Former President Jimmy Carter told a packed audience at the Winship Ballroom yesterday afternoon that democracy in the United States has gone downhill due to the deterioration of American moral standards.
Carter delivered his speech, titled “The Expansion of Democracy,” to approximately 200 students, faculty and visitors. Carter discussed his thoughts on current American politics, recounted experiences abroad and answered questions on human rights policy. Emory’s Institute for Developing Nations (IDN) sponsored the event.
Carter, an Emory University distinguished professor, visits Emory about once a month to give speeches and meet with students and professors.
“The United States has fallen from its former state as a shining example of democracy,” Carter said. “We now have a democracy that should make [not] American proud.”
The speech focused on the Carter Center’s Democracy Program as well as Carter’s work with democratic election processes. This includes observing elections abroad as well as some of the problems with elections in the United States.
“Democracy and human rights go hand-in-hand,” Carter said. “This was a personal theory of mine when I became President. Democracy is the inevitable result of bringing in respect for human rights.”
Carter discussed the deterioration of American democracy in the past 25 years. He referenced multiple violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the United States played a role in creating after World War II in the Geneva Convention.
According to Carter, the downfall of American democracy was a large problem throughout the 20th century when there were copious military dictatorships in South America. Carter said the United States supported these dictatorships and put down any movement to overthrow the dictators.
“The United States professed to be the leading democracy in this hemisphere, but there we were in South America defending dictatorships,” Carter said. “We were in bed with these dictators.”
According to Carter, the weakening of American democracy today is a result of pouring excessive amounts of money into elections.
Carter cited the Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which enabled independent corporations to give anonymous donations to candidates, as a cause for the influx of election funding.
“The Supreme Court made one of the most stupid decisions it had ever made, and that was the Citizens United case,” Carter said. “This was a tragedy for our nation, and I do not think that it can be changed until the Supreme Court overturns its ruling.”
According to Carter, the need to raise massive amounts of campaign funds has led to a movement away from fair elections and a lack of confidence in American political leaders. He said that the funds are primarily used for negative advertisements. The ads, according to Carter, continuously air and permeate into individuals’ minds until “they do not believe any candidate is capable of running our country.”
Carter also cited gerrymandering, or the realignment of voting districts based off of desired election results, as a cause for the decline of democracy in the United States. He said that gerrymandering causes more radical candidates to represent the political parties.
In his speech, Carter appealed to the audience to challenge the problems associated with U.S. elections.
“Write editorials in papers, send letters to your congressman, get on “[The Daily Show with] Jon Stewart” every now and again like I do,” Carter said. “I’ll take care of overseas and leave the United States to you.”
The speech also included descriptions of Carter’s work in election-monitoring abroad. Election monitoring includes ensuring that voter lists have every candidate’s name printed, obstructing any attempt at intimidation tactics, tabulating the votes correctly and guaranteeing that the winners and losers accept the results properly.
Carter described trips to Nepal, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Kenya and Panama, all of which had met the high standards that the Carter Center requires before agreeing to help with the nations’ elections, he said. The standards include things such as ensuring that each name is on the ballot, or allowing every candidate media coverage.
Sita Ranchod-Nilsson, director of the IDN, said she thought the speech would be an important one to sponsor after witnessing many of Carter’s presentations at the Carter Center.
“This is a really challenging period for human rights, both in terms of the way in which they are being eroded in this country and around the world in the name of the war on terror,” Ranchod-Nilsson said. “I know that [Carter] has strong views on that, and I wanted him to come here and catalyze a discussion on these important issues.”
Ranchod-Nilsson said that she was satisfied with the event’s turnout, noting that “Carter always brings in a full house.”
The audience was extremely responsive. They laughed and the numerous jokes Carter made and fought to read the questions they had prepared.
“What a thrill,” said Amanda Lord, 48, who was visiting Emory from Wilton, Conn. “Just to be able to sit in a room with people and hear Carter’s perspective and have him share his experiences while in the White House and his post-presidency, it was just such a thrill.”
Chris Gallegos, a 62-year-old Emory parent, also said she was extremely impressed with Carter’s work and opinions.
“I wish he was our President now,” Gallegos said. “I wish our leaders would look at the world from a humanitarian perspective. It’s not always a popular view today. I’m so tired of all the negativity.”
Her daughter Mia Gallegos, a recent graduate of the Master’s in Development Practice at the Laney Graduate School, added that Carter was “a representation of all that is good and true in the world.”
Carla Roncoli, the associate director of the Master’s in Development Practice, said the talk displayed the importance she places on human rights. According to Roncoli, Carter’s work shows how interconnected the world is.
“It is clear that what happens in the United States affects what happens globally and what happens globally implicates what is happening locally,” Roncoli said. “We cannot ignore what is happening, even in the most remote parts of the world. Even if we never go there or meet anyone from there, it still affects us.”
It is the next generation of Americans’ job, Carter said, to help expand democracy through the application of human rights throughout the world.
“It’s got to be the young people to stick their necks out and say this is what America ought to be,” Carter said.
— By Wendy Becker