In the mid-1990s a euphoria gripped the United States after the Berlin Wall fell and the nations of the communist block hurtled toward democracy. As the scene played out worldwide, with military juntas falling in South America and Asia shifting toward democratic elections, there was a perception in the West that a community of nations once at odds would soon live in harmony.

Twenty years later, however, Americans have come to realize that democracy—even their own—doesn’t necessarily equate liberalism, said journalist Fareed Zakaria on April 6 at Fordham.

The CNN host made the remarks in a lecture, “Democracy and Its Discontents,” marking the centennial of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS).

A polarized America

Zakaria spoke against the backdrop of a polarized America with a populist government in power, and the deterioration of liberal democratic values in post-cold-war democracies like Russia, which voted for an authoritarian regime. He contextualized the shift within history, noting that things like the rule of law, rights for minorities, and separation of church and state do not exist in all democratically-elected governments.

Fareed Zakaria and Eva Badowska at Fordham on April 6
GSAS Dean Eva Badowska welcomed Zakaria at the Centennial Lecture on April 6.

“In the Western world we really think of democracy in a way that is not historically grounded,” he said. He referenced the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who foresaw the pitfalls facing the new democracies.

“Holbrooke recognized the real challenge and asked ‘What if they elect fascists and separatists?’” said Zakaria.

Historically, he said, the tension between liberal ideals and populist leanings has led to both liberal democratic outcomes such as the Magna Carta’s check on government power in 1215, and conservative movements such as the 19th-century election of Viennese Mayor Karl Luger, an anti-Semite who appealed to rural voters.

“He was a precursor to Hitler; and remember—Hitler was himself elected,” he said.

He cited the Arab Spring as another example where civil societies democratically voted for “intolerance” via the Muslim Brotherhood, pitting Sunni Arab majorities against Shiite minorities, and vice versa. And in Africa, he pointed to democratic elections whose leadership is “happy to take away the rights from gay people.”

Reminding the audience that women and minorities didn’t always have a voice in our U.S. democracy, Zakaria said that today’s “happy utopian notion of democracy” is actually a post-1945 phenomenon in which liberal values have prevailed.

“This has left us unprepared to watch today’s tensions play themselves out,” he said.

Weakened political parties

While political parties used to stand for certain values, he said, today they have become “empty vessels that serve as fundraising arms for the most popular candidate.” Last year, the traditional Republican ideals of free trade and aggressive American foreign policy fell by the wayside amidst the president’s populist “America First” agenda.

“The Trump celebrity juggernaut was too powerful, and the party just collapsed,” he said.

Weakened American political parties mean the courts and a constitutionally-protected free press play a larger role in balancing power, he said; therefore, the ongoing attacks upon judges and news outlets by the president “is a worrying story.”

“The assault on the judiciary worries me the most.” Zakaria said. “If you batter its approval ratings, it is very hard to go back up—[and]there are many countries where courts are not looked at as impartial.”

He said he is optimistic that Americans will realize that our democracy is something that has to be fought for.

“It has forced the larger civil society and institutions, such as universities and grad schools, to . . . understand that they have to act.”


Tom Stoelker is senior staff writer and visual media coordinator for Fordham News. After fifteen years as a freelance designer, Tom shifted his focus to writing and photography. He graduated from Lehman College, CUNY where he majored in English literature and photography and he received his master's in journalism from Columbia University. His work has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal, and The Architect's Newspaper, where he was associate editor.