Here's what you need to know about democracy this week:
1. Why can’t Peru elect a moderate?
Peruvian elections concluded on Sunday and radical communist Pedro Castillo is likely to defeat Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of Peru’s former dictator. Why are Peruvian politics so extreme and what does this mean for global democracy?
2. Mass surveillance or: How I learned to stop worrying and love Big Brother
Facial recognition is being used to track asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. Is it time to panic about a surveillance dystopia?
To listen to the audio version of this week's newsletter, please click the image below!
Narration: Advisory Board Member Rina Shah
American politics has evolved (or devolved depending on your point of view) into a duopoly with two parties dominating the space. The only thing they seem to have in common is mutual distrust and antipathy. Meanwhile, an exhausted majority of Americans feel like we have to swear allegiance to one side or the other while meaningful compromise and discourse seems more distant than at any point since the Civil War. So what can we do?
Katherine Gehl, a former CEO and current leader of the cross-partisan political innovation movement, believes the system fix -- and innovation, results, and accountability -- is found in what she calls Final-Five Voting. On June 29th at 6 pm EDT, join Katherine; Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, President of RDI; and Michael Steele, RDI Board member and former RNC Chairman as we discuss how the market model can produce a nonpartisan solution. Moderated by RDI Executive Director Uriel Epshtein, we’ll focus on the specific steps we can take to incentivize politicians to serve the greater public interest and productively work across the aisle.
General admission is free, but available spots are limited, so register now! In addition to the public event, we hope you can join us for a private conversation with the guests immediately afterwards! Please register here.
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Why can’t Peru elect a moderate?
Peru's presidential candidate Pedro Castillo of Peru Libre party attends a news conference before a rally in Lima, Peru April 27, 2021. REUTERS/Angela Ponce
In 1990, the writer Mario Vargas Llosa, representing an establishment center-right party, was defeated in the second round of the Peruvian presidential election by Alberto Fujimori, a right-wing populist. During his decade in power, Fujimori embraced authoritarianism, shutting down Congress, suspending the constitution, and purging independent judges. He commanded death squads to crush the Maoist Shining Path insurgency, and orchestrated the mass sterilization of more than 200,000 people, mostly indigenous women.
Two decades later, Alberto Fujimori’s daughter Keiko became a presidential contender. Vargas Llosa warned in 2010 that a return of the Fujimori family would be “a real catastrophe” for Peru, maybe leading to another dictatorship. Then last month, Vargas Llosa announced that “Peruvians should vote for Keiko Fujimori” in the June 6th presidential election.
It was a stunning reversal, but neither he nor Fujimori had changed their beliefs in the slightest. Vargas Llosa still thinks that Fujimori would rule as a dictator, but he considers her challenger, Pedro Castillo, to be an even worse prospect. In Vargas Llosa’s words, Fujimori “represents the lesser evil and with her in power, there are more possibilities of saving our democracy, while with Pedro Castillo I don't see any."
As of June 9, Castillo is the apparent winner of the election with 50.2% of the vote versus Fujimori’s 49.8%.
Who are Fujimori and Castillo?
There were only two faces on Peruvian ballots Sunday, and both were frightening options.
On the right was Keiko Fujimori, who pledged to bring “demodura” or “hard democracy” to Peru, emulating her father’s “dictablanda” or “soft dictatorship.” She spent 16 months in jail during 2019 and 2020 on money laundering allegations, and promised to free her father––imprisoned for human rights violations––if she’s elected.
On the left side of the ballot was Pedro Castillo, a candidate so obscure that when he won the first round of elections, CNN coverage substituted a silhouette for a photo of him. Castillo is a 51-year-old school teacher and union leader with a populist, renegade image and ties to leftist militia groups. Campaigning from horseback with a cowboy hat, Castillo has promised to nationalize Peruvian industries, rewrite the three-decades-old constitution, and dissolve Congress if it stands in the way of his agenda.
Why are Peruvian politics so extreme?
It seems that Peruvians are getting more and more fed up with corrupt rulers.
Five consecutive presidents from 2001 to 2020 were convicted or investigated on corruption charges. As of November 2020, 68 lawmakers were under investigation for alleged crimes. No wonder, then, that 94% of Peruvian citizens believe that corruption in their country is “high” or “very high.”
To make things worse, the pandemic has absolutely devastated Peru. Poverty and unemployment spiked; the underfunded healthcare system collapsed; children weren’t allowed into their schools. A horrific one of every 200 people died either directly from COVID or as a result of inadequate healthcare.
Amid these overlapping crises, Peruvians still went to the polls in April of this year to vote for a new president. A crowded field of 18 candidates, widespread disillusionment with politics, and a nation in decline brought about a perfect storm. Radicals Castillo and Fujimori emerged as the two candidates going to the runoff despite their historic unpopularity. Castillo only captured 19% of the vote, and Fujimori just 13%. Their combined 32% share of the electorate is the lowest for any two frontrunners in the past 40 years.
After the runoff elections this past Sunday, the public doesn’t seem any more united on a direction for the country. Castillo is almost certain to win by just tenths of one percent.
What do the Peruvian elections tell us about democracy?
Peru is a warning about democratic disillusionment. Democracy became a vehicle for theft, and voters lost faith. More people submitted null or empty ballots than voted for Fujimori in the first round of the election (2 million vs. 1.86 million), apparently feeling like none of the 18 candidates could improve Peru. The ultimate result was an election with two dreadful options: a likely left-wing dictator or a likely right-wing dictator.
As democratic societies across the world are racked with rhetoric questioning the legitimacy of free elections and vilifying opponents as enemies of the state, that necessary faith is tumbling everywhere. Only about 30% of Americans born in the 1980s believe that it is essential to live in a democracy, so there is every reason to think that disillusionment and extremist candidates might become our own perennial issue if we can’t make a change.
Mass surveillance or: How I learned to stop worrying and love Big Brother
Screenshots from the CBP One app, which uses facial recognition technology to determine whether an asylum-seeker is eligible to enter the U.S.
Credit: Department of Homeland Security/LA Times
On Friday, June 4, the LA Times reported that the Biden administration has rolled out an app that uses “facial recognition, geolocation, and cloud technology” to collect information on asylum seekers.
The app, CBP One, is intended to process asylum seekers while they are still in Mexico and determine whether they should be allowed to argue their case in America. With an individual’s consent, organizations such as the United Nations Refugee Agency collect “biographic and biometric information,” which the app then forwards to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency. The CBP will use facial recognition software to verify migrants’ identities upon arrival at the border.
For foreign policy wonks, this news might be unsettling. The debate around mass surveillance is often framed in zero-sum terms, where societies must either shun emerging surveillance technology or risk becoming a China-style dystopian surveillance state. However, there’s a large gray area between libertarian blindness and totalitarian omniscience––one that America already finds itself in.
CBP One serves as a reminder that covert surveillance is already widespread in citizens’ lives—even in free societies. In America, the question isn’t whether we’ll adopt these new technologies; it’s what they’ll look like.
Why is America bound to embrace mass surveillance?
The government has an obligation to use technology to advance public safety. If a murderer is at large, it’s widely accepted that law enforcement agencies will employ intrusive tactics like tracking his cell signals and collecting fingerprints to send through our massive databases. Facial recognition is a significant advancement in surveillance technology, but it isn’t any more extreme than our current practices. Whether we like it or not, we’re already in the panopticon.
Still, American privacy protections are inadequate. According to the ACLU, the Bush administration “regularly tracked the calls of hundreds of millions of Americans,” and abuses continued long afterward. Recently, Congress did little more than scold Mark Zuckerberg for Facebook's role in influencing the 2016 presidential election.
Understandably, Americans want improvements. When asked if the government had “gone too far in restricting civil liberties,” or “not gone far enough to protect [the] country,” more Americans chose “not gone far enough” in 11 out of 12 years from 2004 to 2015. At the same time, however, a majority of Americans disapprove of the government’s collection of phone and internet data. Americans want public safety and privacy, not one or the other.
What could democratic surveillance look like?
An influential paper from Yale’s Jack Balkin imagined a different future for democracies; one where we embrace the existing mass surveillance state for what it is, but guide it to serve our collective and personal interests.
In Balkin’s view, better surveillance would embrace three key principles. First, it would limit both the collection and storage of some types of data to prevent the unnecessary and egregious accumulation of personal information. Second, it would create a code of conduct for businesses that “collect, analyze, and sell personal information” as lax rules have let corporations act with impunity. And third, it would allow for direct oversight into executive bureaucracies’ surveillance programs, staving off the hidden abuses which ran rampant during the last three presidential administrations.
As it stands, two-thirds of U.S. citizens don’t believe that there are adequate limits on what types of data the government collects. Facial recognition software will lead to a safer, more efficient America. But until the government earns the trust of its citizens, applications like CBP One will only be interpreted as yet another glaring assault on personal privacy.