🎧 Michael Ignatieff on How To Stay True to Liberal Values in Politics
Michael Ignatieff and Yascha Mounk discuss the political challenges facing embattled liberals around the world.
Michael Ignatieff, a renowned author and academic, is the former Leader of Canada’s Liberal Party. While Ignatieff was serving as Rector of Central European University, the university was pushed out of Budapest by the Hungarian government.
In this week’s conversation, Michael Ignatieff and Yascha Mounk discuss the rise of illiberal conservatism, the pitfalls of liberalism, and how to find consolation in trying times.
This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: You've been an active politician in Canada. You have experienced the rise of authoritarian populism in Central Europe as the Rector of Central European University. You're also one of the great theorists of how democracies can stand up for each other and the meaning of democracy.
When you look at the world at the moment, how worried should we be?
Michael Ignatieff: It's a good question. It's such an uneven pattern. I think you can look at the world, for example the Scandinavian countries, and you see the effect of democracies that are innovating in terms of how they relate to citizens. You can see that in the Baltic states, too. I'm in Vienna, Austria; I can't really fault the way the city of Vienna has managed the COVID crisis.
Where the crisis is obviously focused is in the leading democracy of them all, which is the United States. I was just talking last night to a friend who said, “You know, the United States is actually in a state of civil war.” That is, it's not declared; it doesn't require fighting. But it is a state in which people do not accept the legitimacy of basic decisions. Republicans don't accept the 2020 election. Imminently, if the Supreme Court rolls back Roe v. Wade, millions of Americans simply won't accept that decision. This is when you have a democratic crisis: when closure can't occur, when people don't accept the results of deliberation.
When America's democracy is in trouble, everybody thinks the world's democracies are in trouble, and that's not necessarily true at all. If you look at Africa, there are some magnificent examples, unlikely examples. Ghana: it's not perfect, but they've had election after election after election with successful transitions. I know what the statistics say globally, which is that we're in a democratic recession. But for some of this, the alarm seems to me overdone. What we need to do is focus where it's really critical. And I do think the situation in the United States is genuinely critical.
One final thought, and this is based on my own experiences as a politician. One thing that I think is a problem is the erosion of legislatures, the erosion of parliaments, the ways in which the site of our democratic debates is simply emptied out. One of the most shocking things to me as a democratic politician elected twice is that nothing happens in the Canadian Parliament. It's an empty shell. Same thing in the Assemblée Nationale in Paris. That, it seems to me, is a systemic problem. And I'm not quite sure what the solution is. So, we've got a lot of democratic institutional reinvention that we need to try. I would start with trying to fix what's wrong with our legislatures.
Mounk: And yet there seem to be two things in America. The first is that power seems to be concentrated in the White House, rather than in or within Congress, and in the office of the House Majority Leader or the Senate Majority Leader, rather than in rank-and-file senators and representatives. And secondly, to the extent that there is actually some power in parliaments, it is not the power to do something that may be positive; it is the power to stop any kind of agenda from being carried through.
Why is it that America ended up with, in some ways, the worst of all worlds?
Ignatieff: It's a great question, because it appears to contradict what I just said, which was that we need to give more power to the legislature. You're saying, “Well, look what happens when legislators do have power, you have this kind of terrible impasse.” I think what that teaches us is that institutions are not enough. There has to be comity.
And I just mean the distinction in a way that Carl Schmitt—the notorious German political theorist—makes between friends and enemies. You can't operate a political system without a premise of friendship between adversaries. Friendship, in the sense of, “We're all Americans.” Friendship is terribly important in politics, and I don't mean to be sentimental about it. I've been in politics—it’s a very brutal business. And there are costs to being friendly to the other side. But you can't operate political systems without friendship, and what has been terrifying in the United States is the replacement of a politics of friends with a politics of enemies. And this then makes any possibility of legislative comity just impossible. That's why one of my friends has talked about a civil war, because a civil war is a state where a politician across the other aisle regards you as an enemy who is about to destroy everything you value most, and must be resisted by all means, fair or foul. That culture of antagonism is extremely dangerous to the stability of democratic systems. I think we're living through a very bad period.
I'm a historian, so let's not set our hair on fire. We can remember periods in American history where, for example, one senator crossed the floor, picked up a stick and nearly beat another senator to death. Now, that was in the run up to the real Civil War. Let's not forget, we've been there before, and we've walked it back. And I think we could walk it back again, but I fear that it's going to take some calamity to wake us all up. And I thought, in fact, that January 6th and the invasion of the sacred precincts of the Congress would have been the calamity that would wake everybody up. But it doesn't appear to have done so. That's another sign that democracy in America is in a very, very serious place.
Mounk: Was there a moment when you—as leader of the Liberal Party in Canada and leader of the opposition—treated your political opponent as an enemy and you came to regret it?
Ignatieff: Oh, yeah. We had to decide whether to support a budget of the Conservative government. This occurred in the middle of the worst months of the financial crisis of 2008-2009. Our output was plummeting. Unemployment was rocketing. And I really did think that if we could cooperate with the government, this was in the national interest. But it was clearly not in the party's interest, because the opposition is supposed to oppose. Some members of my party wanted to form a coalition with the Socialist Party, the Social Democratic Party, and with—this is the key point—the Bloc Québécois, which is a separatist party. We couldn't overthrow the government unless we combined with the separatists.
Now, the issue here is that the separatists want to break up my country. And I just thought, “I can't get into bed with these people. They're enemies of my country.” Let me be careful here: They are good friends. They sit in the House of Commons with me. They just want something which is the end of my country. So I can't make an alliance with them. I just can't. We then allied with the government to pass their budget, which I thought was in the interest of the country because the country didn't need a complete political explosion. But the consequence was that the government got the credit for the budget, and we didn't. They went on to win the next election, and I got beat. Ultimate choices of allegiance can have a hugely consequential effect on your life.
I don't think there should be enemies in the American house. I don't think there can be, except one kind of enemy who takes up arms against the system itself. The people who took up arms against Congress on the 6th of January are enemies; they have to be dealt with by the security forces. They have to be put in jail. But apart from that, there are no enemies. That would be my view of the basic rule of political life and every political system has to deal with it. The Germans have to deal with this. You have the Alternative for Germany—provided they are constitutional, no problem. The minute they associate themselves with violence against immigrants or anybody else, they are out of the political system. They're enemies of the political system and should be treated as such. You’ve got to be very clear who the enemy is: a person prepared to use violence to achieve political ends.
Mounk: Trump continues to be pretty much in control of his party for now, which makes it very tempting to then say, “Look, anybody on that side is an enemy of democracy.” They don't accept anybody else as legitimate, so they're all illegitimate. If you say, “We're casting them out. They're our enemies now,” you become, willingly or not, a kind of mirror image of that.
Ignatieff: Sure. If you're saying it is a huge dilemma for a democrat—how to deal with the politics of enemies without descending into the politics of enemies yourself—what can I say? You end up looking weak. You keep talking to them as if this was a civil conversation when they are modeling the conversation as war. My previous attempt to sort this out was to say, “Well, provided they don't use violence, then you’ve got to keep talking.” I still think that's the case. But it's extremely difficult.
If I can shift from the United States to a context I know better, Hungary, this is the dilemma faced by the Hungarian opposition. They're facing a regime that's been in power for 12 years, has run it as a single-party state, has gerrymandered the electoral system in such a way that it's going to be very difficult for the opposition to win. But suppose they do win. The dilemma they then face is whether they should alter the constitution themselves to get it back to the level playing-field they need in order to do anything. And then Orbán will immediately say, “Well, you're tampering with the political system. You're destroying democracy. You're doing what you criticize us for doing.” And I can tell you the opposition in Hungary is worrying about this right at the moment. The problem is not “Can we win?” The problem now is “What do we do if we win? How do we reverse a decade of single-party rule?” It's extremely difficult.
I'm urging caution, because I think what you want to avoid is giving a defeated right wing the opportunity to try and settle this in the streets. And that is a slight possibility in Budapest, but it's not a zero possibility, given Hungary's political history. I think, on balance, you cannot play their game. You have to play as a democrat. You have to win as a democrat. How do you do that? By persuading a substantial majority of the people to stand with you. And what happened in 2020 [in the United States] was that a very moderate, rather conservative Democrat got up and said, “Stand with me,” and [81 million] people voted for him. That's how you do it, in my view. You don't play the politics of enemies.
This allows me to make a fundamental point, which is that politicians have a double loyalty: they have a loyalty to their party, but they also have a residual loyalty to the political system that makes everything possible. And when I was in politics I felt that residual loyalty quite strongly at the moment when I had to make decisions. A lot of people listening to me, especially if they're Canadian, will say, “What kind of a fool is that guy? He missed the chance to take power!” Well, yes, I did. I did. But these are the kinds of dilemmas that I think are intrinsic to political life.
Mounk: We're at a very strange moment in American politics, where Viktor Orbán appears to have become the great hero of a very significant segment of the American right, to the point that the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is planning to hold its annual conference in Budapest—not because it's a beautiful city, which it certainly is, but because it is a form of adulation and a show of solidarity with Orbán.
Explain why Orbán isn't just a conservative who is standing up for traditional values, but is really, in your assessment and mine, an enemy of democracy.
Ignatieff: He comes from a very small country. It is a bit puzzling why big-deal American right wingers like Tucker Carlson and Vice President Pence go to see him. But I think it's because of his ideological capacities. He's taken single party-rule and made it into the defense of the Christian West against the Muslim threat. He's made it the defense of national pride against the rootless cosmopolitan liberals who want to impose liberal values on poor little countries. He's vastly inflated the ideological claims of the conservative right, giving it—to use the fancy word—a Weltanschauung. This guy is an ideologist of genius. He's the one who coined the famous phrase “illiberal democracy,” to which one can only say there's no such thing. Democracy is either liberal or it's not a democracy at all. But he's made these large claims and people flock because they want to give American conservatism this kind of grand metaphysical lift. “We're standing up not just for America, but we're standing up against rootless cosmopolitanism. We're standing up for national frontiers. We're standing up for Christian values.”
I think there's a sneaking feeling that liberals may keep losing elections, but they keep winning the cultural battles, the great example being gay marriage. I mean, the most moving recent experience of my life was officiating at a marriage of two wonderful friends of mine in the middle of an Iowa cornfield in 2016, in Republican country. And you thought, “Wow, this is really powerful.”
And so to get back to Orbán: Orbán gives the Republican right, which is losing a cultural battle, a whole new ideological umbrella that it can embrace: defense of Christianity and nation against rootless cosmopolitans who disdain the patriotism of others and look down and condescend people who don't have college degrees. And it's a travesty, but it's extremely effective. I've never seen the intellectual class of which I'm a part more on the defensive in my lifetime than we are now.
Mounk: Let me ventriloquize the position that some conservatives would take in response to that: “No, you're getting it the wrong way around. Actually, what's going on is that Orbán is a proud defender of those traditional values. You may not like them, you may oppose them. Fine, that's your right in a democracy. But the real animosity to Orbán comes precisely because he's standing up for those values, rather than because he's undermining democratic institutions.”
But what is it that he has actually done in government to attack democratic institutions? And of course, free to speak also to your experience at Central European University, which was pushed out of Budapest.
Ignatieff: I think you put your finger on a key aspect. The big issue here is whether conservatism will stay constitutional or not. And Orbán is a pioneer of a conservatism which is essentially not constitutional. That is, he won power fair and square in an election, and then he uses electoral victory to systematically weaken the counter-majoritarian institutions that balance majority rule in any democracy. It's no accident that he’s the inventor of illiberal democracy, since he set out to take apart the courts, the media, universities, all the regulatory institutions that used to be independent, and systematically put them under his control. This is a conservatism which, in my view, is at the edge of the constitutional order, and it raises the question of whether he will give power back if he loses, or whether he will take it to the streets.
And we forget another conservatism. I'm an old liberal, but the world was built after 1945 much more by conservatives than by liberals. You think of De Gasperi in Italy, you think of Adenauer, you think of Churchill. Socialists and liberals didn't like these guys, but they knew that these people were constitutional. They believed in a constitutional order, and they built the world that we live in. What is shocking about the conservatism of the last 20 years is that it flirts at the very edge of constitutional order and uses majority rule to systematically weaken the constitutional order of the societies in which they live. That's the problem. To get back to your original comment to me, if Orbán wants to defend Christian values, and he wants to defend the Hungarian language and he wants to tell the Hungarians all kinds of stuff about how great Hungary is, who am I to object? That's for the Hungarian people, but what is really significant for everybody is the dismantling of a constitutional order in Hungary. Because that's the model that I think has dangerous potential examples for right-wing conservative populists across the political spectrum in Europe and in North America.
Mounk: Let's move to liberal internationalism. You've written a beautiful piece for Persuasion arguing that liberal internationalism is in crisis because of its missteps, but that we should nevertheless hold on to the idea that we should uphold something like an international rules-based order, and perhaps that countries like the United States or Canada should continue to shore up democracies around the world against authoritarian advances.
What's the case for that kind of liberal internationalism? What would it look like, and how would it avoid some of the pitfalls that the most muscular or military forms of liberal internationalisms have fallen into for the last decades?
Ignatieff: Afghanistan was the moment of truth for a certain kind of liberal internationalism, and I think we've learned some extremely painful lessons. We didn't know anything about Afghanistan. We didn't know anything about Libya. We didn't know very much about the former Yugoslavia. The ignorance behind our interventions has cost us dearly. So that's one lesson. I think we've also learned some things about just how blunt the military instrument is and how dangerous it is to use it. The third thing we've learned is that you can't get anything done unless you have buy-in domestically, unless there are people prepared to fight and die for a democratic order. You can't impose it from outside. These are simple lessons, painful, learned at a horrible cost.
The internationalism I think we need flows in part from [the fight against] climate change. I don't believe in the COP26 process particularly. I think, in fact, it's going to be nation by nation, market by market that's going to do this. But I do think we need international standard-setting, international meetings, because so many of these problems can't be solved by national politics. The national interest now intersects with global interests all the time.
The biggest problem we've got is, I think, a crisis in universalism. Liberal internationalism was sustained by a sense that we're one human race with a common fate and common interests. And that sense is in terrible trouble. It's being pounded apart by nationalism, tribalism, partisanship, and fear. And you can't build any kind of liberal internationalism unless we rebuild a sense of universalism. But it's going to have to be a very tough universalism that understands who we can be responsible for beyond our borders, and what we can be responsible for.
We can't be our brother’s or sister's keeper everywhere, but we can do some things that strengthen this sense that we're all in this big, planetary boat together. This sense of obligation beyond borders is in terrible trouble everywhere. And that needs to be rebuilt.
Mounk: The importance of universalism and the fight over it seems to be absolutely key to this political moment. Universalism is something which you can come to from very different routes: you can come to it from a Christian theology, you can come to it from a love of ancient philosophy, you can come to it from Marxism, you can come to it from philosophical liberalism. You can come to it from a kind of conservatism. Very different traditions can sustain a universalist outlook. But it's under attack from the sort of explicit tribalism of the right, and I think it's also under attack from some leftwing philosophies.
Ignatieff: One of the premises of universalism is that it is possible for a white man of a certain age to take off his helmet and enter the mental and moral world of a person of a different race, a different gender, a different age. Universalism makes a big bet on the fact that we can actually imagine what it is like to be someone else. Our art, our culture, every art and culture in the world tells you that and yet we've walked away from it with a sense that only a black man or woman can understand what a black man or woman has experienced and suffered. And some of that is true, it's partly true, but it's also partly false. And so we won't rebuild universalism unless we can begin to trust each other. We can know what other people feel and have lived and we can respect and understand a history very different from our own, and act upon what we then understand.
Mounk: I want to end our conversation by talking about your wonderful new book On Consolation, which did in fact accomplish the feat—rare among books—of consoling me. And it's beautifully written besides. The book tells the story of great thinkers and figures of history from Marcus Aurelius to Montaigne, and from Camus to Havel, thinking about how to find solace in dark times.
Why don't you tell us one of those stories of solace, and perhaps a little bit about how we should stay strong to the outside world, but also within ourselves?
Ignatieff: Well, the project began because I was astonished by how moved and affected I was by religious language, particularly the Psalms. And I'm not a believer, but I began to puzzle out why it is in a secular society that we have this kind of religious unconscious that seems to be triggered in moments of distress and difficulty. We find ourselves slipping back into this ancient language. So that's where the project started. And I just began following my nose.
I'll tell you one story. There’s this famous Roman Senator called Boethius, who serves a barbarian king and is then accused of betraying the king. He is sent to be executed and wrote this very famous book called The Consolations of Philosophy while he was awaiting execution, which had a long life into the early Middle Ages. And the issue is whether philosophy can console you. The answer in Boethius is a little ambiguous. But one of the people who read it was Dante, and Dante was very affected by Boethius. In fact, Boethius imagines a conversation between lady philosophy and the despairing prisoner, and when Dante writes his wonderful Inferno and Paradiso, he imagines it also as a dialogue between a wise woman and a humble searcher. And I think that influence is very, very direct.
Then you jump forward 1000 years to the summer of 1944, when a young Italian chemist is trudging through Auschwitz with a French friend, and suddenly, the French friend says, “Teach me some Italian,” and the Italian (it is Primo Levi) suddenly begins to recite lines from Dante, lines that are part of Dante's connection back to Boethius.
Just as they reach the place where they're going to pick up their soup to take back to the barracks, Primo Levi remembers these lines: “We were not born to be brutes, but to live in dignity and knowledge.” And the words have this incredible effect on Primo Levi, because they say to him that there is a life beyond Auschwitz, where human beings can be human beings. It's a promise of hope: there will be a world in which people understand what Dante means. So the book is an attempt to tease these connections out across a thousand years. It starts with a man in prison in barbarian Europe in 524, goes to Dante in Ravenna in 1320, and then ends up in Auschwitz in 1944. These skeins of meaning console people, and they hand them on to the next generation.
That's the kind of story the book tries to tell, because I think we tell ourselves a sort of enfeebling story about modernity, which is that we're marooned away from religious consolation. Our traditions are of no use to us. So we're kind of stuck with dark times—environmental crisis, democratic crisis, you know, political partisanship—with no sources of comfort and consolation. And I just wanted to say “No, that isn't right. Just go back to your library, read some of this stuff.”
What I found consoling writing it, and I hope others will too, is the deep continuity of human experience, the just absolutely unbroken continuity of human experience, meaning that although we are divided by time and history from understanding what it was like to be Boethius or Dante, we know exactly what they're feeling about some things. We know that they felt desperation akin to ours. We know that they felt fear, just like us. The continuity of human experience is a sense of solidarity with our ancestors, with the dead. The dead are not lost to us, the dead continue to speak to us, and what the dead say to us, in my view, is one of the most consoling things of all.
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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover design by Joe O’Shea.
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