The Authoritarian Plague: New Vectors for an Old Disease
by Krishna Hammond
Although many of us would prefer to believe otherwise, authoritarianism — and its now-neutered progenitor, monarchy — never really left the world stage. While the brief history of the United States has coincided with (and occasionally helped foster) a worldwide shift towards democratic nation-states bound together by a patchwork of international norms, a great deal of the world has consistently remained in the grip of a handful of power-hungry individuals. The so-called “liberal democratic order” that defines international affairs is a brief breath of air in between some 12,000 recorded years of continuous conflict (declared or not) and hundreds of thousands more of nomadic (and often brutal) struggles to survive.
With this in mind, we must understand that countries all across the world are more vulnerable to descent into authoritarianism than we are led to believe, even in relatively developed democracies. During times of economic dysfunction — the Great Depression and the Great Recession, for example — extremism gains credibility. Why? Because of disunity, distrust, and desperation. When socially-appointed referees are discredited, when the incompetence (and sometimes malice) of the ruling class goes too far, and when the inequity of people’s circumstances overwhelms the cold comfort of an increasingly tenuous status quo, change- any change- is preferable to the alternative. In some cases, the better instincts of human nature lead people to invest their energy into hope. In others, the country descends into a vicious cycle — their leaders are viewed as corrupt and criminal, their institutions bankrupt (often both morally and monetarily), so a segment of the population seeks out a figure of strength who they believe will impose stability but who in reality only escalates tensions. What is arguably even more damaging in these scenarios is not the rabid supporters of the autocrat — it is the rising number of citizens who have lost faith in the idea of self governance and democracy itself. Such a groundswell of despair does not just make it much harder to rouse the public to resistance, it infects other nations, and threatens to bring the global liberal democratic order crashing down. Authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin relish in and work to foster this outcome — a world of authoritarianism is one in which the people cannot cooperate across state lines to resist the control of their leaders, nor can they acquire information outside of the tidy media ecosystem created by the state.
It is our responsibility as citizens of the free world to ensure this does not come to pass, and to begin the work of pushing back the rising tide of nationalism that has been spawned in vulnerable democracies across the globe. In this spirit, this article catalogues five nations most vulnerable to authoritarian outbreaks, in order of increasing severity.
The United States of America
The United States of America is in a precarious position. For the first time, a sitting President has accused his predecessor of high crimes against the nation, then (after being rebuked by Congress and the Director of the FBI) continued to press the lie to allies overseas. However, the damage to America isn’t in the salacious humiliations heaped upon the office of the Presidency, it is in the assault on key institutions of civil society — attacks on the free press, the legal system, and the civil service of the United States. Americans pride themselves on our civil society and a government built to dissuade authoritarian power through intra-governmental checks and balances. But there’s a crucial problem- checks and balances are built to prevent a single branch from succumbing to the temptation of tyranny. What happens when multiple branches and institutions are in crisis? Congress, despite being controlled by a single party, is paralyzed by both intra-party warfare and an uncanny desperation to cover for an increasingly erratic president. While the federal courts system remains intact, the Supreme Court still lacks a member, and is trapped in the shadow of the controversy around the refusal to offer a hearing to Obama nominee Merrick Garland.The press reels as it tries to reckon with a administration utterly disinterested in honesty, and a political climate in which many don’t care (so long as their team is winning, of course). And, presiding over it all is a man who has lied openly and proudly about the most basic fundamentals of American politics — a party leader who demands an abandonment of shared reality in order to establish loyalty. The country’s independent institutions are straining under the weight, and its partisan establishments are making a dangerous bet on Republicans’ willingness to challenge the President. That said, the endless campaign churn of American politics may be a chance to temper the ambitions of the executive branch. A 37% approval rating this early indicator of public opinion turning against the President. Approval ratings below 50% are historically linked to an average of 36 House seats lost during midterms. This would effectively grind the Trump agenda to a halt, provide opportunities for real investigation of malfeasance- and hopefully inspire him to moderate in order to pass legislation.
Marine Le Pen and her National Front have held a consistent lead in the first round of the French Presidential election, with approximately 26% (compared to former Socialist Emmanuel Macron’s 25% and and 19.5% for center-right Republican Francois Fillon) in polling. Her far-right, anti-immigrant message shares many themes with Trump’s agenda- a crackdown on immigrants, trade barriers, and taxes on foreign workers. And, more critically, her desire to exit the Euro could be the death knell of the European Union, which in turn could allow far-right movements in smaller countries to seize power in the ensuing economic chaos. However, it’s important to note there are several mitigating factors at work. First, the elimination of minor party candidates will likely benefit her potential opponents more than her. The recusal of the sitting President Francois Hollande weakens the anti-establishment narrative- it is difficult to allege an extremist is the only option to change a corrupt status quo when the status quo implodes of its own accord. Even further, the previous favorite, Fillon, has been bested by Macron in the wake of a scandal, and in a time voters may be hoping to send a message, a centrist Independent seen as an outsider may act as a needed safety valve. He is firmly grounded in the center-left, making him more palatable to the French Left compared to Fillon while still appealing to pro-Europe right-wing voters with a an economically populist message.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is in an incredibly delicate position. Germany is the strongest economy in the European Union, and is indispensable to the region as a whole. As Chancellor, she holds the rest of the Union on her shoulders, and since the election of Donald Trump she has increasingly been referred to as the “Leader of the Free World”. Her electoral loss to far-right nationalists in the September federal elections would be a huge blow to the EU and would likely herald an end to the post-Cold War world order. It is against this backdrop that the Syrian refugee crisis has strained her political situation to the very limits; her decision to push for almost a million refugees to resettle in Germany was incredibly important to affirming international protections for refugees and asylum seekers. The cultural shock of the introduction of these refugees took an initial toll, however, and even the relative handful of violent incidents have the potential to incite hysteria. A number of terror attacks on European cities were effective at further radicalizing segments of the population already skeptical of refugees (despite UN reports showing no correlation between migration and terrorist attacks), and it is clear that Merkel is taking a gamble on prioritizing human rights in an anxious time. Yet, retreating on refugee rights or the basic premise of a unified Europe would be surrendering to the far-right and would only further embolden its followers.
It appears, however, that Merkel has judged and played her hand well. Capitalizing off of German antipathy for Trump and on the continued strength of the center-left/center-right alliance in Germany has won her a 60% approval rating, even as her nearest center-left competitor, Martin Schulz, posts 31% to her 30% in polling. If Merkel can weather the storm of 2018, her leadership will be crucial in managing the outbreaks of right-wing authoritarianism in Europe going forwards.
Hungary is the first on the list to truly step across the thin red line into direct, explicit illiberal democracy. Newspapers are shutting down, and the climate is tense and uneasy. In the words of Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, “liberal democracy cannot remain globally competitive.” In this case, the cause is not preventing the intrusion of potential extremists, as in France or Germany — it is mitigation and resistance. The situation in Hungary has parallels to a much more degenerated version of America’s situation — an assault on the freedom of the press, deteriorating democratic institutions,and the rise of intolerance seeping into regional affairs. The Hungarian government has blocked sweeping anti-LGBT discrimination legislation in the EU, and because of the metastasizing right wing movement across Europe, it is much harder for more progressive EU countries to counter attacks on human rights as a whole.
There is still plenty of room for Hungary to deteriorate further. Orban and his allies command paramilitary forces capable of coordinating organized attacks on rivals of the ruling regime. With rising anti-Semitic rhetoric and a floundering and weak opposition, the regime could, given sufficient leeway by the international community, advance to the stage of outright authoritarian control. The nation’s institutions lack many of the built-in advantages America has in mitigating authoritarian control (such as the decentralization of governance, rapid election cycles, and robust traditions of civilian-military separation). The international community will need to have all hands focused on preventing the country from tumbling further towards totalitarianism — provided each nation can right its own ship.
If Hungary stands in the shallow end of authoritarian control, Turkey is standing on the edge of the deep end. Its President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has consolidated a great deal of power in the hands of the state — in addition to his party controlling Parliament, he has initiated widespread purges of dissidents in the civil service, erected a lavish palace in 2014, and has graduated from a right wing, socially conservative (but secular) platform to an openly autocratic rhetoric, pandering to a populist base.
Now, Erdogan and his forces have moved to have a referendum on the Constitution, potentially conferring significant new powers upon the President. This new Presidential system would give Erdogan significant plenary powers over national security, much like the American system, but with fewer checks and balances and far weaker institutions. The ruling AKP party has been pushing for this since 2014, but Parliamentary setbacks derailed their agenda, until now.
But democratically-minded Turks stand, largely, alone. Cooperation on the Syrian crisis is too important for the EU or the United States to provide significant diplomatic pressure. It will fall to the people of Turkey, and their allies in solidarity around the world, to resist this power grab in order to regain control for the Turkish people.
When it comes to combating authoritarianism, there is much that can be done by the democratic community worldwide. In addition to building power at home, we must turn our efforts towards greater connections across nations, cultures, and backgrounds. We must expand existing institutions and human rights groups to have truly global reach. If a truly united worldwide political front, dedicated to the eradication of of authoritarian control everywhere and built from thousands of grassroots groups and organizations, solidifies as a result of this frightening infection sickening our world, perhaps some goodness may be found in crisis. With our efforts, we can show that the world’s immune system — activism — is strong enough to withstand the authoritarian plague. The promise of a brighter future and a healthy world is still in reach. In order to achieve it, however, we must choose hope over fear, and square our shoulders for the work to come.