"My fear is that things are getting even worse."
"The world has dramatically changed"
Political scientist Ian Bremmer on the burgeoning Chinese dream, the widespread political malaise and Switzerland as a showcase for democracy.
Ian Bremmer (50) is a US political scientist and best-selling author. He is founder and president of the Eurasia Group consulting firm as well as creator of the Global Political Risk Index (GPRI).
Interview Manuel Rybach, Global Head Public Affairs and Policy, Credit Suisse
Of the three dimensions measured in the Progress Barometer, the respondents have least desire to accelerate progress in the political space. What's your explanation for this?
In many democracies, particularly in industrialized ones, a lot of people feel that the system is rigged. They feel that no matter what they do, no matter who they vote for, the structures aren't going to change. Their social contract isn't working out anymore, and that feeling has been prevalent for decades, both on the left and on the right of the political spectrum. I think that's all directly related to the structural underpinnings of populism and the anti-establishment sentiment we're seeing in many democracies around the world. Call it a political malaise. Not that people wouldn't want politics to improve: They thought change was realistic, but it just didn't happen. And so many of them have given up.
Most respondents agree that there is too much polarization in the political sphere – that's a development that they want to reverse. How do you interpret that?
The polarization has increased in a relatively short period of time. It's possible that the recency of it gives people a sense of optimism that if you make an effort, you can do something. Twitter, for example, has decided that they're not going to run political ads any more. But it also tells me that if nothing is done and things keep getting worse over a decade or so, then people might give up hope on that one as well.
In the US, the political element that receives the most support for progress is the power of social media – in times of fake news and a "Twitter President" that is quite surprising, isn't it?
It makes a certain amount of sense – social media is still relatively new, and it's a technology that particularly lends itself to people who both demand and expect social and political change. The problem is, social media has done a better job polarizing society than it has fixing it. And so long as it remains unable to deliver on that promise of change, i.e. making people's daily lives better, the more likely we will see a growing "techlash" like the one currently being trumpeted by a US presidential candidate and a number of other European leaders.
The three countries with the greatest appetite for political progress are China, Brazil and India. Why?
You might agree with them or not, but these three countries have very strong political leaders and they're moving the political agenda. Xi Jinping is the strongest leader that China has seen since Mao. Anti-corruption has been an important aspect of his political program. In India, Narendra Modi won a big election last year. He is enormously popular with the Hindu community for his nationalism, much less so with the Muslim population. It's a similar situation in Brazil with Jair Bolsonaro and his fight against kleptocracy. People feel he is moving the political system in a way that no other Brazilian leader in recent decades has.
At the other end of the spectrum are Australia, Switzerland and the US. Why are people in these countries rather skeptical towards further progress?
In Australia, there has been a lot of political change, with four prime ministers in six years – that undermines belief in the system. In the United States, you might have voted for Trump, but the system doesn't look very different since he got elected, he has not fulfilled most of his promises – for example, there is still no wall between the US and Mexico. The Edelman Trust Index shows that general approval and trust rates for organizations and institutions are at a very low level. Switzerland's position might be a surprise, as the Swiss political system really listens to the people, and the federal government is traditionally represented not by one but by four parties. It may well be that in Switzerland people are generally satisfied and don't feel like a lot of change needs to occur.
Of all the results, what surprised you the most?
The single biggest takeaway on the political side is that the Chinese are the most enthusiastic about change – and that doesn't necessarily mean democracy. And that the Americans are the least enthusiastic. If the average Chinese believes more in the Chinese dream than the average American believes in the American dream, suddenly you realize that the world has dramatically changed. The US has historically protected its power, not by military means primarily, but by having better ideas.
If you could either stop or accelerate a particular political trend in your own country, what would it be?
I think the biggest problem in the United States is the fact that special interests are increasingly able to gain political access. That development started decades ago and has consolidated over recent years. That needs to stop. We are living in a period when the economy has been growing and is now getting softer, so my fear is that things are getting even worse.