Picture this: a panel on the “democratic climate” in the USA, consisting of two liberal authors from New York City. Doesn’t sound like a breeding ground for a particularly contentious debate, does it? True to form, Saturday’s “Focus USA” panel, part of the International Congress for Democracy proceedings, was disappointingly homogenous in viewpoint.
The authors balked visibly at any attempt to qualify Trump’s election as anything other than a racist victory – when asked if economic inequality could have played a role in his election, writer Eliot Weinberger dismissed the idea of an “economic camp” offhandedly, saying it was a “myth.” However, both Weinberger and his fellow panelist, Ethiopian-American author of Beneath the Lion’s Gaze Maaza Mengiste, did effectively remind us (not that we had really forgotten) of the real dangers of Trump as a world leader, analyzing his authoritarian qualities and recent anti-immigrant actions.
On that uplifting note, we decided to venture into a more optimistic arena: a panel entitled, “A-Social Media: Are digital technologies making democracy impossible?” Economics professor Sarah Diefenbach and political scientist Jeanette Hofmann chaired the pro-internet side, while author Eva Menasse enthusiastically voiced her concerns about the prevalence and effects of the internet. Despite the slightly morbid tone of the debate – at one point, Menasse said that social media is “killing journalism,” causing the many journalists in the crowd to mutter angrily – the debate was lively and engaging given the genuine disparities in opinion in the participants, making it far more entertaining than some of its more neutral counterparts.
The audience wasn’t exempt from the topic’s polarizing effect, either – a woman seated behind our reporter kept calling out, “Sie verstehen nichts!” every time a “pro-internet” point was made, growing more agitated and voluble throughout the talk. The panel succeeded, though, in transcending pure fear about the ramifications of the internet age for democracies, with Hofmann, in particular, calmly and clearly outlining several viable data regulation plans, soothing the frayed nerves of the distressed crowd.