, this is in controversy, right? I mean, there aren't really fights in schools about whether algebra should come before calculus. And where trig fits into the school curriculum. We just leave that to the math, pedagogical experts, and they make those sorts of decisions. It gets a lot more fraught. In some kinds of science classes. If the question has to do with should evolution be taught in a real way? Should climate change be taught in a real way? Here are these conflicts about what the kids should learn and who should decide become more fraught, and maybe it's not the experts, maybe it's the communities. We know that in states that rely a lot on energy extraction, they're much less likely to teach about climate change. So clearly a political element to what kids are being taught.

Candis Watts Smith  14:57
I actually think that that mask issue and the critical race theory thing, are our friends. And they are both problems that do not exist. They are manufactured problems or the solutions are worse than whatever it is that they're trying to address. In the case of students masking, thankfully, State College area school districts were in person all of last year, and the students were mask every day, and everyone was fine. And my son lost zero learning. Students in North Carolina where I live now missed a year and a half of school. Right, and now they're going back and at least in our area in Durham, everyone is masked. But this is not a real problem. It's not an ethical problem. It's not a scientific problem. It's a made up problem by parents who want to, I don't know, flex, whatever kind of power they might think that they have. It's similar to critical race theory. We don't even teach critical race theory in public schools. It's not a thing. And I guess maybe, Michael, if you have any insight on this, what's being attacked is culturally relevant and historically accurate teaching, which has been going on since the 90s. Right, why now?

Michael Berkman 16:33
At a certain level, Candis, I completely agree with that. But I think where I was saying that I see the critical race theory question somewhat differently, is if you move a little bit away from the content of it, and I completely agree that there's no problem here that's being solved. And I would take it even a step further, if you ask many of the people who were opposed to teach in critical race theory, what it is, they can't possibly tell you. And when you do see them try to explain what it is, especially for those of us in the academy, we think, Oh, well, that's just completely wrong. That's not what it is at all. It's just that political issue around race. And we've seen that for like, ever. But the reason I see the race questions a little bit differently, is that I see them in the context of ongoing discussions, debate and conflict, about who should decide what children learn. And in terms of school politics, that's always a central issue. And is it going to be local control? Is it going to be the experts? Is it going to be the states popping in and passing random laws about what you can't teach us, but you have to teach this? Or is it going to be something that they do through the standards, and once they also start doing it through the standards, you know, it may seem like it's not all that important. But once it gets to Texas, and then it gets into all the textbooks across the country, it becomes kind of important.

Chris Beem 17:55
I think there is a core perspective that unites the anti masking school and the anti critical race theory. And it is this populist notion that the elites are trying to undermine my status as a true American, and undermine my condition to raise my children the way I want to and undermine a cultural, economic political status quo. That was just fine before the elites came in and screwed it all up. So what critical race theory means is, in their mind is that you are teaching my white child to be unhappy or to be embarrassed about them being white, because you're teaching them about the Tulsa massacre. And they don't need to know that they're just kids. So by presenting them a more accurate narrative of what American history really was, you are undermining their former status as being the hegemon in our culture. And so that's what the beef is.

Candis Watts Smith  19:11
I would like to encourage all of us to not even use the term critical race theory in this conversation. The issue at hand is whether schools should teach culturally relevant and historically accurate know exactly information to our children. That's it. That's what that is. That is the actual debate that we're having the critical race theory, it's a distraction. Because the conversations that are happening at school boards are about whether we're teaching about slavery, enslavement or volunteer Harry immigrants who came like in voluntary immigration, were talking about was Tulsa race massacre or was it a riot? So we're actually having a debate about whether we're going to teach our children about racial inequality, structural issues, sexism, homophobia, all of these things. That's what we're talking about here.

Jenna Spinelle 20:27
The framing issue you brought up, Candis, I think is really important. I think one thing that the sort of anti democratic forces are very good at is coming up with or co opting or redefining words, and then the broader media. And I know we could have a whole other debate about whether this podcast is the media or not. But putting that aside, we just did it. We fell into the trap right there. And so I think that that is really important in terms of the words do matter here.

Michael Berkman 20:59
Yeah, I mean, politics is often a fight over language and terminology. And who gets to control that? Yeah, and I mean, I appreciate Candace pointing it out, because we're falling into exactly the trap that we're being asked to fall into, which is to turn this by a scary sounding, academic sounding label.

Jenna Spinelle 21:19

With the time we have left, I want to shift gears here and talk a little bit about Afghanistan, which, especially over the past couple of weeks has been a big story in politics and in democracy,

Michael Berkman 21:31
it also raises an important question about democracy. And that is, what does it take to establish a democracy? Where can you build a democracy? Can an outside power come in, and build it or impose it and I think Americans have this notion that we can, because of our effectiveness with the Marshall Plan, and everyday after World War Two, when we saw these democracies develop, well, we're pouring tons and tons of money into them, and military support, while they do it, and all of that, but Afghanistan is a very different part of the world, and a very different kind of culture. And it's very corrupt, which is very difficult for a democracy to establish itself in a highly corrupt kind of society.

Chris Beem 22:16

It's very tribal. It's very, it's a very tribal country.

Michael Berkman22:20
None of us are really experts on Afghanistan and building democracies, and that kind of thing. But it's not that easy to do, and we weren't able to do it. Isn't that what we're looking at?

Chris Beem 22:32
I mean, I do think it's not the case that it's never worked, right. I mean, it worked in Japan, it worked in Korea, and it worked in Europe. But there's probably more examples of where it did not work. And given the huge investment of blood and treasure. Well, obviously, there's something deeply arrogant about us going into another culture and saying, we got the answer for you, right. And almost invariably, we go in there not knowing enough about the culture. I mean, I remember in Iraq, it was like, there was questions about what's the difference between a Sunni and the Shia II? And if you don't know that, there's simply no way you can help that country become democratic. All I would say is there is evidence that it can work. And obviously, there's all kinds of political scientists and historians who are trying to parse out what are the critical features necessary to sustain the democracy or to grow a democracy. And we were looking for somebody, it was basically why we wanted to break up the terrorist networks that were supported by the Taliban. That's why we went in to Afghanistan.

Michael Berkman 23:42
And we wanted to destroy to the extent that we could the Taliban because we saw them as supporting terrorists. That was a threat. It states Yes. But now we talk about it in terms of having established a democracy because it kind of became that over time. I mean, we were sort of trying to do two things over time there, right? We're trying to build the Afghanistan military, in order to be able to take on the Taliban so that we didn't have to do it, and trying to build some sort of a democratic government in Afghanistan. But that was never the goal, or at least

Chris Beem 24:16
a stable one, where we'd be less likely to have to deal with a terrorist base. That was probably a more realistic goal. But

Michael Berkman 24:24
yeah, it does raise another kind of interesting question in the American democracy. And that is, Joe Biden, who's taken quite a hit here on this has stood up to the generals in a way that most recent presidents have not. I mean, there's been no doubt that it's been the military that has made it very difficult for Trump and for Obama, to get out of Afghanistan. And Joe Biden has been as for years, saying, you know, we shouldn't be listening to these generals. We need to be doing what we should be doing and he stood up to them.

Chris Beem 25:00
Right. I mean, literally, he was making that argument when he was vice president. And and now he's president. And he's saying, No, we have to get out. And yeah, it's always easier to get in than it is to get out.

Jenna Spinelle 25:12
We are also in the midst of a humanitarian crisis regarding Afghan refugees. And I think that's another way that the world has changed in the past 20 years is that the climate for taking in refugees has become much more hostile, I think, both in the US and in Europe, because of the populist activity we've seen and those kind of things. So it's pretty concerning to think from that standpoint about is the world going to come together to help here. Maybe this is a weak tie to the previous point about what we teach our students. But Americans, generally speaking, don't have a very broad historical perspective and foundation, no less much background around foreign policy.

Candis Watts Smith  26:04
I think that we had more both than we were fully recognize our obligation here, that we could have kind of a nuanced evaluation of what has happened over the past two decades. And now that we are where we are what we owe to the Afghan people, especially those who helped Americans, who were translators, journalists, activists, all sorts of folks who are probably in imminent danger, if they remain in Afghanistan and in right, in part due to our own role in the country over the past two decades. You know, Canada's

Chris Beem 26:45
I was just going to say that I think there's a very similar reaction here that you mentioned in terms of COVID. Right? I mean, I think there are a lot of Americans who completely recognize that point, and who are more than ready to welcome these refugees, and are confident that they are going to become fine, upstanding, responsible, contributing American citizens. And yet there's another part of the country that sees any change as yet another manifestation of this fundamental threat. And so that's enough reason to say no,

Michael Berkman 27:30
Yeah, well, remember, we had john hippy on the show last year talking about the absolute centrality of immigration issues to the contemporary Republican Party. And so this falls right on their lap. There have been many Republican governors, I'm thinking of Hutchinson in Arkansas, and there have been some others around the country as well. And so it seems to be kind of dividing the Republican Party a little bit. It does fit right into that kind of framing, I mean, the centrality of anti immigrant sentiment to especially the MAGA wing of the Republican Party.

Jenna Spinelle 28:11
I mean, that's not even to talk about Brexit or Germany, or some of the, you know, far right movements we've seen across.

Michael Berkman 28:18
And I think all these governments recognize the role that immigration has played to the rise of populism. So they're kind of torn between what they understand is their responsibility to take in Afghanistan, refugees, especially those that help the United States, but also educated women who are just facing potentially catastrophic circumstances in Afghanistan, but also recognizing that the waves of Syrian immigrants who really contributed to the rise of populism in their countries.

Jenna Spinelle 28:53
All right, well, we could keep talking about these things for probably a whole other hour. But we do need to wrap things up. If this discussion has been any indication, we will have no shortage of things to talk about for the rest of this season and beyond. So thank you, all of you. So great to be back at it again for another season for democracy works. I'm Jenna Spinelle

Michael Berkman 29:17
I'm Michael Berkman.

Chris Beem 29:18
I'm Chris Beem

Candis Watts Smith  29:19
And I'm Candis Watts Smith. Thanks for listening.