On January 24, 2018, Francis Fukuyama, a world-renowned political scientist, spoke to some few hundred students, faculty and public audience at the University of British Columbia (UBC). The talk was part of the Liu Institute’s Phil Lind Initiative. I had the opportunity to attend the event and here are highlights from the event.
What is populism?
In his remarks, Fukuyama suggests that the Liberal World Order that was spearheaded by the United States after the Second World War has been challenged by the rise of populism, particularly in the western world. Fukuyama provides three different characteristics of populism:
- Economic nationalism: Populist movements are typically anti-trade and advocate a retreat from the global economic system.
- Appeals to only certain groups: Populism is not an inclusive movement. It appeals only to certain segments of society. For example, Donald Trump’s followers are predominantly white Americans in rural areas.
- Weakening democratic institutions: Populist leaders hinges on personality and demagoguery. As such, democratic institutions such as the judicial and legislative branches that check the executive’s authority would be considered as a liability to his/her authority.
According to Fukuyama, the rise of populism can be attributed to three problems: First, the liberal economic model has not benefited the mainstream population. As a result of which, the gap between the rich and the rest has grown larger than ever. Political gridlock throughout liberal democracies has also contributed to the rise of populism. Fukuyama defined this as ‘vetoism’, where the political elites are unable to deliver results. One example of ‘vetoism’ is the government shutdowns that occur frequently in the United States. The last problem that leads to populism is the cultural decline, where many people believe they have become invisible to the coastal or bi-coastal elites.
Rethinking the Liberal Democratic Order
Fukuyama’s solution to the ‘liberal democratic order’ is to have an integrated national identity that is liberal, or in other words, loyal to the liberal principle.
There were some serious contradictions in Fukuyama’s robust defense of the liberal order. He argued that despite rising wealth inequality, global economic growth has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. At the same time, he criticized China’s economic model, which he believes focuses too much on growth. Fukuyama ignored the fact that it was in China that we saw over 500 millions people lifted out of abject poverty.
As many other neo-liberal thinkers, Fukuyama’s solution to the current problem is to ‘restore’ the liberal order, without reflecting the core problems that exist in that order. Maybe instead of restoring the liberal order, it’s time to reform the order itself. For decades, the liberal order as we know it has brought extreme wealth inequality, environmental degradation, and authoritarianism
So how can we reform our democratic institutions?
- Redefining economic development:
The unchecked and uncompromising pursuit of excessive capital accumulation, that is at the heart of the liberal order, is the root cause of the current ‘democratic recession.’ It is time for us to reform our economic system by incorporating environmental sustainability and equity in our growth model
- Strengthening our democratic institution
We need to make sure that our democratic process is inclusive. We know that the American political stage is reserved for the elites. Almost all U.S Presidents came from an elite background, while in China, all Presidents came from a humble background. As it stands now, the political system in America and many other western countries are neither democratic nor liberal, as it is reserved for the few elites. Keeping money out of the electoral process while increasing transparency would help us strengthen our democratic institutions.
As I am writing this piece, our ‘global elites’ are meeting in Davos for the annual World Economic Forum summit, discussing inequality while staying at the Alpine resort, where a room costs $500 per night. Tickets to the event (for those without special invitation) costs C$ 85,000 each. It is no wonder that many of us are feeling restless and losing faith in the liberal democratic order.