CEU Democracy Institute's Perspectives on Democracy Hosts Eleni Kounalakis With Michael Ignatieff

On June 14th CEU Democracy Institute and its online journal, the Review of Democracy hosted a conversation between Eleni Kounalakis, Lieutenant Governor of California, and Michael Ignatieff, Rector and President of CEU.

Eleni Kounalakis is the first woman to serve this important public office in California. Appointed by former President Barack Obama, she served as US Ambassador to Hungary between 2010 and 2013 working with domestic and foreign Hungarian politics.

Watch the conversation:


Lieutenant Governor Kounalakis opened the conversation by listing important facts and data about California to set a comparator against which to address current conditions of democracy in Hungary. California is certainly not average when it comes to size and performance: it is the biggest economy within the US and one of the biggest economies in the world; it also has a deep tradition of democratic institutions. Indeed, the state registered a high turnout in the last elections, with 80% of the population casting a ballot and 65.5% of votes favoring Joe Biden, who became the first President to get more than ten million votes in one single state.

Importantly, the state hosts a great number of foreign-born citizens – 27% of the whole population – as well as many people with at least one foreign-born parent. The Lieutenant Governor defines California as a “minority-majority state”, that is a state where no single ethnic group has a majority. “Whether it was planned or not, we have exercised this formula,” Eleni Kounalakis said, “whereby we have quite a bit of immigration and intensive investments in education."

Indeed, the state currently has three million students enrolled in public higher education, almost half of them being the first in their families to attend college. These two elements, namely the combination of immigration and education, is what the Lieutenant Governor considers the winning recipe that made California a great, sustainable democracy.

The first question posed by Michael Ignatieff took inspiration from this introduction, remarking that the different approach Hungary has in relation to immigration and wondering about possible explanations for it. Diversity in California is an enormous source of strength and economic creativity which draw many people from all over the world. This is a huge difference with some countries in Central Eastern Europe, which have made maintenance of national identity as prior to the character of democracy.

The reflection by Eleni Kounalakis about WWII and how absurd it is to have people killed by other people belonging, in principle, to the same society, conveys a message which is not to be forgotten: diversity is strength – and this is why it becomes crucial to acknowledge the efficacy of the “California model”. However, it is also important to recognize the huge role that history played in people’s representation of reality, for a traumatic past – such as in the case of Central Eastern Europe – may make people fearful of diversity. The point, according to Lieutenant Governor, is that history should not keep us from imagining other ways of living together, and we should let us all be inspired by a state where “immigration plus education” led to economic success and a very open society.

The recipe sounds strongly palatable, yet it might not be easy to manage democracy within a minority-majority society, Michael Ignatieff pointed out. He wondered for instance, how it is possible to hold the complex  L.A. community together,, especially when considering that a provocation – such as police’s actions against one or the other community – can seriously jeopardize that fragile equilibrium.

As Eleni Kounalakis recalled, the African-American community has suffered particularly from “the level of inequity and institutionalized racism,” much has still to be done, especially in terms of income inequality. But the state has changed considerably in the last decades: diversity has begun to permeate society at all levels, including public offices which were previously an exclusive prerogative of white men. Recent transformations in the name of immigration and education, as Eleni Kounalakis argued, have strengthened California’s democracy and should inspire other countries. As she said, the most important questions are: “Do the people feel that democracy is delivering for them? Do they feel that it’s fair?”

Speaking of minorities, Michael Ignatieff noticed that Trump voters may not fare well in California, and domination of a single party over a long time may engender discontent with democracy. This situation is similar, to some extent, to what happens in Hungary with the political and legal monopoly of Fidesz, the governing party. However, according to the Lieutenant Governor, the crucial variable consists of the different levels of plurality characterizing the two countries: it is extremely important to give voice to different groups’ needs while accepting the will of the majority at the same time. A responsible governor will work 24/7 to listen to people’s different issues, but he/she will not jeopardize unity.

Furthermore, a functioning democracy needs a healthy relationship with social media, which not only implies the participation of civil society but the protection of its privacy, as suggested by CEU Rector. California is the birthplace of the fourth industrial revolution (no question about that, said Eleni Kounalakis), with an overabundance of power in the hand of tech companies, but it also has a very strong civil society that values privacy issues and has mobilized in favor of stricter rules. Indeed, California is moving towards a regulation which could be closer to the European GDPR than in any states in America, and the civil society has to be fully credited for it.

The conversation ended on a key note about the emerging power of China and the threats it might represent according to some commentators. Such a fear haunts many leaders and unchains protectionist feelings, a desire to re-nationalize production and even the need to protect citizens from any potential threat to democracy and the economy. Eleni Kounalakis, aware of how broad a topic it is, focused on the specific case of the Hungarian accreditation of a Chinese university, and of forcing CEU out of the country, which she called a staggering comparison.

“There are some really serious issues between the United States and China right now, between our NATO allies and China right now, and that is probably the single most important and most consequential foreign policy issue facing the United States and our allies in the world,” she said, asking what it means to Hungarians that Prime Minister “Viktor Orban drove out CEU and is courting a Chinese university.” Can we say that the Hungarian government has been taking decisions to benefit its people? The Lieutenant Governor believes that Hungarian people are really gifted and talented, and they should carefully reflect on the alliances they are going to make. She wishes that, in spite of past mistakes from both sides, “Hungarian people will choose to ally themselves with the West”.

Eleni Kounalakis also recalled that as an ambassador her orders were to “always engage with the Hungarian people and the Hungarian government as a friend and as an ally,” but it was also their responsibility to raise concerns when they saw “domestic policies that could undermine the fabric of Hungarian democracy.” “The American defense of higher education overseas is a crucial element of what America needs to be doing, and when America is absent, the local bad guys start giving us a hard time,” Michael Ignatieff concluded.

Article by Giancarlo Grignaschi

The CEU Democracy Institute strives to enable the renewal and strengthening of democratic and open societies through world-class research, collaboration across academic and professional disciplines, the free exchange of ideas, and public engagement on a local, regional, and global scale. The Institute is based at Central European University’s campus in Budapest, Hungary. Learn more: democracyinstitute.ceu.edu