My Remarks at the 2022 Copenhagen Democracy Summit
Today, I spoke at the Copenhagen Democracy Summit in Denmark to discuss the importance of a positive vision for democracy, and the promise of the next generation to chart a better course.
Thank you. Thank you. Well, thank you, Sahra-Josephine, for that introduction, and the extraordinary work that you are doing. And I want to thank my old friend, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, for hosting me and our extraordinary Obama Foundation leaders here today. It is wonderful to see all of you and I’m confident that there have been extraordinary discussions that have been taking place since this conference began.
As we meet, Ukraine obviously weighs heavily on our hearts and minds. We’ve all witnessed the terrible suffering in a war that recalls Europe’s darkest history. But we have also witnessed the Ukrainian peoples’ heroic resistance to Russian aggression. They’ve united to defend not just their sovereignty, but their democratic identity, and their actions have rallied much of the world behind the values of self-determination and human dignity. It’s inspiring.
Because of the courage and because of this solidarity on display, Vladimir Putin is failing to achieve his aims inside of Ukraine and beyond. NATO has stepped up and has grown stronger. Finland and Sweden are seeking swift accession. Countries have welcomed displaced Ukrainians with open arms. Meanwhile, Russia is cut off from resources and revenue, and many of its best and brightest have left, a blow to its present, but also to its future.
So we should take heart from Ukrainian resolve and from renewed transatlantic solidarity, and I know that’s been discussed at this conference. These are signs of hope amidst despair. But make no mistake: this war is far from over. The costs will continue to mount. The course of events, as Anders and I discussed before we came out, are hard to predict. And our support for Ukraine must remain strong, steadfast and sustained until this conflict reaches a resolution.
Now, while Ukraine properly commands our immediate attention, it’s also important to recognize that Putin’s lawlessness is not happening in isolation. As I’m sure previous speakers have noted, on every continent, we are seeing democratic backsliding. On every continent, emboldened autocrats are ramping up oppression, they’re targeting minority groups, they’re often flouting international law. Just as disturbing, within democracies, populist appeals grounded in fear and bigotry and resentment, have elevated leaders who, once they’re in office, have sought to systematically undermine democratic institutions and entrench themselves in power. In my own country, the forces that unleashed mob violence on our Capitol are still churning out misinformation and conspiracy theories.
For those of us who fervently believe in the ideals of democracy, the question is: How do we respond?
If nothing else, recent events should shake us out of complacency. There was a trend after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a sense that history was inevitably going to usher in a democratic world. Well, we’ve been reminded that democratic practice, democracy is neither inevitable nor self-executing. Most of recorded history is a chronicle of violence, and ignorance, and conflict; of strong nations subjugating weak nations, of groups using tribe, or race, or gender, or religion to justify dominion over others, to grant land and territory and resources. Sometimes they do it just because they can. Democracy, by contrast, has for most of human history been the anomaly. And in a relatively small period of time, in fits and starts. Through revolution, struggle, and sacrifice, democracy took hold in a few places, and then began in fits and starts, to spread, elsewhere in the globe. That expansion has helped contain some of humanity’s baser impulses. But those instincts, those impulses were never eliminated, nor were the old structures of privilege and exploitation that they produced.
So the point is, if we want democracy to flourish, we will have to fight for it, we will have to nurture it, we will have to demonstrate its value, again and again, in improving the lives of ordinary people. And we will also have to be willing to look squarely at the shortcomings of our own democracies, not the ideal, but the reality of our own democracies. Only then will we be able to tell a better story of what democracy can be, and must be, in this rapidly changing world.
Now, for some of us, certainly those attending this conference, particularly those of you with gray hair like me, the virtues of democracy may seem obvious. For those generations scarred by successive World Wars, it was clear where dictatorship and master race theories and religious intolerance, and rampant nationalism could lead, because we’d seen it here in Europe and elsewhere in the world, with bombed out cities and broken lives, as many as sixty million dead worldwide during World War II, Auschwitz, Stalin’s gulags. For the Allies who emerged victorious, the goal was to prevent a repeat of such tragic history. So they built institutions to check unbridled power and to protect civil society and to foster pluralism. And they realized, well, if we’re going to fight this battle, maybe we have to fix some of the things in our own democracies and make them more representative, make our hypocrisy, the gap between our words and our deeds, less obvious. Internationally they erected a multilateral system to reinforce international norms, recognize universal rights, and encourage the peaceful resolution of disputes.
As imperfect as these institutions were, most people during this period understood, to paraphrase Churchill, that democracy beat the alternatives. Two cheers for democracy. The notion was that democracy might not prevent every foolish war, but it made them less likely. Democracy might not end poverty and racism, but it could make things better. And, in fact, progress was real. But it was also incomplete.
That was a long time ago. I’m now 60, and it happened before I was around. Most of the people alive on the earth today don’t have that as a reference point.
Today, abstract appeals about democracy won’t persuade the jobless youth on the outskirts of Paris, may not persuade families in Northern England struggling to pay the bills, or the displaced workers in the former factory towns of the American Midwest. And they barely register with the hundreds of millions of people trapped in poverty around the world.
A few weeks ago, I met with some young leaders who’d just completed one of our Obama Foundation programs. We were in New York City. One of the participants was a remarkable young African who built an organization that expands educational opportunities for underserved youth, and he asked me a question. He said, “President Obama, how do I answer my peers who argue that democracy in our country has failed to deliver? Everywhere, we see corruption, poverty, a lack of progress, despite election after election. When my peers look at China,” he said, “they see a model of orderly advancement and material improvement in peoples’ lives. So even if it means restrictions on some freedoms, isn’t that worth the trade-offs?”
Instinctively, I pointed out that the same system in China that his friends were praising now had let millions die of starvation and produced the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. I told the young man that he was too young to remember what life was like in his own country, before democracy came, that there had been a brutal civil war that also resulted in the death of millions, chronic corruption and then strife under subsequent military regimes. So I told him, “You need to broaden your lens,” and he listened politely. What was he going to do? Maybe he was even moved by my arguments, but you could tell he didn’t think his peers would be, at least not until those arguments were accompanied by measurable changes in their lives, where they live, in the here and now, not by reference to what happened 30 or 40 or 50 years ago.
I’m convinced some version of this conversation is taking place right now in every country and on every continent. I’m also convinced that, for us to win that contest of ideas between those of us who believe in democracy and those who are convinced that older ways of doing business are better, in that contest of ideas, it won’t be enough to just say what we’re against. We have to describe clearly what we are for. It won’t be enough to reaffirm a creaky status quo, to just put a new coat of paint on the existing order, because the fact is, that order has been shaken at its foundations by globalization, financial crisis and social media, by rising inequality and mass migration, and climate change and a multi-polar world. If we are going to fortify democracy, if democracy is going to thrive and not just survive in a few pockets on the map, we are going to have to rebuild our democracies and our institutions, so they work better for more people for this new age.
Now, I’m not here to offer a ten-point plan. I’m no longer running for office. (Laughter.) Also, I don’t have all the answers. Mainly I’m not here to offer a ten-point place because I want you to hear from some of the young leaders we work with. (Cheers, applause.) This is their friends and support group. (Laughter.) I thought we were going to drink later. (Laughter.) Did you guys get an early start? (Laughter.) What I do want to do, though, before I bring them out, is I want to just spend a few minutes sketching, in very broad strokes, some of the work that I believe lies ahead.
To begin with, we need to be clear that democracy is about more than elections. Most of us understand this, but I think we really have to continually focus in on this because we have seen, time and again, how the machinery of elections can be twisted to serve the interests of despots.
I believe a genuine democracy must be rooted in the core principle that all persons, regardless of their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical capacity, economic status — all persons have an inviolable dignity and worth, and that they are entitled to a say in how they are governed and deserve equal treatment in the eyes of the law. That to me is a core principle of democracy. (Applause.)
There was a time — and the reason that it’s important for us to say this is because there was as time, a long time — when countries could claim to be model democracies, despite the fact that they maintained effective caste systems, racial caste systems, religious caste systems, gender caste systems. They treated people differently, but they said, “Oh, we’re model democracies.”
No more. No democracy is perfect, and injustice is embedded in every society, we can acknowledge that, but any system of government that calls itself a democracy, while codifying injustice, violates the very essence of the word.
That’s a core principle at the center of the democratic project, and this core principle has to be operationalized, yes, through free and fair elections, but also through institutions that guarantee basic rights like the freedom of speech and assembly and the ability to practice one’s faith.
It needs institutions that ensure the equal administration of justice and promote transparency and establish a process to resolve differences and transfer power peacefully. That’s what we mean by true democracy, a system in which “We the People” includes all, and not just some, citizens. Now, within that, the particulars of any nation’s constitution, political process, administrative machinery may vary based on custom or tradition, but I believe that the pursuit of the deeper value must be our North Star.
By those standards, some democracies are doing better than others. Collectively, we’re all falling short. To build stronger democracies and beat back this trend towards authoritarianism, we will all need to raise our game, and I’d suggest we focus on four broad areas.
Number one, for democracy to flourish, we need to develop models for a more inclusive and sustainable capitalism.
I believe in market economies, not just because they’re more efficient and more innovative than other systems, so far devised, but because, when properly structured, they’re compatible with freedom. Scandinavian countries including Denmark demonstrate that.
But I also believe that the version of capitalism that has come to dominate the global economy has also come to corrode democracy. When you have trillions of dollars move around the globe, in the blink of an eye, outside the control of any sovereign country, far-flung mega companies operating beyond the reach of national regulation or oversight or tax collection, without regard for their impact on local communities or workers, and unconstrained by any values other than their quarterly shareholder report, that’s a lot of power outside of democracy.
We have to acknowledge, economically, this globalization has made products cheaper, increased interdependence, it has helped drive rapid development in some countries, most notably China. But it has also driven income inequality to levels not seen in generations. In wealthy countries, it’s amplified the loss of bargaining power for workers, it’s stunted wage growth, it’s reduced the status of workers, maybe for all but a narrow band of people in the knowledge professions.
For some poorer countries, the shift towards automation and relentless foreign competition has actually made it harder to develop viable local industry and expand a fledgling middle class, and there’s been a constant brain drain of educated and skilled workers.
And while China has emerged as a big winner in the globalization sweepstakes, using export-driven strategies to lift a huge swath of its population out of poverty, it’s come at the price of increased, steady repression and control of its people, and a more aggressive nationalism on the world stage, especially as growth slows and the Chinese government may find it harder to meet peoples’ rising expectations.
Now, these aren’t conditions where democracy is likely to thrive. When people feel economically insecure, when they feel the game is rigged, anger mounts, resentment builds. When democratic governments can’t respond to these frustrations, partly because they don’t have control, over the tax revenues or the regulatory capacity to deal with the major players in the economy, people grow cynical towards their leaders and the political system that produced them.
When the gap between rich and poor widens, further and further, then fellow citizens share fewer experiences. The rich people are behind the gate somewhere, and the poor people are outside, and their kids are not going to school together, and they’re not feeling invested in each other. Well, people feel fewer obligations, and social trust declines.
And in the absence of solidarity, people are more likely to turn to populist appeals from strongmen who offer someone to blame, whether it’s immigrants or minorities or foreign powers or shadowy elites or opposition parties or even democracy itself.
So if we want to strengthen our democracies, we have to pay attention to economics, and we need to make the global economy more responsive to workers, families, communities, and representative governments. Some of this work on labor protections or corporate governance, on tax policies that reduce inequality, and investment where it’s needed, some of that will happen at a local or national level.
Other strategies, like ending global tax avoidance and combating kleptocracy, require international cooperation. But our objectives should be clear: reducing the wealth gap, expanding middle classes, restoring peoples’ sense of control over their own livelihoods, making private companies more accountable. We want them to make a profit, but also more accountable for the common good. That’s number one.
Number two, we need to revitalize our political institutions so that people believe that participation is worth the effort.
In too many democracies, politics feels like a distant and increasingly irrelevant enterprise. Some of that is by design, by the way. In my own country, for example, we have what’s called a filibuster rule in the United States Senate that has effectively made it almost impossible for either party, even when they have a majority, to get anything substantial through the Senate and passed and signed into law.
At a certain point, people start wondering, why bother?
We have governments making it too hard to vote, a lot of governments who make it difficult to see why your vote matters. The powerful seem to have more access. They act with impunity. Over time, the people and their elected representatives break down.
So every democracy has to take basic steps to restore confidence that democracy is working the way it’s supposed to, like protecting the right to vote, ensuring that vote is counted equally and transparently, holding the powerful to account when they bend the rules or break the law, ending the scourge of dark money that so often corrupts our politics.
More than that, democracies need to redesign governments so that they can deliver better results. In some cases, that means stripping away bureaucracy and red tape, even when it’s well-intentioned, which makes government unable to move on major initiatives. In the United States right now, building infrastructure, like mass transit or road projects or an airport, it costs like two or three times more than it does here in Europe! And in some cases, it means pushing more decision-making to the local and regional level, so we can road test new ideas to solve problems and build bridges between those in power and the people that they’re supposed to represent, an issue here in Europe that has to be paid attention to. The bottom line is that people care about democratic process, but they also want results.
Third, we need to spend more time and energy building a democratic culture.
Those of us who promote democracy, we’re often progressive. We focus a lot on policy. We see politics and governance as pluralistic negotiation between competing rational, self-interested actors. That’s not what moves people in the world. Emotions matter. Stories matter. People care about meaning and purpose and belonging and status. And in this age of uncertainty and polarization, we’ve seen the loss of many of the stabilizing foundations in peoples’ lives, whether its neighborhoods that are disrupted or religious, cultural or civic organizations that are atrophying. Often, it’s authoritarian leaders who understand this, and those of us who believe in democracy struggle to catch up. We avoid what in the United States we call “culture wars” because we want to focus on tax policy. But those emotions are powerful and they’re legitimate. Purpose, meaning, connection. Those things do matter.
Now, I want to be clear, I have little sympathy for reactionaries who cynically condemn identity politics or cancel culture when really all they’re doing is trying to preserve existing privileges, or excuse entrenched injustice or bigotry. I mean, the original identity politics is racism and sexism and homophobia, and that’s nothing if not identity politics, and it’s done a lot more harm than some tweet from and aggrieved Liberal.
But what is also true is that, if we’re going to strengthen democracy, if we want to encourage pluralism and civility and self-governance, we have to embrace and restore a language of mutual respect that speaks to peoples’ need for belonging, that they care about the traditions they come from, they care about the places they come from. They want to feel proud about who they are. And that’s easier to do in homogeneous countries; it’s harder to do as countries become more diverse.
So my point is, a big part of strengthening democracy is not just about politics and policy; it is about culture. And we have to embrace that. We have to expand the civic education that we provide our children and give them practice to live in a democracy. We have to create organizations that give them experience in working with people who are different, and exercise their civic muscles. We need to create platforms that encourage a willingness that nudge people and incentivize people to extend good faith to those who are not like themselves, or don’t think like themselves, a politics that is inclusive rather than exclusive. This is both ethically sound and a practical necessity, something that leaders Gandhi, and King, and Mandela understood. There’s a reason why Nelson Mandela really focused on South African rugby, when he was released. He was sending a signal to those who had imprisoned him for 27 years, that I’m not here to take away your traditions and your identity, as long as you make sure they are compatible with my dignity and respect for my people. (Applause.)
We need to find ways to build that kind of solidarity and forge connections with people, so that they don’t push us away. That doesn’t mean we have to indulge traditions that don’t live up to our core principles of equality and human dignity, but it does mean that we need to use language that affirms the best of existing national, religious, and culture and ethnic traditions, rather than make arguments that make people feel like they have to abandon all aspects of their past. We can reckon with our darker histories without asking people to reject their own identities. Indeed, progress is about doing the work of perfecting our unions, not repudiating the possibility of a union.
Finally, as we do all these things, we have to take steps to detoxify our discourse, particularly the scourge of disinformation and conspiracy theories, and hate online that has polluted our political discourse.
Now, I spoke about at length about this at Stanford University, in the spring, but I’ll just reinforce a few key points. Technology companies have to accept a degree of democratic oversight and accountability. Profit can’t be the only driver for platforms who have acquired power once reserved for nation-states. And while no human endeavor can eliminate human fallibility, we can actually make these things better. These technologies and platforms were made by human beings; human beings can make them work better.
I look forward to doing more work in the months to come to lift up and put forth new ideas around technology and the other areas that I just mentioned, because these are the areas where we all have to do better. It’s going to determine the fate of our democracies, whether they stick, whether they get stronger, or whether they continue to get weaker.
But, although I’m ready to volunteer and sign up, and work with existing groups and organizations that are focused in these areas, I want to underscore — I’m probably not going to be the main driver of solutions at this stage, nor are many of us in this room, who already — I won’t say are passed our primes, but we have gone through — run through positions of power. Because we need to build democracy for the future, not the past.
And what gives me hope is the promise and potential of the next generation of leaders who are coming up, young people who understand that the future of democracy, and in fact, the very planet that we live on, hangs in the balance. These young people are ready to do the work, and many of them are already deeply engaged in the project of rebuilding our democracies.
That’s who Michelle and I are supporting at our foundation, and that is why I’m so glad to be joined by just a small sampling of our extraordinary Obama Foundation leaders from all across Europe, who gathered here today. If you can all please welcome, Tudor, Federica and Selvije. Come on up.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: First of all, you can tell what outstanding young leaders they are because they already know you want to bring your own fans to events. (Laughter.)
Before we start our conversation, I would love for each of you very briefly to describe for the audience who you are, what you’ve been doing, and why it’s been so exciting for you to gather with some of the other leaders and peers from across Europe.
FEDERICA VINCI: First of all, thank you very much, Mr. President, for having us here and thanks to all the Obama leaders out there, because it’s really nice getting an audience with you guys.
My name is Federica Vinci. I am the deputy mayor of Isernia, which is a small town in the south of Italy. The work that I do is basically to try to bring back politics, grassroots politics in a very small town in my region and hopefully, in the future, in my country.
The best part of being here with all these amazing leaders has been having the chance to reconnect with people that do our same job, even if different fields. Sometimes it feels lonely when you are on the ground trying to make change, but reconnecting with all of you has been such a gift, because it reminds us why we’re here and what our purpose is. So thank you very much.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Excellent. (Applause.)
TUDOR IULIAN BRADATAN: Thank you very much. I’m Tudor. I’m from Romania. I am the executive director of what we call an online digital campaigning organization. We work on multi-issues, ranging from the environment to the rule of law. We have an online community with 1.2 million members. This is the people that receive constantly our updates and are invited to take action whenever is needed. We put pressure on decision-makers each time there is a good opportunity.
We fundraise from our members and this is how we manage to actually win campaigns. Sometimes we fundraise for expensive lawsuits. Sometimes we fundraise for ads in newspapers to get our message across.
I chose this work because it’s my way of defending democracy and it’s my way to help people, simple people from all walks of life to have a say in today’s democracy basically.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Excellent. (Applause.)
SELVIJE MUSTAFI: Thank you so much. My name is Selvije Mustafi. I’m coming from North Macedonia and I’m national grassroots organizer within the biggest Roma national movement in Macedonia named Avaja, which means we are coming.
I’ve been active for ten years now from the age of 16 and our movement’s purpose is to build power in the communities and articulate Roma’s issues on higher national level.
And another thing is now that from our movement, we also built another seven national movements in seven different countries, and I serve as trainer trying to build the communities, build the structures, and build power.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Fantastic. (Applause.)
All right. So we only have about 40 minutes. I want to start with an open-ended question because in my opening remarks, I said that, certainly for my grandparents, my parents, and to some degree for me, when I think about democracy and the tension between democracy and authoritarianism, my reference point is the Cold War. I think about, you know, I was in law school when the Berlin Wall came down. I’m trying to do the math as to whether you were born when the Berlin Wall came down. (Laughter.) I don’t think so, right?
I’m interested, when we’re here at this democratic summit, how do you and your peers think about this issue of democracy in your own countries here in Europe, worldwide? Do you have a sense of concern and worry that democracy is declining? Do you feel cynical about how existing democracies operate?
Obviously, it’s hard to generalize for everybody your age, but you’re also having a lot of conversations with people who are active and care about issues.
Federica, you want to start?
FEDERICA VINCI: Being the deputy mayor of a small town, it means that I get to have a lot of meetings with people of my age, but also younger, 15 years old, 16, 18 years old, boys and girls. I remember right after that I was elected and nominated deputy mayor, I’m also in charge of youth policies. Coming from a community organizing background, I decided to call all the representatives of the different high schools of my hometown. We sat around the table and I asked them, so guys, tell me, how have you worked with politicians in the past? What have you guys done together or what has been done for you?
And well, before asking this question, the first thing that they said to me was, have we done anything wrong?
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Why are you calling me in here? Am I in trouble?
FEDERICA VINCI: Why are you calling us here? Are we in trouble? This made me realize that these guys and these girls had never been listened to before.
When we were talking about politics, they were completely disillusioned, not because — and I thought because they didn’t have any luck for the future or they didn’t have any thought about their jobs. But actually they were not even thinking about their future. They had never been listened to. They had never been involved in policymaking. Politicians were doing policies without involving them at all. So they were like, we don’t see politicians. We don’t hear from them. We just see them when they want our votes.
And I think that if we want — of course we want democracy, right? We want our rights to be protected. We want our freedom. I don’t think that anybody would exchange democracy for anything in the world. Yet we have to admit that democracy, at least in places like mine, is failing generations, like my generation or generations even younger.
So we as politicians, as leaders have a huge responsibility to go back into these places and make these boys, these girls part of the solution, part of this policymaking process, listen to them and engage them.
Because we are talking about huge numbers. Like Italy has around 8,000 municipalities. 180 municipalities are above 50,000 people. All the rest, more than 7,800 municipalities are really small towns where politicians can have a day-to-day engagement with their constituencies and with those kids. I think it’s our job to do it because this is the only way we can infuse hope in them and in the future of democracy.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: As I listen, I’m going to think of new questions, and I’ll give you a new question, Tudor, but you can answer the old question. Take it where you want. But as I was listening to Federica speaking, she mentioned online. One thing we know about young people, whether in Europe, the United States, Africa, anywhere in the world, a larger portion of their time, attention is on the phone or a screen.
I know that you have worked in thinking about how to use these new technologies to engage people rather than isolate them. What strategies have worked for you when it comes to engaging people online? But how does that also then translate into action in the real world? Because we have an expression in the United States, “hashtag activism,” where somebody just tweets like or has a sarcastic comment about something and then kind of feels like, well, there was my political activism for the day. (Laughter.) But it never actually translates into voting, mobilization, initiatives that bring about change. What’s your sense?
TUDOR IULIAN BRADATAN: I would rather answer with an example. In our world, we always say that e-mail is dead. It’s difficult to reach people via e-mail. And it’s a very good solution because unlike social media, the e-mail is targeted. You have an e-mail address, you send an e-mail, the person receives the e-mail. With social media, it’s much more complicated than that. And with these new networks that arise, it’s hard for us to even find ways in which we can actually tap in with our messaging.
The example I’m going to give you is with a petition that was started on our website by the students in Romania. They asked for a modernization of the way in which they’re evaluated. They go through the same evaluation that I went through when I went to high school or my sister that is ten years older than me, and it wasn’t changed.
What they did is they signed a petition on our website, 400,000 of them, almost every kid in school in Romania signed a petition. We require an e-mail when people signed that petition. They created that e-mail in order to sign the petition, and we want to work with them together for the next steps.
What happened with that petition? The first time that it was submitted to the Minister of Education, he kind of mocked them. But then they came up with follow-up tactics. The last declaration of the minister is somewhat, “I’m going to think about it,” but already I see them win that campaign. Even if it’s going to take a little bit more time, the way in which they work together, the way in which they are creative to put pressure on decision-makers makes me have much more hope than I have in my generation, for instance.
I would not treat these kinds of things as individual, things that are too individualistic. We have to work together. The students in Romania, they somehow managed to find ways in which they talked. They used the platform that last time I heard of it, it was for online gaming, people synchronizing on strategies, and they used that software. It was impressive for me to see how well that can be organized and how efficient they are. That is the one thing that brings me a lot of hope.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Selvije, Federica works very local. And you, on the other hand, are part of a European-wide network advocating on behalf of the Roma people. What do you see, what are the trends that you’re seeing in terms of young people getting involved Europe-wide and how do they feel about European democracy?
Because one of the interesting things about democracy in Europe, I remember when I was president coming here, you had local governments, you had regional governments, you had national governments. Then you had Brussels. You’ve got the EU. You’ve got the European Parliament. There are a bunch of different ways to access politics. But I’m wondering, does that make it more difficult or more accessible for people to want to get involved and to feel like they have a hand in who’s making decisions that affect their lives?
SELVIJE MUSTAFI: I’m going to start with the following, that democracy has always meant the same. It has meant the voice of the people, the power of the people, the decision of the people.
And what I see in my generation and their perception and feeling of democracy has two aspects. The first one is that the Roma community, in their mid-twenties or even younger, they are very disappointed in democracy in general, also in the approach of how some political leaders are responding to democracy and democratic ideals.
This has different reasons, because for so long, the Roma in general were excluded economically, politically, culturally, and were underrepresented. They didn’t have their own representative who is coming directly from the community, who knows the issues in the community and the challenges, and who can deliver and articulate and try to solve them. Because representatives who are non-Roma, they cannot know what is happening in the Roma community better than the Roma.
On the other hand, working for ten years now in the community, building power in the community and showing different approaches, like relationship building and so on, the community and the young people see a different added value. They can participate in public dialogs with politicians, with different political actors, with mayors and so on, and they see that this is an element that gives them, how to say, that gives them a value where they can contribute.
What is the narrative now in the community and among the youngsters? What I hear is, well, maybe we are, because we are the biggest ethnic minority in Europe with over 12 million Roma, maybe we are a key contributor to preserve democracy. And with all the painful, painful history and survivals that we had in the past, now we are still here and we are courageous and brave to take action. And that’s what democracy is about, about bravery, an effort that will bring bigger changes.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Excellent.
All those people clapping up there, many of them are working on different issues. The three of you are working on different issues. One of the challenges for democracy in the United States is sometimes people become very narrow in the issues that they’re concerned about. Climate change, that’s a very complicated issue. Criminal justice reform is very detailed.
Organizations, activists, even elected officials sometimes work narrowly, but in order to build power and actually move the levers of democracy, it’s a huge advantage if you can form coalitions across groups.
I’m wondering, how have you been thinking about in your own work or in conversations that you’ve been having, the need to work across sectors or how do you think about the relationship between working in non-profits versus running for office? Always a difficult debate, I think, does change come more from the inside or from the outside, beating down the door? How have you been thinking about that?
FEDERICA VINCI: We were just laughing because we were having this discussion 15 minutes ago.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Were you encouraging Tudor to run for something?
FEDERICA VINCI: Exactly, run for office, yes.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: He’s a very handsome guy. I think he could do well.
FEDERICA VINCI: I’m trying. I’m trying really hard. But it’s like he wants to be convinced.
What I believe is that we need way more cross-sectional politics in general, but way more engagement in different sectors. Yes, there are tons of challenges. First of all, generally, as we were saying, activists do not want to run for office. This is what I’m trying to change from the very bottom, because I believe that we have generally attached a very negative meaning to politics.
While politics is the air we breathe, politics is in every single thing we do. It’s in the transportations that we take, it’s in the climate, it’s in the way we engage with people, it’s in the way we speak, how we are educated; politics is everything. So whenever someone tells me, “Oh, politics is bad, politics is corrupted, politics is full of scandals,” I reply, “This is what governs your life.” If this is what governs your life, do you really want to be governed by the worst people that you think are getting there? And we are electing them in democracies.
So what I don’t understand and what we were discussing about is that we talk a lot about democracy, but then especially in countries like mine, in places like mine, we have the lowest standards for the people that then get up in the parliament and write these laws for us.
I think that if we really want to change things, we need more people that have super-high moral standards and that want to change things from the grassroots to the top level to get engaged into politics and get elected. Because it’s true that you can get an amazing amount of change as an activist.
I was an activist before becoming a politician. I was a community organizer.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Me, too. (Laughter, applause.)
FEDERICA VINCI: And I think I still want to be an activist. I want to be an activist. I want to get out and rally for climate change or I want to get out with my people and clean parks, if we need to.
But we cannot avoid thinking that politics is not part of the game. Politics is part of the game. Politics will always be part of the game. And if we don’t think that we don’t have to get engaged, then we will keep being governed by the people that we don’t like, even though we vote for them. And then we have voter apathy and we have kids not going to vote and we have people getting way, way far away from politics, while this still governs our life.
This has to change and I am arguing that this needs to change from the very bottom where people like me, politicians, can start talking face to face with their constituency and regaining the trust that they’ve lost so far because they have been governed by the wrong people, because the right one were just too scared of the bad environment that politics brings up on.
TUDOR IULIAN BRADATAN: Almost convinced me, but no. I have resistance still.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: I’m not going to put you on the spot today and ask you to announce your candidacy, but this goes to the issues of this summit. It’s often easy to defend democracy in the abstract. But if you have been an activist and you’ve been working from the outside, sometimes it is difficult to see why change is moving so slowly on the inside. As I said in my remarks, some of that is by design.
As somebody who started locally and then ended up running a pretty big government, a lot of the activists who worked with me would get frustrated and think somehow that, well, how come he hasn’t gotten this done or that done yet? It must be because he no longer cares about us. He’s talking to all these rich contributors and this and that. When, in fact, no, I still want exactly what you wanted, but the wheels of government are just moving very slowly because there are all these systems that are set up to block it.
The reason I say that is because I think for democracy to work, you have to have both. You have to have people who are in the engine room and the deck of the ship of democracy, working to make it move in the right direction, but you also have to have people on the outside who are constantly maintaining pressure and getting people involved, because that’s the engine, that’s the fuel that ultimately is going to get you to where you want to go.
And so, I’m interested in how — as I said, Tudor, you don’t have to announce your candidacy.
FEDERICA VINCI: Not yet.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Because there is an important role to play in citizen participation, activism, organization. And so far, that’s the role you’ve chosen to play. Do you feel like you can make enough of a difference taking that approach, particularly if maybe sometimes you see — you said like the education minister seemed like he’s not listening to 400,000 students. Do you think, “you know what, we should have somebody in there who does listen?”
TUDOR IULIAN BRADATAN: It’s a big temptation for many activists to go into politics, and I admire those who do. It’s not a matter of me thinking that politics is dirty and we should not touch it. No, politics is where decisions are made.
My fear is that, if people like me enter politics, we leave an empty spot in the civil society, and that supporting a country like Romania was difficult to fill in the first place. We are a young democracy. If all of us from the civil society turn into politics, we need to bring new people to form this new civil society. What I noticed in my line of work is that politicians become better when we demand them to do so.
Now, I think that in a way, the civil society is like that bad medicine that tastes bad, but you still need to take it because it makes you healthy. I like to be that medicine that tastes bad. It makes me feel better. (Laughter, applause.) But if I would get one single dollar each time I’m invited to join politics, I would solve the funding for my organization for ten years. (Laughter.)
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Let me start with you on this question, Selvije. We talked about online organizing, but one of the things that I do think has changed, even since I was in office, was the amount of misinformation, the difficulty of sorting between what’s true and what’s false, what’s journalism and what’s fabrication.
I’m wondering how all of you in the work that you try to do have dealt with the misinformation problem, whether it affects your work and whether you’ve come up with some solutions, so that you can get facts and information out to people and you don’t have to spend all your time refuting things that people think that aren’t true, and in some cases politicize issues that shouldn’t be political.
In the United States, as I think many of you saw, COVID became somehow a political issue and getting vaccinated or wearing masks. A lot of that was driven just by misinformation that was out there, and that seems to be happening on more and more issues. I’m wondering how it’s affected you and whether you’ve seen some solutions to help young people distinguish between what’s true and false in making decisions about how to participate and what to support.
SELVIJE MUSTAFI: Yes, definitely digital, the digital space has fundamentally altered on how people are being exposed to engage with information. And I think that the internet has enabled a lot of people to create and expand different kinds of content by a large audience at marginal costs, and it’s instantly and freely accessible.
However, there are big concerns also in our movement about how false information and misinformation is spreading on the internet to influence decisions by some political actors or political sides. So using the social media, you can create, and you can expand different kinds of misinformation.
And as you said, the challenge is that those kind of fake news and misinformation are making the people to have a different kind of opinion, which is not necessarily relevant or truthful. And this is an issue we have also with the Roma community, a community who has been discriminated for so long, ignored. It’s very easy. There is a big base to spread fake news and to make them think like that, and not necessarily they can now differentiate what is opinion and what is fact.
So what we do as activists, as movements, and — I mean, what we what we can’t do is we cannot — we don’t have the space and tools how to regulate the internet, but what we can do is to try to counteract this kind of false news and to try to actively produce content that is relevant and spread the frequency of our own message and our own narrative.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Excellent. Frederica, as an elected officials and activist, is that a problem that you’ve seen in terms of the work that you’re doing? Do you find you make a proposal, and somebody says, “Well, you know, I just saw on the internet that what you’re doing is going to cause cancer,” or it’s going to, you know, destroy the economy or something? And then you have to spend a lot of time unwinding some of this?
FEDERICA VINCI: Yeah, and exactly, words like this. I really — like a simple example, the cost of energy and the cost of water, they rose because of the war, yet we had a couple of newspapers saying that, since — that we were getting paid by the taxpayer money of this increase in water and energy.
So it obviously is false, and it obviously should be easier to think about it, because it’s like the war, and it’s something way above us. Yet, what comes out there, and even what I notice is that it’s even easier for people to get out this false news and this false noise, and it’s scary.
So, and it’s not just about that. It’s about rumors that get out. It’s about voices, rumors, like people talking to people. So in a very small town, you have a huge amount of rumors coming out, and our question was like, how do we counteract against it? What do we do?
So of course you can work online, but in such a small town, and again, Italy is full, and I guess also Europe, it’s full of such small places. You can have a real confrontation with your constituencies.
So we’ve started having town halls in like open-air tunnels, and now that it’s summer and COVID is not such a big risk, especially outside. And we’ve asked people to join us in sharing with us their fears, their questions, what they want, how can we answer to their problems?
And the first time, nobody asked questions. It was really weird, but then –
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Everybody just sat there for half-an-hour?
FEDERICA VINCI: Yeah, exactly, so we started talking about our policies, but then — yeah, but then, on our policies, they started asking questions. And many of the were really good questions. We see a lot of anger on Facebook, a lot of anger on social media. And when you go in real life, first of all, this anger is not that bad, but second, it has a motive. It has a reason.
And when you meet your people and you can ask them, you can listen to them, you actually know what those reasons are, and you can give them answers. And not only, I think we should give them answers, but I think we should include them in the decision-making process and the implementation of the policies that we bring about.
So to counteract this fake news environment in the small town, I guess that the real solution is coming back on the ground, the grassroots, meeting with people, answering their questions, involving them and making them part of the changes that we want to see around.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Excellent. So we’re coming to the end of our session here, and I want to give you a two-part question. If you ever decide to run for office, this is how reporters get around it. They’re only supposed to get one question, that is, “Sir, I have a five-part question,” and then they go and tick them off, and so I’m going to use the trick they taught me. And you can answer both, either one, or just don’t answer, which is also a strategy that I taught them. (Laughter.) And talk about what I want to talk about.
I opened with my remarks, and obviously an enormous amount of time has been spent at this summit, talking about the tragedy of what’s happening in Ukraine. And I’m wondering how you think this has affected you, your generation, to witness this kind of crisis in the heart of Europe in a way that harkens back to your grandparents’ generation. It’s been a long time since we saw that much violence, and now we can witness in real time and displacement. So I’m curious how has it impacted you and your friends? How do you talk about it? And does it encourage you to see the response and make you more committed to the public work that you’re doing? So that’s one question.
Part two, because we’re running out of time, is what are the things that do inspire you and keep you going? Because I think, whether it’s you Frederica or Tudor, but I know you all feel it, sometimes the work gets lonely. And sometimes democracy is discouraging. What is it that has kept that optimism and hope going even when you confront setbacks and when you feel like democracy’s not working? So why don’t we start then with you.
SELVIJE MUSTAFI: Well, I think that the recent context and situation has affected generally the youth and in particular in the Roma community in many aspects, in many ways, psychologically, financially. And there is a lot of frustration.
And as a matter of fact, in Ukraine, there are a lot of Roma. There is a big Roma community who has also been put aside and discriminated for so long. But yet again, the Roma who are there are fighting for Ukraine, and they are fighting for freedom.
So I hope the war ends as soon as possible. And I hope that after the war, Roma won’t be forgotten.
What really inspires me, because for so long the narrative towards us was negative. Many, much of stigma, negative perception, and big part of the Roma community accepted that. But going into the community, talking to people, working with people, and seeing how much of a big potential the Roma are, and how much of a big capacity we have, this is what really inspires me and drives me.
And this is something that I felt from the very beginning of my activism, 10 years ago, and I still feel it whenever I go to the community. And I think that this is the new generation of a driving change. And a community who can preserve democracy and who can be part of preserving democracy in the next period, and I hope, I really hope that Europe, European stakeholders and institutions will have more openness towards Roma and more inclusiveness in particular.
TUDOR IULIAN BRADATAN: When you asked me about — like, how do I see democracy now, it made me realize that I’m — in my family, I’m the first generation that lived their young years in peace and democracy. My parents, they lived theirs in the Cold War. My grandparents fought in World War II. My great-grandparents fought in World War I.
And so I am the first one, basically, that lived to see democracy. Now, I’m not that young. I have gray hair. I still can hide it underneath the other parts. And I still remember the days in Romania when we were a dictatorship. I was very young, but there are things that still are very strong memories, the queues to go and buy food, the heaters that were cold in the winter.
I do not want to go back that. And for many years I thought that, for instance, war is something that is unthinkable, and after 2014, it became obvious that war is again a thing in Europe. And it scares me. And that’s the reality. But that’s what — I mean, when we get paralyzed with fear, that’s when they win. Fear is not really an option for us, because I do not want to go back to the days when Romania was a dictatorship. I do not want to see those atrocities happen again.
So I will fight with everything I have to keep the democracy going and make sure that this system, as imperfect as it is, keeps on going because it is the only thing that allows me to be in places like this to meet the amazing leaders that I met in the last few days. And meeting you is something that would have been unthinkable for my parents’ generation.
So we have to defend this because what would come next is unimaginable.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Madam Mayor, you get the last word here.
FEDERICA VINCI: When it comes to Ukraine, I still remember the day of the war, and I remember calling my friends in — I mean, we were all shocked, and it was something that lasted for a while. Like we had that punch in the stomach. We couldn’t think about what was happening. We couldn’t think about the fact that we were — like that our borders, like Ukraine, which we consider Europe, were at war.
And we are like a really big European generation, and so we felt extremely attacked, sad, lost, somehow. But on the other hand, it was also sort of a wake-up call, a reminder that, in Italy, at least in my town, and in my region, we are still lucky enough to be able to keep working on our democracy, that it’s not working as we would like it to be. It’s not being like we would like it to be.
So that, that brings me to the point of what is it that is passionate for me, and moves me, especially when you live in a town where, in front of you, you don’t have just your political opponent, but probably the woman who stole your boyfriend when you were 15 years old and you still haven’t forgotten.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: That’s a good point. I mean, that’s — if it’s, you know, that makes it a little more personal.
FEDERICA VINCI: Exactly.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: You’re, no — I wasn’t pointing. She’s not here. I was pretending that I was pointing (laughter).
FEDERICA VINCI: But it gets harder because you want to do stuff, and you know that you can’t move on because probably there is something personal behind it. So how do you do it? And this is also what gave me hope.
I’ll tell you, like a short story. I have been working with this woman — not working, but I would have loved to have worked with this woman, but since I’ve gotten elected, she’s been opposing every single thing that I try to propose, from the football court for the kids, from a youth center, and with no reason, I couldn’t understand why.
So one day I went into the local high school to talk to the youth of the local high school, and I was talking to them about the fact that my mom wanted me to become a lawyer. My dad wanted me to become a consultant. I tried both, I hated them both. And then I got into politics, which was my dream.
And I told these kids that we live in a society that doesn’t give us the space to understand who we are, what we love, and what we want to do. So it’s their job and our job as politicians to support them in finding the space and allowing them to become what they want.
Great speech. I went back home, slept on it. The morning after, I receive a call. It was this woman, and she said, “Look, my daughter was on the stage and was listening to you, and she filmed you, and she sent me the recording. And I wanted to thank you because my story is your story with the difference that I didn’t have the courage that you had to follow my own dreams. And having you out there talking to my daughter about the fact that you did gave my daughter the confidence to come to me and say that she wanted to become an architect. So thank you very much. I’m looking forward to work with you on this youth center.”
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: That’s great.
FEDERICA VINCI: Knowing that, beyond being politicians, we are human beings that share stories, and at the end of the day, we all want this world to be a better place, that’s what gives me hope, because I see, every single day, that we can overcome our differences. We can build bridges. We can close the gap between the politicians, the high school girls that had a fight over a boyfriend. And we can unite on what really matters for us. And this gives me a lot of hope.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Good. Well, you — the three of you give me hope. The young people who are working with us at the foundation are giving us hope. For those of you who are already parts of organizations working on democratic issues, either here or on other continents, I cannot tell you enough that we have to invest in this cohort if we are going to succeed. Because every time I have a chance to have conversations, the kind of idealism and innovation and imagination and courage that you’ve heard from these three, they’re out there. And they need to be heard, and they need to be empowered, because they’re going to be the ones who take us where we need to go.
All right. Please give them a big round of applause. Thank you, everybody. Thank you.