One thing history teaches us is that, while only some democracies function well, no autocracies have ever functioned well, if the standard is the general welfare, peace, freedom, and economic security of the people at large. The reason is simple and repeatedly confirmed throughout history: power eventually corrupts when left unchecked.
The problem is, we no longer recognize the very autocratic tendencies that we should be most fearful of. As Larry Diamond writes:
“In earlier reverse waves, military coups were the main method of the democraic recession. Not today. The death of democracy is now typically administered in a thousand cuts. In one country after another, elected leaders have gradually attacked the deep tissues of democracy—the political independence of the courts, the business community, the media, civil society, universities, and sensitive state institutions like the civil service, the intelligence agencies, the military, and the police.”
Despite the fact that liberal democracy has proven to be the only political arrangement to consistently deliver higher levels of wealth and well-being for the largest number of people—and that no two democracies have ever gone to war with each other—we still feel the urge to submit to strongman leaders that seek to attack the credibility of the very institutions responsible for democracy to function in the first place.
As Diamond states:
“Ultimately, what sustains democracy is a deep and unconditional belief in its legitimacy. Unless a country’s people and politicians are unconditionally committed to democracy as the best form of government—one worth obeying and defending even when their preferred parties, candidates, and policies lose out—democracy will rest on tenuous footing. Then, any crisis could topple it.”
Liberal democracy has shown itself to be the best form of government because it allows for the constitutional protection of rights and freedoms, periodic free and fair elections to peacefully remove bad leaders, and independent checks on power and corruption through governmental separation of powers, an independent media, independent universities, and free speech, press, assembly, and religion. While imperfect in practice, the stronger a democracy gets, the better life gets for its citizens.
Autocracies have none of these invaluable safeguards and rely entirely on the whims of whichever ruler happens to have seized power. Autocratic rulers are free to implement policy unrestricted, violate basic human rights, suppress free inquiry, and amass obscene levels of wealth and power. Over and over again, history confirms what should be obvious: despite our natural inclination to submit to strongman leaders, the result is always disastrous.
In the short term, democracy is an autocrat’s (and their followers) worst enemy. Democracy prevents unilateral implementation of policy, forces compromise, demands honest persuasion, and exposes policy to independent scrutiny. The autocrat’s first job, then, is not to persuade people about the merits of their vision, but to attack the foundations of democracy itself to weaken its restrictions on their actions. They do so based on some variation of the “autocrats’ twelve-step program” outlined by Diamond, as follows:
1. Begin to demonize the opposition as illegitimate and unpatriotic
2. Undermine the independence of the courts
3. Attack the independence of the media (recall Trump’s tweet that America’s biggest enemy is not Russia, ISIS, or North Korea, but our own news media)
4. Gain control of any public broadcasting
5. Impose stricter control of the internet
6. Subdue other elements of civil society
7. Intimidate the business community
8. Enrich a new class of crony capitalists
9. Assert political control over the civil service and the security apparatus
10. Gerrymander districts and rig the electoral rules
11. Gain control over the body that runs elections
12. Repeat steps 1 to 11
Any of this sound familiar? This applies just as readily to the actions, words, and intentions of Donald Trump as it does to Vladimir Putin or Viktor Orbán; the only difference is that the US, for now, has more resilient institutions and a Constitution. But democracy is not inevitable, and as people lose faith in the US media, universities, elections, intelligence agencies, the civil service, and the courts, the autocratic ruler is primed to tear the entire system down, which is exactly what Russia wants and is why they invested so heavily in helping Trump to win the election.
Democracy in the US is too strong to be destroyed by military invasion or an internal coup, so autocratic rulers are attempting to destroy it from within by sowing discord and polarization. And it’s working. As Diamond wrote:
“Given the relentlessness of Russia’s campaign, Facebook’s own estimate that 126 million Americans received fake Russian posts on its site, Russia’s strategically targeted online attempts to suppress Clinton’s voter turnout in key battleground states, and the fact that Trump won the Electoral College with only very narrow margins of victory (totaling some eighty thousand votes) in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, I have concluded that Hillary Clinton would almost certainly have won the Electoral College if there had been no Russian intervention.”
Putin achieved his dual aims during the 2016 election: to “sow division and discord in American democracy” and to “punish Clinton and elect Trump.” But it’s not only Russia; a wave of illiberalism has spread across the world and America’s silence on the issue—along with its own weakening democracy—has only emboldened would-be autocrats to make more aggressive moves.
So what’s the solution? How do we defend democracy and reverse the illiberal authoritarian trends spreading throughout the world? As Diamond states, this requires both shoring up our own democracy at home as well as renewing America’s leadership role as a global beacon for democracy.
To start at home, Diamond suggests implementing policies that, while not particularly novel, are very hard to argue against if the goal really is to strengthen democracy. Recommendations include the widespread implementation of ranked-choice voting (to remove the specter of the “wasted vote” and to encourage political civility), the elimination of gerrymandering (to make representation more proportional to voter preferences), and the elimination of the Electoral College (for the obvious reason that in a democracy the candidate that wins the popular vote should be elected President).
Again, these are hard to argue against, because in each case the voter is given more choices, influence, and incentive to vote. We should remind ourselves that the bedrock of democracy is free and fair elections, so any policy that makes voting easier and fairer is desirable. Remember that gerrymandering was not implemented to make elections fair; it was implemented for partisan advantage and that’s why we can’t allow the practice to continue—regardless of which party is currently benefiting under such arrangements.
Diamond also reminds us that isolationism is simply not an option in a globally connected world. We can either help to promote democracy and the institutions of peace around the globe or we can allow authoritarian regimes to create a new world order that directly threatens the US and its liberal values. As Diamond writes, concerning a future without American leadership:
“For democrats everywhere, this is a frightening prospect. But for the belligerent autocrats in China and Russia, it is a gift: a startling, almost too-good-to-be-true opportunity to bring down the global architecture of norms and alliances that has kept the peace in Europe and the Pacific for nearly three quarters of a century—and enabled an unprecedented expansion of democracy and freedom.”
This is what’s at stake; a turn inward for America means the emboldening of illiberal values in the rest of the world, which in turn directly impacts the security of our own democracy. “America first” means “America alone,” and in terms in international relations this could not be more dangerous. As Diamond explains, “if you look back over our history to see who has posed a threat to the United States and our allies, it has always been authoritarian regimes and empires. As political scientists have long noted, no two democracies have ever gone to war with each other—ever.”
In addition, China is “so rapidly advancing it’s capabilities…that within a decade or two, it may be able to win a war with the United States,” writes Diamond. The way to counter Chinese technological, scientific, and military aspirations is not through a trade war, but through our own investments and advancements in science and technology. This can be achieved through greater federal funding of research and development (which has fallen from 2 percent of GDP in the 1960s to 0.7 percent today), greater incentives to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) careers, and expanding foreign expert visas and encouraging the world’s best scientists to emigrate to the US.
As Diamond writes in this powerful passage:
“All this casts today’s debates about immigration in a different light. Immigration is a national security issue, but not in the way that Donald Trump and his fellow nativist populists assert. Part of what distinguishes the United States from its two great autocratic rivals is its ability to attract people from all over the world brimming with technical gifts and creative energy. Keeping our gates open to this influx of talent and entrepreneurship will continue to make America great. And assimilating these immigrants into taking on democratic citizenship is a profound opportunity for American democracy. It is a field on which China and Russia—and every other autocracy in the world—simply cannot compete.”
Diamond also covers recommendations for combating Russian interference in elections, fighting kleptocracy, making the internet safe for democracy, and campaign finance reform. The reader may not discover anything particularly novel, but the recommendations are all grounded in rich scholarship and can make a positive impact in terms of strengthening democracy.
Overall, Diamond has distilled into this book 40 years of insight and experience traveling the world and studying democracy, including what makes democracy work and how it can fail. It is both a diagnosis of the creeping authoritarianism that infects the world and a prescription for US domestic and foreign policy initiatives that can not only make our own democracy stronger and more resilient but also reaffirm America’s leadership role in promoting liberal values across the globe. If any book deserves the praise of “required reading” in this political climate, it is this one.
Ill Winds is available on Amazon.com.