Too Much Democracy

Fareed Zakaria in conversation with Łukasz Pawłowski · 9 August 2016
“That is the problem of too much democracy – when it turns into a system able to legitimize even illiberal and unconstitutional actions”.

Łukasz Pawłowski: Do you think that we have had too much of democracy in the Western world?

Fareed Zakaria: I think we have had too much democracy, by which I mean we’ve had too much of democratic procedures and too little of the “inner stuffing” of democracy, that is the liberal tradition, the tradition of protecting individual liberties against a simple will of majority. This is the point I’ve made in my book The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. It was very controversial at the time but, I think it’s been proven right by events.

What exactly are our democracies missing?

Liberal democracies combine two very different traditions – the plebiscitary tradition of public participation in selecting the government, and the tradition of protecting individual rights, of the rule of law and of separation of Church and state. That second tradition is much older, dating back to Magna Carta. When in the 18th century Montesqieu praised Britain for being the freest country in Europe, only one percent of British voted. Even in 1860s, only three or four percent of British had a right to vote. But what they did have was a strong tradition of law, constitutionalism, and separation of powers.

Which is now in retreat?

My fear is that since the end of Cold War, the celebration of democracy has been very superficial. We have celebrated the plebiscitary aspect of it to the exclusion of any others. So now, when, for example, you oppose to Donald Trump saying things, which not long ago were impossible for a presidential candidate to say, quite often the response you receive is: “Well, he got fourteen million votes and beat the other 12 candidates”. And that is the problem of too much democracy – when it turns into a system able to legitimize even illiberal and unconstitutional actions. This is the problem of our time, whether it’s in Hungary, Poland, United States, or of course in the most dramatic fashion in a place like Russia.

In one episode of GPS you were very very critical of the new Polish government. The comments you made received a lot of attention back in Poland.

Yes, we even had protests out here, outside the building.

Who protested?

Polish emigrants. They obviously had everything organized, they brought big photographs of mine…

Did they make you change your views?

We’ve rather raised questions than given a final answer. But there’s no doubt in my mind that what is happening in Poland is worrisome. Why do I say that? Because Poland has for years been a model democracy. We all celebrate 1989 as a great birth of freedom, but the truth of the matter is that only a handful of countries made it to become liberal democracies. Poland was in many ways a shining star, and also economically vibrant.

What seems to be happening in Poland now is that you have some populist forces, which are, at the very least, questioning the constraints of liberal democracy. They are testing how far they can go in allowing populism to overwhelm protections of individual liberties, free press and judicial independence. Nothing has happened yet, which would make me think that Polish democracy has collapsed, but in a place where democracy seemed so secure for this to be happening has been unnerving.

What seems to be happening in Poland now is that you have some populist forces which are, at the very least, questioning the constraints of liberal democracy.

Fareed Zakaria

Donald Trump is following a very similar strategy – he says the country is in disarray and radical steps need to be taken in order to put it back on the track.

Yes, he also makes deeply illiberal statements – wants to curtail freedom of the press or allow for torturing people. But Trump is still a reckless candidate, who has not been elected yet. That’s the difference.

Should the U.S. somehow intervene in the situation in Poland? In one of your books, The Post-American Order, you claim that Washington should carefully choose in which crises in the world to engage.

United States cannot improve the quality of Polish democracy. I think that the U.S. can be a well-wisher for Poland in general, I believe it should be a guarantor of Polish security, but this is an area where American interventions quite often backfire. You will end up with the people who are on the other side claiming that the pro-democracy movement has been funded by the CIA and is therefore delegitimized. And the U.S. might also make mistakes with choosing who to support. I think it’s an organic Polish issue and Poland has to find a way to strengthen its own democracy.

But I think Poland will get through this. From all the countries that are experiencing these challenges I’m possibly the least worried about Poland. It has gone through too much to allow for its democracy to fail.

In The Future of Freedom you claimed that this danger of turning into an illiberal democracy was specific to new democracies, with weak institutions and no tradition of protecting individual rights. Now this tendency affects even the oldest Western democracies. How did we come to this?

First of all, over the last 20-25 years Western societies have faced growing challenges from what I call “the rise of the rest” – the rise of all the other emerging countries in the world. And secondly, the aging Western populations mean greater demand for young immigrants in order to cover greater pension and medical payments.

In an aging society facing competition from young, emerging markets with much lower wages it’s very hard to produce that steadily rising income, which is broadly shared by everybody. That is the engine for the frustration we can observe in many Western countries. People are frustrated to see a growing competition from around the world and to face new technologies, which make their jobs irrelevant or their incomes stagnant. Many of them believe these challenges arise because their voices are not being heard and the political elite ignores their will.

And that’s not the case?

The reality is much more complicated – nobody can somehow “uninvent” the information revolution, suddenly stop China from growing, or change the fact that in an advanced industrial society you need migrants, because people are simply not willing to take certain jobs. I would argue that the voices of the people have been heard, but the governing class recognizes that these things can only be changed slowly and in much less dramatic fashion than some of the public wants.


Ilustracja 2_Tekst Fot. Łukasz Pawłowski

Photo by Łukasz Pawłowski

Many of the factors that you mentioned have been in place for some time and yet only 8  years ago – at the peak of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression – Americans elected Barack Obama, a politician fundamentally different from populists like Donald Trump. Why the recession did not immediately produce the shift we now observe?

My sense is that the first reaction to the recession was just a shock, which made people want serious government. Obama’s lead against John McCain dramatically increased after the crisis, because there was a sense that Obama was calm, serious and sober. He also came from a left of the center party, which people thought might be more comfortable with government interventions. So the recession produced a desire for returning to a grown-ups normality. But the longer-term effect of the crisis has been to fuel discontent. And politics is really very much like market economics – once there is a demand for something, then there is a supply. Donald Trump is a perfect example of this trend.

What do you mean?

Trump was a Democrat until as long as 2009. But he’s also a great salesman. And what is a good salesman? It is somebody who sees his customers and understands what they want. By 2009 Trump notices that there’s a backlash against the first black president. And so he starts flirting with the birth certificate controversy, questioning Obama’s citizenship, questioning whether is he really an American and a Christian. This gives him a lot of attention, so he starts to take on the Mexican issue and the immigration, because he notices it is one of the major reasons of many Americans’ discontent. Then he challenges free-trade deals, then proposes to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. Trump is like a good salesman – he walks into a room, he senses the audience and understands what they want to hear.

In interview with John Dickerson Steven Colbert asked him whether he was surprised by Trump’s success. Dickerson answered that he was, because although he saw a growing discontent with the political class, people usually told him they wanted a politician, who does not flip-flop, who tells it as it is and then sticks to their own beliefs. So, Dickerson said he was not so much surprised by Trump’s radicalism, but the fact he can change his positions constantly, issue contradictory statements and still remain popular. Why hasn’t this inconsistency hurt him yet?

Because, I think, that’s not a fair description of Trump. Trump is self-contradictory, incoherent and rambling on a lot of things. But not on his core issues, that means anti-immigration proposals – promises to build a wall on Mexican border, deport all illegal immigrants and introduce a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. He’s not exactly sure how he is going to do it, but that’s what he wants. He’s also consistently in favor of trade tariffs and essentially trade wars.

Trump knows that when asked about his position on for example Ukraine or NATO he can say anything he wants, because nobody gives a damn. He also recognized that the Republican Party voters are in a very different place, than the Republican Party itself.

The party doesn’t reflect the views of its electorate?

The Republican Party in Washington, the senior elected officials, the think tanks, the journalists and intellectuals are for free market, free trade, low taxes and reforms of pension and health-care systems. Those are the canonical views of the Republican Party. Maybe Trump has looked at his audience and realized: they are old people, that’s not what they care about. They don’t want their pensions cut, they don’t want their health-care cut. What they want to hear is that their life is difficult and it’s all somebody else’s fault. That I think he was able to do because he was an outsider.

But in one of your columns for Washington Post you wrote that that the Republicans are divided and the only thing that actually unites them is their dislike for Hillary Clinton. From what you’re saying right now, however, it looks like the party is actually quite united in the sense that most of its electorate holds very coherent views on some core issues.

No, it does seem to be divided. Remember – in the primaries more people voted against Trump, supporting other candidates, than voted for him. Right now these two groups are living uneasily with each other. Out of the five living Republican presidential nominees, none of them spoke at the Republican Party convention.

How do you think politics is going to change after these elections? Some experts say that no matter who is going to win American political life is not going to be the same.

The conventional view says that with Trump the Republicans nominated somebody who’s too polarizing, so he’ll lose, the party will say it was a mistake and simply go back to its limited government ideology. I don’t think that’s going to happen. Here is the reality: 14 million people voted for Trump’s message of populism, protectionism, nationalism and xenophobia. Even if he loses, the Republican Party has to contend with the fact that these are their voters. These are their most passionate, most committed and most angry voters.

You can’t just abandon these ideas, so my guess is that the Republican Party is becoming the populist, protectionist, nationalist party, while the Democratic Party is becoming the cosmopolitan, technocratic party. In a sense we’re moving from a left-right divide to an open-closed one. Democrats will be the party of college educated people, people who live in cities, working women, immigrants, and Republicans a party of rural people, people with less education, who fear this world of globalization and technological change.

But given the current changes in American society Republicans are doomed to lose every future election.

The Republican Party will find it very hard to win a majority of the country and therefore to win the presidency. But because of the peculiarities of the way in which the electoral system works, they can actually win a lot of congressional seats. Cities are becoming more and more Democratic, but still rural areas have more representatives. What’s even more important is that Republican voters do vote. So you can imagine a situation, where the party of openness dominates the presidency for the next 20 or 30 years, but the “closed” party is actually able to do quite well in the legislature.

Trump is like a good salesman – he walks into a room, he senses the audience and understands what they want to hear.

Fareed Zakaria

Some time ago Anne Applebaum wrote a piece for Washington Post in which she said we might be two or three elections from the end of the Western geopolitical order. And that article was published before the British referendum, so now it leaves us with only two elections – in the U.S. and in France, maybe in Germany. Aren’t you worried that these two events might entirely reshape the world as we know it?

Anne is very intelligent and extremely well-informed, but she does have a somewhat pessimistic view about this. Here’s how I look at it. We are facing all these challenges you’re describing. But who is actually running Western countries right now? Barack Obama in the United States, Angela Merkel in Germany, François Hollande in France, Theresa May – who is hardly some kind of screaming nationalist – in Britain, Matteo Renzi in Italy. Yes, they face challenges but they haven’t lost yet. And certainly not all of them will lose.

Are you not afraid even of Donald Trump?

I am afraid. The most consequential election by far is the American one, especially because the president has broad powers in foreign and national security policy. What people like Trump wanted to do has always been popular. For 40 years, it’s been popular to bash NATO and say that other countries should pay more, or that China and Japan are robbing us. The barrier was always the elite’s common sense, a view that these populist policies would be foolish for America in the long run. If you elect Trump, that barrier is destroyed.

In Central Europe many people are afraid of Trump’s fondness of Russia. He’s already said that he would “get along” with Vladimir Putin and do a better job than Barack Obama.

With Russia I would argue Obama has played the long game. His view is Putin will not be able to restore Russia’s glory and might by invading Georgia, annexing Crimea or, maybe, taking over Moldova. At the end of the day he’s presiding over the collapse of Russian economy because the oil prices are down and the economy has long been mismanaged.

The key is to maintain that long-term pressure on him rather than have some one deft move that will somehow corner him like in a judo game. That’s basically a right long-term strategy. Putin is popular in Russia and in that context you have to make him realize that there is a price for his political decisions. The energy should be put into maintaining the Western sanctions, shoring up NATO, making sure people believe those guarantees are credible and wait. During the Cold War there were long periods when the U.S. were criticized for being too passive. But at the end the containment strategy kept pressure on and relied on the fact that time was on your side.

At the beginning of his presidency Barack Obama famously tried to “reset” relations with Russia. Do you think it was a mistake?

You always want to try and see if you can work with those who are not your allies. People forget this now, but Russia’s foreign policy under president Medvedev was different and more cooperative. That has changed after Mr. Putin regained presidency and American foreign policy reacted accordingly.

When Russia was going through that more conciliatory phase Poland also had reasonably good relationships with Moscow. I remember Radek Sikorski coming on my show and saying how important it was that Russia had allowed the movie “Katyń” to be shown on public TV. Nobody is more anti-communist and has more suspicious view of Moscow than Sikorski, but even he saw the difference in Russian approach. You would not want a policy that has no flexibility and is unable to take advantage of such shifts.

Ilustracja 1_Tekst Fot. Łukasz Pawłowski

photo by Łukasz Pawłowski

Is Hillary Clinton a good choice as a presidential candidate? Shouldn’t the Democratic Party have chosen somebody who has not been involved in politics for so long?

Hillary Clinton is one of the most qualified people ever to run for president. She knows the issues backwards and forwards, she understands the complexity of the government and knows how to get things done, which is not a small matter.

But why does she want to be a president? I don’t see any issues which she’s passionate about and which would define her presidency.

Nobody feels they can really understand her. It’s a fascinating psychological problem. I think it has something to do with the fact that she has been under intense public scrutiny for the last 30 years. She has developed a very hard shell, which protects her from the worst, but at the same time prevents people from actually seeing her. I don’t think we are ever going to see a real Hillary in that sense, because she has become that person. The best-case and also the most-likely scenario is that she will be like George Bush senior – a bad candidate, but a good president.


She is instinctively cautious, and like Bush senior, she’ll surround herself with smart people. It will be a third Obama term but with more calculating, compromising, practical approach. Everything will be more measured, but in the world going crazy having somebody grown-up in charge, who just wants to steady the ship is not the worst thing in the world.