Tag Archives: autocracy

Democracy? Or Liberal Democracy?

Back in the Ice Age, when I was a high-school English teacher, I spent some time in my classes discussing the sometimes subtle differences between the definitions and connotations of words.

America’s political discussions would benefit from a similar focus.

What brought this to mind was a “guest essay” in the New York Times, discussing the importance of distinguishing between actual democracies and states that have edged–albeit through popular vote–into autocracy. Here is the crux of the essay:

In a report published in March, the Swedish research organization V Dem posits that “the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2020 is down to the levels last found around 1990.” In V Dem’s judgment, the elected autocracy — a political regime in which democracy is reduced to the unconstrained power of a majority — is today’s most common regime type. India, Turkey and Hungary are exemplars. These new authoritarians are very different from their Cold War-era relatives, which were often military regimes. They cross the borders between democracy and authoritarianism almost as frequently as smugglers cross state borders.

Many of today’s new non-democracies are in fact former democracies. And in many of these countries, citizens voted for authoritarian populists specifically in the hope of making democracy work for them. The government’s supporters in electoral autocracies like India and Hungary or electoral democracies like Poland, countries that organizations like V Dem and its American counterpart Freedom House countenance as democratic backsliders, will insist that they live in democracies. As of January, the percentage of Indians who trusted Prime Minister Narendra Modi was far higher than the number of Americans or Europeans who trusted their leaders. (To be fair, Mr. Modi’s popularity has taken a serious hit over the past month as Covid-19 has raged across India in large part because of what many describe as the starkest failure of governance since the country’s independence.)

There are a number of implications–and warnings– that might be drawn from this analysis, but what it triggered in my mind was definitional. When we use the term “democracy,” most of us think simply of majority rule. And as the described slide into autocracy illustrates, majorities can endorse very repressive measures and elect very unqualified and/or evil people.

A while back, I read a book by Fareed Zakaria (the title now escapes me) in which he drew a very important–even profound–distinction between “democracy” and “liberal democracy.” A system of flat-out majority rule can be every bit as tyrannical as a system empowering an emperor; what America has (if we can keep it) is majority rule constrained by the Bill of Rights, a liberal democracy which limits the sorts of government actions that a majority of our citizens can endorse.

These constraints–and the reasons for them–are widely misunderstood, but they protect our individual liberties.

The Bill of Rights puts certain matters beyond the regulatory power of the state. Your neighbors cannot vote to make you a Baptist or Unitarian, they cannot send government censors to your local library, and they cannot deny equal civil rights to populations they might wish to marginalize or oppress. In effect, the Bill of Rights is meant to limit the nature of decisions that government can make, even when a majority of citizens would like for government to impose those decisions on everyone.

The dictionary definition of “democracy” is “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.” When most Americans hear “democracy,” however, the connotation is really “liberal democracy”–majority rule with constraints that safeguard individual freedom.

Unfortunately, that assumption elides a very important distinction between “pure” democracy and limited/liberal democracy, and that distinction matters. A lot.

 

 

Misogyny Over Racism?

In the January/February issue of the Atlantic, Peter Beinart attributes the global move to authoritarianism to misogyny.

After noting the current roster of bullies in power in various countries–he calls them ‘Trumpists’– and noting the very different political and economic environments of those countries, he points to the one threat they all share: women.

But the more you examine global Trumpism, the more it challenges the story lines that dominate conversation in the United States. Ask commentators to explain the earthquake that has hit American politics since 2016, and they’ll likely say one of two things. First, that it’s a scream of rage from a working class made downwardly mobile by globalization. Second, that it’s a backlash by white Christians who fear losing power to immigrants and racial and religious minorities.

Yet these theories don’t travel well. Downward mobility? As Anne Applebaum pointed out in this magazinejust a few months ago, “Poland’s economy has been the most consistently successful in Europe over the past quarter century. Even after the global financial collapse in 2008, the country saw no recession.” In the years leading up to Duterte’s surprise 2016 victory, the Philippines experienced what the scholar Nicole Curato has called “phenomenal economic growth.” The racial-and-religious-backlash theory leaves a lot unexplained, too. Immigration played little role in Duterte’s ascent, or in Bolsonaro’s. Despite his history of anti-black comments, preelection polls showed Bolsonaro winning among black and mixed-race Brazilians. Racism has been even less central to Duterte’s appeal.

The problem with both American-born story lines is that authoritarian nationalism is rising in a diverse set of countries. Some are mired in recession; others are booming. Some are consumed by fears of immigration; others are not. But besides their hostility to liberal democracy, the right-wing autocrats taking power across the world share one big thing, which often goes unrecognized in the U.S.: They all want to subordinate women.

Beinart quotes Valerie M. Hudson, a political scientist at Texas A&M, who reminds us that  for most of human history, leaders and their male subjects agreed that men would be ruled by other men in return for all men ruling over women. Since this hierarchy mirrored that of the home, it seemed natural. As a result, Hudson says, men, and many women, have associated male dominance with political legitimacy. Women’s empowerment disrupts this order.

The article mines history to illustrate the ways revolutionaries have used “the specter of women’s power” to discredit the regime they sought to overthrow.

French revolutionaries made Marie Antoinette a symbol of the immorality of the ancien régime and that Iranian revolutionaries did the same to Princess Ashraf, the “unveiled and powerful” sister of the shah. After toppling the monarchy, the French revolutionaries banned women from holding senior teaching positions and inheriting property. Ayatollah Khamenei made it a crime for women to speak on the radio or appear unveiled in public….

When the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi replaced the longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Morsi quickly announced that he would abolish the quota guaranteeing women’s seats in parliament, overturn a ban on female circumcision, and make it harder for women to divorce an abusive husband. After Muammar Qaddafi’s ouster, the first law that Libya’s new government repealed was the one banning polygamy.

Beinart draws a comparison to Trump, whose attitudes toward women were shared by supporters whose hatred of Hillary was blatantly–even exuberantly– sexist. The misogyny theory even explains Trump’s improbable support among Evangelicals.

Commentators sometimes describe Trump’s alliance with the Christian rightas incongruous given his libertine history. But whatever their differences when it comes to the proper behavior of men, Trump and his evangelical backers are united by a common desire to constrain the behavior of women.

The article is lengthy, and filled with concrete examples. It’s persuasive, and well worth reading in its entirety. Assuming the accuracy of the analysis, it’s hard to disagree with this observation near the end of the essay:

Over the long term, defeating the new authoritarians requires more than empowering women politically. It requires normalizing their empowerment so autocrats can’t turn women leaders and protesters into symbols of political perversity. And that requires confronting the underlying reason many men—and some women—view women’s political power as unnatural: because it subverts the hierarchy they see in the home.

It would seem that the personal really is the political; misogyny evidently begins at home.