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.

American Democracy on Slow Boil

Last week I promised a post about investments in job training and apprenticeships as an alternative to protectionism, with plans to draw on the example of Germany. With apologies for delaying that post, this past week’s political events compel me to address the fraught state of American democracy.

bring-to-boil.jpgThe catalyst for this shift was my experience listening to news on my drive home from work this Wednesday evening.

Acutely aware of the disastrous state of American politics, the tenor of an NPR segment clarified for me the urgency of addressing the danger at hand. NPR does a commendable job of pursuing political neutrality in a media environment rife with partisan outlets catering to motivated audiences in a deeply divided polity. But is “political neutrality” appropriate in the face of a sustained assault on democratic institutions? Is it “politically neutral” to treat abnormal politics as a version of normality?

In this instance, the “Week in Politics” segment of All Things Considered was reporting on the relentless staff changes in the administration and the rumors of more to come.

The show has increasingly inclined toward playing clips of the current occupant of the White House and his Press Secretary, allowing those voices to speak for themselves. Fair enough.

But informed listeners know with certainty that in hearing these clips they are listening to falsehoods. What happens next on the show – the response to lies — is therefore of great consequence.

After airing a statement from the Press Secretary that was entirely and obviously evasive in response to a direct question, host Ari Shapiro, a skilled professional whom I admire, asked the guest, Mary Katharine Ham, senior writer at The Federalist, the following: “Mary Katharine, how do you think this turmoil affects President Trump’s agenda?”

The response: “Look; the Trump White House does operate differently just as the Trump Organization operates differently. This is how he likes to manage, and I’m not sure it’s that effective.”

There are two fundamental and worrisome problems raised by this exchange. First, the question Shapiro asks implies that the prime victim of the White House pandemonium is its own policy agenda.

Shouldn’t we instead be asking about the consequences of bedlam for American governance, democracy and institutions? By many accounts, in fact, chaos IS the agenda of this administration.

Second, the response from Mary Katharine Ham – not surprising given The Federalist’s libertarian political leanings – treats mayhem as a legitimate management style, albeit one of questionable effectiveness. Boston Herald reporter Kimberly Atkins added of the chaotic management of the White House occupant, “it is how he enjoys it. I think he is fine with this setup even if the people around him are kind of flailing in this chaos.”

We know that executive appointees serve “at the pleasure of the president;” here we have a perversion of this theme in which the executive branch is for the pleasure of the president.

As for the “Week in Politics” program, in pursuing this discussion, NPR becomes a participant in our national reality show, a sort of Talking Dead of the American political scene; a chatty show about the show. The challenge to democratic institutions is urgent, and we need something more from NPR.

In this instance the program, as with much (certainly not all) of the contemporary media, inadvertently participates in the degradation of American democracy by analyzing the disasters of the current administration from within its internal logic. Once we step into this logic, “It’s what the president likes” and “It’s what he said he would do” become viable analyses of behavior that imposes tremendous damage on national unity, policy coherence and the global standing of the United States.

Only by stepping outside the administration’s aberrant logic can we foster the political accountability required for a thriving democratic society.

In a 2017 article in the journal Political Science Quarterlyauthors Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Doron Taussig offer an analysis of the “rhetorical signature” of the current occupant of the White House. They find that this style includes “seeming spontaneity laced with Manichean, evidence-flouting, accountability-dodging, and institution-disdaining claims.”

Additionally, the signature “dismisses uncongenial evidence from institutionalized custodians of knowledge” and “rejects conventional standards of accountability.” Finally, the rhetorical signature “questions the integrity of democratic institutions, some of which” (electoral system, courts, the media) “can hold a president accountable for abuse of power or misuse of evidence . . .”

If we normalize these rhetorical and management styles, we subvert democratic accountability and institutional integrity.

As Yale historian Tim Snyder reminds us in On Tyrannyhis caution to contemporary democracies from the lessons of history, “Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after another unless each is defended from the beginning.”

Many citizens who are deeply critical of the current administration – and worried about the direction of the American polity – await the November 2018 Congressional elections and express hope that this will be the moment to put American democracy back on course. Is this patience in awaiting the electoral means to check an administration with accelerating authoritarian tendencies an indicator of the strength of American democracy –or of its fragility?

We know that there have been efforts by the current administration to limit democratic participation, such as the recently disbanded electoral commission headed by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, which began from the premise that the U.S. electoral system is plagued by voter fraud.

Although faced with numerous legal challenges and harboring claims that have not stood up well to scrutiny in a recent federal court hearing of a challenge to a 2013 Kansas proof of citizenship voting law, the work of the commission may well be picked up by other components of the current administration, such as the Department of Homeland Security.

American democracy is on slow boil; the result may be democratic evaporation.

Raising the alarm in On Tyranny, Tim Snyder points out that Russians who voted in 1990 “did not think that this would be the last free and fair election in their country’s history, which (thus far) it has been. Any election can be the last . . . ”

Indeed, asserting that “it can’t happen here,” Snyder warns regarding the failing of democracy, “is the first step toward disaster.”