Social Democracy

Ambassador Jeff Bleich: Why trust matters in democracy and how we get it back

Jeff Bleich was US Ambassador to Australia from 2009 to 2013.

A distinguished legal and political professional, he is the Chair of the Fulbright Scholarship Board and now heads up the Jeff Bleich Centre for the US Alliance in Digital Technology, Security, and Governance at Flinders University in Australia

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Jeff for a chat about why the Trump Impeachment is bigger than the trial itself, how Mike Bloomberg could end up President, his friendship with President Obama, the attempts by the Chinese Communist Party to dominate global technology standards, why trust is central to democracy, why autocrats can never crush the human spirit and why the most recent hacking by Russian agents could impact the upcoming 2020 US election. 

 

TRANSCRIPT

Misha Zelinsky:             Jeff Bleich, welcome to Diplomates. Thanks for joining us.

Jeff Bleich:                    Oh, glad to be here Misha. Thank you for inviting me.

Misha Zelinsky:             No, pleasure’s all mine. Now, a good place I thought to start might be US politics. Now, a little bit about yourself. You obviously were ambassador-

Jeff Bleich:                    A good place [crosstalk 00:00:18]-

Misha Zelinsky:             A good place to start, or an interesting place to start, at least, maybe not good. You of course were ambassador to Australia, but you’ve also been a political candidate. I’m curious about what you experienced as the main differences. That’s a big question, but if you could maybe just give us that kind of an insight to the differences in those two roles.

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, they’re very different. I mean, I think when you’re a diplomat, particularly in a country that generally is on good terms with the United States, it’s not that people necessarily agree with you, but they’re not immediately hostile to you. They want to know what you have to say. Whereas when you’re a political candidate, half the state or half the country wants to kill you every day. It’s a little different in that sense. I thought it was more policy-oriented when you’re an ambassador. The expectation is that you put politics aside and it’s really focus on, how do we solve problems between our nations and also how can our nations work together to address problems around the world? Whereas when you’re a political candidate, it is 90% politics.

Jeff Bleich:                    Then I think the third big difference is money. Just money is a very corrosive factor in politics today. Whereas when you’re US ambassador, a thousand roles will keep you away from ever touching anyone’s money, even your own. That keeps a lot of stress out of your life, and has you focused really on issues. They’re dramatically different roles.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, I can imagine the role of money is certainly important one. Now, speaking of politics, I mean, whilst we can’t predict what’s going to happen as we record this, the US president is currently being impeached. I think we can probably figure out the likely outcomes. It’s unlikely that the Republican Senate will seek to convict and remove the president. But how concerned are you about, I suppose, the underlying aspects of the impeachment itself in respect to the politicization of foreign interference and how do you see that playing into the 2020 election?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, well I’m worried about the impeachment in a number of different ways. One thing is the fact that not enough people are paying attention to it. They’re treating it as though it’s a game and they already know the score, and so why should they watch? When in fact, this is an important statement about our values as a country and what we think matters and what we think doesn’t matter. If there were a moment when the public should be paying attention, regardless of their predisposition, I think now is one of them, so that matters.

Jeff Bleich:                    Another thing that matters to me about it is that there’s… the allegations go to the core of our democracy and if they don’t lead to some kind of sanction this time around, we’re setting a precedent for the future. The president’s accused of having used his position, the power of his office in order to obtain a personal benefit at the expense of our national interest. Namely, the personal benefit is getting dirt on a political opponent, and the national interest was congressionally approved funds being delivered to Ukraine in order for it to mount a defense against one of our adversaries. I mean, a very significant question. I used to teach constitutional law and that kind of an abuse was really the answer to my final exam question as to what’s impeachable conduct. It’s a serious offense if the Senate determines that he did engage in that behavior.

Jeff Bleich:                    What concerns me most is that so far no one has been prepared, on the Republican side, to stand up and say, “If this is true, he did a bad thing. I may not be prepared to remove him from office for it, but this is bad and it shouldn’t be done by any president under any circumstances.” The fact that you’re not hearing Republicans at least define the debate that way, the fact that the president’s defense says, “This is a perfect phone call.” The fact that the chief of staff to the president says, “We do this stuff all the time.” This should concern every American just about whether or not our system is reacting to issues that the framers considered core issues about our security.

Jeff Bleich:                    Then I guess the last thing is your question, politicization. I don’t think interference is being politicized, but I think it’s being under-appreciated because we’re so focused on the impeachment, we’re not focusing on how serious this event was in terms of Russian interference and then other ways in which foreign governments could affect the outcome of one of our elections. Long answer. Sorry.

Misha Zelinsky:             No, that’s excellent, and I think it’s really enlightening. But I’m keen to return to the subject of foreign interference while I was just with US politics. One final point in parallel to the impeachment, which is an enormous story. We’ve got another big story which is the upcoming Iowa caucuses. How do you see the Democratic primary playing out? I might press you for a prediction though I won’t hold you to it. I’ve given up the prediction game after 2016, and also 2019 in Australia. But how do you see the Democratic primary playing out? But also how do you see the left right divide playing out in the primary system itself, but then more generally in the general election?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah. Well, we’ve narrowed the field of Democrats down from about 32 candidates to six. The six are Biden, Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Bloomberg. Those are really the six who remain viable. I’d say some of the energy of the party is behind people with a very strong left bend who are moving for radical changes on some large scale programs. That would really be the Sanders and Warren camp. Then the other four who I think reflect more of the numbers within Democratic party are reformers, but they’re more pragmatic reformers. They’re not looking for a radical solution, radical change.

Jeff Bleich:                    I don’t know how that’s going to turn out, and I think a lot will depend on Iowa. If you think about the last few elections, everyone thought that Donald Trump’s candidacy was sort of a… they thought it was a joke candidacy for some people or they thought that he was doing it basically to raise his profile for his businesses. They didn’t think he actually thought he would win. But Iowa and other early primary showed where the energy was, and it was clearly with the people who were anti-establishment, and so it ended up being Cruz and Trump at the end.

Jeff Bleich:                    If you look at the last election for Democrats, Hillary was supposed to be in… it was supposed to be easy for her. In fact, she had to go off 50 States against Bernie Sanders because the energy was really with an anti-establishment vote. I would expect a lot of anti-establishment energy to be in the Democratic primary, but there is also going to be a lot of pro-Obama anti-Trump energy, which is focused more on a moderate. Those two are going to have to battle it out in Iowa. I think depending… it’s going to be very close at the top. But whether you win by 1% or lose by 2% can make a huge difference in how the narrative plays out and the momentum.

Jeff Bleich:                    I think this will be a defining moment for the Democrats and will really winnow the field potentially smaller. I’ll give you one prediction which is, if Sanders and Warren came out on top for example and Biden and Buttigieg were in third and fourth, there would probably be a lot of interest in Michael Bloomberg suddenly as someone who could have the resources to mount a strong campaign first against the hard left but also against Donald Trump. If on the other hand, Biden and Buttigieg came in first and second, then I think there you’re less likely to see Bloomberg emerging in the field because there’s a sense that there’s already a couple of candidates in that lane. I think most likely you’re probably going to see one moderate and one hard left candidate coming out in one, two, and everyone else bunched pretty tightly behind them, the other two. We’re in for a bit long bumpy ride.

Misha Zelinsky:             Do you think, irrespective of the outcome even if it comes down to a battle between say Sanders and Biden or Warren and Buttigieg, can the party bring itself together in a general election to… because I think one of the outcomes of the 2016 election was that some of the Sanders people stayed home and refused to campaign or vote for Clinton. I think that certainly impacted on her candidacy more generally.

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, no, I would expect it’ll be different this time, and I take some confidence in that from the midterm elections where Democrats turned out in numbers that they’ve never turned out in before, and they were pretty unanimous in their efforts to unseat house Republicans. I think this time around, Democrats do know how to come back together again. People thought that the Hillary Barack divide was so great that they’d never come together, they came together very well. My sense is that this time around, as well, it’s not a theoretical possibility that Donald Trump could be the president and advance policies that we disagree with as Democrats. I think it’s a certainty that he would be president if we don’t come together. I think Democrats will come together in much better fashion than they did last time around both because they know the consequences and they’ve demonstrated the capacity to do it before.

Misha Zelinsky:             Okay, and just, well, I think that hopefully you’re right about that. Turning to your career as ambassador, you mentioned president Obama before, he of course appointed you as ambassador, but interesting factor about your career is that you tried to recruit him when he was a precocious young law student. I’m kind of curious about that story. Was it obvious that he was special then given you tried to recruit him or?

Jeff Bleich:                    Oh yeah. No, no. The story was that we were trying to recruit him to clerk for the judge that I clerked for on the court just before the Supreme court. Then I was going on next year, and the judge said, I heard about a guy over at Harvard Law School, who’s the president of Law Review, Barack Obama. I said, “Yeah, he sounds great. I don’t really know him, but everyone says he’s terrific, but he doesn’t really want to clerk. I think he’s going to do something else.”

Jeff Bleich:                    The judge said, “Well, give him a call.” I called him up and I came back afterwards and went into the judge’s chambers and I had Obama’s resume with me. The good news is that he’s even better on the phone then he was on paper. I mean, he’s really, really special, and smart, funny, interesting. From Chicago, where the judge is from, you’d love him. The bad news is, he really doesn’t want to clerk. He wants to do something good for society. The judge said, “Well, give me his resume.”

Jeff Bleich:                    He takes it, comes back into my office a while later and he’s holding Obama’s resume. He looks at me, he goes, “Now this, this is the kind of guy I ought to be hiring.” I’m like, “You mean instead of me?” He goes, exactly, call him again. I called him again and tried to recruit him. I never did, but we formed a friendship and one thing led to another after that.

Misha Zelinsky:             Before we dig into the, maybe specific of the policies, what is it about the US Australia relationship that in your mind makes it so special and why is trust within that relationship so important?

Jeff Bleich:                    Well, I think you put your finger on it, it’s about trust. There are a lot of alliances in the world that are transactional and so they’re about, “If you do this thing for me now, I will do something for you later.” But our alliance is beyond that, it’s a true partnership. It’s like a marriage. Where you’re not asking every time, “What do I get in return?” You know that the relationship itself makes both of you stronger and better and you’re always looking for ways to be helpful to each other. That’s the foundation on which our trust was based.

Jeff Bleich:                    I think the other thing is it’s very values-based. We’ve got, not just a similar set of political values in terms of free speech, and freedom of religion, and free markets, and free movement of people, and just that we think there’s also a can do ethic that’s unique to us. Australians say, “Should be right mate,” and we say, “It’ll be okay buddy,” but it’s the same message. We’re very optimistic people. We believe we can make the world a better place and then we work together and do it. Based on that, based on having been through a lot of tough situations that we volunteered for together, there’s a trust that allows us to do things that really no two other countries in the world can do together.

Misha Zelinsky:             Now, one of the big themes of your time as ambassador, certainly an ongoing theme, is the relationship between the US and China, but it’s very impactful on Australia’s geo-strategic positioning. One of the big signature policy initiatives of the Obama administration was the Asia Pivot. I mean, in your mind was this successful or do you think, in hindsight, the administration could have been a little tougher. I mean at the time the hope was the engagement process that China would become a responsible actor and that it will gradually liberalize. We obviously haven’t seen that now. I mean was, in hindsight 2020, or could the administration being tougher in the circumstances?

Jeff Bleich:                    I think that they were successful in a number of different ways. First, it was about integrating the region in a way where the major powers could all come to the table together and have honest conversations, not just about economics or about national security or one issue or another, but really about everything. Up until then there had been five or six different fora, but I think we really helped cement the East Asia summit as an opportunity for everyone to come together and have a honest and frank conversation about issues that mattered to the region and to fully integrate the US into those conversations. That I thought was significant on a diplomatic front.

Jeff Bleich:                    On the security front. Again, I think it was very successful with the rotational deployment of Marines up in Darwin, [some airfield dispersals and a number of other things that have happened since. Most significantly moving from a 50-50 split of our Navy between the Atlantic and Pacific theaters to a 60-40 split where now we have our Navy assets and a real integration of our joint forces with partners throughout the region, including the Talisman Saber exercise, which is now the largest joint military exercise we do anywhere in the world, and we do it off the coast of Australia.

Jeff Bleich:                    In terms of diplomatic, military, and then economic, our main focus at the time was TPP because that was a very effective strategy of integrating our economies and, to some extent, counterbalancing any other economy which was going to try to unfairly leverage its power in the region, and China was clearly in people’s minds at the time. I don’t think that that was a failure at all. In fact, TPP, it was only with the election of president Trump where he unsigned TPP.

Jeff Bleich:                    If I were going to be critical of that decision, I thought it was a wrong decision myself, but the execution of it was even worse because at that point China did not want the US to be part of TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and president Trump had an opportunity to say, “Well, we will unsign it, but only if China you do the following seven things.” He didn’t, he just unsigned it without any preconditions or concessions by China, and then two years later began a trade dispute.

Jeff Bleich:                    I think at the time we were doing a pretty good job of holding the line on trade because of TPP. I think we were doing a good job of holding the line on Chinese espionage in the commercial sector after the Sunnylands Conference between President Xi and President Obama. I think we integrated ourselves more deeply into the region. I think the Pivot was successful and could have been more successful if we continued some of those efforts over the past couple of years.

Misha Zelinsky:             You sort of touched on that, I guess, the change in tone from the Trump administration, from the Obama administration. Earlier you talked about the fact that at least the ANZUS Alliance is not transactional, but president Trump would appear at least to be more transactional in the way he approaches foreign policy, often the way that seen to, at least from the outside, look like punishing friends and rewarding enemies. I mean, how would that challenge diplomats in the background in your experience?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah. Well I think it’s very difficult to in the current system that we have with those principles. Because look, the way you treat family members is different from the way you treat business partners. Business partners, it can be purely transactional. It’s only if there’s something in it for you that you’re going to engage in business with them. Whereas with family members, you’re always finding a way to make things work, sometimes soothing over awkward situations as opposed to ignoring them completely or being too confrontational. You behave with family members, you behave with allies and partners in a different way than you would behave with others where it’s just purely a business or geopolitical relationship.

Jeff Bleich:                    We have allies and partners who continue to behave that way with us, expect us to do the same, people raised in the diplomatic corps understand the difference and then occasionally these directives come in which are at odds at those and it throws everyone else’s calculation off. We’re trying to solve problems by predicting each other’s behavior. When you’ve got an unpredictable actor, it makes everyone alter their calculation sometimes missing chances to agree and sometimes creating conflict where it was never necessary. That’s, I think, what diplomats are struggling with is the inconsistency and the unpredictability of policy in areas where we need to find an agreement because we’ve got much bigger things to work on together.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, absolutely. Working together, kind of curious I mean, you were of course ambassador during Obama’s essentially his first term and the latter half of the then Rudd Gillard government. What was it like being an ambassador during a period where the labor government was essentially at war with itself regrettably? I mean, was that something that was awkward to manage?

Jeff Bleich:                    No. Nice things about being ambassador, and I should’ve mentioned this earlier, is it’s not zero sum, it’s not someone wins, someone loses, always this is a long-term relationship and you’re looking for opportunities to do good things together and so you develop friendships all across the political spectrum. I got along with all of the prime ministers with whom I worked and worked with the different factions within labor as well as the different factions within the coalition, and [crosstalk 00:22:40]-

Misha Zelinsky:             There’s no factions mate.

Jeff Bleich:                    Right. No factions at all. No, I think the… But I served with, If you count Kevin Rudd twice, I served with four prime ministers because I served with Prime Minister Rudd, then Prime Minister Gillard, then Prime Minister Rudd, and Prime Minister Abbott during the time I was there and found ways to work together with all of them, and really didn’t get drawn into their conflicts with one another. But it was helpful because I did get insights about their conflicts with one another and was able to make better predictions about how we could focus our energies on things that would get support across the aisle there as opposed to putting too much energy into things that we thought are hopeless at the moment. That’s part of why you want to have those relationships.

Misha Zelinsky:             Very diplomatically put ambassador, but that’s a period of time we try not to remember to fondly. But so, turning to, I suppose your post ambassadorial career, you focus a lot on foreign interference.

Jeff Bleich:                    One of my favorite stories with President Obama Yeah.] I’ve been gone for a few months and I had a… came back to see President Obama, we were in the Oval Office. He said, “You’ve got a lot going on down there. I’m like, “Yeah, I’ve been there for a few weeks and they sacked the opposition leader Malcolm Turbull a few months later sacked the prime minister. Prime minister Gillard has now called a special election and it looks like it’s going to be a minority coalition because this will be the first minority coalition government in last 70 years.” The president he goes, “What the hell are you doing down there Jeff? These people are our friends,” so there you go.

Misha Zelinsky:             Very good. Just, since you’ve left your role as ambassador, you’ve focused a lot on foreign interference. You’ve set up the Jeff Bleich Center for the US Alliance in Digital Technology, Security and Governance at Flinders University, which is… First, it’s a hell of a title.

Jeff Bleich:                    Oh thank. It’s a lot of words but they all have meaning, and the only word-

Misha Zelinsky:             Lets talk about that.

Jeff Bleich:                    … I would have taken out, the Jeff Bleich Center. That was a very nice thing that Flinders did where they put my name on it. But I was honored and surprised. But it’s given me extra incentive to make sure it does its job. I figure it’s a statement of confidence that even with a name like Bleich it can still be successful, so there you go.

Misha Zelinsky:             What are you hoping for the center, and firstly what are its aims? And secondly, why have you set up in Australia?

Jeff Bleich:                    Well, the aim is really to focus on a set of challenges that are unique to democracies that are created by digital technology that asymmetrically hurt democracies versus authoritarian governments and how we can work together as countries with our closest partners to figure out solutions to these. Whether it just be ways in which we will combat them within our own countries, how we can combat them together, or how we can form treaties around the world that would help all nations that share our values and care about democracy and freedom to resist this movement towards digital abuse and authoritarianism. That’s really what it’s about. It’s a US alliance studies in digital technology, security, and governance and it’s all of those things. I’m happy to talk about specific examples if that’s helpful.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, maybe if we… I mean, I think the most famous example of hacking or a successful hacking effort is the 2016 foreign interference into the US election. But I’m interested in talking to you about this new concept where they’re talking about political warfare in the so-called gray zones. Can you explain what those are and how they’re impacting on democracies?

Jeff Bleich:                    Oh, well you may use different terms for it in Australia. What do you mean by that, and then I’ll say if I mean the same thing?

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, this attempt to bump up against institutions and corrupt the discourse or target certain people or basically try to royal democracies using their openness against them in a way that makes it more difficult for democracies to operate properly because they’re getting this static put through them in various different ways due to the interconnectedness of the world versus the closeness, I suppose, the autocratic systems and that challenge is presenting to us in the democratic free world.

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah. That was the most diabolical] Russian interference in the 2016 election. Look, hacking into DMC files and releasing those in a selective way to help one party versus the other. All bad. But at least you knew it was happening. What was going on with what you’re describing is this attempt to pit Americans against each other, to break down our trust in one another, and to dirty the information field in such a way that we didn’t know what to believe by the time we got to election day. That was the concept.

Jeff Bleich:                    They would use chat bots and others to identify extreme positions and then promote them aggressively to create the sense that the entire left and the entire right believed a particularly fringe idea and that that’s what they stood for. Or to find hot buttons that they knew would inflame a particular group and get them to start criticizing each other through really nasty terms that would just make it difficult for people to dial back and have a civil conversation about issues later.

Jeff Bleich:                    The whole idea of just putting [stories about nothing, but create just ridiculous false narratives was designed to make it so that people didn’t know what to trust. You had a bunch of people wondering, is Hillary Clinton, while she’s running for president in the United States, still finding time in the evenings to go run a child sex ring out of the basement of a in suburban Maryland? It seems absurd, but if people see it enough, they start to wonder, “Well maybe there’s some truth to it.” Enough so the one person actually showed up with a assault weapon to open fire on it. I mean, it’s these things that sound silly actually have dire and very dangerous real world consequences.

Jeff Bleich:                    The impact of all that was that at some point, if people don’t know what the truth is, they don’t know what to believe, they don’t know who to believe because we’ve broken down trust, then they either believe whatever accords with their own biases or they believe nothing at all and they just kind of abdicate to government to do whatever it was going to do. Both of those are absolutely destructive to democracy.

Jeff Bleich:                    Democracy is about all of us understanding the facts, being able to make our own informed choices, and being able to select representatives who will in fact represent our views on those. Once people don’t know what the facts are and they don’t know who to trust, and they can’t make effective choices in their elections, we stop looking like a democracy anymore.

Misha Zelinsky:             I think you’ve absolutely nailed the problem. What’s the solution? I mean, how do we actually deal with this question of trust information sources and digital communications? Because this openness that we have now, you can’t control your information, at least in Western democratic context. You can’t control information in your borders anymore, and you don’t have gatekeeping on information. Actually, how do we reverse this problem given that it’s so corrosive?

Jeff Bleich:                    Part of it is sophistication and hygiene. I think people start to learn after a while. I keep hearing from this particular website or this particular author, never turned out to be true, and in fact turns out that they’re wrong and dangerous. Over time, the public starts walking away from people like that. I think you’re probably going to come up with greater criticism of groups like that in the sense that people on the right will start criticizing far right views as damaging to their own brand and people in the moderate left will do the same thing to extreme and irresponsible new sources on the left. There’s human nature.

Jeff Bleich:                    We really depend on timely, reliable, accurate information in every aspect of our lives. At some point when we’re not getting in, we react and start behaving differently. I’m counting, to some extent, on human nature. I think the second thing that you count on is technology getting better and better at being able to detect lies and out them. One of the advantages of AI frankly, is in things that are demonstrably false. Well, we’ll be able to identify those in real time and start educating people to take a pause, check this site, and get the accurate information. At some point I think they’ll be able to.

Jeff Bleich:                    The problem of… I think Mark Twain said, “A lie is halfway around the world before the truth has got its pants on.” This goes back 100 years, but it’s at hyperspeed right now in the internet age. But we have some technological tools that will help us with that. I think you’re going to start to see crowdsourced information in the news, which will help people with that same challenge. I don’t despair that we’ve outfought ourselves and we can never fight back to accuracy again. I think we’ve always managed to do it in the past and I think we’ll do it again this time. It’s just going to be a challenging effort given the acceleration of technology issues.

Misha Zelinsky:             What’s the role of US social media companies in this, in being responsible actors given so many people now get their news from social media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et cetera. They have algorithms that essentially favor outrage, which then favors extremism, and then there’s a problem with fake accounts. I mean, what is their role in, I suppose, safeguarding democracy?

Jeff Bleich:                    Well, they’re all certain to encounter a backlash which is referred to as the tech lash because of people’s frustration with the failure of these platforms to actually address the negative consequences. They insist that they are platforms that they’re not news sources, they’re not responsible for the news and that they shouldn’t be held to the same standards as journalists, but at the same time, they’re now appreciating that in order for their brand to be respected and for people to actually trust their platforms, they need to do more fact-checking.

Jeff Bleich:                    Facebook has brought in, I think, journalists from the Washington Post to hire a number of other journalists checking on pieces that appear on their website and to either take down things that are demonstrably false or at least put up warnings in advance that there are questions about the accuracy of certain facts stated in the piece. You see Google and Twitter saying that they are not going to run political ads they contained false information. There’s a movement, in fact, I think they’d said take down all political ads simply because they didn’t want to be in a position where they had to make those fine determinations.

Jeff Bleich:                    But they’re all stepping up in different ways to address it in response to consumer demand and other political parties. That’s healthy. That’s how a democracy is supposed to work.

Misha Zelinsky:             Just turning to the global challenge here, I mean, one of the things I think Australia and the US are in lock step on is this, I mean, it’s been described a sort of a Chinese communist party, techno-nationalism, the so called China 2025 plan where the regime wants to dominate a whole host of critical technologies including AI which you touched on earlier. I mean, do you think this is a new bipartisan position in the US and does the president, president Trump, have a point in the way he’s addressing this challenge?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, no, I think there’s bipartisan support. In fact, if anything, the Democrats may be even stronger in their concerns about it. Perhaps in part because of the experience from 2016 where they were the victims of foreign interference and their appreciation that what they did is child’s play compared to what can be done in the future. The techno-nationalism that you’re describing really comes down in many ways to the architecture of the internet of things. If it’s connected through 5G systems that are controlled by China, there’s a real risk that those could be used to establish an effective surveillance state that would keep Chinese citizens and countries that are in the Chinese supply chain and orbit and strategic area in line.

Jeff Bleich:                    It would be used also as a check on efforts by the West to impose their own human rights values on China or other countries, and could also be used as an economic tool to advantage China over other countries. You could easily see a balkanization around the world of some countries that have surveillance States that use the internet of things in an authoritarian manner. Then other countries which are working to ensure that we maintain our freedoms. In those cases you have two completely different economic systems in competition again and really a digital iron curtain could fall if we don’t address this now.

Misha Zelinsky:             Essentially, yeah, this question of a digital iron curtain or a decoupling, how do you see… One of the things that I think is interesting or is puzzling in the debate at the moment, there seems to have been this split in the West even, about how to approach the question of 5G, particularly Chinese technology via Huawei. How do you see the British approach as a Five Eyes partner in the Five Eyes security alliance? How do you see their approach to Huawei where they’ve essentially not sought to introduce, or at this stage don’t want to introduce, a blanket ban in the way that Australia and the United States and New Zealand have?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, well the UK didn’t follow an initial advice from the intelligence communities of other countries and even some of their own intelligence community, and went ahead with infrastructure that included Huawei equipment, but it was supposed to also have a monitoring system. The monitoring system has proven not to be workable, but now they’re stuck with a very big investment and being asked to tear it all out and start again is a major challenge for the country. Their softer position, I think, decisions that were made several years ago and ones that I think there is some apprehension about today.

Jeff Bleich:                    It also explains why it’s so important at this point to make these decisions strategically, and thoughtfully, and deliberately. Because once you’ve made the decision, you start going down a rabbit hole at a relatively fast pace and it’s much harder to climb back out afterward.

Misha Zelinsky:             Just on that, I mean, this debate it was not just contingent in Five Eyes, countries, Germany, and to a broader extent the broader European Union, are debating this question of 5G technology and the role of Huawei. Where do you think the debate will end up in Germany? Because again, they’re taking what would appear to be, at least, a bet each way at this point.

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, I mean, a lot of others is that they don’t want to needlessly antagonize China. What they would like, and I think what we all like is to find a way in which we could have a robust trade relationship with all countries in the world, including in our digital space, but also have some assurances that it won’t be used to undermine our security or economic wellbeing down the road that we chose one system versus another. I think they want to, in that respect, and that’s why they’ve made a number of statements about keeping an open mind. But the fact that they have not embraced 5G technology and that Nokia and Ericsson and other European 5G manufacturers have been ramping up their efforts suggests to me that Germany.

Misha Zelinsky:             This question about human rights and values and but also technology, I mean, how do you see that playing out? I mean, the Human Rights Watch group recently came in and essentially warned of a techno-dystopia emerging of Chinese technology and an autocratic regime comes to dominate global affairs. I mean, how concerned are you about something like that and what can democracies do about being more assertive in values about human values and their role in technology?

Jeff Bleich:                    Look, I mean, we’re at this point, and I think there’s a desire around the world for us to remain interdependent. It’s a good way of reducing the risk of conflict. The last thing we will want to move on is a failure to be creative on digital governance. I think, and China just as much as the United States is looking to increase the quality of life, and the length of life, and the wellbeing of its people and to do the same for its allies and friends around the world.

Jeff Bleich:                    We don’t have to go into a dystopian world. It’s not inevitable. It’s going to be a matter of choices. But we’re starting to make the decisions now. We’ll either make it much more likely that we’ll go into a dystopian future or much easier for us to avoid it. That’s why we have failed to take heed of warnings in areas like climate change and we’re paying a huge price for it right now. We don’t want to make the same mistake here on the digital space in terms of having security and governance in front of mind as we’re making these critical decisions.

Misha Zelinsky:             Given that we’re heading into an important election season in the United States, I think one of the things that would disturb a lot of people, the 2016 election, the Mueller Report, even the impeachment currently underway with arguable presidential interference into a potential rival candidate. How concerned are you about these reports of new Russian hacking into some of the electoral infrastructure of the US and has that got enough attention in your opinion?

Jeff Bleich:                    No, it hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention. Look, I’ve been saying for a while, whatever Russia did last time, they’re not just going to do that this time. They may figure, “Okay, we’ve taught the rest of the world how to do that. They’ll do it for us.” They’re going to do something different. We know that in the last election, Russia had hacked into voter rolls for 40 different States in the United States. It was only when they were called out by our intelligence agencies at the highest level and advised that we have countermeasures that would be much more painful to them that they backed off on what appeared to be a deliberate plan to hack into certain kinds of voting machines in order to change the outcome of elections.

Jeff Bleich:                    We also know that our voting machines are vulnerable and really can… in some cases, you could change a person’s vote and there’s no paper backup to ensure that people could audit it and determine whether or not a machine had been compromised. We have real vulnerabilities and it should be something that is front of mind for Americans and a major focus of law enforcement around the world and for our media to prepare people for demanding from their electoral officials paperback, every single vote, and an audit of every voting location. I mean, that should be standard. I am very worried about it.

Misha Zelinsky:             We use high tech paper and pencil in Australia, so it’s more difficult to hack at least. It’s one of the advantages of a low tech system but…

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, although it may be that you’re using scanners and other things, so hopefully you’re also doing audits afterwards to make sure that the scanners haven’t been compromised.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, one would hope, I mean, it’s certainly something that I think it requires enormous vigilance. The last question before we go to the really last hokey question. You’re someone who describes himself as an optimist. When I look at the world, it’s divided now into opened and closed. It used to be believed that openness would always prevail. Bill Clinton famously said, “Those who think they can control the internet, it’s like nailing jello to a wall. Good luck with that.” But it almost feels now that open systems assailed from all different directions and the closed systems don’t have these same vulnerabilities. How can that be reversed and how can openness become a virtue and not be a bit of a crutch as it currently is?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah. Well look, I think we originally imagined digital technology proliferating openness and to some extent it did. If you look at the Arab Spring, that was really a reflection of the fact that social media was able to create an environment in which disorganized rebels could overthrow a dictator. I think the lesson that we learned from that period is that, we got a little bit out over our skis. We were so confident that digital technology could only be used for good that we forgot that dictators are watching the same thing. They were thinking, “Look, if the disorganized rebel can use this tool in order to accomplish this. Imagine what we can do with all the power of the government, and military force, and money, and organization behind us. Just think how much we could weaponize digital information.”

Jeff Bleich:                    They’ve demonstrated that over the last few years and it has strengthened the hand of authoritarians. But that doesn’t mean that this tool will only be used for bad going forward. I think we’ve gotten a wake up call that this technology really can promote open societies and bring us closer together as people, and reduce friction between countries, and increase our understanding of what is true, and allow us to solve massive global problems in a way and at a scale that we never would have been able to in the past. Whether that is contagions moving around the world, or whether it is climate change, or whether it is this issue itself, the digital structure itself.

Jeff Bleich:                    We’ll be able to do things that we could never have accomplished without this technology. I remain an optimist. I think there’s work to be done, but at the wake up call that we needed and now we just need the political will to put some real muscle behind it so that we can make tomorrow better than it’s been.

Misha Zelinsky:             Do you take some confidence out of the courage you’ve seen in people of Hong Kong and the recent Taiwan elections where despite all the threats and pressure that have been placed upon people in those areas, that they still have voted for self-determination and freedom. I think that should give us all confidence, but how do you see that particular way that that’s played out for the CCP regime of 2019 into 2020?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, no, absolutely. You see it in Turkey, you see in Hong Kong, you see it around the world, and it’s because frankly, there’s an innate instinct in us as a species, as people. We want freedom, we want… Why on earth does a person stand in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square? Why does someone throw a minefield in the demilitarized zone? Why did people lose their lives trying to cross the Berlin Wall. It’s that impulse where at some level people say, “I would rather die than live without freedom,” and they are willing to do extraordinary things to accomplish it. I take great comfort from that impulse, that instinct in all of us that you see manifested in some of these elections and in individual acts of courage and heroism.

Misha Zelinsky:             Absolutely. I think that’s a beautiful place to finish at. Now, of course I have one of my trademarks, clunky segues into the final question, which is… it’s a little, maybe a bit easier for you given your time in Australia. Sometimes this stumps some of my guests who can’t really name three Australians beyond Crocodile Dundee, but three Aussies alive or dead at ambassador Bleich’s place for a barbecue. Who’s coming and why?

Jeff Bleich:                    Let’s see, who’s coming to my barbecue? Well, everyone who’s left off this list will be angry. Let me pick just three iconic Australians. One of them would be Paul Keating, I just think he’s brilliant and his insights are invaluable. I think I’d pick Lindsay Fox because he is what every billionaire should aspire to be. Just generous, thoughtful, down to earth, and make your money the right way, fairly and honestly. Then the third one, probably Lisa Wilkinson, because after her long career in journalism and the courage she’s shown, she knows the dirt on everyone and she would tell it. So there you go.

Misha Zelinsky:             So you have a journalist, a prime minister, and a billionaire at an ambassador’s barbecue. Sounds like a pretty good party.

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah. Sounds… get a couple meat pies and some sausages. It’s a perfect night.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, fantastic. Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much ambassador Jeff Bleich and good luck in the upcoming primary season for the Democrats.

Jeff Bleich:                    Oh, thanks so much, Misha, and thanks for having me on Diplomates.

 

Benedict Hugosson: Still the heartland? How social democrats can fight back in Sweden, Europe and the world.

Sweden is often considered to be the heartland of social democracy – but that may no longer be the case.

Benedict Hugosson is a global expert in political campaigning.

He has lead national field campaigns for the Social Democrats in Sweden and is a leading thinker in political engagement strategies and tactics.

An Australian born Harvard graduate, Ben has trained activists in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

I caught up with Ben for a chinwag about the fall in support for the historically dominant Swedish Social Democratic party, the rise of right wing nationalists in Sweden, why party membership is critical to voting patterns, how face to face conversations are still better than digital campaign tools, and what the future holds for mainstream European political parties of both the left and right.

It’s a fascinating, in-depth insight into what is happening right throughout Europe. It also uncovers the important role that membership and organising plays in electoral outcomes.

As ever, if you’re enjoying the show – please rate and review!

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Misha Zelinsky:             Ben, welcome to the show. Thanks for joining us here in Australia.

Ben Hugosson:              Thank you very much.

Misha Zelinsky:             Now, we might start with a little of your background because I think this is somewhat curious one. How does an Ozzie end up in Swedish politics because, one I’m curious to know about and to how do I get the job?

Ben Hugosson:              Exactly. Like you said, I didn’t grow up in Sweden. I grew up on the far North Coast of New South Wales. I think that the reason why I ended up in politics has a lot to do with my background here in Australia. When I was about 12 years old, my mother passed away with cancer and my dad was pensioned, he got sick and couldn’t run the family farm. When, we grew up there was a recurring theme of not having much money. There was one night in particular that I remember, it was a very hot day and Australia’s great in that respects, I love the warm weather. But what I love is when, of an afternoon, the temperature just drops and then you get these fantastic thunderstorms that come in and you get these fork lightning and it’s just such a spectacular light show.

Ben Hugosson:              On this night I’m lying in bed and we’re just about to go to sleep and a storm is raging outside and all of a sudden the whole roof blows off our house. Me and my twin brother, we get out of there and the family, we spend the whole night in the bathroom because that’s the safest place in the house. The next day I remember, workers coming and climbing up over our house and they basically had this bird’s eye view of my room and where I sleep, my bed. I remember looking at my bed and just seeing it very tattered and broken and I was embarrassed. I wasn’t only embarrassed, I felt so powerless. I never really got involved in politics in Australia, for me that was something that other people did.

Ben Hugosson:              When I got to Sweden, there was a lot of people talking about a politician called Olof Palme, and he was the prime minister’s Sweden. People seemed to love this guy and I had no idea who he was. One day, I looked up on, on Wikipedia, I looked up who he was, and I started to read. Down the bottom of Wikipedia there’s a lot of different links and I click on one of these links and I go into a website, which is Olof Palme International Center. Which is the aid organization for the labor movement in Sweden and I see pictures of people that are held back by structures, that basically may mean that people are powerless to affect their own situations. I see them and I see other people that are helping to remove these structures. So, people do feel empowered and oftentimes these people are the same people. And I could see myself in the people that were held down by structures, but I could also see myself in those people that helped remove those structures. That for me was really inspiring. There, and then I basically signed up to the party.

Misha Zelinsky:             The social Democrats.

Ben Hugosson:              The Social Democrats, exactly. After that, I went to an education to a training that they had for aid projects. Despite the fact I could not speak the language, I didn’t have a project, I didn’t have anything, they welcomed me with open arms. When you get there, there is such a focus on people’s movements, on getting people involved and when I was there, I met people and they just dragged me along to a meeting. All of a sudden you sit there and you start seeing how people are writing motions and they’re sending them through the party and it’s becoming party politics. You get this taste of democracy and you want more of it. That’s why I got involved with the party and why I have been involved with the party since then.

Misha Zelinsky:             For those that listening, and may not completely understand the situation currently in Sweden. Maybe you can just quickly cover that off, I always joke that most of the political parties in Sweden are all to the left of the labor party. But currently the Social Democrats are in government, but they were a minority government. Maybe you could just quickly cover that off before we dive into, what else is happening.

Ben Hugosson:              I can begin by saying the Swedish Social Democrats have been the most successful democratic political party in the history of the world. They have pretty much-

Misha Zelinsky:             I think the Labor Party, we also claim that. But we can arm wrestle for it.

Ben Hugosson:              Basically since the 1920s, 1930s the Social Democrats had been in power in Sweden, pretty much unbroken. What’s been happening recently is that that hegemony has been changing, has been loosening up. What we find now is that we have gone from a party that’s been about 45% and that’s great because we could, we could govern on 45% because we had. And left this party to the left of us that would just accept everything that we wanted to do. Just slowly but surely going down in getting smaller and smaller election results and then having to start bringing in other parties into our coalition. We started with the greens, but our share of the vote has sunk so much now that in the last election we were very, very lucky to form government. It took three months for us to form government. What we’ve had to do is actually start negotiating with some of the neo liberalist parties.

Ben Hugosson:              The reason why we can negotiate with these, is that there has been a dramatic increase in right wing populism in Sweden. We’ve had a, traditionally there are the Moderates who have been out our opposition who have basically now been dwarfed by a far right party. This far right party in the last week has actually become the largest political party in polls in Sweden. For us, that’s a bit of a defeat because we’ve always been that party. We’re sitting there now with a progressive block this has to negotiate with a neo liberalist block to hold out the conservative block. This conservative block hasn’t existed in Swedish politics for a long time, but they are becoming the most powerful block in Swedish politics. What is happening then is that now that we’re having to negotiate with neo liberalist, we’re having to negotiate away a lot of things that we went to the election on that are very, very dear to us as a political party. But, it’s becoming a solution that we have to have if we do not want a far right government.

Misha Zelinsky:             This increasingly is a challenge for a lot of… Social democratic parties globally been in decline of course, we lost the election here in 2019. But this is a challenge throughout Europe with the traditional center-right parties in many cases disappearing or being cannibalized by far right parties. What’s driving it in Sweden in particular, is there a particular issue that’s driving this populism that you can see?

Ben Hugosson:              You can look at this on many levels. Firstly, I think that the narrative that the far right is using, is built on the narrative of the right wing parties. To break down the social democratic hegemony that has been in Sweden, the right wing party, the Moderates, when they were looking to attack us back in the early two thousands. They looked at the welfare system and we’re looking at the amount of people that were actually cheating the welfare system. One of the first things that they did was they hired a right wing think tank to do a study and it came out in the newspapers and the title of the newspaper was. Or the article in the newspaper was two out of 10 people cheat or know somebody who was cheated the welfare system or something like that. It makes it sound like there’s a lot of people cheating the welfare system. But in reality, if we’re 10 people and everybody knows one of those people, then you can say 100% of people know somebody that’s cheating the welfare system.

Misha Zelinsky:             Lies, damned lies and statistics.

Ben Hugosson:              Exactly. What it did is it painted that picture that there were people cheating the welfare system.

Misha Zelinsky:             Is this a new thing in Sweden or it’s always been bipartisan support for welfare’s an attack of that nature, a new phenomenon?

Ben Hugosson:              The righters always attack the welfare system, but there has been such a large acceptance for the welfare system. Mainly because our welfare system it’s not means tested. It’s something that is general for everybody. So, if you are getting some government rebate, we don’t test if you have a low paying job or a high paying job, everybody gets it. That for us has been very, very important because what it’s done is it created a broad acceptance for welfare in the country. But, these attacks on these democratic systems were then use by the far right. Basically when you have the Moderates coming in and saying that, “There’s a lot of people cheating the welfare system.” Then you get the far right coming in and saying, “Okay, yes, we established that fact that people are cheating the welfare. They add that we know who was cheating the welfare system.”

Ben Hugosson:              They run ads where they say that our budget, it’s a competition between, pensioners that that wants a decent living standard and immigrants that are coming in and cheating the welfare system. They build up that tension, but we have to say that, that narrative that they have formed is actually on the back of neoliberalism. What they did when they created this mistrust of the welfare system, they created and an arena for the far right to come in and actually create conflicts in between groups in society.

Ben Hugosson:              I think that that is an important thing to see that the right wing and neo-liberalism has broken down a lot of the support for our democratic institutions. But I think that it goes a lot further than that as well. I think that when they have come in and they’ve broken down support for democratic institutions. They have broken down and privatized and hollowed out, democratic structures as well. One of the things that we have done is we’ve looked at the role of engagement in this crisis and one of the things that we see is that self-governing organizations have been basically the playground for where people have engaged. There’ve been the default mode of engagement for very many people. Since the 70s these institutions have started to lose members, so there’s a narrative that it’s political party, that are losing members but this is definitely not the case. It’s all-

Misha Zelinsky:             People don’t join anymore.

Ben Hugosson:              People don’t join anymore. We’re not a nation of joiners basically, and this is a problem both for the union movement or for political parties, but all-

Misha Zelinsky:             Churches.

Ben Hugosson:              Forming clubs, churches, you name it. What’s happening is that people aren’t experiencing democracy on an everyday basis or in these self-governing organizations. They’re not experiencing democracy and when they don’t experience democracy as a lived experience on an everyday basis. Of course, they’re not going to start thinking that democratic institutions can actually provide solutions to our pressing problems because they haven’t experienced it before. I think that there is a big connection there between what is happening now and the distrust in political process and the way that we engage. One of the things that we also did was look at what is the effect of party membership on election results.

Ben Hugosson:              In the 90s the Social Democrats had 260,000 members, which was roughly four percent of everybody that voted and when we had four percent of everybody that voted, we also got 45% in the elections. Since then, that figure has dropped, we’ve lost about 160,000 members and we’re down to about 1.2% of the voting population as a member of our party. We’ve also done the worst elections in our history and this is basically a straight line down. It pegs the loss of members. Another thing that we’ve also looked at is, what is the role of party membership in personification. Personification it comes from the Greek political party Pasok and when they basically disappeared overnight. Other examples of this are the socialists in France.

Misha Zelinsky:             France.

Ben Hugosson:              We’ve had Netherlands also being pasokified, Labor in Scotland. When we look at this, when we look at what are the organization, what are the political parties that are being pasokified. We see that they basically do not have members and there seems to be a critical role for members in this crisis.

Misha Zelinsky:             What is the key then to turn around this decline in membership, if you say that there’s this a causative relationship. How can parties encourage people to join, because we have the same problem here with the Labor party. Membership has declined as percentage of the population overall and certainly our primary vote has declined. What is the answer there?

Ben Hugosson:              I think that what we have to do is, we have to look at nature of engagement. There are many people that are saying, and I don’t know if it’s the narrative here, but it’s definitely the narrative in Sweden. That these, these old political structures and these old political parties have got old methods of engagement.

Misha Zelinsky:             Is in having a say in what the party does and its structures.

Ben Hugosson:              Yeah. Or just getting involved in a political party is not a modern way of engaging. But the problem with this is that the way that people engage now is a new way of engaging and our political parties are also engaging that same way. We’ve made a shift from engaging with people to engaging with content. When we like something on Facebook, we’re engaging with content and the thing about that is that you can do it by yourself. When we engage with people, we’re doing totally different things and this is basically how self-governing organizations have been built up. They haven’t been built up on engaging with content they’re being built up on engaging with people. That might be that, we sit round us in a local club and decide what we’re going to do, which issues we’re going to push.

Ben Hugosson:              But it is a discussion between people, we sit around and we talk about doing a campaign and this is the relation of organizing that. We see that it is coming up more and more where we’re actually rediscovering the old methods of engagement. I think that is really important, the innovative stuff that is being done today within the realm of engagement is actually a lot of the stuff that has been forgotten. Since the 70s I mentioned before that self-governing organizations have lost members since the 70s is that, what’s happened is that we’ve had TV, radio, email, social media. All these mediums come that have basically been mobilizing mediums and we’ve seen them as the new default mode of engaging with people and they’re the ones that have dominated. During this period of time, when we have been predominantly mobilizing people, not organizing people. We have lost leadership capacity within our organizations.

Ben Hugosson:              A lot of this memory of how you actually organize people and how you engage people with other people, we have lost. This is one of the biggest challenges that we have is that we have to relearn a lot of this stuff and not only relearn it for ourselves, but teach it to a lot of different people as well. It’s going to be a long road, it’s going to be a very hard road, but it’s a road we have to travel and we have to stop now.

Misha Zelinsky:             You talked about this disappearing acts of some of these great parties on the left and right. We’re talking specifically about the left in that example, but I’m curious about whether or not it’s caused it, even certainly correlated. The refugee crisis that existed as a result of the civil war in Syria and the flow on effect in Europe. What was the impact, certainly gets debated a lot and it’s been used by a lot of far right parties, particularly those who’ve got in to power in Eastern Europe and Hungary and others. What has been the impact of immigration on the political discourse in Sweden?

Ben Hugosson:              That is the number one most discussed political issue at the moment. Like I said, a lot of these narratives are built off the neo liberalist narratives. They use immigration as a way of, dividing Sweden up and putting people against people and it has been a tough issue for us to deal with. Absolutely, and when we had this immigration crisis in Sweden, we had very many people trying to come to Sweden. During a period of time we had this massive spike of people landing in Sweden and wanting to seek refuge. We didn’t have the organizational capacities at the time to be able to bring that many people into to Sweden. And to make sure that we integrate them into Swedish society by making sure that they have a job, that they have a place to stay. Just basic things that we all really, really take for granted. This was a a period of time that the right, they tried to blame us for it and they always are bringing up this period of time and of course, it was a very extreme period of time.

Ben Hugosson:              It meant that we had to take extreme measures to make sure that we could handle this. It was cold at the time, but we had to make sure that we had a place for people to stay. We had to basically look at every single building in the whole of Sweden and make sure that we had a place for them to stay. Some people, we had to make sure that the military maybe had tents to house people. So, it was a very big thing for Sweden and very tumultuous for a lot of people and a lot of people felt that things were, were spiraling out of control, absolutely.

Misha Zelinsky:             I’m curious about this, because there’s a debate that exists and migration has always been a fixed problem in Australia, which I’m sure you’re aware of. It has been politically difficult for Labor, particularly in the refugee question, although there’s been more favorable attitudes towards permanent migration. But Europe is a little bit unique in that it has more of a borderlines about it. People are free to move around though they’re, Sweden’s a little bit different but largely participates in that. Has bought or corroded support for democracy, do you think? I mean, it’s a big factor in the Brexit debate, taking back control. How does that impact, because I know, look at the Danes are probably one example, where the labor party’s done well there. But they had a rather conservative position on immigration that they took the election. I’m curious about your take on this borderless, this question and whether or not it’s consistent with democracy.

Ben Hugosson:              Democracy works when people feel that they can actually influence democracy and even before this debating immigration, there was always a debate about how democratic the EU actually is. The immigration is a way for people to maybe express that feeling of disjointedness of not being able to influence, but it’s probably not some of the root causes. Not being engaged in your local society, if we can fix that and give people a place in society, I think that a lot of these issues will fade away. Because people will see that they do have a place that they can actually influence their local societies and they will feel empowered.

Ben Hugosson:              I talked earlier about the Olof Palme and he has a great speech about industrial society’s problem. He begins to speech by talking about, how much room you have, he calls it, elbow room and he says that when that starts to shrink, people will try to escape to their own private economy and I think that, that’s the case. Our job as Social Democrats is to make sure that people actually feel that they can influence their societies. We can have borderless societies, but as long as you feel that you can influence your society and where you live, then I don’t think that, that’s going to be a huge problem.

Misha Zelinsky:             What about, you talked about economics there. One of the things that’s so scary is I think as a Social Democrat is that, the country you would instinctively point to where Social Democracy has flourished traditionally and could flourish ongoing basis, is Sweden, the Scandinavian countries. A lot of people say, “Oh, that model can’t work.” I always joke that, Sweden’s not a theory, it’s a place you can fly to, you can literally go there, it’s not Narnia. But, what is it that… Is there an inequality emerging within Swedish society economically? Is that regional city divide emerging as well and are there people being felt, looked at economically. Is that impacting and is that creating a space for the far right to try to get in and sell populous message?

Ben Hugosson:              Yeah, most definitely. I think that inequality… Absolutely during the time of the Social Democrats. I don’t think that we should feel that, we’ve always done the right thing. But definitely when the right wing took over Moderates, then took over after 2006 that inequality started to shoot through the roof.

Misha Zelinsky:             Right around the time of the global financial crisis.

Ben Hugosson:              Absolutely. They took over just before, but I think that they probably used the global financial crisis as a way of actually forcing through some economic policies. That basically weakened the labor movement that made employment a lot more precarious and I think that people are feeling the effects of that. Things like, having to wait for an SMS to know that you have worked that day and these are problems that we shouldn’t have in a wealthy society like Sweden. These economic problems are actually starting to creep up and starting to become a problem. We see that in all unequal societies you’ll start to have people that have things and those that don’t have things. I think that this is one of the big problems that we have to actually start to address.

Misha Zelinsky:             One of the things that I find, I think a lot of social democrats globally are struggling with, is the theory with inequality increasing theoretically that should be good conditions for a social democratic government to come to power. For whatever reason, social democratic parties throughout the world or center left parties are really struggling to connect with people and the concerns that they have. May have, some policy solutions for them but it seems that whatever it is that we’re selling people aren’t buying it. And this precariousness or anxiety they feel we’re not connecting with them in fact, perhaps is that were being portrayed that way. But change seems scary when you have so little you only you’re afraid to lose even that little, bit. A risk on a social democratic party becomes more difficult. What do you think is the answer to make people have faith that we have the answers for them?

Ben Hugosson:              Actually there was one part of your question that I didn’t answer before about the divide between-

Misha Zelinsky:             Other regional areas.

Ben Hugosson:              The Regional areas and because I think this actually ties in a little into what we are talking about. If you go and have a look in the Swedish Social Democrats, we sing a lot of songs. Yeah. So we have our work of songs and when you look at a lot of these songs, they are stories about people moving from the country. Who often are the good people moving to the city and being exploited by the bad people. There is, even in our old songs, there is this divide and that I think stays, when I grew up, there were films like City Slickers. City Slickers is a derogative term for people that live in the city. This divide, it’s always really been there and it has been used like in our songs of workers to portray what some injustices are there. This is still there and it’s still a problem.

Ben Hugosson:              But for the Social Democrats, we have been those that have been able to bring these diverse groups together. One of the things that we have brought together and being like this big party that’s conformed government is that we have brought together progressive people but also conservative people. People that want some welfare or security system and those that value security. We’ve been this amalgamation of these two value groups and we’ve been able to talk across almost value sets but actually land in a set of progressive policies.

Ben Hugosson:              This is one of the keys to actually getting back into talking to some of these people is that, we can’t also divide up our country as well and say, “These are those people that think this and we think this, we’re progressive’s and we’re Social Democrats. We need to actually… How we’ve done it before is to go in and be really, really embedded in our societies and actually get these people to start talking together. Social democracy has never been a set of policies, it’s been a promise of democracy. It’s been a promise that together we can actually go together and influence our situation. I think that that’s what we have to do.

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s interesting you’ve talked about this conservative element of social democracy. Increasingly it’s been overlooked, I think one of the problems that we have are attitudinal and we tend to hector people that are a bit more conservative. People that might be economically progressive as you said, but have more socially conservative views. What do you think the role for people perhaps that are religious or have more socially conservative views. What is the role for them to play in social democratic parties? Because increasingly they’re looking at parties such as ours and saying, well that party, I don’t feel at home there anymore. The labor party traditionally had a large Catholic element, which is I think still of our fabric, but an increasingly minimized fabric. I’m curious about your take on that from a European perspective.

Ben Hugosson:              Sweden is a lot more secularized than what Australia is.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s interesting because a lot of people say Australia is quite secularized.

Ben Hugosson:              We have the Swedish church and up until the 90s everybody was born directly into the Swedish church. In fact one of the largest elections outside of political elections or the largest selection outside of political elections is the Swedish church and it’s a big thing. That’s actually traditionally how the right wing in Sweden have come and gained power. Because, what they’ve done is they’ve won in the Swedish church election and because they get money and they a position in the society.

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s a platform.

Ben Hugosson:              It’s a platform to run other elections. But for us, we don’t have large diverse groups of different religious groups, that is increasing, absolutely because of the immigration that has happened in Sweden. But religion generally does not play a role in, in Swedish politics. But, if you start thinking about say conservative and conservative values and their role, we traditionally have not had a large conservative block. This is something that is very, very new in Sweden, but it doesn’t mean that those conservative views haven’t been there. I think that this is largely because the Social Democrats have been able to sew together and to do it on this idea that, we want some security, we want unemployment insurance. We want a welfare state or health care that when we get sick we can actually be taken care of and it not break the bank. We’ve been able to amalgamate these groups and I think that we have to say that if we’re going to move forward, power is through the electoral system.

Ben Hugosson:              And, in the electoral system you need 50% plus one. We can’t just be talking to one value group, we have to be talking to multiple value groups and to make sure that we have the majority that we need to win. Our electoral system is geographically based so, we have to say, “Okay, well who are the people that exist in my neighborhood.” We have to go out and talk to these people and people that have progressive views and those that have conservative views, there is a possibility that they can land in the same policy platform. That’s traditionally what social Democrats have shown, but at the moment these more conservative people, these are the people that were leading to the right wing parties.

Ben Hugosson:              We have to start talking to them and start bringing them back in and make sure we have some common consensus about what we want. It’s not just us giving to them, it’s them giving to us as well. But, we have to see that our power is based on each other because the alternative is more right-wing ideologies that are more individualized. That see people as sometimes a commodity within a system, but also people that follow a powerful leader. There’s not much power in that for these people and like I said, we need to make people feel empowered. We have to start talking to them and we have to create arenas for that.

Misha Zelinsky:             One of the things I think is becoming difficult in a lot of democracies is this, either a winner takes all approach to the governing. No longer having mutual toleration and maybe the way Trump has approached governing, which is basically winner takes all. Or increasingly people just not accepting the outcome of elections or not perceiving elections to be the best way to get things done. I think of something like maybe the extinction rebellion, which is a bit of a global phenomenon, but people being extremist in their activists but also authoritarian in their approach to whatever issue or change they’re seeking. How do you think we can still make sure that people think that the town square or politics is the actual way to get things done. And that there’s an art of compromise there as compared to the, cancel culture in the left or the right wing populism on the right. What is the answer?

Ben Hugosson:              We can’t deny that we have very large and pressing problems and a lot of the problems that we face will require large and urgent action. I think that, that’s what organizations like the Extinction Rebellion are talking about. They’re saying that we need large and urgent action and we’re fed up with the inaction, we need to do something. I think that there is a lot of inaction and politicians might have to take some blame for that, but we also have to see that we need to create the prerequisites for actually being able to tackle these urgent problems. We have to create space for innovation, absolutely. For innovating in the climate movement. We can’t have the situation where we are, where we can only present incremental politics. Because, that incremental politics is not going to solve the environmental crisis.

Ben Hugosson:              The only option for us is to start talking to other people, is to start talking in society and creating a dialogue on what this is going to take. Because people, when you aggregate their opinions, that is vastly different. That aggregation, what you end up being is vastly different to when you get people to sit down in a group and to actually come to some consensus. When people sit and they start talking to other people, they start to empathize and they start to be able to give up things. That they didn’t think that they could give up before, mainly because they’ve empathized with other people and they see that it’s for the greater good. I think this was actually what was happening in the civil society and that’s why engagement is so important. We need to start talking to our neighbors and mix up.

Misha Zelinsky:             Mix in.

Ben Hugosson:              Once we start doing that, then I fully believe that we will be able to enact the policies that we need to be able to tackle these crisis. We do have large and pressing problems and we too need to solve them very, very quick. In some ways, these organizations are totally right, like Extinction Rebellion, we need to act now. We do, but we also need to create a dialogue and that dialogue will create the space for us to attack these problems.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s a challenge, I don’t think there’s much of a dialogue when you turn up and shut down cities and make people whose lives are already difficult, more difficult. I’m not sure that’s the way of getting it done but the thing actually is, you’re a party machine man and one of the challenges of seeing to this discourse question is this information bubble that we all live in now. You basically see it on Facebook or any other social media and be served up your own opinions of things that you agree with, in an increasingly specified manner. The right seem to have weaponized these in a particular way that is confounding social democrats globally. Are you seeing that in Sweden and secondly, how can we make sure that these social media channels, and have 50% of people now get the majority of their news from social media. How do we make those things work for us and how do we push back against these advent of fake news and this toxi fication of social media.

Ben Hugosson:              It is a very big problem and again, I think a lot of this comes back to how we engage with others. If we are to… There’s a researcher called Erica Chenowith and one of the things that she has proven is that no social movement that has been able to mobilize 3.5% of the population has failed. So, if you can mobilize 3.5% of the population, you’ll probably succeed.

Misha Zelinsky:             What is define and mobilize.

Ben Hugosson:              Exactly. To get people involved in some action. I think that, that’s a very good statistic because it goes to show that, we probably don’t need to get everybody involved, but we do need to get a certain percentage of the population involved. Another thing is, is that if we’re going to get to that level, a lot of people that aren’t interested in politics today is going to have to be involved in this. The way that people generally get involved in movements is not that they see something on Facebook feel very, very inspired and then sign themselves up. That’s not how people get involved on that level. There was a guy called… I forget his name, but he wrote, he wrote a book called The Making of Pro-life Activists, and he basically followed people into the pro life movement.

Ben Hugosson:              These people became leaders after a while and so he could ask them, “Why did you join the movement? And they said, because I feel really passionate about this and I wanted to make a difference.” But he had followed the means, we knew full well why they actually joined the movement to begin with. A lot of them joined the movement because a friend had taken them to a meeting. I think that if we are going to get to that 3.5% then we need to start bringing friends to meetings. It’s about going through our contacts in our telephone and actually saying, who are these people that we can get involved? Who are these people do I want to bring to a meeting and to start experiencing some politics on an everyday basis basically.

Misha Zelinsky:             You say don’t rely on digital, get human to human contact.

Ben Hugosson:              These digital tools are just tools. I’m going to be using them to contact my friends, but I think that we do need to see that there is people to people relationships. They are the most important thing in what we’re doing and these people to people relationships are something that exist in real life. And, if we are using digital tools to actually communicate between us, then that’s great and then digital tools do play a role but we can talk to other people as well, ring them up, bring them to meetings. I think that we need to start bringing people in. People that are 100% interested in politics today, people that may be vaguely share our values but probably haven’t really been able to work out very clearly for themselves. Where they stand on issues but they need to be exposed to them basically and they need to come into our organization.

Ben Hugosson:              As an organization as well dealing with this, we need to basically, create activities that we can systematically make sure that our activists are bringing new people into our organizations. That can be done with online work tools, absolutely they make the process a lot smoother. But just like in door knocking, it’s the most effective method because it is face to face and I think that we need to see that value in being face to face. Even though it might seem like a long hard slog, it is actually the most effective way of getting people involved.

Misha Zelinsky:             People power, it’s old fashioned but it works, right?

Ben Hugosson:              People power, it all comes down to that.

Misha Zelinsky:             Just to share a quick story, I remember I was studying in London recently and they had the guy who led Macron’s campaign and he came in and said, “We had this secret weapon.” I leaned in because I was curious, because it was a party that came up out of nowhere and he said, “Door-knocking.” I was like, Oh, wow. Something that every young activists gets taught right from the beginning, but they used it. Perhaps that they hadn’t really used it much in France, apparently it’s not a really fresh thing to do. But I thought it was fascinating that person or persons still the way to get it done.

Ben Hugosson:              Absolutely. The guy that was leading Macron’s campaign, he was educated by Marshall Ganz who is the lead community organizer in the world. They used that.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, people power it’s interesting because I’m always have a clunky chinwag at the end of these things, right. The question I always ask everyone is, if you’re a foreigner, you got to invite three Ozzies to a barbecue. But if you’re an Ozzie, you’ve got to invite three foreigners. I’m not sure where quite sit here, I’ll let you cheat. But, three people, who would they be at your barbecue and why?

Ben Hugosson:              I can’t say anybody else, but Olof Palme, I would really, really love to meet that guy. He was amazing and if you can listen to his speeches, they are fantastic. I would invite him, I’d without a doubt invite my wife.

Misha Zelinsky:             I’ll assume she’s there, right.

Ben Hugosson:              Exactly, she’s the one keeping me in Sweden.

Misha Zelinsky:             Very good, very good.

Ben Hugosson:              I think that I would invite, who would I invite the last person, I don’t quite know at the moment, but it might be somebody from the film world.

Misha Zelinsky:             Oh, right.

Ben Hugosson:              I’ve got a keen interest in films. I really like film, it’s interesting what’s happening in the film world at the moment. We’ve got this massive serialization of films and maybe I’d invite one of the Marvel guys and then we talk about that. How they envisioned that going and how they have succeeded at doing that.

Misha Zelinsky:             A superhero, a politician, and your wife. You got all the important ones in there, right. But look, Ben, thanks so much for joining us. It’s been a pleasure having you here in Australia. Good luck in the upcoming elections in Sweden.

Ben Hugosson:              Yeah. Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure being here.