While I was in primary school, Francis Fukuyama was arguing that liberal democracy had triumphed, and that the end of history was nigh. When I went to secondary school, many countries that had long suffered under fascism and communism were finally making their transition to democracy. And when I came to England to go to university, the effects of globalisation were lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty across Asia and Latin America.
Like most people in my generation, I was by no means complacent about the future of the world. I was well aware of the deep injustices that still persisted, both close to home and further afield. And I thought that there were important political battles—for economic justice, for the rights of vulnerable minorities, and so much more—to be fought and (hopefully) won. Politics, I knew, could make the lives of many people better or worse, more decent or less humane.
But, for all of that, I never imagined that I would one day gain a visceral sense of the deep political uncertainty experienced by previous generations. I did not think that, during my own lifetime, the very survival of liberal democracy—and the very promise of an affluent and peaceful society—might be at risk. Which is to say: I was not prepared for what has happened over the last years.
In political systems from Greece to the United Kingdom, and from Sweden to the United States, authoritarian populists have been making rapid inroads. These populists enjoy a lot of democratic support. And they enjoy that support because the status quo has disappointed a lot of people.
In the last years, the living standards of many citizens have stagnated. The divide between town and country has grown rapidly. Immigration has brought rapid change to some communities. Any serious reckoning with the political transformations of the past years has to acknowledge that there are real reasons for the rise of the populists—and that nothing can be gained from vilifying their supporters.
But the fact that populists have capitalised on real problems does not mean that they are likely to be part of the solution. On the contrary, populists are dangerous to our prosperity and to our democracy for at least two reasons.
First, populists falsely claim that politics is simple. Blaming every problem on the corruption or the incompetence of the political establishment, they believe that they can deliver on their big promises by a mixture of braggadocio and fist thumping. But the challenges that now face liberal democracies around the world are very real, and they require evidence-based solutions: brightly coloured placebos will not help to tackle automation and the growth of temporary jobs, or to find sustainable solutions to trade and immigration.
Second, populists falsely claim that they alone speak on behalf of the people. The problem with this is not just that they have a very narrow conception of the people, which tends to exclude, and even to vilify, immigrants and minorities. It is also that, fancying themselves a perfect embodiment of the people’s will, they see all opposition—whether from courts, newspapers, or activists—as illegitimate.
For both reasons, populists who behave in this way pose a serious danger to the core values of an open society. Unless their rise can be halted, liberal democracy will be under serious threat around the world. It is high time for members of my generation to unlearn our complacency—and to fight for our values.
That is why I am so excited to lead this new project.
It is true, as has widely been reported, that this new Institute will try to make a contribution to halting the rise of populism. But it is not true, as has at times been insinuated, that our goal is to rescue the status quo. Quite on the contrary, we start from a keen awareness that, if we are to save the best things about our current political order, we must fight with renewed resolve to overcome some of its worst aspects.
Concretely, this means that we need to identify the policies that can actually counteract the drivers of discontent. Liberal democracy will only be secure if most people once again feel that the future holds promise for them, that their fate is under their control, and that their communities will flourish.
At the same time, it also means that we need to reinvigorate the public’s attachment to liberal democracy. As I demonstrate in my academic work, a rapidly growing number of citizens believes that democracy is a bad system of government. Some have even become more open to autocratic alternatives to democratic rule. We therefore need to restate the dangers of authoritarian populism, and to articulate a new, forward-looking case for liberal democracy.
“Whoever is winning at the moment,” George Orwell once wrote, “will always seem to be invincible.” For much of my life, we have erred in assuming that our most fundamental values would never be tested. Now, we are in danger of making the opposite mistake: Because of a few setbacks, it seems as though all the things we once held dear might be doomed—and have, perhaps, been wrong all along.
But if we find the right words to defend our values, and the right policies to give a real perspective to every citizen, the future of liberal democracy can shine as brightly as its past. This is the great fight facing my generation—and I hope that you will help us to win it.