When your body is being challenged, you call it being “sick,” you check the symptoms and diagnose the cause. For the economy, being sick is called a recession, and the same diagnostic process is undertaken. For the political world, a disease could be discrimination or denial of free speech; the cancer of the political world is war. But where is the rigorous diagnostic process for identifying and curing political disease?
Putting it bluntly, “Is your democracy sick?” The answer will be every bit as complex as asking if you are sick.
Have you been feeling just a bit less energetic this year than last? You are not likely to run to the doctor with that vague complaint, but it probably does mean that you are in a real sense “sick,” and that you absolutely need to change something because you are now on that slippery slope that will end up leading to death unless you figure out that you need, say, more sleep, more vacation time, or more vitamins. Just because the disease causes no pain or sudden changes of any kind does not mean that it is not serious. It does, however, mean that diagnosing it will is likely to be very complicated, just as diagnosing the myriad problems of governance is complicated.
Narrowing our scope to a single, central question that is all the more important because citizens of democratic states so easily forget to ask it:
Some diseases of democracy are clearly seen by all: potholes, for example, expose inefficiency; oil spills expose regulatory failure. But authoritarianism is qualitatively different, both because it is intentional and because the intent is to destroy democracy. It thus bears thinking about. The next time you’re at the mall, happily enjoying your civil liberties, reflect on who might want to control who you talk to, what you say, and even how you think.
To be honest, there are always signs of authoritarianism. Even in the best of times, some citizens sadly need to be constrained, and there will always be someone proposing rather more constraint than seems quite necessary. Unemployed people always exist in an economy, and your body always contains potentially harmful bacteria, but that does not necessarily mean that the state needs to raise the level of unemployment insurance or that you need an antibiotic.
Judging when the invisible threshold has been crossed is the challenge, and that judgment is made all the more difficult by the subtle exponential nature of the threat (be it the growth of bacteria, the growth of unemployment, or the growth of authoritarian tendencies). As far as bacteria are concerned, we recognize a natural balance between them and our immune system, not worrying as long as that balance is maintained. Economists have a sense of the level of unemployment that can be considered an acceptable part of a healthy economy in equilibrium. (I remember when that number in the U.S. was considered to be 3%, a level that seems like a dreamworld today.) In the sadly underdeveloped arena of governance, however, no consensus exists on what should be considered the threshold between normal democratic behavior and incipient authoritarian disease.*
To define such a threshold requires a fair amount of specificity – hence, the indicators enumerated in yesterday’s Black Shoots of Fascism figure.** Considering the highly exponential nature of the rise of authoritarianism (think of the slow emergence of Hitler during Weimar and then his sudden acquisition of total power), it behooves those who care about civil liberties to set the threshold very low. Specifically, it should be low enough not just to cover behavior but also culture. Sure, most of us oppose domestic terrorism (though we get careless about state terrorism implemented on the other side of the earth), but I would caution that the black shoots are already firmly rooted by the time culture changes to the point that egregious violence becomes an acceptable option. A society that finds loose talk of nuclear aggression against a non-threatening, non-nuclear adversary or a policy of collective punishment acceptable has already far exceeded the “democratic threshold” even if no action is being taken. For citizens to understand this point is equivalent to getting a vaccine.
U.S. society, as a whole, is careless about this threshold and seems quite willing to move the bar abruptly in response to extremist rhetoric. Whether or not other societies differ greatly would be worth looking into. The willingness of, to cite just two examples, a number of now rather isolated Israeli intellectuals to stand firm for democratic principles and masses of Iranians to risk their lives protesting in the streets suggests some significant distinctions among societies from which much might be learned.
In sum, first, the subtle strengthening of domestic authoritarianism is a threat to democracy that citizens need to keep in mind. Second, a “democratic threshold” of acceptable attitudes and behavior needs to be defined…and defended. Third, that threshold needs to be set low because once authoritarian tendencies take root, they grow like weeds. As Russians in 1917, Spanish in 1936 and many others have discovered, once the problem of authoritarianism becomes obvious, it is likely to be too late.
*The perceptive reader will note my ideological bias: I like civil liberties and deem dictatorship bad. But I am not sure dictatorship is bad by definition. With Plato and Aristotle, I recognize that few citizens will want to be bothered with the hard thinking necessary to be responsible governors; so be it – let them stay home on election day. The problem is that self-appointed caudillos and imperial presidents have historically not demonstrated greater moral probity or governing ability than anyone else. Democracy is my choice not because I think it a rational method of running a government but because under democracy throwing the rascals out costs less.
** “Authoritarianism” and “fascism” are not the same thing. The latter is a special case of the former, a case most simply distinguished by the glorification of violence. Think of the distinction between cancer and metastisizing cancer.