Do You Still Want a Democratic Republic?
The Movement toward Authoritarianism: A Worldwide Trend
John M. Lane
Authoritarianism- A Definition
Economically, the means of production are not (entirely) controlled by the State. Market aspects of the economy are allowed to function if they serve the interests of the State and the ruling classes (whose wealth and profits, at the expense of the working and middle classes, will grow at tremendous rates). Political parties, unions, student groups, civic organizations are to be disbanded and replaced by organizations that serve the interests of the Leader and the State. Conformity is to be the proper behavior for all classes. Freedom of the Press and thought are to be strictly regulated. State-approved media outlets can function if those outlets support the party and the Leader and promote “true facts” and “free speech.” “Elections” are still held; however, the dominant ruling party has arranged the mechanisms of elections so that they will maintain power, even if they are the minority. Authoritarianism also needs an internal enemy, usually a racial or ethnic “other” to focus on. This internal enemy can be blamed for all that is “wrong” within the country. The Leader and the ruling elite are to be honored, worshiped, and obeyed. Nationalism and Patriotism are to be “encouraged” and promoted at as many events, especially sporting events, as possible. In the end, only the State, through the Leader, has the proper authority.
Prelude: The 1920s and 30s
On the “Right” side of the political spectrum, between 1919 and 1939, the following countries had working, active authoritarian parties and movements: Hungary, Italy, Bulgaria, Germany, France, Slovakia, Belgium, Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Croatia, Latvia, Estonia, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Netherlands, Spain, United Kingdom. (Lopez et al. 17) At its heart, the Authoritarians were popular because they were anti-Communist. Recall that we have discussed that fear of Communism has been a concern in the West since 1917. Conservative elements in the military, church, aristocracy, ruling elite, business/financial classes were quite comfortable helping and even aligning themselves with authoritarian elements if it meant that they would maintain their power and influence and prevent the spread of Communism. It should come as no surprise that in the countries where the Authoritarians took over (Germany and Italy being the prime examples), little was done to limit the power and influence of the elements mentioned above if those elements supported the regime and did the regime’s bidding, their power and influence were left, at their core, untouched. In Germany, Krupp would have no issue taking orders from Berlin if their profits remained stable. By the mid-1930s in France, French Authoritarians had more in common with Hitler’s regime in Germany than they did with their government (they despised it), which was Socialist and run by a Jew, Leon Blum. In the United States in the 1930s,support for fascism was surprisingly high. Historian Bradley W. Hart, in his book, Hitler’s American Friends: The Third Reich Supporters in the United States, shows that even in the late 1930s, as it had become painfully apparent that war was approaching, Authoritarianism was seen as a viable philosophy. “In June 1938, Gallup polled Americans on their views of the respective merits of authoritarianism and communism, asking them which ‘you think is worse’. While nearly half of respondents offered no answer, 32 percent thought that communism was the worse ideology. Only 23 percent saw fascism as more destructive” (. Hart 4). In Hart’s view “the United States was not at risk of an imminent fascist takeover in the late 1930s, but there was certainly fertile terrain in which dictatorship might be able to take root.” (Hart 5)
Post- Second World War
“The Glorious Thirty Years”
“Les Trente Glorieuses was the thirty years from 1945 to 1975 following the end of the Second World War in France. The name was first used by the French demographer Jean Fourastié. Fourastié coined the term in 1979 with the publication of his book Les Trente Glorieuses, ou la révolution invisible de 1946 à 1975.” (Wikipedia)
For this essay, I have changed the years Fourastie used in his book. From approximately 1947 to 1977, the United States, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, had what could arguably be called the most significant period of universal prosperity in all of history. The standard of living rose across the class spectrum in all those countries and regions mentioned above. It was fueled by strong progressive tax structures, massive investments in education and infrastructure, a solid manufacturing base, responsible, far-sighted corporate management, and government regulation that kept the “playing field” level. For the “Baby Boom” generation, born after the war, the possibilities seemed endless. These new possibilities gave the African American population in the United States the hope that the nation would finally begin to fulfill the unmet promise of liberty, freedom, and equality for all its citizens. The initial breakthroughs of the Civil Rights Era, from 1954 to 1968, although promising at first (Civil Rights Act 1964, Voting Rights Act 1965); from the late 1970s, would be met by a determined backlash, which stopped any further real progress in its tracks. By the 1980s and beyond, Integration became “diversity,” as society achieved virtual integration through happy interactions in commercials and “buddy” movies and television shows—integration without having to integrate.
The new prosperity gave Women the opportunity to challenge the status quo at home and in the workplace. Entering professions that had previously been “for men only,” barriers were broken. Unfortunately, for every wall broken, a new one appeared to replace it. The sexual revolution changed the entire dynamic of female/male relationships. The debate over its effects (and aftereffects) continues today. What was the cost? What was gained? What was lost?
Other marginalized groups asserted their voices during this period. Indigenous people began to speak up and demand equality in a land taken from them. Latinos demanded justice and cultural respect; Gay and Lesbian people began to leave the “closet” and openly demand equal treatment. As alluded to earlier, by the late 1970s, going into the 80s, the backlash against these movements, played out against the backdrop of growing opposition to the Vietnam War, was gaining political and cultural momentum.
The Forty “Greed is Good” Years
Beginning in the late 1970s, the reaction against what were believed to be the excesses of the 1960s and early 1970s began in earnest. Many thought it was time to restore “traditional” American values. The revolution in “rights” had gone far enough. What about “personal responsibility” and ownership? Americans canceled many of the economic policies and programs from the 1930s because it was felt they were no longer needed. After all, they hindered financial innovation, free trade, and global growth. Technology, especially the Internet, finance, and service, became growth industries while manufacturing jobs were sent “offshore.” Lavish lifestyles were praised and admired. Television shows, fictitious and “reality”- based, glorified the wealthy, promoting a lifestyle of “premium,” “deluxe,” “exclusive,” and “first-class.” Tax cuts for the rich began the biggest upward transfer of wealth since the late 19thcentury. This has continued unchecked as of 2022. Stocks and the stock market were seen by many as the leading indicators of economic growth, which every credible economist knows is false. Throughout the West, but especially in the United States and Britain, working and middle-class wages and salaries stagnated. Quality of life declined, as the working and middle classes have taken on more and more personal debt while working at more and more low-paying jobs, just to maintain what they have. Upward Social mobility has all but stopped.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the “rollback” of Communism, the United States no longer had an enemy upon whom their entire foreign policy was based. In the 1990s, until 2001, American foreign policy focused on spreading free trade, open markets, and “Jeffersonian” democracy. The bubble burst on the greed in 2007-09 mortgage crisis, causing the worse economic downturn since the 1930s.
The End of the American Century
“All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.”
The United States failure, up to the present day, to make the dream of America available and true to all its people, all the people who have been here, together, from the beginning, as truly equal partners, without conditions, remains its Achilles heel. The elections of 2016 and 2020 were an indicator that a substantial percentage of the American people would rather see the relative decline of the country (and the end of the democratic republic) then give up their perceived domination over their fellow Americans.
The justified anger and fury that has developed among the American working and middle classes, of all races, at the neo-liberal economic order, that over the past forty years (see “The Forty Greed is Good Years), has crippled their ability to provide for their families and their futures, and has opened the door for a cynical populism that seeks to take advantage of their true and honest suffering. It is a suffering, brought about by conservative and liberal leaders, elements of both political parties, and business, media, economic leaders, who drank the “Kool-Aid” of trickle-down economics (most continue to drink It) , that has resulted in a decline in American life expectancy, the desperation of opiate use, a lowering of living standards, and a loss of faith in the ability of democracy to work for them. For the underlined above….
“Shame, and eternal shame, nothing but shame!”
Henry V, by William Shakespeare
Under these conditions, the door is wide open for authoritarians to walk in and offer the “easy” solution to all of the country’s problems. Those problems can be blamed on those “other people” (racial minorities) who have taken your money, your jobs, and government benefits that should go to you because you are the “real Americans”. “They” have destroyed your culture and your way of life. It is time to “take back your country.” These “solutions” always find an audience, especially among those already predisposed to listen and agree with them. Authoritarians know that creating and fighting “the culture war” is a lot easier than proposing viable policy solutions that help the American working and middle classes of all races. In the final analysis, Authoritarians have no genuine interest in doing that anyway. The “fight,” the “battle,” the “conflict, and the “war” against the enemy – “the other” is all that matters.
Authoritarians can walk into power, mainly for two reasons. First, political parties no longer function as they did as recently as fifty years ago. Back then, they controlled who could stand for office and who could not. For the most part, the parties kept those who should not be in public office out of public office. Today, if you have enough money and financial power behind you, a potential candidate can bypass the party apparatus and win. This situation is now a worldwide phenomenon. Second, the “mainstream” media, especially in the United States, is so fearful of being called “liberal” that it has abdicated its responsibility to call “a horse, a horse”; instead, they opt for an almost fanatical adherence to covering “both sides” of the story. When something is not normal, it needs to be recognized as such.
However, the “mainstream” media does have a monumental task to deal with as it covers the news. The powerful influence of social media platforms, “specialized” cable outlets, traditional radio, and “podcasts” has undercut the ability of the media, or anyone else for that matter, to distinguish the truth from falsehoods. In his book Why Read Hannah Arendt Now, a distillation of the writings of Hannah Arendt, New School Philosophy Professor Richard J. Bernstein summarizes the dilemma: “Arendt teaches us how effective and dangerous political lying and image-making can be. It is naïve to believe that insisting on factual truth can challenge the power of lies. This underestimates the sophistication of image-makers in denigrating, mocking, and destroying factual truth. It underestimates the extent to which political liars will claim that a free press is the source of “fake news”. She notes the danger of what happens when the very distinction between truth and falsehood is called into question, when people no longer care about what is a lie and what is factually true.” (Bernstein 82-83) This alternate world, or as this writer has called it: the Parallel Universe, has already been created. In many ways, factual truth does not matter anymore. Authoritarians worldwide are relying upon and putting the means into place to ensure that this situation does not change.
Democracy is under siege around the world. Indeed, it is under attack in the three great “Western” democracies (United Kingdom, France, and the United States) as we speak. The leaders of the worldwide Authoritarian movement knows that if Democracy is crippled and disappears in the three countries mentioned above, then democracy itself, throughout the world will not survive. Authoritarians have strong political followings in all three countries and their strength is growing.
Because the Western democracies are free and open societies, domestic authoritarian movements can threaten their own democracies, while elements of those domestic movements export their knowledge and expertise worldwide while “networking” with like-minded movements and governments. As Anne Applebaum says in her Atlantic article, The Bad Guys are Winning: “…If Americans, together with our Allies, fail to fight the habits and practices of autocracy abroad, we will encounter them at home; indeed, they are already here. If Americans don’t help to hold murderous regimes to account, those regimes will retain their sense of impunity. They will continue to steal, blackmail, torture and intimidate, inside their countries- and inside ours.”
…The question remains. Do you still want a Democratic Republic?
From: Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Dies, New York: Penguin Random House, 2018. Pages 23 and 24. Author’s note: This book should be read by all who are interested in the future of Democracy
Four Key Indicators of Authoritarian Behavior
1.Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game.
- Do they reject the Constitution or express a willingness to violate it?
- Do they suggest a need for anti-democratic measures, such as canceling elections, violating or suspending the Constitution, banning certain organizations, or restricting basic civil or political right?
- Do they seek to use (or endorse the use of) extraconstitutional means to change the government, such as military coups, violent insurrections, or mass protests aimed at forcing a change in the government?
- Do they attempt to undermine the legitimacy of elections, for example, by refusing to accept credible electoral results?
2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents.
- Do they describe their rivals as subversive or opposed to the existing constitutional order?
- Do they claim that their rivals constitute an existential threat, either to national security or to the prevailing way of life?
- Do they baselessly describe their partisan rivals as criminals whose violation of the law (or potential to do so) disqualifies them from full participation in the political arena?
- Do they baselessly suggest that their rivals are foreign agents, in that they are secretly working in alliance with (or in the employ of) a foreign government-usually an enemy one?
3. Toleration or encouragement of violence
- Do they have any ties to armed gangs, paramilitary forces, militias, guerillas, or other organizations that engage in illicit violence?
- Have they or their partisan allies sponsored or encouraged mob violence on opponents?
- Have they tacitly endorsed violence by their supporters by refusing to unambiguously condemn it or punish it?
- Have they praised (or refused to condemn) other significant acts of political violence, either in the past or elsewhere in the world?
4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media.
- Have they supported laws or policies that restrict civil liberties, such as expanded libel or defamation laws, or laws restricting protest, criticism of the government, or certain civic or political organizations?
- Have they threatened to take legal or other punitive action against critics in rival parties, civil society, or the media?
- Have they praised repressive measures taken by other governments, either in the past or elsewhere in the world?
Applebaum, Anne. “The Bad Guys Are Winning.” The Atlantic December 2021 42-54.
Bernstein, Richard J. Why Read Hannah Arendt Now. Medford, MA: Polity, 2018.
Hart, Bradley W. Hitler’s American Friends: The Third Reich’s Supporters in the United States. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2018.
Levitsky, Steven and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. New York: Penguin Random House,2018.
Lopez, Jean, ed. World War II Infographics. London: Thames and Hudson, 2019.
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