For this month’s Professor Spotlight feature, we talked to Mr. Jakub Lepš. Mr. Lepš is a true polymath: a politician, editorial director and manager (internet news, media monitoring), an experienced analyst (U.S. politics, U.S. foreign policy, U.S.-Chinese relations, modern China), and a UNYP lecturer. Mr. Lepš kindly agreed to give us some time from his busy schedule to talk about his career, his views on democracy in the Czech Republic, and a brief overview of the current presidential elections in the United States of America.
I’m an “Amerikanista” – the Czech word for an American studies specialist. How does one become an American studies specialist? In my case, it was easy; I studied at the Department of American Studies at Charles University. Some people have the misconception that an “Amerikanista” is a person who loves everything about the United States. Of course, I like many things about the United States, but my job is to analyze it from various perspectives: history, politics, economics, international relations, sociology, and culture. So I studied political science at Central European University and American studies here in Prague. For a year, I was a Fulbright scholar in the United States, and at that time, I was mostly focused on American foreign policy. My specialty was American foreign policy towards China, a topic that I taught at Charles University for fifteen years. I started teaching at UNYP back in 2008 when I was asked to launch a course on China. Later in 2011, I was asked to teach about globalization as well, so I’ve been teaching regularly at UNYP for almost ten years. Later, I also “inherited” the American Government and Politics course from a colleague who left the country for career reasons. I love teaching that particular course because American politics is exciting to me, and it is important to understand the structure of the system of American government.
When Donald Trump became president, it was a perfect opportunity to explain some phenomena about how the American government works, in particular the balance of power between the executive branch (represented by the president) and the judicial and legislative branches. Some people may have heard about what is called “executive orders”: these occur when the president wants something to be done, such as establishing a new department or deciding not to allow citizens of a certain country into the United States.
Getting this through the House and the Senate would be a very long-term process, and by the time the president signs it into law, the language might be significantly different. The president can issue an executive order, but that executive order must be in line with the Constitution. Donald Trump has several times issued executive orders, in line with the thinking that the U.S. president is the most powerful person in the world, but the Supreme Court would say, “Sorry, Mr. President, this is not constitutional,” and his executive order was nullified.
Could you please tell us about your political career in the Czech Republic?
For quite some time, it never occurred to me that I would enter any level of politics. I started publicly commenting on American politics in about 2000, so I’ve been commenting on politicians for about twenty years, both on foreign policy and domestic politics. It was one thing for me to teach about it at the university, but it never occurred to me that I would participate myself. I had the same idea that a lot of people have – politics is a dirty business – but over time, I concluded that it is like that because the people who have the potential to change it never actually consider joining it. The most capable people think, “Let me stay in business, let me stay in the academia, let me stay in the media, I won’t have to make difficult compromises, nobody can ever accuse me of corruption, let’s leave politics to the politicians.” But then you start thinking, who are actually politicians? It’s not like medical doctors who study for many years in a medical school, and are then pre-destined to follow that path. Political science departments prepare political scientists, not politicians, Master of Public Administration courses primarily prepare future bureaucrats – and at least in the Czech Republic, there’s no school which would specifically prepare politicians. Instead, people with some education and work experience need to enter the world of politics, to learn how it functions and attempt to move it in the right direction.
I joined a political party in 2010 and became a local council deputy in a small Prague district. Two years later, I moved back to the larger district of Prague 11, where I grew up, and where I now live again. For the last six years, I’ve been a deputy mayor in this district with 80,000 inhabitants. My experience is that politics is about compromises. You actually can do politics honestly, at least in a democratic country such as the Czech Republic. Of course, I’m not speaking about countries with dictatorships!
How do you view politics in the “post-truth” society?
Local and national politicians alike feel the effects of the post-truth situation. Fake news is the same locally as on the national level, and it’s something I do not have a good solution for. I think it’s a major problem, especially in light of this presidential election. In the context of politics, people argue over the interpretation of facts nowadays – you can dispute anything. Donald Trump disputes facts that can be proven, and it’s similar on the local level. It’s really difficult, especially on social media, because many voters do not have the ability to fact check.
In your opinion, what is the future of democracy?
I think we have to accept that democracy is an endless fight. You can never get even close to a 100% ideal situation. We will never have enough good politicians, good media, or responsible social media users, but the situation has always been like this. We all need to do the best we can: I can do my part here as a Czech local politician, teaching university students about how democracy works. I also comment on U.S. politics for Czech television (CT24 channel and Nova) and the Slovak news, Czech radio, and I sometimes write articles and essays, hopefully helping here and there to bring about some positive change within my abilities.
What are your views on this election in the United States?
It’s a critical moment for the United States. It illustrates what a divisive figure Trump has been – voters either love him or hate him. I do not think that voters in a democratic country should harbor such strong feelings toward the president. There’s much work to be done in this respect; every election, somebody calls for unity – I remember Barack Obama doing it – but it didn’t happen. The country is polarized, but there are deeper reasons for that. In my opinion, Donald Trump is a product of this decades-old division and that’s the first message of this election.
There is a lot of emotion, but at the same time, I am convinced that the system is very stable; the U.S. legal and constitutional system can deal with nearly any kind of situation. I’m sure the country will manage it, as it has managed many crises before. Sometimes it’s slow and embarrassing – for example, it took 100 years after the Civil War for segregation to be actually at least nominally struck down, but the United States did the right thing in the end. If Joe Biden wins, I don’t believe that we will see as much change as his supporters hope. Of course, a great deal hangs on who controls the Senate. Still, the outcome of this election is important, and sooner or later we will know the results.
Please follow the links to watch the latest TV interviews with Jakub Lepš: