Michael Bluhm: Do you see any connection between the U.S. and democratic breakdowns among its allies?
Moisés Naím: If you live in a democracy, you live in a society that went through the 2008-2009 financial crisis, which has a long set of consequences. The political repercussions of the Great Recession are quite important, but they were not sufficiently noticed, and they created favorable conditions for demagogues and populists.
We were saved from another Great Depression, but the recession did have significant effects: growing inequality, unemployment, declining incomes, declining budgets for social policies. The mantra of 2008-2009 was fiscal austerity—cutting budgets and curbing social programs.
Around the world, we got a new lexicon, a new kind of politics that was not very democratic. It had a strong authoritarian propensity; it clashed with checks and balances, and limits to the power of the presidency. We saw it in Brazil, the Philippines, and Hungary.
While all that was unfolding, we got hit by the pandemic. How can a democracy survive all those knocks without more skepticism, more frustration with the government—and with the idea of democracy itself? In democratic societies, protests are more visible; the instruments that the state has to control critics, more limited.
It’s very important to note that even autocracies suffered the consequences of these situations. In Russia, Putin has tools, resources, and institutional settings that give him more power; he can be more repressive than a democracy. And he has been.
The world, and democracies in general, have experienced significant external shocks.
: You mention the rise of populists in democratic countries. The Signal recently published an interview
with James A. Robinson, the co-author of Why Nations Fail
, who said that political scientists don’t have a good explanation for the appeal of populism—for why populists have succeeded in countries as different as Brazil, the Philippines, and Hungary. What do you see as driving the surge in populism and populists?