August 22, 2020

Democracy: The Most Fragile, Vulnerable, and Short-Lived System of Governance.

by Hal Gershowitz

Comments Below

As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author, and historian Anne Applebaum observes in her sobering new book Twilight of Democracy—The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, “given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.” This is not fear-mongering by a reckless provocateur. Anne Applebaum is of self-described center-right persuasion, careful in her formulation of thought, gifted in her faculty to communicate, and one of the most respected political observers of our time.

Democracies never simply fade away. Instead, they are often crushed by the sweep of historical events or the plotting of authoritarian opportunists or scheming malcontents. One needn’t search far back into history to grasp how easily the light of democracy can be extinguished. Sadly, examples abound in our own 21st century. Russia had its moment of democracy; so did Poland, and Hungry, among many other nations. Democracy seemed on the march, to have risen at least temporarily from the rubble of oppressive totalitarian regimes.  History has demonstrated time and time again, however, that democracy is not a final civic achievement but rather, often, a much-too-temporary choice that societies sometimes embrace and, often, squander, discard, or have stolen.

Authoritarianism is neither dominated by the left-wing nor right-wing, neither liberal nor conservative, neither upper class nor lower class, neither rich nor poor. It is, Applebaum observes, a state of mind, not a set of ideas.

When people yearn for simplicity rather than complexity, similarity rather than plurality, ordered direction rather than raucous debate, and peace-and-quiet in the presence of lawless rioting, arson, and looting, authoritarianism awaits in the wings ready to accommodate.

Conspiracy theories also abound whenever and wherever authoritarians make their grab for power. Vladimir Putin is a master at stoking conspiracy fires. He, like President Trump and other authoritarian personalities, will give credence to a conspiracy theory by, in effect, answering questions about a particular theory with, “Yes, I’ve heard that too, or that’s what a lot of people say or think.”

When a worker from Novosibirsk asked Putin if he believed then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had suggested splitting Russia into several regions under international control, Putin answered that while he hadn’t heard it directly from Secretary Albright, he believed these ideas were prevalent in the minds of Western politicians. Ilya Yablokov of the University of Leeds notes that everything bad that happens in Russia is traced back by someone in authority to an anti-Russian plot hatched in the West.

Applebaum writes about the impact in Poland of the so-called Smolensk conspiracy theory. The small community of Smolensk hosts a marginal landing strip at which the then-President of Poland, Lech Kaczynski, and his party were to land on their way to commemorate the Katyn massacres in which Josef Stalin, in 1940, murdered twenty-one thousand Polish officers. The plane crashed as it approached in dense fog, killing all on board.  The black-box cockpit recordings provide incontrovertible proof that senior military officers urged the pilot to land rather than diverting to an alternate airport. The President’s identical twin brother, then Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, while no-doubt grief-stricken, nonetheless, stoked the utterly disproven Smolensk conspiracy theory. He asserted that his brother died at the hands of outside forces and rode the controversy into the Presidency as the head of the ultra-right Law and Justice Party.

Similarly, Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungry, has cultivated conspiracy theories to tighten his grip on the government since regaining power in 2010. Central to his conspiracy drumbeat has been the demonization of Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist George Soros. Because Soros generously supports liberal causes and pro-democracy movements, including in Hungry, Viktor Orban has attacked him relentlessly. Right-wing social media trolls here in the United States walk in lock-step with the European strongman in attacking Soros, most famously by alleging that he has funded immigrant caravans from Honduras to the United States. Many on the far right accept as an article of faith that Soros, a billionaire capitalist, schemes relentlessly against the United States.  When pressed to be specific about their grievances with Soros, his detractors invariably repeat one of many debunked conspiracy theories about him.

Conspiracy theories are, of course, alive and thriving in the United States too — birtherism, deep-state lore, the so-called Coronavirus hoax, and our President giving a nod to QAnon conspiracy followers. One could pass all of this off as election-year hyperbole. Still, it is incredibly toxic to our democracy, divisive to our sense of national purpose and unprecedented in our history.

Democracy in America is not vouched safe by anything more than a national reverence for the republic. As Benjamin Franklin proclaimed on the steps of Independence Hall 233 years ago, “you have a republic, if you can keep it.” As Ann Applebaum eloquently warns, keeping it is far from certain.

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20 responses to “Democracy: The Most Fragile, Vulnerable, and Short-Lived System of Governance.”

  1. Steve Hardy says:

    Conspiracies and scapegoating are not unique to either side of the political spectrum. The right has Soros, the left have the Koch brothers and both have China.

  2. Response to Mr. Hardy: Agree totally. As the essay states, “Authoritarianism is neither dominated by the left-wing nor right-wing, neither liberal nor conservative, neither upper class nor lower class, neither rich nor poor.” It is a state of mind, not a set of ideas.

  3. Bruce Olson says:

    Would Trump enjoy an Authoritarianism form of government?
    You bet he would! Heck, he would love to wear a crown and be addressed as King. But the likelihood of our democracy turning authoritarian is about as likely as it becoming a monarchy.

    What I am seriously worried about is that it will become yet another failed attempt at socialism or even worse! The young progressives today truly believe in the evils of capitalism and wealth. A Socialist form of government dictates control over the economy and redistributes the wealth until…..there is none left.
    It is painfully obvious that the Progressives have Biden’s ear.

    I am embarrassed by Trump, almost daily, but this election is not about a choice between him and Biden. I wish it was, but we are left with two extremely disappointing choices…both candidates have so many deficiencies and character flaws that used to disqualify a candidate. Today, we turn a blind eye to their deceit and dishonesty.

    No, this election is not about the men who would be president.
    It is about…
    ……an economically stable, safe, secure America. It is about world peace (when has the Middle East been this stable?). It’s about better trade deals with Mexico, Canada, China and the rest of the world. It’s about paying nothing more than our fair share to NATO, The UN and subsidies to other countries.
    Socialism at a minimum…with some Marxist beliefs throw in (Obama thinks Cuba is a great neighbor! Just ask a Cuban refugee). It is about economic and political chaos, late term abortions, open borders and free healthcare for all incuding illegal immigrants. Calling for defunding police while attacking the 2nd Amendment (although assault rifles should be banned). It is about outrageous taxes (I do not mind paying a higher income tax of 39.6% or more, but I think that it is terribly duplicative to pay 40% or more on estate taxes on funds that were already taxed once). It’s about those sanctuary cities where criminal illegals can escape prosecution versus ICE recently arresting 1,378 MS-13 gang members.

    Trump is an egotistical, delusional blabbermouth who does not possess the common sense of a bloat fish. He is not just tone deaf, but absolutely self-absorbed in his power trip. He does not listen to his advisors nor does he even realize when he makes ridiculous erroneous claims, embarrassing comments and admit that he makes mistakes. This is plainly evident in all of the polls which clearly show that he is behind his numbers from four years ago.

    He is handing this country over to not just liberals and socialists, who will allow anarchists and criminals to run wild.

    I am terribly concerned about the safety, security and social conditions not to mention the future financial stability for my children and grand children.

  4. sheila says:

    This is one of the most brilliant essays you’ve written Hal, as it reflects the deep fears that so many of us share at this moment in time. I sincerely hope it shakes your Trump-supporting readers out of their complacency. Our country is in danger, and the fragility of our democracy is evident every day.

    At the top of your essay, you explained Applebaum’s thesis that any society can turn against democracy and that most eventually will. We are now witnessing her reflections in real-time. Trump and his enablers have broken our system. We are left with a President that has waged a constant assault on truth and facts and on our democratic institutions. He has shown utter contempt for the separation of powers, for the rule of law, for free and fair elections, and for any concept of our country as a beacon of freedom throughout the world. Our Constitutional stopgaps have failed –and this President has been given strong license by the Republican Senate to operate freely, without checks. This President says he wants 2 or 3 more terms — he says alternately that he wants to delay the election, or that there may have to be an election “do-over” if he loses in a “rigged” mail-in election. I believe him.

    We are now at a precipice – Def Con 5 — and we have one remedy left– we have the vote on November 3. if we want to put the brakes on this last terrifying plunge off the cliff, we have one choice – and let’s hope (and pray) we get this right.

  5. James Fisher says:

    Hal, I am struggling to accept your premise that … “When people yearn for … peace-and-quiet in the presence of lawless rioting, arson, and looting, authoritarianism awaits in the wings ready to accommodate.”

    Aren’t you condoning the ongoing rioting and violence in Portland and other major American cities? And aren’t you siding with anarchy rather than law and order?

    How is maintaining the rule of law in such a chaotic and dangerous situation a bad thing? As a civilized nation don’t we have the absolute right to expect government to maintain peace and quiet in our society?

  6. Response to James Fisher: Of course not! Quite the contrary, and my commentary has been consistent in criticizing those who condone lawlessness, looting and rioting. My observation that unchecked lawlessness promotes authoritarianism isn’t an endorsement of lawlessness. It’s simply a fact.

  7. sjgw says:

    Bruce Olson- to say that Biden and Harris would allow anarchists and criminals to run wild is forgive me, hyperbole in the extreme. First of all, neither Biden nor Harris is a Marxist. Biden is a centrist Democrat with centrist values, and Harris is a liberal, who as AG for California, believed strongly in law and order!

    You are referring, I assume, to the looting and lawlessness in Chicago and Portland, which I agree are tragedies that must be stopped. Anyone looting or breaking the law should be arrested, without question. But you are forgetting how these riots began. The BLM demonstrations were peaceful to begin with and there is evidence that they were infiltrated by white supremacists for the purpose of inciting violence.

    This is not in any way to excuse the BLM participation in the violence, as I am as appalled at the unchecked looting as you are. But it is not the fault of Biden/Harris or the Democrats. It is the product of a system in which the President feels that white nationalists/neo-Nazis are “very fine people”. These riots, as much as I hate them, are forged in hopelessness and pain and finally, in rage at the treatment of African-Americans by law enforcement in this Administration.

    I agree, the rioting must be stopped – but Trump’s version of law and order is to tear gas peaceful protesters and to drag people away in unmarked vans. Is this what you want for your grandchildren?

    Bring back our rule of law that applies to every person equally, including the President, whether it is applied to demonstrations and rioting, America’s place in the international community, or personal income taxes. And elect officials – Democrat and Republican, who are beholden only to our Constitution, who will enforce the laws. That is the only way we will all be safe.

  8. sprover says:

    Bruce Olson: I was astonished to read your recitation of Fox News and other right wing publishers/broadcasters talking point without a shred of evidence that Biden/Harris or any responsible Democrats would bring about a country illustrated by your hyperbolic histrionic recitation… Socialism is essentially a political phiulosophy in which the government controls the means of production. Can you cite one Democrat who advocates this? Communism (Marxist/Leninism) is a form of government in which there is no private property… The state owns/controls everything…. Defunding the police is essentially a slogan with virtually no supporters except a rabid hyper verbal tiny minority; but it does provide the right wing with a, valuable and powerful ad hominem attack piece with which to divert attention away from them current toxic administration ….. Are you really concerned that late term abortions will undermine our country…. Late term abortions are so very rare as to be practically non existent…. You are using these tired, exaggerated products of right wing broadcasters and publishers to rationalize supporting one of the most corrupt, chaotic and inept administrations to ever walk the floors of the White House.. Let your heart not be troubled… a Democratic Administration/ Congress will actually guard against all these articulated fears albeit based in partisan fantasy and or paranoia…

  9. Stuart Goldfine says:

    Reply to SJGW. What world do you live in? Kamala Harris has changed her views and wants to defund the police; her CA views are not valid anymore. How does defunding the police help those lawful citizens?
    Lawlessness in Minneapolis, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, etc. was not caused by white supremacists. Portland has been rioting for 90 days already and all that I see are looters, destroying public and private property and no white supremasists on the street.
    Why are blacks in such a hopeless state. They have had 50 years of pure Democratic rule in every major metropolitan city and it has failed with all their social programs. Promises by Democrats every election, but false hopes.
    More blacks, and whites, were working in America before the pandemic from China.
    Building the wall with Mexico has certainly stopped the illegal migration of aliens, slowed the narcotic traffic, and human trafficking. Trump destroyed ISIS, neutralized North Korea, new NAFTA treaty, new treaty in the Middle East, confronting China, and trying to strangle Iran economically. China is a big problem and we need to try to bring more jobs to America and give American countries more incentive to return to American soil. No President has ever tried to work on the Chinese problem.
    Trump is bombastic, a narcissist, does needless Twitters, but he is a strong leader and the Silent Majority is still with him. No President has been perfect, but I feel he is strong and good for America and capitalism.

  10. sprover says:

    Stuart Goldfine: Please where has Harris promoted defunding the police it has not happened…
    Blacks are not in a hopeless state… They are protesting as are many whites…
    You always return to these sweeping generalizations that bear some but very little relationship to the condition of this country were SJGW resides… I believe…
    What Wall? So far portions of the wall that have been is disrepair have rehabilitated… There is virtually no new wall…
    Trump has not neutralized North Korea…
    What are your sources? Breitbart? Alex Jones? the Tooth Fairy?

  11. Bruce J Olson says:

    SPROVER and sjgw: I respect your opinions and will not attack your viewpoints as you did mine. I will, however, politely point
    out a few facts to respond to your assertions:

    THREE members of the U. S. House that are admitted Democratic Socialists of America. There are many more with socialist ideology.

    Danny K. Davis Illinois IL-7 since 1997
    Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez New York NY-14 since 2019
    Rashida Tlaib Michigan MI-13 since 2019

    SProver said, “Defunding the police is essentially a slogan with virtually no supporters…”
    Forbes, Axios, WSJ and Bloomberg all report that there has been between 13-18 cities that have already voted to actually defund the police budgets by some percentage.

    sjgw: Regarding Crime….The NYT, WSJ, Forbes (Aug 4 issue), VOX and virtually all other media report that while some crimes are down, the murder rate is up a shocking 23% in the top 23 cities with populations over 250,000. Do you believe that “white supremacists also infiltrated these cities for the purpose of inciting violence”? Of course, you do not, as I do not believe that they incited riots or looting for political purposes.

    If you re-read my comments, you will clearly note that I am NOT a Trump fan at all, but I am a conservative with many centrist beliefs. I never called Biden or Harris Marxists, but they are not centrists either. I, for one, do not want more socialists like Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Bernie elected to Congress.

    God Bless America. He knows we need it!

  12. James Fisher says:

    Good response Bruce – you demonstrate great restraint against those who always lower the discourse by resorting to name-calling. Thanks for your factual perspectives.

  13. sjgw says:

    Stuart Goldfine, after the tragic murders of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor and other African Americans in the last few years, I don’t think anyone would argue the point that law enforcement in our country desperately needs education and reform, but please cite one source that documents a Kamala Harris recommendation that our streets should be lawless and without police protection. I don’t think you will find it. As I said above, I feel that rioting and looting should not be tolerated – and I believe that anyone who breaks the law should be arrested. But the problem of police violence toward persons of color is systemic and arises from widespread and deeply inculcated attitudes that are tacitly condoned by some of the law enforcement agencies in our country – and frankly, attitudes that come from the top — mightily exacerbated by our President who by his own admission is a white nationalist.

    Second, the Wall: The Wall is an abomination – Trump has hijacked multi-millions from the military budget along with taxpayer funds for this sorry structure (as we know, Mexico has REFUSED to pay for it) which to this day has only a few new miles built, some of which blew down in the last hurricane. In truth, this Wall has been more of an albatross than a showpiece for this President. If nothing else, it reveals the abject cruelty of a deranged and sadistic man who is subjecting the entire country to his (and Stephen Miller’s) xenophobic fantasies. The fact is that by far, the vast majority of immigrants are ordinary people who are fleeing threats from local gangs, drug cartels, domestic violence, and other life-threatening situations. At great personal risk, they have attempted to cross our border to seek a better life for themselves and their children. The incarceration of innocent people in chain-link cages, the permanent separation of children and babies from their parents is nothing less than monstrous. I really don’t think you begin to comprehend the human toll of this aberration.

    As for the wall as a barrier to human trafficking, Trump spews garbage he knows nothing about in an attempt to gather support for the wall. I have not been able to find any recent statistics from reliable sources on the reduction of trafficking due to the wall, but the global and local organizations insist that the wall will not reduce the incidence of trafficking because very few people are actually trafficked over the border.

    I could go on and on about your other points: ISIS is reportedly rebuilding a stronger force than before,

    The impact of Trump’s trade agreement with Mexico and Canada remains to be seen, with the primary benefit appearing to open Canada’s dairy farming markets to US farmers:

    See this article for Trump’s impact on trade: and see this article for information on Trump’s failed policy with China:

    Finally, where are you getting your information on North Korea? Last I heard, Kim is in a coma – possibly COVID related, and his sister is poised to take over the ruling of the country. But even in June of this year, North Korea was anything but neutralized.

    But the real question of the hour is, do you believe in the rule of law and in the concept of our republic based on our Constitution? Or alternatively, read Hal’s essay above and read it carefully, because that’s what we’re in for with four more (or eight or twelve) years of the current WH occupant. The choice in this election is clear as day and there is only one team that will lift us out of the lawless and self-dealing morass that this President has created.

  14. Stephen Prover says:

    Bruce Olsen: You name three Democrats who “admit” to Fostering DEMOCRATIC socialist principals. You make it sound like these principles such as universal health care , immigration reform and climate control are principles about which to be ashamed. The US has long proudly had socialistic programs such as Medicare and social security. If I provide names of three incoming Republican congressman who prominently campaigned on their belief that prominent democrats are pedophiles, satan worshippers and consumers of children’s flesh operating out of a Washington DC piazza parlor would that persuade you not to vote for Trump who supports these lunatics and their conspiracy theories. Whom do you fear more the so called socialists or delusional deep state pedophile exposers.
    Yes. A few cities have repurposed some of the money budgeted for police services. I think one misguided council did vote to “defund” and is trying to reorganize or reform their dysfunctional police. This is hardly the dystopian country you seem to fear.
    You seem to dislike Trump but slavishly repeat all his exaggerated accomplishments and ignore his all historic failures during this pandemic and with international relations. I wonder how our independent farmers feel feel about his “success” with the Chinese. Moreover Trump does not have one legislative success. Check it out.
    Again I am accused of name calling. I apologize for any true pejoratives I may have used. However , I maintain that truth is a complete defense.
    A true conservative could never support this administration
    Actually Bruce we have met. I have no animus toward you whatsoever. The fervor you perceive is directed solely at out current incumbent administration

  15. susan duman says:

    The responses and conversation stimulated this week demonstrated opinions and views beyond anything experienced since I began following your essays.
    As usual, your grateful learner,
    Susan Duman

  16. Steve Hardy says:

    I am surprised that no one has mentioned the most dangerous form of authoritarianism we see today which is the call out, or cancel culture where free speech is under attack and people are afraid to express their views for fear of losing their job and being smeared on social media (thankfully with the exception of your followers).

  17. Bruce Olson says:

    Stephen Prover – First, I want to thank Hal for his brilliant and stimulating essays that provoke such passionate response and debate.
    Joseph Joubert, a French philosopher, said that “The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress.

    Yes, we have met Stephen. I certainly do not have any personal animosity towards you either. And I must tell you that you are not nearly as tough a debater as the woman that I have been sleeping with for 47 years. My wife is a life long bleeding heart liberal who keeps canceling my vote almost every single election!

    You are absolutely spot on when you refer to a number of outstanding socialist programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, but some government programs have gone too far with welfare programs like Aid to Dependent Children, which has contributed to the increase in single parent homes. The U.S. has the world’s highest rate at 23%, far greater than anywhere. (Pews Research)
    Sadly, the African American rate rose from 25% in 1965 to 77% today. (Wikipedia) Between ADC, food stamps and other welfare benefits, mothers cannot afford to get a job. We could debate that this single program contributes to the majority of negative outcomes for African Americans including crime, unemployment, poverty and poor education. I would eagerly support government subsidies for families with TWO married parents that earn under $100K.

    This is just one example of many on why I fear the proliferation of more socialist policies

    Here is the web site of the Democratic Socialists of America
    While some of their ideology is, indeed, admirable, most of it makes me shudder and shake my head.

    Isn’t our right of Freedom of Speech guaranteed by the First Amendment a cherished value that many other countries around the world cannot enjoy?

    Have a great week, Stephen.

  18. sheila says:

    For Bruce Olson and Stuart Goldfine and others who have commented: Respectfully, I would like to refute the points you make, and I would be happy to do so in a private email. You may not be aware of the following:

    The prospect of another four years (or more, if this President gets his way) of Trump, has driven dozens of former Republicans to endorse Biden, including more than 100 former George Bush and John McCain aides and 28 former Congresspersons.

    These people are not crazy – they are not socialists or Marxists. All I ask is that you look at the facts, and evaluate fairly and honestly. Joe Biden is not a socialist; neither is Kamala Harris. They will protect the rule of law in our country which has been all but obliterated by this President along with Barr and all Republican Senators, save Romney. They will also protect our health care and Medicare (which this President wants to diminish or eliminate – we have yet to see an alternate health care plan from him).

    I could write a long essay on all the other important issues but the bottom line is that this President is leading us down a dangerous path in which we stand to lose everything we value.

  19. sheila says:

    For Bruce Olson and Stuart Goldfine and others who have commented: Respectfully, I would like to refute the points you make, and I would be happy to do so in a private email, you may not be aware of the following:

    The prospect of another four years (or more, if this President gets his way) of Trump, has driven dozens of former Republicans to endorse Biden, including more than 100 former George Bush and John McCain aides and 28 former Congresspersons.

    These people are not crazy – they are not socialists or Marxists. All I ask is that you look at the facts, and evaluate fairly and honestly. Joe Biden is not a socialist; neither is Kamala Harris. They will protect the rule of law in our country which has been obliterated by this President along with Barr and Republican Senate enablers. They will also protect our health care and Medicare (which this President wants to diminish – we have yet to see an alternate health care plan from him).

    I could write a long essay on all the other important issues but the bottom line is that this President is leading us down a dangerous path in which we stand to lose everything we value.

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