I recently signed up for Peacefield, a newsletter by Atlantic writer Tom Nichols. The name Peacefield is evidently a reference to something that escapes me–but Nichols is my kind of writer: he doesn’t mince words, and he respects language.
Nichols began by relating his debates with a fellow faculty member during his time as an academic. ( At the time, his colleague was far to the left of him.)
We’d run through a whole lexicon of political insults, but my favorite moment was a day when I exclaimed “Bolshevik!” and he barked “Hun!” and the two of us broke up in a prolonged fit of laughter….
We enjoyed these jousts, in part because we understood the words we were using and knew when we meant them and when we were kidding. We argued over who had the better policies, and over whose view of human nature and the right order of society should prevail. But I didn’t think he was a Communist and he didn’t think I was a Nazi.
Now we use these terms all day long and no one knows what they mean.
Nichols is frustrated by “how much of our public discourse is short-circuited by people who don’t understand basic terminology.”
I share that frustration. It is impossible to have a genuine, productive debate or discussion with someone who is using words that don’t mean what that person thinks they mean. Human communication is difficult even when the parties to a discussion both use language precisely; it’s impossible when one party simply uses terminology as an insulting–and inaccurate– label.
In the linked article, Nichols gives “quick and dirty” definitions to terms that are often used indiscriminately–for example, Liberal Democracy.
What it is: A system of government that lets you read cranky articles about politics like the one you’re reading right now.
More specifically, democracies derive a ruling mandate from the free choices of citizens, who are equal before the law and who can freely express their preferences. Liberal democracies enshrine a respect for basic human rights (including the right of old cranks to speak their mind). Rights are, one might say, unalienable: The losers of elections do not have their rights stripped away. All citizens abide by constitutional and legal rules agreed upon in advance of elections and are willing to transfer power back and forth to each other peaceably.
What it isn’t: “The majority always rules.” Getting everything you want every time. Governing without negotiation or compromise. Winning every election. Never living with outcomes that disappoint you. Never running out of toilet paper or cat food.
Democracy, in sum, is not “things you happen to like.”
He goes through an entire political lexicon, defining what various terms mean, and especially what they don’t mean. For example, after defining “Authoritarianism,” he explains what it isn’t.
Any rules you don’t like. Any laws you don’t like. Any election that you didn’t like. Anything that inconveniences or annoys you. Anything that limits you doing whatever you want, whenever you want, in any way that you want. Paying your taxes, obeying speed limits, or wearing a mask in a store are not “authoritarianism.”
He also offers a snarky explanation of libertarianism, and particularly good definitions of Capitalism and Socialism. And he reminds us that precision in language matters– that everything you don’t like isn’t necessarily fascism or socialism.
The term I wish more people would think about—and this is why I wrote a book about it—is illiberal democracy, because that’s where we’re headed. This is what happens when everything about liberal democracy—tolerance, trust, secular government, the rule of law, political equality—gets hollowed out and all people remember is the word democracy.
And of course, once you dump all that other stuff, democracy means “absolute rule by 50.01 percent of the voters.”
As Nichols notes, this is what we’re seeing now in places like Turkey and Hungary. All that matters is winning elections.
The danger here is not that Donald Trump or Viktor Orbán or others are fascists. They’re not, and unlikely to be, since they lack the infrastructure, mass party, ideology, and absolute cult of personality that we saw in the 1930s. (Trump is far too stupid to be an effective fascist, but he definitely has a cult of personality. Still, the Trump Cult is small potatoes compared with what Hitler or Stalin or Mussolini built. Trump is more like a Mickey Mouse version of Juan Perón.)
The danger Nichols sees is the very real possibility that the extremists will destroy the guardrails of democracy–those democratic “norms” that seem to be eroding in real time.
And as he reminds us, the first step is debasing the language.