Guest post: Reading up on democratic breakdown

Originally a miscellaneous comment by Bjarte Foshaug.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have been reading up on the topic of democratic breakdown lately, if not to look for hope, then at least to move the sense of existential dread from a purely visceral “gut” level to something that can be understood and dealt with intellectually. These books include:

The Road to Unfreedom by Timothy Snyder

The People vs. Democracy by Yascha Mounk

Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

Snyder (who had a major best-seller a couple of years ago with his short pamphlet “On Tyranny”, another must-read!) spends a lot of time on the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Indeed “The Road to Unfreedom” began as a book about the Russian invasion and the accompanying propaganda war (a test that the West failed), but evolved into a book about Europe and the U.S. in the aftermath of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Snyder contrasts two a-historical conceptions of time. The West has for a long time been under the spell of the what he calls the “Politics of Inevitability” (democracy, peace, prosperity, and progress are inevitable, there are no alternatives etc.). When this spell is broken, it tends to give way to the “Politics of Eternity” (history is just an endless cycle of attacks on the innocent nation by outsiders), the latter being dominant in Russia right now. In either case we are absolved from any responsibility to do anything: If progress is inevitable there is nothing we need to do. It everything is just and endless cycle of repetitions, there is nothing we can do. Snyder emphasizes the Russian link more than any of the other writers, not to explain away the failings of West, but precisely because the Russian propagandists in many ways understood our problems better than we did (at least in part because of our naive belief in the inevitability of progress) and were thus able to effectively use them against us. He compares Russia to a doctor who gives you a correct diagnosis in order to make your illness worse. The doctor doesn’t have your best interests in mind, but the diagnosis is pretty much spot on. As a country that has gone further down the Road to Unfreedom than America or Western Europe, Russia also provides a useful warning about where we might be heading. Besides weakening the West an important part of Putin’s motivation was to prove to his own people that the so-called “democracies” of the West are just as corrupt as Russia (indeed worse, since at least the Russians are not hypocritical about it), that all this talk about “democracy”. “freedom”, or “the rule of law” is just a sham and hence nothing to strive for. It’s interesting to note that some of the first people to predict the victory of both Trump and the brexiters were Eastern Europeans (Russians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Poles) who had seen the same game play out before and knew how it ended.

Mounk describes how authoritarian populists all peddle some version of the same basic message: The problems facing the nation are ultimately easy to solve. The only reason they remain unsolved is that the mainstream politicians are corrupt and self-serving. The populist alone speaks for the people, hence anyone who opposes the populist is by definition “against the people”. All the people needs to do is put the populist in charge, so he can “drain the swamps” and make the nation “great again”. In reality, of course, it’s never that simple, so when the populist has indeed been elected and needs to explain why the promised Utopia fails to materialize, the solution is to blame outsiders as well as “traitors” and “enemies of the people” (the political opposition, independent media, neutral institutions etc.) that must be stripped of power and replaced by loyalists. Mounk sites some alarming poll results that seem to indicate a dramatic decline in the support for democracy from older to younger generations (another point in favor of iknklast’s skepticism that millennials are going to solve every problem), a trend that is borne out by people’s behavior at the ballot box where populist parties like Front National and Alternative für Deutschland have gone from fringe to major forces to be reckoned with. He argues that the stability of democracy in the West after World War II may not have been inherent, but rather contingent on certain preconditions that are no longer present. He identifies three important trends that coincide with the rise of populist parties all over the Western world. First the stagnation of living standards: Most of the support for authoritarian populists does not necessarily come from today’s losers, but from those who fear (often with good reason) to end up as tomorrow’s losers. Second increasing ethnic pluralism (or, in the case of the U.S., erosion of the racial hierarchy that used to allow non-whites to be safely ignored). Third the rise of social media which allows extremist views, crazy conspiracy theories, and outright fabrications that would previously never have made it through the editorial process of any reputable newspaper to spread like wildfires all over the internet.

Applebaum focuses on the treason of right-wing intellectuals who used to see themselves as defenders of liberal democracy against communism but have since gone on to become peddlers of far-right conspiracy theories and in many cases staunch defenders of the one-party state. Many of the same people have abandoned capitalist ideas of “meritocracy” for a system that rewards party loyalty over achievement. Applabaum – an old-school fiscal conservative who has done more than anyone to document the atrocities of the Soviet Union – can hardly be accused of leftist bias, and many of the people she writes about used to be her friends. She doesn’t offer a single explanation for why these people – who are neither poor nor marginalized, have not been “left behind” by globalization, do not live in forgotten rural communities etc. – could become full-fledged authoritarians. In some cases Applebaum argues that the motive is personal resentment about not achieving the degree of power, status or success they felt entitled to. Others are opportunists for whom sucking up to the ruling elite of any system is just another way of achieving their personal ambitions. Applabaum also identifies an “authoritarian predisposition” that manifests as an aversion to complexity, disagreement and argument and leads people, on the left as well as the right, to long for a strong leader who will silence the dissenters and restore simplicity, order and harmony. Finally there’s what she calls “cultural despair” – a sense that something deeply important about one’s culture has been lost – combined with a “restorative nostalgia” that not only gets a warm fuzzy feeling from contemplating the (imagined) past, but actively seeks to bring it back (“Make America Great Again” etc.).

Levitsky and Ziblatt look at how democracies have failed elsewhere and identify common patterns. Most modern day demagogues and authoritarians are democratically elected, often with the aide of mainstream politicians who – out of opportunism or miscalculation – hope to use the popular appeal of the demagogue to their advantage and believe they can control him: A Faustian bargain that backfires badly. Once in power, the demagogue starts gradually eroding and subverting the very system that helped him get elected to make it practically impossible to be un-elected. The authors stress that the best way to protect democracy is to prevent authoritarians from coming to power in the first place and emphasize the gate-keeping function of parties. Most usefully they provide a handy “litmus test” for identifying would-be authoritarians ahead of time:

1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game (e.g. refusing to accept the result of elections).

2. Denial of the legitimacy of opponents (e.g. portraying opponents as “crooked” and threatening to “lock her up”)

3. Toleration or encouragement of violence (e.g. hinting that “the 2nd amendment people” take care of one’s opponent).

4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media.

The authors also emphasize the role of unwritten democratic norms that uphold the “spirit” of the law above the “letter” of the law. Indeed, many of the subversive actions that help autocrats cement their power are not technically “illegal”, although they certainly violate the spirit of the law. The most basic of these norms are what the authors call “mutual toleration” (i.e. recognizing the legitimacy of political opponents) and “forbearance” (i.e. not abusing the powers granted to you according to the letter of the law in ways that subvert the spirit of the law). To explain the erosion of such norms, Levitsky and Ziblatt emphasize extreme polarization where parties start viewing each other as enemies, traitors, criminals, illegitimate, or even an existential threat (in violation of the norm of mutual toleration), thus justifying doing whatever it takes to keep them out of the Halls of Power (in violation of the norm of forbearance).

Some points that I take to be common to most or all of the authors are the following:

• History is not over. Democracy is neither inevitable nor the only game in town. There are always alternatives, even in wealthy nations and even where democracy has endured for decades.

• The death of democracy doesn’t have to involve tanks in the streets or armed men in uniforms storming the national assembly. Gradual erosion over time can cause as much destruction as a sudden explosion. Whether authoritarians rise to power through elections or military coups, the end result is pretty much the same.

• Constitutions and democratic institutions do not guarantee the survival of democracy. Nor do they protect themselves. Democracies can be killed without violating the letter of the constitution. Indeed many of the anti-democratic reforms are passed off as attempts to make democracy function better (eliminating voter fraud etc.). Under authoritarian rule laws and institutions are turned into a shield for the government and a weapon against the opposition. Institutions do not protect us unless we protect them first.

• Although there are important similarities, modern authoritarian regimes are in relevant ways different from the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century (and this is where references to Orwell etc. may be more misleading than illuminating). Elections do not have to be abolished, only rigged. The truth doesn’t have to be silenced completely, only neutralized, discredited, or drowned out by misinformation. People are not required to believe the lies of the government, only to doubt everything.

• The main purpose of modern day propaganda is not to inspire belief but to sow doubt, distrust, suspicion, and cynicism. As Snyder put it in “On Tyranny”: “If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights”. If everyone is a crook, you might as well support the crook who claims to be on your side.

• Crises and emergencies of any kind – whether real or fabricated – are precisely the opportunities that would-be authoritarians are looking for to suspend normal procedures and claim dictatorial powers.

• In the digital age perceptions are as important as facts, e.g. whipping up hysteria about mass-immigration works even in countries that have hardly seen any immigration at all. There is no shortage of people who will sacrifice democracy to keep out hordes of immigrants that only exist on the internet or as an idea in their own heads.

• Support for demagogues does not require suffering in the present, but usually goes hand in hand with deep pessimism about the future. If the people on the other side are infinitely bad, there is nothing we can possibly do to keep them out of the Halls of Power that’s worse than failure to do so. Even people who neither trust nor like the demagogue – indeed see him as unfit for office – may end up voting for him because they think every other option is even worse.

23 Responses to “Guest post: Reading up on democratic breakdown”