The Road Back to Democracy

In his newest book, the Road to Unfreedom, the distinguished historian and leading public intellectual, Timothy Snyder, traces the erosion of democracy from Russia, across Europe to the United States.

While there are of course consequential differences across these cases, there also are common dynamics at work, and strategic borrowing of tactics by those who wish to weaken democratic institutions. These tactics include sowing distrust in the media through creation of false stories and denial of facts, as well as the use of narratives of national victimization to mobilize domestic constituencies and to redefine parameters of global engagement and disengagement.

In his lucent lecture at the University of Oklahoma, Snyder began from the concept of freedom itself. How do we conceptualize freedom?  What is it that we are in danger of losing as we traverse the path from freedom to unfreedom?

At the core of Snyder’s conceptualization of freedom is the notion that we are not free if we cannot imagine alternatives. The notion that the present order is as it must be and will remain has historically been a mechanism through which oppressors have extended domination over the oppressed at little cost.

Resistance does not occur when the oppressed accept the existing order as inevitable – whether because the existing order should be, or because it is as it must be given the overwhelming apparatus undergirding the existing hierarchy.

Professor Snyder’s conceptualization emerges from scholarship deeply immersed in the history of Eastern and East Central Europe.

Unknown.jpegIn his famous 1978 essay, The Power of the Powerless, the Czech playwright Vaclav Havel addressed the way in which the communist dictatorship “lived within a lie” and how, by conforming to the regime’s lies, individuals “fulfill the system,” creating what he called an “auto-totality,” a self-dominating system of oppression.

This notion of domination through an inability to imagine alternatives has broad applicability. In his ingenious essay about colonial rule, Marrakech, George Orwell perceives the role of ideological domination in the maintenance of colonialism; the Senegalese infantry column he observes operates on behalf of France because the soldiers have been taught to internalize their inferiority. (Though Orwell insightfully recognizes this mechanism of domination is bound to crumble, and that the soldiers will eventually turn their guns on their colonial “masters.”)

In his wonderful 1982 book about the dominance of mining companies in Appalachia’s Clear Fork Valley from the late 19th century to the 1970s, Power and Powerlessness, political sociologist John Gaventa documents how the local mining companies control economic resources, the flow and presentation of information in the local press, and the institutions of power, from the courthouse to the police to the city council. The first line of defense of the company’s domination, though, is the miners’ internalized sense of the inevitability of the existing hierarchy. They cannot imagine alternatives.

Lest we shrug off the relevance of this concept for the contemporary United States, Vaclav Havel saw forty years ago that consumer society made us vulnerable to an auto-totality as well, even if one perpetuated through more stealthy methods than communist regimes: “It would appear that the traditional parliamentary democracies can offer no fundamental opposition to the automatism of technological civilization and the industrial-consumer society, for they, too, are being dragged helplessly along by it. People are manipulated in ways that are infinitely more subtle and refined than the brutal methods used in the post-totalitarian societies.”

Havel’s proposal for breaking down the auto-totality was the act of “living within the truth.” Acknowledging truth was the precondition for political action to overcome oppression, beginning by casting off the internalized inevitability of the existing system. Living within the truth, wrote Havel, “is . . . an attempt to regain control over one’s own sense of responsibility.”

The idea of taking responsibility leads us back to Timothy Snyder’s core premise.

The value of Snyder’s work is so enormous because it simultaneously richly reveals historical developments, identifies and illuminates larger historical and transnational patterns at work, AND points toward a means of reclaiming the present. That pathway involves a “politics of responsibility” and a reimagining of the possibility of alternatives.

Havel wrote that “In a democracy, human beings may enjoy many personal freedoms and securities that are unknown to us, but in the end they do them no good, for they too are ultimately victims of the same automatism, and are incapable of defending their concerns about their own identity or preventing their superficialization or transcending concerns about their own personal survival to become proud and responsible members of the polis, making a genuine contribution to the creation of its destiny.”

Vaclav Havel called in “The Power of the Powerless” for citizens of the Czech Republic to “break through the crust of lies” and begin “living in the truth.” Fifteen years later, Havel was president of the Czech Republic. Agency matters.

Like Havel, Snyder calls upon us to contribute to the creation of our political destiny. No doubt, American democracy is under threat – perhaps not as overtly as democracy in Poland or Hungary today, and perhaps resting on stronger institutional foundations than democracies in those countries. But under threat nonetheless.

In our contemporary globalized environment, some Americans have been lulled by what Snyder calls a “politics of inevitability” – the notion that globalization represents a unidirectional march of the market economy, with attendant consequences for the distribution of wealth and power. We are simply along for the ride.

An alternative that has emerged in response identifies enemies within and without as the source of the perceived ills of globalization, and dangerously seeks to remove democratic constraints on the exercise of power in the service of defeating those enemies – the program, in other words, of “American First,” with its direct lineage to the America First Committee founded in 1940 to avoid letting “the Jewish race” drag the United States into World War II.

We seem to be confronted with unpalatable alternatives. We can be passive receptors of the forces of globalization, accepting as inevitable a deepening of economic inequalities and a loss of national policy autonomy. Alternatively, we face a looming authoritarianism that wages war on countervailing sources of power and criticism of the chief executive and empowers an oligarchy in the name of national “greatness.”

But we do not have to live either future.

We have to imagine alternatives.

Doing so involves reclaiming political responsibility by living the truth, supporting credible journalism, limiting our own vulnerability to manipulation via the internet and working to build civic networks.

Such efforts, undertaken by enough of us, can lead us back toward more robust democratic institutions and norms, enabling the country to once again have real debates over policy alternatives to address problems of economic, social, gender and racial inequality.

One thought on “The Road Back to Democracy

  1. The most important words in this are at the end: “enabling the country to once again have real debates over policy alternatives”. Too many seem to be locked into a mindset either for or against the status quo with little real consideration of what might replace the status quo in a way that does not ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’, keeping what’s good (ie beneficial to most humans) in the status quo and finding ways of replacing what is bad.
    Thanks for the follow.


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