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Twilight of Democracy

The irony that lies at the core of liberal democracy is this: to be true to its core values, it must tolerate those who would destroy it.
democracy

The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism

In these grim times, we on the Left are obsessed with the danger to democracy posed by the racist authoritarianism of our current president. While we are barely a month from the election when we hope and expect to defeat him, he gives us cause to worry whether he will respect an adverse result, whether he will contrive to suppress enough votes to let him win, whether he will unleash his Radical Right militias to seize control of the streets. Or maybe he will just contrive to so tangle the process of vote-counting as to throw the election into the House of Representatives—or the Supreme Court with a new conservative super-majority.

As we lie awake at night with all these worries, we are accustomed, at best, to hearing our conservative friends telling us that we worry too much, it’s not as bad as that. By “conservative friends” I mean people who really have no use for Trump but who don’t see him as an existential threat.

Finally we have a thoughtful little book by Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Applebaum, a charter member of the trans-Atlantic Conservative Club, calling our attention to the worrisome emergence of an anti-democratic, populist Right on both sides of the Pond. Starting with the rise of the populist Law and Justice Party in Poland (where she sometimes lives), she also documents the authoritarianism of Victor Orbán in Hungary, and looks in less depth at similar movements in France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe that have yet to win state power. She looks in depth at the Brexiteers in the UK (she knows them all). And of course she deals with Trump in some detail.

The irony that lies at the core of liberal democracy is this: to be true to its core values, it must tolerate those who would destroy it.

What concerns her about all these cases is the emergence of movements that use democratic elections to mobilize their followings and win power, but which are fundamentally contemptuous of the values and institutions of democracy, including political equality for all, regardless of race or ethnicity. She worries about the rise of racism, antisemitism and xenophobia. 

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As she has lost friends on the right to these populist, antidemocratic movements, she has made new ones, in both Europe and America, on the Center-Left. Rather than competing with the Center-Left for power, she has become part of a coalition to defend democracy from its enemies on the Far Right.

The values the Center-Right and Center-Left share amount to what we call liberal democracy: individual liberty, a free press, honest and competitive elections, a government of laws, not of men. These are values the illiberal Radical Right rejects, unless they can prostitute them to gain power.

The democracy that Applebaum took for granted as an arena for competition is in fact fragile and contingent. Democracy cannot be merely a neutral vessel for competition for power. If it is to persist, democracy needs both elites and masses to be committed to the liberal values that underpin it.

impeachment unavoidable

The irony that lies at the core of liberal democracy is this: to be true to its core values, it must tolerate those who would destroy it, even allowing them to win power. We in the United States are now suffering the consequences. Perhaps we will succeed in reestablishing the old liberal democratic consensus—or perhaps not.

Applebaum invites us to join the struggle.

John Peeler