There’s a kind of battle taking place in the world today. One so omnipresent, it’s invisible. That battle is between authoritarianism and democracy. America, Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Poland — I don’t need to recite the endless list of nations who’ve toppled like dominoes.
The battle, sadly, is being lost by the forces of democracy. Democracy is in hasty, battered global retreat. Authoritarianism is winning — and it is winning easily, handily, and swiftly. And that tells us something vital, if unfortunate. Democratic forces today do not really understand how to fight, much less defeat, authoritarian movements, values, agendas, and impulses anymore. Perhaps they forgot — or perhaps, as in America, they forgot to learn how at all.
So here are five dangerous myths I hear every day about authoritarianism — next to five harsh realities.
Myth: “Don’t worry!! No biggie!! We’ll just vote them away!”. I hear this one every day. Don’t you? By superstar pundits, intellectuals, academics, journalists, columnists. Unfortunately, it betrays an almost complete lack of historical context or knowledge, much less any kind of understanding of how societies really work.
Reality: Defeating authoritarianism, more often than not, takes a revolution. Not an election. Think about it. Was communism voted away in Soviet Russia? Did people vote down the Berlin Wall? Nope. It took a revolution. Why didn’t people “vote out” Saddam and Gaddafi? Why did they have to die for nations to progress? History is redolent with the lesson that once authoritarians come into power, merely “voting them out” isn’t likely to work — even if you nominally can. The story is just as true in America’s own history, too — they couldn’t simply “vote” themselves out of the British Empire. Defeating authoritarianism, once it’s set in, takes a revolution, not just an election. Why is that?
Myth: ”Authoritarianism is like a cold! Our immune system will simply fight it off!” This is how American intellectuals think of authoritarianism so far — they appeal to America’s strength and robustness, and so on. But history tells us no democracy is too strong to fall, doesn’t it? John Wayne only exists in the movies.
Reality: authoritarianism is like cancer, not a cold. The body’s immune system turns on itself — and if it metastasizes, the organs of the body politic may be harmed beyond repair or recovery. What do I mean by “the immune system turns on itself”? Well, the very first thing authoritarians usually do is rewrite the rule of law, in anti-democratic, unjust, immoral, and illiberal ways. They turn elections on their heads, make secret police forces, surveil whole groups or peoples, and so forth. That is why it takes a revolution — not just an election — to defeat authoritarianism: as social institutions are used to repress and subjugate people, democracy as a simple “electoral” process quickly becomes at best a sham, and at worst, a luxury.
The Nazis did it, the Soviets did it, and today, we are seeing it happen in America — families being split up at the border and so on. The immune systems turns on itself. Authoritarianism for that reason is like cancer. It infects the many organs, or institutions, of the social body — the rule of law, elections, media, business, and so on — and if it is allowed to fester, to set in, then it metastasizes. Soon enough, there is nothing left of these institutions to save — they have rotted from the inside out. And the challenge for a nation after a bout of authoritarianism is often rebuilding its institutions wholesale. In just that way, we make a mistake today equating authoritarianism to a minor cold, when in fact it is the gravest disease of the body politic.
Myth: “We will defeat the authoritarians by calling them names!! By humiliating and shaming them!!” LOL. This one always strikes me as especially funny. Do you really think authoritarians have a sense of shame? Of course not. They are shameless by definition. Have you seen their taste in interior design? So simply pointing out that they are hypocrites and blowhards and tyrants is pointless. It is hardly likely to stop them — since their rise points to a society in which despair and rage outweigh shame and guilt in the first place.
Reality: Authoritarianism is defeated by offering people a social contract that works again, so they don’t have to flee into the arms of strongmen for a sense of safety and security when societies are collapsing around them. Liberals throughout history have made this mistake again and again. In Nazi Germany, liberals didn’t offer people anything much — it was the Nazis, in fact, who promised them the world. The same was true in Soviet Russia. And it is true again in America today.
Liberals are out to lunch. The old social contract is as broken as one could possibly get — Americans die every day for a lack of insulin, for example, will never retire, and so on — and yet, instead of offering people a better one, what do they spend their days doing? Tweeting angrily. Ranting on cable news. And so on. It’s less than useless — it only ensures the authoritarians keep on winning. Because people simply do not have an alternative worth considering, really. It’s a way for elites and political parties to shirk their responsibilities to democracy.
Myth: “Don’t worry! That knight in shining armour will save us — we’ve pinned all our hopes on him — and it’s his job, not ours, anyways!!” The flipside of the myth above — “bah, we don’t have to offer people anything better!!” is that a white knight will come along and save us. After all, there has to be some fairy tale at work if no one has to do the hard work of democracy, doesn’t there? So in America, for example, such a figure is the special prosecutor — and it seems that an entire nation’s elites, its powerful and mighty, are simply sucking on their thumbs, waiting for that lone figure, like Rambo, to swoop in and save the day. Unfortunately, history again tells us — authoritarianism isn’t defeated by white knights, but, again, by wholesale revolutions.
Reality: authoritarianism means the replacement of democratic institutions with anti-democratic ones — and so by the time the white knight arrives, it’s usually too late: the house of prosperity has already burned down, and a grim dystopia rebuilt in its place. When authoritarianism sets in, what happens is that basic political, economic, and social institutions are quickly subverted, sabotaged, and perverted. Secret police forces, lists, rigged elections, and so on. Now if those very institutions are poisoned from the inside out — what is left for a white knight to save? Do you see the problem?
Even if he does “save” something, by putting a few figureheads in jail, the authoritarians have already won — they have turned institutions into little machines of repression. A national guard becomes a secret police. A welfare department becomes the very agency responsible for ethnic cleansing. And so on. Poisoned institutions are likely to go on doing their lethal jobs long after today’s authoritarians are gone — just as they did in Soviet Russia. The white knight strategy to defeating authoritarianism is a poor one for this reason — by the time it works, on the slim chance it does, a society will have been largely rebuilt along authoritarian lines institutionally, normatively, culturally, and economically.
So. Let me try and sum up, with one last myth. “Authoritarianism is a joke, man!! LOL. Look at those clowns!!” Wrong. This is not a drill — or a comedy routine. The forces of democracy are getting authoritarianism wrong. Lethally and badly wrong. It’s seriousness, gravity, appeal, power, and growth. Why it is spreading, what happens when it is allowed to fester, and most importantly, how to defeat it. That is why they are losing, and authoritarianism is winning.
We defeat authoritarianism by learning, just a little, from history. That most difficult and improbable of tasks. Yet if we can manage to do that, we will quickly see — merely shouting at authoritarians, hoping for knights in shining armour, or waiting for another election that might never quite come are not enough. They are forms of laziness, procrastination, buck-shifting, and ignorance. Perhaps, sadly, in the end, even something like complicity.
Authoritarianism’s back is broken — at least until it slithers upwards from the abyss once again — when people have a reason to hope in, strive for, reach towards, something better again. When there is a better offer made to them. One a little fuller of dignity, fairness, safety, freedom, and prosperity. Then and only then. And the great problem in the world right now is that the putative forces of progress, because they do not understand or perhaps even remember history, are not offering much of any of that to them.