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The Political Scientist Hélène Landemore on Open Democracy – The New Yorker



Illustration by Rose Wong

Imagine being a citizen of a diverse, wealthy, democratic nation filled with eager leaders. At least once a year—in autumn, say—it is your right and civic duty to go to the polls and vote. Imagine that, in your country, this act is held to be not just an important task but an essential one; the government was designed at every level on the premise of democratic choice. If nobody were to show up to vote on Election Day, the superstructure of the country would fall apart.

So you try to be responsible. You do your best to stay informed. When Election Day arrives, you make the choices that, as far as you can discern, are wisest for your nation. Then the results come with the morning news, and your heart sinks. In one race, the candidate you were most excited about, a reformer who promised to clean up a dysfunctional system, lost to the incumbent, who had an understanding with powerful organizations and ultra-wealthy donors. Another politician, whom you voted into office last time, has failed to deliver on her promises, instead making decisions in lockstep with her party and against the polls. She was reëlected, apparently with her party’s help. There is a notion, in your country, that the democratic structure guarantees a government by the people. And yet, when the votes are tallied, you feel that the process is set up to favor interests other than the people’s own.

What corrective routes are open? One might wish for pure direct democracy—no body of elected representatives, each citizen voting on every significant decision about policies, laws, and acts abroad. But this seems like a nightmare of majoritarian tyranny and procedural madness: How is anyone supposed to haggle about specifics and go through the dialogue that shapes constrained, durable laws? Another option is to focus on influencing the organizations and business interests that seem to shape political outcomes. But that approach, with its lobbyists making backroom deals, goes against the promise of democracy. Campaign-finance reform might clean up abuses. But it would do nothing to insure that a politician who ostensibly represents you will be receptive to hearing and acting on your thoughts.

The scholar Hélène Landemore, a professor of political science at Yale, has spent much of her career trying to understand the value and meaning of democracy. In recent years, she has been part of a group of academics, many of them young, trying to solve the problem of elected democratic representation—addressing flaws in a system that is widely believed to be no problem at all. In her book “Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many” (Princeton, 2012), she challenged the idea that leadership by the few was superior to leadership by the masses. Her forthcoming book, due out next year and currently titled “Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the 21st Century,” envisions what true government by mass leadership could look like. Her model is based on the simple idea that, if government by the people is a goal, the people ought to do the governing.

“Open democracy,” Landemore’s coinage, does not center on elections of professional politicians into representative roles. Leadership is instead determined by a method roughly akin to jury duty (not jury selection): every now and then, your number comes up, and you’re obliged to do your civic duty—in this case, to take a seat on a legislative body. For a fixed period, it is your job to work with the other people in the unit to solve problems and direct the nation. When your term is up, you leave office and go back to your normal life and work. “It’s the idea of putting randomly selected citizens into political power, or giving them some sort of political role on a consultative body or a citizens’ assembly,” said Alexander Guerrero, a professor of philosophy at Rutgers who, in 2014, published an influential paper arguing for random selection in place of elections—a system with some precedents in ancient Athens and Renaissance Italy which he dubbed “lottocracy.” (It’s the basis for his own forthcoming book.) In open democracy, Landemore imagines lottocratic rule combined with crowdsourced feedback channels and other measures; the goal is to shift power from the few back to the many.

To many Americans, such a system will seem viscerally alarming—the political equivalent of lending your fragile vintage convertible to the red-eyed, rager-throwing seventeen-year-old down the block. Yet many immediate objections fall away on reflection. Training and qualification: Well, what about them? Backgrounds among American legislators are varied, and members seem to learn well enough on the job. The belief that elections are a skills-proving format? This, too, cancels out, since none of the skills tested in campaigning (fund-raising, glad-handing, ground-gaming, speechmaking) are necessary in a government that fills its ranks by lottery.

Some people might worry about commitment and continuity—the idea that we are best served by a motivated group of political professionals who bring experience and relationships to bear. Historically, such concerns haven’t weighed too heavily on the electorate, which seems to have few major reservations about choosing outsiders and weirdos for important roles. If anti-institutionalism has become a poison taken as a salve, then maybe it’s the institutions that require adjustment. Landemore’s open-democratic model purports to work with the people as they are, with no reacculturation or special education required—and its admirers describe the idea as being durable, sophisticated, and able to channel populist sentiment for good.

“Democratic governments are losing perceived legitimacy all over the world,” Jane Mansbridge, a professor of political leadership and democratic values at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, told me. “The beauty of open democracy is that it has a firm understanding not just of the complexity of democratic principles but of how to make those principles cohere in a way that meets people’s deepest intuitions.” She sees it as an apt response to population-sized problems, such as climate change, that seem to require solutions more pervasive and willful than professionalized leadership can muster. “Landemore is very much on the side of all the young people in the world who are saying, ‘How the heck are we going to manage this?’ ” Mansbridge said.

Landemore herself would point to the last U.S. Presidential election—a contest between two candidates so unpopular with the people as to have the lowest approval ratings in the history of American Presidential races. Roughly four in ten eligible voters did not bother to show up at the polls, and Donald Trump was elected against the will of the majority of citizens who did. Such an outcome seems to strain the premise of democracy. Could picking leaders randomly, and getting everyone involved, be worse?

I went to visit Landemore one freezing day this winter; newly hardened ice sparkled on branches stretching out over the road. “I think I lost five years of life expectancy renovating this place,” she told me, as I stepped inside the Cape Cod-style house in New Haven where she lives with her husband, Darko Jelaca, an engineer, and their two young daughters. “I don’t know whether I’d do it again.” We sat at a long dining table in a bright nook. At forty-three, Landemore is tall, with long blond hair swept back into a ponytail; she wore a checked flannel button-down, jeans, and Ugg boots. She grew up in a village in France’s flinty Normandy region, and came to Paris at eighteen, with stars in her eyes, to take a spot at the élite Henri IV prep school. She ended up at the École Normale Supérieure, which channels brilliant young people toward a distinctly Gallic strait of glamorized intellectualism. Landemore’s passion then was for philosophy, her interest having grown from a question that had haunted her teen-age years: Why do the right thing? Her parents were atheists; she’d been reared without a faith. In the absence of a god and mediating clerics, she wondered how we were compelled to make good choices.

Philosophy offered her the first semblance of an answer. In school, she fell in love with the work of David Hume, whose theory of the human passions touched on decision-making, but this path took her only so far. She found herself studying rational-choice theory and taking classes at France’s top political academy, Sciences Po. Until then, Landemore had held no real interest in politics. (Her earliest ambition was to be a novelist.) But the intersection of the field with social science and decision-making behavior fascinated her, and she arranged a yearlong exchange at Harvard, where she could study rational-choice and game theories in more depth.

She packed up her life in Paris, landed at Boston’s Logan airport, got in a cab, and told the driver to take her to the Harvard campus, expecting him to be impressed by the fancy address. “I was trained at institutions in France where they tell you, you know, ‘You’re the élite of the country, and it’s a big responsibility,’ and I bought that,” she said. “But he was not impressed at all!”

Instead, they talked about his job. He announced his yearly earnings, which flabbergasted Landemore. (He was doing really well!) She loved the way that American society seemed to be full of egalitarian surprises of this kind, not deferential to old status markers, as French society is. “It really struck me—that you can be a Harvard student on a level playing field with a taxi-driver, in the same way that you can be a millionaire on a level field with a nurse,” she said. “Of course, it’s not true: the money distortions in this country are very problematic, politically and economically. But, on a social level, people behave as if they think it doesn’t matter, and that’s quite remarkable.” It puzzled her that this openness wasn’t better reflected in American institutions.

By that point, Landemore had reached the conclusion that individuals did the right thing basically out of self-interest: to get what they needed, to win respect, and to avoid negative cycles of retribution—incentives that, presumably, carried into their work as leaders. Why groups did the right thing, though, was a trickier, more interesting question. In complex societies, the interests of self-preserving individuals and the interests of big, varied groups aren’t always aligned. It’s obviously a bad idea—for me—to kidnap my next-door neighbor’s golden retriever and put him on a giant hamster wheel to generate electricity for my house. But what if many of us could get a cut in electricity fees by voting for a power plant that kidnaps dogs owned by people we don’t know? Could we, as a group, be relied upon to make the right decision?

That year, in a course at M.I.T., Landemore learned about a probability principle known as Condorcet’s jury theorem, named for the Marquis de Condorcet, who set it down in 1785, not long before being imprisoned by revolutionaries. The theorem says: imagine that there’s a vote between two options, A and B. And imagine that we, the observers, know with godlike certainty that Option A is the better choice. If the odds for each individual voter choosing Option A are more than fifty per cent—that is, if each voter is even slightly better than a flipped coin at choosing correctly—then the chances of the group doing the right thing increase as more people are added.

One might argue, as many political scientists do, that there is no such thing as a “correct” choice in politics. One might also suggest, dismally, that voters are worse than chance at making good choices. But it is possible to take the opposite view. When Condorcet’s theorem was rediscovered in the nineteen-sixties, it helped generate a new wave of interest in the wisdom of crowds. For Landemore, it carried a more specific imperative: “I thought, Why is that not more obviously used as an argument for democracy?”

Unless you believed that most citizens would make worse political choices than a flipped coin, didn’t the theorem argue for their direct empowerment? “It’s not original to say that Condorcet’s jury theorem was important for democracy, but it’s original to make so much of it,” Mansbridge told me. Instead of returning to Paris at the end of the year, Landemore applied to Harvard, where she completed her Ph.D. She was taken with the unorthodox idea that normal people, in a group, could be trusted with big, scary decisions.

A lot of our ideas about political leadership can be traced back to Plato’s Republic, which is still a foundational text of political philosophy. Plato—another person preoccupied with the question of why we do the right thing, separately and together—suggested that individuals have different aptitudes and should hold distinct roles. “We must infer that all things are produced more plentifully and easily and of a better quality when one man does one thing which is natural to him,” he said, quoting Socrates. Those suitable for leadership, Plato argued, are philosophers, trained to seek truth above other rewards, and reared and educated not to be swayed by flights of public opinion. When, Plato wrote,

the world sits down at an assembly, or in a court of law, or a theatre, or a camp, or in any other popular resort, and there is a great uproar, and they praise some things which are being said or done, and blame other things, equally exaggerating both, shouting and clapping their hands, and the echo of the rocks and the place in which they are assembled redoubles the sound of the praise or blame—at such a time will not a young man’s heart, as they say, leap within him? Will any private training enable him to stand firm against the overwhelming flood of popular opinion?

Plato’s division between well-educated, judicious leaders and the crazy and uproarious masses came to be so widely accepted that it’s easy to forget that he was writing as a contrarian in his time. Higher education in Greece then was often in the hands of the Sophists: private tutors, thinkers, and craft masters. Plato believed that engaging in higher thought for wages was corrupting and schlock-prone—the corporate lecture circuit of its day—and he rarely missed an opportunity to dump on those who did it. (His efforts succeeded: “sophistry” remains a sneer more than two thousand years later.) Yet the Sophists do seem to have believed that crowd wisdom was true wisdom. Aristotle, Plato’s student, ended up sharing this belief. In Book III of his Politics, he posited that, “although each individual separately will be a worse judge than the experts, the whole of them assembled together will be better or at least as good judges,” and advocated for the masses’ participation in government.

Our leadership model today, in everything from the Supreme Court to “The West Wing,” lives in Plato’s shadow—the ideal drilled into Landemore at the Parisian grandes écoles. In the government of the United States, founded by well-educated people terrified of mob rule, this emphasis was by design. As Landemore researched crowd wisdom, however, she started wondering whether Plato’s thinking on the matter had been more idiosyncratic than enlightened.

In “Democratic Reason,” Landemore poked at the long-standing knot of disdain for mass decision-making. Twentieth-century theorists such as Joseph Schumpeter and Seymour Martin Lipset saw democracy as a way for people to select leaders, not to take the wheel themselves. Many supposed democrats diagnose citizens as apathetic, irrational, and ignorant; voters are regarded not as agents but as consumers to whom something—a candidate, a platform—must be sold. Democracy, Landemore noted, had become a paradox: it was said to be guided by citizens voting according to their interests, and yet voting according to their interests was what they were thought to be incapable of doing.

Landemore thought that confusion arose in part because people were talking about two different kinds of democratic benefits without reconciling their causes. Some arguments for democracy have a “deliberative” basis—they flow from the idea that the coming together of the people as a group, as in a town hall, brings varied viewpoints and styles of thought into conversation, resulting in broader, finer problem-solving. Other arguments are majoritarian in nature, based on statistical principles of good mass decision-making. (Condorcet’s theorem is a fine example.) At first glance, these seem mutually exclusive: you can’t have the benefits of people debating issues in a room and the benefits of large numbers of people simultaneously going to the polls. In Enlightenment republics like France and the United States, the strategy for government traditionally has been to try to do both things, but in sequence. We go to the polls to vote for representatives, and then, afterward, they go into meetings to hash things out.

As Landemore continued her study, she began to think that real democracy—democracy that actually delivered on its principles—might emerge more fully if we could figure out how to bring the advantages of deliberation and crowd wisdom into true unity. There were hints about how this might be achieved. If a messy slate of options about greenhouse-gas reduction could be sharpened down to two through discussion, a complex decision could be primed for the wisdom of the majority. By the same token, the alarming spectre of majority tyranny would be less likely to emerge if substantive deliberation among many different kinds of people could be woven into the decision-making process. Because the goal of Landemore’s first book was simply to challenge distrust of mass decision-making, she stopped short of spelling out what such an overlapping system might look like. “I still had a relatively conservative idea of democracy,” she said.

Across the street from Landemore’s office complex, on the Yale campus, stands a building that she finds truly and deeply hideous. Recently constructed in the Gothic style, it is modelled on several older Gothic buildings nearby, which, in turn, were designed to resemble Gothic academic buildings in Britain. This mindless continuity is ludicrous, she thinks, and has resulted in an ugly building faced with what she described as “thin, stuck-on bricks,” all in the supposed service of tradition. “Aesthetically, it’s a disaster!” she told me. Yet the building’s most grievous offense arose from the design process itself: people like her, who worked among these buildings, hadn’t been consulted about them.

Landemore had business to conduct in her office when I visited, and on the way she stopped off for a bowl of fish noodles and a mango smoothie at Duc’s Place, a small Vietnamese spot that she likes downtown. She had put on a coat and, in the French style, had done something ambitious and elegant with her scarf. The owner, Duc, came up to greet her. “Duc was a postdoc researcher in biology at Yale, studying fruit flies,” she said, after he’d gone. “He got fed up and left to start a restaurant. Now he makes every dish with scientific rigor.” It seemed a quiet lesson about the arbitrariness of élite channels: we all have many capacities, and our ability to lead in government shouldn’t depend on whether we’ve decided to work with fancy people at Yale or run a bánh-mì shop nearby.

In 2017, writing in the general-audience journal Daedalus, Landemore took direct aim at modern democratic representation. Ask people to picture deliberation in action, and, these days, they might think of the Senate floor, filled with craggy, well-coiffed pros from Harvard and Yale, filibustering, hewing to their party programs, and doing everything they can to hold their seats. Deliberative democracy had grown inseparable from this vision, she argued, with unpleasant effects. To call such élite representation democratic was ridiculous, and thus bad for the brand; it was no accident that faith in democracy seemed to be on the decline.

Still, how could you have deliberative democracy without those people? You couldn’t bring an entire nation together in a room. You had to have a small group deliberating on behalf of the whole. Landemore came to think that the problem wasn’t representation but the way that representatives were chosen. A truly democratic approach would reflect the strengths of the masses and serve basic democratic ideals of inclusiveness and equality, as Landemore wrote in Daedalus:

Inclusiveness means both that every adult member of the demos is entitled to a share of power and that the definition of the demos itself is inclusive. Equality means that this share of power must be equal for all. . . . This principle of equality also means that each voice should be given the same ex ante chance of being heard where deliberation is needed. Finally, equality means that each individual has the same opportunity of being a representative where representation is needed.

“Open Democracy,” Landemore’s forthcoming book, returns to the question she left hanging in “Democratic Reason”: What might it look like if a governmental system wove together deliberative and majoritarian democratic power? Her model follows five requirements: equal and universal participatory rights; deliberation as a part of the process; majority rule; democratic representation (which, in her vocabulary, means that a group of elected intermediaries can still exist in subordinated roles); and transparency in the goings-on. Open democracy, she says, is about being represented and representing in turn. “There’s still room for experts—we’re not getting rid of all the time-saving and professionalization that the governmental system already has,” she told me. “It’s just that at the crucial junctures—the moments of decision-making and agenda-setting—we make sure that there’s an openness to citizens. The point is to let the system breathe.”

Landemore bases her model on what she calls “mini-publics”—little assemblies of anywhere from a hundred and fifty to a thousand people— which do the work of governing. Their members are selected lottocratically, or in jury-duty fashion. And, although they’re not representative in the personal sense—the accountant who lives next door isn’t representing me during his time in government—they reflect the range of public interest.

What distinguishes Landemore’s ideal from other lottocratic models, such as Guerrero’s, is the breadth of her funnel: the goal is to involve as much of the public organically in as many decisions as possible. Her open-democratic process also builds in crowdsourced feedback loops and occasional referendums (direct public votes on choices) so that people who aren’t currently governing don’t feel shut out. Citizens are well compensated for their time in service; they step away from their normal work, as in the model of parental leave. (Such a system, it must be said, is easier to imagine in countries with more evolved workplace policies than those of the United States.)

Beyond such basic design elements, Landemore’s schema is open-ended—less a recipe than a set of operating principles. It would be more equal than the current system, because everybody would have an equal chance at being in government and an equal voice once they got there. And it would be more inclusive, because everyone, regardless of whether they are currently in government, would have unmediated contact with the decision-making process. One result, Landemore believes, would be a healthier democratic learning curve on the part of the public. Not because everyone would suddenly be obliged to become a political junkie—on the contrary, they’d be free to tune out completely when not in government—but because, for some period of their lives, they’d be forced to learn the political process from the inside, compelled to think through influential political decisions in collaboration with random Americans who disagree.

More remarkably, such a system would clear away the politics of élitism—the question of whether leaders represent people like us. There is no stable “they” in open democracy, no political élite to resent; there is only a stable idea of “us.” The faceless, huddled masses with their varied colors, life styles, and wealth levels are the government. “Once you force people into a context where they have to get past the posturing and commitment to ideas, where they have to address real-life problems with people like them—even if they think differently—you solve a lot of issues,” Landemore explained.

Critics of open democracy tend to fall into three categories. Some are unconvinced by the premise that something is structurally at fault in electoral representative democracy as it’s currently performed. (Our troubles might lie elsewhere: in the educational system, or in rising inequality.) Some dispute the theory that there exists a “better” outcome in politics, and that we should judge democratic models by how well they help us get there. And some doubt the practice itself—it sounds great on paper, but can it work? “My own bet is that human self-deception and bloody-mindedness will always prove stronger than our desire to learn inconvenient truths,” Christopher Achen, a professor of politics at Princeton and one of Landemore’s collegial critics, said. “Human history is full of attractive ideals that turned out to be unworkable or profoundly dangerous when tried. But it is also full of ‘implausible ideals’ that came to be everyday common sense a century or two later.”

Landemore says that what she would classify as open democracy has already been tried in limited contexts. In Finland, from 2012 to 2013, aspects of the approach were used to reform snowmobile regulation—a problem that sounds incidental only if you’ve never spent a winter in Finland. The government involved the public in diagnosing the problem and finding solutions. Landemore, who was a consultant on the project, read comments from Finnish people and, she said, was blown away. “It’s not ignorant,” she told me. “It’s not angry or unconstructive the way we imagine ‘ordinary citizens’ to be.”

Around the same time as Finland’s experiment, Iceland used a Landemorean process to draw up a new constitution, starting with a deliberative forum of nine hundred and fifty randomly selected citizens. A smaller assembly of twenty-five elected but nonprofessional representatives drafted a document and released it for public scrutiny. (Landemore sees this step as an expression of what’s sometimes called “liquid” democracy—the people’s ability bestow their voting power onto ad-hoc representatives when they want to.) Icelanders offered thoughts in thousands of online comments; in response to their input, the constitution was revised eleven times. The final version was submitted to the whole country in referendum, and more than two-thirds of Icelanders signed off on it. For the past several years, the document has been in limbo, because the parliament—made up of Iceland’s full-time, elected politicians—never held its own approval vote. Yet Landemore still sees the process as a success. The constitution is not only a solid specimen, she says, it contains several enlightened, twenty-first-century ideas, such as a universal right to Internet connection, that probably wouldn’t have emerged from more élite discussions.

Finland and Iceland have something in common, of course, which is that they’re small nations set up to be culturally assimilating. Nearly everyone there goes through the same school system and, thanks to universal social programs, shares other life-style benchmarks; one Finnish person meeting another can be confident, regardless of either’s race or background, that they share an essential experience of Finnishness. That’s not true in the United States, which takes pride in allowing the Hasidic Jew, the new Korean immigrant, and the Appalachian artisan to live in culturally distinct communities and conduct life in their preferred ways. (This is why, as I’ve argued in the past, the Nordic model deserves admiration but isn’t translatable to the U.S.: doing so would require redefining American liberalism in a way that would alarm many on the left.)

As evidence that open democracy can work in larger, more culturally diverse societies, Landemore points to France’s Great National Debate—a vast undertaking involving a vibrant online forum, twenty-one citizens’ assemblies, and more than ten thousand public meetings, held in the wake of the gilets jaunes protests, in 2019—and, this year, to the country’s Citizens’ Convention on Climate Change. The climate convention, which asked a hundred and fifty randomly selected citizens to help draw up plans that would reduce French emissions, started last fall and continued into this year; Landemore is spending the late winter in Paris, studying how the discussions unfold for her book. “Seeing the deliberations in my language, sitting at those tables, hearing the conversations—it’s really moving,” she told me. “It’s going to sound corny, but there was love expressed in the interstices of these meetings.” She puts a lot of stock in the so-called deliberative polls conducted by James S. Fishkin, a professor of communication at Stanford, who brings hundreds of random citizens together to discuss an issue and compares their opinions before and after this process. The result is often a convergence of views rather than the polarization that one might expect.

Most of Landemore’s critics don’t share her optimism. “In my view, the few careful empirical evaluations of citizen deliberation and deliberation assemblies have generally been depressing, and the more closely one looks at their evidence, the more depressing they become,” Achen, the Princeton professor, said. Many of her allies, too, are wary of taking the public as it comes, when citizens may not be prepared. Guerrero, who honed the idea of lottocratic government, believes that government by the people has to happen alongside institutional development: education, expert consultation, and the like. “For me, a big part of using ordinary citizens to make political decisions is figuring out how to create the institutions that will make it possible,” he told me. “I worry about broad citizen input on topics where people haven’t learned very much.” Landemore considers herself a follower of John Dewey, one of America’s most comprehensive theorists of democratic culture, yet she puts a heavier, narrower emphasis on governmental structure than Dewey, who saw good democratic habits as emerging much more broadly from the mores of civil society: the way we’re taught, the way we work, the way we relate to one another. Landemore’s model channels leadership from the bottom up, but her idea of agency within a society-state remains, in an important sense, top-down.

Her view is that good democratic habits will cascade if the form of government is fixed. When I asked her about strongly reform-minded candidates in the current Presidential election, she dismissed their governmental ideals as “conventional.” “I don’t see it in Sanders or Warren or any of those guys—it’s still about them, their vision, and their leadership. Yes, they want small donors instead of big donors, but—” She gave an unimpressed shrug. She is hopeful about open-democratic models being incorporated, in the U.S., into state and local governments, but, for national reform, she looks to European nations, which have shown a taste for experimentation and, in some cases, a stronger public will.

“It’s striking that, with all the things that are going wrong in the United States, there’s no mass rebellion here,” Landemore said. “In France, there were strikes for a pension reform that’s needed. Here, there is such apathy—a sense in which people don’t even trust one another, or themselves, to do anything. So, creating a sense of empowerment, possibility, and self-confidence as citizens? It would be a good place to start.”

Landemore is raising her two daughters in what she calls the American manner—long-leashed, supportive, indulgent of individuation—rather than in the strict and feather-grooming manner of the French. It has surprised her how different from each other each of her girls has come to be. The older one, now eight, has always been literary, empathetic, and nuance-minded. The younger one, now five, has always been mathematical, expressive, certain of what she wanted. Landemore, in her writing, has championed mass rule in part because it draws on “cognitive diversity”: the idea that different minds naturally work in different ways, and that getting more variety into the mix increases problem-solving power. She has been moved to find that range emerging in her household.

When it got dark on the evening of my visit, Landemore left her office and went to pick up her daughters at after-school care—a protracted process of collecting the day’s art work, helping arms find jacket sleeves, zipping up, locating backpacks, trundling out into the ice, and strapping everybody into the car, a Honda CR-V.

Tu te sens mieux, ou t’as mal à la tête?” (“Do you feel better, or does your head hurt?”), Landemore asked her younger daughter, who had returned to school after a couple of sick days.

Oui, j’ai mal à la tête,” the girl said cheerily, as if the idea had just occurred to her.

Landemore and her husband are raising their daughters to be trilingual. With Mom, and sometimes with each other, they speak French; with Dad, who grew up in Serbia, they speak Serbian; all of them speak English with everyone else. At home, Jelaca was waiting with a pick-me-up snack before their family Tae Kwon Do lesson: a plate of delicate crêpes, his specialty. (That the Serbian, not the Frenchwoman, turns out to have the best crêpe skills in the house is the sort of surprise about human capacity on which her fluid system aims to draw.)

For half an hour, the family went around the table, as they do each evening, naming the best and worst parts of their days, talking over their individual progress over the past several hours. Then they finished their food, put on their coats, and headed out once more into the world and the dark night.

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Former CDC Director Discusses Balancing Science And Politics In Pandemic Response – NPR



Following new guidance on masks, Scott Simon talks with former CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden about how the agency has balanced science with the politics of the pandemic.


Of course, this week’s recommendation on masking from the CDC differs from what the agency had said previously. Tom Frieden directed the CDC during the Obama administration and was New York City’s health commissioner before that. He now leads the public health organization Resolve to Save Our Lives (ph) and joins us. Dr. Frieden, thanks so much for being with us.

TOM FRIEDEN: Great to speak with you, Scott.

SIMON: We just heard, of course, from Maria Godoy about the risks of a vaccine-resistant version of the virus emerging. How worried are you about that?

FRIEDEN: Vaccines protect us, and unless we’re not careful, we won’t be good at protecting vaccines. I think the thing that makes me most concerned about the future in terms of the virus changing is the possibility that there will be strains that are more resistant to vaccination. We don’t know for sure how possible that is, but it’s clear that some of the strains out there – in fact, the beta strain, for one of them, is somewhat resistant to vaccination. But we have to keep coming back to the bottom line, which is that the vaccines that we’re using in this country are stunningly effective. They’re saving tens of thousands of lives, and they are our way to end the pandemic.

SIMON: Doctor, I wonder what you’d say to people who say, look; a few months ago, the CDC said that those who’ve been vaccinated can remove their masks, now they say they can’t or shouldn’t remove their masks, so why bother to get vaccinated? What good does it do?

FRIEDEN: Vaccination is still the best way to save your life. If you get vaccinated, your risk of getting the infection, of spreading it to others, of getting very sick and especially of dying is drastically reduced. Now, in this country, there are different groups that are hesitant to get vaccinated. And the key, I think, is to listen to what the concerns are in each group and then to figure out what are the messengers, what are the messages, what are the incentives, positive and negative, that are going to get people vaccinated because vaccination is essential to get our jobs, our economy, our schooling, our society back.

SIMON: Dr. Frieden, when the CDC issues guidelines, some kind of directive, who does that? Take us in the room.

FRIEDEN: Well, first, it’s not a directive. They really are guidelines and recommendations. The CDC has very little regulatory authority – a little bit on quarantine and things like that. But generally, they are recommendations that are going to go to state and local health departments, to health care providers, doctors and hospitals, and to the general public. That would start with someone who is a super expert in that area and a team of people drafting a recommendation, looking at the best available science. It would then go through various levels of review within CDC and ultimately be signed off by the people running the response or the emergency, as well as the director – Dr. Walensky at this time.

SIMON: Do any politicians get their thumbs on it?

FRIEDEN: You know, Scott, it’s an interesting dynamic. I think it’s very clear that in the prior administration, there was totally inappropriate meddling with CDC guidance, development and publication. I’m not certain, but I have the sense that in the current administration, at the current time, it may have even gone too far in the other direction. They’re so determined to be clear that they’re not involved that there isn’t the kind of discussion that’s sometimes helpful. And what I found very helpful, ironically, particularly when Ron Klain was the Ebola czar, was that Ron would convene meetings for people to give input. It was always 100% clear that it was up to CDC to make the recommendations, but sometimes we heard interesting feedback and concerns and suggestions from other parts of the government. The final decision on what to recommend scientifically was with CDC. The final policy call is really in Washington, not CDC, if…

SIMON: Yeah.

FRIEDEN: …The government decides something to do or not do on a policy basis.

SIMON: And is it hard to separate a policy decision from at least some consideration of the political aspects?

FRIEDEN: There’s no doubt that politics plays a major role in public health decisions. You sometimes hear people say, let’s get the politics out of public health. Well, public health is the activity of communities getting safer and healthier. And there are many political decisions that happen during that process. What’s problematic is when partisanship gets in the way because there really shouldn’t be a Democratic or Republican way to control pandemics. There should be a scientific way or a way that ignores the science, and let’s choose the scientific way.

SIMON: Dr. Frieden, we’ve got a little over 30 seconds left, so I’m going to ask you an impossible question to answer. When will this be over globally? Can you foresee an end?

FRIEDEN: Globally, this will not be over until we drastically increase the production of vaccines. We’re falling far behind, particularly with the most promising vaccines, the mRNA vaccines. Until we get at least 70%, 80% of the world vaccinated, the risk of more dangerous variants, the disruption to our society, to travel, to trade and avoidable deaths are going to continue to propagate this pandemic and raise the possibility of an even worse strain emerging.

SIMON: Dr. Tom Frieden, who’s now CEO of Resolve to Save Our Lives (ph). Thanks so much, Doctor.

FRIEDEN: Thank you, Scott.

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Week In Politics: New Notes Further Show Trump's Attempt To Stop Transfer Of Power – NPR



More troubles for former president Donald Trump, with the release of handwritten notes detailing the pressure he put on former Justice Department officials following the 2020 election.


Some dramatic reports this week about Donald Trump trying to subvert the results of the 2020 election and slight signs that some of his own Republicans may be willing to distance themselves from him. Joined now by NPR’s Ron Elving. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Let’s begin with those handwritten notes taken by a former Justice Department official – this is right after the 2020 election – detailing the pressure President Trump then was applying to the DOJ, notes about phone calls that include this sentence, quote, “just say that the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me.”

ELVING: This is serious business, Scott. These are notes from a phone call top justice officials had with the then-president on December 27, well after votes had been certified by the governors of all 50 states and nearly two weeks after the Electoral College had voted decisively. Yet, here was Trump still trying to get someone in the Justice Department to help him overturn the election. The officials told him in no uncertain terms that they had looked hard and found no corruption. So Trump replied, just say it was corrupt; leave the rest to me. He wanted something he and his allies in Congress could use to disrupt the constitutional transfer of power.

This is the same time period when we know Trump was trying to bully appointed and elected Republican officials in the states in a similar fashion. So there is a case to be made that all of this violates not only his oath to uphold the Constitution, but other state and federal laws as well.

SIMON: Department of Justice also said yesterday the Treasury Department must furnish – that was the phrase – six years of Donald Trump’s tax returns to the House Ways and Means Committee, which has been trying to see those returns since 2019. Is this going to happen now?

ELVING: Yes, so it would seem. But don’t expect to see Trump’s 1040 form in the Sunday paper tomorrow. It’s still going to be a while before it’s all made public, if indeed it ever is. Trump can go to court and at least delay the process. Yet, there is more reason now than ever to believe that these records will be furnished, at least to the House Ways and Means Committee. And eventually, at some point reasonably soon, relevant parts should be part of the public record.

SIMON: Donald Trump seems to conspicuously enjoy exercising influence over the Republican Party. There are people who visit him at Mar-a-Lago and try and receive his political blessing. This week, were there some signs that his influence isn’t ironclad?

ELVING: There have been some disturbances in the force, the force that is Trumpism and that holds so many Republicans in its grip. Earlier this week, a Republican candidate for Congress whom Trump had strongly supported lost in a special election runoff in Texas. The winner was a more moderate Republican whom Trump did not endorse. So there are always lots of factors in any special election, but Trump had been assumed to be the controlling factor here, so it did get people’s attention.

Then at midweek, on Wednesday we saw 17 Republicans in the Senate defy Trump’s instructions and vote to proceed with a bipartisan infrastructure bill. Now, Trump wanted an infrastructure bill when he was in office, but a bill now before the Senate he calls socialism and a big, beautiful gift to Biden. So Trump had roundly denounced any Republican who might vote for it, yet 17 did.

SIMON: Ron, you said the magic word, (imitating buzzer) infrastructure. Is there more indications that massive bipartisan infrastructure bill is moving forward now in the Senate? Will it get to the House? How much momentum does it have?

ELVING: It suddenly has quite a bit, Scott, mainly because it helps senators in both parties do something good for their home states and something good for their own reelection prospects. Now, we should remember that this bill has been greatly reduced since its introduction, cut roughly in half in its overall scope. It’s a bitter pill for many progressives to accept the reductions in their priorities, especially as they pertain to climate change. But right now, this looks like the place where the center could hold and the deal-makers in both parties can win.

SIMON: NPR’s Ron Elving, thanks so much for being with us.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott.

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Politics Briefing: Trudeau, Kenney clash on appointment of Alberta senator – The Globe and Mail




This is the daily Politics Briefing newsletter, written by Ian Bailey. It is available exclusively to our digital subscribers. If you’re reading this on the web, subscribers can sign up for the Politics newsletter and more than 20 others on our newsletter signup page. Have any feedback? Let us know what you think.

Add senate appointments to the current points of conflict between the federal and Alberta governments.

On Friday, the Prime Minister’s Office was defending the announcement, this week, that a senator from Alberta is being appointed despite elections this fall to give voters in the province a say on prospects.

“We introduced and are committed to an independent Senate appointment process which is designed to move towards a less partisan and more independent Senate,” the PMO said in a statement, responding to the criticism from Alberta.

The PMO added that, since 2016, the selection process for senators has been open to all Canadians with candidate submissions reviewed by the Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments, which provides recommendations to the Prime Minister.

Canada’s new Governor-General Mary Simon, this week, appointed five new senators on advice from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Three are from Quebec, one from Saskatchewan, and one from Alberta. Details of the appointments are here.

Mr. Trudeau’s team was reacting Friday to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney accusing the Prime Minister of showing “contempt for democracy in Alberta” by engineering the appointment of Karen Sorensen, who has been the mayor of Banff, as the province’s new senator.

“Sadly, the Prime Minister’s decision to snub his nose at Alberta’s democratic tradition is part of a pattern of flippantly disregarding our province’s demands for a fair deal in the Canadian federation and the desire of Albertans for democratic accountability,” Mr. Kenney said in a statement.

Mr. Kenney noted that, earlier this month, he told Mr. Trudeau at a meeting in Calgary to hold off filling two Senate vacancies, and await the outcome of a vote as part of municipal elections on Oct 18. The Legislative Assembly of Alberta has also passed a motion urging the Prime Minister to not appoint the senators until after the elections.

Federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole took note of the Senate dispute. “Once again the Prime Minister shows his lack of respect for the West. Albertans deserve better,” Mr. O’Toole said in a tweet.

Mr. Kenney noted that Alberta has had four Senate elections in the past, and five nominees went on to be appointed.

Columnist’s Comment Kelly Cryderman of the Globe and Mail’s Alberta Bureau: “Senate elections might be a head-scratcher in many other parts of the country but they have been part of Alberta’s political landscape since 1989. Designed to send a signal to Ottawa about provincial autonomy, western alienation, and the need for Senate reform, they have no official status and are seen as illegitimate by critics. Mr. Kenney is continuing in a line of conservative premiers who have asked (all they can do is ask) Ottawa to respect the outcome of the Senate elections. However, with Alberta voters preoccupied by the pandemic, economic concerns – or just the summer – the Premier’s beating of the drum on this issue has failed to garner any major public interest to now.”


PROBLEMS IN AFGHAN AID EFFORT – Afghans trying to come to Canada through the government’s new resettlement program have been frustrated by a difficult application process, which is creating serious challenges for those urgently trying to escape the Taliban.

PROF. DEFENDS CHINA HUMAN-RIGHTS RECORD – A professor at one of Canada’s major universities has written a column for a state-run newspaper in China in which she defends Beijing’s record on ethnic minorities such as the Uyghurs and argues Canadians are being thoughtless and self-righteous in accusing the Chinese government of genocide in Xinjiang.

NEW CONSULTATIONS ON CURBING ONLINE HATE – The federal government has launched a new consultation that it says will lead to combatting online hate shared on social media sites – a move that has prompted advocates to say real change isn’t coming fast enough.

EX-SAUDI SPY RAISES COURT CONCERNS – A former Saudi spy chief living in exile in Toronto is asking a Canadian court to throw out an embezzlement lawsuit against him, arguing not only are the allegations unfounded but that the evidence on which they rely was gleaned from human-rights abuses and, likely, torture.

PANDEMIC-AID PROGRAM EXTENDED – Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland says the government is extending pandemic aid programs by an extra month beyond the previously planned end date. The decision means that wage and rent subsidies for businesses, and income support for workers out of a job or who need to take time off to care for family or stay home sick, will last until Oct. 23. Story here.

PAYETTE ORDER-OF-CANADA APPOINTMENT UNDER REVIEW – The Advisory Council for the Order of Canada, is thinking of terminating former governor-general Julie Payette’s appointment to the Order of Canada, CBC reports. Story here.


Private meetings in Ottawa.


Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet – No schedule provided by Mr. Blanchet’s office.

Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole makes an announcement in Fredericton.

Green Party Leader Annamie Paul – No schedule provided by Ms. Paul’s office.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh holds a media availability in Penticton, B.C., and visits the Regional District Emergency Operations Centre.


The Editorial Board of The Globe and Mail on how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau just put the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project on the tab of Canadians: It also should be noted that a $5.2-billion handout to a province with a population of 520,000 is massive on a per capita basis. In Ontario, its equivalent would be $148-billion; in Alberta, $44-billion. None of this makes any sense, except as an election handout designed to secure Newfoundland’s seven seats in the House of Commons, six currently held by Liberals. Other than that, it’s madness. It would be one thing for Ottawa to step in and help a struggling, sparsely populated province that has a crushing debt burden of $47.3-billion and real financial problems. It’s another altogether to subsidize its citizens’ electricity bills out of the blue. Is that really the help Newfoundland needs?”

John Ibbitson (The Globe and Mail) on playing politics with the Governor-General’s constitutional role: ”When Jagmeet Singh sent a letter to Mary Simon urging her to refuse any request from Justin Trudeau to call an election, the NDP Leader knew perfectly well she would have no choice but to grant the Prime Minister’s request. But such grandstanding is nothing new. It seems to be an unspoken role of the Governor-General to serve as a foil for opportunistic politicians who know that many Canadians don’t really understand what the Queen’s representative can or cannot do.”

Gary Mason (The Globe and Mail) on why It’s time to get tough with vaccine resisters: “I am tired of this gentle persuasion business. People who refuse to get vaccinated are endangering lives. They are stalling a complete return to normal. Why is it that governments have no qualms about mandating mask wearing, but won’t mandate people get the jab? We continue to pander to a group who, in many cases, are simply too lazy to sign up to get a shot. Or, they continue to embrace crackpot conspiracy theories and misinformation being spread on social media. We patiently hope that they will wake up and see the light one day, meantime their recalcitrance affects the rest of us.”

Robyn Urback (The Globe and Mail) on why the feds talking about abortion suggests an election must be imminent: “Just as white smoke billowing from the Sistine Chapel signals to the world that the announcement of a new Pope is forthcoming, so too does the word “abortion,” uttered from Liberal lips, tell Canadians that an election will soon be called. Unfortunately for the incumbent Liberal government, the current leader of the Official Opposition doesn’t turtle into his suit when asked about uncomfortable social issues like his predecessor did, nor does he – like the predecessor before that – tout a résumé that includes defunding abortions abroad. Indeed, until Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole provides more ammunition for the Liberals to warn about Canada’s potential descent into Gilead, the party will have to resort to old favourites to remind women of their feminist bona fides ahead of an election.”

Konrad Yakabuski (The Globe and Mail) on the many mistakes that have been made around the development of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project: “ Mr. Trudeau did not say which “mistakes” he was referring to. Perhaps that was because there are too many of them to enumerate during a short pre-electoral pit stop in Newfoundland, where the Liberals hold all but one of the province’s seven seats. Or perhaps because it would have raised questions about whether his government is only putting a Band-Aid solution on a systemic problem.”

Send along your political questions and we will look at getting answers to run in this newsletter. It’s not possible to answer each one personally. Questions and answers will be edited for length and clarity.

Got a news tip that you’d like us to look into? E-mail us at Need to share documents securely? Reach out via SecureDrop

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