War, Peace, Authoritarianism, and Democracy
John M. Lane
Democracy is the most fragile form of government that humans have devised to rule themselves. Various forms of dictatorships, monarchies, absolutist rule, and theocracies, have for most of the time that humans have lived in what we call “civilization” (give or take 7,000 years), have been how humans ruled and governed themselves. It was simple to implement. Those with the most weapons and largest armies won. The populations depended upon them for protection, order, and leadership. The victorious warlord established an elite resource/landowning class accountable to the ruler/warlord and installed it in power. The “power elite” installed a priestly class to legitimize the new order. Everyone knew their place in what would be called society.
The significant deviation from this order was Ancient Athens, where the first direct democracy exercised authority with minimal participation from only the elite male population of the city. Millennium later, the ideas of the Enlightenment brought forth the concept of rule through the consent of the governed: Democracy or the Democratic Republic. The original manifestation of this idea was the creation of the United States, the first democratic republic with a written constitution. Although far from perfect (the list is long, beginning with the “three-fifths” clause created to count enslaved persons for purposes of representation in the House of Representatives), the document did establish fundamental rights for citizens that have expanded (often grudgingly) over the past two hundred plus years.
The United States Constitution has been repeatedly copied and imitated over two centuries. Even the vilest, repressive regimes in history have felt the need to create a document that at least reads like the United States Constitution. Around the world, most people are aware of the document’s contents, except, sadly, Americans themselves. Many of whom do not have an accurate idea of what the document says (Political Science/Civics/ Government instruction is currently not in vogue) and attribute it to its “rights” that are not mentioned in any part of the document. Americans do not have the “constitutional right” to practice the “personal liberty” of not stopping at stop signs or driving through lights at intersections.
“Classical liberalism” reached the point of becoming a viable political philosophy by the 1840s. Classical liberalism, at its core, promotes the rule of law, rule by law, free and fair elections, representative democracy, capitalism, free trade, and equality of opportunity. By the beginning of the 20thcentury, Classical liberalism had split into two camps: The Tories (Conservatives) believed that the role of government should be “limited” and that lightly or unregulated capitalism and opportunity were the best ways to improve life for most people over the long run. The Social Democrats (liberals/progressives in the United States) felt that the government was obligated to intervene to “level the playing field” to ensure that markets and capitalism worked for all populations through regulation, fair taxation, and worker representation. The struggle between Conservatives and Social Democrats over how to define classical liberalism and implement it has continued into the 21st century. In the past, politics in a democracy/democratic republic meant that neither side got everything it wanted. This situation used to be called “compromise,” which is now a “dirty” word, a sign of “weakness,” and a failure to stand up for “core values.” Because of the refusal to compromise, actual governance in the United States has ground to a screeching halt. Nothing of any substance is accomplished or agreed to. Today, what is substituted for governing management is who can “score the most points” over the latest incarnation of the “culture war.” Meanwhile, for example, the country is burning and melting under our feet, while close to one million people died because a public health crisis was turned into an “us” vs. “them” political battle.
Historically, the political extremes have been waiting to take advantage of the situation under the circumstances described above. When compromise fails in democratic republics/democracies, either the Communist Far Left or the Fascist Far Right were ready to offer easy solutions to society’s problems. The Communist Far Left will promise that state control of all the means of production will solve everything, while the Fascist Far-Right blames “those other kinds of people” for stealing your jobs, taking your money, and ruining the country. Today, four countries can be called “Communist”: North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, and China. North Korea and Cuba are “basket cases.” Vietnam is a threat to no one and seeks better relations with the United States. China is positioning itself to challenge the United States to control the “Commanding Heights” of the world economy in the 21st century.
The main threat to the democratic republic/democracy in the 21st century comes from the Authoritarian Right. They offer the comforting notion that it is possible to return to the world of 1950; when the “right kinds of people” were in charge politically, economically, and culturally, no matter what your situation was, you knew you were superior to “those other kinds of people.” In the United States, that guaranteed “superiority” meant that you would be willing to accept higher costs in education and housing, a lesser quality of health care, public transportation, and infrastructure to ensure that “the other” did not benefit from your “hard-earned tax dollars.” To gain and retain power, the Authoritarian Right will build on resentment to stoke anger and frustration in the “working class” against “the other.”
What does the war in Ukraine have to do with any of the above? It has everything to do with it. If the Democracies do not stand with Ukraine to fight against the savage, authoritarian attack on that country, the aggression will continue. It appears that Western democracies have decided that they will make that stand. Their battle will be both internal and external. In the recent French presidential elections, the authoritarian candidate received only 41% of the vote. However, that is ten points higher than that candidate received five years ago. Five years from now, it could be even closer.
In Britain and the United States, authoritarians are making gains at every level of government, confident that soon they will gain power, permanently, they hope. Externally, authoritarians worldwide are connected and coordinated. They use the same “playbook,” media outlets and technology, conferences, and propaganda techniques to undermine democratic institutions, the rule of law and spread division. (In the West, they are protected by the same freedoms and constitution they seek to undermine and destroy.) Democracies must fight back with an equally vigorous effort on all fronts. From time to time, “carrying a big stick” works: At the height of the Cold War, in the 1960s/1970s, the United States had 300,000 troops stationed in Western Europe (while fighting in Vietnam). The Warsaw Pact/USSR never seriously considered a westward attack. That number is not going to be placed there today. Right now, there are around 65,000.
Authoritarians must be made aware that further aggression, both military or otherwise, will be met with determined political, economic, and, if necessary, military resistance.
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