Melissa Harris-Perry: Thanks for being with us today on The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. The ball has dropped, the champagne has popped, and it's officially 2023.
The start of the new year is a time when many of us take stock of what's past and set goals for the year to come. For Americans, the most common new year's resolutions involve taking steps to lead a healthier life. Moving more, eating better, catching another hour of sleep at night or downing more water during the day.
Male Speaker 1: A person should always stay hydrated.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What if our health goals where a little less individual and a little more collective? What would it look like to shore up the fitness not only of our physical bodies, but also as of today might describe it, Our Body Politic?
To start the new year, we're going to look at three areas of our shared health and well being: the health of democracy, public health in our local communities, and our national economic health. Just like with an annual checkup, we'll use this moment to assess our health and ask what resolutions we can make to ensure we can be more strong and vibrant moving forward.
So let's start with democracy. Here with us is Susan Stokes, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago.
Professor Stokes is director of the Chicago Center on Democracy. Sue, welcome to The Takeaway.
Susan Stokes: Thanks so much, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Also here is writer, filmmaker, and Black Studies scholar, Charlene Carruthers. Carruthers is author of Unapologetic: A Black, Queer and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements. Welcome to The Takeaway.
Charlene Carruthers: Thank you so much, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Sue, I want to begin with you. Several years ago, the Chicago Center for Democracy, which you direct, launched a project with the goal of being a global early warning system for democratic erosion. Can you help us understand what are the key indicators that you and other scholars are using to assess the health of democracy?
Susan Stokes: One of the things we've been interested in is how useful the information in the rhetoric that politicians send out in campaigns is for citizens who want to predict or project how careful that politician will be with democracy, how protective or how erosive of democracy that person will be once in office. We're talking particularly about very high office, people who are going to end up, if they're successful, being the president of a country or a prime minister.
One of the things we've done is collected a whole lot of speeches, campaign speeches, and we have studied them and used kind of old fashioned just reading and analytic techniques as well as some more up to date Texas data techniques to try to figure out if a Donald Trump or a Viktor Orbán in Hungary, or Jair Bolsonaro, our newest guest in Florida, from Brazil.
If we can pay attention to what they say in campaigns and glean from what they say that hold on, this person is not going to protect the independence of the Supreme Court, we do find that the rhetoric that they use is useful for citizens who are paying attention. They do speak in especially harsh terms about what they're going to target once they are in office.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What I want to do is go back to, in this case, not a campaign speech, it was actually a farewell speech. This is January 11, 1989. This is President Ronald Reagan giving his farewell speech to the nation. Let's take a listen.
President Ronald Reagan: I've spoken of a shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. In my mind, it was a tall, proud city, built on rock stronger than oceans, windswept, God blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds, living in harmony and peace. A city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. If there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it and see it still. How stands the city on this winter night?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Sue, I want to repeat President Reagan's question there. How stands the city on this winter night? How healthy is the US democracy?
Susan Stokes: Breaking news, we've been through some pretty tough times in our democracy. We're still, I think, pinching ourselves after the Trump presidency about how fragile our democracy actually is. We have some long standing weaknesses in our democracy. Some of them are sort of built in. Some of them, I think, are more correctable. We have a democracy that's not been a place that invites participation.
Casting a vote has been a real struggle for many of our citizens, and that hasn't necessarily gotten any easier. Financial interests, there's a big wide open door for them. That makes us stand in contrast with most advanced democracies that have many more controls on campaign donations and the role of corporations and moneyed interests in their democracy. We have some long standing problems and that's just the tip of the iceberg. There are all kinds of fragilities in our democracy.
We have a body politic, many millions of whom are doubtful about the integrity of our elections and have been willfully misled about how elections work and how easy it is to commit fraud on a wide basis. On the other hand, we just had a midterm election in which many voters seem to say, we care about the health of our democracy, we're going to turn our backs on candidates who mislead voters about what happened in 2020. It's very much a mixed picture. Life support wouldn't be the right cliché but real fragilities in our system.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Charlene, let me come to you. You actually served as the Founding National Director of the Back Youth Project, and that's a social justice organization that was forged in the moment that a Florida jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin and incidentally, you and the BYP100 founded it at the University of Chicago, so there's some connections here. I'm particularly interested in the ways that you might have different or additional indicators for thinking about how we should assess the health of American democracy.
Charlene Carruthers: Absolutely. I think some of the points Susan made about participation are some of the most salient to me in this particular moment. Very specifically, as they relate to how people can decide what to do with their bodies, how they can decide to build community and family, how they can decide or even the options they have to be educated, and the sorts of educational environments in which they have to learn.
Access to full comprehensive reproductive health care, from the root to the fruit from how people can understand, what sorts of information they have access to in the classroom, in their communities, and what sorts of health care they have access to, regardless of whether they want to parent or they don't want to parent. What is being called the fall of Roe, with the re-introduction, introduction, entrenchment, fights and struggles surrounding access to abortion care.
Additionally, I'm also thinking about the steady attacks on education system, the books, the materials, and even the activities that students have access to. If you are a student who is transgender, or suspected to be transgender, having access to sports as a child, that being severely threatened or limited in places across the country. If we think about our access to participating in society, in civil society, in politics, and knowing that what they can do with their very own bodies, and with their minds, being determined by a small few, it's a great indicator of where democracy is and where it isn't.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to take a moment to listen to another speech, this time not by Ronald Reagan. I want to go back even further to July 4, 1852, and listen to the words of Frederick Douglass. This is the incomparable award winning actor, James Earl Jones, reading Douglass's words.
James Earl Jones: What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham. Your boasted liberty, an unholy license. Your national greatness, swelling vanity. Your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless, your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence. Your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery. Your prayers and hymns, your sermons, and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy.
Charlene Carruthers: I love that Douglas begins this very provocative and insightful speech with a question, "What to a slave is the Fourth of July?" and opens up a conversation. I think it's a question that not just people who are enslaved, people who were enslaved can ask themselves, but everyone in the room. Anyone who hears these particular words, not just then, but also now.
I think these are questions that should still be asked, and of course, not asked as though I am or we are people who are enslaved in the 19th century or earlier in the United States or the Americas broadly, but what to people who are living under the heel of, under the threat of fascism, particularly in our contemporary moment, are these declarations of democracy, these so-called declarations of independence?
Who is independent? Who has the ability to fully participate in what happens in the lives of not just themselves, but the people who they love and care about and they are connected to, and the people who they don't even know, but they have some sort of connection to just through experience or by the virtue of us all living on this planet? I think that Douglass pointing out the hypocrisies of the United States government, the US culture, and even the ways that our economy functions, that's how I take the speech in so many ways, or his words in so many ways, is it remains relevant to this day.
That's not just seen in the ways that people suffer and the ways that people die, people have lack of access to full dignity. It's seen in the ways that people struggle against these things, that people refuse to give up. We know that there are things to struggle against because our folks continue to struggle and they continue to say, "Actually, this is what we want. This is the world that we imagine. This is the world that we believe that we deserve."
It is unfortunate that Douglass's words still ring true in so many ways to this day but just as he and his contemporaries struggled against their realities, the ways that this country impacted their lives and the lives of their loved ones, we continue to do that today. That's in many ways, not just for better or for worse, but it's a part of our responsibility.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. Let's take a quick break right here. We're going to be right back with more of our New Year's checkup on the health of democracy. This is The Takeaway. We're continuing our Takeaway 2023 version of New Year's resolutions with a discussion about health, the health of democracy. Now, Time magazine named as their person of the year for 2022, Ukrainian President Zelensky. "Zelensky," Time wrote," exemplifies the spirit of the Ukrainian people." On December 21st, he traveled to the US and addressed the Congress.
President Zelensky: Ukraine's gained this victory, and it gives us courage, which inspires the entire world. Americans gained this victory, and that's why you have succeeded in uniting the global community to protect freedom and international law. Europeans gained this victory, and that's why Europe is now stronger and more independent than ever.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Still with me is Charlene Carruthers, author of Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements, and Professor Susan Stokes, Director of the Chicago Center on Democracy at the University of Chicago. Sue, I want to ask about Ukraine and the ways that we heard earlier from President Reagan. I'm wondering if Ukraine now stands as the shining city on the hill as though in this conflict around Russia, there has been a discourse about the value of democracy.
Susan Stokes: I think that's absolutely right, Melissa. Those words from President Zelensky are so moving and so and so so powerful because the kind of struggle that the Ukrainians have been submitted to, the war that's being made against them is a version of the struggle that we've had in our country in recent years and the struggle that many countries have had between a kind of politics of lots of words get used, neo-fascism, a kind of politics of supremacy in different contexts, a kind of anti-liberalism and anti-democratic politics between Russia and Ukraine. That battle line is literally a battle line.
We've been fighting some of the same fights in other places, including in the United States, in many countries in central Europe, Eastern Europe, Latin America. I think we take heart at the bravery of the Ukrainian people and hope that our own struggles to reassert the importance of community and embracing others who are different and building towards solutions rather than falling into the easy politics of divisions and anti-other politics. It's really a very powerful model that they're providing.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Charlene, let's go to this present moment that Sue is offering up for us. Here's President Biden speaking during the midterm elections with his assessment of American democracy.
President Biden: We believe in democracy. That's who we are as Americans. I know it isn't easy, democracy is imperfect, it always has been, but we are all called to defend it now. History and common sense tell us that liberty, opportunity, and justice thrive in a democracy, not in an autocracy.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Charlene, what does defense of an imperfect democracy look like?
Charlene Carruthers: That is actually the part of those remarks that stands out to me the most is what are we defending? It brings me back to Douglass's question. What does it mean to defend something that one has never had full access to? Particularly thinking about Black folks and Black people be they of various descendances. I'm thinking about particularly Black immigrants and migrants in this contemporary moment, for sure.
I'm thinking about Black folks living in rural areas, in urban areas across the US. What does it mean to ask someone to defend a democracy in which they can't afford everyday living? That they have to work two, three jobs in order to care for themselves and their loved ones? I think it is time, it's always time for people to be offensive and to assert what it is that they want, what it is that they deserve, as opposed to defending the status quo or defending a belief or an idea that they have not had access to.
On the surface level, President Biden's rhetoric, I think it's extremely effective, just as Ronald Reagan's rhetoric was very effective but underneath that rhetoric, I think folks have every single right to challenge that and to say, "We're not going to defend the status quo because that has not fully worked for us and we deserve something better that's not rooted in this simple idea of division, but one that is really truly about people having access to what we all deserve."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Sue, I'm wondering as a final takeaway, if there's something that we know perhaps from global democracy about the exercises that we need to be engaging in in this new year to strengthen democracy.
Susan Stokes: It's tough because the society we live in is so hard on so many of our citizens every single day and yet, if we let it slip away, if we let our democracy slip away, we are letting slip away the ability to have the achievements, for example, that the civil rights movement achieved in the 1960s and beyond. It's struggling to maintain a system that allows us to struggle to make our system better. That's something that people around the world are facing now. As you mentioned, as you've made clear, that struggle is sort of most brought into sharp relief in Ukraine, in the border, in the war between Ukraine and Russia.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Susan Stokes is Director of the Chicago Center on Democracy and writer, filmmaker, and Black studies scholar, Charlene Carruthers has joined us as well. Thank you both for being here.
Susan Stokes: Thank you, Melissa.
Charlene Carruthers: Thank you so much.
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