At an e.Adda held recently, international affairs columnist, CNN news host and author Fareed Zakaria spoke on democracy in America, the challenges for journalism, big tech and why India needs to have a strategic conception of its place in the world
On whether the Trump era is over
I think, finally, we’re seeing a break in the Republican Party. We’re seeing people willing to find a way to separate themselves from him, but the base is still with Trump. This may seem fantastical, but it is basically true that nearly 60-70% of Republicans still believe that Trump is right, that the election was stolen. You’re talking about 50-60 million Americans. So, the challenge for the party will be how do you dissociate from Trump without dissociating yourself from the base, the energy and the intensity of support that comes with it. So, here what’s going to happen — the Republican Party is going to break. In any dictatorship, you know things are getting bad when you see dissension at the top. I think you’re beginning to see that.
On the dangers of illiberal democracy
I think the lesson of the deterioration of democracy in America is this — you can look at systems and say this one is weak because these institutions are new, the independence of the courts is new, the separation of powers is new, they haven’t had the time to build. I think what I didn’t realise is institutions are human, they’re fragile by definition, that at the end of the day, an institution is only so strong as the people who are willing to defend it, the people who are willing to uphold it, and that they can shift very easily.
On India’s strategic choices
The challenge is that India hasn’t figured out what it wants. For that, it needs to have a strategic conception of its place in the world, its place in Asia. And it doesn’t have right that now. Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi says his policy is multinational, etc, but I’m going to be nice to everybody. That is opposite of having a foreign policy. Foreign policy is making choices. I think if India were to decide that it wants a strategic partnership with the US, centred around cooperation and shared information, that would be a transforming relationship. But India needs to be much clearer about this. There’s still a certain amount of the non-aligned mentality that is still part of the Indian foreign ministry. So, until it can get rid of those phobias and realise it’s actually in a new world, I don’t think you’ll get as much out of the American relationship as you could.
On the link between political fanaticism and the pandemic
Look, I quote this line of Lenin’s in the book that there are decades when nothing happens and, then, there are weeks when decades happen. The pandemic has sort of put life on fast forward, it’s accelerated many trends taking place around the world, within our system. Now, if you look at this election in the US, it was a heroic achievement. You had a pandemic and yet, we have had a record turnout and the largest participation by Americans, in a hundred years. But it has raised the stakes, it has heightened the intensity, it has made people feel that this is a make-or-break moment, and when those kinds of things happen, the atmosphere gets charged. So, that’s the sense in which the pandemic had an effect. It also has something to do with the #BlackLivesMatter protests that happened. Again, this same feeling of intensification and high stakes, it has something to do with the challenges to democracy because the election became a high-stakes game, but I wouldn’t discount the reality of Donald Trump. Trump is not produced by the pandemic, he precedes it.
On the growing divide in society
There is a particularly dangerous trend, because we have this big and growing divide in almost every society — between an urban, educated, somewhat richer group on the one hand and a rural, less educated, somewhat poorer group on the other. It’s not only about money, it’s really about a sense of class difference, class resentment, class anxiety. And unless we are careful about this, we will create a permanent politics of resentment and grievance, which can then be used very effectively by skilful politicians. Modi uses it in India, Erdogan uses it in Turkey, Putin uses it in Russia, and of course, Trump uses it in the United States.
On the one lesson one can learn from Trump
Probably the one lesson would be, to remember sometimes what people forget more than anything else — that human beings want dignity, they want a sense of recognition. What Trump makes you realise is that a lot of his programmes help the millionaire class but he still has this incredible support among the working class. Why? Because he speaks to them with dignity. And that feeling that I see you, I hear you, turns out to be very important for people’s emotional and psychic well being. The last Democrat who was able to do that was Bill Clinton.
On the challenge for journalism
I think there’s no going back to the old world. The old world was one where you had a limited supply. And that shaped journalism in those days. So in the United States, you had three networks, you got all your news from those networks, then four or five big national papers. And the most important thing about those networks was they knew they had a mixture of people — Democrats, Republicans, Left, Right. Fortunately, they had a lot of people who were not very political. And so they had to provide a kind of centrist, fact-based diet of news. This shift that’s taking place is two-fold. One, you’ve lost that cartel that was able to just feed people what they thought was the important thing. And you now have many different platforms of various kinds. But the second is that a large number of people who were listening, watching, reading in the old days out of a sense of obligation — they actually turn out not to be that interested in politics. So what happens is, now political journalism has to contend with the reality that they are only getting the junkies and those tend to be more partisan. The challenge is that you have to still maintain your standards.
On political parties and populism
Parties have always played that role of reconciling differences within a population, and channelling passion into policy. The problem is not just populism, but a kind of democratisation where everybody thinks that these elites are bad, party elites are bad. Why should they be making the choices? So when you move into that world, it becomes very difficult for parties to play that stabilising role as gatekeepers.
On whether any government is big enough to regulate big tech
Between the information revolution and globalisation, mostly it is technology that is driving us towards the single platforms, which means that these single companies have enormous power. I don’t know how easy it is going to be to regulate it. The market is not going to provide a solution. So the state, the government has to find some way… the Twitter ban on Trump, is completely egregious. I don’t think it’s a good idea.