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Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.

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What Could Go Right? The great democracy experiment

We’re the first societies aiming for equality within diversity.

Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas

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The great democracy experiment

Quantifiable progress is easy to understand. This many people got vaccinated; that many rose out of poverty. The share of renewable energy climbed this much; GDP by that. We cheer such things on in this newsletter, with pleasure.

Social progress, on the other hand, though no less important, is more difficult to pin down. Sometimes a major law is passed or a ruling given, something that shows clearly, for a moment in time, how societies are evolving. But more often than not appreciating social progress requires a guiding hand to reveal where it may be hiding in the messy, slow-moving reality of day-to-day living. Our Members, thankfully, are excellent hands minds for such work. This week we want to discuss a few interweaving strands of some difficult-to-see social progress.

It’s a common refrain these days that American democracy is in trouble. The truth to that is so well known that there is no need to repeat it here. That truth, however, runs parallel to another, less-discussed one. That American democracy—and all modern, diverse democracies—are a new experiment, historically speaking, and one that is by and large not blowing up in our faces but triumphing over humanity’s dark inclinations toward group-based strife and violence.

In the past, most democracies “defined themselves by their ethnic purity,” says The Progress Network (TPN) Member Yascha Mounk, in an interview with his online outlet Persuasion about his new book on the topic. “Today is the first time in the history of the world that we have a large number of ethnically and religiously diverse democracies that are trying to treat all of their citizens as genuine equals.”

In building functional, peaceful, diverse democracies, then, we are learning to do something new—something praiseworthy but hard, and that doesn’t come with a how-to guide. Looking at the injustices and failures that exist in our societies divorced from that historical context can become an exercise in despair or self-hatred. You might even think, like many do, that we’re especially bad, immoral humans these days, when in fact we’re an improvement—an imperfect, vulnerable one, but an improvement nonetheless. Mounk continues:

Yes, we’re failing in certain respects, but we’re succeeding in other respects. We’re doing much better today than we did fifty years ago. We’re doing vastly better today than we did a hundred years ago. That, I think, can give you the hope to build a vision for the kind of society you want to live in, and to make sure that our society doesn’t fall apart, but actually thrives and succeeds.

The rest of the interview goes over critical questions to chew on and specific places where Mounk sees success—when is the last time anyone cared about a Catholic marrying a Protestant?—all of it interesting. One thing he calls for is social institutions that emphasize what we have in common, places where people can build trust with one another. The fact that our current social media systems do the exact opposite is why they are so harmful to the modern democratic experiment.

Which brings us, strangely enough, to Elon Musk. If you’re not on Twitter, odds are you are not as agog as its users are about the news that the Tesla and SpaceX entrepreneur is buying the platform, but suffice it to say there’s a large, Twitter-based freak-out going on at the moment about what changes, good or bad, Musk may bring. Our founder, Zachary Karabell, on why the freak-out Musk isn’t based on clear thinking here, and we also wanted to share two contributions, one from TPN Member Eli Pariser and the other from public policy and communications scholar Ethan Zuckerman (and both ironically shared on Twitter) that dig a little into alternatives for billionaire-owned social platforms.

“When we—the people who actually power these platforms and make them worth visiting—choose to structure them as for-profit companies,” writes Pariser, “we choose to cede decision-making to the highest bidder.” 

If we want to keep the democratic experiment going, one potent ingredient may be better alternatives for online life, ones that are controlled by us, the users. As Zuckerman advises, “Find a platform that wants you to govern, not one that wants to moderate you.” 

A couple more thoughts before we finish on social progress. You can draw a direct line between the success of diverse democracies who look to treat all of society as equals and the failure of far right-wing political candidates. Which is why we are relieved about President of France Emmanuel Macron’s defeat of Marine Le Pen over the weekend. Slovenia, too, saw the ouster of Janez Jansa, a leader who was flirting with authoritarian rule, with their parliamentary elections on Sunday.

And to highlight one example of a ruling that demonstrates where the winds of society are blowing, however capriciously: if you’re gay and in the South Korean military, you can end up in prison for “indecent acts.” Exactly this happened to two soldiers who were charged under the South Korean Military Criminal Act for having consensual sex while off duty, and off base. Last week, South Korea’s Supreme Court struck down the men’s verdicts and prison sentences, ruling that applying the law in such a case violated their “constitutionally guaranteed right to equality and human dignity.” South Korea’s Constitutional Court is now reviewing whether the military law is unconstitutional, the fourth time it has done so since 2002. This is something to watch.

Before we go

Americans can now sponsor Ukrainian refugees. A step-by-step guide on how to do it here. And, TPN Member Jonathan Tepperman has a fantastic interview with human rights expert Harold Hongju Koh in The Octavian Report on what help international law can provide to bring the war in Ukraine to a peaceful outcome. (We also touched on this during our podcast episode on Ukraine with Anne-Marie Slaughter. Listen to it here.)

The Mediterranean Sea is now home to its first offshore wind farm, off the “heel” of Italy’s boot. Washington State is the first to pass a law mandating all-electric heating in most newly constructed buildings. The magic tool to accomplish this? Heat pumps.

The Financial Times knows how to get people engaged around climate policy: gamify it. You’ve got to make the right decisions to bring warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050 in their new climate game. It was—a little surprisingly—a great way to learn about the most effective paths forward and what their financial and political costs might be. It was fun, too. (When we played, we limited warming to 1.69 degrees.)

It’s World Immunization Week. Google put together a wonderful interactive of the history of immunization here, and we can also celebrate that over one million children in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi have now received at least one dose of the first malaria vaccine.

This MIT Technology Review story on how Indonesia’s gig workers—the equivalent to Uber drivers and DoorDash deliverers—are fighting back against poor working conditions by hacking the platforms’ algorithms to their favor. It’s the David vs. Goliath of coding wars! And this Polish gaming company attracted our attention for offering their employees days off for menstruation. While we understand the concern that such a policy might underline the view of women as incompetent workers, there’s also the stark reality that some women are dealing with a truly disruptive event monthly. Could it be possible to have the option open and for those who take it not to be penalized? We’ll see.

Below in the links section, incandescent light bulbs are on their way out in the United States, scientists discover a potential breakthrough in the treatment of prostate cancer, and more.


TPN Member Jason Crawford with an interesting thought to ponder on optimistic vs. pessimistic thinking.  

The Information Horizon | S2 Ep. 5

What’s coming next? We sit down with a modern renaissance man, economist, and podcaster Tyler Cowen to participate in what he calls his greatest pleasure: information extraction. We pick his brain on everything from mRNA to housing bubbles to literature. “The world,” he tells us, “has never been more optimistic than it is now.” | Listen to the episode

Progress, Please

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Other good stuff in the news

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TPN Member originals 

Take the plunge into this week’s long list of progress links.

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Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas is the Executive Director of The Progress Network. An editor and writer specializing in nonprofit media, she was formerly Executive Editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and is the editor of two books from Wisdom Publications.