Between the election of President Trump and Britain's ongoing debate over Brexit, the billionaire philanthropist George Soros recognizes that populism is on the rise and that his brand of liberal democracy is faltering.
"When I got involved in what I call political philanthropy some 40 years ago, the open society idea was on the ascendant — closed societies were opening up," Soros said in an interview with NPR's All Things Considered. "And now, open societies are on the defensive and dictatorships are on the rise."
Yet he remains optimistic.
"I have to admit that the tide has turned against me, but I don't think that I have failed."
For the past four decades, Soros, who amassed his wealth by running a hedge fund, has given billions of dollars to philanthropic efforts around the world. That includes more than $32 billion in giving to his own international network of grant makers, the Open Society Foundations, which has worked to promote democracy in some 120 nations. (The OSF has been a financial supporter of NPR.)
Soros, 89, has made enemies on the right for his political contributions, including millions during the 2016 election to groups that opposed Trump and instead backed Hillary Clinton and other Democratic candidates.
Soros, who is Jewish and a survivor of the Nazi occupation of Hungary, has also been a frequent target of conspiracy theorists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis.
His new book, In Defense of Open Society, published this week, compiles a selection of his (often worrisome) essays in which Soros muses on what he views as modern threats to democratic societies — including social media and artificial intelligence, particularly when used by authoritarian regimes to manipulate the public.
But, pointing to the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong as just one example of uprisings inspired by the oppressed, Soros said he is hopeful that political and social forces will change in his direction. He said, "The people ... are so distressed that they are willing to sacrifice their lives in order to oppose this oppression."
Domestically, Soros says he's directing his energy these days on OSF's work to support democracy. "My foundation and I'm personally very much engaged in fighting voter suppression, trying to get a proper census and things like that that will lead to a fair election because those conditions are also endangered by the current president," he said.
Addressing the impeachment inquiry, Soros said that if the House votes to impeach President Trump, he doubts the Senate will earn the two-thirds majority required to then remove the president from office.
"I don't think it will be actually successful, because he has come to dominate the Republican Party — that even though there are increasing numbers of Republican senators who are very disturbed by the results of his actions, I don't think there will be a two-thirds majority in the Senate to convict him," he said.
Looking ahead to 2020, Soros, in an interview with The New York Times, said Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren looked like "the clear-cut person to beat," in the race for the Democratic nomination. But he said he was not endorsing Warren.
Although Warren and one of her main rivals for the nomination, Vermont's Bernie Sanders, want to impose higher taxes on the wealthy, Soros says he supports a wealth tax. He said wealthy owners of tech companies have carried economic inequality to "totally unacceptable levels," and that a "wealth tax is a very good way to reduce it."
If this moment of populist rise can be construed as a repudiation of his support for liberal democratic values, Soros doesn't see it that way. "If you really have principles that you believe in, then you have to fight for them — win or lose," he said.
NPR's Gemma Watters and William Troop produced and edited the audio version of this story.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Social media and artificial intelligence pose serious threats to open democratic societies, particularly when used by authoritarian governments to manipulate the public. That's just one of the takeaways from a new book just out by billionaire and philanthropist George Soros. The book is called "In Defense Of Open Society." Soros sat down to talk with us about the book and more at his home in Manhattan a few days ago.
GEORGE SOROS: When I got involved in what I call political philanthropy some 40 years ago, the open society idea was on the ascendance. Closed societies are opening up, and now open societies are on the defensive. And dictatorships are on the rise.
MARTIN: Soros is now 89 years old. The billions he's spent around the world to support what he calls civil society in the broadest sense have made him a favorite target of conservatives worldwide. Soros made it clear he considers President Trump a threat to democracy. In our conversation, Soros said while it would be preferable for the voters, rather than lawmakers to remove Trump from office, he felt Democrats in Congress had no choice but to proceed with the impeachment inquiry. But Soros said even if the House does vote to impeach, he's not optimistic about the Senate voting to convict.
SOROS: I don't think that it will be actually successful because he has come to dominate the Republican Party, that even though there are increasing numbers of Republican senators who are very disturbed by the results of his actions, I don't think there will be a two-thirds majority in the Senate to convict him.
MARTIN: Apart from that, do you see yourself as having any role right now? I mean, you, like Nancy Pelosi, agree that impeachment is divisive. You know, you feel that perhaps they had - the Democrats had no choice. But do you feel like you have any other role in the current moment?
SOROS: My foundations, and I'm personally very much engaged in. fighting voter suppression, trying to get a proper census and things like that that will lead to a fair election because those conditions are also endangered by the current president.
MARTIN: Well, this makes me wonder, though. I mean, this year marks four decades since you began what you call your political philanthropy. You've poured billions of dollars into causes that you support around the world. You know, certainly in this country, many people understand your work in criminal justice reform and also trying to build civil society elsewhere. And it does make me wonder whether you feel that you have failed, given the trends that we now see.
SOROS: Well, I have to admit that the tide has turned against me. But I don't think that I have failed because I stand for the principles that I believed then and I continue to believe now, which is the open society. And I was very happy to get involved when things were good, but if you really have principles that you believe in, then you have to fight for them, win or lose. That's the big difference, by the way. I made my money in the stock market, financial markets. And there I'm - I was investing in order to make money. But when I set up my foundation, I invested in it in order to promote my principles, win or lose. That's the big difference between making money and having principles.
MARTIN: To that end, you've identified the part of the, you know, part of the source of these populist movements, some of them far-right populist movements in part to the 2008 worldwide economic decline. You know, in response to that, I mean, the whole long-term trend of wealth inequality in this country predates that. But in response to that, a number of the more prominent Democratic candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are arguing for much more extensive taxation of very wealthy individuals. Do you agree?
SOROS: I supported that even though I'm one of those people who would be subject to the taxing because the inequality that has been produced actually mainly by the IT platforms and those who own those platforms carried inequality to totally unacceptable levels. And wealth tax is a very good way to reduce it.
MARTIN: Do you have any final thoughts as you - you're nearly 90 years old. You've been at this this work of both of trying to advance open society for some four decades now. Do you have any final thoughts about what you would wish us to think about or how you would like us to think about you and your work?
SOROS: I try to explain my views in my book. And I think the world is very complicated. It's more complicated than our ability to fully understand it. So there is no final answer. I would say fortunately so because this world would become like heaven, and it would be very boring.
MARTIN: George Soros. Your latest book is "In Defense Of Open Society." Thank you so much for speaking with us today.
SOROS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.