The Good Fight
Albert Wu on Taiwan’s Past, Present and Future

Albert Wu on Taiwan’s Past, Present and Future

Yascha Mounk and Albert Wu discuss how historical divisions explain the outcome of the island’s recent elections.

Albert Wu is a Taiwanese historian and the author, with his wife Michelle Kuo, of the Substack newsletter A Broad and Ample Road.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Albert Wu discuss the electoral victory of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and what it portends for cross-strait relations; how the Kuomintang went from fighting the CCP in a bloody civil war to advocating closer ties with Beijing; and what Taiwan's history can teach us about different views on its future.

The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: We spoke a lot about Taiwan and its history when I was visiting the island last year, and so I really look forward to sharing some of your knowledge and wisdom about it. 

I do actually want to go through a little bit of Taiwan's history, but we're speaking a few days after an important election in Taiwan. For people who don't know anything about the island other than some headlines about “cross-strait tensions,” what just happened in the election, and what's the importance of that?

Albert Wu: The top-line news is that the Democratic Progressive Party (the DPP) won its historic third consecutive term. Prior to this—basically since 1996, when direct presidential elections were held—no party had held more than two terms. There was a sort of law in Taiwanese politics that every two terms there would be a shift in political party, so this is unprecedented.

But if you dig a little deeper, I think almost every single party won or can claim some sort of victory: the DPP won the presidency; the Kuomintang (the KMT), which is the main opposition party, became the largest party in parliament, with one more seat than the DPP. (The DPP had previously held the majority in parliament.) But the other big winner is this new party called the Taiwan People's Party (the TPP). With almost no party apparatus (they're a newly-formed party), they gained 25% of the votes in the presidential campaign. They didn't win anything, but they now become the kingmakers in parliament because they have eight members, and so anybody who wants to get some legislation passed will need to go to the TPP. This is sort of an unprecedented situation in parliament as well because Taiwan really doesn't have much experience with coalition governments, so everybody's asking, “How is this going to happen?”

Mounk: Tell us a little bit about the stakes here. The KMT is a party that always has been puzzling to me because it is, of course, the successor to the ruling party in mainland China until the Communist revolution. It fought a bloody civil war with the Communist Party into the 1940s and then became the governing party of Taiwan after fleeing to the island, which was sort of the last place that it was able to sustain itself without being crushed by the Communists.

But now, strangely, it is the KMT that is seen as being much more pro-Beijing, much more pro-CCP, and it is the DPP that is seen as being much more favorable towards Taiwanese independence. So tell us a little bit about the upshot of these elections for Taiwan's future and why it is that these parties have come to occupy this space.

Wu: If you read most headlines, they'll say “pro-independence party DPP wins this third consecutive term,” and in many senses that is correct: in some ways, the way to frame it is that voters were given a choice between more of a pro-US or a more pro-China foreign policy, and by giving the DPP a third consecutive term, one can say that the voters chose a pro-US-leaning, or more anti-China, policy. 

That is correct, to some extent, but I think that domestic policy issues sort of outweighed foreign policy issues this time: a lot of people were concerned about stagnant wages, or the perception of stagnant wages, high housing prices—bread-and-butter economic issues. But I think you're putting your finger right on the money in the sense that the DPP, once the underdog party (they were dissidents to an authoritarian regime led by the KMT; many of the founders of the DPP spent 10 years or more in jail), have transformed into the establishment party now that they're 12 years in power. A lot of them had sort of anti-colonial, anti-authoritarian, pro-democracy roots, and now they transformed into an establishment party. But the other big story is the transformation of the KMT itself. Like you said, this was a party that had almost forty years of authoritarian rule over the island. It was a single-party, Stalinist-style regime for much of those forty years. 

Mounk: So in 2000, the DPP wins the presidential election and the KMT is out in the opposition for the first time—how is it that, at that point, they came to have a rapprochement with their historical enemy, the CCP?

Wu: It's really a fascinating story. And I think historians are going to be writing about this for a long time. Like you said, in 2000, the KMT lost power for the first time. And for the first term—this was under President Chen Shui-bian and the DPP—the KMT’s idea was that they would wait it out. But in 2004, they lost again. And after that, I think the KMT came to the realization that something had shifted in the political landscape in Taiwan. And the moment after they lost in 2004, they started party-to-party talks with the CCP, and their whole idea was this framework that they were still part of “one China” but with different interpretations of what that one China is (rooted in the 1992 consensus that was sort of hashed out between the CCP and the KMT). The CCP essentially said, “If you don't buy into this 1992 consensus, we're not going to deal with you.” And, so, it was a way for the CCP to also cut the DPP out of the economic benefits that came from having deals with China. 

The other thing to remember is that, in 2004, there was a moment when everybody in the world still believed in this idea that, with more liberalization, China would become a good actor—sort of normalizing China into the global trade and political system. And it was only after Xi Jinping came to power that there was a shift, I think, in terms of how the global political sphere saw China as an actor on the global stage.

Mounk: It feels like we're peeling onions here, because to understand this election, you have to understand the history of the KMT, and to understand the history of the KMT, you have to understand the history of the Republic of Taiwan. 

So the KMT arrived on the island in the 1940s. Explain to us, first of all, the conflict over whether or not Taiwan is simply a part of mainland China, but geographically distinct as an island (that is, culturally and linguistically a natural part of China) or whether it is, in fact, more significantly distinct; and the policies that the KMT implemented in Taiwan when they arrived and why it is that those policies were not as authoritarian but quite brutal towards the pre-existing local population, including both some native Taiwanese people but also Han Chinese people who have been living on the island for many centuries.

Wu: One way to think about Taiwanese history is that there's successive regimes of colonization ever since the 1600s. There's a period of Dutch colonization, there's a brief period of Spanish colonization. But the massive wave of Han Chinese migrants come in the wake of the end of the Ming Dynasty. So the Qing Dynasty is formed in 1644, and these are sort of Manchu invaders who come and establish the Qing Dynasty, and the loyalists to the previous dynasty essentially establish a base in Taiwan. Then the Qing comes and basically kicks out those Ming loyalists and establishes control over part of the island—they never control all of the island. But you can say that the Qing has control of Taiwan all the way up until 1895, when it loses a major battle to the Japanese.

Mounk: So for those 200 to 250 years, Taiwan sort of looks like a geographically outlying but integral part of the Qing Dynasty. But then we come to 1895—what happens then?

Wu: This is when Japan is also embarking on its path of modernization. In the 1840s and ‘50s, Japan, like China, had come into contact with European and American imperialism, which basically forced open both China and Japan. Japan modernizes very quickly, and China's also modernizing, but they get into a war and Japan defeats the Qing Empire. And as part of the deal to end the war, Taiwan is given over to Japan as a colony. And from 1895 onwards, Japan begins this process of integrating Taiwan into the Japanese Empire.

Taiwan becomes sort of a model colony for Japan. So it builds railways (there were railways already built by the Qing, but it continues to build them). There's a lot of really valuable forests in Taiwan, so it develops the lumber industry in Taiwan. But it also creates universities and all these different sorts of things. And it gives Taiwanese people a pathway to sort of rise through the ranks and go study in Japan and then come back. So there's a level of integration of Taiwan into the Japanese empire. And there are also some very brutal conflicts between the Japanese imperialists and indigenous populations. They treated the Han population better than the indigenous populations. During the Japanese period, they went into the mountains, and there was this really intense conflict between the Japanese colonial government and indigenous populations.

Mounk: One of the things that I found fascinating to learn when I was in Taiwan was about this period of Japanese domination of the island. And I wanted to understand something in particular, which is that a lot of the people I spoke to had a surprisingly positive view of Japanese colonialism on the island. And certainly, if you go to Korea, I think it would be incredibly hard to find anybody who would have anything positive to say about the period of Japanese dominance and colonialism in the Korean peninsula. But in Taiwan, it was perfectly common: I spoke to Uber drivers and other people who would spontaneously talk about how there were positive aspects to the Japanese dominance of Taiwan.

I find it very striking. It's hard for me to find parallels of such fond memories for colonialism in other places of the world where I've spoken to people about it.

Wu: Yeah, absolutely. It's a really mixed, ambiguous feeling. I think part of it was Japanese colonial policy, which is that Japan, like European empires, adopted a sort of racial ladder or hierarchy. And Taiwanese were ranked higher than Koreans, who were treated much more brutally than Taiwanese. I think it also had to do with the fact that Japan really did develop Taiwan in terms of its infrastructure: a lot of the train stations are all from the Japanese period; one still very popular railroad goes up through the mountains. Those were developed by the Japanese. 

One of the reasons why there's nostalgia among a certain type in Taiwan is that the first sort of democratic institutions in Taiwan can be dated to the 1920s, when there was a brief moment of what was called Taisho Democracy in Japan, where political parties were allowed to form. And the first sort of Taiwanese political parties and political institutions were formed in that moment. What's ironic, though, is that most of these parties formed in the 1920s and ‘30s considered themselves as sort of Chinese, in opposition to the Japanese. But I think the real reason why there was nostalgia is because of the regime that came after. 

Mounk: So the Kuomintang lose the Civil War on the mainland of China, they find refuge on the island of Taiwan, where they go to, in many cases, literally escape death at the hands of the victorious Communists. And they proceed to want to turn the island of Taiwan into the republic that they've just lost on the mainland. 

But they face, I suppose, two problems. The first is an indigenous population that they see as not being Han Chinese, as being somehow a threat or, in their mind, inferior. Secondly, they face the problem of this Japanese influence that has ruled the island for, at that point, a little over 50 years. And so that, I think, helps to explain why it is that the Kuomintang, even though they’re co-ethnics of most of the people who live in Taiwan by 1948, act in some ways as conquerors, and perhaps some people might argue, as kind of imperial oppressors. So tell us about what those early years and decades of the Kuomintang regime in Taiwan look like. 

Wu: So in 1945 when Japan loses the war, the Allies turn over Taiwan to the KMT. Previously it was part of the Qing Dynasty, but the Qing dynasty had dissolved by 1911. But in 1945, because of the 50 years of Japanese colonization, the locals welcome the KMT like victors: there are photos of people waving the KMT flag. They were celebrated because of this 50 years of what they perceived as oppression by the Japanese. But pretty quickly, because of the continuing Civil War between the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese Nationalists, or the KMT, the situation on the island got really bad. There was really bad inflation, there were public safety problems. And in 1947, there was an uprising in Taiwan, sparked by a woman who was selling cigarettes on the street (there was a monopoly on cigarettes and tobacco and alcohol). A policeman sort of hit the woman and an angry crowd basically rose up, and there was an uprising all around the island, and the KMT called in its troops and squashed the uprising. This is an infamous moment in Taiwanese history. And in the process, they basically used the opportunity to get rid of a lot of the local elites that had been trained under the Japanese period, but also went on a purge of suspected leftists. We're talking about tens of thousands of people who were just executed or killed. And this is in the moment as the Civil War between the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese Nationalists was really heating up. The KMT established martial law, and that martial law essentially would last all the way until 1987. This was even before the entire retreat: so in 1949, when they lost the Civil War in China, more than 2 million people flooded into Taiwan as refugees from China. So in 1947, there was already this assault on the legitimacy of the KMT itself, and then you have this influx of all of these people from all over China, speaking different dialects, because of the loss on the mainland. 

Part of what explains this authoritarian turn by the KMT is because they were a minoritarian force trying to govern, first of all, all these different people who are flooding into the island, not knowing whether people are friend or foe. But also you have this local population that already had distrust towards this government. And so in the 1950s and ‘60s, the KMT has this incredibly repressive regime.

Mounk: I want to go deeper into some of the cultural and social history here, which I find fascinating, but just to establish the basis of the geopolitical setup that we're continuing to deal with today: in 1945, Taiwan is handed over to what is then the Chinese government and so the KMT come to be in charge. They then lose the Civil War against the Communist Party in 1949 on the mainland.

Why is it that the Communist Party at that point doesn't try to take over the island of Taiwan? We are at the end of the Civil War, the communists are victorious in every part of China. Why is it that it is not victorious in Taiwan and how does that lead to this strange split in which both the Communist Party and the Kuomintang both claim to be the legitimate governance of all of China? Why is it that the Communists don't try to conquer the island at the end of the Civil War, and how does that set up Taiwan's strange international status for the decades that follow?

Wu: In the ‘50s, there are several attempts, there are famous artillery battles. But the real reason is because of the solidification of the Cold War and the way that the Korean War goes, which is basically the Chinese Communist Party sending troops across the Yalu River and diverting a lot of their troops to help with that situation. Essentially, they're sort of split and unable to take Taiwan. And it really is because of the intervention of the US in the Korean War and the threats by General MacArthur to use  nuclear bombs. Harry Truman says, “No, we can't use we can't use nukes in this situation.” But it's because of the way that the Korean War goes, and that there's a split between North Korea and South Korea, that becomes sort of a model where the US says, “Okay, well, there's sort of a split situation on the Korean Peninsula, then there may also be this free China on Taiwan, and that becomes sort of an acceptable situation. Throughout that period, the representative for China in the United Nations is the Republic of China on Taiwan, and they get full backing from the US. It really isn’t until the 1970s that the PRC enters into the UN and Chiang Kai-shek withdraws from it.

Mounk: So all roads lead back to the as of recently late Henry Kissinger, which is to say that it is with “ping-pong diplomacy,” and Nixon going to China, that the US agrees to allow the CCP to represent China in the United Nations. And that is when the international status of the Taiwanese government becomes much more precarious, right?

Wu: Exactly. But it takes until 1979 for the US to switch, and it's really under Carter that the direct relationship with Taiwan is formally ended. But then there's this sort of Taiwan Defense Act that they form as a compromise afterwards, which is sort of our current setup, where the US is still providing a lot of military aid, but there's no actual defense agreement or treaty with Taiwan.

Mounk: For people who are confused: in the simplest possible terms, what is Taiwan's international status right now?

Wu: It is considered a self-governing island. It has, I think, 13 countries that formally recognize it, with whom it has a diplomatic relationship. But we just lost one. It's excluded from all international organizations like the United Nations, the WHO. It is in the World Trade Organization, though, so it has all of these sorts of informal links. But most countries in the world do not recognize Taiwanese sovereignty and consider it as part of the one China principle. How they understand that is very ambiguous.

Mounk: And the ambiguity here is sort of part of the point, right? Then we come to discussions about the different visions for the future of Taiwan within the island today. 

Help us to explain the difference between the KMT and the DPP, because on the kind of slightly caricatural reading, it might sound as though the KMT these days is effectively on the side of some form of reunification or are open to the CCP having some amount of control over Taiwan, and the DPP just wants to declare independence and be a completely independent country. My understanding is that the actual debate is rather more subtle than that: both political parties, in some ways, are saying that while Taiwan is de facto self-governing, that there's no need for some kind of formal declaration of independence, which is seen as very likely to provoke military retaliation from the CCP and Beijing. 

What actually is the debate about the option set for the Taiwanese government going forward, and how does that play into these broader social divisions? 

Wu: I think the central claim is still sort of a question of “Do we represent China?” For the KMT, its long-standing position is that they are still China, they're the Republic of China, and that they speak for all Chinese people. The dream during the Chiang Kai-shek era was that they would one day reclaim the mainland: they had basically been usurped by the Chinese Communist Party and that, one day, they would reclaim the mainland and be the rightful representatives of all of China. 

The KMT has changed over the years. But there's still ultimately this claim that the KMT has towards sort of representing all of China. The difference here is that the DPP, which started as this opposition to the KMT and from the 1970s and ‘80s was starting to define itself as something different from China, has an identity rooted in the island itself rather than some form of Chineseness that represented all of the Chinese people. And so the DPP’s ultimate goal is this idea of Taiwanese independence, that Taiwan is an independent country separate from China. And that actually corresponds more to the reality of the situation on the ground: that Taiwan is a de facto separate, independent country from China. It has its own president, its own parliament. It has free and fair elections, a set of institutions, so on and so forth, that are separate from China. But none of those institutions are recognized by international organizations. Those are the two major differences.

Mounk: The basic puzzle of Taiwan's history since 1945 to me is how you have the Kuomintang come in during a bloody and extremely violent civil war with the CCP, and yet, over time, come to be the domestic political force in Taiwan that seems to be closest to the CCP: as we left off earlier, the story of what happens once the DPP is able to challenge martial law and the dictatorship of the KMT and force real elections in the 1990s, actually winning and capturing the presidency in 2000.

There’s something that perhaps is informed by how I think about Hegel, which is the old idea of the thesis, the antithesis, and the synthesis, which is always a little bit abstract and unclear, but I think has some amount of obvious utility here. If the CCP is the thesis and the Kuomintang is the antithesis, and there are important dimensions on which they oppose each other, but to oppose each other that cleanly, they actually have to have some shared background assumptions: the background assumptions here are that the mainland and the island of Taiwan are part of one natural, cultural and geopolitical entity, and that they should be ruled together. And of course, there are some striking cultural similarities between the CCP and the Kuomintang. One of the things I was struck by when I went to the Chiang Kai-shek memorial in Taipei is that it looks rather strikingly like the “Maosoleum,” the shrine to Mao in the center of Beijing. So they are political forces that are shaped at a similar time, that are authoritarian, that actually share a good number of proto-cultural attitudes as well. And so even as they have this profound disagreement about who should rule Greater China, they actually share a conception of what China is and even some of those broader ideas. 

And then the DPP has historically, as I understand it, often been the political representation and the voice for people who had been on the island before 1945, and has its stronghold among the people whose history on Taiwan goes back much further. One of the things I was struck by when I was in Taiwan is a few middle-aged people, sometimes older people, referring to the fact that they were in “mixed marriages.” And I thought, “What do you mean by that?” I didn't know what they meant in Taiwan, but they clarified that it meant that one of the parents had ancestors who have been on the island for centuries, and one of the parents had arrived in the 1940s. That, to them, was a mixed marriage. 

I know you have some amount of sympathy for that side. What is the case for Taiwan being, in some sense, an independent nation? Why should we think of Taiwan—as a place that was ruled for centuries by the Qing Dynasty, that is majority Han Chinese, whose language, while there’s a local dialect that is spoken by many people, is effectively Putonghua, or the Taiwanese dialect of it, is not more dissimilar than various regional dialects within the mainland is to Putonghua—as not just a place that doesn’t want to be ruled by the CCP, but as being more significantly independent?

Wu: I come from one of these mixed marriages. My mother's side came in 1949. My grandfather was a soldier for the KMT. And I think the KMT argument is exactly like you said: Taiwan has traditionally been part of this larger political entity, which is China, and with it comes a whole host of cultural legacies—a connection to so-called 5,000 years of history, to this literary culture, connection to all of these different ideas, ideas about respect for your parents and respect for all of these more broadly Confucian ideas, but also all of these different cultural institutions that we associate with China. And I think, on the DPP side, it is rooted in this decolonial or anti-colonial framework, which is that Taiwan's history has been that of successive waves of colonization, and that, however we define “indigenous,” the people who live on the island have never been fully in charge of their own destiny. 

One of the big claims of the pro-independence faction today is that even in the international sphere, China is always blocking all of its attempts to add more political recognition. But I think, at the heart of it, from the ‘80s onwards, the DPP’s roots really were in this dream of democracy: getting rid of all of the apparatuses of martial law, more freedom of speech, protection for individual rights, these liberal ideals. But there was a certain faction of the DPP, also, that was very much committed to the ideals of social democracy and collective action. So it really just wanted to have everybody's vote counted. And I think that is connected to the independence issue. But I think those are sort of at the core of the DPP. Even in this election cycle, you would hear the TPP basically saying we're on the path to democracy, that Taiwan's path towards democracy has not been finished, but that the DPP has always been a defender or a proponent of democracy, and that it's continuing on this path. 

Mounk: What do you make of concerns that some people have—some in bad faith, some, I think, in good faith—that the victory of the DPP may increase the likelihood of the Communist Party trying to finally bring Taiwan under its control? 

The theory, as I understand it, broadly goes that the government in Beijing can live with a government in Taiwan that has come to have respectful relations with it. It regards the KMT as a known entity, they can work with each other, and that might delay any decision by Xi Jinping to bring the island of Taiwan under his control, as he has indicated he would like to do as part of his legacy. But, on the other hand, if the government of Taiwan is more independence-minded, and comes from a political movement that has in the last decades been less friendly to Beijing, China may come to feel that it is about to lose the island of Taiwan definitively, as perhaps Vladimir Putin came to fear about Ukraine, and that may precipitate an assault on the island, whether that's an actual invasion, or, as perhaps is more likely, some form of naval blockade. Do you think there's some validity to those fears, or is that misunderstanding the situation?

Wu: I think it would be foolish not to put some weight on that. I think there's absolutely a possibility. And as you've shown in your work, oftentimes when dictators say something they tend to mean it. They tend to be quite serious. On the one hand, I think Xi Jinping is serious about his desire to reunify Taiwan with China. And it would be seriously foolish not to take that threat seriously. And they've also backed it up with real action. It's not just talk. They do regular missile tests. They also have intervened in this current election and past elections, too. In this election, the amount of disinformation and interference has been off the charts. 

But, to be honest, the third victory for the DPP, and public opinion polls for the past 10 or 20 years, show an ongoing trend that people in Taiwan do not consider themselves part of China. And for a brief moment, there was even this dream of a peaceful unification with China, particularly from the years of 2008 to 2016, when Ma Ying-jeou was president. The KMT was in power at the time, and there were real talks of some sort of federal solution. I think that ship has sailed, at least within the current landscape of politics. And I think the reason why the KMT still continues to lose at the national level, is because they haven't totally understood how this sort of pro-China idea is really out of line with mainstream public opinion. 

I think the risk is definitely there. And so it is going to be a big question for the DPP, and allies like the US and Japan, how to manage that risk going forward. 

Mounk: I have a more personal question to end the podcast with. I think one of the things that it's difficult for people to understand when we talk about countries that have the unfortunate fate in history of being close to superpowers that aren't necessarily friendly to them is that they come to be abstractions. I think, to a lot of people, Ukrainians are abstractions, and it's easy to think, “Well, if it avoids the risk of some international conflict, perhaps we should just hand over Ukraine to Russia,” without really thinking about the people who are there. 

The time I was able to spend in Taiwan last year has made me incredibly fond of the place and its people. And I just wonder whether you can try—and I know this is an impossible ask—to give some sense of the nature and the flavor of Taiwan. What is the place like and how is it similar and different to mainland China? What is special about it? Tell us something just to bring this wonderful place to life for us.

Wu: What I've been really moved by the past couple of days is how democratic culture really has come to take root here. On Saturday, we went to the polls with my wife and her parents and, like many families, there are generational divides in Taiwan but also political disagreements. We've long had political disagreements, and we’ve talked about them. But on Saturday, we all went to the polls together. And the polling station was a five minute walk from us. We took our little daughter with us. 

In this election, 70% of people turned out, which is actually considered low for Taiwan. Normally it's between 75 and 80 to 85%. But 70% turned out. And when we got to the polls, there were multigenerational families, people pushing their elderly parents or grandparents. I'm sure many of them disagreed. But they just went to the polls. And many of those people had lived for forty years without ever having the chance to vote for their own president. There are always local elections, but people really take this privilege of being able to choose their elected leader seriously, and it was orderly: people were just lining up. When I was growing up, election day was really just a chaotic mess, people were still campaigning outside. I sort of missed that personally. But everybody got the day off. And afterwards, in Taiwan, eating is very important. So we strolled to this hotel and had a really delicious and wonderful meal. And even though we disagreed politically, we sat down and ate and talked about the future of our country and our hopes and dreams and desires for the country. And even though we know we've had some disagreements, we cherished that moment of voting together and being together. 

Coming out of the ‘70s and ‘80s, when there was a lot of ballot stuffing during the authoritarian era, vote counting is now completely transparent. And what they do is they open up the voting booths, and everybody can go and observe. And people will just open up the ballots and count them out, and so we went and watched the count. The polls closed at 4, and, by 7:30, all the votes were counted. By 9:30, we had a new president, and there was just this wonderful victory rally and all this confetti. And what really moved me is that by the end of the victory rally, everybody stayed behind and picked up confetti: they wanted to keep the streets clean, they picked up confetti, they stacked all the chairs. And the next day, it was as if nothing happened. It was just part of the normalcy of everyday life. 

My grandfather never in his life was able to vote for his own president. My grandmother died before the transition to a fully democratic country. And I think everybody, at least in my parents' generation, and in my generation, knows that. And I think that love for democracy is sort of baked into the current landscape.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly made reference to Portuguese colonization. The settlement was Spanish.

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The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.