‘Democracies have to deliver. And we don’t know what the outcome will be.’
After a decades long career as an academic historian at Kings College, Cambridge and Havard, Michael Ignatieff ran for office for the Liberal Party in his country of birth, Canada. He served as a member of parliament and as leader of his party. After losing the 2011 federal election, Ignatieff resigned as leader. He reflected on his political career and the nature of politics in Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics and returned to the academic world. Currently, he serves as President and Rector of the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, a university that was founded in the early nineties to promote a more open society. Ignatieff found himself once again defending liberal principles, as the institute frequently speaks out against a new education law by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s right wing populist government. Ignatieff visited The Hague in November, speaking at the annual lecture of the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy about the current state of open societies. In his lecture, he painted a worrisome picture of the challenges open societies have to overcome.
An interview by Coen Brummer
Those who love freedom and truth cannot applaud the rise of Trump in the US, the victory of the Brexiteers and the ambitions of Putin. Yet you do not seem to worry about the fate of liberal democracy itself.
‘Liberal democracy has in its crazy way through Brexit and through Trump laid bare the existence of millions of people who feel disenfranchised by existing political parties and existing political ideologies. So, you may not like the message from these democratic results, but a hell of a lot of people are saying, “Wake up, we have been forgotten. The economy is not working for us. We are not delighted by mass migration, we are frightened by it. We feel we are losing our countries.” I am not validating any of those emotions, but democracy is surely doing its job. It registers them. Now the next test is whether the system will deliver for these people. The actual problem with democracy is not the election of Trump. It is the almost inevitability that he will disappoint the people who have put their faith in him. And that’s the more serious problem. The same goes for Brexit. We may like it or we may not like it, but the people knew what they were voting for. Now, the consequences may be devastating and difficult. The people who will suffer most from Brexit are the people who voted for Brexit. I am hopeful in the sense that the political system has registered those who have previously not been heard. I am worried that those who have now spoken will be ever more disillusioned with democracy when the political response does not meet their needs. And then we have a real challenge to the legitimacy of the democratic system. More right-wing figures may come up and offer more aggressive authoritarian solutions.’
In your lecture today, you mentioned that strong states need strong citizens. What is the responsibility of citizens? If they vote for politicians who will promise them anything, aren’t they asking to be deceived?
‘Citizens always have a responsibility to ask “Is this guy or this woman a real solution to my problems or not?” It cannot be the case that only politicians have obligations and responsibilities in political systems. Citizens have them too. There will be voters of Mr. Trump and the Brexit-side who will keep on defending their choices in defiance of all the evidence that they have been betrayed. Then the question is whether they will wake up to the betrayal. It is a human responsibility to see when you are betrayed. What is worrying is that the people who have voted for Trump have also voted for Obama. They voted for change in 2008. They voted for change in 2012. And they voted for change in 2016. And their communities still haven’t got the jobs. Public services are still not good. They are still dealing with a sense of American decline. If this goes on for too many electoral cycles, the system will break down. The system has sent a signal. It is blinking red. Now democracies have to deliver. And we don’t know what the outcome will be.’
In Europe, enemies of open societies are on the rise. They use methods that are hard to control: bots and fake news that is going straight into every one’s individual filter bubble. Have these forces finally found the Achilles’ heel of open societies or is this not something new?
‘I think what is new are bots and the sophistication of digital technology. In the old days, you could tell when a story was planted, but social media permits a kind of anonymity in relation to attribution. If you know that some message if coming out of a Moscow bot-factory, you can flip to something else. But it is coming at you like real news or real people, so there is a capacity for deception in this technology that is new. Now, it is also the case that we have become much more sophisticated about the use of online technology than we were ten years ago. We know garbage when we see it. We are educating ourselves about the cyberspace. But I am afraid the smart voices in the bot-factories are a step ahead of us. So, active citizens have to catch up. It is clear that societies aim to raise the awareness of citizens to these trends. That is a sign of how concerned everybody is. In the late nineteenth century, we had unregulated private companies and gradually the state came at these guys and said, “You have a monopoly and what you are doing is not in the public interest.” Eventually you have to have a twenty-first century strong state that is doing the same thing when it comes to a regulated cyberspace.’
You are the president and rector of the Central European University (CEU), a country that is led by populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Academic freedom is under attack because of a new education law and this summer, the departing Dutch ambassador to Hungary criticized the administration for corruption, fearmongering and creating enemies. What is your take on the situation and what should be the position of Western European states?
‘I think the positive lesson is that European opinion and European legal sanctions matter. We are very cynical about the European Union at the moment and with good reason. But I actually think that concerted action by European authorities does have a deterrent effect on the Hungarian government. They go right up to the line, but they are responsive to institutional pressure. At CEU we think that these European actions are very important. The negative lesson is that a European Union that does not enforce the rule of law, academic freedom and a number of other things, will quickly cease to be Europe. You cannot sustain believe in Europe in the Netherlands, if Europe seems to mean nothing in Budapest or Poland or other places. There is a tendency in Western Europe to view these developments as affairs far away. But believe me, you won’t have Europe at all if the idealistic core of Europe evaporates. It will go the way of the United Nations. That could happen to Europe as well. These things need to have a moral and legal core, because a free market does not inspire people. That is not something to be fruity or sentimental about, but it does have to end up meaning something. I want a very flexible Europe, but there are some lines Europe cannot cross.’
The developments in Eastern Europe influence the debate in Western Europe as well. Just last week, our Deputy Prime Minister warned about Russian ambitions to influence our democratic process and in the same week, Geert Wilders gave an interview in which he said he saw Russia as an ally. In the past, he made similar comments about Orbán. Of course, we saw the same with former French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. Why is it that populist right wing politicians are so attracted to the Orbáns and Putins of this world?
‘It is the lure of authoritarianism. They are anti-Europe. And at some point, the question becomes whether they are anti-democratic. People are known by their friendships. I was genuinely shocked Marine Le Pen thought that it was a vote-getting measure to go to Russia and to be seen with Putin. I was just astonished by that. Her electoral calculation is probably, “I will draw votes from the former communist left, I might even get some votes from the Gaullist right if I do this,” but to me it is just anti-Republican. It is anti-French. Let’s not be naïve, the Russians have infiltrated and financed many of the far-right parties in Europe. But what seems astounding to me is that political parties consider it a vote winner to cosy up to Putin. That seems to me political idiocy. Then you are possessed by your hatred so much, you can’t see who your political friends are anymore.’
Four years ago, when your book Fire and Ashes just came out, we talked about the relationship between political theory and real politics and the level of political debate. Back then, you were optimistic. In your lecture today, you mentioned epistemological openness and pluralism as key elements of open societies that are currently under attack. You sounded a bit more worried.
‘I still think it is a great fact of democracies that the vote of the poorest and least educated member of a society matters just as much as the vote of someone with a PhD or a high income. It is humbling to the pretentiousness of elites. If you forget that, you don’t understand democracy at all. So, from a moral stance, my views have not changed. What I would not conclude from that, is that poor or uneducated people are more vulnerable to misinformation and fake news than anybody else. The challenge is much deeper than that. I am as much a prisoner of what I read on my live feed as anybody else. My PhD does not save me from being duped. I don’t want to get sentimental about this, but we are all in the same boat here. We are dealing with extremely sophisticated manipulation of our consciousness. Some of it is coming from outside of our democracies and some of it is coming from inside. I am more worried about this than I was four years ago. Manipulation is not only occurring on the Trump-side, it is also occurring on the left. I feel suffocated by the sustained permanent moral indignation. I am kind of glad I am not in the United States, especially in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is the beating heart of this stuff. What I did not say in Fire and Ashes, and maybe it is because of my age, is that I am becoming to realize that the most difficult thing about a liberal society is thinking for yourself. It is a permanent challenge. It got a little tougher because of the new media, but the essence does not change.’
Is there still room for parties who actively proclaim the centre, when there seems to be such a taste for the extremes?
‘I think precisely because the political system is polarising, there is increasing space in the centre. I am a firm believer in a vital and dynamic centre. Not a “Let’s split the difference”-centre, but a centre that says, “We really don’t want these extremes because we care about the country. We don’t think all good choices are splitting the difference. We actually think most people want sensible, practical, reality-based solutions to actual problems. That is what we do. It is not being in the centre for being in the centre, but we are here to fix things that need to be fixed. We will work with people to get that done.” I think that that has a broad appeal. Don’t be apologetic about it. What kills centrist parties, particularly in your kind of systems, is that parties aim for the centre for tactical reasons. They want to stay in government. That stuff kills you politically.’
Since D66 is in government for the first time in a decade, what would be your advice based on Fire and Ashes?
‘The experience of governing can be extremely disillusioning. When you’re in the opposition you can say what you want. Being in power is disciplining. It is essentially great for a party. The Liberal Party of Canada had the discipline of power and it made us better at what we do. It is important that there is a DNA in the party that carries both the memory of opposition and the experience of governing. Unfortunately, parties that are in government always risk to neglect their base. You need to make a special effort to keep going back to your base, even when you have all these ministerial cars. Those are the people who knocked on doors for you. Keep talking to them. Keep explaining the compromises you had to make. Explain the facts you only see when you are in government. There is almost no political party in power that I can think of that is successful in this. The thing about being in government is: you get deaf, dumb and blind. You get taken over by the civil service, you get taken over by the cars, you forget the country in a way. So, you have to use the political party to be your antenna. It has an ideological function as well. The base can tell when you have sold out on your principles. They keep you honest. So, don’t lose your base.’
Coen Brummer will be the director of the Mr. Hans van Mierlo Stichting starting January 2018.
This article is a pre-publication of an article in ‘idee’ nr. 4 of 2017. For more information on ‘idee’ and subscriptions, click here.