“Only a viable opposition can defeat the populists.” A Talk Europe! interview with Francis Fukuyama


In your book “The End of History”
you predicted the triumph of the Western liberal democracy
as the final form of the human government. Today you struggle to see
the future for it. What has changed? I think we went through
a 30-year period of sometimes referred to as the third wave
of democratisation between the early 70s and the mid 2000s,
in which the number of democracies expanded very dramatically. But that wave has run out
of steam and is now gone into what sometimes is called
the democratic recession. You now have some big
authoritarian powers like China and Russia, but you also
have a rise of populist nationalism in established democracies,
beginning with the United States, the election of Donald Trump,
the Brexit vote in Britain, and then the appearance of parties
like the AfD in Germany that are challenging the establishment
parties on a nationalist basis. And so that has led to decay
of the liberal institutions like rule of law, free press
that are necessary to have a real liberal democracy. And so democracy globally, I think,
is under considerable challenge today. 20 years ago, Fareed Zakaria made
a very scary prediction about the rise of illiberal democracy. What seemed to be true for Peru
or Sierra Leone and is happening now in the heart of Europe. Can democracies exist
without being liberal? Liberalism and democracy
are complementary institutions, but they’re not necessarily
ones that go together. So, yes, you can have democracy
meaning you can have elections and popular choice but without
the kinds of protections offered by constitutional government,
separation of powers, checks and balances. And what it means, I think,
is you’re going to have a form of authoritarian democracy
in which executives, prime ministers, presidents will be able
to issue orders without really being checked
by any other institution. What you’re going to end up with
is in fact illiberal democracy. Is the international liberal order
still the optimal system for the 21st century world? And if so, how can we restore it? I think that a liberal order
is good in many ways. It’s certainly good for prosperity,
because free trade and movement of people really maximises
the incomes of all of the countries involved in that system. The problem is that it has been
accompanied by a great deal of cultural change, particularly
large levels of migration. It’s an adjustment problem.
I think it has caused a backlash in these populist movements
that are united by their opposition to immigration. I think it’s possible to maintain
an overall liberal order, but still have control or management
of the movement of people. And I think this is something
that is really needed, both in the United States,
or in North America, and in Europe. In your new book, you write that
the desire of identity groups for recognition poses
a threat to democracy. Why is identity politics
such a hot topic today? There’s really high
levels of migration. There are a lot of people that
have moved across international borders and that kind of
a cultural change has set off a backlash among many people
that find this upsetting. They think that their national identity
has been stolen from them by the combination of foreigners and
elites that are abetting this system. The other part is economic,
because globalisation has led to falling incomes for many
working class people as jobs have moved overseas to Asia and to
other parts of the developing world. And I think this combination of
downward economic mobility and rapid cultural change is what
has made people made insecure about their identities and therefore
it has pushed the issue of identity to the forefront. I think, however, if you don’t have
an integrating democratic community of trust, where people share
the same values around democratic ideals, that is open to citizens and yet unites
them in the ability to deliberate and discuss and make collective decisions,
you’re not going to have a democracy. Aren’t there crucial differences
between these groups? Do you really claim that, for example,
the Black Lives Matter movement and ISIS are the manifestation
of the same problem? What I think is similar is not
the moral claim, it’s the psychology that people feel that somehow
their dignity has been abused by the surrounding society. It does reflect a real social decline
in many working class communities that has occurred in many
rich countries because of globalisation, outsourcing,
de-industrialisation. Not all, let’s say the white
working classes is, you know, an equally privileged group. How can the EU overcome
this existential crisis? What needs to be done? The populist groups are winning
elections and they’re gaining power, they’ve entered governments. And I think, ultimately, the only way to
defeat them is by winning in elections. You know, that’s
normal political struggle. It means mobilising, arguing,
persuading your fellow citizens. In many countries where the populists
have come to dominate, there isn’t a viable opposition. And that’s the work for political
leadership, for good organisation… You know, the usual stuff
of democratic politics. How would you estimate
the identity politics pursued in the European Union today? What’s new is really the rise
of identity politics on the right. There are populist politicians that
are asserting that their national identities have been undermined
by foreigners, by immigrants. And it’s that kind of assertion of
a traditional, ethnically-based identity that I think is a threat to
the European Union because, in fact, the European Union is
a diverse place and I think it needs a liberal order in order
to accommodate that diversity.

Maurice Vega

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