Book excerpt: “Age of Revolutions” by Fareed Zakaria


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W.W. Norton


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In “Age of Revolutions: Progress and Backlash from 1600 to the Present” (W.W. Norton), journalist and CNN anchor Fareed Zakaria writes a history of revolutionary changes, and what they presage for the ideological divisions affecting political discourse in the 21st century. His book explores how societies both embrace change, and resist it.

Read an excerpt below, and don’t miss Kelefa Sanneh’s interview with Fareed Zakaria on “CBS News Sunday Morning” March 24!


“Age of Revolutions” by Fareed Zakaria

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A Multitude of Revolutions

The comedian Robin Williams sometimes talked about politics in his stand-up routines. He would begin by reminding people of the origins of the word. “Politics,” he would explain, comes from “ ’Poli,’ a Latin word meaning many, and ‘tics’ meaning bloodsucking creatures.” He always got a big laugh. In fact, alas, the word derives from ancient Greek, from polites, which means citizen and itself comes from polis, meaning city or community. Aristotle’s Politics, written in the fourth century BC, is a book about the ways to govern communities, and it discusses all the elements of politics that we would find familiar today—the nature of power, types of political systems, causes of revolutions, and so on. Politics is one of those rare human enterprises that hasn’t changed that much over the millennia. Its outward forms have shifted, but its core concern remains the same: the struggle for power and what to do with it. In 64 BC, Rome’s greatest orator, Cicero, ran for the office of consul. His younger brother decided to write for him a guide of sorts to winning elections, a set of practical lessons for his sometimes too idealistic sibling. Among his suggestions: promise everything to everyone, always be seen in public surrounded by your most passionate supporters, and remind voters of your opponents’ sex scandals. More than two thousand years later, political consultants charge hefty fees to dispense the same advice.

Despite these constants, in recent centuries, politics has taken on a particular ideological shape that would have been alien to those living in the ancient or medieval world. Modern politics around the world has been characterized as a contest between the Left and the Right. The simple demarcation of Left and Right has traditionally said a lot about where someone stands, whether in Brazil, the United States, Germany, or India: on the left, a stronger state with more economic regulation and redistribution; on the right, a freer market with less governmental intervention. This left-right divide had long dominated the political landscape of the world, defining elections, public debates, and policies, even provoking violence and revolution. But these days, this fundamental ideological division has broken down.

Consider Donald Trump and his run for the presidency in 2016. Trump was a departure from the past in so many ways—his bizarre personality, his ignorance of public policy, and his flouting of democratic norms. But perhaps the most significant sense in which Trump was different was ideological. For decades, the Republican Party had espoused a set of ideas that could be described as the Reagan formula. Ronald Reagan became an extraordinarily popular Republican by advocating limited government, low taxes, cuts to government spending, a muscular military, and the promotion of democracy abroad. He also ran on a platform that was socially conservative—in favor of banning abortion, for instance—but he often downplayed these parts of the program, particularly once in office. To his many fans, Reagan was a sunny, optimistic figure who celebrated America’s free markets, openness to trade, and generous immigration policies and wanted to spread its democratic model to the rest of the world.

Trump argued against most elements of the Reagan formula. While he did advocate some of the same policies—low taxes and limits on abortions—he devoted the vast majority of his time and energy to a very different agenda. Trump’s hour-long campaign speeches could be boiled down to four lines: The Chinese are taking away your factories. The Mexicans are taking away your jobs. The Muslims are trying to kill you. I will beat them all up and make America great again. It was a message of nationalism, chauvinism, protectionism, and isolationism. Trump broke with many core elements of Republican economic orthodoxy, promising to never cut entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, which reversed decades of Republican fiscal conservatism. He denounced George W. Bush’s military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and condemned his geopolitical project of spreading democracy. In fact, Trump savaged nearly every Republican standard-nearer in recent memory, and all the party’s living presidents and almost all the living nominees rejected him. And while genuflecting before the Reagan myth, Trump could not have been more different—an angry, pessimistic figure who warned that America was doomed and promised a return to a mythic past.

Trump is not alone as a man of the right in breaking with traditional right-wing ideology. In fact, he’s part of a global trend.

       
Excerpted from “Age of Revolutions: Progress and Backlash from 1600 to the Present”
 by Fareed Zakaria. Copyright © 2024 by Phelps Berkeley LLC. Reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton & Company.

 


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