Tag Archives: authoritarianism

A Not-So-Brave New World

So Trump took New Hampshire. A man who could hardly be more unfit for public office won a primary election held by one of America’s major parties.

This paragraph from a recent post on Political Animal pretty much sums up the situation–and the inability or unwillingness of the media to cover it accurately:

To make better predictions about electoral politics, traditional pundits need to look in the mirror and revise their assumptions about the electorate. Americans in both parties are afraid for their futures and fed with up the current system, the Republican Party has become far more extreme on the right than the Democratic Party on the left, and the GOP electorate specifically is far more demographically isolated and less interested in small-government conservatism and far more driven by racial animus, authoritarianism and cultural backlash than most centrist pundits care to admit.

Despite all the abuse aimed at the “lame stream media” and its perceived bias, most traditional media reporters and pundits have a deep-seated urge to be seen as “playing fair”—to focus on conflict, yes, but to avoid any impression that they are playing favorites. That determination leads to what has been called false equivalence: party A does something truly awful, and when party B does something wrong that most of us would consider far less troubling, the reporter paints them as equally wrongheaded. “They both do it.”

But they aren’t equivalent.

The truth is that today’s GOP bears virtually no resemblance to the party I worked for for 35 years.In 1980, I won a Republican Congressional primary; I was pro-choice, pro separation of church and state, pro public education. That would never happen today. Today’s Republican party is dominated by inflexible ideologues and proud know-nothings; it has become home to unashamed racists and would-be theocrats. The flaws of the Democrats—and there are many—pale in comparison.

There have been other times in America’s history when one or another party has “gone off the rails.” We can only hope that we are seeing the crest of this particular wave of paranoia and anti-intellectualism. (Kasich–arguably the only sane Republican candidate– did come in second.) But we can’t defeat the forces of fear and reaction unless we name them for what they are—unless we stop pretending that this is just another instance of “politics as usual.”

It isn’t. It’s ugly and it’s very, very dangerous.

Lesson from Egypt

There’s an old saying to the effect that what you see depends upon where you stand, so the lessons we can learn from the chaos in Egypt will depend on the perspectives we bring to our analysis.

In my view, Egypt is a cautionary tale about zealotry and fanaticism, about rigid self-righteousness untempered by doubt or moderated by open-mindedness.

As Roger Cohen wrote in yesterday’s New York Times,  the Arab Spring “demanded of political Islam that it reject religious authoritarianism, respect differences and uphold citizenship based on equal rights for all.” But zealots cannot, by definition, respect the equal rights of others. They cannot concede the reasonableness of differing beliefs or judgments, nor the right of others to hold those beliefs.

 Morsi misread the Arab Spring. The uprising that ended decades of dictatorship and led to Egypt’s first free and fair presidential election last year was about the right to that vote. But at a deeper level it was about personal empowerment, a demand to join the modern world, and live in an open society under the rule of law rather than the rule of despotic whim.

In a Muslim nation, where close to 25 percent of Arabs live, it also demanded of political Islam that it reject religious authoritarianism, respect differences and uphold citizenship based on equal rights for all.

Authoritarianism, however, is indistinguishable from zealotry and fundamentalism of all kinds.

As a friend of mine noted in an email a couple of days ago, the despotic and deeply anti-libertarian impulses that are so easy to condemn when expressed by Islamic extremists are not so different from those displayed by some on the Christian Right, or in the Tea Party. If you need examples, think about Ted Cruz, Louie Gohmert, Michele Bachmann…think about the antics currently underway in statehouses across the country, as self-righteous men pass laws to control women’s bodies. Think about Indiana, where Mike Pence and Brian Bosma reacted to the DOMA and Proposition 8 decisions by doubling down on their insistence to make “sinful” gays second-class citizens in Indiana.

The lesson I take from Egypt is simple: zealotry is dangerous, no matter what its content.

As the late, famed jurist Learned Hand memorably put it, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.”

Worth Pondering

There has been a fascinating “book club” discussion about authoritarianism over at Talking Points Memo Cafe. This post, in particular, is worth thinking about. The observations of the book’s authors parallel several of the conclusions I reached in the research I did for my book God and Country:America in Red and Blue.

The question, of course, is–assuming these conclusions are correct–what do we do? How do we make our political discourse productive, and our governing institutions functional once more?