Can It Happen Here?

A continuation from the previous issue of the magazine

Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America

Cass R. Sunstein ed., New York: Dey Street 2018.

Two assumptions of responsibility have been missing from the discussion of post-2016 politics: political responsibility for policy mistakes that led to unintended consequences and moral responsibility for the guilt of nations. In compar- ison, in the aftermath of the far greater tragedy of the Second World War, Western leaders recognized that they made serious economic and political mistakes that deepened the Great Depression and encouraged totalitarian aggression. They devised policies and institutions, the infrastructure of the liberal world order, to preempt a recurrence and prevent the expansion of the form of totalitarianism that survived the War.

Perhaps slowly changing political cultures are destiny. Democracy happens in some places rarely, between economic recessions.

Although philosophers like Karl Jaspers and Benedetto Croce had little to be ashamed of personally, they explored the guilt of their nations to try to understand the moral failure that carried them from Kant to Hitler and from Renaissance humanism to the black shirts. Americans have failed on the whole to face the question of how a nation weaned on the family values of Leave it to Beaver and The Brady Bunch ended up tearing children from their parents and bringing a toddler in front of an immigra- tion judge to answer for his crimes.

Different populisms resent different types of elites that use different methods to block social mobility, but they all grew on the harsh soil of social immobility.

Denial of responsibility assumes two historical inevitabilities. Obviously, the watershed that led to the current political crisis was the economic recession of 2008 and the unemployment, austerity and very slow recovery that followed it. As in the 1930s, this primary cause affected different societies through different paths and to different degrees. But arguably there was no antidote against this economic poison. Secondly, there are disturbing similarities between the map of populism in Europe today and the map of the authoritarian regimes allied with the Axis powers in the Second World War (minus North-Western Germany and plus Poland that was authoritarian but did not ally itself with Hitler), just as there is a similar disturbing similarity between the map of the Confederacy in the American Civil War and the map of states that gave Trump the presidency (minus Virginia plus parts of the Midwest). Authoritarianism may resemble alcoholism. An alcoholic may abstain with great effort and social assistance and pressure when everything goes well, but an alcoholic never stops being addicted. Perhaps slowly changing political cultures are destiny. Democracy happens in some places rarely, between economic recessions.

Alternatively, at the cost of accepting responsibility, it is possible to regain agency.

Stephen Holmes asked why disenchantment with democracy reached a level where few would be left to defend it in the West in the event of a crisis. Tacitly rejecting the exceptionalism thesis, he proposed the confluence of several global processes.

Although rapid economic mobility reached most of humanity in this century for the first time in history, it skipped parts of the developed world. It is difficult to generate mobility under conditions of slow or even negative economic growth. The factor that seems to correlate more sig- nificantly than other economic variables with populism is absence of mobility. Different populisms resent different types of elites that use different methods to block social mobility, but they all grew on the harsh soil of social immobility. Low mobility in some countries did not start with the global recession of 2008, but it exacerbated earlier trends. Holmes noted that the social, geographical and educational segregation of social classes is exacerbated by their voluntary cognitive isolation in monadic information bubbles courtesy of social media.

Political revolutions did not result in social revolutions

In post-Communist countries the political revolutions did not result in social revolutions. The late Communist elite traded its political power for economic power and then used it to affect politics by incorporating politicians of all backgrounds from all political parties. Timid and unreformed judiciaries did not check that power and blocked attempts to institute retributive justice. The Hungarian and Polish populists were credible anti-elitists because they were staunchly anti-Communist and did not seem to have been incorporated by the late Communist elite through corruption like other politicians.

In my opinion, in post-Communist Europe, the judiciary and adjacent legal professions should have been entirely replaced before populist parties finally replaced the judges.

In East Germany, the economically mobile natives immigrated to former West Germany and depopulated cities in the East. Those left behind almost by definition were not mobile. In Italy, negative demographic growth and low rates of migration kept family patronage based senescent social system in place in a system where loyalty trumped merit. In the United States, the elites outsourced elite reproduction, the hoarding of opportunities for their scions, to private universities. American elite universities have attempted to maintain a cognitive dissonance, at once making a claim for being the meritocracy of the best and brightest by encouraging creative research while at the same time maximizing profits by preferring scions of wealthy and well-connected families who pay above the asking price in money and connections.

Lustrations could expand to positions in the economy

The Trump administration demonstrates in many ways the external costs this system imposes on society, not just in generating resentment against “rigged” class structure, isolated elites, and biased expertise, but in the simple fact that the Trump dynasty and its associates, even members who are clearly fluent in no more than half a language, ignorant, and semi-literate, received their entry pass to the American elite from elite private universities. “The system is rigged,” as Trump said. In my opinion, in post-Communist Europe, the judiciary and adjacent legal professions should have been entirely replaced and overhauled by the rapid expansion of law schools and appointments to the judiciary of newly minted lawyers, before populist parties finally replaced the judges, but with another dependent and a politically loyal cadre.

Lustration, the exclusion from elite economic, social and political positions of former employees of the totalitarian secret services, militia, and top officials in the Communist Party could have then been enforced and it would have been possible to expand it to from politics and the civil service further to managerial positions in the economy to open mobility channels to people who were not associated with the Communist elite.

Italy and Austria could have opened up careers to talents even of citizens without political patronage by depoliticizing their state-supported civil and social services. Heavily regulated European labor markets could have been deregulated to allow the absorption of a young, immigrant, and other unprotected workers into the labor market. Universities in the United States could have made the admission process open, transparent and meritocratic or could have been forced to do so by law.

Post-Communist countries went through much worse when they restructured in the 1990s. But then we believed in a credible eschatology that promised convergence with the wealthy West along the proverbial J-curve of economic growth.

The prospects of falling down are too vivid

Even better, radical increases in the sizes of elite universities would have made the selection process less important and reduced the significance of mistakes such as certifying the merit of the Trump dynasty and its associates, by diluting the levels of social exclusion. This is something universities should have accepted not just for the greater social good, but for their own long term enlightened self-interest. Rigorous qualifying exams of professional associations could have opened up channels for proof of excellence to young people who did not have the cash or connec- tions to pay for an elite certificate.

Trump, Silvio Berlusconi, and Andrej Babiš voters are not, however, confused national socialists. They identify with billionaires. Their fantasy is not of an egalitarian utopia, but of becoming successful.

Holmes did not go much into the social rather than economic reasons for stolid social hierarchies. As Holmes argued, the economic explanation for the decline in democracy is insecurity and fear of downward mobility, not egalitarian resentment of inequality. The lower middle classes cannot imagine moving up in immobile economies, but the prospects of falling down are too vivid. Post-Communist countries went through much worse when they restructured in the 1990s. But then we believed in a credible eschatology that promised convergence with the wealthy West along the proverbial J-curve of economic growth.

Cleavage between a nativist underclass and a global mobile class

Holmes’ explanations for the cleavage between a nativist underclass of people who lack geographical or social mobility and a global mobile class (that can come at both ends of the economic spectrum) are not as convincing. He suggested that nativists lost leverage over the elite when conscription and the Cold War ended and the elite did not require the loyalty of the lower classes. Democracies with conscription were not spared, however, the class cleavage and the consequent rise of populism. To take opposite examples, the current Israeli government recently adopted many of the populist themes that dominate East-Central European politics, attacks on the judiciary, scorn for educated cosmopolitan elites, and disrespect of the rights of the Arab minorities and African immigrants, albeit without gerrymandering.

In Switzerland, the populist Swiss People’s Party is the largest party with 30% of the votes. Citizen workers, claimed Holmes, lost their bargaining position with the elites due to automation and outsourcing. This may be true for American blue-collar workers, but in post-Communist Europe, blue-collar workers gained bargaining powers. They did, however, start comparing themselves to German workers and lost patience waiting for their salaries to converge. Holmes was right that ordinary citizens lost their leverage over elected elites. If all competing political elites are self-serving and unconcerned with the interests of ordinary people, there is no reason for them to vote except to protest.

As much as the Spanish Civil War was a general rehearsal for the Second World War, the Russian interventions in Europe’s politics was a general rehearsal for the Russian intervention in the elections in the Western core.

Neither a democratic voice nor a geographic exit

Holmes retreated from his important insight that populists are not egalitarians, in attributing populism to frustration from lack of control over the “puppet masters of global finance” like the managers of Goldman Sacks who cannot be voted out of office. Steve Bannon, a disgruntled former employee of Goldman’s, attempted to use this theme towards the end of the presidential campaign, and such themes are traditional in the Euro-pean far right where they merge sometimes with anti-Semitism. Trump, Silvio Berlusconi, and Andrej Babiš voters are not, however, confused national socialists. They identify with billionaires. Their fantasy is not of an egalitarian utopia, a kibbutz with Bernie and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, but of becoming successful in a fantasy unreal show like The Apprentice and joining Trump at the top of the tower. The political significance of The Apprentice and its international franchises as launching platforms for political careers demonstrates that the utopia of these voters is to work under a tough but fair boss who rewards merit and hard work with mobility. They want to join rather than hang the international capitalists.

Holmes explained that those who have neither a democratic voice nor a geographic exit resent perceived elites that have both. This creates an opportunity for demagogues to exploit the resentment. The obvious question is why do the natives fall for obvious crooks who capture the state to steal it? Holmes’ answer was the demagogic constant distraction that augments and plays on the pathological passions of voters, xenophobia and resentment of elites and technocratic regulatory institutions. These distractions are particularly ridiculous in Eastern Europe where there is no immigration but massive emigration to other EU countries that in turn caused Brexit in countries that are net recipients of EU funds.

An arduous task to restore the Western alliance

The missing theme of responsibility and agency is most salient in the article by Samantha Powers, Obama’s last ambassador to the United Nations. Powers recounts the history of Russian interferences in elections through disinformation, leading to the intervention in 2016, probably the most successful disinformation campaign since the Second World War and the most cost-effective disinformation operation in history. The article misses, however, an analysis of the failures of the Obama administration to understand Russia and its mixed warfare and covert disinformation tactics. It also failed to evaluate correctly the level of threat and then preempt it. The article lacks an appreciation of the critical mistake of retreating from Europe that allowed the Russians to fill in the vacuum and develop and refine their tradecraft of backing radical anti-liberal movements from all the political extremes irrespective of ideology to break down the Western democratic alliances and magnify internal cleavages within and between European countries.

Viktor Orbán’s second victory in 2010 and the democratic backslide that followed, Miloš Zeman’s election as Czech president as a populist with Russian backing in 2013, and the financial support of Russia to extremist parties such as the French National Front, took place not just without U.S intervention, but with marked U.S. disinterest. As much as the Spanish Civil War was a general rehearsal for the Second World War, the Russian interventions in Europe’s politics during Putin’s second term as president was a general rehearsal for the Russian intervention in the elections in the Western core. The whole adventure must have cost the Russians a few million euros. The United States could have afforded to more than match it by supporting opposite political forces, from the centre-right to the centre-left. It could have also put pressure on Orbán’s patrons in Bavaria to stop protecting Hungary from EU sanctions. There is no need to go into what the CIA and the NSA could have done with their covert capacities and resources. The story that Powers tells has only a single active agent that employs active measures.

It is still early for a political theoretical analysis of the “it” that happened. Yet, it is impossible to overestimate the importance of such an analysis. Even if this unfortunate episode in American history passes by 2020, a new American administration will face a fractured nation and international alliances. Restoring the republic and reconstructing the Western alliance facing Russia and its anti-democratic fifth columns will be arduous and gruelling tasks. Without understanding the mistakes that brought us here, it will be impossible not to repeat them.

Aviezer Tucker

is the author of The Legacies of Totalitarianism (Cambridge University Press 2015), A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography (Boston: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) and The Philosophy and Politics of Czech Dissidence: From Patocka to Havel (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 2000).

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Saving Europe?

Judging from the recent election to the EP, Europe seems to be increasingly fragmented. However, Czechs and Slovaks, the two most Eurosceptic nations in Europe, elected the two most pro-European delegations to the European Parliament in the region. Perhaps we should not panic.

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