BPR Interviews: Edward Luce

Edward Luce is the US national editor and columnist at the Financial Times. Luce was previously the speechwriter for the US Treasury Secretary, Lawrence H. Summers, in the Clinton administration. He is the author of three highly acclaimed books, The Retreat of Western Liberalism (2017), Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent (2012), and In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India (2007). He appears regularly on CNN, NPR, MSNBC’s Morning Joe, and the BBC.

What is your definition of “liberalism”?

It’s one of those words that’s lost in translation across the Atlantic. I’m using liberalism in its classical Western sense, the sense that would have characterized society had the word been in currency by the founding fathers. The word, as used by the great nineteenth-century liberal thinkers such as John Stuart Mill, affirms the legal rights and entitlements of a population, regardless of whether they are in a minority or a majority, and guarantees the institutions, such as the independence of the judiciary and of the media, that are there to guarantee those rights. 

In history, liberalism has been the political apparatus that has tended to precede democracy and usually gone with it. In terms of the American example, the Republic was born as a republic, not as a democracy. With a separation of powers, with those liberal institutional features at its birth; it only later and gradually extended franchise to less propertied people and eventually to the whole of the population, or at least in theory. 

That was the liberal growth of the United States, which continues and is separate from the idea of a democracy. Democracy is a simple majoritarian concept that if most of the people want something, they get it. Liberalism is a check on that. It’s a check on the tyranny of the majority.

How do you read the recent Democratic Primary elections in terms of your larger framework about concerns of the retreat of Liberalism? Do you think electing Biden is a sign of progress in that respect, or is his age a sign that we are still stuck in the stagnation you worry about in your book?

This is a question that will be far easier to answer in retrospect. Were Biden to be elected, the power of his presidency would depend on whether he would have a Democratically controlled Senate and House that would push forward his agenda, and what their agenda would be. 

So there are just too many imponderables in there for me to make a surefire prediction. Biden’s case, which until recently was going nowhere and catching fire with nobody, was that Trump is an aberration and that we just need to restore America to the status quo and America will be back on course. Then suddenly after a year of very frustrating debates and failed campaigns trying to strike a chord, Biden suddenly, in this sort of electrifying 72 hours between South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday, wrapped up the nomination. 

So, what does that tell us? I think it tells us that there is an extraordinary yearning for Trump to be defeated. Biden’s electability was clearly demonstrated in South Carolina. It just caught fire in a way that nobody expected, and I think that’s a very positive sign for the outlook for the remainder of 2020 in terms of the election. 

Can Biden address the structural problems with American democracy and the economy that helped give rise to Trump? I am skeptical. 

In your book, you identify the middle class’ economic issues as the primary driver of the rise of Trump and the retreat of Liberalism. Since your book was published in 2017, there has been a flurry of populist movements throughout the world, including in non-Western liberal countries like India. How much do you see the retreat of liberalism in non-archetypically Western countries as due to similar underlying causes, or are there just a variety of things around the world that are causing liberalism to be put in jeopardy?

If you’re looking at the major Western democracies, like Britain, France, America, Italy, and Germany, I think that there’s a deep economic malaise and a hollowing out of the middle class that has analogously hollowed out their politics. The middle in politics gets weaker when the middle class gets weaker, but there is no simple causality here because there’s also the interaction between backlashes against immigration, a fear of change, and an economic pessimism that is very central to all of this. So it’s not one or the other, it’s a combination. 

When you look at countries like India, or indeed the Philippines, where you have had rising incomes across the board, what you’re looking at is a more complex picture. But the one thing that unifies the Modi style of politics, the Duterte style of politics, the Bolsonaro style of politics, and indeed the Erdogan style of politics,with what you’re seeing amongst strong leaders like Trump and Orban in the West, is the extraordinary technological effect of being able to disintermediate the media, political institutions, party structures, and institutions of democracy and a civil society which used to act as a kind of check or dilution or a counterbalance. 

If I were to write a new chapter for the book now I would focus on the technological dimension of what is happening to our politics. It’s a very important part of the explanation for why more authoritarian governments have so much more leverage than they used to. 

What hope do you have that technology or media could be leveraged to combat this? 

I think we’re sort of catching up to that Mark Twain cliche that “a lie travels eight times around the world before truth has put its boots on.” We’re starting to put our boots on. People are a lot more aware than they were 3-4 years ago of the contagiousness of bad information. There are actions, some very small and some larger, that act as circuit breakers on the spread of false information. Some of them are self-governing. The pressure that has been put on Facebook and Twitter to amend their rules is ongoing. There have been no dramatic steps, but the direction is at least the right direction. Some schools are becoming more aware of teaching children in civics classes and other subjects how to source things, how to check the provenance of information they’re receiving. 

If there could possibly be a silver lining to the Coronavirus, it is that people are being given a real-time lesson in the importance of differentiating between good information and dubious information. All I would say is that there is no magic bullet to deal with bad information. We are human beings, we are prone to gossip, we’re social animals, we have schadenfreude, and we’re never going to completely fix our tendency to believe lies or to spread hate. That’s integral to our nature as a species. 

But if you look at previous waves of technology in history — the printing press, the radio, television, international air travel — you see in the early stages quite negative things that belie the expectations of those who expect utopia to come from it. So we go from utopia to dystopia, and then we muddle through into a dialectical synthesis which is less good but less bad than the first two instincts. At least, that’s what I hope we’re inching our way towards.

If you had the chance to spend a weekend with Xi Jinping, what would you say to him to try and convince him to adopt a more liberal order in China? 

You’d have to appeal to his self-preservation instincts and say: Look, the strength of the Communist Party, and its ability to maintain a monopoly on politics in China, is very much performance-based, which is different from democracies. Democracies are legitimate even when they’re making bad decisions, whereas communist parties are legitimate only if people are doing well. But in order to do well going forward, you need to risk more dissent, more freedom, more unexpected events, and possibly even self-challenges to your monopoly on power. Only then will you be rewarded by producing a more vibrant and rapidly growing economy with a happier population.

 If you want to look at modern models, Singapore is a very good one. Singapore is not really much closer to being a democracy than it was 30 years ago, but its income per capita is probably three times the size. Singaporeans tolerate these limitations on their political expression because they have freedom of expression in pretty much every other way. They’re able to add value as economic actors because they’re not constrained by a deeply authoritarian system. They have a soft authoritarian system. So if you want to survive, get softer.

I’m going to give you an impossible prediction. In 2050 will the world have more or less liberalism?

Okay let me give you two answers. 2030 I would say less. If you’re talking about the weight of humanity, you just have to look at the trajectory of India. That’s a sixth of humanity right there, and it’s not going in the right direction. I don’t see China democratizing in the next 10 years, so I think in the short term it is going to get darker. But over time authoritarian systems tend to get cancelled by their own contradictions and by the frustrations of people. It’s just a question of how much time you give it. I would hope and I think probably predict that by 2050 the world will be freer than it is now, but by 2030 it will be less free. 

If you were giving advice to a young person interested in journalism, what advice would you give? 

I’ll dispense with obvious stuff about being multimedia and being technologically fluent because while I’m not a Boomer, it’ll sound like an “OK Boomer” moment since it’s all so obvious. 

So what I would say is something that would hold true at any stage in the history of journalism. Regardless of the medium across which you wish to operate, you must cultivate a fairly voracious curiosity. We have a saying at the Washington Post that we’ve put up in the newsroom, which is “go talk to people.” People are interesting. Sitting at home on your computer you can get the illusion through social media that you’ve got the whole world at your fingertips, but that stuff that you find online doesn’t survive much contact with real human beings. 

I can’t overstate the value of talking to people from all walks of life and understanding their perspective, particularly those who don’t come from your relatively fortunate situation in life. So, get different perspectives, read voraciously, of course, cultivate your curiosity, and try not to fall into the trap I’ve fallen into of opining too much. In my case, I’m kind of paid to do it, but try not to get too stuck on that track for at least another 30 years.

How do you personally meet and talk to people? 

Understanding America involves understanding how other people see America, so I travel a lot. And while I do some conventional stuff like attending conferences, moderating panels, and speaking, I do longer reported FT pieces outside of the Beltway in different parts of America to give myself a good reason to go out and intensively talk to people. In my view, every day spent outside of Washington is worth about a week spent inside in terms of giving you ideas as to what’s going on and giving you a reality check as to what the conventional wisdom is in Washington. 

I can think of many examples of outrageous things Trump has said which have left everybody here, including myself, foaming at the mouth, thinking that he’s breached some critical principle of how a President should operate. Then you realize nobody outside of Washington knows what on earth you’re talking about and that’s a reality check. 

You are a journalist, but you write a lot about foreign diplomacy. What do you think are the differences in strengths between a good journalist and a good diplomat? 

Depends what kind of journalist you’re talking about, there’s just such a massive difference between reporters and columnists. I used to be a reporter. If by journalist you mean reporter, then a reporter should aspire to be like a good diplomat. 

A good diplomat is a person who is able to listen, to pick up, to gather information, to synthesize it, and to express value-free judgments about the meaning of that information. A good diplomat conveys information efficiently and does so in a mature intellectual way. A good diplomat shows the best face of their country and does not allow, to the degree it’s possible, their own values to get in the way of assumptions that might challenge them. 

They try to remove their prejudices and see the world as it is. It’s easier said than done and it’s never possible to a perfect extent, but it’s the right aspiration.

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