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The case for optimism about American democracy

Why Fareed Zakaria believes the American experiment is flawed but resilient.

Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the US Capitol Building on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC.
Brent Stirton/Getty Images

How worried should we be about the state of democracy?

Democracy panic is its own genre of journalism at this point, and for good reasons. After the last five years, it’s impossible not to worry about the future of democracy, not just in the US but across the globe.

Is the sort of democratic decline we’re seeing in places like India and Hungary and Brazil a glimpse of our future? And if it is, are we prepared for it? I reached out to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria to discuss exactly how worried we should be.

Zakaria, whose most recent book is called Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World, is uniquely positioned to answer these sorts of questions. Back in 1997, he wrote a now-famous essay in Foreign Affairs called “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy.” What he saw then was a form of reactionary populism sweeping across the democratic world, and virtually all of the trends he spotted have only intensified since.

We talk about how we got here, the failures of liberalism, why the Republican Party has become an existential threat to our constitutional system, and whether Democrats are capable of rising to the challenge. I also ask him for reasons to be optimistic in spite of all the disturbing signs.

You can hear our entire conversation (as always, there’s much more) in this week’s episode of Vox Conversations. A transcript, edited for length and clarity, follows.

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Sean Illing

A lot of people are panicking over the state of democracy these days, but you were sounding the alarm back in 1997. What did you see then that so worried you?

Fareed Zakaria

To paint the picture, we’re talking about the mid-1990s. The Cold War is over, the Soviet Union has collapsed. Communism is discredited worldwide and it feels like the triumph of liberal democracy, the end of history. And what I started to notice was that, in country after country, the places that were becoming democracies often had a peculiar kind of democracy: They had elections but they weren’t free and fair, and the elected governments were then systematically undermining core liberal concepts, like minority protections, protections of free speech, rule of law, and even the separation of church and state. So I was watching a kind of oxymoron — not liberal democracy, but illiberal democracy.

Illiberal democracy sounds like an oxymoron because these two concepts have always gone together in the Western world. But I tried to explain that the democratic project, which is really about elections, is quite separate from the liberal project, which is about who governs minorities and the limitations on power and liberty.

So if you think about it, the American Constitution is actually fundamentally and deeply imbued with this liberal project, in the sense that the Bill of Rights is all about what government cannot do, even if a majority wants to do it. That spirit was very absent in countries where new elections were being held, from Belarus to Ghana to the Philippines to Russia.

Now I have to confess, I worried a little bit about illiberal democracy in the Western world back then, but I never expected to see what we have seen in these last five years which is, from Poland to Hungary to the United States, a willingness for majorities and elected leaders to rub up against core liberal concepts like an independent judiciary, like independent election commissions and processes.

Sean Illing

What’s the clearest case of an “illiberal democracy” today?

Fareed Zakaria

The most worrying one to me right now is India, because India was this miracle, a very poor country that had managed to have sustained democratic governance since 1947. There’s a two-year interregnum when Indira Gandhi, in the mid-1970s, declares emergency rule and suspends civil liberties, but other than that it had had a pretty strong democratic experience, one with real opposition parties, real alternations of power, independent judiciary, and a free press.

So for 75 years, liberal democracy felt deeply ingrained in the Indian system. And over the last five years, the Modi regime has managed to overturn many of these elements of constitutional liberalism in India. They have managed to intimidate the media in a very clever way, by getting between friends and industrialists who are cozy with the government, intimidation, the withdrawal of government advertising. There are some smaller publications that still are very spirited and very strong, and there’s one TV channel that continues to battle a lonely battle, but it has been subjected to the most extraordinary government persecution. The judiciary has been packed. The independent election commission has been packed.

The most worrying thing is that there isn’t a great deal of pushback. It turns out that if you use the language and tools of democracy to undermine democracy itself, it’s much harder to fight back than I would have suspected. So it’s not that India is the worst offender, it’s that it had succeeded admirably for so long that liberal democracy seemed rooted, and now it’s eroding, and Modi remains very popular in India.

Sean Illing

There’s a temptation to call America an illiberal democracy now, but that doesn’t seem quite right. Trump wasn’t a “popular” authoritarian using his popularity to destroy democracy. Trump was and remains deeply unpopular. But we did have a major political party that refused to check an illiberal president and that continues to use its power to push anti-democratic measures. We definitely have an illiberal system at the moment, but it’s not exactly democratic.

Fareed Zakaria

I would agree with that. The American system is much, much stronger than the Indian one, though. Let’s not forget that Trump lost. When push came to shove, every Republican official in all 50 States followed the law. Mike Pence followed the law, even though it meant he himself was going to lose his office. Now, as I said, we worry about the future, but what we are looking at here is not India. Our courts upheld the law. They dismissed all the frivolous lawsuits that the Trump campaign was putting in place. There were lots of Trump’s policies that were unconstitutional or borderline constitutional, and the court either rolled them back or trimmed them in various ways, and independent agencies like the CIA and the FBI refused to go along with Trump in many areas.

The American story is a somewhat different one. The story here is the Republican Party losing the ability to do what parties have historically done throughout Western history. The reason parties have been so central to the preservation of liberal democracy is that they channel public passions, public emotion, public anger, public joy, into programs and policies that are compatible with a liberal democratic framework. At their best, that’s what parties do. And parties act as gatekeepers. They rule out the most extreme fringes on both sides.

What has happened in America, ever since the onset of the primaries in the 1960s, is we have eviscerated the political parties and empowered all kinds of non-party actors — from the candidates themselves to the rich — through fundraising processes. And the effect of that has been that the parties have gotten hollowed out. So the political system has become one run almost entirely by small fringes that occupy the extreme wings of the party.

Sean Illing

But there’s a clear asymmetry here.

Fareed Zakaria

Yeah, this is particularly true of the Republican Party. So the party caves to Trump because they’re all worried about losing the next primary, about losing the funding that comes at those early stages, which all tends to come from the most passionate and the most committed. It’s basically the candidate, his or her Rolodex, his or her name recognition, and his or her ability to appeal to the most extreme slice of the electorate that is going to make those early decisions that make all the difference.

Sean Illing

If the parties in our system are supposed to act as buffers between popular passions and public policy, and we only have two parties, one of which has totally lost this ability, then that seems to put us on an unsustainable path.

Fareed Zakaria

It’s not sustainable. Obama put it this way, “The fever has to break and the fever will break.” I agree with half of his sentiment. I don’t know how the fever breaks in the short term, but I do believe that at the end of the day, you cannot sustain such a profoundly undemocratic attitude toward elections in a democracy.

This is not about being against liberalism. This is saying, “We will not accept the outcome of elections so we’re going to try as many ways as we can to make it difficult for people to vote. And then we’re going to reserve the right to count the votes in creative ways to try to fudge the results.” That can’t survive.

I’ll say this with due concern: It’s possible that the GOP might be able to do this once, but I think the backlash will be very strong. This is where my optimism comes in. I think that America remains a very vibrant democratic political culture. I think there would be a deep revulsion if the GOP actually overturned an election.

One nice thing about democracy is that you have space for revolt, for reaction, for opposition movements, and if you win by enough, the cheating doesn’t do enough. So that’s my hope in India, and it’s my much stronger hope in America.

Sean Illing

Does the US still strike you as a model democracy?

Fareed Zakaria

I think the American system is still pretty extraordinary. There’s still a lot to learn from it. I’m not one of these people who believes that the founding fathers were demigods who came down from Mount Olympus, briefly appeared here, gave us a perfect Constitution, and then disappeared. And that every time we confront a problem, we should ask, “What would James Madison have done?” I think there’s a kind of founder fetish sometimes, but I do think it’s an extraordinary process that delivered an extraordinary product that has been amazingly resilient.

Sean Illing

If you’re an American citizen worried about democratic decline and wanted to look around the world for a glimpse of our possible future if we don’t get this turned around, where would you suggest looking?

Fareed Zakaria

In the case of Hungary, not for very long, but Hungary’s a rich Western country. And India, as I said, is very concerning because, like the US, it has had a deep democratic culture and independent media, and the courts were very strong — and it’s all been undermined.

The puzzle in America is that we have these same structures, but one party is trying to destroy them or weaken them. And this is something James Madison never conceived of because he hated political parties. He thought political parties were terrible precisely because they would eventually adopt a “party over country” attitude. That’s why he imagined a political system with lots of different factions. (And again, this is another example of someone like Madison being wrong because he himself eventually presided over the founding of the first political party.)

Sean Illing

The big worry has always been, what does the next Trump look like? For all the damage he caused, Trump’s clownishness limited the amount of damage he could do. But what if the next wanna-be autocrat isn’t a wanna-be at all? What if the next Trump combines the ethno-nationalism with a real populist agenda?

Fareed Zakaria

Trump was so bizarre in so many ways. He was clownish and he fundamentally didn’t know how to govern and didn’t care about governing. It was all mostly tweets and announcements rather than actual policy. And he was sort of weird and mercurial and contradictory. So there were times at which he would undermine his own agenda, like the obsession with being nice to Putin while his administration was pursuing anti-Russian policies.

What you’re asking is, what if we end up with a more sophisticated, more coherent, more capable version of Trump? I don’t have the answer to that. My hope is that part of what made Trump attractive to so many people in America was his weirdness and celebrity and the fact that he was entertaining. He didn’t appear to be some dark evil proto-fascist when you listened to him because he was so unserious. My hope is that the kind of person you’re describing would not attract as many votes.

But I have to confess that I don’t know, and we’re both agreeing that the fundamental problem is that the parties have lost the ability to internally discipline and weed out this kind of threat. And this is a greater issue for the GOP, for all kinds of cultural reasons.

A lot is going to depend on what happens in the next four years: Does Trump get nominated again? If he is, and he loses in a crushing humiliating defeat, then maybe that makes the GOP realize they’ve gone down the wrong path. No idea if that can happen, but that kind of repudiation of Trump and Trumpism would be best for the country.

Sean Illing

When we last spoke, you said you were an eternal optimist about America, in part because you’re an immigrant. How much optimism is left in that tank?

Fareed Zakaria

I’m still optimistic. I still believe we’ll get through this, but I think it’s a struggle. The challenges reflected in this conversation are deep. We’re more polarized than at any point since around the Civil War. That degrades the democratic culture. We have strong illiberal forces within our society. That’s all true. It’s still an amazingly resilient country, however. There’s still a lot of dynamism and vitality. Young people particularly seem to want to live in a country that’s really a kind of universal nation, where everyone is more equally treated.

Some of this is mushy idealism and can be caricatured as “woke” platitudes, but there’s a spirit of empathy there that I admire and appreciate. So I hope that general feeling has an effect and translates politically. But this is the fight of our political lives and we’ll have to engage and make our voices heard in a way that is perhaps more important and louder and stronger than at any point since the Civil War, certainly since the civil rights movement.

Will this happen naturally? No. But there’s an inherent logic in the American experiment that can move us in the right direction if we push hard enough.