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By Katie Neitz

Students, faculty, and community members packed Colton Chapel Thursday to hear political analyst, journalist, and bestselling author Fareed Zakaria share his insights on the rise of populism, the value of a liberal arts education, and the need for more compromise both in and out of politics. 

Zakaria, host of Fareed Zakaria GPS for CNN Worldwide, columnist for The Washington Post, and contributing editor for The Atlantic, was invited to campus by the International Affairs (IA) Program to commemorate its 60th anniversary as a major at Lafayette. The lecture, which was followed by a question-and-answer session led by Angelika von Wahl, associate professor and program chair, was sponsored by the Office of the President, John ’39 and Muriel Landis Lecture Series, and Class of 1961 Speakers Series. 

In his talk, “The Rise of Populism: How Did This Happen?”, Zakaria provided analysis of why more governments and people over the last decade have supported populist agendas. Despite division and discord in the political climate, Zakaria embedded messages of hope and humor in his presentation. Addressing students in the audience, he said, “You have a huge job ahead of you; don’t screw it up.”

Prior to his evening lecture, Zakaria engaged in a Q&A session with 21 students, most of them IA majors. Students asked Zakaria to comment on the presidential impeachment investigation, immigration policies, 2020 election, conflict in Kashmir, and power of social media. Zakaria praised students for their “intimidatingly intelligent” questions.

Students, faculty, and staff also had the opportunity to critically reflect on Zakaria’s talk and engage in additional conversation about the global rise of populism with professors Ilan Peleg and Caleb Gallemore at a follow-up event noon Friday that attracted 50 students.

Here are some highlights from Zakaria’s presentation.

The Rise of Populism: How Did This Happen?

Zakaria discussed in detail the transformative influence of four global revolutions on politics. Global capitalism, communication, culture, and class are contributing to a massive political schism, and all have led to more polarization. Although populism is seen as a phenomenon that ebbs and flows, Zakaria said he does not anticipate that it will quickly wane. These four drivers are large structural forces that will continue.

Global capitalism: “Recessions and recoveries followed a simple pattern that the unemployment rate would recover six months after the recovery began,” Zakaria said. But that started to shift. It took nine months for jobs to come back, then it took 18 months, and then following the 2008 recession, it took 60 months for jobs to return. This produced a problematic split between the “mainstreet” economy and the Wall Street economy with polarizing effects.

Communication: “Information technology is fantastic for corporations; you can hire someone in India or Brazil to do a job more efficiently at less of a cost,” Zakaria said. “But imagine if you are a steelworker in Pennsylvania.” In the 10 years following the 2008-09 recession, 50% of job gain took place in 20 cities. “The jobs are going to a small number of economically vibrant places. Those cities continue to advance while other places get further behind.”

Culture: “Both Europe and the United States have seen a significant rise in immigration, which is a piece of the puzzle,” he said. “There has been a massive movement of people in the past 50 years. For most of human history, you grew up and you lived and you died within one mile of where you were born. The shift has proven to be culturally disorienting for some.”

Class: “There is a great divide between college-educated and non-college-educated people and those who live in urban and rural environments,” he said. “The divide has grown greater, and it has led to feelings of isolation and disempowerment. It has fueled resentment and tribal support. People who feel excluded and looked down upon by the rest of society now have a sense of solidarity that is very powerful.”

The Impact of Social Division

Zakaria said we have found a way to communicate almost exclusively with those who share the same views. “We now live with people we agree with politically,” he said. “We have essentially segregated ourselves as a society. The result is that we have begun to see politics as a sport: we have a team, our team is always right, and we always support our team—it’s the act of greatest loyalty. It’s a very bad way of making decisions in life. When you are making an important decision, you should want to know what you are missing, what is the thing you are not noticing. Instead, we want to hear everything that reinforces our current views.”

The Role of the Media

Zakaria said it’s important to remember that the media is a for-profit, competitive industry that is reacting to public demand. “If we are putting it out there, it’s because you want it,” he said. “You are getting the media you deserve. I say that as someone who tries to provide intelligent, thoughtful, independent journalism. My view of journalism is that it’s public education. There used to be three networks that dominated the news. They knew they had a large audience with some Republicans, some Democrats, and some independents, so they had to be careful. With the rise in technology, there are now hundreds of different sources for information, and everyone is competing. Media polarization is a reflection of political polarization. What I think can happen, and what we try to do at CNN, is to have both sides contribute so we can demonstrate that you can have a civil and fruitful conversation.”

The Lost Art of Compromise

Zakaria said the give-and-take that used to fuel political transactions is no more. “It seems we’ve lost the ability to say, ‘You disagree with me, and I’m never going to agree with you, but we need to come up with a solution,’” he said. “It may not be your optimal solution, and it may not be my optimal solution, but we’ve got to compromise.”

The 2020 Outlook

Zakaria offered insights politicians may want to consider. “I think there is a fundamental mistake: In times of anxiety, there is an idea that people move left economically. But that’s not how people react. They move right culturally. Anxiety is cultural. There is a feeling of ‘I want my society back.’ People want a sense of order, a sense of identity. The right plays to that very well. There are candidates that have very virtuous ideas. It all sounds great, but you have to win. You need to find a path that gets you power, and then I’m happy to hear all of your wonderfully virtuous ideas. You have to keep that in mind. Politics isn’t a game of virtue signaling. It’s about improving people’s lives. Helping them better their lives. That’s the goal. If you can get into power and move things forward 10%, that’s better than spinning a fantasy.”

The Value of a Liberal Arts Education

During her Q&A session, von Wahl asked Zakaria to speak to his 2015 book, In Defense of a Liberal Education. “The point of a liberal arts education is to have as broad of an education as possible so you can look at the world as broadly as possible,” he said. “Ten years from now, many of you will be working for a company that doesn’t exist today. You may work in an industry that does not exist today. It’s impossible to know what specific skill you will need 10 years from now. But you will need to have the ability to think critically, to work with a team, to have intellectual curiosity, and to be able to write. The ability to write is critical because it forces analytical clarity and depth.” He added: “It does not matter what your major is. You are going to be all right.”

The Thing to Remember About That Education

Value your education, Zakaria said—but not at the expense of devaluing others. “There can be a thought that if you don’t make it, if you don’t have a college education, or if you live in a rural area, that you didn’t make it, and you deserve to be there, and we deserve to be where we are,” he said. “It’s not the right way to think about that. I think we’ve lost some sight of the idea that we are all equal. I think we need to recover that sense that we are all in this together and show people respect and dignity. I think it’s a much better way to live. I think we can all show respect to each other.”

The Message of Hope

“When you look back over history, through all these periods of great change and political churn, you notice that the forward progress of society does not stop,” he said. “The degree in which people are empowered around the world—that does not stop. The hope is with you. Younger people are much more comfortable with changes in the world. You value diversity, you value globalization. You understand your life isn’t about problems to manage; it’s about how these problems enrich your life. I think we will end up in a better place because the march forward will continue.”

About Fareed Zakaria

Zakaria is author of three New York Times bestselling books. Fareed Zakaria GPS is a weekly international and domestic affairs program that airs on CNN/U.S. and around the world on CNN International. Since its debut in 2008, it has become a prominent television forum for global newsmakers and thought leaders. The program earned the prestigious Peabody Award in 2011 and an Emmy Award nomination in 2013. In 2017, Zakaria was awarded the Arthur Ross Media Award by the American Academy of Diplomacy. He was named a “Top 10 Global Thinker of the Last 10 Years” by Foreign Policy magazine in 2019, and Esquire once called him “the most influential foreign policy adviser of his generation.” 

About International Affairs at Lafayette

The International Affairs Program is ranked in the top 10 of similar programs among liberal arts colleges in the USA (Best Value 2017, 2019). The program provides an intellectually vibrant and inclusive environment for everyone at Lafayette College. Students learn about globalization through the study of specific world regions and focused themes, linked by a core set of courses. The engaging and rigorous curriculum, coupled with the thought-provoking co-curricular programming, brings together faculty and students from the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and engineering.

IA is celebrating 60 years as a major at Lafayette in 2019. To honor the milestone, the program hosted three noteworthy campus speakers. In October 2018, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf spoke as the Class of 1961 Endowed Lecture Series Speaker. Sirleaf is a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate for her work in advancing women’s rights. In April, Professor Kris Manjapra spoke on campus as The Robert ’69 and Margaret Pastor Lecture in International Affairs speaker. His lecture was titled “Black Ghosts of Empire: Exploring Reparations and Post-Slavery Archives.”

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