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Home » How To Spot Authoritarianism — And Choose Democracy: Ian Bassin (Transcript)

How To Spot Authoritarianism — And Choose Democracy: Ian Bassin (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of lawyer and writer Ian Bassin’s talk titled “How To Spot Authoritarianism — And Choose Democracy” at TED 2024 conference.

Listen to the audio version here:


A Mysterious Package on Inauguration Eve

So at a different time of day, late on the night before the American presidential inauguration 2009, I received an urgent message to go pick up a package at a random address in Washington, DC. I was wearing a tuxedo. I was at the inaugural ball.

The next day, I was supposed to enter the White House as a lawyer for the new president, but I slipped out of the ball and I ran in the rain to the designated address where the doorman of the building handed me a plastic grocery bag bursting at the seams with three thick binders.

My name was written on a Post-it note stuck to the back. “Jason Bourne,” it said. But I was supposed to bring the binders with me into the White House the next day. For the next three years in my service in the White House counsel’s office, those binders would become my Bible. They had been left for me by a lawyer from a previous White House, and they contained in them memos dating to the Eisenhower era that White House chiefs of staff and counsel had sent to executive branch officials, explaining what they could do and what they were not allowed to do in the performance of their duties.

The Importance of White House Norms

And if White House staff had questions about those things, I’d just consult the binders, and if they didn’t contain the answer, I’d call the lawyer who did my job for President Bush, and if he didn’t know, we’d call the lawyer who did it for President Clinton. It didn’t matter whether you were working for a Democrat or a Republican. The rules were consistent from administration to administration. And you learn quickly in doing this work that most of those rules are not legally binding. They’re just traditions, customs, what we’ve all come to call norms.

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