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Defending Liberal Democracy from the Slide Toward Authoritarianism

Defending Liberal Democracy from the Slide Toward Authoritarianism

Keynote Speech to the European Democracy Conference 2017
Bratislava, November 21, 2017

Sponsored by the Institute of Public Affairs and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation

Since time is limited, I am going to dispense with the first part of my paper, save for this brief summary.  For the past roughly 12 years, freedom and democracy have been receding in the world.  For most of this period, this has been a mild recession, but in the last two years or so it has been gaining alarming momentum, mainly because of the spread of this recession to the core of the world’s liberal democracies, Europe and the United States, with the rise of illiberal populist parties and movements, the Brexit vote, and the election of Donald Trump in the US.  I believe there has actually been a failure of democracy in an EU nation, Hungary,
at the hands of a populist party and leader.  The ruling illiberal populist Law and Justice Party is eroding democracy in Poland as well, and there has been a marked growth in the expression of authoritarian and intolerant sentiments in Polish society.  There are reasons for concern about other post-communist EU democracies.  Since the dawn of democracy’s Third Wave, this is the first time that serious doubts have arisen about the future of democracy in the advanced liberal democracies.

Another accelerating trend has been the rising power and assertiveness of Russia and especially China, and the growing tendency of autocrats worldwide to identify with these powerful autocracies and cite them as models. This ideological counter-narrative is struggling mightily to give birth to a new authoritarian global zeitgeist. 

The greatest danger is the weakening of democracy and democratic values from within, which Russia and China and other authoritarian forces are exploiting. 
I define in the paper what populism is, why illiberal populism of the kind we are seeing in countries like Hungary and Poland constitutes a grave threat to democracy, and a 12-step authoritarian playbook that elected leaders have been using in many countries to gradually strangle democratic pluralism.  Briefly these steps are:

1. Begin to demonize the opposition as illegitimate and unpatriotic, part of the discredited establishment, out of touch with the “true people.”
2. Undermine the independence of the courts by forcing existing judges to retire or and then packing the courts.
3. Undermine the independence of the media, by denouncing them as partisan, mobilizing the intense populist following against them, taking over ownership of them through politically loyal businesses and party-linked political cronies, and so on.
4. If there is public broadcasting, gain control of it and politicize it.
5. Impose stricter control of the Internet, in the name of morality, security, counter-terrorism, but casting a chilling effect on free speech.
6. Subdue other elements of civil society—particularly NGOs and universities—by casting them as elitist, politically partisan and anti-government. 
7. Intimidate the business community into ceasing support for opposition parties.
8. Use state control over contracts, credit flows, and other resources to enrich a new class of political crony capitalists who are tightly linked to and reliably supportive of the ruling party.
9. Extend political control over the state bureaucracy and security apparatus to purge the “deep state” of anyone not slavishly loyal.  Use the state intelligence apparatus as a weapon against the opposition.
10. Gerrymander constituencies and otherwise rig electoral rules to make it much more difficult for opposition parties to win the next election.
11. Gain control over electoral administration to further tilt the electoral playing field and institutionalize competitive authoritarianism. 
12. ¬Repeat steps 1 to 11, ever more vigorously, deepening fear of opposing or criticizing the new political hegemony and thus demobilizing all significant forms of resistance.

Defending Liberal Democracy from the Inside

Democrats need a comprehensive strategy that has both near-term and long-term components, and that pursues both an “inside” (purely national) game and an external, international approach.  Let me first address the components (near-term and longer-term) of the inside game.

In every country, the most important imperative in defending liberal democracy is to defeat its enemies electorally before it becomes too late. This means preventing illiberal and anti-democratic forces from coming to power, and if they come to power, it means waging a vigorous political and electoral struggle to keep their stay in power as brief as possible.  It means that political parties committed to liberal democratic principles—whether from the left, right, or center—must be prepared to sublimate their programmatic agendas to the more urgent goal of containing anti-democratic forces. The longer that aspiring hegemonic parties control the government, the more checks and balances are likely to erode over time, giving illiberal forces time and political space to reshape the courts, the civil service, and the political culture in their image.  And the longer these illiberal parties are in power, the more they may distort the electoral rules and institutions in ways that make it much more difficult for them to be dislodged from power by “normal” electoral means.

Democrats should bear in mind two of the most important lessons of democratic theory and democratic struggle.  From Juan Linz’s timeless study of The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, we learn the critical importance of avoiding opportunistic behavior that empowers or facilitates the rise of autocracy.  We can identify as authoritarian any rhetorical posture or actual behavior that questions or rejects the legitimacy of the democratic process; that violates the constitution or the rule of law or denies the civil or political rights of political opponents or ethnic or religious minorities; that uses, encourages, or justifies violence in the pursuit of power or political goals; or that violates the political neutrality of the military, the police, or the intelligence agencies.  These are all instances of “democratic disloyalty.” 

But Linz warns equally of the dangers of “semi-loyalty”, the willingness by parties and politicians to excuse, justify, dismiss, or cover up these transgressions against liberal democracy, or to ally with democratically disloyal forces, in the quest for power. So the first lesson is:  No compromises with authoritarianism. 

Second, we learn from the literature on transitions to democracy—and on breakdowns of democracy—the importance of unity among democratic forces.  In the face of authoritarian regimes and authoritarian threats, democrats must put aside their personal, ideological, and programmatic differences and act together to achieve or defend democracy.  Democracy is achieved when splits emerge in an authoritarian regime and democrats forge a strong unified front to exploit them..  Democracy is lost when antidemocratic forces are able to exploit the divisions among democratic parties and politicians, winning cooperation or indulgence from people who should know better but can smell which way the political wind is blowing.  It is hard for a scholar of democracy to issue a blanket condemnation of political opportunism, for if we were to condemn all opportunists, we would not find many politicians left to populate the world’s democracies.  What we must condemn is political opportunism that surrenders not only programmatic principles but the commitment to democracy itself.

It is crucially important to begin with an analysis of the political context.  Efforts to contain illiberal parties and movements confront a number of dilemmas. For example, how should other parties treat an antidemocratic challenger? The essence of liberal democracy is tolerance, but should there be tolerance for intolerance?  Some European democracies, notably Germany and Italy, outlaw the advocacy or organization of explicitly Nazi or Fascist political sentiment.  I have always understood and accepted their reasons for doing so.

All democracies establish legal boundaries that rule out political violence and intimidation, and some may also have tough rules against hate speech.  It is important to enforce the rules vigorously when extremist groups get going and try to build support.  A democratic state should avoid being maneuvered into a trap of repression that makes martyrs of extremists.  So the enforcement of the law should be done in a careful, neutral, and restrained fashion that does not make celebrities out of political thugs.

A second dilemma concerns whether to treat these parties as potential coalition players. It is generally a bad idea to do so—because that is what these parties want, legitimacy.  Of course, where, as in Hungary or Poland, the illiberal party wins an outright parliamentary majority or nearly so, democrats have no choice but to cede power.  But typically, illiberal parties emerge, win a parliamentary foothold, and then try to expand that over time.  This of course is what the Nazis did, in a more extreme game that used authoritarian street tactics as well as electoral politics.  Alternative for Germany is not a Nazi or neo-Nazi party, but its commitment to liberal democracy (or at least that of some of its members) is troubling enough in its ambiguity.  It is much better if a party like that can be kept out of government and marginalized as much as possible.

But here is the dilemma:  In many instances, the easiest way to keep fringe parties out of government is for the establishment parties to join in a center-leaning “grand” coalition spanning from moderate left to moderate right.  In fact, this would seem to be precisely what would be required if we stipulate that democrats should unify in the face of authoritarian threats.  Yet this can be a dangerous choice, because it sets up a polarity in which the parties committed to liberal democracy come to be seen, collectively, as the government, the establishment, leaving the illiberal or potentially authoritarian parties as the only alternative if (and invariably, when) voters decide it is time for change.  This is why grand coalitions are generally a bad idea in the face of illiberal challengers. But if the one of the two larger parties stands outside of government, this places a moral burden on smaller liberal democratic parties to join with a larger one in forming a government and preserving governability.

The near-term national game is of course much different if a party or leader with authoritarian tendencies has won power—as in Hungary and Poland.  Then it is crucial for democrats to recognize, call out and resist early signs of the implementation of the authoritarian playbook.  The near-term game must involve careful scrutiny of these parties and politicians, and vigorous efforts to monitor their rhetoric and behavior, expose corruption or wrongdoing, and challenge illiberal rhetoric and actions.  Generally, these parties gain momentum around the image of a pure and selfless leader who is serving the people while most of the established politicians are corrupt and “betraying the people.”  Often, solid investigative reporting will reveal the hypocrisy in that claim, exposing patterns of crony capitalism if not corruption, and other cynical departures from good governance. 

Opposing populist authoritarianism must also involve trying to figure out and respond to what is driving the surge of support for these actors.  Generally, they appeal to people who see themselves on the vulnerable margins of a cultural, economic and social order that is crumbling.  They tend to concentrate in small towns and rural areas and to see the urban elite as arrogant cosmopolitans who look down on them—the “real” people.  They may be workers who once held secure jobs in factories that offered relatively good wages and benefits.  Now those factories may be gone, or the wages may be too low to live on.  They see a future of economic insecurity and a present of declining economic and social status.  If they are men, their social dominance may once have been unquestioned in the home.  Now it is challenged by a new era of gender equality.  If they are religious or otherwise socially conservative, they see their values being challenged by social movements for LGBT rights, marriage equality, a woman’s right to choose whether to or not to have an abortion, and so on.  They see immigrants coming not just from other countries but from entirely different cultures and religions.  They feel besieged, and they are looking for someone who will restore the old, “natural” order of things.  Someone who will make the country they once knew, the culture in which they had felt comfortable, real again, “great again.” 

How can liberal democrats respond to illiberal cultural complaints, which may contain considerable doses of prejudice against minorities and out-groups?  I do not advocate pandering to prejudice.  But democrats can exhibit respect for and a willingness to listen to the grievances of disaffected groups.  One clear imperative is to bridge the cultural divide.  That is a lesson liberals are learning in the United States:  We must try to understand and show some empathy for social groups who feel they are falling in income and status, who feel that the life they had known is threatened in a variety of ways, and that they are being treated unfairly.  We need to find a new narrative that affirms their worth and dignity while offering a program of economic and social policies that addresses their anxieties and offers them hope of a viable present and a better future, with meaningful work.  We need to think hard about where and how to generate the next generation of jobs that will provide this dignity and generate the revenue for social programs.

It is too simple to say that the answer is: “education.”  We have to ask, what is the content of the education that will renew economic dynamism and help to immunize society against the authoritarian temptation?  In the flat, competitive world we have entered, the economic returns will go disproportionately to those with technical and scientific skills, but also to those with creative and entrepreneurial talent.  So education must prepare people to innovate, to think creatively, and to fill the higher-end jobs that will be created in the new information economy.  There will also be a continuing need for service trades, for health care workers, and for other service jobs.  A long-term national strategy must involve thinking about how the educational system can generate the workers the future will need.

We also need to develop a long-term strategy for civic education.  Across new and old democracies, this now appears to be a glaring deficit.  We cannot assume that a commitment to democracy will develop by osmosis, by simply living and breathing the air of a democratic society.  That was never a safe assumption, but it is a particularly dangerous one in an era rife with cynicism about democratic politics—a cynicism which is now being deliberately fanned by extremist voices on social media, who gain notoriety and social power by being ever more extreme in their cynicism, and by the calculated efforts of Russia to sow democratic division, confusion, alienation, and despair.

Education for democracy should begin at an early age and begin to inculcate the fundamental values of a liberal democratic society:  respect for social and cultural pluralism, and for the fundamental worth and dignity of every human being; tolerance of opposing points of view, and therefore of opposing political preferences and parties as well; hence, a willingness to engage and compromise with opposing views and parties that operate within the spirit of democracy; critical thinking and reasoning, and thus an attitude toward authority that is respectful but also skeptical and questioning; respect for evidence and truth, and therefore for science and the scientific method as fundamental to both democracy and a prosperous, sustainable society; and the skills and habits of active democratic citizenship, including how to participate and advocate for an issue or party without becoming intolerant.  These attitudes and values can be taught directly, but they will only be internalized through practice.  Thus it is not enough for civic education to be taught as a “civics” class.  Democratic principles of pluralism, tolerance and reason must be woven more broadly into the curriculum and must frame the way that the history of one’s own country is presented to the student.  History and social studies classes must honestly confront the painful, undemocratic episodes in a country’s past.  And of course they must help students to understand the structure of their constitutional system, how it works, how it compares with other democracies, and the underlying norms and values that sustain this constitutional system.

Changing the school curriculum is always a politically charged task.  And one of the first things that authoritarian populists do is to reshape the public school curriculum to reflect their own anti-pluralist, authoritarian values and their selective, hyper-nationalistic understanding of the country’s history, which may also soft-pedal or even celebrate authoritarian episodes in the country’s history.  So the best time to fight for curriculum reform, to embed democratic narratives, lessons, and values into schooling, is when democrats are in power, and not wait until authoritarian populists have won power and begun to remake the school system in their image.

Education for democracy cannot only be the task of formal schooling, nor should it only be addressed to young people.  The task of shaping a democratic culture must be taken up by all kinds of cultural entrepreneurs:  musicians, playwrights, filmmakers, essayists, novelists, TV producers, video game producers and social media practitioners of all kinds. 

This raises the larger challenge of how to address the poisoning of the political atmosphere in the age of social media.  Democrats must find effective ways of countering fake news and authoritarian manipulation of social media, including manipulation by Russia and other hostile foreign powers.  They need a strategy and resources, and possible new tools and algorithms, to do so.  Part of this requires very comprehensive and effective monitoring, which also presses Facebook and other social media outlets to remove postings that amount to hate speech or deliberately false information.  But you can’t beat something with nothing.  Democrats need cultural and social content for the Internet age that projects democratic values and the defense of freedom and reason in appealing ways, especially to youth.  A long-term part of an Internet strategy must also train young people to question what they read on the Internet and to develop skills for verifying claims they confront online.  This requires a propensity to search horizontally outside of an article or post, rather than delve more deeply within the downward spiral of a politicized social media group or perspective.

The Outside Game

The authoritarian slide will continue so long as aspiring autocrats perceive no harmful international consequences for their assaults on civil liberties, judicial independence, electoral fairness, and other key pillars of liberal democracy.  It will continue so long as Russia and China have free reign to use money, overt propaganda, and covert manipulation of social media to subvert public opinion and even tilt election campaigns.  And it will continue so long as democratic forces in civil society, the mass media, think tanks, universities, and even political parties in these swing countries feel isolated, besieged, demoralized, and increasingly at risk.

We—democrats in the liberal West—have to fight back.  We have to do so openly, shrewdly, resourcefully, and unapologetically. 

First, under articles 2 and 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, the EU democracies must mobilize real and existential pressure on the backsliding democracies of the East, particularly Hungary and Poland, forcing these governments to choose between their ambition for authoritarian rule and their desire to remain in the European Union, with its substantial economic benefits.  We cannot be sure that they will choose the latter, and certainly Russia will do everything it can to encourage them to choose the former.  But the if the principles of the Treaty of Lisbon are not enforced, then more and more European countries are likely to defect from them.

Second, other forms of pressure should be brought to bear on elected political leaders who violate basic norms of democracy and the rule of law.  This should include diplomatic statements and actions to expose and denounce these violations, symbolic expressions of solidarity with besieged civil society actors seeking to exercise their democratic rights, and where possible, exposure of acts of corruption and money laundering. 

Third, liberal democratic governments and private foundations should substantially increase their financial support for independent organizations and media in Europe’s endangered democracies. Whatever can be done to support intellectual, cultural, and political pluralism in these countries must be done, particularly the work of human rights groups, anti-corruption groups, civic education groups, think tanks, and independent media that are working to monitor and check government abuses and revive the health of democracy.

We must also recognize the transnational nature of this struggle.  Many people—particularly young people—in this region who believe in open societies do not see a future for themselves.  So they are voting with their feet and leaving.  This enhances their individual freedom but it reinforces the downward spiral of their countries.  We need to signal to these young people that they have a future in their own countries, and we will help them fight for it.  In the meantime, we can support them in the diaspora to wage the battle of information and ideas through digital means.

A quarter century ago we really thought that history in a sense had ended, that the ideological struggle over systems of governance was over, and democracy had won.  Now that victory seems fragile and even Pyrrhic.  There is a new war of information and ideas underway, and it is being waged daily and at hyper-speed in cyberspace. We need to develop a new long-term program, a new repertoire of materials, and a new set of tools to promote the old and timeless virtues of democracy and the open society.  We need to support new and authentic cultural voices within each society who want to make the case for these values, even as we diffuse and distill the large body of existing knowledge and writing about democracy.  Like a venture capital firm seeking profit, we need to support a wide range of promising initiatives and tools, because in this fast-paced information environment, we can’t be certain in advance which ones will work. 

The post-Cold War world is over.  We are back to a world where democracy as an idea and as a system of government is contested and on the defensive.  After the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have said, “We must all hang together, or … we shall all hang separately.”  We are not at anything like the fragility of that founding moment, but the principle remains.  Within nations, and among nations, this a perilous time for freedom, and if democrats do not “hang together” they will be imperiled.