Hard times for democracy, says historian Timothy Snyder

 Timothy Snyder

by Sabine Peschel

5 July 2019; DW: Is liberal democracy at its end? How should we deal with the rise of populism fueled by fake news on the internet? Yale historian and world-renowned author Timothy Snyder discusses these burning issues with DW.

Q. Pankaj Mishra, author of Age of Anger: A History of the Present (2017), talks about the death of democracy. You call it decay, caused by the Western concept of a policy of inevitability — which means, the future is conceived as an extension of the present. Is liberal democracy a thing of the past? 

I hope liberal democracy is a thing of the past, because if it's not a thing of the past it can't be a thing of the future. For me the big problem and the big challenge of contemporary politics is that we're all living in a permanent now. And if you live in a permanent now, democracy doesn't make any sense, because democracy involves looking at the past to make decisions in the present, which then affect the future.

If we want democracy to work, we have to make sure that we have education and media policies that keep people living in a world where time flows forward. Those are basic preconditions for democracy. So I don't think democracy is dead. I think democracy is having a hard time right now.

Q. The French historian Emile Chabal proposed we should stop using the term populism, because it means too many different things. Would you agree?

The people we call populists have the following things in common: First, they deny climate change. Second, they use digital means more than the other side, and often they're helped by foreign countries who are carrying out digital campaigns on their behalf. And third, they tend to deny factuality, they tend to push into question the idea that there's a real world or that facts matter. Those are the things that they tend to have in common.

A lot of the people we now call populists I don't think actually have any relationship to the people that's meaningful. A lot of them represent foreign oligarchical interests, or the interests of American or Russian energy companies, which is not the same thing as representing the interests of the people.

Another thing which unites these people is, none of them has any idea about the future. They're all trying to keep us in this permanent now of "us and them" where the migrants or the Chinese, or the Mexicans or the Jews, or the gays or whoever are a permanent enemy. They're trying to keep us in a kind of cyclical politics. So personally I don't think populism is the best name for it.

And the other problem with populism is that often people say "populist" when they just mean somebody who challenges the status quo. Since I personally think the status quo is untenable, I don't want a negative connotation attached to anybody who's challenging the status quo.

That said, I mean we do have to take seriously that there are an awful lot of people who are trying to undo the status quo in the sense of undoing the rule of law, and undoing democratic procedures, and perhaps most importantly undoing factuality, and that this is a very serious problem.

Q. How can we strive for truth in an increasingly complex world? 

I can think of two answers. The first is ethical. You have to take an ethical position and say that truth is worth striving for. And you have to take an ethical position and say, professions that pursue facts are good professions. The truth is good, and even though we never attain perfect truth, just like we never attain perfect health, pursuing it is a good thing. And professions that pursue it, especially investigative journalists, are doing good.

You cannot do without ethics here. Because if you try to do without ethics, immediately you get pushed back into the position of, well, your opinion is one thing, my opinion is another thing and let's just all have our opinions — which is the dominant mode now in Western discourse. And the left by the way bears a certain amount of responsibility for this. Once you're there, then it's very hard to have democracy.

But if we also have different facts, then we can't have democracy, because facts are the things which allow us to say, 'You care more about clean water. I care more about, let's say, cultural continuity. But we can both agree that the water under the church is polluted.' But if we can't agree about that, if we have different facts, then we can't act together. There can't be civil society, there can't be democracy.

The second answer is that there has to be public policy to support the fact creators. Fiction is free, facts have a cost. And the facts are good, like clean water is good, or clean air is good, or access to energy is good. If it's a public good, then you have to make policy that supports that public good, whether that means subsidizing public radio or public television, or creating the equivalent of public internet.

Whether it means subsidizing investigative journalism, whether it means messing around with the algorithms so that actual investigative journalism has some kind of advantage, you have to have public policy which brings the facts to the fore.

Q. Should we have laws against trolls, hate speech and fake news, especially on the internet? 

Free speech is based on the principle that you know who's speaking. I think the Austrians have a point when they say that people who represent themselves on the internet should be able to identify themselves (Editor’s note: Austria has proposed banning anonymous online comments to fight hate speech). That's not a violation of free speech, that actually enables free speech, because we can't really have a conversation if you don't know who I am, and I don't know who you are. Or if I'm a bot pretending to be a person, or I'm a Russian pretending to be a German.

The bots pretending to be people are just much, much more common than one realizes. So, I think it would be reasonable to have a law which said, bots should be identified as bots, and people should be identified as people. 

Another thing to think about is competition. We recognize that there's fair and unfair competition. In the profession of journalism, fiction is unfair competition because it's free. It's much easier to just make something up. It is reasonable to legislate about things like that.

The way the platforms work is to basically extract from us our most basic and primitive instincts about what feels good, and then extrapolate from that a kind of digital personality for us in which we get more and more of the stupid stuff that makes us feel good, and makes us keep thinking the things that we already think.

I think, people should have the freedom to say, I would like to have the choice — today I would like the stupid internet, but maybe tomorrow I'd like the smarter Internet. Those things can actually be regulated.


Timothy Snyder is Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. Published in 40 languages, Snyder's work has received the literature award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award and the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought, among other honors.

His recent books are Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (2015); On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017); and The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (2018).

The interview was conducted by Sabine Peschel during the "Cultural Symposium 2019 in Weimar - Recalculating the Route," organized by the Goethe-Institut.

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