Sunday, January 17, 2016

The "authoritarians" are on the rise: How the "democratic disconnect" makes democratic societies "easy prey" for right-wing extremists like Donald Trump

“The receptivity of the masses is very limited, 
their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. 
In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda 
must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans 
until the last member of the public understands 
what you want him to understand by your slogan.”
Adolf Hitler, "Mein Kampf" 

By Patrick

The USA is heading with full speed into this fateful election year, and one thing seems already certain: This won't be an election like the previous ones. Even 2008 with Sarah Palin's demagoguery was most likely only a "mild prelude" to what is coming now. The leading Republican contenders are two extremists, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, and the "old GOP" is barely visible any more. The Republican base has been whipped into a frenzy, the obvious result of many years of relentless vicious right-wing propaganda. It appears that many Republicans now want the "real deal": A strong man who does not care too much about traditional views, but is willing to go to extreme measures to solve real or imagined problems.

In every democratic country there is a part of the population which is deeply distrustful of the democratic system. These people perceive the system as "weak" and favor the easy, quick solutions. Also, every country has a choice: Either a society pushes these people to the side, and treats them as outcasts, or you allow them to become part of the mainstream. Once they are in the mainstream, it is very difficult to get rid of these people again.

While "experienced countries" like Germany treat these people usually as outcasts, remembering very well how right-wing extremists once destroyed a German democracy and afterwards caused chaos and destruction all over the world, many people in a country like the USA are unfortunately much more open to treat these people as viable contenders for the highest positions in the country. These extremists like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz receive huge attention by the media, and their often ridiculous talking points as well as their shameless lies become part of the mainstream.

The "Transatlantic Academy", a US-German research organisation, published an extensive report in 2013 called "The Democratic Disconnect - Citizenship and Accountability in the Transatlantic Community." In this report,  the researchers provide an excellent summary of why Democracies are increasingly under threat (page 11):

Democracy is in trouble. The collective engagement of a concerned citizenry for the public good — the bedrock of a healthy democracy — is eroding. Democratic governments often seem crippled in their capacity to deliver what their people want and need. They are neither as responsive nor as accountable as they need to be in an era of hard choices and rising non- democratic powers.

There is widespread concern about apparent declining rates of voter participation and about the alienation or disaffection of citizens from the political process. In Europe, there is fear that the distance between ordinary citizens and the politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels compromises democratic legitimacy. In the United States, lamentations about gridlock and polarization are the order of the day. Canadians worry about the tendency of their political system to place largely unaccountable power in the hands of the prime minister.

Acute crises are putting political systems under stress, both in the United States after the 2008 financial crisis, and in Europe today. Angry demonstrations in Greece and elsewhere over externally enforced austerity programs inevitably raise questions about the stability of the democratic system itself. Citizens have ways of expressing themselves when their vital interests are being harmed — but increasingly in a manner that seems to challenge, rather than reinforce, democratic government. Democratic governments, for their part, frequently behave in ways that are incomprehensible to their citizens.

These two architectural features of liberal democracy — citizenship and governance — are connected, or ought to be. But today they seem increasingly disconnected.

Domestically, there is a deepening democratic disconnect between the formal government institutions of established and aspiring democracies, on one hand, and the lived democratic experience of their citizens, on the other. This report contends that both sides of this citizen-government relationship merit serious policy attention.

The democratic disconnect also shows itself in the international community’s half-hearted responses to persistent authoritarianism or to dynamic popular upheavals such as the Arab Spring. The engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan have left the very notion of liberal interventionism widely discredited. Democracy promotion is beset by self-doubt. The economic success of some rising nondemocratic regimes accentuates democracy’s malaise.

Established democracies in the West struggle to meet the demands of their people. Economic and financial globalization has been empowering for some citizens, but for many others, it appears to reduce government to a passive mediator between the demands of global financial markets and citizens’ expectations. Democratic governments themselves are hostage to the imperatives of international financial flows. Increasingly, we see the privatization of gain and the collectivization of pain. Meanwhile the global institutional infrastructure mutates from traditional multilateralism to “minilateralism” at a time when resilient institutions are ever more needed to address proliferating problems of global governance.

This report explains how the erosion of Democratic systems is a world-wide phenomenon, and unfortunately, a significant part of the society in the USA has become a "part" of this anti-democratic movement as well. The people who reject Democracy in its current form are now usually called "The Authoritarians." 

Seducing the disillusioned population: Nazi election poster from 1932 - "Our Last Hope - Hitler" 

Citizen in Berlin looking at this election poster

In December 2015, the online magazine "Vox" published excerpts from an extensive poll among Americans, showing that many US-citizens are not very keen on living in a Democracy any more.

The results of the research are actually truly shocking. Especially many young Americans apparently turn away from democratic values.


Just today, "Politico" published a very important article, explaining that there is one fact which unites the supporters of Donald Trump: The fact that they are authoritarians.

Politico writes:

If I asked you what most defines Donald Trump supporters, what would you say? They’re white? They’re poor? They’re uneducated?

You’d be wrong.

In fact, I’ve found a single statistically significant variable predicts whether a voter supports Trump—and it’s not race, income or education levels: It’s authoritarianism.

That’s right, Trump’s electoral strength—and his staying power—have been buoyed, above all, by Americans with authoritarian inclinations. And because of the prevalence of authoritarians in the American electorate, among Democrats as well as Republicans, it’s very possible that Trump’s fan base will continue to grow. My finding is the result of a national poll I conducted in the last five days of December under the auspices of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, sampling 1,800 registered voters across the country and the political spectrum. Running a standard statistical analysis, I found that education, income, gender, age, ideology and religiosity had no significant bearing on a Republican voter’s preferred candidate.

Only two of the variables I looked at were statistically significant: authoritarianism, followed by fear of terrorism, though the former was far more significant than the latter.

Authoritarianism is not a new, untested concept in the American electorate. Since the rise of Nazi Germany, it has been one of the most widely studied ideas in social science. While its causes are still debated, the political behavior of authoritarians is not. Authoritarians obey. They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened. From pledging to “make America great again” by building a wall on the border to promising to close mosques and ban Muslims from visiting the United States, Trump is playing directly to authoritarian inclinations.

The power of the "authoritarians": Admiring the "strong man" who solves all the problems

There is a real danger in my opinion that "the authoritarians", the people who believe that problems should be solved with radical decisions by the government or the president, while ignoring the democratic process, will become more and more popular in the USA. Even if Donald Trump does not become President, there will be politicians who will be inspired by Trump's current success, and will try to imitate him. This is probably already happening.

The "old GOP" is already starting to disappear, but how will the "replacement" look like? It is obvious that a large part of the "base" is radicalized, and the "civil war" in the GOP will likely continue. My expectation is that eventually "the authoritarians" are going to take over the GOP, and this would be very bad news for the USA, and the world.

A very informative study about "The Authoritarians" can be found on the internet here, published by Canadian professor Bob Altemeyer already in 2006. His thoughts from 10 years ago read like a bad prophecy:

But why should you even bother reading this book? I would offer three reasons. First, if you are concerned about what has happened in America since a radical right-wing segment of the population began taking control of the government about a dozen years ago, I think you=ll find a lot in this book that says your fears are well founded. As many have pointed out, the Republic is once again passing through perilous times. The concept of a constitutional democracy has been under attack--and by the American government no less!

The mid-term elections of 2006 give hope that the best values and traditions of the country will ultimately prevail. But it could prove a huge mistake to think that the enemies of freedom and equality have lost the war just because they were recently rebuffed at the polls. I’ll be very much surprised if their leaders don’t frame the setback as a test of the followers’ faith, causing them to redouble their efforts. They came so close to getting what they want, they’re not likely to pack up and go away without an all-out drive.

But even if their leaders cannot find an acceptable presidential candidate for 2008, even if authoritarians play a much diminished role in the next election, even if they temporarily fade from view, they will still be there, aching for a dictatorship that will force their views on everyone. And they will surely be energized again, as they were in 1994, if a new administration infuriates them while carrying out its mandate. The country is not out of danger.

Yes, the USA is definitely not out of danger, and we will see during the course of 2016 whether our fears are justified. Let's just say that with "Trump-mania" in full swing, the year is off to a bad start.

(Many thanks to AnnetteK and junasie14 for providing the inspiration to this post!)

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