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Populism, Information, and the Post-Covid Political Landscape

April 26, 2021


Francis Fukuyama, Stanford University
Lorenzo Marchetti, '21, SAIS Europe

Liberal democracy is under threat. According to Freedom House’s most recent report, democracy has been on the decline globally for the past 15 continuous years, with a sharp downturn accompanying the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, including in the world’s two largest democracies, India and the United States. What has been causing this trend? How can democracies deal with the rise of information technology? And what does the post-pandemic future have in store for global politics? Esteemed author and scholar of international relations Francis Fukuyama joined the SAIS Europe student body for a conversation on the economic, social, political, and technological challenges facing democracies around the world, as well as what further challenges and solutions await them in the coming decades. 

Fukuyama began the discussion by introducing the two most-commonly identified sources of democratic destabilization: global economic forces, and the politics of identity. The first of these, economic inequality, has both fostered discontent and enabled the rise of media oligarchs as destabilizing political actors in multiple countries. Starting with Italy’s Berlusconi in the 1990s, and continuing in Ukraine (and even, indirectly, through Trump and Fox News in the United States), media moguls began leveraging their control of the major news outlets to control discourse and cement personal power using the auspices of populist politics. These mogul-politicians seized upon the popular discontent created by the massive economic changes and inequalities caused by globalization to reshape politics in their interest; and yet, this alone doesn’t explain why the dominant populism of the 21st Century has been overwhelmingly more right-wing than left. 

For this, Fukuyama asserted, we must take a closer look at the ascendance of identity politics in recent decades. For a long time, the political spectrum across most democracies was economic in nature: the right was defined by an interest in fiscal conservatism and constrained governance, while the left was defined by more expansive policy and the development of welfare institutions. By contrast, modern right-wing populism centers above all else issues of culture and demographic identity. Modern European populism emerged as a direct response to the migration crisis of the early 2010s, and while Trump’s economic dialogue roamed wildly across the traditional political spectrum (from welfare preservation to radical tax cuts), his consistent policy through-line was of xenophobia, autarky, and demographic exclusion.  

It is in this context of drastic political realignment (which, in truth, has been in process since the split of the US Democratic Party along competing sides of the Civil Rights Movement) that democracies further find themselves challenged by the rise of expansion-minded authoritarian state models and the ever-increasing integration of information technology and social media. For the past twenty years, China and Russia have consolidated totalitarian power while respectively leveraging sustained economic growth into global policy influence and launched coordinated information attacks against trust in global democratic institutions. This, however, is only made possible by these states’ masteries of information technology, and the relative flat-footedness with which democracies have been caught off guard by its decisive influence over publicly held truth and popular discourse. COVID, for better or for worse, has cemented these services into our daily lives to an unprecedented extent, and though the belligerent expansionism of China or Russia may prove to be the next major challenge for US foreign policy (and, as relates to Taiwan and Ukraine, a one likely within the coming decade), our priority must also be in increasing the algorithmic transparency of social media and returning the public’s control of its own information – helping restore the empirical discourse that is the heart of all democracy (and public wellbeing, as demonstrated by the failed COVID responses of populist regimes) in the first place.