Hub Dialogue

‘The right to make the wrong choice’: Shadi Hamid on why we must prioritize democracy over liberalism

Gary Wilson, right, a poll worker in a Rankin County precinct, hands an "I Voted" sticker to a person who filled out a ballot Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo.

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Shadi Hamid, a Brookings Institution senior fellow, contributing writer at The Atlantic, and cohost of a new podcast with Comment Magazine called Zealots at the Gate. He’s also the author of the thought-provoking new book, The Problem of Democracy: America, the Middle East, and the Rise and Fall of an Idea.

They discuss the concept of democratic minimalism, the dangers of an outcomes-oriented approach to democracy, and why he is optimistic about the future of democracy in America.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Shadi Hamid, a Brookings Institution senior fellow, contributing writer at The Atlantic, and cohost of a new podcast with Comment Magazine called Zealots at the Gate. He’s also the author of the thought-provoking new book, The Problem of Democracy: America, the Middle East, and the Rise and Fall of an Idea.

I’m grateful to speak with him about his book, including his clear-eyed analysis about the potential for democracies to produce bad outcomes. Shadi, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

SHADI HAMID: Hi, Sean, thank you. Thanks for having me.

SEAN SPEER: A key idea in the book is that the nexus of political debate in the United States and other countries has shifted from the realm of economics to the realm of culture and identity and that this shift has some explanatory power for why our politics seems increasingly fraught. Let me start with a three-part question. What precipitated the shift, why do you think it happened, and why don’t you elaborate a bit on its consequences?

SHADI HAMID: Sure. The fall of the Soviet Union and the eclipse of the Cold War play a major role, and as a result of that, left-wing and specifically Marxist and Socialist parties, either they dwindle into irrelevance or they moderate and become Marxist or Socialist lite. That essentially means that we’re no longer talking about two radical poles on economic issues between proper socialists and full-on libertarian-influenced free marketers.

That leads to the other shift that we see with right-wing parties becoming more comfortable with the idea of the welfare state. Certainly in Europe, we see pretty far-right parties, even some with roots in neo-Nazi ideologies, but they’re not particularly right-wing on economics. They’re comfortable with state intervention in the economy. The U.S. was something of an exception where you did still have a right-wing party, the Republican party, that still seem to have an interest in things like the privatization of social security, but even in the U.S., we see the Right becoming more comfortable with an economically populist approach.

What this means is that there’s been quite an interesting convergence in U.S. politics between Left and Right on economics. Some people don’t realize this, but there’s been a flurry of congressional activity in legislation through bipartisan means over the past two years. Congress is actually getting more done now than it was anytime in the past 10 years.

Of course, that’s boring because cooperation is boring, agreement is boring, and because of this convergence people are focusing on what makes them different. They’re trying to accent the differences. If you can’t do that through economic divides, what do you do it on? Culture, identity, and religion.

That is now where the main locus of political competition and political division is. You might say, “Well, that’s great that on economics it’s not as polarized,” but then it does mean that it’s going to be more polarized on other issues. Now there’s a key difference between economic divides and cultural divides. Economic ones, at least in theory and oftentimes in practice, deal with numbers. It’s tangible. You can split the middle, or at least you can make calculations that are based in reality. How do you split the middle on religion or identity? That becomes much harder.  It feels much more raw and existential to voters because, quite literally, their very identities are at stake.

SEAN SPEER: Let me take up that point. You outlined a growing tendency on the part of political actors and their supporters to amp up the rhetoric about the existential nature of our politics. It’s not uncommon for someone to say, “This is the most important election in our life,” until, of course, the next one. My question for you would be, is this merely a political strategy to galvanize voters, or does it indeed reflect something deeper that people really believe that turning the keys over to the other side reflects an existential threat?

SHADI HAMID: This is always a tough question to answer because we know not what is in the hearts of men. What do they really believe? I think there’s a risk of something starting off as a rhetorical flourish, that you’re doing it to rally the base, but the thing about words is they accumulate power over time, and language can have an effect on behaviour. If you start to frame something through your own words, that incentivizes you to see it in a particular way, and then it can actually deepen and you start to believe it more and more and you become quite committed to it.

The first time someone says, “This is the most important election of my lifetime,” they may just be, “Oh, I’m just saying that. Do I mean it literally? I’m not sure, whatever.” I have no doubt that a growing number of Americans do actually believe that 2024 will be the most important election of our lifetime. Some apparently think that the midterms, but that seems absurd to me. Can the midterms really be the most important election of our lifetime?

Anyway, one thing, whenever I hear someone say that phrase, it’s immediately a red flag. You shouldn’t, even if it theoretically was the most important election of your lifetime and there’s no way to know that until you die, presumably, because a lifetime is long, you shouldn’t think that way or you shouldn’t want it to be the case. Similar to when people say, “Oh, we want to have a permanent majority for the Democratic party, or a permanent Republican majority in a democracy, particularly one that has only two main parties.” You actually shouldn’t want to have a permanent majority because then you don’t have a rotation of power, which is absolutely essential in a democracy.

SEAN SPEER: I should preface my next question by saying that I very much like the book and I share predispositions about these issues, but I want to at least present a slightly alternative argument that uses Canadian politics as something of a case study.

Yes, things seem a bit hotter than they have in some time. We’ve had threats of violence to political figures, and, of course, we had the trucker convoy in Ottawa, which, regardless of what one thinks about it, obviously represented a heightened degree of agitation and grievance.

The amateur historian in me though would say that, in the 1970s, we had, like your country, political violence including a series of terrorist attacks by a Quebec separatist group that ultimately led to the assassination of a provincial cabinet minister. I guess my question is, is what we’re going through something new and different? If so, what do you think is behind the step change in our current political moment?

SHADI HAMID: It’s hard to say. I wasn’t alive in the ’60s, but people who were alive in the ’60s will sometimes make the argument that it was actually worse. If you look at political violence, specifically assassinations, rioting, even terror, domestic terrorist groups that actually blow things up, that the ’60s were worse. That’s one way of looking at it. On polarization, polarization if you look at various metrics does seem to be worse today, but polarization itself isn’t always the best proxy for how bad things are.

Sometimes polarization is legitimate. Sometimes people should be polarized because they have legitimate disagreements about the ends of politics, about what it means to live a good life, and what role government should play in promoting a particular conception of the good. I’m not someone who actually wants us to reach consensus or unity. I actually get suspicious when people say that democracy should produce consensus because how can there be a consensus if we don’t agree on pretty fundamental questions? There are two options if you really want consensus, either you defeat the other side and basically browbeat them into submission or—I guess that’s pretty much it. We live in a diverse society where people have major disagreements. I think that there’s also a presentist bias that because we live in the current moment and we’re experiencing it in real time, we’re always going to be tempted in exaggerating how bad it is because it’s what we’re feeling now. Things dissipate over time.

If we’re thinking about what happened five years ago, we don’t remember exactly how we felt in the moment unless we were keeping a diary or something. I think that we’re so in the present that we can’t see beyond ourselves in our particular moment. Then, a bit of a cliche, but social media exacerbates some of this. I’m not one who thinks that social media is a cause, but I do think it’s an accelerant.

SEAN SPEER: We’re having this conversation a few days after the Canadian government announced its plans to raise our annual immigration intake to half a million. Statistics Canada, the country’s statistical agency projects that, by 2041, half of the Canadian population will be first or second-generation immigrants. Of course, that number goes up or down substantially depending on where you are in the country.

Immigration brings energy, creativity, and economic benefits. It also necessarily contributes to heterogeneity in terms of political views about virtue, order, and as you say, the good life. As countries like Canada double down on immigration, we are, to some extent, essentially hardwiring into our societies, the potential for social fragmentation and even political conflict. My question for you is, if we’ve bet on pluralism, how do we make it work?

SHADI HAMID: Yes. A big question and one without a clear answer. From an American standpoint, since I’m less familiar with the Canadian context, I actually think that increased immigration, if it’s done carefully, can actually be a boon to, I don’t want to say cohesion, but at least a boon to the American idea—in the sense that when I think of the people I know who are comfortable saying I love America, the ones who are comfortable saying that America is not evil, for all of its faults it is a great place to live, and one of the best if you’re looking for religious freedom, for example. I think it’s a great place for Muslims to live, for example.

The people who don’t share that view and who are really down on America and engage in a self-loathing sometimes are white liberal elites. They’ve forgotten and they’ve taken it for granted. They’ve forgotten what it means to actually—I’m born and raised in Pennsylvania, but my parents are immigrants. They came from an authoritarian context. I think many immigrants come from a context where they can see what the other side looks like. They can see what it looks like to actually live under authoritarianism, to actually not have the right to vote for your elected representative.

I think in that sense, if the brown quotient or the POCs or whatever we want to call ourselves, I think that could actually be good for America. Now, I don’t know if that translates quite as well in the Canadian context because the Canadian idea isn’t maybe as strongly held or as ideological as it is with the American ID in quotation marks. I think social fragmentation is a reality. Do we resist that reality or do we find a way to come to terms with it and channel it and do our best job of bringing people in and helping them feel like they belong?

One way of doing that is by encouraging them to hold on to their cultural and religious traditions, to not force them into some assimilationist project, because that is where you can really create a backlash. I think the French model is a warning or a cautionary tale of what happens when you prioritize assimilation over diversity and pluralism.

SEAN SPEER: As we’ve already discussed, you’ve put forward persuasive arguments that the goal of national unity may be too tall an order in a large, diverse, pluralistic society. I agree. There’s still something unsatisfying about that. Besides living in the same geographic space, something ought to hold us together. Otherwise, what justifies Canada or the United States or any other large democracy from breaking up into a series of principalities or whatever? If liberalism and pluralism are necessary yet insufficient conditions for us to live together, is there anything that holds out the prospect for providing a stronger sense of shared citizenship?

SHADI HAMID: Yes. I think America has both an advantage and a disadvantage when it comes to this, that there is an idea of what it means to be American but the problem is we no longer agree on what that is. What do you do with that? I think that one thing we have to maintain, and this applies to any democracy, is that you can’t see your fellow citizens as enemies because once you start seeing them as deplorables, as enemies, as beyond the pale, then you have an incentive to think to yourself, “Well, if they are our enemies, then we have to find a way to defeat them.”

It creates a logical chain. For example, I know I’m left of centre. I still largely, almost entirely vote for Democrats. Who knows how long that’ll last? I don’t think anyone should view Trump supporters as being outside the fold or almost treating them as they’ve become apostates or heretics, they’ve diverged from the true faith of Americanism, because once we started thinking that way then you can justify coercive measures against them.

That’s one thing. It might not be a lot, but you say to yourself, “Okay, these are my fellow Canadian citizens. They’re going to be here, they’re not going anywhere. I have to find a way to live with them.”

Actually, it’s interesting, my dad is Canadian. That said, I’m not particularly knowledgeable about Canadian politics at all, but there is multiculturalism. Now, is this multiculturalism itself a kind of ideological starting point that Canadians can buy into the idea that they’re creating this exciting, vibrant, colourful, multiracial society? And they’re prioritizing skilled immigration, which I think is very smart because that, I think, gets us away from some of the grievances that people have around immigration if it’s for specific professions and it’s actually contributing in a more direct way to certain societal goals.

Is that enough to bring Canadians together? I don’t know. I don’t know if we can really ask too much in terms of what brings people together. One thing that they do need to do is to commit to respecting democratic outcomes. One thing I talk about in the book is this idea of democratic minimalism. I don’t want to ask that much of citizens, and that’s what makes it minimal. I want to get down to basics and I don’t want to project too much of a burden on the democratic idea because democracy can’t carry all of our hopes and desires. But it should be able to deliver one thing, which is the alternation of power through regular elections.

In this sense, I see democracy not as a means to some other wonderful end but as a conflict-regulating mechanism. It is a way for us to live in a diverse society. But for that to work, we do have to commit to respecting democratic outcomes, even the ones that we don’t like or even the ones that we view as particularly threatening to our own lives and livelihoods. This is not actually super easy.

I think Americans certainly are realizing that 2024, and I sometimes pose this question to liberal friends, if Trump wins fair and square, free and fair elections, no obvious or demonstrable foul play, are you willing to accept that outcome and consider him to be the legitimately elected president?

Unfortunately, and I try to focus on my own side because those are the people that I tend to interact with, I think they’re struggling increasingly to answer that question. Of course, Republicans struggled, and more than struggled, after the 2020 election where a majority of Republicans do not consider Biden to be legitimately elected. Even on something as basic as that, we’re not doing so good.

One message I really want to bring to people with this book and with my writing more generally is, if there’s one thing everyone can do in their own lives and their own politics, whatever country they live in assuming there are elections, is that you commit ahead of time, and you think to yourself, “What is the worst case scenario in the upcoming election?” You think about the scariest party and then you imagine them winning freely and fairly, and then you play out that scenario and you try to get yourself to commit ahead of time that if this happens, that you will find a way to live with it. And, of course, four or five years later, you’re going to have a chance to fight another day, but through the ballot box.

SEAN SPEER: It’s a great answer. You completely anticipated, based on my series of questions, I wanted to get to your concept of democratic minimalism. Do you want to maybe just elaborate a bit more about how you would see that manifesting itself in our politics?

SHADI HAMID: One part of democratic minimalism is decoupling “small d democracy” from “small l liberalism”. I think a lot of people these days when they use the word democracy, they’re conflating it often with liberal democracy. The liberal tradition is different than democracy, and sometimes they diverge and we have to be cognizant of that.

When I talk about the classical liberal tradition here, I’m talking about what people tend to associate with the American Founding Fathers, the Bill of Rights. It’s more focused on individual freedoms, personal autonomy, minority rights, moving towards gender equality, prioritizing the individual over the collective, primacy of reason over revelation. It implies a restricted role for religion, not completely restricted but religion isn’t the fundamental driver of public debate and public engagement, but that’s a whole basket of things.

Then if we take democracy as being primarily about popular sovereignty, alternation of power, and being responsive to voters, and respecting the will of voters, then you have to acknowledge that sometimes voters will not vote for things that are totally in line with the liberal tradition. Sometimes they’ll go in a different direction. Sometimes they won’t vote for minority rights, sometimes they will move away from gender equality.

Sometimes they will prioritize revelation over reason. Sometimes when people ask me how do you sum up democracy in a sentence, which you probably shouldn’t do, but if you have to do it, in some ways I think democracy is about the right to make the wrong choice and that right has to be protected. The wrong choice means though that people will choose things that go against liberalism, that will go against that tradition that many of us care about and love dearly.

It’s a big part of my conception of being American but not everyone agrees or not everyone prioritizes that. This is where I think learning from other regions is important because this was really at the heart of the democratic dilemma during the Arab Spring in the Middle East where a lot of people were excited about the idea of democracy in theory. Democracy as a theoretical construct and then living with it in practice are two different things.

Everyone will say, “Oh, yes, I love democracy. Sure, people should vote, of course. Who would be against that?” Apparently, a lot of people are against it. What happened in these Arab Spring contexts is that right-wing religious parties, Islamist parties that believe that Islam or Islamic law should play a central role in public life, they didn’t just do well, in some countries, they won and they won consecutive elections.

When liberal and secular elites in a country like Egypt saw those results, they said to themselves, “If this is what democracy produces, then do I really like democracy?” This is the danger of having an outcomes-oriented approach to democracy, because, if your assumption is that democracy should or needs to lead to good outcomes, then what do you do when it doesn’t lead to good outcomes?

Do you discard it? You have to be faithful to the principle and that means coming to terms with the idea that it won’t necessarily go your way and you’ll have to find a way to live with that. That’s hard but it is also what makes democracy great. It creates a lot of uncertainty, and chaos even, that you don’t know who’s going to win before they win.

Some people are not able to countenance that level of uncertainty. That’s a big part of the challenge. I used to think that was more unique to developing regions like the Arab world, little did I know that we would be facing some of these existential problems in my own country here in the United States. That was not something I expected.

SEAN SPEER: Let me put a proposition to you that I thought a lot about in the aftermath of Brexit, the Trump election, and the rise of populism more generally. Politics sits at a fulcrum between leadership and political responsiveness. On one hand, you may want politicians to exercise leadership and you do not want them to merely aim to be fonts of popular opinion.

On the other hand, you want them to be responsive and not become too detached from popular opinion. There’s probably a case that, for the first two decades of this century, our political classes on issues like, say, trade with China, were too unresponsive. Yet there now seems to be a risk that we steer the car too much in the other direction. Two questions for you. One, what do you think about the utility of this frame between leadership and responsiveness? Two, how should we think about that balance?

SHADI HAMID: It’s a great question. It’s been a long political science debate about what is the role of elected representatives. Should they channel the wishes of the electorate or do they have a responsibility to hold to their own convictions and to lead and then to hope that the voters will follow or at least give them a chance? Then there’s still accountability because even if the leader does something on their own, there’s still going to be a reckoning in the next election where voters can look at that record and look at those choices and then decide if they want to continue with that representative or with that party.

I think there’s always going to be a tension there. I think most elected representatives these days in the U.S. but also I think in most democracies, they incorporate different elements of this. They are responsive to popular sentiment, especially to their base, if they feel that it’s a matter of electoral survival. If you have a base that wants red meat and is threatening to primary you and go with a different candidate, you’re probably going to listen to them a bit more closely.

On foreign policy issues, it tends to be the case that voters on the local level aren’t as engaged, so they’re probably not going to decide not to vote for you because of your position on China because that’s not ultimately how they’re deciding to formulate their politics. That actually does give leaders, I think, quite a bit of latitude when it comes to foreign policy issues.

They don’t have to necessarily poll the people in their district on “What do you think about China trade policy?” That just wouldn’t be an effective way of governing. I think there was a period when people fantasized about real direct democracy, that, for every decision you could have people vote through their smartphone apps and you just constantly have these referendums, but it’s not practical and people don’t have strongly formed opinions on technical matters. There has to be some degree of delegation there in the end.

SEAN SPEER: You’ve thought and written a lot about the rise of authoritarianism on the Right and the supercharged identity politics on the Left. How do you think about these political phenomena? Are they in something of a dialogue with each other, and what does it mean for the rest of us?

SHADI HAMID: In some ways, they feed off of each other. There’s a ratcheting effect, a radicalization spiral, which is actually, it’s not the way that one should respond to—think about it, if I’m a Democrat and I see that Republicans are doing and saying crazy things, I have two options. I can respond by not replicating what they’re doing. If they’re being radical, it doesn’t mean that I should be radical, but just in the opposite direction.

Because if everyone does that, then it’s a never-ending cycle of escalation. When I tell people, “Well, let’s offer up some presumptive generosity to Trump voters as much as we think they are wrong-headed and misled, let’s try to persuade them, let’s try to bring them closer to us. Let’s try to listen to their grievances and see what they have to say.” Then they’ll say to me, “Shadi, you’re conceding too much to your opponents. They don’t extend that same generosity to us, so why should we do it to them?” Of course, the problem is if everyone thinks that way, then you’re pretty much stuck. Someone needs to take the first step of reaching out to the other. I don’t mean to say that in a kumbaya way. No. You could have real arguments, you can fight about ideas, but you do have to listen and to make good faith effort to understand why the Trump voter voted for Trump.

It can’t just be because they’re racist. It can’t just be because they’re evil. If you do think that, then you’re basically consigning 74 million of your fellow countrymen to being racist, then you’re stuck there too. Do you really want to live in a country where 74 million people are irredeemably racist? That presumptive generosity, someone has to start it.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that is something that Democrats and liberals in the American context have done a good job of. The hyper wokeness that we see on the Left is troubling to me. I’ve written a lot about that. I think, particularly as a minority, a Muslim-era brown person, these things, I don’t—the idea that white liberals are basically telling me that there’s a certain way to be a person of colour, that to be brown means to basically have a certain set of political commitments that are sufficiently progressive, it’s just outrageous to me. Because it means that all minorities are just supposed to act in concert. They don’t have their own ideas. They just have to represent their ethnicity or their group identity, which goes against, at least as far as I understand, an American idea that I’m fundamentally an individual before I am a member of the group.

This approach to group identity is spreading. Everyone feels pressure to play this role. I think it’s very dangerous because that pressure affects what we say and don’t say in public. It means that there are good Arabs and bad Arabs, good Hispanics, and bad Hispanics. Then who decides who’s the good or bad? I don’t know if you have a bit of this in Canada, but sometimes if a Black person is a conservative or a Republican, they’re not treated as if they’re legitimately Black. They’re not the real Black people. That’s pretty scary stuff if you play that out.

SEAN SPEER: Let me ask a penultimate question about the foreign policy implications of your thinking. Is democracy promotion something that Western countries should advance as part of their foreign policies or has the Afghan and Iraq experiences demonstrated the limits of thinking in universal terms about liberalism or democracy?

SHADI HAMID: My position is in the middle, that the U.S. should promote democracy abroad, but that is different than projects of cultural transformation and also projects of military invasion. And, obviously, Afghanistan and Iraq, if we are focusing on those two examples, those aren’t just examples of promoting democracy. They are examples of very long military engagements. I think it’s important to separate these things.

There are ways to promote democracy without invading a foreign country, thankfully. I think there was also, especially when it comes to some of the assumptions around Afghanistan, that we could change a culture and just being unaware of how certain cultural precepts that we as Americans took for granted just couldn’t be grafted on a pretty different society than our own.

That’s where democratic minimalism comes in. Again, I don’t think that we should be liberalism promoters. I don’t think that we should, if there’s another Arab Spring, for example, that we should expect people to vote for liberal parties because then we would just be repeating the same mistake that, in 2012 and 2011, when people didn’t end up voting for liberal parties and end up voting for Islamist parties and or nationalist parties. Pretty much anyone but liberals a lot of the time, because you can’t force someone to be a liberal.

You have to, when it comes to the electorate, you work with the electorate you have not the electorate you wish you had. I think one thing that I try to lay out in the book is when we look at the Obama administration’s reaction to the Arab Spring, there was initial enthusiasm. When officials in the Obama administration started to see how the people they were uncomfortable with, religious-inspired individuals and parties, they kept on doing well. I think that was a difficult thing for the Obama administration to fully get their head around. We do see a souring on the Arab Spring and we do see this sense that, “Oh, if this is what democracy produces, then this isn’t exactly what we were bargaining for.”

This has foreign policy and domestic implications. It affects how Americans view their own politics, but also how they view the politics of other countries, especially in religiously conservative societies. Because most foreign policy elites in America are not religiously oriented, they do have trouble understanding the role that religion plays in Muslim majority contexts.

It’s not an easy one because even if they’re somewhat familiar with Christianity, Sharia doesn’t really have an equivalent in the Christian context. It’s a big jump for some people to make, and just people have to be more aware of that and build that into their calculations when they’re looking abroad.

SEAN SPEER: Last question. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of American democracy?

SHADI HAMID: It’s funny that you bring that up. I had this tweet the other week where I said something to the effect of, in some ways, this is a high point for democracy in the U.S., the U.K., and Italy. It was just a tweet. A lot of people misunderstood it. Even the thought that I could be optimistic about my own country was anathema to a lot of people. They thought like, “Did something happen to Shadi? Did he lose his sanity?”

Even the very idea of being positive about your own country’s democracy is now seen as a crazy position to take. That is where we’re at right now. Part of this relates to my different conception of democracy. When I see vigorous public debate, when I see a lack of consensus, when I see people voting for very different things, that, to me, is peaceful intellectual combat.

For example, in Italy, a far-right party, the Brothers of Italy, came in first. That was a big shock to people; first time there will be, or likely be, a far-right prime minister since Mussolini. Of course, a difference this time is that the far-right prime minister will have been democratically elected. That’s fundamentally different. People look at that and they say, “Oh my God, what does this mean for Italian democracy?”

There’s another way to look at it and say, “Okay, this party’s scary to me.” The fact that people chose a different party, the fact that they were angry with their existing elites, and they said, “You know what? We’re going to send a message. We’re going to put out a protest vote.” That is part of how democracy is meant to work.

It’s about changing, it’s about holding people accountable. If people vote for a far-right party, we shouldn’t say, “What is wrong with these people who voted for the far-right party? They are bad people.” No, we should say, “What led them to lose so much faith in existing options that they felt the need to go for this new far-right party that barely anyone was paying attention to four years ago?” That is the question we have to ask ourselves.

All of this, to me, is part of the machinery of democracy, and it’s messy and chaotic in the short run, but it tends to muddle through in the long run. That’s something that I think we have to just keep in mind that we’re not going to have Chinese efficiency through American or Canadian democracy. I don’t know, maybe you guys are a little bit more efficient than we are. You get things done and you have a high-speed rail or whatever.

We have trouble with some of those things. People will say, “Look at the Chinese, they can build an instant hospital at the start of the pandemic in four days. Why can’t we do that?” We also see how that level of efficiency and order has its dark side in the long run where we see China now really struggling and self-sabotaging its own economy through this absurd zero COVID policy.

We just have to, I think, adjust our timeline a little bit. It’s not always about what happens tomorrow or in the next election. There’s a longer story here, and I have faith, but part of it is also we as individuals have a role to play. I’m an American citizen, I love this country, and I’m going to do whatever in my power to play the most positive role that I can. That’s also, I think, just a more optimistic way of looking at it. 

SEAN SPEER: It’s a great way to end what has been a fascinating conversation about a fascinating book, The Problem of Democracy: America, the Middle East, and the Rise and Fall of an Idea. Shadi Hamid, thank you for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

SHADI HAMID: My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.

Sign up for FREE and receive The Hub’s weekly email newsletter.

You'll get our weekly newsletter featuring The Hub’s thought-provoking insights and analysis of Canadian policy issues and in-depth interviews with the world’s sharpest minds and thinkers.