October 2, 2022

The Growing Worldwide Flirtation with Authoritarianism.

by Hal Gershowitz

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There’s a lot at stake.

The 2022 midterm elections in the United States, barely five weeks away, will have an outsized influence on the 2024 presidential election and the kind of country we are apt to be for years to come. There is a historic political schism in our country which is mirrored throughout much of the world today.

We do not know how the midterms will turn out in the United States. While, historically, the Party out of power would be expected to gain seats in Congress, polls show an increasingly narrow race. A betting person might wager that the Democrats might hold on to the Senate, but a wager that they could manage to hold onto the House would find few takers.

What we do know is that populism, and in a growing number of cases, authoritarianism, seems to be on the march throughout much of the world and quite possibly in the United States as well.

The World Values Survey, now in its forty-first year, has shed light on troubling trends.  It has, for the last six years, found a strong deterioration throughout much of the developed world in people’s faith in democracy. Alarmingly, this appears to be particularly true among voters under 50 years of age.  For example, in the United States, Germany, and Japan, somewhere between 20% and 40% of this cohort would embrace “a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliaments and elections.”

In France, last April, Emmanuel Macron managed to once again defeat right-winger Marine Le Pen, but by a much narrower margin than in their last faceoff in 2017.

And just two weeks ago, in traditionally liberal Sweden, a coalition of right-wing parties, anchored by the far-right Sweden Democrats, took control of Parliament. And last April, Hungary’s uber authoritarian, Viktor Orbán, swept the board, securing his fourth consecutive term as Prime Minister.

And most recently, in Italy, a coalition led by far-right leader Giorgia Meloni came out on top and will likely put together Italy’s first far-right government since World War II.

And there is the far-right British National Party, the Norwegian Progress Party, and the Dutch Pim Fortuyn List. While these particular parties may or may not ascend to power, they can and do exert tremendous influence on whatever Party is in power.

Freedom House, which was founded in 1941 and is primarily funded by the United States government, paints a pretty bleak picture. The organization which publishes an annual assessment of “Freedom in the World” issued one of its darker assessments earlier this year. Authoritarianism is having a great run, it seems. Freedom House says in 2020, the world’s leading democracies “turned inward,” marking the 15th consecutive year of diminished global freedom. The number of countries Freedom House listed as “no longer free” grew to the highest level in fifteen years. Countries registering declines in political rights were also the highest in fifteen years.

So, the degree of disunity we see in America is simply our version of what is going on, sadly, throughout much of the world.

Vanderbilt University’s Unity and American Democracy Project developed the Vanderbilt Unity Index (VUI) over forty years ago to measure, on an ongoing basis, the state of political unity in America. That is, the degree to which we Americans agree or disagree, or put another way, the level of disunity in our country. Not surprisingly, we Americans love our political give and take. We’re not as united as we would like to think, nor are we as fragmented as many may think we are.

Unlike polling companies, the Vanderbilt Unity Index doesn’t focus on the spectrum of opinion but rather on the prevalence of extreme opinion. The Vanderbilt Index concentrates on five specific categories: (1) clear disapproval of the President, (2) ideological extremism, (3) social trust, (4) congressional polarization, and (5) protests and civil unrest.

The VUI does not concern itself with degree. That is, they eschew delving into whether a respondent feels – not very strong, or somewhat strong, but only if a respondent feels “very strong” about a given issue. In other words, the Vanderbilt Index focuses like a laser on the prevalence of extremes.

Working with the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago and other pollsters, they focus on those who identify themselves as strong liberals or strong conservatives and even those who reveal that they simply do not trust most people. The VUI even considers the ideological chasm between congressional parties at specific points in time.

Of course, the VUI has never achieved a rating of 100, which would indicate unanimity of opinion, just as it has never sunk to 0, which would indicate total disunity. The highest rating ever achieved since the index was created was 71.3 during the second Gulf War in 1991. Nine out of ten of the lowest VUI ratings were during the Trump presidency, with the lowest being 35 in 2017. That is not necessarily a reflection of the Trump presidency but rather a reflection of how Americans reacted to that presidency. The Trump years were volatile, with strong opinions emanating from traditional and social media and thousands upon thousands of tweet storms to which the country had never before been exposed. The average VUI during the Trump years was 51, and, thus far, in the Biden administration, the average is 58. Both are quite far from “0”.

So, what are we to conclude from this survey of world affairs? Perhaps, that constitutional democracy is not given from on high. It is generally born of struggle, fragile, and can be wrested away in a proverbial blink of any eye.

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