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(From left to right) Nathan Gardels, Nicolas Berggruen, and Trudy Rubin engaged in a discussion centered around Gardels and Berggruen's book, "Renovating Democracy."

Credit: Mira Shetty

Perry World House held an event on Wednesday evening with authors Nicolas Berggruen and Nathan Gardels in which they discussed the role of democracy in a world facing new social and political challenges.

Berggruen and Gardels are the co-founders of the Berggruen Institute, a think tank focused on politics and government, and published a book called "Renovating Democracy" last year. In a discussion moderated by Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin, Berggruen and Gardels explored how democracy could be adapted to deal with challenges of the 21st century. They touched on three possible solutions from their book: participation without populism, predistribution, and positive nationalism.

Penn President Amy Gutmann introduced the speakers, adding that it is important to address challenges of democracy. 

“The U.S. has the most robust society anywhere, but signs of decay everywhere,” she said. 

Berggruen and Gardels spent most of the event unpacking participation without populism, which they said is an approach for getting citizens more informed about and involved in politics while avoiding polarization. Gardels said this could take the form of "citizen assemblies" where people receive information from impartial professionals and then debate and come to a consensus. As an example of this, he cited the citizen assembly held in Ireland in 2017 over Ireland's eighth amendment, a part of their constitution which banned abortion.

Gardels argued that recent attempts to get citizens more involved in government without prior education do not always lead to good results, citing Brexit as a product of misinformed participation and populism. Gardels also criticized social media for spreading misinformation often labeled “fake news” or “alternative news.” 

Credit: Mira Shetty

Penn President Amy Gutmann introduced the event.

After discussing the need for civic education, the authors spoke about predistribution, which refers to the distribution of wealth prior to the accumulation of capital. Berggruen and Gardels said instead of paying taxes, companies would be required to set aside a percentage of the business for the public in the beginning; for instance, 20% of a company's shares could be set aside to belong to citizens, making everyone a beneficiary. The authors added that this predistribution could be targeted at Silicon Valley, expressing their belief that artificial intelligence companies in that area devalue human capital and labor.

Leslie Goldberg, an attendee who is unaffiliated with Penn but has frequented Perry World House events, described predistribution as a “novel concept” she would be open to exploring further. Goldberg said, however, that implementing such a system would be a slow process when considering economic and budgetary concerns. 

Berggruen and Gardels also presented the idea of positive nationalism, the idea that nationalistic ideas can be used to promote civic engagement and strengthen the "social contract." To adopt this concept and maintain democracy, Berggruen and Gardels argued, it is necessary to accept borders and “rational limitations” on immigration.

During a question and answer at the end of the event, attendees pressured Berggruen and Gardels to go deeper on the topic of positive nationalism, asking about the extent of immigration limits and whether limits could be maintained if climate change were to affect migration patterns.  In response, Gardels said balanced immigration is necessary for maintaining trust in government and pointed to the necessity of making a clear distinction between immigrants and refugees. 

College freshman Sarem Leghari said he felt the discussion was engaging but expressed regret at its short length. Leghari also noted that Gardels said at the beginning of the event that United States—China relations were a large part of the book, but they only made up a small part of the discussion. 

“It was really interesting," Leghari added. "If anything, I would want the event to go on longer because I feel like there were so many aspects of the book that were touched upon, but not discussed as much.”

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