'Sliding away from democracy' in North Carolina

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A political theorist says fundamental democratic norms are being undermined "in a radical way" in North Carolina. (Photo by Mr.TinDC via Flickr.)

Diane Rehm, host of a popular National Public Radio talk show, had an in-depth discussion with three expert guests this week on threats to liberal democracy in the United States and abroad — and North Carolina was cited as a place where fundamental democratic norms are under assault.

Rehm's guests for her Dec. 21 show were Moisés Naím, a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and chief international columnist for the Spanish newspaper El País; Alina Polyakova, deputy director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council and senior fellow at its Future Europe Initiative; and Yascha Mounk, a lecturer on political theory at Harvard University and a fellow in the political reform program at the New America think tank. Mounk was born in Germany to Polish parents, and his first book was the personal memoir "Stranger in My Own Country: A Jewish Family in Modern Germany."

The show began with the experts offering a basic definition of a liberal democracy as a system with electoral and other institutions that allow what people want to be translated into political action. They noted that in this context the word "liberal" wasn't referring to the liberal-conservative divide but rather means the principles of classic liberalism as set forth by political philosophers like John Locke and Thomas Jefferson: protection of individual rights, the rule of law, respect for ethnic and religious minorities.

They went on to discuss the history of swings between democracy and autocracy in Latin America and the rise of populist far-right parties in Europe. They talked about polls that found rising support for authoritarian rule in the U.S., including one survey that documented a jump in the proportion of Americans saying they would support military rule from 1 in 16 two decades ago to 1 in 6 today. They also looked at how President-elect Donald Trump's decision to maintain a private security force shows instincts similar to those they have seen in leaders of authoritarian countries.

Rehm then opened the phone lines. The first call came from a man named Mark in Whitson, North Carolina. He said he was a lifelong Republican and accused the show's experts of being involved in "overreach" since he doesn't know anyone personally who supports a military government.

"I just think that what you're doing is just saying things that just really aren't factually true," the caller said. "I just do not believe that many people believe that they want a military style government. I think a lot of people are dissatisfied with Washington."

Naim addressed the caller's refusal to accept the poll finding, pointing out that there's now a common pattern of "denying the importance of experts, of data, of statistics, of science." Mounk went on to discuss how the survey was conducted and how it's considered the "gold standard" for survey approaches. Then Mounk noted where the caller was from and what's been happening in the state, referring to recent actions by North Carolina's Republican-controlled legislature to strip powers from Democratic Gov.-elect Roy Cooper:

But, but, but, but the gentleman who called in said he is based in North Carolina. So, let's talk about a much more concrete form in which democratic norms are being undermined in a radical way.

The most basic democratic norm we have in this country in this country or in any country is that we use elections as a way to determine who gets to rule. And what we've just seen in North Carolina is that we had an election for governor, which was very narrowly won by the Democrat candidate. And the Republican legislature turned around and said, after the election, you know what, in that case, we will slash the rights and responsibility of the office of a governor.

This is institutional brinksmanship. This is a way of stretching the rules to the very limit outside of any conception of legitimate democratic norms. Which makes me extremely concerned for the survival of democracy. Because if we can no longer say, you know what, you won the election, so you get to rule for the next four years. I don't like you. I don't like your policies. I don't like that you get to make these decisions. But what the democratic system allows me is that I have a chance to beat you at the polls four years from now.

But instead, people are saying, you know what, I hate you so much that I'm going to stop you from being able to exercise the office to which the people have elected you. Then we're really sliding away from democracy.

Listen to the full show or read the transcript here.