If You Think “The People” Want Freedom and Democracy, Think Again

Silhouettes  of people waving knives during a nighttime riot
Photo by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash

That demagogic cranks emerge, even in healthy societies, is no secret. America’s had scores of them, from Henry Ford and Father Coughlin to Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, and George Wallace. But in How Democracies Die, political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt write, “An essential test for democracies is not whether such figures emerge but whether political leaders, and especially political parties, work to prevent them from gaining power in the first place… political parties are democracy’s gatekeepers.” In some democracies, “political leaders heed the warning signs and ensure that authoritarians remain on the fringes, far from centers of power.” Today in Austria and France, this means teaming with the opposing party, just as Reagan-conservatives George Will and Max Boot urge Republicans to vote straight Democrat in coming elections. It’s the party elites, not the people, that save democracies because too many people are easily conned.

And it’s not difficult. Demagogues are evidence that the political tricks and tools we learn by age seven are the tricks and tools we’re stuck with for life. Recall how Trump responded to Hillary’s prediction-come-true that Trump would be Putin’s “puppet.” With all the creative originality of a seven-year-old, Trump responded, “No puppet, no puppet. You’re the puppet. No, you’re the puppet.” As political scientist Jonathan Rauch notes, “regardless of educational and cognitive firepower,” such lures and our response to them remain just as effective as when we were children. I practice this when I replace Trump with sTupid or recast the GOP as the GOPP (Grand Old Putin Party). Accurate as both are, it infuriates my opposition just as I intended and reveals the reality that both participants know is true, delighting one, infuriating the other. Per Rauch, polarization is not a byproduct of demagoguery, “polarization is the product,” serving “cravings for shared outrage against a common adversary,” or simply to get under that adversary’s skin. And it might even be addictive, says social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, as partisanship gives partisans a chemical hit of dopamine. “Like rats that cannot stop pressing a button,” he says, “partisans may be simply unable to stop believing [and doing] weird things.” Thanks to that lizard lump that caps our spine, we can’t help but be made petty by the petty. As the old saying goes, “When you wrestle with pigs, you’re gonna get muddy.” When it comes to mud wrestling, humans just aren’t that complicated.

This is the sole territory of Right-wing talk radio, TV, and internet. These lie factories are leaders in democracy’s worldwide decline — never solutions, only mud wrestling. Real problem solving requires analysis (yawn), negotiation (what?), compromise (treason!), and constant vigilance required to fix things (zzz… snore) — that’s hard. Poking the brainstem — that’s easy. As George Will said, once a people get in this state, “it’s very hard to un-ring that bell.”

But such is the state we’re in. And from Levitsky and Ziblatt, we see how all those things we thought would keep us safe, won’t. The Constitution won’t save us, nor its institutions; it’s most definitely not the people. Latin American countries and the Philippines made replicas of the U.S. Constitution and structured their governments accordingly, and yet, like 2016 America, they still became authoritarian sanctuaries for half-wits. Laws can be abused in any number of ways, from excessive “letter of the law” to radical “spirit” of the law, either of which can be made to mean anything. There are also many issues that constitutions, including the U.S. Constitution, do not address, in part because it assumed norms of common decency, tolerance, and forbearance. Turns out, that was the secret sauce nobody suspected.

Really?

Norms?

As the authors elaborate, “Institutions alone are not enough to rein in autocrats. Constitutions must be defended… by democratic norms.” It was Thomas Aquinas who argued that norms — matters of social habit — are the most powerful laws we have, superior to written law. “Without robust norms, constitutional checks and balances do not serve as the bulwarks of democracy we imagine them to be. Institutions become political weapons, wielded forcefully by those who control them against those who do not… [Without norms, the] tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy — gradually, subtly, even legally — to kill it.”

With Trump and his GOPP as serial norm-killers, with their Christian ethics replaced by the normalization of immorality, norms and morality are dead on the Trumpian Right. Now that they’re gone, it’s very hard to un-ring that bell. As it took time for the Right to catch up to the relativity of truth promoted by our postmodern Left, it shouldn’t take long for the Left to catch up to the evisceration of norms and the last moral holdout. In part because commencing with our norm-breaking 1960s, the Left was never much for norms to begin with — though some norms, like those opposing civil rights deserved to be broken. Norms — that thin tissue of convention — seem to be the last buttress blocking the fall of unstable humans, almost all of them strangers in global numbers too massive for stability.

With norms gone, there’s no need for old-style takeovers. Today, write Levitsky and Ziblatt, “most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected governments… There are no tanks in the streets. Constitutions and other democratic institutions remain in place. People still vote. Elected autocrats maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance… They may even [portray] efforts to improve democracy… combat corruption or clean up the electoral process.” Sound familiar? Like GOPP state legislatures?

Levitsky and Ziblatt provide the recipe for how this gets started. In every case, the outsider follows a period of social unrest attendant economic calamity. (Never forget bread and circuses.) For each case they examine, from Venezuela’s Chávez and Peru’s Fujimori to Hungary’s Orban and Trump, establishment politicians believed the upstart outsider had no chance of winning. And when he did win, the elites knew they could control him, then didn’t.

“If a charismatic outsider emerges on the scene, gaining popularity as he challenges the old order,” write the authors, “it’s tempting for establishment politicians who feel their control is unraveling to try to co-opt him. If an insider breaks ranks to embrace the insurgent before his rivals do, he can use the outsider’s energy and base to outmaneuver his peers. Then, establishment politicians hope the insurgent can be redirected to support their own program.”

But these insurgent upstarts are of a different psychological type, foreign to the more typical climber inspired by achievement, influence, or fame. Even a casual inspection of those noted, or further back to Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, reveals an ax to grind against some malignant inferiority or loss. Stalin, a victim of his drunken father’s frequent beatings and a carriage accident leaving his left arm disabled; Hitler, another target of his father’s fist, combined with the death of his dream to become an artist; Mao, a serial dropout; Trump, forever striving to show his father he was as worthy as brother Freddy despite Donald’s serial business failures (Trump Shuttle, New Jersey Generals, Taj Mahal, Castle, and Plaza casinos), and never accepted by New York’s old money. As Mary Trump opens her biography of uncle Donald, she quotes Victor Hugo, “If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed.” These insurgent upstarts have infinite wills that run 24/7 in constant need of devouring other souls, striving to light their own. Such types are never corralled, controlled, directed. Their emotions are a chain reaction of almost random, spontaneous eruptions in search of recovery, from what, even they don’t know. When political insiders welcome these mental deformations, the illness is normalized and the insurgent gains credibility in the minds of the people, media, and donor class. “Abdication of political responsibility by existing leaders often marks a nation’s first step toward authoritarianism.”

How Democracies Die was written before Trump’s Big Lie of a “stolen election”—now a canonical litmus test. Though Trump tested the Lie in 2016 as prophylactic for his ego if he lost, just as years before when he claimed the Emmys were rigged because his gameshow didn’t win one. Using the Lie, GOPP state legislatures began to “clean up the electoral process,” rewriting voter laws in 2020, in some cases seeking means to overturn elections if their candidate falls short. As a bit of prophecy, Levitsky and Ziblatt wrote in 2018, “American states, which were once praised by the great jurist Louis Brandeis as ‘laboratories of democracy,’ are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies, and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose.”

While Levitsky and Ziblatt correctly assign the New Right as guilty for America’s slide to fascism, they ignore that the New Right’s political extremism is a response to the New Left’s social extremes: the Sexual Revolution; 60s drug culture; counter-culture hippie movement; authoritarian political correctness; postmodernist dominance of the humanities; leftist segregation of identity politics. The New Left is no more capable of disposing of their hollow “diversity,” “inclusivity,” and “identity” mantras — much as the first two are reasonably desirable — for the unity of an American melting pot than the New Right can claim to be moral, Christian, or Constitutionalists. A sizable fraction of “the people” don’t want freedom and democracy. Instead, the New Right imitates their hero Mao Zedong as “political power grows from the barrel of a gun,” under the guise of gun rights and perversions of the 2nd Amendment paraded in state capitols for purposes of intimidation. And as we’ve seen here before, even Right-wing American “Christians” don’t want their Founder’s process of democratic governance in accord with Christian morality because authoritarian power over liberals matters more. This is tribal war. As our primate relatives prove, there’s only one survivor in this fight.

Buckle up, world. Like Rome, if these Ununited States tumble, they’ll smash everything they fall on. If you thought our response to 9/11 was a cataclysmic screwup, you just wait.

References not linked to above:

Paragraph 1: Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, B/D/W/Y Broadway Books, 2018. “…in the first place…”: Ibid, pg. 7. “…democracy’s gatekeepers.”: Ibid, pg. 20. “…isolate and defeat them.”: Ibid, pg. 20.

Paragraph 8: “…by democratic norms.”: Ibid, pg. 7. “…to kill it.”: Ibid, pg. 7–8.

Paragraph 10: “…clean up the electoral process.”: Ibid, pg. 3.

Paragraph 11: “…their own program.”: Ibid, 15.

Paragraph 12: “…sins will be committed.”: Mary Trump, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, Simon & Schuster, 2020. “…toward authoritarianism.”: Ibid, pg. 19.

Paragraph 13: “…do not lose.”: Ibid, pg. 2.

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Physicist / artist / author writes about science & religion, art & culture, philosophy & politics with an edge. On Medium, Goodreads and TheFatherTrilogy.com

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Brett Alan Williams

Physicist / artist / author writes about science & religion, art & culture, philosophy & politics with an edge. On Medium, Goodreads and TheFatherTrilogy.com