Shadi Hamid on Democracy, Liberalism, and the Middle East

Shadi Hamid

Shadi Hamid is a columnist and member of the Editorial Board at The Washington Post. He is also a research professor of Islamic studies at Fuller Seminary and the co-host of the podcast Wisdom of Crowds. His most recent book is The Problem of Democracy: America, the Middle East, and the Rise and Fall of an Idea.

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Autocracy as we understand it today is a modern creation. I think there we see very few successful examples of modern autocracies that are able to sustain themselves.

Shadi Hamid

Key Highlights

  • Introduction – 0:32
  • The Problem of Democracy – 2:25
  • Islamism – 5:51
  • Turkey – 22:47
  • Autocratic Rulers – 32:20

Podcast Transcript

It’s easy to support democracy when it delivers the outcomes you want. It’s a lot harder to support democracy when it doesn’t go your way. It’s easy to lose faith in democracy after a disappointing election, especially if you believe the winner is a threat to your way of life or even democracy itself. Some will argue this is the problem with democracy. But Shadi Hamid disagrees. He calls this dilemma the problem of democracy.

Shadi is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, a columnist and editorial board member at The Washington Post, and a co-host of the podcast The Wisdom of Crowds. His most recent book is The Problem of Democracy: America, the Middle East, and the Rise and Fall of an Idea.

My conversation with Shadi touches on politics in the Middle East and American foreign policy. But it’s largely about democracy, liberalism, and what happens when the two clash. Shadi believes the problem of democracy is not a reason to support authoritarian rulers. It is a problem, but one we have to accept and adapt our strategies around.

Now if you like this podcast, please support it anyway you can. The easiest way is to give it a 5-star review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. You can also support the podcast with a small donation on Patreon or at If you belong to an organization that wants to partner with or sponsor the podcast, send me an email to But for now… Here is my conversation with Shadi Hamid…


Shadi Hamid, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Shadi Hamid

Hi, Justin. Thanks for having me.


Well, Shadi, I thought your book was really impressive. To be honest, I probably should have had you on earlier. The book came out last year.

Shadi Hamid

Well, thank you. Glad to hear that.


Yeah. It’s called The Problem of Democracy: America, the Middle East and the Rise and Fall of an Idea. In a lot of ways, it’s going to be talking about some of the ideas that are kind of the bedrock to this podcast. I mean, the name of the podcast is Democracy Paradox and I describe that as when democratic moments produce undemocratic outcomes. It’s something really hard to wrap your head around and it’s unclear whether that’s exactly what happens. It’s something that you have to almost do as a thought experiment. This is really close to what you call the problem of democracy, but I think it’s got very important differences. So, why don’t we start out by letting you describe how you think about the problem of democracy?

Shadi Hamid

Yeah. So, the problem of democracy might be slightly different in that I’m not so much talking about democracy producing necessarily undemocratic outcomes, but rather just bad outcomes. I put bad in scare quotes because part of the issue here is that we don’t agree on what a bad outcome is. That’s a big part of the crisis where we find ourselves in any number of countries. I say something’s a bad outcome, but then 50 percent of the country, the other part of it, thinks it’s a good outcome. So, we’re at an impasse in that regard. But the book is focused on this question of what do we do when these bad outcomes happen, because they do seem to be happening with increasing frequency.

In the book I focus on various Middle Eastern cases where I think this dilemma is quite stark. Here I’m talking about the rise of Islamist parties through democratic elections, something that we’ve seen quite a bit. You know, earlier in the 1990s in Algeria, when there was an Islamist party that was on the verge of winning, the secular military steps in, cancels elections, plunges the country into civil war. More recently, we have the Arab Spring. Obviously, the case of Egypt stands out. The Muslim Brotherhood wins consecutive elections. You have a Muslim Brotherhood president for the first time in Egyptian history and then the military steps in. Part of my critique is that the US is complicit in this. The US has given green lights to Arab militaries to proceed with these coups.

That’s a moral stain in my perspective, but also one that’s contrary to American interests. So, I do come out with a strong position that these bad outcomes, however bad that we think they are, have to in some sense be tolerated or perhaps even accommodated, because democracy is not meant to produce good outcomes all the time. We have to readjust our expectations accordingly. What was once quite obvious in the Middle East, and we thought the Middle East was exceptional in this regard, we now see this dilemma spreading universally, including even in our own country here in the US with the very real prospect of Donald Trump winning in 2024. That’s going to be a really bad outcome in my perspective and we have to prepare ourselves mentally for how we’re going to respond to that.


I like the fact that your book really focused on the Middle East because it gives us a different environment to think about these issues and it in some ways takes the politics out of the situation. I mean, when we talk about the United States, we talk about things like Donald Trump being elected, it just clouds the judgment of a lot of people. But when Americans think about the Middle East, it puts it just into an entirely different environment. They’re not always completely clear about how they feel about certain outcomes. They’re still trying to learn. So, I think it allows us to kind of think about these problems a little bit better.

But you mentioned how Islamists won these elections and we considered those to be bad outcomes. I’ve heard that before. That we didn’t want Islamists in power. But I always struggle to understand exactly what Islamists actually believe. Can you explain what this ideology is really about?

Shadi Hamid

I mean, generally what we call Islamist parties are those that believe that Islam or Islamic law should play a central role in public life. Now beyond that, that’s where you get some confusion, because that’s obviously a broad categorization. What does it mean to want to implement Islamic law or Sharia in public life? What does it mean for a role to be central in public life? How do we define that? That’s one part of the definition. The second part is that Islamist parties, sort of self-consciously organize themselves with those goals in mind, because you can have an economically leftist party that also believes that Islam should play a central role, but that’s not really what defines them politically and what animates them in the political sphere.

So, for Islamists there’s a kind of self-conscious, almost mannered aspect to their political activity that they’re very consciously reacting to what they see as a sort of tragedy of the 20th century secularization and to some degree of liberalization in the Middle East during the colonial era and then postcolonial. They see this as going against the historical norm of Islam imbuing every aspect of public life and people not really questioning that. In the 20th century, you have the introduction of alternatives to that. So, they’re coming in and saying, we want to undo that and correct that.

But then when you get into details that’s where you have some difficulty. Islamists themselves will struggle to really explain what exactly their project means in the medium to long term and as someone who spent hundreds of hours with various Islamists activists and leaders from the mid 2000s on, they often don’t know exactly. It’s also maybe asking a lot that if you’ve never been in power to then be like, ‘Hey, guys, can you like lay out the entirety of your ideological endpoint?’ Because part of the issue is that they are working within very significant constraints, the constraints of the modern nation state, the constraints of the international arena in which America is hegemonic.

So, the things that they really want in their hearts of hearts are not things they can really realize in reality. There is this kind of gap that they struggle with. But generally, they do want to push their countries in a more quote unquote Islamic direction. So, examples would include Islamizing the educational curriculum, restrictions on alcohol consumption, maybe some sex segregation at different levels of primary schooling. But some of those things are maybe a little bit superficial. But anyway, that gives you a maybe a sense of at least the basic thrust.


And to a large degree, that’s what I’ve understood Islamism to be. But where it breaks down for me is that Saudi Arabia has traditionally been a country that has made Islam front and center to their politics and how they govern the country and yet Saudi Arabia is one of the main opponents of Islamism and Islamists don’t think of Saudi Arabia as being a prototype of what they want the country to be. So, I’m struggling to understand what exactly they believe in if the most regimented Islamic society isn’t their model.

Shadi Hamid

Yeah, it is a bit of a paradox, if you will. So, one key difference is that Saudi Arabia is firmly within the kind of American hegemonic order. On foreign policy, Saudi Arabia, is not very Islamic, I guess we can say, or at least from the standpoint of Islamists, Saudi Arabia isn’t very Islamic in the sense that it’s moving closer to Israel and doesn’t really stand up for Palestinian rights all that much. Saudi Arabia intervenes against Islamist parties, as you mentioned, in any number of countries. So, I would classify Saudi Arabia as an Islamic regime, but it’s not really Islamist in the sense that I think most of us use the term of usually talking about opposition groups and movements usually from the Muslim Brotherhood School of Thought, which is a particular strain of Islamic thinking and practice.

Saudi Arabia tends to be more what we would call Salafi or ultra conservative, although that’s changing as they liberalize under Mohammed bin Salman now, which is a whole story on its own. But the Muslim Brotherhood oriented groups are not very strict and rigid. They believe in at least procedural democracy, which the Saudis do not. The Saudis are suspicious of anything that would suggest popular sovereignty or people making their own choices because we’re talking about a brutal authoritarian regime. There are these important differences and people can debate. You know, my critics would say that I’m too soft on groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in that I actually characterize them as being okay with procedural democracy.

They would say they’re just using democracy to end democracy and that gets us at the paradox question a little bit more directly which is the scenario of one person one vote one time. That’s oftentimes what you’ll hear people say, ‘Oh my god, if we have free elections in Egypt or Jordan or whatever Islamists will come to power only to then dismantle democracy immediately.’ I’m very critical of that simply because it hasn’t really happened. It’s a fear of something unspecified into the future. I don’t think that we should orient our approach to democracy based on worst case scenarios, based on fears that aren’t really empirically supported. Sure, anything can happen. But that’s kind of the point. Democracy brings to the fore profound uncertainty. It’s scary. We feel unsettled, but that’s precisely what we should be feeling, especially in a young democracy.


I’m hesitant to say that they support democracy just because it’s a little bit of a loaded word. I mean, it’s what is it that you mean by democracy? What conditions are you putting on democracy? What seems to be self-evident is they seem to be very supportive of elections and elections to determine who’s in power and if that’s your barometer for democracy, then I would say that they do support procedural democracy. Is that true? I mean, is the support of elections for determining leaders in power, is that a core tenant for Islamists today?

Shadi Hamid

Yes, I would say it certainly is a core tenet. Now, it does help that they tend to do quite well in elections. Their interests and their commitment to procedural democracy are kind of aligned. There was a time when they weren’t aligned in the 50s and 60s when it tended to be socialist and left leaning parties that did quite well in elections. But I guess I suppose we can say that most people’s commitment to procedural democracy has something to do with how they perceive their own interests. So, I don’t think this is very unique to the case of Islamist parties. But it’s not just that. I would say that this understanding of democracy about selecting leaders isn’t just how Islamists see democracy.

It’s also actually a core tenet of democracy from an academic standpoint and from a political science perspective. Now, I think that this emphasis on the procedural aspects and trying to take out some of the liberal premises that we often lump in with democracy. Now, I think that shifted in the past couple decades post-Cold War, where I think you’ve seen a lot of casual conflation of small d democracy and small l liberalism. Part of what I’ve tried to do in the book is to bring us back to a more minimalistic conception of democracy, what I actually call democratic minimalism, which I think is a corrective to what I think are the excesses of our period.

If you talk to just ordinary left of center liberals in America and you ask them what democracy is, they’ll give you a whole basket of great things. I think it’s very presumptuous, but it’s also just not realistic. Democracy doesn’t necessarily produce economic growth. It doesn’t always move us to gender equality or protection of minority rights. It doesn’t always lead to more competence or more consensus. There are all these other things that we want from our politics. Then, because democracy is good, we assume it will produce other good things, but those other good things are not intrinsically linked to the democratic idea itself. I think it’s dangerous that we’ve moved in this direction because it projects a burden on the democratic idea that it can’t bear. That’s what creates this misalignment of expectations and reality.

So, we go into this and we’re like, ‘Democracy!’ but then, ‘Oh, we have totally incompetent leadership in the US and we have someone who’s moving us away from gender equality because of restrictions on abortion access or going against LGBTQ rights.’ So, I think it just creates a lot of confusion with people. We can also bring up the UK which is pretty democratic, but produces a remarkable succession of results that are just embarrassingly incompetent when they’re in office. Then Brits are like, ‘Wait, we’re becoming like a proper declining power.’ Not just declining in the sense of post-colonial, but this sense of profound decay.

That I think raises some really difficult questions for people, because you obviously want your own country to be better. But you’re like, ‘Why isn’t democracy producing this?’ But I think we have to just be very straight up and say, just because you can select your own leaders, it doesn’t mean they’re going to be competent. People have the right to make the wrong choice. That is really at the heart of the democratic idea. For me it is the right to make the wrong choice.


I definitely agree with the heart of what you’re talking about. I guess one of the concerns I have about saying that there’s a line between democracy and liberalism is that I think that that line is very gray as to where we exactly draw it. For instance, freedom of speech is oftentimes considered to be absolutely necessary for democracy. It’s hard to imagine you can have a competitive election if people aren’t able to say what they actually think. It’s hard to believe that you can have competitive elections if people can’t assemble freely. These are all aspects of what we call political liberalism. But then we also need to have the rule of law because we don’t have clear laws established. There aren’t going to be clear rules for the elections themselves.

Then we need to have certain civil liberties in terms of prosecution, because otherwise you can prosecute your political opponents too easily and that would make it so that elections aren’t free and fair either. So, I mean, it feels like we can say on paper that democracy and liberalism are separate and that there’s clearly aspects on the extremes where it’s easier to separate them. But there’s a huge area in the middle where they feel very tied together and very tangled.

Shadi Hamid

Yes, I do try in the book to actually delineate where the line is. It’s not easy. There’s definitely a lot of gray area. So, maybe just to start us on this question in the book, I define democratic minimalism as seeing democracy as a system and means of rotating power without prejudice to substantive ideological outcomes Okay, bit of a mouthful. But I think what this gets at is I make a distinction between the means and ends of democracy If you think about it this way, political liberalism is a lot of what you just talked about. That you have certain things that allow you to be able to compete fairly and to actually have a chance of winning.

So, this is absolutely essential. The opposition has to have a realistic shot of winning and what that requires are some politically liberal protections: the right to organize a protest in the main square; the right to criticize the ruling party; the right to communicate your preferences through the media, through other means, because if ordinary people can’t listen to your message or have no way of hearing it, they won’t know that there’s another party to vote for. So, all these things are required for competitive elections. But I try to keep it very limited to the set of things that we need for good competition between parties. Because if the rotating power aspect is essential in my definition, then we have to think, how do we make the rotation of power possible?

I distinguish that from culturally liberal outcomes, which are much more about the ends of politics. They’re about our ideological commitments. They’re about our ultimate values, our conception of the good and the human person. That’s where I am very uncomfortable with sneaking in liberal conceptions and saying this is what’s required for a country to be democratic. For example, restrictions to abortion access have nothing to do with democracy. It is completely legitimate for Republicans, if they want to do that on the state level, as long as they do it fairly within the democratic process, they’re not breaking any laws or doing anything outside the system. That is their prerogative. Even something like prohibiting gay marriage is again dealing with the substantive ends of politics.

People should be able to disagree legitimately within the democratic process. So, let’s say hypothetically, through the democratic process, somehow those outcomes were undone. Personally, not something I would like. I’m generally sympathetic to decisions that led to this being legalized in the US. But a big thing that I’m trying to argue for in the book is it doesn’t matter what I like. It doesn’t matter which outcomes I personally prefer, because my preferences are contingent. Other people can disagree and many Americans, at least a significant minority, don’t think that gay marriage should have been legalized, so what I would say to them is that if you really feel strongly about that, then you can organize and you shouldn’t have any restrictions on how you can organize accordingly.

Then if you’re able to persuade enough of your fellow country people to agree with you, great. If you can’t, you have got to accept the democratic outcome. So, that’s how I try to make distinctions. What are the means of democracy and what are the ends? I think that in a society where we no longer agree on the common good, we have to be agnostic on the ends and not impose or say that it has to be one way or the other. Instead, it’s a democratic process that produces the outcome, and we have to accept that in the end. That’s the only way that we can adjudicate our differences in a divided society.


Rather than try to discuss where the gray area really begins, let’s just jump into areas that you would agree are that gray area or necessary for democracy, ideas of political liberalism, like free speech, free assembly, and so on. Those seem to be a lot harder to provide than it sounds like. For instance, there’s countries out there that continue to have elections that continue to be competitive countries like Hungary, countries like Turkey, there’s countries like India, even that have elections that are competitive, that the opposition could potentially win, but at the same time are starting to erode some of those basic tenants, those basic rights. Turkey’s probably the biggest culprit of this. V-DEM has them marked on their liberal democracy measure even below Egypt. Which doesn’t have competitive elections. I mean, it has them marked below a lot of countries.

Shadi Hamid

Wait, sorry, Turkey is below Egypt in VDEM?


Yeah, on the liberal democracy measure. They’re barely above a lot of countries on the electoral democracy measure. I think VDEM’s really harsh on Turkey.

Shadi Hamid

It sounds like it.


Turkey obviously has issues with a lot of these liberal rights. They have a lot of journalists in jail. There’s a lot of oppression in terms of political liberalism. I mean, it doesn’t seem to be as easy to do that, even when you have those electoral rights. Would you consider Turkey to be an example of something that you would consider to be a minimalist democracy or does it fall short of that today?

Shadi Hamid

Yeah, Turkey’s a difficult case, and I generally am skeptical that we can call it an electoral democracy in the sense that it’s not impossible for the opposition to win and the recent election was relatively close, but the kind of domination of the ruling party and the criminalization of opposition speech and jailing opponents, all of that creates an environment where it’s just simply not fair. It’s not anything resembling a fair playing field. I think that Hungary, I don’t think is quite as far along in that regard, but certainly I think there are legitimate questions. I think that Hungary, India, and Turkey are sort of the holy trinity of difficult cases in this regard and it’s not necessary for me to adjudicate where they fall on the line.

I don’t want countries to get close to where Turkey is today and I think that Turkey is very much not in the spirit of what I lay out in the book because the right to make the wrong choice, the right to have recourse, to be able to oppose is really important to me, the right to oppose. That just becomes much more difficult in some of these cases. But where I am, I think, more clear is, let’s say, Turkey had a completely competitive elections with no criminalization of speech or jailing of opponents, but also had far reaching restrictions on the right to consume alcohol, have an abortion, blasphemy laws that prohibit the insulting of prophets and divine texts, making divorce more difficult to initiate, incentives for having more children, so kind of like soft Islamization through incentivizing.

If they had that basket of culturally illiberal outcomes, that to me is a much more clear case where there’s nothing undemocratic about any of the things that I just mentioned there because none of them affect the ability to contest an election or to challenge the ruling party. Those are just ideological preferences that a democratically elected party is putting forward and that’s what democracy should allow for. It should allow for different ideologically oriented groups to put forward their own conception of the good and to present that to the people and then have the people decide.


I think Turkey’s a really important case for this conversation because many consider Erdoğan an Islamist.

Shadi Hamid



He tried to champion a lot of the countries during the Arab Spring, particularly Morsi in Egypt who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and was somebody who is undeniably an Islamist. Yet, Erdoğan, over his tenure in power, has brought Turkey to an increasingly authoritarian place. Does Erdoğan demonstrate that Islamists are not as committed to democracy as maybe you’ve portrayed?

Shadi Hamid

So, I guess the question with Erdoğan, is his authoritarian turn over the past decade, is that a product of his Islamism or is that the product of him being a human being? So, how do we really disentangle these things? Because, here’s the thing. I mean, I think that we can look at the historical record in the Middle East and one thing I argue in the book, and I’ve argued for many years in my work is if you actually look at the empirical record, it’s actually secular and so called liberal parties that have a much worse history when it comes to respecting democratic outcomes and just being small d democrats in part because they know that when there are democratic elections, liberals don’t tend to do well in religiously conservative societies.

So, I don’t see any evidence that Islamists are significantly worse than non-Islamist counterparts. If anything, it’s the opposite. They’re actually better on average. If you look at democratic breakdown in Muslim majority contexts over the past half century or so, actually relatively few are the result of Islamist parties being the ones to institute a democratic breakdown of one sort or another. Again, it’s nationalist parties, secular parties. Even liberally inflected parties do tend to be pretty bad on these measures historically. Now that doesn’t guarantee that in the future Islamists if they’re given more opportunities will continue being better. But it’s not really my job to give people guarantees that everything is going to work out in the end

Yes, I am actually calling for a certain faith that you have to just go in there and accept that democracy is going to be messy and confusing. There will be democratic breakdowns under Islamists some of the time. It would actually be holding Islamists to an unrealistic standard and an unfair one to say that Islamists can never be responsible for democratic breakdown. Not because we wouldn’t say that for secular parties. We assume that secular parties or secular politicians will want to concentrate power and become authoritarian because they’re human beings who are flawed and sinful just like all the rest of us are. Islamists will be the same because the temptations of power are tempting. That’s something that we know historically.

But I would like to think, and this is actually why I’m very much in support of the US continuing to play a proactive role in the Middle East and the world more broadly, because if we did promote democracy in the Middle East, which we don’t, but if we did, then we would have leverage with the parties that actually came to power. We did have that for some time in Turkey. The EU certainly did for the duration of the accession process where it seemed like Turkey might actually join the EU. That was a major constraint on Erdoğan and that actually did push him to pass through a pretty impressive slate of reforms that did make Turkey, as you just mentioned, as of 2010 more democratic.

It’s when those constraints were removed and when we, the West, lost leverage because the EU process kind of crumbled and people stopped taking it seriously. That’s when you had problems. So, I do want the US to play a constructive role with these young democracies and use the leverage we have to try to keep them on at least a somewhat democratic course. That would be much better than what we currently have, which is the domination of largely secular leaning dictators throughout the Middle East. So, people say, ‘Well, Shadi, look, look at Turkey. Look at this. What are you calling for here?’ But look, I see what we have and there has to be another way. There is a better way.

I would like to at least give the people of the region a chance to try something different and to cast their lot with small d democracy. In some countries, it’ll work better than others, but at least it will give people something better than what they have now which, it’s not like liberal democracy is the alternative that we’re actually talking about. So, we have a nirvana fallacy when we’re saying, ‘Oh, well, let’s compare this to the ideal.’ The ideal doesn’t exist. We have what we have now, which is the stagnation of the Middle East under supposedly pro-US, pro-Western dictatorships.


Yeah, I think that there definitely is a fallacy when we think that by supporting strongman rulers that we’re going to build up these political institutions that are going to allow a better form of democratization down the road kind of like we saw in South Korea and Taiwan. I was talking to Robert Kaplan just a few weeks ago and he brought up that MBS has a role model of Lee Kuan Yew, the former dictator over in Singapore. Singapore is another example of a country that was able to build up the state, build up a lot of institutions that put it into a position that, if you don’t consider it to be a minimalist democracy today, it seems like it’s moving into that direction and it can successfully democratize and liberalize down the road the way that other Asian countries have.

I don’t get the impression that MBS is doing any of that. I get the impression that MBS is tearing down institutions and making it so that it’s going to become even harder to democratize in the future or to even build up political institutions that are necessary to build up stronger economies and better societies. So, I would definitely agree with you that I would rather see us create elections that allow the opportunity to build up real political institutions in the Middle East than trusting strongman leaders who’ve never actually made any effort to be able to modernize political institutions.

Shadi Hamid

Yeah, exactly. I mean, autocrats have no incentive to actually develop sustainable autonomous institutions that are not dependent on the whims of just a few people, because that would be presenting a potential competition from alternative centers of power. That’s never what an autocrat wants. So, we just know that the incentive structures aren’t really aligned. Now you bring up Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore. I think it’s a really interesting case because it is the case that people bring up when they want to point to a benevolent autocrat. This myth of the benevolent dictatorship is one that I think a lot of Westerners still fantasize about if only we could have a kind of philosopher King wise leader. A smart strong man who actually prioritizes the development of his country and so forth.

Lee Kuan Yew, I think, is brought up a lot because there’s really no other cases that are particularly compelling. So, it’s sort of like, ‘Oh, Lee Kuan Yew.’ Also, I think it’s not really replicable because Singapore is a city state. It’s like smaller than Rhode Island. You know, when Lee Kuan Yew started, I think Singapore had about 1.5 million people. He was also the founding father of the country after independence from the British. So, it’s a very unique set of circumstances where you have a founder who’s seen quite rightly someone who did amazing things for the country. You only have one founder. You can’t keep on having new founders who are able to mimic that kind of history.

That’s why we see right now in Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew’s son… I mean, the brother of the son is now in exile because he was critical of his brother and not to get into all the details about that, but even Singapore is a case where we’re seeing major problems when it comes to succession, when it comes to rotation of power. And that’s a city state that’s extremely rich. How exactly is Egypt supposed to replicate the Lee Kuan Yew model? How is really any country expected to do that?

People will, of course, bring up the Chinese model. But again, it just so happens to be that recent events in China have supported my thesis, which is very nice. It’s always a nice thing when that happens. China undermines the case for benevolent dictatorships or benign autocrats, because China is self-destructing. I don’t want to overstate it. It’ll still be a powerhouse. It’ll still be important. It’ll still be the number two power in the world for the foreseeable future. But there are serious self-destructive tendencies that we’re seeing playing out now on any number of indicators. American analysts long fantasized about China’s rise. That became the dominant paradigm for such a long time. But there was a real Achilles heel in the Chinese case, which is it’s an autocratic regime that’s near totalitarian. That is misaligned with human nature.

This gets to maybe some starting premises that I have and some biases that I have philosophically that derive from my belief in God and my conception of the human person. When human beings are prevented from being who they are, when they are prevented by an all-encompassing state that is extending its tentacles through every aspect of public and private life, that distorts the human spirit. It distorts human motivations. It creates moral hazard and bad incentive structures generally. We’re seeing how that’s playing out in the case of China. So, I think people should be careful what they wish for. I think democracies are actually surprisingly resilient, at least democracies that are somewhat established, certainly like our own right here in America. I’m really proud of that.

I think that what we have in America, not to kind of go on some like patriotic thing, but our system of government is morally and politically superior. It’s more aligned with who we are as human beings as God created us. I think that stands for something. We need systems of government that are not contradictory to that, because if they are, then you have this misalignment problem. I just think the history of autocracies makes that very clear. When we talk about autocracies, I don’t think that there were really premodern autocracies in the way that we use the word now, because the premodern state was inherently limited and constrained.

If you were an ordinary subject of any number of the caliphates in the premodern period, you didn’t really have to worry too much about the central power. You didn’t have identity cards. They didn’t know what you were up to. They didn’t have all the information that we have now. They weren’t able to surveil you 24-7. So, you’d go about your own life and do your thing. You had your local leadership, your local religious leaders. Whoever was in control in the center didn’t really affect the periphery all that much and people could just go on with their lives. So, autocracy as we understand it today is a modern creation. I think there we see very few successful examples of modern autocracies that are able to sustain themselves.


I think China’s an interesting example particularly right now to think about how autocracy works, because there’s this sense in the back of our head that an autocracy allows you to think about politics from a long-term perspective. But the way that they handled Zero-COVID particularly bringing it to an end demonstrates that autocracies are just as concerned about short term political considerations as democracies and possibly even more so. I mean, we look at Egypt, another great example with el-Sisi. The way that he’s handling the economy in Egypt is very focused on short term political considerations. He’s not thinking about what’s best for Egypt in the long term. He’s thinking about what’s best in the short term to be able to maintain his power.

We think about how these autocracies within the Middle East are trying to build out their political institutions in the long term. They’re not doing it. The reason why is because they’re focused on their short-term political interests rather than thinking about long term interests for the country. That’s for me, really, a game changer. When we think about autocracy and the advantages that we think that it has, a lot of times those advantages don’t exist. They’re phantoms. We assume that they can think long term when really they’re thinking even more short term than democracies do.

Shadi Hamid

Exactly and I think that autocracies can seem deceptively good when you have a really smart, wise leader. But the problem with a smart, wise leader, and maybe I should put that in scare quotes, is that you can’t count on them to be wise all the time. It’s one individual. You’re putting a lot of eggs in one basket. So, President Xi, for many people, seemed like a wise, smart, technocratic, competent leader. Maybe he was for a certain period of time, but that’s putting a lot on one person to continue being a benevolent autocrat indefinitely. I think it just goes against what we know about the corruptibility of human behavior. This is something that I think pro-democracy folks have always realized that you don’t want to attribute too much importance to one person, no matter how good they are, because we’re all sinners.

Again, there’s almost a religious premise here. But I think also, when we talk about the long-term interests of a country, who decides what those are? So even if it is true that the Chinese Communist Party cares more about the long-term interests of the country and they’re thinking about that in a careful, systematic way, they might have a different idea of what those long-term interests are than any number of ordinary citizens. We do see how the CCP changes its conception of long-term interests on a somewhat regular basis. It used to be economic growth at all costs.

Now they’re trying to actually say that it’s not all about economic growth. It’s about other social concerns having to do with stability and sustainability, even around climate change. But also, they want to bring down people’s expectations on economic growth because you can’t do perpetual economic growth at the level of 10 to 15 percent annual GDP growth. There are economic headwinds that just come about over time in the natural life course of an economy. So, now they have to tell their own college graduates… I mean, this is actually specific rhetoric that they say in commencement speeches now. ‘Accept okay jobs. You don’t have to be so ambitious.’

That’s a particular conception of long-term interest that maybe the people who are graduating from college aren’t thrilled about because the economic miracle is over and they have to shift their argument to say that there’s other indicators of performance legitimacy. This gets to, I think, a very important distinction between democracies and autocracies. Autocracy because they don’t have input legitimacy, the process isn’t creating the legitimacy because there isn’t consent of the governed, they have to rely on showing people that they can produce certain outcomes. But then they have to change how people perceive those outcomes and even lie about those outcomes because that’s really all they have to go on.

So, you start to see how a lot of the facade of these supposedly competent leaders falls apart pretty quickly, because they’re the ones who are deciding. But life is complicated. There are tradeoffs between different goods and sometimes a dictatorship will start to prioritize one set of goods over another and that’s somewhat arbitrary.


So, Shadi, your book focuses not just on democracy, but also democracy within the middle East. It’s a part of the world that is the least democratic. Why should we believe that democracy can and will one day succeed in the Middle East?

Shadi Hamid

Well, you know, I have my own doubts about precisely that, but not so much because Arabs or Muslims aren’t capable of self-government, but because the international climate is so unconducive to democracy in the Middle East. I’m very critical in the book towards the US and specifically the Obama administration during the Arab Spring, which I alluded to earlier. We had a really an amazing opportunity to actually get better on some of these things that the Middle East was an exception for US policymakers. We started to support democratic transitions in other regions, not perfectly, but at least significantly in Latin America, East Asia, and parts of Africa in the 80s going into the post-Cold War period in the 90s.

Except in the Middle East and part of that goes back to the democratic dilemma that we’re afraid of what democracy will produce in practice, including elevating Islamist parties or parties that are anti-American or anti-Western. We have obvious concerns about Israel. Israel prefers secular leaning dictators because they’re going to be more pliant and more accepting of Israel’s dominant position in the region. So, for any number of reasons, the US has developed a pretty terrible record when it comes to supporting democracy in the Middle East, where we actually support the opposite. I mean, that’s a big part of my argument. I want that to change. I’m under no illusions that it will happen anytime soon.

So, part two of the book, which is a little bit more specialized and specific goes into my alternative vision of what a proper pro-democracy policy would look like in the Middle East. I don’t think that that vision is going to be realized by a Biden administration and certainly not a Trump administration. I do have hope that in 10-15-20 years and I guess the most we can do is the most we can do. We as outside analysts, we as people who talk to folks in government and try to influence policymaking do the best that we can to make our case and hope that a future generation of policy makers in senior posts who have influence can actually start to right the ship and do something differently.

That’s my hope and I don’t know if it’ll happen, but I’m going to try my best to make the case. I think there’s a strong argument now that the autocracies that we’re relying on in the Middle East, we’re seeing how we give them a lot. We provide them a security umbrella. We provide them with billions of dollars of advanced weapon systems, of economic and military assistance, and they’re actually deepening their relationships right now as we speak with China and Russia. So even if you don’t care about human rights and you’re just like, okay, we should have client states that do our bidding. Even on that, we’re not doing a good job. This is not good client state work. We can’t even say that for the autocrats that we’re supposedly allied with in the Middle East now.

I mean, Saudi Arabia has reached a high point of economic and security cooperation with China just in the past two years. They’re doing that right in front of us and they’re basically giving us the middle finger. This gets back to some of the themes that we’ve talked about, which is these are fair weather friends. There’s no fellow feeling with these countries because we don’t share values. So, it’s always going to be them trying to use us and to be parasites basically. Then we go along with it because we don’t want to lose them to China, but then they just use that fear to deepen their relationships with our enemies.

So, I think that there’s a very strong interest based argument. That’s one of the arguments I’m trying to make more these days, because I think it’s hopefully becoming more obvious to people. And I think the only reason that we do the stuff that we do is we have hope that it can be better, but I’m under no illusions that will happen anytime soon. I don’t know what more to say than that, except that I sometimes struggle, because I’ve been working on these issues for such a long time and I did have hope and there was an opportunity for something better and then I look at the region now and it just makes me really sad. It’s really a tragedy. It’s a moral stain. I think it’s something that we should all contend with and ask ourselves, ‘Are we okay with this?


Well, Shadi, thank you so much for joining me today. To plug the book one more time, it’s The Problem of Democracy: America, the Middle East, and the Rise and Fall of an Idea. Thank you so much for joining me. Thank you so much for writing it.

Shadi Hamid

Thanks so much for having me. Enjoyed this.

Key Links

The Problem of Democracy: America, the Middle East, and the Rise and Fall of an Idea by Shadi Hamid

Follow Shadi Hamid on Twitter @shadihamid

Wisdom of Crowds

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Robert Kaplan on the Politics of the Past and Future of the Greater Middle East

Steven Simon on American Foreign Policy in the Middle East including Iran and the Wars in Iraq

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