Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and the Center for European Studies, Harvard. He has authored fourteen books and his 2011 feature-length film Kissinger won the New York International Film Festival’s prize for best documentary. He writes a weekly column for the London Sunday Times and the Boston Globe.
SLD: As we face an increase of right-wing populism in many countries in the Western world, would you as an historian draw any conclusion and compare this to any other period since the mid-19th Century?
Ferguson: I have argued repeatedly that we are not living through some new version of the 1930s. The economic and political circumstances were quite different during the Great Depression, and the movements that flourished in that period were ideologically quite different too. Populism of the sort we see today is not fascism. Fascism is about men in uniforms and jackboots, political violence, rearmament and war. Populism is about limiting globalization with tariffs and immigration controls. Fascism threatens democratic constitutions. Populism threatens international agreements. The period most like our own was the two decades after 1873, when anti-globalization movements did well on both sides of the Atlantic.
SLD: Where do you see the cause of this new populism, which today comes more from the right but, generally speaking, is also well known from the left? If we look toward the recent past of Latin-America or Bernie Sanders in the campaign for this years U.S.-election.
Ferguson: The naive answer to this question is that it is economically driven. Academic types hear people complaining about free trade or immigration and infer that populism must be driven by measurable or perceived losses suffered by populist voters. This is the wrong approach. Many people who voted for Brexit or Trump were not “losers” from globalization. Many have done quite well in the past 10 or 20 years. But winners and losers alike shared a distaste for the cultural and political consequences of globalization. Populism in that sense is hostile to multiculturalism as much as to globalization. It is culturally conservative — which helps explain its appeal to older voters.
SLD: There is a lot of talk about polarization in societies – the Brexit referendum results seems to prove this, as much as the result of the Austrian presidential elections recently. They say this polarization is equally fostered by technological progress, namely through social media and the so-called echo chambers therein. What does an historian make out of these claims?
Ferguson: I am skeptical. First, I don’t believe that we are seeing historically unusual polarization. Two-party systems are in fact in decline or have vanished altogether. Even in the U.S. a large percentage of voters identify themselves as “Independents.” So we are seeing something more like fragmentation than polarization. The most striking feature of modern elections is not polarization – the periods after 1949 or 1968 were far worse in the U.S. – but sheer tightness. All elections in the developed world are close. No one has a good explanation for why this is. As for social media, everyone misunderstands its significance, which is to reveal and consolidate information about personal preferences in an unprecedented manner. This is great news for anyone marketing a product and terrible news for traditional advertising. Politics will adapt. The same targeted marketing technology is available to all candidates.
SLD: Where do you think the United Kingdom is headed? There is a spark, a saddening increase in racist hate crimes. Theresa May herself is not rejecting the underlying resentment against foreigners with her plans for harshly limiting the access of foreigners to English universities. And science is losing funding from the European Union, and will be facing plenty of problems to keep up and contribute internationally.
Ferguson: I think the data on “racist hate crimes” are of very doubtful quality in both the UK and the U.S. Statistically, we are talking about very small numbers of incidents, only a fraction of which involve violence. I see no meaningful increase in either racism or violence in either country and regard the whole notion of a “wave of hate crimes” as largely fake news. As for UK policy on higher education, it already discriminates against non-EU students by charging them higher fees. I agree that the UK universities will be worse off if they lose access to EU funding. That was one of many costs of Brexit that was underplayed by the various Oxford graduates who campaigned for it.
SLD: You have been writing a lot about the history of economics. What do you make out of the rejection of free trade these days, have you observed similar movements in history and where did it lead back then?
Ferguson: Historically, free trade is the exception not the rule. For years I have wondered when American voters would turn against free trade. Finally it happened this year. We should be surprised only that it has taken this long. From its very inception until the 1940s, the U.S. was essentially a protectionist state. It embraced free trade after World War II when the comparative advantage was all in its favor and when successive administrations bought into the idea of free trade as geopolitically advantageous in the Cold War. The first challenge to this consensus was the rise of Japan in the 1970s and 1980s; the second was the rise of China in the 1990s and 2000s. But I think that, without the Great Recession, the protectionist siren song would not have been sufficient to propel a presidential campaign.
SLD: In the populist movements and the emphasis on guts over facts, I see a strong challenge, the beginnings of a revoke against achievements of enlightenment. Do you see this in the same way and what would you personally say could be done about it?
Ferguson: Isaiah Berlin always used to think the world was perpetually staging a contest between Enlightenment and Romanticism. There is some truth to this. But appeals to gut sentiment over facts only work when the supposed custodians of the Enlightenment tradition screw up. Smug liberal complacency and condescension ultimately led to overreach on both sides of the Atlantic. The only effective antidote to fact-free populism is a credible rationality. That is not being produced in many places, least of all in our great universities.
Photo: Center for European Studies in April 2016.