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Democracy and Liberalism
Ben Klutsey and Shadi Hamid discuss ‘messy pluralism’ and the need to focus on political procedures rather than outcomes
In this installment of a series on liberalism, Benjamin Klutsey, the director of the Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, talks with Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, about countries that are perceived as backsliding into authoritarianism, whether democracy is a historical aberration, differences between democracy and liberalism, how to improve U.S. foreign policy and much more.
BENJMAMIN KLUTSEY: Today on our “Conversations on Liberalism” our guest is Shadi Hamid. He’s a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings. He’s assistant research professor of Islamic studies at Fuller Seminary, a contributing writer at Atlantic, a member of the Project on Middle East Democracy’s board of directors. In 2019, he was named one of the world’s top 50 thinkers by Prospect magazine.
He has written and co-authored several articles and books, including “The Problem of Democracy: America, the Middle East, and the Rise and Fall of an Idea,” which is the subject of our conversation today.
Thanks, Shadi, for joining us.
SHADI HAMID: Hi, Ben. Thanks for having me.
KLUTSEY: I remember reading Samuel Huntington’s book “The Third Wave” in college, which described the global trend over a couple of decades of about 60 or so countries that had become democratic. At the time, it seemed as though we were at a tipping point.
Recently, we’ve had the Arab Spring, which sort of fizzled. You lived in the Middle East during the Arab Spring, as you write in your book. Can you paint a picture for us in terms of where we are now with democracy around the world, and if you see this democratic backsliding occurring, as some argue? It’s been a bit of a grave concern for a number of people who have been talking about it now. Just wanted to get your thoughts on, broad strokes, where you see democracy around the world right now.
HAMID: Yes. So I was in the Middle East during the Arab Spring. I was in Tahrir Square the day that Mubarak fell, Feb. 11, 2011, and it was—
KLUTSEY: It must have been an amazing moment. [chuckles]
HAMID: Yes. It was really one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments, in a quite literal sense. I’m not sure that I’ll be present for a revolution in real time again, especially in the Middle East. It seems like they’re going to be harder to come by going forward—but we’ll talk about that.
HAMID: I was part of this initial moment of euphoria. My optimism was a little bit different than other people’s. I think that many American analysts looked at Egypt and Tunisia, and they saw young, English-speaking, Twitter-savvy liberals leading the way, and they saw some of themselves in those activists.
Since I work on, among other things, Islamist movements, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, I knew that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood—which were not liberal, which were non-Western-friendly—would do quite well in a political opening if there were free and fair elections: that they would be prominent, if not win outright. I’d been writing about that for many years, laying that out as one possibility if the Middle East ever gets to a point of political reform. But I was still optimistic that Islamism and democracy could coexist—that even if these Islamist parties won, that that was actually in line with democracy, with small-d democracy.
Of course, a number of other things happened in the subsequent two years. Then we see Egypt becoming a military dictatorship again. There was a military coup in 2013 against the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi, and Mohamed Morsi was a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, so this was a democratically elected Islamist president. He had one year in power, and we don’t have a lot to go on in terms of assessing the record because that’s a very small period of time, obviously.
The fact that many so-called liberals and secularists in Egypt supported the military coup against the elected government had a profound effect on me. I think a lot of my work in writing since then has been colored by the darkness that I saw in that particular moment. That these were people who were the elite of the elite, Western-educated, supposedly inculcated in at least some liberal values, yet they turned against democracy so decisively and so unquestioningly that it forced a number of very challenging questions that I still grapple with to this day.
Part of what I do in the book is to try to understand how and why that happened and to push readers to rethink the word and the concept of democracy.
Conflating Democracy and Liberalism
HAMID: Now, more broadly in the world, obviously, there’s a lot of discourse around democratic backsliding. Some of it’s obviously accurate if we look at specific cases. But I think also some of it’s overstated, in part because there is this tendency among Western observers to conflate small-d democracy and small-l liberalism. When they say there’s backsliding in democracy, what they really mean is that there’s backsliding in liberal democracy.
One of the animating things in so much of what I do is to try to make careful distinctions between these two terms that I think we carelessly use. Democracy is fundamentally about responsiveness to voters, popular sovereignty—rotation of power is essential. Reasonably free and fair and meaningful and competitive elections where different parties have a chance to win and communicate their preferences to voters, and voters make a choice.
When we talk about small-l liberalism, we’re talking about the classical liberal tradition, and that has a different series of emphases: individual autonomy, personal rights, moving towards gender equality, minority rights protections—but also, on a broader conceptual level, the primacy of reason over revelation and the privileging of the individual over the collective.
I think, as John Rawls puts it—he describes liberalism as a specification of basic rights, opportunities and liberties. And I mention that only because, if we’re specifying those rights, liberties and opportunities, they can only derive from the individual. When we’re talking about rights and opportunities, we’re not talking about the rights of a group or a collective. That’s not what liberal theorists are concerned with, and they would actually see that as something to be concerned about.
So the individual is the primary unit of analysis. And there’s also an implication of a constrained role for religion in public life. We can talk about to what extent liberalism requires that constraint. I’m very much of the view that liberalism necessarily entails cutting religion down to size in the public sphere in some way.
As I described it, these two concepts—democracy and liberalism—can sometimes be in tension. Oftentimes they are in tension, and we’re seeing that now. That is really at the heart of the crisis that we’re in today. It’s not a crisis of democracy as much as it is a crisis of liberalism and democracy and how we relate those two terms.
Then that gets us into questions of the meaning and purpose of politics, because liberalism is about the ends of politics where democracy is about the means of politics—or at least that’s one of the ways that I distinguish them.
Is Democracy Overrated?
I think you would say that—I think you mentioned this in the book as well—that you see this tension in the United States as well: the democratic dilemma. How comfortable are we with certain outcomes that emerge from a democratic process? I find that question interesting.
We’re going to talk about democratic minimalism soon, but I wanted to get your take on democracy itself and whether you think it’s an idea that is overrated or underrated.
HAMID: [chuckles] It’s interesting because I could answer that question with both answers. Part of me feels that it’s overrated, but part of me feels that it’s underrated for different reasons. Basically, I think we overrate democracy in that we expect so much out of it. We expect too much out of it, and we’ve projected a burden on the democratic idea that it can no longer bear.
That is a big problem. Just to give one example in the Middle East: In Tunisia, after its revolution—again, there was this euphoria, and there was also this claim (implicit but also sometimes explicit) that, now that there was democracy in Tunisia, people’s lives would improve. They’d notice the tangible effects. There would be economic growth. Poverty would decline; unemployment would decline.
This is the assumption that good things go together. We have this notion of progress where we think if one thing is good, then it will necessarily lead to other things that are good. That, to me, is just an unrealistic view of democracy. I don’t think it’s empirically accurate.
Yes, in the medium to long term, democracies on average do perform better economically. But how long is the medium to long term? There’s also another strain of the academic literature which acknowledges that young democracies in the early phase can be quite chaotic, messy and destabilizing. I want us to not make democracy into a panacea and connect it to all these other things.
At the same time, I think that democracy is underrated because we underrate—even if we cut democracy down to size and take an approach like the one that I do in the book, which is more “minimalist,” that, I think, is still pretty damn awesome. I don’t think it’s a concession. I don’t think it’s making democracy small. It’s actually attributing more importance to the essential components of democracy that make it great.
The idea that people can choose their own leaders, however bad those leaders are, is incredible. Even if Americans vote—they voted for Donald Trump, as we know, in 2016. That was a pretty frightening outcome from my perspective, but I think there was also something beautiful (if I can use that word) that a lot of Americans just decided to just go their own way and go against the elite consensus. A lot of people were angry, some of them for illegitimate reasons but some for legitimate reasons, legitimate grievances. And they decided to take a radical position and vote for this vaguely crazy person.
That is actually an amazing thing when you think about it. That means that the people are sovereign, in some sense. That can obviously be scary, because the people—as reflected in elections—can make choices that we disagree with.
I would also just add to that, that democracy is a conflict-regulation mechanism. It’s a way of saying that we as citizens no longer agree on the common good. We no longer have a shared sense of foundational values. The best we can do, which is still quite a lot, is to say, “Look, we’re not going to be able to resolve this through persuasion or dialogue. We’re going to have fundamental disagreements, but you know what? We’re going to agree to adjudicate those differences through regular elections, and we will respect the outcome even if it doesn’t go our way.” Because the only alternative to that is coercion.
Either you find a way to live with the people that you dislike or even hate—your fellow citizens—or one side decides to try to conclusively defeat the other. That is an alternative that I am not a fan of because it requires not just coercion but repression and marginalizing millions of our fellow citizens.
Authoritarianism as Aberration
KLUTSEY: Now, in the book you say you don’t believe democracy is an aberration in human history, with an arc bending back toward authoritarianism. I’m curious to hear why you don’t see democracy as the aberration of human history, because I think predominantly it seems as though, when you go back in history, you see more authoritarian or, say, top-down forms of government and politics overall. I just wanted to hear your take on this.
HAMID: Authoritarianism obviously exists historically, but it’s a different kind of authoritarianism than the one that we see today. Before the modern nation-state, authoritarian regimes—and I even hesitate to use that particular phrase because they weren’t even really “regimes” in the modern sense—they were fundamentally limited. They couldn’t intrude in everyone’s personal life and monitor and surveil everyone. Bureaucracies were still relatively small, so the administrative state wasn’t this far-reaching octopus of tentacles going into every aspect of life.
In a premodern era, there is some degree of autonomy on the local and regional level, where people can mind their own business. There’s certain things that they have to be careful about vis-a-vis the central government, wherever it happens to be. But usually the central government is going to be far away from them, not just in strict geographic terms but also—even if it’s only 50 miles away, if you don’t have a car, that could actually be a somewhat—that’s mentally far away from you.
If we look at the Islamic history in the classical Islamic period, were any of the caliphates democratic? No, and unfortunately they became dynastic over time and power accumulated, but people still relied on their local communities. Minority communities were accountable to their local priests, local rabbi, local church community. If you were a Muslim in the caliphate, you were concerned about the judges and scholars who are in your particular region.
That’s how Islamic law was developed: in a very rich, diverse tapestry where different localities approached in different ways based on their context, and where people, again, were very connected to local authorities, which simply just weren’t authoritarian in the way that we think about it today.
This is all just to say that the democratic impulse is one that I think we see across time and place. It’s not democratic in the sense of universal suffrage and voting in the way we think about it today. But is there something in the human experience where people want some jurisdiction over their own lives and families and communities, and where they jealously guard that, and when that’s infringed upon, they take offense? I think that is a natural setting.
That’s different than saying that we are naturally inclined towards liberalism. I’m simply saying that we are naturally inclined to want to have some way to determine our own destinies without excessive control from outside actors. People just don’t want other authorities to mess with their family. That is their domain.
KLUTSEY: Right, right. That absolutely makes sense.
In the book, you’ve tried to reconceptualize a new approach for the United States to engage with the world and the Middle East in particular. You call for democratic minimalism—you’ve already alluded to it, but if you can give us a definition of what that is.
Obviously you’re supportive of this view, but is this possible? Like, if you were to give it a rating or ranking or percentage of the possibility of this, where would you put that?
HAMID: OK. In terms of defining it a little bit more explicitly, democratic minimalism—which is something I try to lay out in quite a bit of detail in the book. Other scholars have dealt with aspects of this. But I wanted to think about it as a more specific approach and to actually try to persuade people to at least be open to the idea, even if they feel naturally suspicious of it, understandably so, to at least consider it.
Democratic minimalism is a way of thinking about democracy that emphasizes alternation of power through elections without prejudice to substantive ideological outcomes. Let me unpack that. We can think about democracy in this minimalist sense as a way of making choices and liberalism as one particular choice. This goes back to the means-ends distinction that I mentioned earlier: that democracy should not be concerned about the nature of the good.
Obviously people should participate and express those preferences, but in terms of determining whether something is democratic, we shouldn’t tie it to substantive ends, which could be really about the purposes of politics and the nature of the good life in a philosophical sense. That when we’re observing democracy and determining how successful or not successful it is, we should be agnostic about the ends.
If a democracy produces socialism, a socialist party comes to power and passes laws through its majority that control the means of production, or whatever it might be—or Islamism, Salafism, liberalism, Marxism, you name it—I don’t think that it has any bearing on whether something is a democracy or not. People should have the full freedom and agency to pursue those ideological ends as they see fit without us as observers saying that that’s bad, this is good, and so forth. That is maybe, in a nutshell, part of how to look at it.
Now, whether this approach is realistic when we think about the U.S. approaching other regions and cultures, particularly in the Middle East—one of my criticisms of U.S. policymakers, and this has been a problem for decades, is that they can’t help but put their thumbs on the scale ideologically, that there is a preference for certain ideological outcomes over others.
When Islamist parties win—and by “Islamist party” here I mean parties that believe that Islam or Islamic law should play a central role in public life, that this is one of the organizing aspects of the polity—naturally American policymakers as liberals (as small-l liberals, for the most part), they’re going to prefer liberal outcomes, and that’s natural.
Supporting Procedures, Not Outcomes
HAMID: What I want to see is a much more conscious approach where we acknowledge our liberalism, but we suspend it. We say that, yes, we are liberals in our own society, and that’s what we prefer in the U.S., but in other polities, where the universe of voters is not American policymakers—it’s Egyptians, Jordanians, Tunisians—that we’re not going to superimpose our preference on them.
What we should hold true to is simply a procedural understanding of democracy: a process that is fair and has integrity and reflects the so-called will of the people in some way, not perfectly (because that’s impossible), but makes an effort to reflect popular preferences. Then we’re agnostic about what those popular preferences are in other countries.
That’s hard. Whether it’s realistic or not, we can talk about this more, because I have my own views about the word “realistic.” I think it’s a way sometimes to limit debate, where people can say, “Oh, Shadi, that’s all well and good, but it’s not realistic.” Well, it’s not realistic now, but it could be realistic in 10 years or 20 years.
I’m more interested in the medium to long term. My side lost the debate—when it comes to the U.S. supporting democracy in the Middle East, my side lost, and we fell back on supporting authoritarian regimes. George W. Bush did this after the freedom agenda in the 2000s. There was, as we all remember, enthusiasm about democracy. Here I’m not just talking about the Iraq War, which I think is actually separate—which was not fundamentally about democracy promotion; it was about weapons of mass destruction.
There was a freedom agenda that was putting pressure on authoritarian regimes. It didn’t last. Obama had initial enthusiasm about the Arab Spring—didn’t last, and we fell back to business as usual. Now we’re supporting some of the most repressive regimes in the world: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates; these are U.S. partners and allies.
I think that it’s not happening now, but what I want to do with this book is to allow people to imagine the alternative. I think imagination is important in politics. What at one moment does not seem possible can become possible.
KLUTSEY: All right. Well, you—
HAMID: Sorry, I know there was a lot there, but—
KLUTSEY: No, it’s great, it’s great.
KLUTSEY: You note that a democratic approach in the Middle East would require messy pluralism. Otherwise, the alternative becomes suppression of Islamic sentiments, which would always backfire, and that—as you’ve just noted—Americans should remain agnostic on what Islam should be and accept the potential for uncertainty of outcomes and so on.
Can you elaborate on what this messy pluralism looks like? I wonder whether that approach perhaps should apply to the U.S. as well, if you consider Americans to be very polarized. I think one of the points that you make is, in a very polarized setting, accepting messy pluralism, in many ways, is a way to go. What are your thoughts?
HAMID: Great question, because it applies to not every single country but increasingly a large number of countries: this question of how to live with messy pluralism. One thing that struck me when I was living in the Middle East during the Arab Spring: people weren’t debating policy. They weren’t talking about healthcare reform, marginal tax rates, budget deficits.
And even to imagine that is crazy, because it seems just so tangential to what people were actually focused on, which were the foundational questions: the role of religion in public life, what it means to be an Egyptian, what it means to be a Tunisian at this very fundamental level, the relationship between Islam and the state and vice versa. These are existential questions. Obviously, because they’re existential, they raise the stakes of politics.
Now, when I came back to the U.S. in 2014, I assumed that the U.S. and other Western democracies were fundamentally different, that we would continue debating healthcare reform, marginal tax rates and “normal policy issues.” As I found out rather quickly, the Middle East was ahead of its time, and in some ways the U.S. and other democracies have been catching up with the Middle East, which is a kind of existential politics that is focused around foundational concerns.
Very few people, to my knowledge, when they were looking at Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, were comparing their policy prescription side by side and thinking, “Oh, who has the better policies that align with my economic preferences?” It was much more visceral, because the future of the republic was at stake.
With the rise of the far right in European democracies, including most recently in Italy and Sweden in a pretty striking way, and then the far right in India with Modi—but Israel now is a fascinating test case, which is like a whole different conversation of what happens when an extremely right-wing government comes to power through free elections. I guess we’ll find out more about that.
I think that messy pluralism is vital precisely—as I alluded to earlier, if you take my premise that we’re not going to agree on the foundational questions, then that shifts our attention in how we approach politics. It’s no longer about trying to beat the other side into submission.
And I don’t mean that even violently, but just the idea that Democrats can have a permanent majority and bring Republicans on—they’re going to win this ideological battle through the political process, and then that will be it. Or Republicans thinking that they can become a permanent majority if they bring on more—this supposedly multiracial working class, and with Hispanics, Arabs, Muslims and other communities of color starting to shift at least a little bit away from the Democratic Party.
These are completely—first of all, they’re anti-democratic in spirit, because in a two-party system, if you want your party to have a permanent majority—folks might remember a lot of the books like “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” and everyone’s fantasized about this—but in a two-party system, you do not want a permanent majority. Let me just say that more explicitly: You don’t want your own party to win every single election.
By definition, if you take my premise, you should actually in some way push yourself to want—if you’re a Democrat, to want the Republican Party to win, maybe not in 2024, but you would hope that maybe at some future election. And maybe at that time, culture wars will dial down at least a little bit. (I actually don’t know if that’s the case, but let’s imagine.) But at some point you would want that. People should be hoping for a better GOP that can be a partner in power, a partner in government. I don’t know what the alternative is.
That applies in any of these divided societies around these foundational issues: that you have to come to terms with the fact that tens of millions of your fellow citizens are going to support things that you consider to be existentially threatening because they have a different conception of the good life.
This is about first principles. It’s not a superficial thing. I think oftentimes in American politics we express these raw existential fears in very superficial ways, and we have these dumb debates about how to define wokeness. But there is a much more first-principle-oriented set of questions around what are the starting premises that lead someone to adopt certain woke (or whatever we want to call it) perspectives. There are fundamental philosophical differences about how we understand the individual and how we understand identity and group identity and the nature of grievance over time and looking at the founding of our country. Those are not things that are very easy to persuade other citizens on, because they are quite literally about the foundation.
The Role of Religious Belief
HAMID: I think it’s always good to take a couple steps back and think much more in terms of what are the fundamental commitments that lead us to believe what we believe. For example, I’m a believer. I take God seriously, and I mean this more in an intellectual, philosophical sense. The fact that God exists for me has profound implications on how I view political conflict, how I view even climate change. Because, for example, the view that a growing number of highly educated liberals in America have, which is, “Should we have kids because of climate change?”
I’m not joking. Ezra Klein actually wrote a very interesting column last year where he said that in his public engagements across the country, the No. 1 question he gets from listeners is, “Should we have kids because of climate change?” I honestly can’t believe this, and I appreciate Ezra for actually communicating that his audience actually thinks things like that. That, to me, is ludicrous, but part of the reason I think it’s ludicrous is because of how I view God in the broader cosmological understanding.
If God exists and we believe in his scripture to one degree or another, depending on your faith tradition, the idea that we as individuals would make an unusual decision in the scope of human history to purposely limit procreation—if God created us to be a certain way and he instilled into us a set of natural inclinations and orientations, I just don’t see how those two things can really go together.
So just one example. But also on conflict, because I believe God is the ultimate judge, because I believe perfect justice is only possible in the next life, I am more modest about the kinds of outcomes that we can achieve in the here and now. I am not interested in utopian schemes or an endless march towards progress. And I think sometimes . . .
This is not a direct causation thing, but there is some correlation, I think, and I think also some empirical evidence to this effect if we think about how progressives view God versus achieving justice in this world. We know that progressives on average are less oriented around organized faith traditions and tend to be more agnostic about God and the nature of God, on average.
If you’re not convinced that there’s going to be something after this, then it puts a lot more pressure on you to get the things that you feel are right and to get them now, because you can’t take a step back. In theory (because obviously a lot of religious people don’t act this way), but in theory, if you’re religious and you believe in something else beyond this life, it allows you to chill, to take a step back, because this is not everything—that there is something else, something bigger, something transcendent, and there is a smallness to everyday politics.
I’m not advocating that people become fatalistic, but I do think there is a kind of wisdom. You do the best you can; you try to make things better, but you acknowledge that they probably won’t get better a lot of the time.
There’s a prophetic hadith in Islam about tying your camel and trusting in God. Obviously very specific to the Arabian peninsula, but the basic idea is a universal one that everyone can think about, which is you do the best you can. Someone else might cut the cord and come and steal the camel or hurt the camel once you leave—but you do your part, and then at some point you have to let go.
U.S. Foreign Policy
KLUTSEY: That’s great.
That brief pause after your previous answer was because I was actually thinking about when you were saying that the United States—and Bush and Obama kept trying—we keep falling back to supporting authoritarian regimes. Obviously you’ve written about hypocrisy in your book, but I wanted to give you the chance to talk about that a little bit and why we keep falling back to that, why we’re not giving democratic minimalism a chance. Because it seems like smart policy, where you’re not worried about other countries’ outcomes so much, right?
HAMID: Thank you, Ben, for agreeing that it’s sensible. I agree that it’s definitely meant to be sensible. But a lot of people don’t agree, and sometimes they won’t, I think, come outright and say the reasons.
Part of it is, if you’re in a government bureaucracy, it’s not just about individuals doing the right thing. There’s a structural reality that America’s Middle East policy is a product of six, seven decades of a particular approach, and our entire national security bureaucracy has become oriented in a particular direction. When we talk about the U.S.-led order in the Middle East, that U.S.-led order has been built over decades, and it’s been built around authoritarian regimes. That’s actually something that’s very difficult to undo, and it requires a deeper reorientation and rethinking.
That’s why I’m not a fan of tinkering around the margins or saying, “Oh, let’s be better here; let’s be better there. On this country, let’s do this incremental improvement where we push them on this civil society law that they’re about to pass.” That’s fine. You do what you can around the margins, but at some basic level, the change has to be structural, and that has to come first from an ideational shift in how we understand our history in the Middle East.
It’s a tragic history. Many of your readers will know about the coups against elected governments that we supported in the Middle East but also Latin America and elsewhere. That’s a dark history.
So I’m in this weird position where I very much sympathize with the Chomskyite leftist critique of just how bad U.S. foreign policy has been in the developing world. At the same time, that doesn’t lead me to say that U.S. power is inherently bad and the U.S. playing a role in other countries is inherently bad. I want us to play a role; I just want it to be a better role.
The Impossibility of Isolationism
KLUTSEY: Because I was going to ask that—some of my more pacifist friends would say, “Why in the world are we even involved at all? Let’s go beyond democratic minimalism and just step away completely.” But you’re saying that’s not a good idea either.
HAMID: Well, step away—but there’s no real way to step away completely because, and maybe this is the realistic side of me coming out; after all, I work at a think tank where we have to think about policy implications. The idea that the U.S. could just leave the Middle East . . .
First of all, no one really explains what that means. Because yes, fine, you can close down military bases and change the security relationship with some of these problematic allies, but there’s no plausible scenario where the U.S. is going to stop selling weapons. There’s no real plausible scenario where the U.S. will just say to Egypt, “Oh, you know what? The $1.3 billion of aid that we’ve been giving you for such a long time: actually, done.”
Everything is a choice. You would have to decide, either you keep the 1.3 billion or you make it conditional on human rights improvements or you cut it unilaterally—but all of these things entail the U.S. being involved. This idea that you can have a position that is like the innocent bystander position—that’s impossible for a superpower. Because we’re implicated in all of these things. We do have interests.
Interests are real. I know sometimes folks who are maybe more idealistic, they don’t like to think in terms of national security interests. But the U.S. does have a military, and it does have to project force abroad in some way. There is a strategic competition with China and Russia. The idea that we can just leave an entire region is a nonstarter.
That’s why I think a lot of leftist critiques of foreign policy—they’re good in the deconstruction, but then they’re not able to offer anything that’s coherent and positive.
What’s a positive vision besides “The U.S. is bad?” I’m oversimplifying here and caricaturing the position a little bit, but oftentimes you do hear some version of, “The U.S. is inherently bad, or problematic, when it interferes in other countries abroad. We’re never going to be better. We’re always going to be shitty at this. Let’s stop.”
Yes, we have been bad. We have been shitty in all these ways. Can you imagine something better? Try to think about what that could actually look like without pretending that we won’t have a military or that there would be no more military bases in the world. Come on!
Anyway, I just think that there has to be a middle ground where we acknowledge U.S. power as something that can be used for good and ill. I would like us, to the extent that we can, to think very carefully about how we can reorient the structures of U.S. foreign policy so that we can institutionalize ways within our government to do better things and to take democracy more seriously in these countries.
We don’t have to go into specifics. In the book, I do lay out a quite detailed agenda of what that might look like as it relates to specific countries. I think it’s possible. One example is with a country like Saudi Arabia: We provide them a security umbrella, advanced weapons systems. We help run their militaries. We have a lot of leverage.
Instead of giving up that leverage and saying “we’re out”—which would just mean that Saudi Arabia would just depend more and more on China and other authoritarian powers—we say, “Listen, you guys want a security umbrella, you want these advanced weapon systems? We want something too. We don’t necessarily think that you can become a democracy overnight, but just be less repressive. Go in the right direction. If you don’t, we will immediately suspend spare parts, maintenance, logistical support.”
And this would ground the Saudi military in the matter of weeks. Because without spare parts and maintenance for these systems, which we provide, Saudi jets and Saudi tanks would, in a very literal sense, not be able to run.
I’m acknowledging that there’s strong leverage there. That leverage can be used in a better way by integrating democracy and human rights concerns in a realistic way. Again, I don’t want to be unrealistic about what we can achieve right away with Saudi Arabia, but to tie these things together and introduce a regime of conditionality when it comes to weapon sales, for example.
Social vs. Political Illiberalism
KLUTSEY: One of the interesting distinctions that you make is between social illiberalism and political illiberalism in the context of governance in the Middle East.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this because Emily Chamlee-Wright, president of the Institute for Humane Studies, has written about the four corners of liberalism: political, cultural, economic and epistemic. I was wondering whether, by supporting political liberalism—it seems as though you say that should take precedence over social liberalism, and by supporting that, it’s a form of democratic minimalism. Right?
HAMID: Yes. I do try to decouple democracy and liberalism, but at the same time, there is some overlap. I don’t think it’s possible to treat them as completely separate concepts, because if you want alternation of power between different parties through elections, it means that certain freedoms have to be protected. For example, the right to organize a protest in a main square or the right to form a new political party or the right to criticize the ruling party. Because if opposition parties don’t have a way to communicate their preferences to voters, then it’s not going to be a meaningful, competitive election.
There has to be some access to the media. If you block the opposition from saying anything to anyone and then you hold a supposedly free election on the day of, people just won’t know about the other parties. To take just an extreme example: if there’s a complete blackout of coverage of opposition parties.
There has to be some—some of that has to be allowed to even have a minimal form of democracy. I think one of the important tests is, Does the opposition have a realistic shot of winning? Is there a conceivable scenario where they have a fighting chance? Because without that, you don’t have alternation of power.
And you don’t have recourse. Because part of what democracy is about—it’s in some ways the right to make the wrong choice. But if you have the right to make the wrong choice, you should also have the right to make a different choice the next time around. That has to be protected.
That’s in the “political liberalism” bucket. I distinguish that from social, cultural or religious liberalism, which is much more about the substantive ends of politics. For example, if a democratically elected parliament decided to pass legislation restricting alcohol consumption or restricting abortion access or introducing some blasphemy law about not insulting prophets and divine texts, those are all examples of cultural or religious illiberalism. And that is what we should be agnostic on.
We don’t have to like it. I want to be clear: I don’t like—those aren’t things that I would want in my own country. If a majority of, let’s say, Egyptians have those preferences, that’s where we should be agnostic, because that is about the nature of the good life. That is about these ultimate questions about what role morality and value should play in a society, and that will differ from one population to another.
Audience and Action
KLUTSEY: Interesting. Now, as we bring this to a close, I wanted you to talk a little bit about your audience and who you are targeting with this book. Are you speaking to academics primarily? Or the foreign policy establishment primarily? Is there a call to action to the audience that you’re speaking to?
HAMID: Definitely one audience is people who work on these issues—i.e., the foreign policy establishment or people who are involved in it in some way. But I did write this with a mind to a broader audience. Some of the book is quite detailed on specific things, especially in the second half, but I do spend the first couple chapters trying to lay out a set of concepts and arguments that I think are applicable to a large number of people.
KLUTSEY: You got into a little trouble on that.
HAMID: Yes. Oh, [laughs] you remember that viral video of our exchange.
But also doing stuff more on the right, like “The Megyn Kelly Show” and that sort of thing. I did want to communicate to folks on the left but also on the right that there are major implications for American politics. When we talk about reconceptualizing democracy, that’s important for the Middle East, but it’s also important for us right here at home.
Then the call to action, which some people didn’t love: [laughs] the example that I gave is if we’re left-leaning—I am left-leaning; I’ve always voted for the Democratic Party, even though I think they suck in some ways. Anyway (it’s a different story)—if you’re a Democrat, try to imagine the worst-case scenario in 2024 and try to think ahead to how you can be able to respect a bad outcome, an outcome that you really don’t like, that you feel is threatening. Can you imagine coming to terms with that outcome instead of immediately moving towards a delegitimization strategy, which I think was counterproductive in 2017 when Trump won?
We spent a couple years, basically, in some ways trying to undermine the Trump presidency. Now, some of that may have been legitimate and justified. I think there was overreach when we think about the endless Russia investigation (again, a big different topic). I think that the way to react to a bad outcome is to acknowledge it and try to understand the reasons why tens of millions of your fellow Americans voted for Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis or for whoever it might be, because presumably they voted for these right-wing candidates for a reason.
The same thing can apply in Sweden, Italy, France. Why did people vote for a legitimately far-right party in Sweden, which had an unprecedented showing this past September? Here we’re talking about not just right wing. The GOP has far-right elements, but it’s still simply a right-wing party. Here we’re talking about far right. It’s even in some ways morally abhorrent to many people.
Try to imagine that. How are you going to deal with that? Also, the broader thing—and this is what I was talking about with Mehdi Hasan (among others in some of these exchanges): In the case of the U.S., there’s 74 million Trump voters. This is the reality.
HAMID: Let’s not pretend that we could ever go back to the way things were, and everyone is going to be rational and sensible. I would probably put those in scare quotes: “rational” and “sensible.” Because part of the problem is, we no longer agree on what is reasonable. When people say, “Well, why can’t we just have a sane, rational politics?” The problem is, we don’t agree on what those words mean anymore.
This idea that I think a lot of well-meaning liberals have, that if only we give enough Americans, enough ordinary voters, the right information, they’ll then make the right choice. That it’s a matter of, “If only they knew what their true interests were—they’re just not hearing the message. We have to focus on combating disinformation and then providing our correct information, and then they’ll come to their senses.”
Which I think is fundamentally anti-democratic in spirit, because you’re not actually respecting people’s own choices. You’re telling them that they’re wrong by voting for who—wait, are we really going to say that we know people’s hearts and minds, their very core, better than they do? They’re the ones who have to ultimately judge what their preferences are or what their true interests are.
Of course, when people say “true interest,” they tend to mean material interest, because it’s tangible. What we know about, I think, human beings—increasingly so—is we have an interest in pursuing our own conception of a moral good, that there is an emotional interest, that we want to feel part of a community.
Some people vote tribally; that’s not irrational. They prioritize being with other people who they share a religious bond with, and they want to build those religious communities. That’s their focus, and they’re not concerned—whatever it might be. People have complex motivations, and just being more attuned to that and trying to defer judgment . . .
You can think that someone has really bad views without saying that they are irredeemable or beyond the pale. Because once we start getting into the “beyond the pale” stuff, then we’re getting closer to a coercive mindset, because if someone is truly beyond the pale or is a “fascist,” then you can’t talk to them. Actually, it’s probably better for them to not even participate in politics. That’s what you’re getting to. You’re getting to a very—the implications are profound once you start calling your political opponents fascists.
I think that is in part a call to action that ordinary folks can, I hope, get behind or at least think about more. By “ordinary folks,” I just mean people who aren’t necessarily in the government or focus on policy but care about their country. I think these are things that people can try to model in their own lives.
KLUTSEY: Well, Shadi, this has been a fun, interesting, insightful conversation. Thank you very much for taking the time. Really appreciate it.
HAMID: Likewise. Really enjoyed it. Thanks so much, Ben.