The Good Fight
🎧 Moisés Naím on The Revenge of Power

🎧 Moisés Naím on The Revenge of Power

Moisés Naím and Yascha Mounk discuss how authoritarians are adapting to and consolidating power in a decentralized world.

Moisés Naím is a Distinguished Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a member of the Persuasion board of advisors. He has served as Minister of Trade and Industry for Venezuela, Executive Director of the World Bank, and editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine. His latest book is The Revenge of Power.

In this week’s conversation, Moisés Naím and Yascha Mounk discuss how authoritarian powers have banded together to respond to the challenges of technology and decentralization, the proliferation of the “Three P’s” (polarization, populism, and post-truth), and the challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.

This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: You wrote a really influential book nearly a decade ago called The End of Power. Your sense at the time was that power is becoming easier to win, but harder to keep and harder to wield. Tell us about why you thought, at the time, that we were witnessing the “end of power.”

Moisés Naím: Because you could see all around how power was fragmenting, disseminating. And people typically thought about that as a result of the internet and social media—that it was just an internet-driven conversation. My observation was that power was failing, fragmenting, and weakening as a result of a variety of forces—including, of course, the internet and social media. There were forces that were limiting and constraining power, and denying those who had power the possibility of continuing to do whatever they wanted. 

There's a long list of factors that were driving that, which I grouped in three categories that I boldly called “revolutions.” I said that there was a revolution of more. There was more of everything: more people, of course, but also more nations, more currencies, more guns, more computers, more technology, more transnational criminals and more NGOs. And that “more” was not just there, it was very mobile. And therefore I added my second revolution: a mobility revolution. Power often needs a perimeter in which you exercise power, and those in that perimeter respond to your desires. But if everything moves and borders are porous, and the costs of traveling, connecting, and communicating are almost nil, then that also has a consequence for power. And the third revolution is what I call the mentality revolution: there were profound changes in values, in attitudes. The World Values Survey continues to report how very basic fundamental mores—cultural, religious, social—are drastically changing. And that change undermines power. 

So the three revolutions were fragmenting and constraining power. I did recognize in The End of Power nine years ago that that didn't mean that there were not huge pockets of concentrated power, from Goldman Sachs to the Pentagon to the Vatican to the larger culture—but even those were fraying and had more limits than in the past. 

Mounk: My sense is that you describe the world very differently today than you did ten years ago. You've now had the rise of a countervailing set of forces, precisely to respond to the problems posed by the “end of power.” You call this response the “revenge of power.” Tell us about what that means.

Naím: Those who had power were not just waiting and looking at how their power was being eroded or undermined. They reacted against that. And the reactions were quite similar, even though the people reacting were very different. One of the very interesting aspects of what's going on is how extremely different political regimes end up having very similar reactions. Populism is often confused with an ideology. Populism is not an ideology—you can have populism of the right or the left, up and down, north and south. Populism is more a set of tactics, tricks, and strategies to obtain and retain power. And the people responding to the end of power use populism in conjunction with polarization—the sowing and amplifying of societal division and wedges—and post-truth, which had always existed under the name of propaganda. But it has acquired a new hue and a new form, a new way of influencing the dynamics of power.

Mounk: What does that revenge of power look like? How is it that populists use these tactics in order to reconcentrate power in their own hands and respond to the vacuum of power that these previous centrifugal developments had left?

Naím: It is a worldwide attack on checks and balances. You see it in different countries, and you see that the checks and balances that define a democracy are undermined from within. 

What is very interesting is how hard to see these attacks on the checks and balances are to the untrained, naked eye. A lot of these changes are not visible; they're boring, bureaucratic, small changes that end up having important consequences in the ways freedom and democracy work. They are done in a variety of furtive ways. That is very important. And there is a long list of tools that are used to undermine democracy, essentially to undermine the constraints on the autocrats’ power and countervail the forces of fragmenting power that are limiting their choices and options.

Mounk: As I understand it, you think of populism as one of the three big tools that autocrats in general now try to use, the other two being “post-truth” and polarization. What are these different tools and how do they interrelate?

Naím: Like populism, polarization has always existed. And I claim that polarization is like cholesterol; you have good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. Good polarization, which is democratic, is when different groups that are polarized in their politics interact and compete and then eventually resolve their competition in the electoral arena. And one of the groups gets to be the winner or create a coalition with others. And so that's good democratic cholesterol. 

Bad cholesterol, or polarization, paralyzes decision making and creates rifts that make it very hard to govern, very hard to maintain the social contract, and very hard to make decisions—and most decisions governments need to make are for the long term. The decisions require an agreement for long-term outcomes. Bad polarization is a political illness, in which you get a situation in which you don't treat a contender that has different ideas as a compatriot. You treat that person as illegitimate.

Mounk: So we have populism, and we have polarization. The third P—and I always admire somebody who manages to capture important things about the world in a neat alliteration—is “post-truth.”

Naím: None of the three P's are new. Populism and polarization have always existed. And post-truth also existed, but we called it “propaganda” and it even had ministers (remember, Goebbels was the minister of propaganda in Germany). Post-truth is propaganda for the 21st century; it has all the tools and the technologies and social media, and all the forces that amplify and create political realities that we have not seen in the past. And so the three P's interact with each other in the 21st century, though they have different consequences and offer different possibilities to their users.

Mounk: In the 1990s and early 2000s, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez was seen by some to be a bit like Silvio Berlusconi, in that the way in which he was undermining democracy and transforming Venezuela was sui generis—that it had to do with the specific history of the country.

Today, though, it looks like Chávez, like Berlusconi, was a harbinger of broader developments to come. Venezuela is a country that you know extremely well; you grew up there, you were in high office there. Tell us about the rise to power of Chávez and what we can learn from that about the revenge of power.

Naím: One of the most striking issues that I dealt with was watching what Trump was doing—how he came to be, first, the candidate for the Republican Party, then winning the election, then the way he governed. I kept saying, “I have seen this movie before, but I saw it in Spanish, and the protagonist was not Donald Trump, it was Hugo Chávez.” It’s quite amazing. They could not be more different. They are incredibly different individuals, coming almost from different planets. And yet the way in which they behaved—the way in which they manipulated the political system, the way in which they operated—is uncannily identical. From the use of the media to the demonization of enemies, the treatment of minorities, the deepening of polarization and exploiting any kinds of wedges he could find—that was Chávez. He was a pioneer in this.

Mounk: How was that emulated and copied by others?

Naím: Immediately. One of the characteristics that these leaders have is that they export their autocracy, and they export their methods. So very quickly, with significant support from Cuba, Chávez started exporting. Chávez had a lot of money at that time; oil prices were very high and he had an open checkbook. He went to Africa, where he built hospitals and gave money to politicians and built an international network of support. He was very effective in exporting his Bolivarian Revolution, or what he called the “socialism of the 21st century,” which was neither. Bolivia under Evo Morales was a good example, as is the closeness to Lula da Silva in Brazil during his first presidency and the Kirchners in Argentina (the husband and wife, who were presidents in sequence). Countries in Central America and the Caribbean all were influenced. They attempted to influence Ecuador and so on. Chávez was part of an effort to make this way of governing go global, and to create a network of mutually-supporting states that help each other in implementing it.

Mounk: One of the things that I've been struck by going around the world and talking about populism, especially when it really felt like this new phenomenon in 2015-17, was the complacency of elites. In many countries they basically said, “All right, look, so you got Trump in the States, and Erdoğan in Turkey. But this could never happen here in Brazil; this could never happen here in Poland,” etc.

What did the rise of Chávez feel like to you in Venezuela in the 1990s? 

Naím: There was complacency. There was anti-politics: the deeply entrenched sensation that nothing can be worse politically than what we now have, that we're willing to bet our democracy or our system of life on a new guy. The phrase that embodied it is “Que se vayan todos!”—“Throw them all out.” Anyone that had anything to do with power was not credible, corrupt, and an enemy. And so the feeling that nothing works in politics, the antipolitica, was a very important source and a propellant for these politicians. One important reason why people were not more alarmed, and did not do more to stop what essentially became the loss of democracy, was how stealthy some of these decisions were. 

Perhaps there's an anecdote that is very interesting. The Cuban government had a very strong alliance with the Venezuelan government, based on a very strong human connection between Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. And the Cubans were invited almost to occupy the country; they could do whatever they wanted. One of the first things they did was take over the control of the legal entities that certified all transactions, the civil registries, we call them—if you get married, you have to go and get a document there; if you have a child, if you sell something, if you buy something, if somebody dies. It’s the registry that formalizes transactions and new workers. The first thing that the Cubans took over was that. That's something that was very invisible, but they essentially had control over every transaction, every birth, and every death, every company that was created, every company that was acquired, every investment—everything. And immediately they connected the island of Cuba with Venezuela through an underwater submarine cable. So they had a control room in Cuba controlling a lot of things going on in Venezuela. That was completely invisible; even to this day, people still don't recognize how important Cuba's presence in Venezuela is and how Cuba was so determined in driving the country to this catastrophe. Because as an occupying power, the Cubans did what occupying powers do, which is they looted the country. 

Mounk: In Venezuela, of course, Hugo Chávez eventually passed away. What can we learn from the transition from Chávez to Nicolás Maduro about the likely future of former democracies that have been captured by authoritarian populists?

Naím: Maduro has absolutely no need to look democratic. He tries to play the game and use their democratic rhetoric. But Maduro is a dictator, and does what dictators do: he tortures people, he represses people. Venezuela today is clearly a tyrannical dictatorship. Chávez would perhaps have been able to compensate for some of the anti-democratic behaviors and tone them down by dint of his political instincts. He had a very strong social following; he had a connection to the people that gave him options that Maduro doesn't have. Maduro is not charismatic. Maduro was anointed by Chávez and Maduro is widely seen as an agent, and a crook. The criminalization of the state in all of these countries is a subject we should talk about, because it's another commonality that is different from corruption and kleptocracy. But Maduro is an example of this kind of crookery and thievery that now accompanies these kinds of presidents. I'm speculating, but perhaps Chávez had the political capabilities and instincts to manage the situation, and therefore, it spared him the need to become a full-fledged dictator. But that's pure speculation.

Mounk: I wrote an article a few years ago in Foreign Affairs thinking about the downward spiral of populist legitimacy. Populist movements often come in pretending to be democratic, and having some very real popular legitimacy at first. But then, as people start to recognize that they might be undermining democratic institutions, or as they simply mismanage the economy or face some kind of external shock to their popularity, they quickly face a choice between ratcheting up oppression and giving up some of their power.

What you are saying about Maduro and Chávez is that one of the really important shocks to populist legitimacy can be the transition from an original political leader—who has political talent, in purely objective terms, and who has personal legitimacy—to one that lacks those things, and therefore needs to ratchet up the oppression.

Naím: That's accurate. Legitimacy has two sources: origin and performance. You can be legitimate because a lot of people voted for you. In that case, your origin is a legitimizing force that empowers you to make decisions on behalf of the people that have given you the legitimacy to govern. 

But there is also a legitimacy of performance: if things go well, if you manage the country, if people feel better, if people understand the situation in very positive ways, that would also give you legitimacy. And that explains a phenomenon that I have been observing, which is, following the retreat of democracy in the last 15 years, the number of countries considered democratic or significantly democratic has dwindled. But in that same period, the number of elections has soared. Elections are booming. We have never had so many elections of presidents, prime ministers, local authorities, governors of regions, etc. How can you explain that democracies are going down, but elections are going up? Why are these autocrats so interested in having elections? They seek legitimacy. They're looking to boost their legitimacy of origin, because their legitimacy of performance is not delivering for them. 

And the other explanation, of course, is that while elections are booming, most of them are fraudulent or not really competitive, open, transparent and credible elections. But they don't care. They go ahead with it. Maduro just had an election where he got a very large percentage of voters. Nobody believes it, but at least he has a talking point in his speeches.

Mounk: It's one of the interesting ways in which democracy remains the only legitimate form of government in the world today. There's lots of forms of government that are not democratic (some of them are even reasonably effective and successful in their own terms). But there is a sense in which everybody has accepted that the way to govern yourself is democratic, and so even these deeply autocratic regimes invest significant resources and take certain risks in order to pretend to be democratic.

Another element of the Venezuelan experience is this form of international cooperation, the way in which Cuba was influential on Venezuela when Chávez came to power. You argue that there is a much broader way in which populists and dictators now support each other across the world. What does that look like, and how much of the political strength of the revenge of power lies in this “club of dictators?”

Naím: Well, let’s start with a picture we just saw recently, of Putin and Xi Jinping getting together and declaring that they are going to be supportive of each other in these troubled times. 

Let me give you another example that is currently happening. The south of Venezuela is a very mineral rich region, a lot of gold, coltan, gems, everything. It has been mined by a guerrilla group from Colombia that reached a deal with Maduro. Mostly, it’s about gold. They mine for gold and they send it to Maduro, who then sends it to Turkey, which in turn launders the money in other Gulf countries, and also the Iranians are very present. There is a very strong economic and political alliance between Maduro and his government and the government in Iran. 

What you can see is a network of autocrats. These transactions require the active complicity of at least four or five governments, and those governments have in common that they are very autocratic. A democracy would have great difficulty explaining the characteristics of this transaction.

Mounk: So we have the end of power, we have a weakening of power, and that then pushes a bunch of people to ask how they can fortify the power they already have. How can they win power? How can they use it more effectively? 

This is, first of all, a general feature of social systems where nature abhors a vacuum. When you go too far in one direction, very often these counter developments bring things back into a form of balance. It's not always a good balance. At the moment, I think we're in an equilibrium that we have good reason to be worried about, but some form of balance often comes back. 

If we've started with the weakening of power, and then we have a revenge of power, what's the next step? What’s the book you’re going to write ten years from now?

Naím: It's very likely that the pendulum will swing back, but not because of the same forces. We are living in a world that is being transformed by climate change. That will have immense political repercussions. The changes in climate will create alterations that our political systems have not seen before. Artificial intelligence, pandemics… The world is going to be challenged in ways that we have not seen before. 

We're not equipped to make the right decisions about climate. We're not equipped to create the jobs that are going to be lost to innovations in technology. The financial structure of the world will have to change, and so on. What we are seeing is that governments will have a very, very hard time managing the many unprecedented challenges that they will face, and that will inevitably have consequences in political regimes.

Mounk: I've had a fear for a while that the ability to keep control may depend systematically on whether you’re a democracy or not. Which is to say that if you’re a democratic government, then a lot of the things we've been talking about so far (e.g. the rise of social media), weaken your power and your authority in an obvious way, because you can no longer control the narrative to the same extent. There's a lot of centripetal forces, it becomes easier to challenge any form of authority, any form of power. It might weaken democratic governments in a fundamental way. The same may be true of pandemics and climate change and other big factors beyond one’s control. 

On the other hand, dictatorships may be able to deal with those challenges in a way that makes it easier for them to preserve themselves. Their responses may not be effective. They may not be better at containing a virus, or protecting their populations from the consequences of climate change. But they may be able to crush social media and free speech. They may be able to use a pandemic (as we've seen in Hungary, and elsewhere) as an excuse for concentrating further power into their hands. It may be that democratic governments see their powers weaken further, but dictatorships perhaps could become even more oppressive.

Naím: It's very important not to declare that all the changes that are going to happen and are happening are going to boost dictators and sink democracies. I think both things will happen: some dictators will suffer from the changes, and others will ride them and strengthen their position. 

The pandemic revealed a lot of changes, but mostly it shows how institutions, models, and ways of acting that we thought were permanent, are in fact, transient; and those that we thought were transitional are here to stay. It may be that the pandemic is here to stay in one form or another. Remote work, for example. At the beginning, we thought that that was just for a while. The pandemic will end, and then people will go back to their offices. Well, it's not going to happen that way. That transitional arrangement has become permanent. We thought that American democracy, the United States of America, was here to stay, in terms of its political regime; that it's a deeply consolidated democracy, deeply functional, and therefore, was going to be there forever. Well, now every day you see another article or another conversation or a TV show that questions that. 

“Democracies versus dictatorships” is yet another manifestation of the monolith against the swarm. Autocratic dictatorships are monoliths, Stalinist in terms of their hierarchy (everybody follows instructions from the center) monolithically facing and rivaling and fighting with democracies, which are essentially swarms of individuals and fragmented interests—a big disarray. One of the biggest worries is asymmetry between countries. Do you imagine a democracy being able to stage in Ukraine what the Russian government has been able to pull off? No, if Russia were a democracy it would probably have had a hard time deploying more than 100,000 soldiers near Ukraine and threatening to invade. This is an asymmetry that is going to be with us all the time. 

Mounk: One of the things that always strikes me in these conversations is that there’s a sort of inverse kind of exceptionalism: “all of the ways in which our country is screwed up really have to do with our history and our problems. And so to understand what to do, we really just have to look at our own country.”

I think your work helps us to understand the way in which these things are connected. Looking at a country like the United States, is there a problem with exceptionalism here? What do Americans miss about the condition of American democracy when we don't see it in a broader international context?

Naím: I’m always struck in the United States by how easy it has been, and how common it has been—for foreign policy experts, national security experts, defense experts—to underestimate the power of nationalism elsewhere. That's because the United States is a very nationalistic country, in a variety of ways. So the strong nationalism here somehow creates a screen that doesn't allow policymakers in the United States to understand that in other countries, also, nationalism is a very powerful force. In China, in Russia, in Iraq, in Vietnam, in all of these places, nationalism is and was a central determinant of the political dynamics. So we have it again, here. And we have the United States not getting the fact that other countries also have their strong nationalistic forces.

Mounk: You say that the future depends on the five battles we need to win: the battle against what you call the “big lie”; against criminalized governments; against autocracies that seek to undermine democracies; against political cartels that stifle competition; and against illiberal narratives. 

What are our prospects for success in those fights? And what can we do to help?

Naím: Well, number one is the “big lie.” And it’s not just the one that Trump is pushing. You know, Brexit was a big lie—the whole notion that there will not be negative economic consequences for the United Kingdom from adopting Brexit, and the disdain of data and analysis that took place. So there are some very important big lies at work that need to be contested. And one has to be, for example, about the nature and the functioning of American democracy. 

The second is something that I think is also not well understood, and that is the criminalization of some of these autocrats. We have categories for thievery and crooks in government: We call it corruption, or if it's on a big scale, we call it kleptocracy. But I think we have entered into a new area in which organized crime—criminal tactics and criminal organizations—become instruments of state. They are used by the government, first, to enrich themselves and their cronies and their families. But they also use large-scale, transnational networks of organized crime as an instrument of state functioning. We're seeing it, surely, in Putin's Russia, we see it in the Balkans, we see it in Africa, and of course, we see again that Venezuela’s Maduro is clearly a criminalized entity that has taken over a state. 

You asked me for assessments. I think more can be done. These actors need a certain flexibility in the financial system. I think the world can do much better in containing the criminalized state. Autocracies that export the autocratic toolkit—that also can be, and should be, tackled. And none of this is easy. Some of it may be impossible, but it's quite important. On political cartels: in economics there is a whole school of thought about how to limit the anti-competitive behavior of companies and cartels and conglomerates, and how to protect consumers. We need that in politics. Economics should not be the only discipline that thinks about how to protect customers, consumers of political systems, the citizens, the voters—we need entities that protect them. Among other things, they can, for example, be impartial judges of what's true and not. I'm aware of all the difficulties and complexities that that entails, but we need to do much better in creating forces against the existence of political cartels. 

And finally, the narratives. Against the narrative of the monolith, the narrative of the anti-monolith is very fragmented and inchoate sometimes. Its product needs to improve. It is not enough to have a better way of defending liberal ideas and institutions. It is also very important that those ideas and institutions work better. So before going all out with a narrative, let's see how can we fix the obvious defects that some democracies have in the world today.

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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover design by Joe O’Shea.

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The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.