Stand Up and Work Together

Maybe it’s a good thing. For three-quarters of a century, Americans have been taking it easy. Oh, I remember the civil rights struggle and the horrors of the “American War,” as many Vietnamese call it, and the Cold War, but through it all, the Federal Government was, in general, our friend, handing out gifts and trying to make life easier for us, even if only partly out of conviction, partly to bribe us into tolerating the abuses and excesses of the rich.

No more. Now we Americans are going to have to learn self-reliance…not selfish individualism but networked, self-organizing self-reliance, security achieved by cooperating for the common good. Do we want equality? Start by treating each other decently. Do we want clean air to breathe? Start by using less energy. Do we want protection from self-serving corporate greed? Demand that the legal concept of eminent domain, which is being used to allow pipeline corporations to rampage across America, be redefined truly to function for the PUBLIC, not private, good. Do we want government that protects our liberty? Educate ourselves about the meaning of liberty: read Madison on the meaning of democracy, learn what our state district attorneys are doing, and vote for district attorneys and judges who stand up for human rights. Do we want responsive Congressmen? Demand and vote for candidates supporting such reforms as recall—the legal right of the population to fire a bad politician. And always, always demand transparency by our elected officials. Why should Big Oil be permitted to force citizens to sell their land to make space for a pipeline? Why are these decisions made in backrooms? If it is arguably in the national interest, then politicians should be bragging about it…and providing time for citizens to participate in the decision-making process.

Cities addicted to Federal handouts will have to figure out ways to take care of themselves, and we certainly do not want Detroit (or Cochibamba) to be the model. Admit that the neo-liberal policy of protecting the wealth of the rich first that has been favored by both conservative parties over most of the last 50 years is the source of our current mess. Recognize that Trump is absolutely correct in asserting that America needs a better model. America needs a socio-economic vision better than either neo-liberalism or Federal care and feeding. Trump may not have the answer, but he has identified the failure of past leadership. Now it is up to us, on the ground, in our neighborhoods, to transcend the outdated debates so useful to the old, self-serving two-party structure and come up with an answer for the good of the whole society.

Earth Day got it right, but we Americans, we oh so very comfortable Americans, did not commit ourselves. The Occupy Movement got it right, but again mainstream Americans turned their backs. The anti-Vietnam War movement showed us all a thing or two, but anti-war thinking was nowhere to be found at the beginning of the 21st century. Teachers, police, and firemen in Wisconsin demonstrating in frigid cold came very close to taking back their state. Bernie’s attempt to transform the old Democratic Party into a new party of the future only missed by a hair. Then came the Women’s March: a breathtaking sign that now, at last, Americans are waking up.

So, maybe this turning point in the official attitude of the Federal Government is a good thing. Get over reliance on Washington; start relying on each other. Take charge. Stop thinking “Me first.” Stop asking for welfare. Stop expecting Big Government to help you. Big Government we will certainly continue to have…in fact, bigger than you ever dreamed in your worst nightmare, but it will not be the Nanny State; it will be the Corporate State. The U.S.A. is the richest society in history: we do not have to find scapegoats for our own failures or beat down our neighbors so we can stand up; the pie is big enough to give everyone a piece, and together we can make the pie bigger. We—me and the funny-looking guy next door—can talk to each other, give a little, listen a little, and find a positive-sum outcome. We, the citizens, can do this.

Using Democracy to Kill It

Hitler famously exploited democratic rules to gain the power to destroy German democracy, the result being World War II. The lessons are clear: 1) democracy and the liberties it is supposed to deliver are about something far more profound than winning elections or gaining the momentary support of a majority; 2) forgetting this lesson can be catastrophic. Nonetheless, the historical examples of populations momentarily putting their freedom in the hands of a single man, who then uses this power to control them, are so numerous that far more effort should be put into studying how wanna-be dictators gain the momentary adulation of a naive population…and unfortunately there is nothing so naive as a population that enjoys civil liberties, because they forget so quickly that dictatorship is the natural order of things.

So consider this scenario:

Using Democracy to Kill It

Suppose a leader wanted the absolute control necessary to lead his country in a dramatically new direction that he knew was opposed by a majority of his people. Suppose that he launched an ethnic war against a minority group that was mostly loyal to the homeland but increasingly successful in democratic politics…and insisting on the right to express an independent viewpoint, one that would not toe the ambitious leader’s new line. When his concocted ethnic war failed to unite the rest of the population behind him, suppose the leader then meticulously tracked the political attitudes of soldiers, police, judges, journalists, and educators, making a list of the thousands who held opinions that differed from his own. Then suppose that he started a rumor that a certain faction was plotting rebellion and that he not only had such a list but was about to use it to purge everyone not obedient to him? One can imagine that such a scenario might well provoke a dissatisfied faction to fall into the crafty leader’s trap by launching a premature coup.

Rather than debating the details of how this scenario might be playing out in some real-world case, the bigger question would be, “How can a society retain civil liberties if the ruling faction is taking full advantage of events to impose dictatorship by playing to the crowd (mob)?” After all, “mob rule” is technically democratic as long as a majority joins the mob, right? Since Augustus destroyed the increasingly self-defeating Roman Republic in its final corrupt days by proclaiming his dedication to the people, history has been filled with examples of leaders who greased the wheels of dictatorship by trumpeting their love for freedom. People voted with their feet for Lenin; people voted with ballots for Hitler. Superior indeed is the society that can see through such trickery.

It will happen again. When it does, will political scientists be able to see it as it unfolds, understand the process, and be able to explain it well enough to help the voters who are being tricked or to guide policy-makers in other regimes on how to minimize the damage?

Among the many methods for peering into the future, one of the simplest in concept (very complicated in practice but with the inestimable attribute of being totally transparent when examined step-by-step) is the mapping of the conceptual chains explaining the dynamics.

The dynamics are the things that change. When democratic procedures are misused to install a dictatorship, first the way the rules are used changes, and then the rules themselves change. The spirit of democracy centers on the two-sided coin of majority rule plus minority rights. A budding dictator will use the existing rule of majority rule to ram through policies without regard for minority opinions in a vicious zero-sum approach. He will likely accompany this with a campaign of ethnic (e.g., “it’s all the fault of Group X”) or political (e.g., “anyone who opposes me is a traitor”)slander.

Once he has whipped up the baser emotions of the majority and grabbed power by these subtle shifts in how the rules are used, he will take the bolder second step of changing the rules. The “democratic” passage of a harsh new law that is then applied retroactively is a canary in the mine of rising dictatorship. College students in the U.S. who studied Russian during WWII, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were allies, suddenly found in the 1950s that their former classroom work was destroying their careers under budding strongman Senator Joseph McCarthy, who accused them of being traitors simply because they had studied the language of “the enemy.” A second canary in the mine of budding dictators is suddenly to assert that criticism equals disloyalty, again of course applied retroactively. The careful dictator wannabe will be careful to wait until the mob is indeed whipped up before trying this patently absurd claim. Amazingly, it works like magic, over and over. Such rule changes make “slam dunk clear” that the days of liberty are gone.

Now returning to the question of developing a conceptual mapping of the dynamics underlying the rise of authoritarianism by democratic means, a re-reading of the above discussion of changes in the way the rules of democratic behavior are used and changes in the rules themselves reveals quite a number of concepts and how they are linked.

  • Blaming a religious or ethnic minority – a trait you were born with is almost never the source of society’s problems, and virtually every politician knows this, but such irresponsible politicians also know that telling lies about “those others with that religion” or “those others of that race” can oil their drive for power if done under just the right circumstances.

Thus, one could start the conceptual map with the concept “minority is to blame” which requires a contributing event (e.g., violence by one individual who happens to belong to the victim minority). Now, we have one tiny path toward a drive for power by means of a persuasive hoax. Keep adding concepts, think about when they may link together in some causal way, and soon you will have a complicated map of (more than likely) a vast network of paths that can lead you from here (democracy) to there (dictatorship).

Then, sit back and ask yourself, “Is there any country in the world right this minute that this conceptual mapping seems to be talking about?”