Moyers Expands on How Soft Power Will Save Democracy from Decline

Journalist Bill Moyers gives the first lecture of Week Eight’s theme on soft power with his lecture, “The Other Face of Power,” Monday Aug. 12, 2019 at the Hall of Philosophy. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

In 2001, the United States was the world’s foremost superpower — but that didn’t prevent 9/11. And Bill Moyers has an idea as to why that is: hard power, force, has limits. 

Soft power, the power to persuade, persists because it’s the opposite; it goes beyond militaries and money, and focuses on cooperation without coercion. More than that, Moyers believes it just might save democracy from itself.

Moyers, acclaimed broadcast journalist, delivered his lecture, “The Other Face of Power” at 2 p.m. Monday in the Hall of Philosophy, opening Week Eight’s Interfaith Lecture Series, “The Power of Soft Power.” Moyers’ career in broadcast journalism, spanning five decades, has earned him more than 30 Emmy Awards, nine Peabody Awards and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, among many other accolades.

“A country succeeds with soft power when other countries admire its value, want to emulate its example and seek to achieve the level of prosperity and openness,” Moyers said. “In a way, the character of a country’s civil society is just as important as its official policies. Are its laws fair? Are its values appealing? Does it keep its word?”

To Moyers, soft power is essentially the essence of everyday democracy, “how we live, work and survive together.” But with the rise of mass shootings in America, Moyers confessed he has felt depressed about democracy’s future.

“The frequent sound of gunfire repeatedly echoes a breakdown of society, a paralysis of the will, which is the scourge of any civilization,” Moyers said. “What has happened to democracy that it appears to have lost its way, and certainly, its resilience?”

Over the last 50 years, Moyers has reported on the finest, and darkest, hours of democracy around the world, and has condensed his findings into three lessons: Democracy is easier to celebrate than practice, it often produces the opposite of what you would expect or want, and, like any great ship at sea, may sink through the mutiny of those on board.

In addition to the insights gleaned in his career, Moyers’ lessons were influenced by the life of American statesman, diplomat and Founding Father, John Adams. As a history student, Adams was aware of the “tragic” aspect of the past, the idea that “what can be gained, can just as equally be lost.”

“Adams knew democracy, the rule of the many, is by its very nature precarious, unstable and can go awry,” Moyers said.

However, Adams never saw politicians as democracy’s greatest threat. Instead, he said the greatest danger would come from financers, speculators and wealthy merchants who use fortune to influence government.

“Why did he actually think that democracy might follow autocracy and monarchy into the dustbin of history?” Moyers said. “Because he understood the desire for wealth to be rooted in the psyche, he knew that human beings could be self-interested and exploitative, prone to easy corruption. He believed that wealth is politically powerful, not merely because money buys influence, but because citizens admire and identify with the rich.”

Adams had a suggestion: “Try to protect the rights of citizens with a complex of institutions capable of controlling and elevating their passions.” But even if democracies decided to uphold that standard, Adams figured they wouldn’t last long enough to see it through — Adams believed that the average democracy had a lifespan of 250 years. Whether one uses the marker of 1776, with the Declaration of Independence or 1789, with the ratification of the Constitution, there are, at most, 40 years left of American democracy.

But Moyers would argue the end is already here. Moyers recalled British economist Umair Haque, who recently came across a headline that “made his jaw drop”: “Schools in England are beginning to close a day early a week.” Why? Because there is not enough money in their budget for education, what Moyers considers a sign of a “sociopathic society.”

“When I look around the world today, it strikes me that we are living in the age of the sociopath, an age that no longer believes in the great, historic idea of society itself,” he said. “It’s sociopathic to the point that nations, like America and Britain, are simply beginning to shut down their public space, to collapse when it comes to basic structures.”

And nobody’s hands are tied, according to Moyers. By not investing in society and its citizens, people are actively contributing to the end of democracy.

“How can democracy function when people have nothing left in common?” Moyers said. “The core of democracy is about the rights we give each other; it’s about choosing what’s best for everyone, not just yourself.”

Moyers grew up in a small town in Texas, the son of the poorest white man in town. However, Moyers’ best friend was the daughter of the town’s richest white man. They attended the same public schools, played in the same public park and traveled down the same public highways to public universities.

“But we shared something in common; we shared the culture, we shared the institutions, we shared the values of that little town, irrespective of the fact that she was enormously rich and I was very poor,” he said. “That’s what is meant by hospitality to society.”

A group of Swedish researchers, V-Dem, measures the state of global democracy every year. The 2019 Varieties of Democracy report was recently released, and Moyers walked the audience through some of its findings: Democracy still prevails in 99 countries holding 55% of the world’s population. The number of liberal democracies has declined from 44 in 2008, to 39 in 2018. At the beginning of 2019, one-third of the world’s population was living in countries becoming increasingly autocratic, among them Hungary, Bulgaria, Brazil, India and the United States.

“For the first time, the freedom and fairness of elections has started to decline in more countries than it is improving,” Moyers said. “Freedom of expression and the press are under severe attack by governments around the world, and the rule of law and civil society is being eroded.”

Globally, the use of hate speech by political leaders is increasing, and political elites’ respect for their opponents is decreasing. A study conducted in the U.S. and Turkey showed that citizens are increasingly reluctant to accept someone who supports another political party, whether it be a spouse, a friend or even a neighbor.

“That is bad news because once political leaders and their followers no longer believe that opponents are legitimate and deserve equal respect, they become less likely to play by democratic rules in the struggle for power,” he said.

Ultimately, Moyers said people have lost trust in democracy over the last 40 years simply because it “stopped working in their favor.”

“In one national poll, 3 out of 4 Americans agreed that the laws enacted by our national government mostly reflect what powerful interests want, not what everyday people need,” Moyers said. “That leaves America with a pseudo-democracy, a system of government engineered to serve the powerful, while shedding any accountability to those it was meant to include.”

But there is good news: “There is another way.” And if democracy will be saved before the end of John Adams’ timeline, Moyers said soft power is in order.

To make his case, Moyers called in a few “witnesses.”

One of his witnesses was Nicholas Christakis, Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale University. In Christakis’ 2019 book, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, he makes the argument that people are genetically wired for soft power, “a process of natural selection that has favored people prone to constructive friendships, kindness, love and cooperation.”

Moyers said Christakis has come to realize he is writing against the grain, considering the United States is driven by “polarization, right and left, urban and rural, insiders and outsiders.” In response, Christakis proposed a question: “Can you love your own group without hating everyone else?”

“That’s the question we have to wrestle with, and we’ve got a good start because of our genes,” Moyers said. “We have to wrestle with that very seriously, all of us, if we are going to save our democracy.”

Saving democracy also involves trusting people one “barely knows.” 

“You cannot have Chautauqua without trust, you cannot have a state without trust, you cannot have a country unless we trust each other — basically, knowing we are flawed, we are going to make mistakes and that there will be mutanies in our midsts,” Moyers said.

His next witnesses were Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz, who wrote The Boy who was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook: what Traumatized Children Can Teach Us about Loss, Love, and Healing. From birth, children seek an intimate connection, a bond made possible by empathy. But the authors also note that the current culture is beginning to rob children of necessary human contact and deep relationships, which will determine whether or not societies can flourish.

“Our choice, our country’s choice, is chaos or community,” Moyers said.

If chaos is avoided, Moyers said the remaining civilization will be unnatural, but that’s exactly the point.

“Civilization is not what just happens, it’s what we make happen, it’s the things we do,” he said. “We can’t make it work unless we agree on the difference between a horse trader and a horse thief. The distinction is ethical and without it, society is a war of all against all, and a free market for wolves becomes the slaughter of lambs.”

Why do the young die in battle for their country? Why do old people plant trees they won’t live to sit under? Why do people pay taxes to support schools they will never attend? Because supporting and maintaining America, more than anything else, is a collective effort.

“Wherever we are going, we are going together,” Moyers said. “We are all together in this nation and on this planet; you and me, us. We are all called to affirm the big ‘We’: We the people.”

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The author Jamie Landers

Jamie Landers is entering her third season as a reporter for The Chautauquan Daily, covering all things music-related within the online platform. Previously, she recapped the Chautauqua Lecture Series in 2019 and the Interfaith Lecture Series in 2018. In addition, she is a rising senior at The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism in Phoenix, Arizona, where she most recently served as a breaking news reporter for The Arizona Republic, as well as a documentary producer for Arizona PBS.