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Will the US Help Spread Authoritarianism?

Will the US Help Spread Authoritarianism?

Guest post by Filippo Costa Buranelli

Is the world experiencing an authoritarian backlash? Is democracy receding while authoritarians accrue power, visibility, and legitimacy in international politics?

Signs of authoritarianism can be seen across the globe—great powers such as Russia and China, and influential regional states such as Brazil, India, and Turkey, all display authoritarian traits. Illiberal platforms and parties are on the rise in Europe, as well. A disdain for democratic pluralism, equality of people, immigration, participatory politics, and women’s rights are openly hailed as the right path forward, in what seems to be a truly transnational philosophy.

Academic research calls this “the third wave of autocracy,” and “authoritarian diffusion,” and recent data support this trend: according to Democracy Without Borders, there are 87 democratic states globally compared to 98 a decade ago. “For the first time since 2001, a majority of all states worldwide are no longer under democratic rule,” says the annual Varieties of Democracy report.

In my research on Central Asia, where autocracies have been resilient for the past 30 years, I find that authoritarianism can become normative across countries—that is, it can be seen as appropriate and legitimate—when two mechanisms of socialization are in play: mimicry and praise. The former is the adoption of authoritarian practices from another authoritarian context (e.g., suppression of civil and political rights), while the latter refers to discourse that legitimizes authoritarian governance—for example, congratulating an autocrat for a rigged election.

A question of growing concern is whether the United States is becoming an authoritarian state and whether the US will help to legitimize authoritarianism across the globe.

President Trump and his acolytes have implemented a number of authoritarian practices over the past four years, with an eerie nod to the Eurasian context. The reliance on friends, family members, and members of his business circles to administer the state resembles the neo-patrimonial practices found in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and beyond, where the distinction between the private and the political is blurred. Trump has fostered the rise of a “sultanistic” power structure in the GOP, where the party largely abandons its core principles to support whatever the leader wants. This is evident in the GOP’s decision not to create a 2020 platform. Instead, it confirmed that “the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.” As in Central Asia, the party and the president are closely interdependent.

With voting already underway in the US, Trump has made abundant references to “forces” willing to sabotage the democratic vote; has dismissed the value of pluralism and democratic procedures; and has made real attempts to rig the vote by hampering mail-in voting. Long before voting began, Trump raised doubts about the election’s integrity, and at a campaign rally in Nevada last month, he declared, “the Democrats are trying to rig this election because that’s the only way they’re going to win.”

Pointing to unnamed “third forces” and demonizing the opposition is a classic authoritarian technique. In the case of Tajikistan, for example, the main opposition party has been made illegal. While Trump refers to far-left fascism, Tajikistan’s Rahmon refers to “terrorism,” and Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev, when in power, referred to “extremism” when describing opposition parties.

Trump’s grandiosity and hyperbole also mimic Central Asian leaders. Trump was recently hailed as the “protector” of the American people by the RNC, in an unsettling reference to Turkmen President’s paternalistic and hierarchical title of Arkadag (incidentally, ‘Protector’). Trump’s approach to the media is also similar to what can be found in the Central Asian region as well as other authoritarian contexts—creating personalized, partisan media outlets, and declaring media sources that challenge his views “enemies of the people.”

Praise is the other enabler of the institutionalization of authoritarianism. Admiration for strongmen, authoritarian practices, and illiberal models of governance reinforce the idea that authoritarianism is not taboo—but should be encouraged. Trump has praised Hungary’s Viktor Orbán; the Philippines’ Duterte; Turkey’s Erdogan; and even Kim Jong Un, about whom Trump said in 2018: “[Kim] is the head of a country and I mean he is the strong head… He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.”

Could the US become a true authoritarian state? The federalized US system, where states offer a pivotal check on federal power, might make that possibility unlikely, as Sarah Churchwell recently noted. Moreover, the US is not situated in an authoritarian “regional ecology” as the Central Asian republics are; there is less opportunity for diffusion of authoritarian ideas and practices than in the tightly knitted regional context of Eurasia.

But Trump’s words and deeds are contributing daily to the slow erosion of the democratic international liberal order and to the institutionalization of authoritarianism world widely. Great powers like the US are global role models; their ability to influence the diffusion of practices far exceeds small authoritarian powers like Tajikistan. The Trump administration’s actions can therefore have significant consequences.

Similarities between the increasing illiberalism in the US and the consolidated authoritarian practices in Central Asia have been met with irony and a certain complacency. But the step from complacency and complicity is often very, very short.

Filippo Costa Buranelli is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of St Andrews, UK.

election in Bolivia

election in Bolivia


Bolivians march in support of Evo Morales. Photo courtesy of Santiago Sito.

It’s been more than ten months since Evo Morales resigned as president of Bolivia, in what some called a “postmodern” coup for pressure applied by the military and police that led to his ouster. Now, Luis Arce, former Economics Minister under Morales and member of Morales’ Mas party, is set to win the Bolivian presidential election. Concerns over the fate of Bolivia’s democracy might be quelled temporarily with these new election results, but concerns remain about how the new president will handle inherited problems such as COVID-19 and the economic crisis.

Today we revisit Erica De Bruin’s post from 2019, which explores anti-government protests, Morales’ ouster, and the future of governance in Bolivia.

Coups, Protests, and Violence: What to Expect in Bolivia

Guest post by Erica De Bruin

When Evo Morales resigned from power in Bolivia earlier this month, many hoped it would mean an end to violent protests in the country. But rather than defuse the crisis, Morales’s resignation has been followed by escalating clashes between security forces and civilians. In the most violent incident thus far, security forces fired on pro-Morales protestors on the outskirts of Cochabamba.

Why does violence in Bolivia appear to be ramping up after Morales resigned? Here’s what scholarship on coups and protests can tell us.

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A better world than this is possible

A better world than this is possible

The Republican Choice – “How a party spent decades making itself white.”

“The GOP is a white party advocating for white (rural & suburban) interests. It did not become that way accidentally: it was the result of a long series of deliberate, shameful choices.”[1,2] –@drvox

The political wisdom is ingrained at this point: Black and brown people don’t vote for Republicans. From that principle flows all manner of Republican strategy… The GOP’s whitewashed political reality is no accident — the party has repeatedly chosen to pursue white voters at the cost of others decade after decade. Since the mid-20th century, the Republican Party has flirted with both the morality of greater racial inclusion and its strategic benefits. But time and again, the party’s appeals to white voters have overridden voices calling for a more racially diverse coalition, and Republicans’ relative indifference to the interests of voters of color evolved into outright antagonism.

Racism Is the Biggest Reason the U.S. Safety Net Is So Weak – “Harvard economist Alberto Alesina, who died last [month], found that ethnic divisions made the country less effective at providing public goods.”

“Opponents of redistribution in the United States have regularly used race-based rhetoric to resist left-wing policies… Within the United States, race is the single most important predictor of support for welfare. America’s troubled race relations are clearly a major reason for the absence of an American welfare state.”

[…]

To some, this might seem like a confirmation of right-wing ideas that diversity is bad for a country. But although it might help explain the success of homogenous countries such as Sweden and South Korea, Alesina’s theory is much more subtle than it might appear. As he explained in a 2003 paper, the key isn’t how similar the inhabitants of a country might appear on paper, but how much they see themselves as one people; fractionalization is in the mind, rather than in the genes. That implies that the way forward for the U.S. and other diverse countries, to become more equal and prosperous, is to de-emphasize racial and ethnic divisions and promote a shared identity.

Beyond ‘White Fragility’ – “If you want to let freedom ring, hammer on economic injustice.” (via)

Which brings us back to the present. The activists behind the Black Lives Matter movement have always connected its aims to working-class, egalitarian politics. The platform of the Movement for Black Lives, as it is formally known, includes demands for universal health care, affordable housing, living wage employment and access to education and public transportation. Given the extent to which class shapes black exposure to police violence — it is poor and working class black Americans who are most likely to live in neighborhoods marked by constant police surveillance — calls to defund and dismantle existing police departments are a class demand like any other.

But while the movement can’t help but be about practical concerns, the predominating discourse of belief and intention overshadows those stakes: too much concern with “white fragility” and not enough with wealth inequality. The challenge is to bridge the gap; to show new supporters that there’s far more work to do than changing the way we police; to channel their sympathy into a deeper understanding of the problem at hand.

To put a final point of emphasis on the potential of the moment, I’ll leave you with this. In a 1963 pamphlet called “The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook,” the activist and laborer James Boggs argued for the revolutionary potential of the black struggle for civil rights. “The strength of the Negro cause and its power to shake up the social structure of the nation,” Boggs wrote, “comes from the fact that in the Negro struggle all the questions of human rights and human relationships are posed.” That is because it is a struggle for equality “in production, in consumption, in the community, in the courts, in the schools, in the universities, in transportation, in social activity, in government, and indeed in every sphere of American life.”

“an underappreciated benefit of social democracy is it might diminish people’s incentive to exaggerate and lie for a living. ‘grift’ is a macroeconomic, not just a moral, failing. most people would do better things if they were under less stress and/or knew better things to do.” –@interfluidity

“This is a really great example of the culture around social welfare distribution in the US. A 0.5% error rate of overpayment merits front page headlines. That *20%* of people eligible for food stamps or the EITC don’t receive them is given little heed.” –@pamela_herd

“Still waiting to see a big in-depth news story about how much enhanced unemployment benefits are helping lower wage workers. There are literally millions of people receiving benefits over 100% of their normal income.” –@wsbgnl

“Just a handful of anecdotes via twitter replies of the impact of what @MattBruenig


calls the ‘superdole’ — much bigger unemployment benefits + $1,200 checks — approved by Congress in March” –@JStein_WaPo

“Policy ideas that redefine the rules of the game in order to win are really underrated. Want to increase GDP? Increase the population. Want to end illegal immigration? Make it legal. Want to end poverty? Give everyone money.” –@albrgr

“The 3 rules of pandemic economics: 1. Get families cash, or people will die. 2. Get companies cash, or firms will die. 3. Stop the pandemic, or there will be a lot of death no matter how much cash you spend.” –@DKThomp

COVID-19 Broke the Economy. What If We Don’t Fix It? – “Instead of reopening society for the sake of the economy, what if we continued to work less, buy less, make less—for the sake of the planet?” (via)

“Whenever there’s a crisis, everybody says we have to work more. Actually no, at the moment you want to save the world, work less,” said David Graeber, an American anthropologist and the author of Bullshit Jobs, a book that argues that many jobs that we currently work are meaningless.

As a society, we place moral value on working. “We really do believe that if you’re not out working hard you don’t deserve anything. You’re a bad person,” Graeber said. “But that morality is perversely destroying the planet.”

“in the old class analysis the people workers resent, who boss them and underpay them, are capitalists. @davidgraeber points out that for most workers, it’s managers and professionals who directly boss and underpay, rather problematizing contemporary ‘left’ political parties.”[3] –@interfluidity

America’s Democratic Unraveling – “Countries fail the same way businesses do, gradually and then suddenly.”[4,5] (via)

U.S. institutions were vulnerable to Trump’s attack because public trust had been quietly ebbing away from them for some time. For more than three decades after World War II, growth was not just rapid but broadly shared, at least among whites, enabling most Americans, even those without college degrees, to find good jobs. But instead of spreading those gains even more widely, and cutting African Americans into the American dream, U.S. economic institutions became less inclusive over the last three decades, and politics became more beholden to moneyed interests. Endemic racism persisted, and economic inequality deepened, producing radically disparate outcomes for different groups of Americans. The financial crisis of 2008, and the subsequent bailout for banks, only accelerated the trend toward inequality and deepened distrust in Congress, the judiciary, the Federal Reserve, and regulatory agencies.

Do Protests Even Work? – “It sometimes takes decades to find out.” (via)

So why don’t authorities always ratchet up the repression until people give up? Why do they sometimes give in to protest movements? The key to understanding that is also the key to understanding the true long-term power of social movements. Movements, and their protests, are powerful because they change the minds of people, including those who may not even be participating in them, and they change the lives of their participants.

“I cannot believe that we literally witnessed more progress being made from a week of riots than a decade of electoral politics, we are witnessing massive voter suppression & election rigging in real time and so many of you are STILL on some ‘wait til november…’ shit. GROW UP”[6] –@themermacorn

“Noam Chomsky on the legacy of Bernie Sanders’ campaign: “It’s the constant activism that is reshaping the array of choices, issues, policies. You don’t win by snapping your fingers. Some things work, some things fail, and you pick up and go on from there.” –@jacobinmag

“For the political time junkies – I wrote a long blog post about the possibilities of a Biden ‘reconstructive’ presidency. Hint: it’s about social movements, not just the president.” –@julia_azari

Never The Same – “Things are different now. They started to change in 2008, when Congress and the Federal Reserve threw unprecedented money at the economy to keep it from collapsing. They’ve done it again this year with even more money. Trillions and trillions of dollars. It was a huge debate in 2008. It’s much less controversial today.”[7]

My theory is that once a new kind of stimulus is tasted it becomes a permanent feature of how downturns are handled. This isn’t about the technical details of stimulus. It’s not even about whether you think it works. It’s about the perceptions of struggling people who demand something be done, and their knowledge of what can be done…

I don’t care whether you think those things are right, wrong, moral, or will have ugly consequences. That’s a different topic. All that matters here is that people’s perception of what policymakers are capable of doing when the economy declines has been shifted higher in a huge way. And it’s crazy to think those new expectations won’t impact policymakers’ future decisions.

It’s one thing if people think policymakers don’t have the tools to fight a recession. But now that everyone knows how powerful the tools can be, no politician can say, “There’s nothing we could do.” They can only say, “We chose not to do it.” Which few politicians – on either side – wants to say when people are losing jobs.

The Jobs We Need – “Workers have been left behind as the U.S. economy expanded and chief executive salaries skyrocketed over the last four decades.”[8,9,10,11] (via)

American workers need a raise. But it is not enough to transfer wealth from the rich to the desperate. In confronting the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood that a sustainable improvement in the quality of most American lives required an overhaul of the institutions of government.

“These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America,” Roosevelt said in 1936. “What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power.”

Now as then, the profound inequities of American life are the result of laws written at the behest of the wealthy and public institutions managed in their interest. Now as then, the nation’s economic problems are rooted in political problems. And now as then, the revival of broad prosperity — and the stability of American democracy — require the imposition of limits on the political influence of the wealthy. It requires the government to serve the interests of the governed.

Americans especially need to confront the fact that minorities are disproportionately the victims of economic inequality — the people most often denied the dignity of a decent wage. That inequity is the result of historic and continuing racism, and it should be addressed with the same sense of fierce urgency that has motivated the wave of protests against overt displays of racism.

The Rev. Dr. William Barber II, a civil-rights leader who emphasizes the foundational importance of economic justice, has pointed to the constitution that North Carolina adopted after the Civil War. The document affirms the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But African-Americans were among the state’s legislators for the first time, and the former slaves got another principle enshrined as well: that workers are entitled to “the fruits of their own labor.” They understood that economic security makes other freedoms meaningful.

It is time to ensure that all Americans can share in the nation’s prosperity.

You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument – “The black people I come from were owned by the white people I come from. The white people I come from fought and died for their Lost Cause. And I ask you now, who dares to tell me to celebrate them? Who dares to ask me to accept their mounted pedestals?” (via)

Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the 21st Century

Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the 21st Century

Politics Without Politicians – “The political scientist Hélène Landemore asks, If government is for the people, why can’t the people do the governing?” (via)

Her forthcoming book, due out next year and currently titled “Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the 21st Century,” envisions what true government by mass leadership could look like. Her model is based on the simple idea that, if government by the people is a goal, the people ought to do the governing.

“Open democracy,” Landemore’s coinage, does not center on elections of professional politicians into representative roles. Leadership is instead determined by a method roughly akin to jury duty (not jury selection): every now and then, your number comes up, and you’re obliged to do your civic duty—in this case, to take a seat on a legislative body. For a fixed period, it is your job to work with the other people in the unit to solve problems and direct the nation. When your term is up, you leave office and go back to your normal life and work. “It’s the idea of putting randomly selected citizens into political power, or giving them some sort of political role on a consultative body or a citizens’ assembly,” said Alexander Guerrero, a professor of philosophy at Rutgers who, in 2014, published an influential paper arguing for random selection in place of elections—a system with some precedents in ancient Athens and Renaissance Italy which he dubbed “lottocracy.” (It’s the basis for his own forthcoming book.) In open democracy, Landemore imagines lottocratic rule combined with crowdsourced feedback channels and other measures; the goal is to shift power from the few back to the many.

To many Americans, such a system will seem viscerally alarming—the political equivalent of lending your fragile vintage convertible to the red-eyed, rager-throwing seventeen-year-old down the block. Yet many immediate objections fall away on reflection. Training and qualification: Well, what about them? Backgrounds among American legislators are varied, and members seem to learn well enough on the job. The belief that elections are a skills-proving format? This, too, cancels out, since none of the skills tested in campaigning (fund-raising, glad-handing, ground-gaming, speechmaking) are necessary in a government that fills its ranks by lottery.

Landemore was taken with the unorthodox idea that normal people, in a group, could be trusted with big, scary decisions.

Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the 21st Century with Hélène Landemore – “Hélène’s third book–Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the 21st Century (under contract with Princeton University Press)–develops a new paradigm of democracy in which the exercise of power is as little gated as possible, even as it depends on representative structures to make it possible. In this version of popular rule, power is equally open to all, as opposed to just those who happen to stand out in the eyes of others (as in electoral democracies). The book centrally defends the use of non-electoral yet democratic forms of representation, including ‘lottocratic’, ‘self-selected’, and ‘liquid’ representation.”

also btw…

Continuous elections – “For a variety of reasons, I think it a good idea that we introduce into our voting system a greater element of stochasticism, of structured, intentional randomness.”[1]

We select juries largely by lottery, on the theory that this is a good way to get a representative sample of ones “peers”. There have been a variety of democratic experiments with sortition, simply choosing by lot, picking random names from the phone book. Perhaps overcynically, many of us might consider that an improvement over our present, professional political representation.

I do not favor sortition for the constitution of our legislatures. There is a lot to be said for choosing among representatives who express an interest in and commit to doing the work, and to some kind of voting process that ideally filters for quality. What I do favor is an idea called “lottery voting” or “random ballot”. I really encourage you to read the first link, a very readable academic note by Akhil Reed Amar which introduced the idea. You should also read this essay by David MacIver (ht Bill Mill). In a nutshell, everybody votes in the way they currently do for their preferred candidate. Then we throw the ballots in a big hat, and draw the winner like a bingo hall door prize.[2] You’d never want to use lottery voting to elect a President. Who knows who you might pick? It’d be totally random. But for a large legislature, lottery voting will predictably yield proportional representation along whatever axes or characteristics are salient to voters, not just formal political parties. Further, lottery voting is immune to gerrymandering, and every vote always has equal influence. (This is decidedly untrue of conventional “first-past-the-vote” voting, where the statistical effect of a vote — the difference in the probability of a candidate winning with and without an additional vote — depends very much on the closeness of the election.) There are lots of reasons to love lottery voting, including the conventional case for proportional representation, which I very desperately endorse. (See Matt Yglesias and Lee Drutman.) Not to let the best be the enemy of the good, Id favor American experiments in more common forms of proportional representation (multimember districts, party lists), but lottery voting really is the gold standard. It is simple, effective, resistant to entrenchment of incumbents or capture by political parties. The US House of Representatives should be selected by lottery voting today. At the very least, we should start experimenting in some state houses.