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 prosperity. Autocracy 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 man. People 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.
When it comes to elections, the Republican Party operates within a carapace of lies. So we rely on the Democrats to preserve our system of government.
The problem is that Democrats live within their own insular echo chamber. Within that bubble convenient falsehoods spread, go unchallenged and make it harder to focus on the real crisis. So let’s clear away some of these myths that are distorting Democratic behavior:
The whole electoral system is in crisis. Elections have three phases: registering and casting votes, counting votes and certifying results. When it comes to the first two phases, the American system has its flaws but is not in crisis. As Yuval Levin noted in The Times a few days ago, it’s become much easier in most places to register and vote than it was years ago. We just had a 2020 election with remarkably high turnout. The votes were counted with essentially zero fraud.
The emergency is in the third phase — Republican efforts to overturn votes that have been counted. But Democratic voting bills — the For the People Act and its update, the Freedom to Vote Act — were not overhauled to address the threats that have been blindingly obvious since Jan. 6 last year. They are sprawling measures covering everything from mail-in ballots to campaign finance. They basically include every idea that’s been on activist agendas for years.
These bills are hard to explain and hard to pass. By catering to D.C. interest groups, Democrats have spent a year distracting themselves from the emergency right in front of us.
Voter suppression efforts are a major threat to democracy. Given the racial history of this country, efforts to limit voting, as some states have been implementing, are heinous. I get why Democrats want to repel them. But this, too, is not the major crisis facing us. That’s because tighter voting laws often don’t actually restrict voting all that much. Academics have studied this extensively. A recent well-researched study suggested that voter ID laws do not reduce turnout. States tighten or loosen their voting laws, often seemingly without a big effect on turnout. The general rule is that people who want to vote end up voting.
Just as many efforts to limit the electorate don’t have much of an effect, the Democratic bills to make it easier to vote might not have much impact on turnout or on which party wins. As my Times colleague Nate Cohn wrote last April, “Expanding voting options to make it more convenient hasn’t seemed to have a huge effect on turnout or electoral outcomes. That’s the finding of decades of political science research on advance, early and absentee voting.”
Higher turnout helps Democrats. This popular assumption is also false. Political scientists Daron R. Shaw and John R. Petrocik, authors of “The Turnout Myth,” looked at 70 years of election data and found “no evidence that turnout is correlated with partisan vote choice.”
The best way to address the crisis is top down. Democrats have focused their energies in Washington, trying to pass these big bills. The bills would override state laws and dictate a lot of election procedures from the national level.
Given how local Republicans are behaving, I understand why Democrats want to centralize things. But it’s a little weird to be arguing that in order to save democracy we have to take power away from local elected officials. Plus, if you tell local people they’re not fit to govern themselves, you’re going to further inflame the populist backlash.
But the real problem is that Democrats are not focusing on crucial state and local arenas. The Times’s Charles Homans had a fascinating report from Pennsylvania, where Trump backers were running for local office, including judge of elections, while Democrats struggled to even find candidates. “I’m not sure what the Democratic Party was worried about, but it didn’t feel like they were worried about school board and judge of elections races — all of these little positions,” a failed Democratic candidate said.
Democrats do not seem to be fighting hard in key local races. They do not seem to be rallying the masses so that state legislators pay a price if they support democracy-weakening legislation.
Maybe some of the energy that has been spent over the past year analyzing and berating Joe Manchin could have been better spent grooming and supporting good state and local candidates. Maybe the best way to repulse a populist uprising is not by firing up all your allies in the Northwest quadrant of Washington, D.C.
The crisis of democracy is right in front of us. We have a massive populist mob that thinks the country is now controlled by a coastal progressive oligarchy that looks down on them. We’re caught in cycles of polarization that threaten to turn America into Northern Ireland during the Troubles. We have Republican hacks taking power away from the brave state officials who stood up to Trumpian bullying after the 2020 election.
Democrats have spent too much time on measures that they mistakenly think would give them an advantage. The right response would be: Do the unsexy work at the local level, where things are in flux. Pass the parts of the Freedom to Vote Act that are germane, like the protections for elections officials against partisan removal, and measures to limit purging voter rolls. Reform the Electoral Count Act to prevent Congress from derailing election certifications.
When your house is on fire, drop what you were doing, and put it out. Maybe finally Democrats will do that.
New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week in politics, including the latest report from the Associated Press that shows no widespread voter fraud in 2020, the latest revelations from Congress’ Jan. 6 investigation, and how President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda is faring.
What is the 21st century going to be about? If you had asked me 20 years ago, on, say, Sept. 10, 2001, I would have had a clear answer: advancing liberalism. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid, Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in China, a set of values seemed to be on the march — democracy, capitalism, egalitarianism, individual freedom.
Then over the ensuing decades, democracy’s spread was halted and then reversed. Authoritarians in China, Central and Eastern Europe and beyond wielded power. We settled into the now familiar contest between democratic liberalism and authoritarianism.
But over the last several years something interesting happened: Authoritarians found God. They used religious symbols as nationalist identity markers and rallying cries. They unified the masses behind them by whipping up perpetual culture wars. They reframed the global debate: It was no longer between democracy and dictatorship; it was between the moral decadence of Western elites and traditional values and superior spirituality of the good normal people in their own homelands.
The 21st century is turning into an era of globe-spanning holy wars at a time when the appeal of actual religion seems to be on the wane.
Xi Jinping is one of the architects of this spiritually coated authoritarianism. Mao Zedong regarded prerevolutionary China with contempt. But Xi’s regime has gone out of its way to embrace old customs and traditional values. China scholar Max Oidtmann says it is restricting independent religious entities while creating a “Socialist core value view,” a creed that includes a mixture of Confucianism, Daoism, Marxism and Maoism.
Last week, the Chinese government ordered a boycott of “sissy pants” celebrities. These are the delicate-looking male stars who display gentle personalities and are accused of feminizing Chinese manhood. This is only one of the culture war forays designed to illustrate how the regime is protecting China from Western moral corruption.
The regime’s top-down moral populism is having an effect. “Today, traditionalism is gaining momentum among everyday Chinese people as well as intellectuals and politicians,” Xuetong Yan of Tsinghua University wrote in 2018. The Chinese internet is apparently now rife with attacks on the decadent “white left” — educated American and European progressives who champion feminism, L.G.B.T.Q. rights and such.
Vladimir Putin and the other regional authoritarians play a similar game. Putin has long associated himself with religious philosophers like Ivan Ilyin and Nikolai Berdyaev. In an essay for the Berkley Center at Georgetown University, Dmitry Uzlaner reports that the regime is casting itself as “the last bastion of Christian values” that keeps the world from descending into liberal moral chaos.
The culture war is going full blast there, too, with the regime restricting the internet, attempting to limit abortion, relaxing the fight against domestic violence and imposing blasphemy laws and a ban on supplying information to minors that supports “nontraditional sexual relations.”
Even wannabe authoritarians in America and Western Europe are getting in on the game. The international affairs scholar Tobias Cremer has shown that many of the so-called Christian nationalists who populate far-right movements on both sides of the Atlantic are actually not that religious.
They are motivated by nativist and anti-immigrant attitudes and then latch onto Christian symbols to separate “them” from “us.” In Germany, for example, the far-right group that aggressively plays up its Christian identity underperforms among voters who are actually religious.
In another Berkley Center essay, Cremer writes that right-wing American extremists “parade Christian crosses at rallies, use Crusader imagery in their memes and might even seek alliances with conservative Christian groups. But such references are not about the living, vibrant, universal and increasingly diverse faith in Jesus Christ that is practiced in the overwhelming majority of America’s churches today. Instead, in white identity, politics Christianity is largely turned into a secularized ‘Christianism’: a cultural identity-marker and symbol of whiteness that is interchangeable with the Viking-veneer, the Confederate flag, or neo-pagan symbols.”
These religiously cloaked authoritarians have naturally provoked an anti-religious backlash among those who understandably now associate religion with authoritarianism, nativism and general thuggishness. The rising and unprecedented levels of secularism in Europe and the U.S. over the past several decades have not produced less vicious cultural and spiritual warfare.
The pseudo-religious authoritarians have raised the moral stakes. They act as if individualism, human rights, diversity, gender equality, L.G.B.T.Q. rights and religious liberty are just the latest forms of Western moral imperialism and the harbingers of social and moral chaos.
Those of us on the side of Western liberalism have no choice but to fight this on the spiritual and cultural plane as well, to show that pluralism is the opposite of decadence, but is a spiritual-rich, practically effective way to lift human dignity and run a coherent society.
All anyone had to do was watch Donald Trump hold the Bible upside down during his infamous photo op in front of the church across from the White House to see how right Mr. Brooks comments are today. Using religion as a tool to manipulate the masses is sinful. No doubt that those who choose this path are equally without moral character.
If there were no religion, you would still have good people doing good things and bad people doing bad things but you need the cover of religion in order to get good people to do bad things.
My friend Rod Dreher recently had a blog post for The American Conservative called “Why Are Conservatives in Despair?” He explained that conservatives are in despair because a hostile ideology — wokeness or social justice or critical race theory — is sweeping across America the way Bolshevism swept across the Russian Empire before the October Revolution in 1917.
This ideology is creating a “soft totalitarianism” across wide swaths of American society, he writes. In the view of not just Dreher but also many others, it divides the world into good and evil based on crude racial categories. It has no faith in persuasion, or open discourse, but it shames and cancels anybody who challenges the official catechism. It produces fringe absurdities like “ethnomathematics,” which proponents say seeks to challenge the ways that, as one guide for teachers puts it, “math is used to uphold capitalist, imperialist and racist views” by dismissing old standards like “getting the ‘right’ answer.”
I’m less alarmed by all of this because I have more confidence than Dreher and many other conservatives in the American establishment’s ability to co-opt and water down every radical progressive ideology. In the 1960s, left-wing radicals wanted to overthrow capitalism. We ended up with Whole Foods. The co-optation of wokeness seems to be happening right now.
The thing we call wokeness contains many elements. At its core is an honest and good-faith effort to grapple with the legacies of racism. In 2021, this element of wokeness has produced more understanding, inclusion and racial progress than we’ve seen in over 50 years. This part of wokeness is great.
But wokeness gets weirder when it’s entangled in the perversities of our meritocracy, when it involves demonstrating one’s enlightenment by using language — “problematize,” “heteronormativity,” “cisgender,” “intersectionality” — inculcated in elite schools or with difficult texts.
In an essay titled “The Language of Privilege,” in Tablet, Nicholas Clairmont argues that the difficulty of the language is the point — to exclude those with less educational capital.
People who engage in this discourse have been enculturated by our best and most expensive schools. If you look at the places where the splashy woke controversies have taken place, they have often been posh prep schools, like Harvard-Westlake or Dalton, or pricey colleges, like Bryn Mawr or Princeton.
The meritocracy at this level is very competitive. Performing the discourse by canceling and shaming becomes a way of establishing your status and power as an enlightened person. It becomes a way of showing — despite your secret self-doubts — that you really belong. It also becomes a way of showing the world that you are anti-elite, even though you work, study and live in circles that are extremely elite.
The meritocracy has one job: to funnel young people into leadership positions in society. It’s very good at doing that. Corporations and other organizations are eager to hire top performers, and one sign of elite credentials is the ability to do the discourse. That’s why the C.I.A. made that widely mocked recruiting video that was like a woke word salad: cisgender, intersectional, patriarchal.
The people at the C.I.A., Disney, Major League Baseball and Coca-Cola aren’t faking it when they perform the acts we now call woke capitalism. They went to the same schools and share the same dominant culture and want the same reputational benefits.
But as the discourse gets more corporatized it’s going to get watered down. The primary ideology in America is success; that ideology has a tendency to absorb all rivals.
We saw this happen between the 1970s and the 1990s. American hippies built a genuinely bohemian counterculture. But as they got older they wanted to succeed. They brought their bohemian values into the market, but year by year those values got thinner and thinner and finally were nonexistent.
Corporations and other establishment organizations co-opt almost unconsciously. They send ambitious young people powerful signals about what level of dissent will be tolerated while embracing dissident values as a form of marketing. By taking what was dangerous and aestheticizing it, they turn it into a product or a brand. Pretty soon key concepts like “privilege” are reduced to empty catchphrases floating everywhere.
The economist and cultural observer Tyler Cowen expects wokeness in this sense won’t disappear. Writing for Bloomberg last week, he predicted it would become something more like the Unitarian Church — “broadly admired but commanding only a modicum of passion and commitment.”
This would be fine with me. As I say, there are (at least) two elements to wokeness. One focuses on concrete benefits for the disadvantaged — reparations, more diverse hiring, more equitable housing and economic policies. The other instigates savage word wars among the highly advantaged. If we can have more of the former and less of the latter, we’ll all be better off.
When one party becomes detached from reality.
In a recent Monmouth University survey, 77 percent of Trump backers said Joe Biden had won the presidential election because of fraud. Many of these same people think climate change is not real. Many of these same people believe they don’t need to listen to scientific experts on how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
We live in a country in epistemological crisis, in which much of the Republican Party has become detached from reality. Moreover, this is not just an American problem. All around the world, rising right-wing populist parties are floating on oceans of misinformation and falsehood. What is going on?
Many people point to the internet — the way it funnels people into information silos, the way it abets the spread of misinformation. I mostly reject this view. Why would the internet have corrupted Republicans so much more than Democrats, the global right more than the global left?
My analysis begins with a remarkable essay that Jonathan Rauch wrote for National Affairs in 2018 called “The Constitution of Knowledge.” Rauch pointed out that every society has an epistemic regime, a marketplace of ideas where people collectively hammer out what’s real. In democratic, nontheocratic societies, this regime is a decentralized ecosystem of academics, clergy members, teachers, journalists and others who disagree about a lot but agree on a shared system of rules for weighing evidence and building knowledge.
This ecosystem, Rauch wrote, operates as a funnel. It allows a wide volume of ideas to get floated, but only a narrow group of ideas survive collective scrutiny. “We let alt-truth talk,” Rauch said, “but we don’t let it write textbooks, receive tenure, bypass peer review, set the research agenda, dominate the front pages, give expert testimony or dictate the flow of public dollars.”
Over the past decades the information age has created a lot more people who make their living working with ideas, who are professional members of this epistemic process. The information economy has increasingly rewarded them with money and status. It has increasingly concentrated them in ever more prosperous metro areas.
While these cities have been prospering, places where fewer people have college degrees have been spiraling down: flatter incomes, decimated families, dissolved communities. In 1972, people without college degrees were nearly as happy as those with college degrees. Now those without a degree are far more unhappy about their lives.
People need a secure order to feel safe. Deprived of that, people legitimately feel cynicism and distrust, alienation and anomie. This precarity has created, in nation after nation, intense populist backlashes against the highly educated folks who have migrated to the cities and accrued significant economic, cultural and political power. Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center calls this the “Density Divide.” It is a bitter cultural and political cold war.
In the fervor of this enmity, millions of people have come to detest those who populate the epistemic regime, who are so distant, who appear to have it so easy, who have such different values, who can be so condescending. Millions not only distrust everything the “fake news” people say, but also the so-called rules they use to say them.
People in this precarious state are going to demand stories that will both explain their distrust back to them and also enclose them within a safe community of believers. The evangelists of distrust, from Donald Trump to Alex Jones to the followers of QAnon, rose up to give them those stories and provide that community. Paradoxically, conspiracy theories have become the most effective community bonding mechanisms of the 21st century.
For those awash in anxiety and alienation, who feel that everything is spinning out of control, conspiracy theories are extremely effective emotional tools. For those in low status groups, they provide a sense of superiority: I possess important information most people do not have. For those who feel powerless, they provide agency: I have the power to reject “experts” and expose hidden cabals. As Cass Sunstein of Harvard Law School points out, they provide liberation: If I imagine my foes are completely malevolent, then I can use any tactic I want.
Under Trump, the Republican identity is defined not by a set of policy beliefs but by a paranoid mind-set. He and his media allies simply ignore the rules of the epistemic regime and have set up a rival trolling regime. The internet is an ideal medium for untested information to get around traditional gatekeepers, but it is an accelerant of the paranoia, not its source. Distrust and precarity, caused by economic, cultural and spiritual threat, are the source.
What to do? You can’t argue people out of paranoia. If you try to point out factual errors, you only entrench false belief. The only solution is to reduce the distrust and anxiety that is the seedbed of this thinking. That can only be done first by contact, reducing the social chasm between the members of the epistemic regime and those who feel so alienated from it. And second, it can be done by policy, by making life more secure for those without a college degree.
Rebuilding trust is, obviously, the work of a generation.
The consequences of Donald Trump’s inability to feel.
On Dec. 26, 2004, the French author Emmanuel Carrère, his girlfriend and their respective sons were vacationing at a cliff-top hotel in Sri Lanka. Their relationship was dying and, feeling out of sorts, they decided not to go down to the beachfront scuba diving lesson they’d signed up for. It was a consequential decision, for that was the morning the tsunami hit.
A family they knew was staying on the beach. That morning the grandfather, Philippe, was reading the paper while his 4-year-old granddaughter, Juliette, happily played in the wavelets nearby. Suddenly Philippe felt himself swept up by an enormous wall of black water, pretty sure he would die, certain his granddaughter already had.
In his memoir, Carrère bears witness to the days of suffering and endurance that followed the wave. When Philippe tells his daughter and son-in-law about the death of their child, Juliette’s mother, Delphine, screams. Her husband thought, “I can no longer do anything for my daughter, so I will save my wife.”
Carrère had lamented that he had always been unable to love, but in those horrific days he and his girlfriend stayed with the family, searched among the corpses, enveloped the family with compassion and practical care. He observes how at mealtime Delphine’s hand shakes as she brings a forkful of curried rice to her lips.
He is with Delphine when they come across a woman, Ruth, who was on her honeymoon and has lost track of her husband, Tom. For two days she sat outside the hospital, not eating or sleeping, convinced that if she nodded off Tom would never emerge alive from wherever he was.
“Her determination is frightening,” Carrère writes. “You can sense that she’s quite close to passing to the other side, into catatonia, living death, and Delphine and I understand that our role is to prevent this.”
Carrère’s memoir describes how a self-absorbed man is altered in crisis and develops a deep and perceptive capacity to see the struggles of others. The book is called “Lives Other Than My Own.”
I thought of that book this week because the sensitive perceptiveness Carrère displays is the opposite of the blindness Donald Trump displayed in quotes reported by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic and Bob Woodward in his latest book about the administration, “Rage.”
Goldberg says Trump told people that he sees the war dead as “suckers” and “losers.” Trump can’t seem to fathom the emotional experience of their lives — their love for those they fought for, the fears they faced down, the resolve to risk their lives nonetheless.
If he can’t see that, he can’t understand the men and women in uniform serving around him. He can’t understand the inner devotion that drives people to public service, which is supposed to be the core of his job.
The same sort of blindness is on display in the Woodward quotes. It was stupid of Trump to think he could downplay Covid-19 when he already knew it had the power of a pandemic. It was stupid to think the American people would panic if told the truth. It was stupid to talk to Woodward in the first place.
This is not an intellectual stupidity. I imagine Trump’s I.Q. is fine. It is a moral and emotional stupidity. He blunders so often and so badly because he has a narcissist’s inability to get inside the hearts and minds of other people. It’s a stupidity that in almost pure clinical form, flows out of his inability to feel, a stupidity of the heart.
In most times and cultures, people realized that understanding a person or situation is as much an emotional process as an analytical one. In the Bible the word “to know” covers a range of activities, from having a conversation with, to having sex with, to entering into a commitment with and much else — all the different ways we come to understand each other.
St. Augustine’s theory of
- knowledge begins with emotion.
- Love is a focus of attention.
- Love is a motivation to learn more about a person.
- Love is a reverence for the image of God in each person.
Through his own failures, Trump illustrates by counterexample that the heart is the key to understanding. To accurately size up a human situation you have to project a certain quality of attention that is personal, gentle, respectful, intimate and affectionate — more moving with and feeling into than simply observing with detachment.
Carrère achieved that quality of attention after the tsunami.
Maybe I spend too much time on Twitter and in media, but I see less and less of this sort of attention in America, even amid the tragedies of 2020. Far from softening toward one another, the whole country feels even more rived, more hardened and increasingly blind to lives other than our own.