A Turbulent World
Rising to the Authoritarian Challenge

U.S. policy on democracy support, especially during the Obama administration, has been largely reactive. We seem to be constantly playing (and mostly losing) a giant game of Whac-a-Mole.

Published on: August 12, 2014
Daniel Calingaert is executive vice president at Freedom House.
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  • FriendlyGoat

    We have discovered, to our dismay, that the voters in many Islam-saturated places tend to elect more Islam into governments—-a form of authoritarianism that may very well be as bad or worse for people than dictators. Egypt has barely escaped this, for now—-and has done so in a manner not congruent with our ideals of democracy.

    How does democracy work when majorities of voters are predisposed to dumb error? Can we celebrate people who make bad decisions in good elections?

    • Johnny May

      The problem is, that we tend to miss the essence of Western democracy and instead focus on its outward appearances in a way that could be called the ‘Fetishism of the ballot box’. But the fundament of a working liberal democracy are not elections, even if they are generally fair and free but a functioning civic society that understands and values the basic values which underly our modern concept of democracy.

      Without respect of different opinions, without conviction that differences should be solved in a peaceful way, without respect for political minorities and without accepting that a won election is not a mandate for unrestricted rule, democracy is doomed to failure. What can be achieved in these circumstances can only be called a “cargo-cult democracy”, i.e. a system of governance having all the outward signs of a democratic state but lacking and foundations behind this facade.

      Instead of promoting elections we should therefore better promote these values, even if the result is not directly outright democratic. Let’s not forget, that the West didn’t learn democracy over night but that it was the result of a long and arduous process taking centuries. An arrangement, where unelected tribal leaders sit down on a table and discuss their differences is much better than a pro-forma democracy in which the biggest tribe thinks he can now legitimately pursue its own interests with regards of others.

  • Andrew Allison

    This post misses the point that some societies are just not ready for democracy and authoritarianism is the only way to keep their members from each other’s throats. Our past full-throated support for democracy abroad has generally done more harm than good, not to mention its enormous cost in US lives and treasure. Perhaps we should be more concerned about the rise of authoritarianism at home exemplified by, e.g., the IRS assault on organizations which the Administration doesn’t like, and let the rest of the world chose the form of government which works best for it.

    • ljgude

      Indeed. I would add that the militarization of the police is effectively subverting the Posse Comitatus Act which prevents using the military against the American People.

    • Nick

      A constitution monarchy where the king can overrule the parliament is actually a better option than out and out authoritarian rule. The King (or Queen) would have the ability to be autocratic, but would allow the parliament to do most of the work, only stepping in when Parliament can’t get its act together. Jerry Pournelle designed such a monarchy for his “The Prince” book.

      • Andrew Allison

        Well, having been born a Brit, I must agree that in general constitutional monarchy is the best bet LOL. But as you probably know, the role of the Monarch is to advise parliament, not instruct it. The line between a Monarchy in which the Monarch can overrule Parliament and an Authoritarian State is very fine. All that aside, history ancient and modern has repeatedly demonstrated that the only way to keep members of tribal societies from each other’s throats is authoritarianism.

        • Nick

          Yes, but it was not always a weak monarchy. It wasn’t until Oliver the Roundhead instituted his Glorious Revolution that the King was so weakened. There may be ways to institute a monarchy that gives more power to the executive, but keeps the day to day administrative state under the parliament (unless it gets out of hand).

          We have not seen all forms of government, but it is sad that the 20th and 21st centuries have been so uncreative in how they create governments.

          • Andrew Allison

            We are well on the way toward a monarchy that gives more power to the executive!

    • Nick

      By the way, I do agree with you about the rise of authoritarianism at home…. Although I see it as a rise in fascism…

      • Andrew Allison

        Sadly, I must agree. The essence of Fascism is that the State and its leader are supreme.

        • Nick

          More – the state uses its power to coerce business – and then has business enact its desires. In return, it uses regulations to destroy new businesses before they can begin to rise up to possibly become competitors to the favored business community. The (check Goodwin’s law here!) used their thugs – today almost all Federal agencies have militarized branches, and they don’t hesitate to use every regulatory, legal, monetary, or even raw force to create apprehension and terror. This state has basically become Fascist, and regrettably, both Democrats and Republicans are in on it.

          I am not against business, nor government. But what we have now are both of them out of control.

      • Over the past month, I keep thinking of the war powers act, and other measures that reinforced checks and balances on each branch. Peculiar, how the procedural actions necessitated by those checks and balances didn’t seem to slow things down, certainly not like our current, chronic legislative gridlock.

        I do think you’re correct, in the use of “fascism” rather than authoritarianism. The former is governance such that the state coerces business (maybe vice-versa) yet regardless of direction, both parties are willing participants. Favoritism and dynastic power without accountability are among its hallmarks. Dissent is unthinkable. Bureaucracy and policy becomes absurd without any alternative views e.g. feedback, critique. This historical image captures it well. I verified the provenance. It is Milan Italy ca. 1930

        • Nick

          Resistance is futile! All will be absorbed into the collective.

  • qet

    Like I said in the Orban/Hungary thread, the US can hardly resist authoritarian states when its own Executive power is increasingly admiring the governance efficiencies inherent in that style and openly moving toward a more authoritarian style with the active encouragement of the dominant left-liberal intelligentsia. Physician–heal thyself.

    Edit: just saw Andrew Allison beat me to this same observation.

  • Anthony

    Essay, though sincere, imbues both presumption and haughtiness. That is, embedded in essay’s arguments (premises) is idea that Democracy beats authoritarianism in all ways at all times. Though my personal inclination avers in that direction (as Democratic Government is designed to resolve conflicts among citizens by consensual rule of law), institutions and history thereof must also factor in vis-a-vis Democracy vs. Authoritarianism (as defined in essay). In fact, cult of personality, messianic creed, and nationalist mission generally undergird authoritarian regimes (which itself bespeaks both history and institutional arrangements). Essentially, I would proffer that Democracy is not completely exogenous to a society and that thought ought to caution democracy promoters as against authoritarian displacement.

  • Fat_Man

    “the United States ought to end the secrecy surrounding company ownership at home”

    I quit there. Expanding the Federal Panopticon is completely unacceptable.

  • Kevin

    A few questions/issues:
    1. Will attempts to expose real owners and corporate shells lead to greater governmental power here that can then be used against domestic enemies or to allow boycotts and private violence against those who sport unpopular causes?
    2. Is a united front on this possible with other Western governments? Will the French, for example, forego commercial advantage to punish despots?
    3. Are we willing to engage in (limited) collective punishment against bad actors? For example, denying a travel visa to a Chinese provincial official will not likely deter him, denying his children , nephews, nieces and grandchildren the ability to study or do business in the West might. However, are we really willing to punish the children and other relatives if bad actors in order to deter them? That might be effective but would seriously compromise ideals opposed to corruption of the blood or punishing the son for the sins of the father.
    4. These policies will be most effective against Western leaning moderately authoritarian regimes, not the worst regimes or our geopolitical enemies. Sanctions against officials in Thailand, the Ukraine or Jordan are more likely to be carried out under such a policy than are sanctions against Chinese, Russian or Iranian officials. Are these actions really going to make the world a better place?

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