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Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.

Progress and Backlash

Featuring Fareed Zakaria

When we hear the word ‘revolution,’ we often think of the bloody conflicts of the past. But what constitutes a modern-day revolution within our current economic system and forms of government? Both parties within American politics have seen cultural revolutions and shifting value sets with each decade. Zachary and Emma discuss these changes with CNN host, journalist, and author Fareed Zakaria. His latest book, ‘Age of Revolutions,’ explores past and present conflicts that define the polarized and unstable age in which we live.

Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript

Fareed Zakaria: I’ll Give you a simple example, South Korea’s per capita income in 1950 was half that of India’s. Today, South Korea’s per capita income is 35 times that of India’s. South Korea and Taiwan are probably the two greatest economic success stories of the last 40 years, and they are both, during that period, were run by messy democratic systems without strong leaders.

Zachary Karabell: What Could Go Right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I’m joined as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of… you guessed it, The Progress Network. And this is our weekly podcast, What Could Go Right?. We also have a weekly newsletter called, conveniently enough, What Could Go Right?.

And you can get that on our website, theprogressnetwork.org. And it’s free and weekly and gives you a dose of, if not optimism, then looking at the world through a somewhat different lens and with a somewhat different sensibility than the daily dystopian despair of mainstream media and most of our news diet.

So we’re going to talk today to one of the more esteemed voices in contemporary politics and journalism, who’s written a fascinating new book. It tries to look at the past of revolutions, how things have changed in the past, and the present revolutionary era and how that might shape our future. Who are we going to talk to today?

Emma Varvaloucas: Today we’re going to talk to Fareed Zakaria. You might have seen him on his show, Fareed Zakaria GPS, which is on CNN. He’s also a columnist at the Washington Post and a best selling author. And as Zachary mentioned, we’re going to talk to him today about his new book, which is called Age of Revolutions: Progress and Backlash from 1600 to the Present.

Are you ready to go talk to Fareed?

Zachary Karabell: I am ready to go talk to Fareed. 

Fareed Zakaria, pleasure to have you on What Could Go Right?. We talked about your last book in the middle of the pandemic. So you’ve gone from pandemic lessons to revolutionary lessons.

Fareed Zakaria: It seems like that’s the order, but you know, I’ve been working on this book on and off for 10 years, which sounds more ambitious than it is because I did write two books along the way, one of them being the pandemic book, but it’s mostly because I had to kind of educate myself about a lot of those revolutions along the way.

Zachary Karabell: You know, that was different for you to have that amount of time. And as you said, you did the book on the pandemic, you did the book on higher education or just education in general in the middle of all that. But even so, to kind of have that gestate, do you feel that changed the nature of the book in any way?

I mean, it’s impossible to know. You can’t replay the tape and write the book a different way than you actually wrote it. But just when you think about your own process and. How that may have changed.

Fareed Zakaria: Yeah, I did actually change it a lot because, you know, I began the book really motivated by two things. So one was the rise of the Tea Party, which was about 10 years ago.

And what I was struck by was the way in which this insurgency was taking over the Republican party. You remember the Republicans have always been thought of as A very hierarchical party. In fact, one of the most hierarchical parties in the Western world is that famous sort of saying that we’ve been nominating presidential candidates.

Democrats have to fall in love, but Republicans fall in line. Well, you know, in which makes sense, historically, I mean, Democrats loved Kennedy and Clinton and then Obama. And Republicans would nominate Richard Nixon and Bob Dole and John McCain. It was the guy whose turn it was, who had waited in line.

And then here you had this party sprouting an insurgency, bottom up. And Theda Skocpol wrote a very good book about this, where she spent about a year talking to these people. And she said, while it began as an economic issue, when she spent time with them, she realized that the foot soldiers of the movement, 

all they cared about was immigration, multiculturalism, a black guy in the White House. It was all these cultural issues. So I realized that there was something kind of new happening, where the old Reagan Republican Party was dying or dead, and this new one was emerging bottom up. And the second was how Obama’s political approval ratings were not tied up to the state of the economy.

You know, the economy kept doing better and better under Obama. We basically came out of the, the global financial crisis, better than any other nation. Stock market tripled under Barack Obama and his approval ratings essentially stayed flat. All of those things told me we’re in a new kind of age of cultural politics.

Emma Varvaloucas: So, Fareed maybe you can tie this sort of microcosm of the United States back to the overall And I think that’s the main theme of the book, because, you know, when Zachary mentioned revolutionary lessons in the beginning, I think what comes to most people’s mind is like bloody, overthrowing French Revolution type thing, but you’re actually talking about a wider range.

So how does that smaller story of the U.S. fit into the larger story of the book?

Fareed Zakaria: Yeah, in a sense, that is the one of the central points of the book, that, that real revolutions, enduring revolutions, are more in the form of the Industrial Revolution. Right? That is kind of bottom up economic, technological transformations that then have a lasting effect on changing the nature of society, changing individuals relationships and roles within those societies, and then changing the politics of society.

The French Revolution is famous because it was, it happened so fast and it was so top down and directed by a handful of people and bloody, but that’s largely why it failed, whereas something like the Industrial Revolution truly and enduringly transformed Britain, the United States, and then the world because it was this much larger, broader, bottom up process which transformed society over decades.

Zachary Karabell: So, I mean, at the risk of beating a dead horse, the question of if you’d written the book in 2015, before it was clear what direction the Republican Party is going in, do you think you would have written a different conclusion about the past?

Fareed Zakaria: I think I would have been more likely to say, this is a spasm.

This is a kind of cultural reaction to progress. It’s a bit of a backlash, but I think I would have seen it more like a passing phenomenon. I think that in a strange way, waiting helped me recognize, you know, that I was kind of more right than I realized that this was not just, You know, a big deal, but it was really reshaping politics.

And whereas one of the reasons the book took longer was, you know, Brexit happens and I start to look at it and say, you know, this is very similar characteristics. It seems as though a kind of reaction to the openness to the globalization that Britain embraced in the form of joining the European Union and the common market and all that.

And then Trump happens and I realized, Oh my God, this is even happening in the United States. So. In a sense, the phenomenon got bigger and bigger, the scope and ambition of the book got bigger and bigger as I realized, oh, this is, this is really a big deal.

Emma Varvaloucas: Do you see this then as the liberal democracy trend that’s going on right now? Do you think it’s just going to keep on going, meaning the backlash is going to be so strong that it’s going to reverse all of the progress that was made, like after World War II? Or is it, it’s still a spasm in a way, meaning that there’s going to be a. An end point to it where there’s a backlash to the backlash and, you know, things open up again.

Fareed Zakaria: It is in no way a reversal back to World War II or even back 25, 30 years back to 1989. You know, just take one place for example, Latin America in 1985 was run by Juntas. It was all socialist, quasi socialist economies, shielded behind massive tariff barriers, huge amounts of regulation and protectionism.

By 1995, almost every Latin American country other than Cuba was a democracy, was more free market oriented, was trading with the world, was integrating with the world. Now, there’s been a lot of backsliding since then, but it’s nowhere near back to 1985. You know, if you think about Eastern Europe, huge progress in Eastern Europe since 1989, some backsliding.

So, so in a sense, we shouldn’t mistake the undertow for the way there has been a very large rising wave of political and economic progress over the last 50 years throughout the world in virtually every, uh, every part of the world. There is now some important backsliding. Now, in some places, it’s very significant.

Xi represents very much this reactionary backsliding. People forget now, but 15 years ago, China really was opening up. It was integrating with the world. There was a real sense that there, you know, there was a part, there was not, not a movement toward liberal democracy, but toward a much more open system.

I mean, I can tell you, I went and did my show at the old PBS show I had in China. I didn’t even apply for a journalist visa or anything. I just went on a tourist visa. We interviewed quasi government officials, the Dean of the Foreign Service School and things like that. Some of them criticized the government openly.

This is all unthinkable in China today. So, there was real movement forward, and she, in many ways, represents the backlash. He felt like society was becoming too strong, the state was becoming too weak, the Communist Party was becoming irrelevant. And so, it’s a reactionary backlash now. The big question you ask is, will it work, in a sense?

That, I can’t tell you, I know for sure, and particularly not in any given country. You’re clearly going to have to navigate this period of backlash. My gut is, and my sense of history is, that eventually we will return to moving forward because you actually can’t move backward very long, except at great cost.

I think, for example, there’s a much more, there’s a much greater degree of closet integration and globalization that’s taking place in the digital world. You know, digital services, digital goods, communication, all of which is happening almost like under the, the radar. So you might have these tariffs and bans on, on the, on the top, but there’s still a lot of stuff happening, underneath. I think that at the end of the day, a lot of these experiments with backlash and things like that won’t work because they’re economically inefficient. They deprive human beings of choice and freedom, which I think people want, but it could be a, you know, a rollercoaster ride.

I mean, think of a country like Iran. The Islamic revolution was basically a backlash to 20 years of fitful and uneven modernization done by the Shah. And it’s now in what, 37th year of backlash. So it can sometimes, you know, things can go backwards for a long time.

Zachary Karabell: You know, it’s interesting. One of the commentaries of the book, some people have asked you why you didn’t include the American Revolution, although you do include the Industrial American Revolution. So you talk about the massive transformations of the 19th century, but not what Americans think about as their revolution, i.e. the 1770s. The thing is, you were talking about how these things will play out over time in the future, reading on the past, that if you actually looked at like America in the mid 1770s through like the 1790s, it would, it would have been very unclear at any stage along the way that the, that the revolution, whatever the American revolution was what’s going to work? You know, it was unclear that there was going to be a, a nation, let alone 13 different nations, that there was going to be one nation that would work. It was unclear whether Great Britain would retake the colonies. And that’s like a 20 year period. I wonder if one of the challenges of our present is like, we’re so hyper aware of everything happening in real time.

And we’re so desirous of coming to certain clear conclusions. That we kind of missed the plot.

Fareed Zakaria: One of the reasons I didn’t include the American Revolution was because it was actually, more limited than people remember. The American Revolution was really a war of independence. The entire social structure, economic structure, and largely local political structure was kept in place.

I mean, the South, we kept in place the entire bourbon aristocracy. We kept in place slavery, of course, but even in the North, we kept in place these, the largely feudal system. Quasi feudal system property, white men were in charge. The Whiskey Rebellion was an effort to upend it, but it failed. So there’s a moment in the 1820s and thirties when there’s a great debate in Europe about democracy.

And mostly the feeling is this is a terrible idea because the dominant experience that most people had was really the French Revolution. America was seen as this very strange experiment that may or may not work. It really took a while before people realized. Oh, this is going to work and this is going to spread and that it is actually revolutionary and transforming.

I mean, there’s a good book to be written on how the idea of America as this truly path breaking system, new form of government happens a little later. It doesn’t happen immediately at the time because, you know, people are still wondering is the, is the, are the British going to reconquer it in 1812, you know, there was a feeling of maybe this is the end of the American experiment. And it’s only later that once it becomes clear, it’s here to stay, that people realize, Oh my goodness, this is one of the great moments. That’s one of the reasons Stokeville’s book was so important because in 1832, 31, 32, he’s like, this is the future.

And that’s why everybody looked at it. And said, what, what America is the future? They hadn’t thought it was a controversial point at the time.

Emma Varvaloucas: It makes me think about America being the pioneering experiment as sort of like a universal state, right? Like reflecting the diversity of the entire world within one country.

And I took universal state from your book. You have a sentence in there where you’re talking about the whole world might one day proceed on this path of movement and immigration. And I was thinking while I read that, like, wow, that’s so beautiful. And then the second thought was, someone else could read this and think that sounds like a nightmare.

So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what we lose, right? When we assume that the moves towards, Openness is an unmitigated good.

Fareed Zakaria: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. What I was trying to describe was how hard, what we’re trying to do is so new. We’re trying to create this universal nation where people come from all over the world, all kinds of backgrounds, all kinds of orientations, gay, straight, whatever.

And everyone is seen and respected and participates fully. No one has to hide in the shadows. That’s hard because you’re taking lots of people and groups that were not generally in the mainstream and saying everyone is in the mainstream, to many people, that is a deeply unsettling prospect because societies have been formed on the basis of national cultures, religions, ethnicities.

It’s also, let’s be totally honest, unsettling prospect for a lot of men because women have not been, you know, equal to men until very recently. You know, one of the biggest changes that we’ve gone through and positive changes that we’ve gone through that is completely irreversible is the rise of women, the emancipation of women.

But we forget how disruptive it is. I mean, if you look at all of recorded history, some tribe has been on top and it’s been oppressing some other tribe. Always women were second class citizens. And now that really in the, only in the last 30 or 40 years has been upended, but it’s been very unsettling. And to your point, Emma, it was unsettling when it began, even to women.

When Betty Friedan first started talking about, you know, women’s lib and the way we would think of it. Many of the opponents were women, Phyllis Schlafly, most famously, and the reason, of course, it was deeply unsettling and it sort of cast doubt on the choices that most women had made. The reason Phyllis Schlafly resonated was, I mean, I saw this in India a lot, a lot of people who were housewives and mothers thought, wait a minute, does that mean my life is worthless?

My life is meaningless, right? And so it took a long time. Even within the 50 percent of the population that’s female for people to recognize, Oh no, this is important. And this is a real step forward. And there’s still a backlash against it. And if you read Samuel Alito’s opinion, reversing Roe v. Wade. It is clear that this is a man who has deep, deep discomfort with women’s equality.

I mean, he’s quoting 19th and 18th and 17th century jurists. These are people who believe women were the property of men, that a man could rape his wife. All kinds of stuff that almost has a medieval feeling to it. And so I think the reaction still continues on that front. Look at every religious movement the kind of reactionary religious movements, whether they’re Islamic, they’re Christian, they’re Jewish. The first priority is get women back in the kitchen.

Zachary Karabell: It’s funny, we did a, an earlier podcast with Rachel Shteir, who has a good new biography of Betty Friedan. And one of the things that was coming up is also just how many people have totally forgotten, not just the history that you write about in the book.

I mean, I’m sure many people other than the Dutch have forgotten the lessons of the Dutch revolution, but how many people have kind of forgotten recent history and cycles. And yet, society’s certainly change, even as many people within them have no idea what the antecedents are to their current world.

Fareed Zakaria: And it’s very hard to reverse, even though you do get these reactions and you do get this, this drama, nobody can imagine really, really overturning the core of women’s emancipation. The abortion decision is a very unfortunate example of the backlash. But it also is tied up with another complicated issue, which is, should the court have made that decision in, in, in Roe v. Wade, or should that have been left to the political process? You know, so I’m not, I’m not even sure I regard the reversal of Roe as as much of a setback as people do, because in some ways you hijack the political process, did that by decree from the Supreme Court. And now that’s unraveling. And what I suspect will have happened is the vast majority of states will essentially get you over the next 10 years back to something pretty close to row.

Emma Varvaloucas: We’ve been talking about how some forms of progress are irreversible. It makes me think, I just saw the new Economist cover, which asks, “Is America dictator proof?” So here’s to your thoughts generally about that in a sense of, okay, we’re also in this backlash period in the United States, is this something that could really like go all the way?

Or do you think it’s going to pass as well?

Fareed Zakaria: Well, it’ll really test this proposition of how strong are American institutions, not because I think Trump is a dictator or has some kind of elaborate plan to be a dictator. I don’t think he does. The way to understand Trump is he’s a complete narcissist. He has no particular political ideology, but he wants what he wants and he wants to do the things he wants to do with no interference.

And if the interference that is presented to him is constitutional or legal. or of norms and, and, and, you know, things like that. He will try to override them. You know, if he confronts some opposition, he’ll try to overcome it. And at some level, you know, then the question is, are those institutions, are those people willing to stand up to him?

When they do, he does back down, you know? I mean, so if you look at the history, courts rule against him and re rule against him and the Supreme Court rules against him on, on, on appeal. He does back down. It’s as if the system is being tested to see how much will people stand up. I have to say, I was very struck during the Trump years with the degree to which people who were lawyers, James Comey, Bill Barr, they clearly had at some level a breaking point, and at some point they would just not do the things he wanted them to do.

Because they felt that, you know, in the kind of older conception of law, lawyers as officers of the court, they felt that they had a stake in the constitutional system. Others, like Michael Flynn, you know, are sad to say some of the generals, some of the political appointees. Okay, um, and I suspect we’ll see a bit, you know, we’ll see a bit of both in a second term.

Zachary Karabell: Yeah, I mean, that’s the, the concern is they will have learned the lessons of appointing people who are, whose loyalty is ultimately to some sort of collective rather than to the individual. And then everything will unravel because their loyalty will be to the individual. Now, there’s a lot of hypotheticals there.

There’s a lot of like, can you get actually that number of people who subsume their own ego to a higher person?

Fareed Zakaria: And can you predict who will do what? Look, I’m very worried for precisely the reason you see. Trump clearly has realized never appoint a Bill Barr again. And Bill Barr was a very conservative.

I mean, this was about as conservative as you can get. This is a culturally reactionary. It’s a socially conservative, you know, guy, but he did ultimately have some, you know, some respect for the constitution and the rule of law. Can you really find somebody who’s qualified to be attorney general who doesn’t?

If the Democrats control the Senate, that person has to get confirmed. Well, it will certainly be a wild rollercoaster ride, particularly if there’s a Democratic Senate, because there will be a lot of pushback.

Zachary Karabell: I certainly know. I’ve been starting to look at this surge of populism and discontent globally, which manifests itself in all the ways you write about in your, in the book.

Could you look at that as, you know, It’s own kind of form of radical democratization rather than rising authoritarianism in that it’s clear that far more people in every part of the world feel they have a right to have their own individual voice heard, and are essentially rejecting any system of elites and others that, that they feel is going to silence their voice.

Fareed Zakaria: Yeah. It’s a very Karabell like point to sort of trying to upend the conventional wisdom, but I think you’re basically right the way I would put it differently, but I think it gets to the same idea. Which is, you know, the reason that democratic systems are ultimately more stable and enduring than dictatorships is.

That they have these escape valves for popular discontent. And clearly what we are living through is a great deal of popular discontent toward the elites that have benefited from a world of global rising globalization and technological accelerations and a meritocratic elite. And there’s a huge backlash against it.

And so the question becomes, what do you do about that backlash? In democracies what you say is, well, you give voice to it. You, you even empower it if it is able to get to that, that level. And it kind of works through the system. At least that has to be the hope. That, you know, we will, we will in some way let these forces out rather than suppressing them.

Let them channel them into the political system. They do change some things. We make some course corrections, not all of which are good in my view. For example, the, the move towards greater and greater degrees of protectionism and, and industrial policy will ultimately come a cropper because they’re bad.

It’s all bad economics, but it reflects this growing popular sentiment and we’ll navigate through it. Whereas in a system that says, no, you know, we’re just going to have elite dominance and we’re going to crush all this, which is the Xi Jinping approach. One wonders what happens, what happens to those forces.

Uh, and so I, I suspect that ultimately it’s a more healthy way to allow these forces that exist within society to have some voice. Now, as I say, the problem is if they really do, there is some kind of inflection point or critical mass. If they do tear down some core democratic institutions, that’s the problem.

You know, if you go the direction of Orban or Erdogan. I worry about Modi. You know, you get to the point where, yeah, you make, you know, this may pass, but you’ve permanently neutered an independent judiciary or an independent media, and then you have to build that back up. That becomes very hard. You know, one of the things I worry about in India is essentially you have no more independent judiciary in India.

And by the way, it took a while to build that. It wasn’t always independent anyway. But the next government that comes in, they are not going to want an independent judiciary. Having a compliant judiciary as an arm of the legislative branch is a nice thing. So will an op, you know, let’s say an opposition, an anti Modi government comes in.

Are they going to actually say, we will now set out to create a more independent judiciary by backing off on the appointment and the firing and transferring of judges? No, probably not. You know, so that’s the danger.

Emma Varvaloucas: I was wondering what you make of a case like the Netherlands, which in some ways is such a prime example of what you’ve been talking about, you know, they elected the far right hurt wielders. Six months ago, and then he couldn’t put together a government, you know, he just put together now was one of the concessions being that he won’t be prime minister.

So yeah, just your thoughts on that. It’s such an interesting case.

Fareed Zakaria: You’re right. It’s a perfect example of how, you know, this, there’s this push and pull. So everybody looked at that and thought to themselves, Oh my God, you know, this is the end of the world. So let’s begin by reminding ourselves that the crazy system that European, Northern European countries in particular have.

There are lots of parties. These parties change all the time. I think I have it right when I say that Geert Wilders’ party got 20 percent of the vote. That was the single largest of all the votes that any of these parties got. And, it’s fair to say that there are enough right of center parties that kind of not agree with him, but agree with enough of what he says that they can put together a coalition.

But that’s very different from the Geert Wilders winning, you know, 60 percent of the vote. So, it’s, it is not a sign that all, you know, the Dutch people have become populist reactionaries. It’s a sign that there is a rising tide of it, that it’s real, that somebody who was ruled kind of almost beyond the pale is now part of the system, but there are lots of Czechs and the coalition politics of Europe ensure that these people do get Czech.

Look at Meloni in, in Italy. She came to power as a populist and has ended up being, you know, very pro European Union, very pro Ukraine, all the issues on which people thought She was going to, you know, to kind of soften and waffle, uh, very strongly, not anti Chinese, but, you know, kind of standing up to the Chinese.

So her actual policies have not been nearly as populist as people thought. I suspect something similar will happen in the Bielder’s case. And my suspicion is that the reason he can’t be prime minister is precisely they want somebody who’s willing to be a little bit more accommodating.

Zachary Karabell: You could say the same thing about Trump as well, though, which is for all the weird craziness of his first administration and potentially of his second, the actual policies pursued, you know, Biden’s continued at somewhere around half of them when it comes to foreign policy. I mean, I haven’t counted, so I don’t know if it’s half or a quarter, but it’s a, it’s a, it’s a not insignificant amount given the attitudinal difference and the kind of America first, you know, privileging domestic industries, uh, some sort of industrial policy, American industrial policy.

Very much kind of in line with Trump, very much in line with Sherrod Brown, very much in line with Bernie Sanders. Meaning there’s another aspect of this, which as you point out is, is much more a large historical trends than it is individuals, right?

Fareed Zakaria: I think on the populist economic policy side, you’re basically right.

I would push back on on the other stuff. Look, remember, a lot of Trump’s stuff got turned back in courts, you know, so there’s a huge amount of stuff that got pushed back in courts. Many of these courts have changed. You know, you have the Fifth Circuit, for example, has become a completely wacko right wing court, so right wing that, you know, in this Consumer Protection Bureau, Clarence Thomas rebuked them for being too conservative.

Now, when you’re, when you’re to the right of Clarence Thomas, who has been for 30 years, you know, the North Star of the most extreme conservative jurisprudence you could find in the country. That tells you that things have shifted. So I do worry about a second Trump term because courts have changed because as you say that he’s going to appoint people who are less willing to stand up and overturn him.

And as a result of that, I think you might see more structural changes than you imagine. You know, what if he appoints a complete hack to the head of the SEC? And the IRS and says, now go and investigate the companies and people that I don’t like. There’s nothing in statutory terms that stops you. There’s a particular problem we have with the Justice Department, which most people don’t realize.

The United States is the only advanced industrial democracy that has a judicial branch that is essentially an arm of the head of government. You know, the President appoints the attorney general. He serves at, at his or her pleasure. It’s not like that in any, you know, any other system.

Most of them have really in the, that, that function is independent because they’re all more recent. Uh, we frankly should move, you know, as much as we can in that direction, but. We’re not. And, you know, and this has always been a problem. Jack Kennedy appointed his brother. Trump can appoint Jared Kushner to be Attorney General.

Zachary Karabell: What do you do about societies where all these things are in place, but it would appear that most of the people living in them are totally fine with all of that. You know, they’re fine with press restrictions. They’re fine with the Justice Department, whatever you call it, that is somewhat the handmaiden of political power.

You know, meaning unlike Iran, where there’s quite a huge discontent or, you know, Poland, where there was, and even Brazil, where there was like huge discontent with Bolsonaro and the United States, there will be huge discontent. But what are you doing in a society like India and elsewhere where, yes, of course there’s opposition and discontent, but it would seem to be that most people are kind of on board with this.

You know, they’re not sitting there going, oh, you know, oh, well, illiberal democracy. They’re kind of sitting there going, You know, our lives are getting better, material prosperity, this is a strong person. What does one do about that part?

Fareed Zakaria: The most disturbing part about Modi’s Hindu nationalism and illiberalism is not that he puts it forward, but that it works.

And that it gets him elected. And the same is true of Erdogan. And the same you could say is true of Orban. Look, I think it shows you that some of these cosmopolitan liberal democratic values are not universally held or the other way I would put it is a lot of people don’t realize how important they are to the functioning of modern open democratic societies, that they think, you know, freedom of the speech sounds good, except for the, the speech I really don’t like, that should be banned. Independent judges are a great idea, except when judges rule against the things I believe in, in which case the government should just, you know, get rid of the judges.

And that’s a very common feature, you know, as you know, Zach, many times people have done polls in the United States. Asking people whether they believe in some aspect of the Bill of Rights. And it turns out, you know, depending on how you phrase the question, majorities of Americans basically don’t agree with most of the Bill of Rights.

So, you know, in my view, that’s exactly why they were put into the constitution. The founders were clever enough to realize that you needed to have anti majoritarian elements within any functioning liberal democracy. Well, what is the Bill of Rights? Basically, it’s a set of things that you say, despite the fact that a majority may want to do this, you can’t do it, right?

That is the fundamental nature of the Bill of Rights. It says, I don’t get what the majority wants. You cannot abrogate freedom of speech. You cannot abrogate freedom of worship. You cannot engage in unreasonable search and seizure. You know, all that is anti democratic in a sense. So. I think that a properly functioning liberal democracy has to have some anti democratic features.

And I would also add, just as a caveat, though I agree with your basic point, even Modi, remember, I think got at his 35 percent of the vote. Because of the first past the post parliamentary system that translated into 60 odd percent of the seats in parliament. But 70 percent of Indians did not vote for, 65 percent of Indians did not vote for Narendra Modi’s party.

It’s not entirely fair to say in many of these cases that they have a majority of the country. They have a very significant plurality.

Emma Varvaloucas: Isn’t there also the economic trade off for Maslow’s hierarchy of needs trade off going on there as well, like with China, where at a certain point, you know, free speech doesn’t put bread on your table, but if an autocratic leader or a pro democratic leader is, then people are willing to make that trade.

Fareed Zakaria: Yeah. And China is the perfect example of it. But remember the degree to which China has delivered on the economic side, which people forget, you know, China’s per capita GDP, average income in China has gone up nine fold in the last 40 years. I mean, that’s staggering, right? That is, that is extraordinary.

But I think it’s important to point out as You know, a proponent of liberal democracy and as a proponent of the messiness and, uh, of democracy, it is not necessary. Give you a simple example. South Korea’s per capita income, uh, in 1950 was half that of India’s. Today, South Korea’s per capita income is 35 times that of India’s.

South Korea and Taiwan are probably the two greatest economic success stories of the last 40 years. And they are both, during that period, were run by messy democratic systems without strong leaders. All the things people say, Oh, you, you know, let’s, let’s give Modi, let’s give, uh, uh, Erdogan, let’s give, Bolsonaro this.

At least there was strong leaders. You didn’t have that in South Korea and Taiwan, and those countries clobbered virtually everybody else in terms of the, you know, the economic performance of those two nations. So, I think in the short term, it often looks like, you know, having a strong leader helps, but in the long run, it almost has never worked out.

Zachary Karabell: All right, final word, Fareed. I know you have been toggling over the past year between taking some comfort from this arc of history and feeling like net net, you know, we will muddle through and, and likely muddle through, not commensurate with the sum of all of our fears, but have you begun to waver a bit on that as you kind of The prospect of Trump part deux raises its, it’s not so pretty head.

Fareed Zakaria: I had gotten myself comfortable with the idea that there was a small but solid anti MAGA majority in the country. That if you looked at Biden’s election, if you looked at the midterms, if you looked at Senate races, if you looked at governor races and that felt good, that made you feel like, okay, Americans get, you know, that this is, this is a bad idea.

This is un-American almost in, you know, in the way that Robert Kagan talks about in his new book. Rt’s against the ideas of the Founding Fathers and all. And it’s been disappointing to see that that, that I’m not sure that’s true. I think that there’s, there’s a greater degree of just anti establishment class resentment, cultural resentment that could overwhelm all that.

The Trump could easily get elected, that you could, you could have many more MAGA people in the House and in the Senate. And all of that is depressing. It doesn’t change my kind of long term sense of optimism and hope. I mean, give you a simple example. There are people, as you know, who say, Oh, you know, if Trump gets elected, if things go a certain way politically, yeah, I’m leaving the country to go to Canada.

Maybe it’s because I’m an immigrant. There are no circumstances in which I would leave the United States. I think that there are plenty of forces that are going to contest, check, fight Trump, If he becomes as illiberal as, as one fears, I would be one of them. I’m happy to, to fight the good fight.

I believe that in the long run it will win. And in any case, you know, if in the worst case scenario, I’ll go down with the ship.

Zachary Karabell: Thank you so much Fareed. Everyone should go read the book there, and if nothing else to appreciate the Dutch Revolution, which since Simon Schama wrote about it 40 years ago, I think people could use a good refresher and for a sense of perspective on our messy present, you know, that, that there’s been a lot of messy pasts and they have sometimes not gone so well, often work themselves out.

I don’t think anyone would read your book and be totally sanguine about the present, but at least they will have an appreciation of, of what the cycles are that inform our present and, and may indeed shape our future. So thank you for your work and your voice, and we will keep listening.

Fareed Zakaria: Thank you, Zachary.

Zachary Karabell: Thank you, Emma.

Emma Varvaloucas: Thanks Fareed.

Zachary Karabell: So Emma, that conversation in many ways was a little. More downbeat than many of our other conversations. I do think we have to allow that the ebb and flow of how we feel about the present oscillating between, maybe things will be fine to, oh boy, maybe things won’t, is just a product of none of us know future outcomes.

And we’re all somewhat guesstimating and trying to gauge from our present. And a lot of what goes into that guesstimating and gauging is our current sensibility. You know, you and I have talked about contemporary attitudes about technology, uh, are shaped by a contemporary culture that’s rather down on some of the negative effects of the technologies of the past 20 years.

which is juxtaposed to how people felt about technology in the 90s, which was much more golly gee willikers, everything’s going to be marvelous, incredible, extraordinary, connective together. And that proved to be overly optimistic. And it’s entirely possible that our current lens will prove to be overly pessimistic, but it’s just an example of the way in which how we view something in the present is often shaped by that kind of cultural attitude and therefore our extrapolation into the future.

Fareed’s been somebody who has often pointed to, Hey, wait a minute. Things are good. There’s more democracy. There’s greater economic growth. There’s more inclusiveness. We live in a more stable world. And look, 2024 is a tough time to maintain that sensibility of. We’re just going to muddle through. And I think some of our conversation reflected that.

I’m not ready to throw in the proverbial cliched towel and say, all right, that’s it, we’re done. Democracy’s over. We’re not going to sustain the institutions. Donald Trump’s going to get elected and both the left and the right are going to freak out in various ways. One triumphantly and one. In, in defeatist despair or Joe Biden will win and it’ll be the reverse dynamic. I was intrigued by these are challenging times. And I think we look, we owe it to ourselves. You and I owe it to each other. We owe it to our listeners to say. It’s not as if we’re not considering all the people who are incredibly negative about the present and are negatively revolutionary or aren’t correct, right?

You know, we don’t have a crystal ball.

Emma Varvaloucas: Right. Yeah, I know. I was thinking about when you were talking about the nineties, if we’re just, um, constantly over correcting on ourselves, right? So that maybe we’ll get into the 2030s and maybe things will turn out better and then we’ll over correct the other way again, right?

Like, we’ll be really peppy for absolutely no reason. And then the 2040s we’ll be, anyway. I think one thing that I appreciated about Fareed a lot is that I think when people talk about their fear, particularly around the election, whether your fears are around Trump or Biden or something else, Fareed was very nuanced and specific about the things that he was worried about and the things that he thought were overwrought.

And I think that even if the overall the conversation was a little bit more downbeat than most. Talking about fears and anxieties in the specific is much more helpful than just having like an overhanging cloud of doom where you’re just like, uh, which I feel like is the mindset that people get caught in a lot because there’s just a delusion of information out there and people can’t parse through it very easily.

Zachary Karabell: Yeah. And again, I think, you know, there is that challenge of some of what you say about the future is shaped by the particular present that you’re writing. whatever you’re writing in. And, you know, we had that discussion just now with Freed about if you’d written the same book five, 10 years earlier, would the argument about outcomes have been different?

And, you know, the reality is it probably would have been, it’s impossible to be completely detached from your current context. I mean, look, maybe if you’re writing a book about horticulture, right? Seeds may not matter much, whether you’re writing that now, five years ago or five years from now.

But when you’re writing about political arcs and outcomes, it’s, you know, we are captive of our present. And, and, I mean, I remember when getting a degree in history that we, we were very careful of what the moment was, you know, there’s a whole philosophy of history and there’s a whole sort of history of historians and what they were experiencing at the time that they were living and writing often wove its way into an analysis of the past.

Emma Varvaloucas: I did some research recently for a piece that I just wrote about prediction.

Zachary Karabell: Really? You did some research?

Emma Varvaloucas: I know, thank God, right? I mean, yeah, about prediction journalism and about forecasting and specifically professional forecasters.

And one stat that I found very funny was that even professional forecasters, like the ones that try to predict the economy, it’s like society professional forecasting or something like that. They are right. Only about 23 percent of the time. So, our, our prediction of the future. 

Zachary Karabell: Yeah, isn’t there, isn’t there that stat of, you would do better flipping a coin?

Or, or you could statistically argue that you might do better flipping a coin?

Emma Varvaloucas: Yeah and the further away you are from a particular event, like, and the bigger the change, and the further into the future you’re trying to forecast, the worse your prediction is going to be.

So there’s that. And there’s also, you know, research behind the fact that experts are actually worse at predicting the future than just normal people, because they are. more sure that what they see is correct. It’s so harder for them to take opposing evidence and surprises into their, their reasoning. So not to discredit Fareed, but, you know,

Zachary Karabell: No, but this is, this is a huge thing.

Like in the late eighties, where sort of the, the last people to expect the Soviet Union to fall were the Sovietologists, like the people who had been, immersed in all of the study of it because they were kind of in direct relation to the system as it was. I wonder now sometimes about Sinologists, you know, people who are professional China watchers, are they more or less likely to like overestimate the strength of Xi’s regime and it’s effectiveness or are they getting it right?

I mean, it’s also hard for non experts to assess whether or not experts are appropriately utilizing their expertise. I mean, at least at the Fareed’s core, he’s much more of a generalist, so we don’t have that trap. And he’s, he’s kind of writing a narrative at a very big picture level. So then the question arises of You know, should we be more pessimistic about the state of democracy or are we just in a moment of change, right?

Inflection points, when you’re in the middle of them, it’s pretty hard to tell, right? It’s pretty hard to tell what the outcome is. That’s why history allows you some of the perspective that the present doesn’t. You know, we don’t know what’s going to happen, but 30 years from now, someone looking at our current moment will know outcomes and we’ll be able to say, oh, dot, dot, dot, dot, dot.

You know, that doesn’t mean that it’s a futile exercise. It just means it’s a different exercise when we’re, we’re trying to understand our present. We do so without the foresight that, you know, we do when we look at the past and even then we get the past wrong all the time. I mean, that’s another thing we talked about with Fareed, right?

That how we understand the past is constantly changing as well. You look, we’re going to keep having these conversations. Fareed’s book is absolutely worth reading. It is intensely thought provoking, uh, and has provoked intense thought, not just thought. in this particular podcast, but in culture at large, it’s been on the bestseller list.

And I think anytime we can all collectively engage in a discussion of where we’ve been and where are we going, that’s a good time. I mean, that is a good thing. That is a constructive cultural attribute. So whether or not. Our current conversation has been like, woo, things are great. Being able to actually look at the past and look at the present and speak freely and openly about it and think about it is a vital aspect of humans ability to grapple and also navigate without which we are flying blind.

So, I appreciate the conversation. So thank you, Emma. Thank you all for listening. Please send us your thoughts, your comments, your ideas, your suggestions, your critiques. Sign up for our newsletter, What Could Go Right?, written weekly by Emma. And don’t forget to listen to What Could Go Right? every week on iHeart or wherever you get your podcasts.

Thank you all.

Emma Varvaloucas: Thanks, everyone. Thanks, Zachary.

Hey, What Could Go Right? listeners. Are you looking for the news segment? We’re having a bit of a change in our scheduled programming and we’re going to start releasing mini episodes of just the best in progress news every Friday. So please join Zachary and I this Friday for the first edition.

Zachary Karabell: What Could Go Right? is produced by The Podglomerate. Executive produced by The Podglomerate and by Jeff Umbro, marketing by the Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to subscribe to the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org. Thanks for listening.

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Zachary Karabell

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