Liberal democracy around the world is in trouble. Right-wing populist authoritarians are gaining support. Putin copycats head the governments of a number of new and emerging democracies. Now, we have one.
Victor Orban, the authoritarian prime minister of Hungary, boasts that he has turned his country into an “illiberal democracy.” In other words, a democracy without rights.
Does anyone believe it can’t happen here? It’s already started.
I will try to answer two questions: Why is liberal democracy losing support? And what can be done to thwart the authoritarians?
I have drawn material from three articles in the March, 2017 issue of Atlantic, “How to Build an Autocracy.” By David Frum, “It’s Putin’s World,” by Franklin Foer, and “Containing Trump,” by Jonathan Rauch, “The Signs of Deconsolidation,” by Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, in the January, 2017, issue of the Journal of Democracy, and two articles in the Washington Post, “Trumpism: Made in Europe,” by E.J. Dionne, May 16, 2016 and “Americans are losing faith in Democracy – and in each other,” by Nathaniel Persily and Jon Cohen, October 14, 2016.
Why is democracy losing support? Why is an authoritarian like Trump our President? Trumpism is an import from the right-wing populists in Europe. Major factors behind the rise of right-wing populism are opposition to immigration, fears of terrorism and crime, economic nationalism, and promises of a muscular hand against the forces of disorder.
Underlying all of these are ethnic and racial fear and anxiety – the fear of the other – the fear that they are losing their majority and their culture. – that this will no longer be their country. By blocking immigration and deporting the undocumented they are trying to slow down the rapidly increasing population of minorities. In 2012, the Census Bureau forecasted that non-Hispanic whites could be in the minority by 2044 – just 27 years from now.
Last year the far-right candidate for Austria’s presidency lost by just 6/10th of 1 %. Austrian voters also showed the same kind of geographic political, economic and cultural divide as our November election – with strong support for the authoritarian in the rural areas. The Brookings Institution reported that while Hillary Clinton carried fewer than 500 of America’s more than 3,000 counties, those counties she carried – mostly in and around major urban areas - generated 64% of the nation’s economic activity in 2015. Not only do we have the worst economic inequality among income groups in our history, we also have enormous geographic economic inequality, which is far more sinister and enormously more difficult to change.
There is huge economic anxiety among middle and working class people, especially those outside the major metropolitan areas. Across the Rust Belt, from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin there are hundreds of small cities and towns that lost their primary employers. Globalization put our middle-class workers in competition with very low wage workers in other countries. Our workers lost. Pro-big business government policies permitted massive mergers and consolidations, resulting in hundreds of plant and business closings. Walmart came to town with its low prices killing off local businesses while its employees needed public support to survive on its low wages.
Surveys discussed in the article, “The Signs of Deconsolidation,” show that young people around the world have far less faith in democracy than do their parents and grandparents. There also is a global rise of citizens wanting a strong leader. About a third of Americans want a leader who doesn’t have to bother with elections.
In mid-2012 51% of Republicans had a very unfavorable view of Kleptocrat Putin. That dropped to 14% in 2016. In January of this year a survey reported that 75% of Republicans said Trump had the right approach to Russia.
Trump does not have the support of a majority of the people but he has a solid base of support – of millions of people who believe what he says, regardless of how far from the truth it is. This is a very dangerous situation. We have as our President – I hope for not too much longer - a sociopathic narcissistic liar and bully who likes to use his power and has no morals, no conscience, no belief in democracy.
He has to be stopped.
How can we do that?
Our Resistance must operate on multiple levels. We must vigorously oppose everything Trump and the Republicans do that threatens the nation. Without that opposition, millions could lose their health insurance, massive pollution of lakes and rivers could resume, nothing will be done to slow climate change, millions will be deported, maybe even the dreamers, and economic inequality will increase because he is not going to bring back those jobs. All he is going to do is help the rich get richer. And he may start a big war.
We must document and publicize the damage he does, challenge his programs in court, and demonstrate over and over. There already is active and organized opposition. There are networks of organizations working together to oppose Trump. We must help to grow that opposition. It may be that some of us are not suited to demonstrating, but we can publicize the demonstrations through social media. We can donate money. We can phone bank.
We need to show support for our elected Democrats who oppose Trump. Write letters to our senators and our members of the House. Letters are better than emails but you can do both. Call their local offices as well. Tell them how strongly you oppose Trump and how much you appreciate their opposition. If you are able to donate money to them, please do so. That makes a really good impression. Also, write our state public officials to reinforce their resistance to Trump. There is a lot that can be done.
We also must win over some of those who voted for Obama and then for Trump. Americans want change but they probably are not going to be happy with the changes Trump brings. Bashing and opposing Trump, alone, will not bring us victories. We have to show them that we understand their issues and are sincere in wanting to address them. To win, we must also offer viable, practical alternatives that will make a difference in their lives. Those alternatives are progressive programs and progressive government.
Progressive government means doing for the people what they need done but cannot do for themselves. We need higher wages and thus we need a much higher minimum wage. We need national health insurance – Medicare for all. We need a concentrated attack on climate change and an end to our reliance on fossil fuels. We need roads and bridges, and high speed trains. We need to end the war on drugs and legalize marijuana. We need to raise taxes on the wealthy and reform our corporate tax system. We need to improve Social Security. We must regulate Wall Street. These are just some of the things that the people need but cannot do for themselves. Progressives will do them.
Because there is an enormous deficit of historical knowledge among our population, we must go to them and show them how progressive governments and programs improved the lives of the vast majority of Americans. It happened three times during the 20th Century – in the time before WW1, during the Great Depression and during the 1960s. Out of progressive government came food and drug regulation, anti-trust and pro-labor laws, women getting the right to vote, social security, the minimum wage, bank regulation, Medicare, Medicaid, integration of public schools and public facilities, voting rights protection, Headstart, and much more. In fact, almost every popular federal program came from progressive government.
We can make the Democratic Party the progressive party. We are doing right now here in Oregon. Since last year, we progressive activists – many of us veterans of the Bernie Sanders campaign - have taken control of a number of county parties, and we may be on the verge of taking control of the state party. It’s happening in other states as well. By so doing here and across the nation, we can recruit and help elect progressive candidates for every public office from the local school boards to the national Congress.
Progressives will bring reforms and programs which will begin to solve the economic and geographic inequalities. If economic anxiety is lessened, maybe racial and ethnic anxiety also will diminish.
The danger to democracy is real and is growing as more and more people lose faith in it. Trump could accelerate that loss of faith. Our successful opposition to Trump may restore it. We must block him and go to the people with better ideas and better candidates for public office. There is no time to lose.
David Frum’s article in the Atlantic is a must-read and his conclusion will be mine:
“We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you and me. Don’t be afraid. This moment of danger can also be your finest hour as a citizen and an American.”