This Is Why Autocracies Fail

Joe Biden correctly argues that the struggle between democracy and autocracy is the defining conflict of our time. So which system performs better under stress?

For the past several years, the autocracies seemed to have the upper hand. In autocracy, power is centralized. Leaders can respond to challenges quickly, shift resources decisively. China showed that autocracies can produce mass prosperityAutocracy has made global gains and democracy continues to decline.

In democracies, on the other hand, power is decentralized, often polarized and paralytic. The American political system has become distrusted and dysfunctional. A homegrown would-be autocrat won the White House. Academics have written popular books with titles like “How Democracies Die.”

Yet the past few weeks have been revelatory. It’s become clear that when it comes to the most important functions of government, autocracy has severe weaknesses. This is not an occasion for democratic triumphalism; it’s an occasion for a realistic assessment of authoritarian ineptitude and perhaps instability. What are those weaknesses?

The wisdom of many is better than the wisdom of megalomaniacs. In any system, one essential trait is: How does information flow? In democracies, policymaking is usually done more or less in public, and there are thousands of experts offering facts and opinions. Many economists last year said inflation would not be a problem, but Larry Summers and others said it would, and they turned out to have been right. We still make mistakes, but the system learns.

Often in autocracies, decisions are made within a small, closed circle. Information flows are distorted by power. No one tells the top man what he doesn’t want to hear. The Russian intelligence failure about Ukraine has been astounding. Vladimir Putin understood nothing about what the Ukrainian people wanted, how they would fight or how his own army had been ruined by corruption and kleptocrats.

People want their biggest life. Human beings these days want to have full, rich lives and make the most of their potential. The liberal ideal is that people should be left as free as possible to construct their own ideal. Autocracies restrict freedom for the sake of order. So many of the best and brightest are now fleeing Russia. The American ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, points out that Hong Kong is suffering a devastating brain drain. Bloomberg reports, “The effects of the brain drain in sectors such as education, health care and even finance will likely be felt by residents for years to come.” American institutions now have nearly as many top-tier A.I. researchers from China as from the United States. Given the chance, talented people will go where fulfillment lies.

Organization man turns into gangster manPeople rise through autocracies by ruthlessly serving the organization, the bureaucracy. That ruthlessness makes them aware others may be more ruthless and manipulative, so they become paranoid and despotic. They often personalize power, so they are the state, and the state is them. Any dissent is taken as a personal affront. They may practice what scholars call negative selection. They don’t hire the smartest and best people. Such people might be threatening. They hire the dimmest and the most mediocre. You get a government of third-raters. (Witness the leaders of the Russian military.)

Ethnonationalism self-inebriates. Everybody worships something. In a liberal democracy, worship of the nation (which is particular) is balanced by the love of liberal ideals (which are universal). With the demise of communism, authoritarianism lost a major source of universal values. National glory is pursued with intoxicating fundamentalism.

I believe in passionarity, in the theory of passionarity,” Putin declared last year. He continued: “We have an infinite genetic code.” Passionarity is a theory created by the Russian ethnologist Lev Gumilyov that holds that each nation has its own level of mental and ideological energy, its own expansionary spirit. Putin seems to believe Russia is exceptional on front after front and “on the march.” This kind of crackpot nationalism deludes people into pursuing ambitions far beyond their capacity.

Government against the people is a recipe for decline. Democratic leaders, at least in theory, serve their constituents. Autocratic leaders, in practice, serve their own regime and longevity, even if it means neglecting their people. Thomas J. Bollyky, Tara Templin and Simon Wigley illustrate how life expectancy improvements have slowed in countries that have recently transitioned to autocracies. A study of more than 400 dictators across 76 countries by Richard Jong-A-Pin and Jochen O. Mierau found that a one-year increase in a dictator’s age decreases his nation’s economic growth by 0.12 percentage points.

When the Soviet Union fell, we learned that the C.I.A. had overstated the Soviet economy and Soviet military might. It’s just very hard to successfully run a big society through centralized power.

To me, the lesson is that even when we’re confronting so-far successful autocracies like China, we should learn to be patient and trust our liberal democratic system. When we are confronting imperial aggressors like Putin, we should trust the ways we are responding now. If we steadily, patiently and remorselessly ramp up the economic, technological and political pressure, the weaknesses inherent in the regime will grow and grow.

This Historical Moment was Inevitable, but the Outcome is not

may uh the
i’m seeing with a little more clarity
that all these moments of
you know reactionary apparel
the sociological parallel is that you
have or a political parallel
is that you have a reactionary minority
that has a parliamentary
and a paramilitary wing
and the republicans are just reproducing
this pattern with with just you know
elegance right and if you look at the
january 6
uh investigation you know they’re
proceeding on two tracks and the two
tracks are the majority literally the
majority of senators and house represent
house members who tried to overturn
their elections using their votes
as outside the gates you have you know
people kind of messing you know with
with truncheons
you have to kind of follow that thread
you know in 2020 you know you talk about
you know the movement you know for black
at the same time as
i think it was about a dozen states were
indemnifying people for the crime of um
driving their vehicles vehicular
homicide into crowds right
and if you look at the statistics i
think there was something like you know
like there were there there were nearly
a hundred vehicular assaults you know
this is terrorism right the automobile
as a weapon
uh uh and you know kind of pushing back
you know movements for democracy and
you just
you know we we we need to be and you
know i think
and then as we look at this january 6
investigation you have this house
committee that seems to be doing very
aggressive work and this justice
department that seems to be you know
nowhere to be found because they’re
quote unquote institutionalists that’s
where you get into the democratic party
fecklessness where we have this attorney
general who
um you know hopefully is building these
cases from the ground up but we don’t
know we haven’t heard anything right so
we have no kind of organized voice
within the democratic party
who is saying you know really kind of
naming the stakes with any kind of
uh clarity and aggressiveness
that has the power to do something about
it or maybe not and that’s why we’re
kind of on the the precipice you know
and you know you still have this kind of
adlai stevenson kind of obama strain in
the democratic party
that says the problem is
polarization and we’re saying too many
mean things about the opposition
and that’s a real problem
and bill
yeah so um

see first of all i think i i’m going to
say two things that will sound perhaps
one is that i think this moment was

the second is
i do not think that the outcome
is inevitable

so i think that this moment was was
inevitable because this is the result of
racial settler colonialism

this is the result of
the failure of the civil war
actually resolve
part of the question

and it was also the result of the fact
that during this great democratic or
small d moment in the south called
native americans were being annihilated
in the west
right so yeah these contradictory things
are going on so in in so i think that
the the failure of the united states to
ever come to grips with its own past
with the question of a genuine democracy
um even within the context of capitalism
made this inevitable this clash
and and i think that when i talked
before about right-wing populism as the
herpes of capitalism it’s because the
virus is in the system

it’s not outside of the system and
periodically like a stomach bug hitting
you right it’s in the system
so the system needs to be cleansed
um and and and so the outcome of this
is not inevitable
um so
we have at least
of the population that has not lost its

i mean that’s very significant
and and i think that what is critically
important mark you and i have talked
about this
is that people have to organize at the

and and it can’t be relying on
the eloquence of barack obama or the
feistiness of of biden in order to stop
this plague
when the right shows up at school board
we need to be there

when the right attacks
uh or tries to
stop the vaccine
we need to be there
when they come after election officials
we need to be there

now i realized the implications of this
i realize that that may lead to physical
altercations but in general i have found
the right to be quite cowardly
this is true not just in the united
states but in other places they are
and they they often think they can get
away quite literally with murder

until and unless progressives stand up
and say
no pass iran
we’re not playing this game yep
um and and we should remember just
historically the spanish fascists in
could have been defeated in a matter of
months had it not been for the nazis and
the italian fascists
intervening we can actually stop this
thing from happening so i think it’s
really important that we do not fall
prey to fatalism which i see certainly
in the liberal media
but also in segments of the left and one
final thing mark there’s also segments
on the left you and i have discussed
that really downplay this danger from
right wing authoritarianism and continue
to think that the main enemy are
centrist democrats

i want to go upside people’s heads and
ask them what what are you smoking what
is it is it like alcohol and herb or
you’re adding some other stuff
what is it that that you think is going
on here yeah so i think we just have to
grapple with that
so let me let me jump in here for a
minute and this is we so we brought us
youtube just brought us to this moment
let’s talk about this moment what that
what what you just said um uh really
means bill and what you were saying
earlier rick that so so how does that
happen though let me posit something
that may sound negative but let me just
pause it anyway and you can tear it
apart okay
so i’m watching the right
and i see a right wing
appears to be
more organized
than progressives of the left or anybody
and well-funded
and well-armed i might add
in all these complications that we
talked about whether it was hitler in
1930 germany 1932 or
or or 1877
or right now a lot of it is being fueled
by no no don’t take that back that part
of it is
people who have been in the military
are upset and angry and on the right
as my two grandsons who now serve in the
united states army said to me
that almost all the guys they meet
in the combat units are on the right
as opposed to units they’re in when
they’re much more open-minded
because they’re in the space core and
all that kind of stuff so they’re in a
very different kind of place but so so
they so so that reality exists
and the fact that
the right wing inside the republican
literally control of 26 states in the
union and in 41 states they’re put in
legislation to diminish voting rights
and to control the vote so they can
control the elections coming up
and that means that they could possibly
for numerous reasons including the
failure of bodies and others to take
over in 2022 the the federal legislature
which is significant
and the left is kind of and progressives
are kind of embedded inside the
democratic party and i’m not saying here
go start another party that has no power
at the moment but that are embedded
inside the democrats with very little
power within them
and the unions are now struggling to get
back on their feet and you see strikes
taking place and people organizing
but the power of the unions are not what
they were
so what do we mean
and what do you mean but when you say
now it’s time to kind of stand up i i
mean i understand standing up to them
and i
even in my even if even in my if my
dotage here i’m willing to stand up
against these fools
but but
but but the question is what does that
mean if we are not organized to really
either industry
polls or in the community in the
elections in school boards and more
so that that so so what is it going to
take to really stop them
is the question i’m asking the two of
you well mark the democratic party
didn’t organize the civil rights
the democratic party didn’t organize the
chicano moratorium in 1970 right right
democratic party didn’t organize
right i mean so i think it’s really
important that people
break with passivity and start thinking
about okay
how do we organize
uh like like i’ve been talking for years
about the necessity to organize
democracy brigades and my critical image
was the union leagues of the 1860s and
1870s that were organized based
particularly among african americans but
also among poor whites to fight to
reconstruction the problem
is that they didn’t take the necessary
to ultimately smash the terrorists the
white terrorists but i think that we
need to be thinking at the local level
of building brigades of people
that are engaged in this fight for
and i think that the longer that we sit
back and we wait
for something to come out of congress or
out of the white house it ain’t gonna
happen and i agree with you rick about i
mean i
i keep hoping that the justice
department is working something up and i
actually think that they probably are
but man are they quiet
yeah you know and and and so i think
that that’s necessary i mean you know i
want to see
at a school board meeting
when these lunatics show up i want to
see our forces there
right and basically saying to these
lunatics do you want to debate about
critical race theory let’s have the damn
but you are not going to bully this
board into some ridiculous stuff like
these different uh pieces of legislation
are being uh passed in in various state
legislatures but we have got to we we
can’t we are our own liberators we’re
the ones that are going to have to
constitute these organizations and so it
might not be entire national unions it
might be local unions it might be naacp
chapters it might be immigrant rights
groups right that come together even if
on an ad hoc basis
and say one of the things we’re going to
take up making sure to protect these
election officials making sure that
people can vote making sure that
vaccines happen
uh making making sure to protect the
right to abortion right that we’re gonna
do this and we’re gonna do it in the
rick you want to jump in on that
well uh
but another thing is you know i’m a big
fan of um
a socialist thinker carl palani who
points out that um
society is organized around market
values always create you know basically
nihilistic apocalypses
and that there are always people within
basically the the ambit of capital in
the ruling class who grasp this
and so we have allies within the ruling
like you know the Rockefellers who
you know in the 1860s and 70s you know
built a school system in the south for
african americans right which was a very
radical thing to do
so we have allies and we have to search
them out uh because these people grasp
that um if you know we’re uh talking
about a republic of of insects and grass
as um
um uh you know who was it the great
writer about nuclear apocalypse you know
they they don’t win either
so um
you know when after but you know power
yields nothing without a demand and you
know after the urban rebellions of the
60s one of the things that happened was
you know employers were like holy crap
you know if you read the harvard
business review they’re like we need to
bring african-americans into you know
corporate america
so um
we have to find all sorts of pressure
right all sorts of pressure
points because you know we’re talking
civilization or barbarism and
uh we might have allies that um
you know um
are not our usual allies
because we’re
talking about whether the thing you know
basically human life can
be sustained on the planet
and um so bottom up top down inside out
outside in you know we got a you know we
got to build a real popular front for
i i want to just add to that i just
agrees 100 rick and and uh just point
out that
uh something that uh your comment
in in response to the 50s and 60s
there was what you described
and but there was also
the response from the right the the the
what become becomes a right-wing
populist movement
and this this this politics of revenge
yeah uh that we see
germinating in the late 60s and and and
then spreading out
and i um i thought about that a lot
after 2020
because we had this historic post-george
floyd murder
uh uh movement around the country right
we had demonstrations uprisings
so there were two responses part of
corporate america and the political
establishment responded with greater
attention to so-called diversity
to re-examining u.s history et cetera et
but then there was equally this
authoritarian backlash
that i would argue that the black lives
matter movement as a whole was
completely unprepared for
because that right-wing backlash
organizing it wasn’t just protesting
they were organizing and the george
floyd black lives matter movement
was protesting but did not create
lasting organizations and points of

it was predictable
it’s what we saw in 1968
nixon didn’t appear out of nowhere
george wallace didn’t appear out of
it was a particular response
that we have to always keep in mind it’s
part of
of the the this virus
in the u.s system
that’s an interesting analogy i i think
that’s that’s true i mean i
as someone who was in the midst of 1968
i think about all the failures of 68
that those of us who were too busy in
the streets battling as opposed to uh in
the community organizing and i think
that’s that’s part of part of the issue
we face
um but i’m gonna be getting this in kind
of a positive note that there is
there’s light at the end of this tunnel
and there’s room for there’s room to
the right and to build something new and
i think that’s really the kind of
message that we that we need to kind of
push really hard
that’s right um and and i and i you know
we in the conversation they both have
been really great and kind of describing
why we’re here and also what we have to
do to get there um and i do want to
thank both of you for joining us today
um uh and rick palestine and bill
fletcher this has been a really good
and i want to tell all the folks out
there who are watching listening to us
today um that we’re going to continue
this conversation that bill fletcher and
i will be producing a whole series of
conversations not just about oh woe is
me but what can be done why we’re here
and what can we do
um and we’ll also be also talking to
organizers from across the country the
poor people’s campaign and other
organizations who are actually
organizing on the ground there is a way
to stop this and that’s what we’re going
to focus on
uh and we are uh in the middle of a
battle for the future and i think
we’re all here and for me who has
children and grandchildren and waiting
and even great grandchildren which is
kind of scared to say but i do
that it’s for them
not we’re going to let them inherit a
better society not something that the
right can control
uh and again thank you both so much both
for the work you do and for being with
us here today on the steiner show on the
real news it’s always good to talk to
both of you i mean it’s really important
to do that thank you so much
and uh i want to thank you all for
listening here today
with uh and loving hearts like like
these we can’t fail
amen to that and i want to and all of
you out there remind you that to hear
the real news you can still go to forward slash donate
continue your donations real news to
keep these things alive uh and look at
to our reports on the rise of the right
and uh other projects we’ll be doing i’m
gonna thank dwayne gladden and stephen
frank for editing and monitoring this
broadcast and thank you all for watching
today and listening to the i mean and
being part of the mark steiner show here
on the real news thank you take care and
keep on fighting stay the course

Margaret Atwood Sounds the Alarm on Authoritarianism | Amanpour and Company

i’m honestly astounded by again the
prescience um that you wrote because
part of the crisis in handmaid’s tale
started with an attack on on congress
and and the the you know the fallout
from that i mean here all these decades
later in 2021
we had an attack on congress and there
are many who believe that the
fundamental democracy of the united
states is under threat so what does
totalitarianism look like in the u.s
or could
when when it arrives
uh well it’ll have a lot of god in it
um and a lot of things will be done in
the name of of said word
uh that if you actually uh believe in
some form of god and in the in the uh
latter part of that book uh you would
think that such a god would not
indulge in these practices i’m being
very circumlocations here
um yeah so it would have a lot of god
and it would have a lot of american
flags in it
and it would have a lot of let’s get
back to the old days in it
when were those old days and what was
going on in them
so you can’t separate anything that
happens in the united states from
uh its history of uh slavery
and um
so-called reconstruction and and jim
crow laws and segregation that’s all
very recent
i think the totalitarianisms of the left
lead through hope
so things are going to get much better
except we have to get rid of those
and those of the right to lead through
unless you follow me and do what i say
terrible things will happen
and there’s a list of terrible things
which are specific to each
circumstance but i wouldn’t say that’s
how it goes
don’t you think well it’s fascinating
again i mean just really
just watching all of this unfold things
that i personally never dreamed could
happen uh an attack on american
democracy of all places rolling back
quote unquote the woman question um
which we see right now and again goes to
the very heart of the handmaid’s tale
and that of course i don’t need to tell
you the texas abortion law the
mississippi uh abortion
decisions that are about to come up the
idea that roe versus weighed may be
overturned either in whole or in part
how well i mean you obviously are
concerned did you ever imagine though
that when you wrote the handmaid’s tale
this amount of reality would shape up so
many decades later
okay i’ve never believed in
i’ve never believed it can’t happen here