Several years ago I met an elderly British man in Hong Kong who had recently travelled to North Korea as a tourist. When I heard that, I became curious. It doesn't happen very often to bump into someone who has visited the secluded Kim dictatorship.
To my surprise, he started to rant about how “biased” Western media were. I don't recall his exact words, but the gist of it was that North Korea was very clean, there was no graffiti, no crime, the buildings were modern, in short, the country was not at all how Western media always portrayed it.
|I took these pictures during the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong
I was quite startled. But in retrospect, I shouldn't have been. Throughout the years, I came across a lot of people who voiced sympathy for authoritarian regimes.
I grew up in Italy. Even though fascism was defeated militarily in 1943-1945, and it seemed (for a time) to be a taboo subject to better be avoided in public, there are still people who believe in fascism and admire Mussolini.
One of my roommates told me that her brother frequented a club where a portrait of Mussolini hung on a wall. When I was 18 years old, I talked with an elderly man – a wealthy professional – who praised fascism, made the first antisemitic remarks I'd ever heard in person, and called Fancisco Franco's regime in Spain the “intelligent dictatorship” (la dittatura intelligente). Some of my fellow students were also quite pro-fascist and made all kinds of faux arguments about the regime's economic and social achievements. I could go on.
I studied in Berlin for over three years and mostly lived in the eastern part of the city. I can't remember how many conversations I had with disgruntled citizens who told me that life in the former Communist dictatorship was better than in democratic Germany.
This is not only anecdotal evidence. The sentiment was so widespread that the Germans coined a new word for it: “Ostalgie”, a portmanteau of the German words Ost (east) and Nostalgie (nostalgia). It was nostalgia for the former East Germany.
When I was a student in Berlin, I made a lot of friends from the People's Republic of China (PRC). Several of them were Communist Party members or came from families with ties to the Communist Party.
Most of them were critical of the PRC government in one way or another. Some were outright liberals, others accepted authoritarianism, a few praised it as superior to democracy.
Later on, I encountered “Westerners” (controversial term; you can suggest an alternative) who lived in the PRC or travelled there frequently on business. Some of them were apologists for the Communist regime. They argued that the PRC was really not that different from the West, one just had to avoid some sensitive topics, who cares about politics anyway, the CCP government is actually more efficient than those in democratic countries, etc.
In Hong Kong, my Filipino neighbours were staunchly pro-Duterte and … pro-Trump. I actually had heated debates with them on the topic. I was quite surprised by the fact that they defended Trump, and told me not to trust the mainstream media. Those conversations were a very fascinating, as well as revealing, experience.
I could go on and on with examples, but I think you get what I'm trying to say.
As a kid in the 1990s I was exposed through the media and the school system to what appeared to be a firm and unquestionable common belief that the US and its closest allies were stable democracies, where the vast majority of the people agreed on the same principles of human rights, civil rights and liberties, free and fair elections.
I carried that belief with me until about a decade ago. It has now become abundantly clear that neither the US, nor European countries, are inherently democratic, that democracy is extremely fragile, and that it is not true that we collectively have “learnt the lessons” from history. It is also not true that people will naturally embrace democracy as soon as they get rid of tyrants, as was implied by pro-democracy triumphalist rhetoric. It was perhaps only an illusion, or a Cold War myth which was so successfully propagated that many people started to believe it.
A lot of countries seem to have a certain percentage of the population that tends to be authoritarian. Moreover, there is a general sense of discontent with democracy.
A December 2023 Gallup poll shows that only 28% of US adults were satisfied with the way democracy is working – the lowest figure ever.
In 1984, 61% of US respondents were satisfied with democracy, and 60% in 1991. Only one year later, however, the number plummeted to 36% due to “an economic recession and congressional scandals”.
Although satisfaction with democracy grew again during the Clinton years, it topped at merely 52% in 1998. There were clear signs of deterioration in the “democracy consensus”.
The recent Gallup poll shows some degree of partisan divide, but the numbers are overall very low regardless of party affiliation. The least likely to say they are satisfied with the state of democracy are Republicans (17%), followed by independents (27%) and Democrats (38%).
A poll from The Economist/YouGov released in November 2023 shows that only about half of young Americans say that democracy is the greatest form of government:
“[S]upport for democracy is strongest among older Americans, but it declines in every subsequent younger age bracket — with the weakest levels of support among adults younger than 45 … Only 54 percent of U.S. adults ages 18-29 agree with the statement, ‘Democracy is the greatest form of government.’”
Obviously, these figures need to be interpreted. Dissatisfaction with the state of democracy doesn't necessarily mean rejection of democracy itself. But there are illiberal tendencies in some segments of society both in the US and abroad. The crisis of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism over the past several years are well-documented phenomena.
It is still astounding to me that people who grew up in a democratic society can embrace authoritarianism. Don't they understand the benefits of democracy? Obviously, not everyone does.
Democracy is under assault by various groups. The most powerful of them are on the far right. But there is also a growing number of people on the far left who are turning to illiberal models, although they have not taken over the leadership of major parties as of right now. Let's look at some examples.
Wealthy and powerful individuals who think that democracy runs counter to their interests. An example is billionaire Peter Thiel, who once wrote that he no longer believed that freedom and democracy were compatible, and that the extension of the franchise to women and welfare beneficiaries had made "capitalist democracy" an oxymoron.
Thiel funded a lawsuit against Gawker, a media company that had outed him as gay, which led to the outlet’s eventual shutdown for bankruptcy in 2016. He has supported far right politicians like Donald Trump, JD Vance, and Blake Masters. He has also praised authoritarian leaders like Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore.
Corporations that put profit above human rights. Many companies are more than happy to do business in authoritarian countries like the PRC. Western businesses have even self-censored in order to avoid the wrath of authoritarian governments. If Western companies are so comfortable working within the confines of authoritarian regimes, I see no reason why they wouldn't accommodate themselves to dictators in their own countries (as long as their taxes aren't high).
Anti-immigration religious and ethnonationalist groups. They are principally motivated and mobilised by their hatred towards immigrants, and their belief in the nation as a racially and culturally homogeneous community.
They would rather support an authoritarian government than accept immigration, as demonstrated by former Fox host Tucker Carlson's admiration for Viktor Orban, the ethnonationalist authoritarian leader of Hungary, the same guy who in 2022 said that “we do not want to become peoples of mixed-race,” adding that countries “where European and non-European peoples live together … are no longer nations.”
The far right is apt at whipping up its base’s anti-immigration sentiment. For instance, a recent article on the far right media outlet Breitbart stated:
“President Joe Biden’s border deputies have carefully allowed roughly five million economic migrants across the southern border and into the United States … Democratic legislators do not want the penniless migrants to be housed in city-funded shelters. So GOP negotiators reportedly agreed to let the migrants quickly get work permits so they could be hired by companies in place of better-paid Americans … A … bloc of GOP Senators prefer to protect Americans’ communities and pocketbooks from Biden’s cheap-labor migration. This bloc includes Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH).”
This kind of rhetoric targets the core far right base of non-college white voters, 65% of whom voted for Trump in 2020. Note the insistence on the trope of the immigrant as “cheap labour”, the same type of rhetoric used to justify racist legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
But there are also people on the left who are apologists for authoritarian regimes, or do not think that democracy works.
Leftist intellectuals like British author Martin Jacques and US academic Jeffrey Sachs, who are known for supporting the Chinese Communist government.
Some citizens of liberal democratic states have been recruited by Beijing to work as influencers on social media.
Within the US, some leftist groups are trying to discredit liberal democracy, crafting a narrative of moral equivalence between the two major parties. In December 2023, progressive activist Bree Newsome tweeted:
"Biden is already a dictator, folks. Fascism is already here under Biden. Please pay attention to how popular will is being completely ignored because Biden doesn't give af what the public thinks if he can maintain his grip on power.”
Apart from the people who are actively engaged in politics, there are also those who are indifferent, apathetic, or believe that democracy doesn't do anything for them, anyway. I am not going to discuss all of these groups now. I might write about them in a separate post.
I must confess that I just don't understand people who think it's fine to be ruled by the whims of unaccountable dictators. Even when some groups of people believe that a certain individual represents their interests, granting absolute power to a single person or an oligarchy usually leads to some form of abuse, corruption, mismanagement, and even political violence.
But the reality is, autocracy has been the norm for most of human history. Democracy, as it is practiced today, is a quite recent phenomenon. Billions of people still live in autocratic states.
The political events of the previous decade have sent a mixed message. There have been grassroots pro-democracy movements like in Belarus and Hong Kong. The United States and Poland voted out far right governments. Italy elected as PM the leader of a party with neofascist roots, and Turkey re-elected its authoritarian leader Erdogan.
In Germany, the far right party AfD (Alternative for Germany) has reached 24% according to a recent YouGov poll, making it the second largest party in the country. The Greens, who were the second strongest party in 2021 with 14.8%, have lost support and are now at 12%. The CDU/CSU (Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union) remains the largest party with 29%. The SPD (Social Democratic Party) is at 15%, the FDP (Free Democratic Party) at 6%, and the Left at 5%.
A report published on January 10, 2024, by the investigative outlet Correctiv revealed that several members of the AfD party had attended a secret meeting with neo-Nazis and other extremists to discuss the mass deportation of migrants, asylum seekers and German citizens of foreign origin deemed to have failed to integrate. The meeting took place in a hotel near Potsdam in November 2023.
According to the report, the participants discussed the details of a so-called "remigration" plan, a term used by the far right to refer to the forced removal of people with non-German ethnic backgrounds, even if they are citizens of Germany. The revelation of the meeting sparked widespread outrage and condemnation from the public, the media, and other political parties. Thousands of people took to the streets of German cities to protest against the far right.
And yet, over 20% of the electorate sympathise with the AfD. In my own time in Germany, I heard plenty of xenophobic remarks from friends, acquaintances and random strangers I struck up conversations with. It almost surprises me that it took so long for an ethnonationalist party to find electoral success.
I still remember vividly when in 2010 the former banker and Social Democratic politician Thilo Sarazzin published a book titled “Deutschland schafft sich ab” (Germany Abolishes Itself), which argued that Muslim immigrants are a threat to German culture, economy, and society. Sarrazin made several racist remarks, claiming that Muslims have lower intelligence and higher fertility than native Germans, and that they are unwilling or unable to integrate into German society.
He suggested that Germany should restrict immigration from Muslim countries and encourage the assimilation of existing Muslim immigrants by imposing sanctions and incentives. He further stated that "all Jews share a particular gene" that distinguishes them from other people.
Sarrazin was widely criticised and condemned by the media and political parties. However, his book sold over 1.5 million copies, becoming a huge best seller.
He not only denied that his remarks were racist, but also claimed that he was a victim of political correctness and censorship, and that he was raising important issues that needed to be discussed openly.
The root of the AfD’s rise lies in the fact that there are many people who hold similar views, which have circulated for decades in private discussions. When Sarrazin opened the lid, the media and the large parties put it back on. As society is increasingly beset by economic and social turmoil, the media, the liberal intelligentsia and the traditional parties have been losing the credibility that they would need to do it again.
This year, there will be elections in over 40 countries in the world, with 4 billion people going to the polls. Nowadays, elections often feel like existential contests where democracy, civil rights and human rights are on the ballot.
Will the democratic consensus hold? Or will apathy, hate, indifference, and factional interests prevail?
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