America’s Challenges Take Center Stage in Greece

This is an article from World Review: The State of Democracy, a special section that examines global policy and affairs, and is published in conjunction with the annual Athens Democracy Forum.

ATHENS — Eleven months since the election of President Joe Biden and the defeat of populist politics at the ballot box, the United States still faces a barrage of challenges to its stability as a democracy: including a flawed voting system, data-hungry tech giants and an unequal health system.

Those were some of the views shared at the Athens Democracy Forum, a three-day conference held last week in association with The New York Times. Convened in the Greek capital annually, it brings together heads of government, business leaders, academics and activists. Panels, interviews and video commentary tackled themes, including politics, health care, economics and the challenges of technology. Participants from around the world shared their views in person and online.

At the past few conferences, the conversation was dominated by the presidency of Donald Trump, with his former chief strategist Steve Bannon, a 2019 attendee, declaring, “It’s Donald Trump’s populist nationalism that’s going to see us forward.”

This year, speakers, especially those from the United States, focused not on the current president but on what they identified as urgent ailments affecting America.

The first warning came from Stacey Abrams, a voting-rights advocate who was the Democratic leader in the Georgia House of Representatives and the party’s candidate for governor of Georgia in 2018.

In the forum’s opening conversation, she denounced what she called the “evisceration” of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — which forbids racial discrimination in voting — and the weakening of “the guardrails that protected the most vulnerable members of our society from voter suppression.”

“We’re watching the forward march of authoritarianism under a different guise, but with a similar end, which is the oppression of minority rights and voices,” she said.

Ms. Abrams said 600 bills “to undermine voting rights” had been moved through 48 of the 50 states, and “phony audits of the vote” had been conducted by Republican leaders across the country. It was urgent for both houses to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, whereby “no matter where you live in our country, you will have the same fundamental, minimal standards of democracy,” she said. “That does not exist today.” (The act, introduced last month in the Senate, would set national standards to ensure Americans can vote in ways that suit them, regardless of their age, race, sex, language or ZIP code.)

The conference opened after a major Silicon Valley controversy. According to a Wall Street Journal report, Facebook was getting ready to introduce its Instagram Kids service for children aged 13 or younger, despite being aware of the harm that Instagram was doing to teenage girls’ mental well-being. (After the Journal report, Facebook announced that it was pausing the development of Instagram Kids.)

The controversy illustrated the power of the U.S. technology giants — a power that the author Shoshana Zuboff, professor emerita at Harvard Business School, denounced.

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In a lively video address, Professor Zuboff warned of cataclysmic consequences for democracy and for humanity if tech companies were allowed to continue to harvest people’s data and to profit from it as part of what she labeled “surveillance capitalism.”

She said Western democracies had fallen asleep in the past two decades as the tech giants had engaged in the “wholesale destruction of privacy,” disinformation and “massive-scale” campaigns to modify human behavior. No laws had been introduced against these encroachments, she said. So everybody everywhere around the world was “naked and vulnerable,” left “without the rights, the laws and institutions purpose-built to govern us in our digital century in the name of democracy.”

Professor Zuboff cautioned that unless there was a “democratic counterrevolution” in the next decade against the technology companies, they were “on course to unravel the sociological and psychological substrates upon which the very premise of democracy rests.”

“Democracy is under the kind of siege that only democracy can end,” she concluded.

As was the case last year, this year’s conference took place against the backdrop of the coronavirus epidemic, which has killed 700,000 people in the United States. President Biden introduced a $1.9 trillion rescue package last March consisting of direct payments, unemployment insurance supplements, child tax credits and vaccine distribution. (That package is still under vigorous debate in Congress.)

Since the start of the pandemic, the Federal Reserve has also maintained interest rates near zero and bought $120 billion in government-backed bonds every month to throw a lifeline to a disease-stricken nation. With the economy now rebounding, inflation may soon return.

Prof. Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who teaches at Columbia University, was asked about inflation and whether it was going to hit the middle classes and working classes the hardest.

“From my point of view, the inflation right now is a hiccup,” Professor Stiglitz replied. “Normally, you don’t shut down an economy then try to start it up again. This is a most unusual time, and economies don’t go through these dramatic transitions very easily.” As when a country goes to war and comes out of it, he explained, it was a major transformation, “and the market doesn’t handle these well.

“I’m not surprised that we have shortages,” he said. “There will be spikes in the prices of some goods. There will be some inflation.”

Yet he pointed out that there were instruments in place to prevent inflation from eroding the incomes of “those in the middle and those at the bottom.” Government aid programs were indexed to inflation, and wages tended to rise with inflation. “We have to make sure that we have protections in place,” he concluded.

The other issue that the pandemic has highlighted is the U.S. health system — the unequal access to care and insurance. It was an issue discussed at the conference.

“What we have to reckon with as a country is, why have we done so uniquely poorly in responding to Covid?” asked Dr. Paul Farmer, who is chairman of the global health department at Harvard Medical School and a strategist at Partners in Health, a health care nonprofit focused on resource-stretched areas and countries. “After all, we have more resources than most places in the world.”

Dr. Farmer provided a series of explanations. He said the United States had patchwork health delivery and health insurance systems, reflecting the “longstanding tension” between local and federal governments on health policy.

There were also cultural issues, such as “a longstanding history of hostility to government efforts to intrude in people’s lives” and the country’s “failure to invest in public health” in the past few decades, he said.

What Covid-19 had done was help the United States come closer to accepting that health was a human right. “Seeing what it’s like to get through a pandemic when you don’t have a strong safety net has been an object lesson for many,” he said.

As a result, there were reasons to be hopeful.

“Sometimes it takes an event like this or the Depression that began in 1929 to spur some reforms,” he said. “On top of that, we have a long-overdue moment of racial reckoning in the U.S.

“I remain optimistic that we’re going to move things forward,” he concluded.

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