Mapping the Continuum between Democracy and Authoritarianism

Guy M. Burgess
Heidi Burgess

September, 2018

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In order to understand the threat that authoritarianism poses to democratic institutions, one must have a clear image of the differences between the two forms of governance (and how authoritarianism differs from old-fashioned, hardball democracy). This post explains that there is no sharp and absolute distinction between the two systems. Instead, there is a continuum that extends from ideal (and seldom realized) democracy to the most extreme, repressive, and violent forms of authoritarian rule. Our problem is that many democracies have been sliding down a slippery slope that is taking them ever closer to some flavor of authoritarian dystopia (often without people even recognizing the significance of the changes taking place). 

Full Transcript:

Lightly edited for readability and clarity.

Slide 1. This is Guy Burgess. For this post, I'd like to explore the continuum that extends from an ideal democratic society to an authoritarian, plutocratic tyranny.

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Slide 2. Before I get too far into this, I think a disclaimer is in order. University projects like ours are supposed to be nonpartisan, and I think that's as it should be. And if you look at a lot of the other materials we post, we really try to look at things from both liberal and conservative points of view. Still, when I first started teaching at the university, I was asked to sign a faculty pledge, which asked me to support the Constitution of the United States and the state of Colorado (which, by extension, was a request that I support and defend democracy).

That's what we're trying to do with this Authoritarian Populism series of posts. On the one hand, the populist revolt revolves around demands that society do a better job of meeting the needs of its citizens--which is what democracy should be about. On the other hand, there is reason to fear that we are moving toward authoritarian or plutocratic rule which is very, very far away from democracy. So that's what we're trying to look at. We want to figure out how we can have a populism that really work,s while resisting authoritarian pressures that could give us a dystopia that we all want to avoid.

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Slide 3. At any rate, the topic of authoritarianism, and the fear that we may be falling into it, has certainly generated a lot of interest since the election of President Trump. That said, I'm not sure he quite fits the profile of a successful authoritarian. To be successful, authoritarians need to inspire a lot of loyalty and, in various ways, they need to be really well organized. If you look at a lot of stories that have come out (including the book, Fear, by Bob Woodward, it seems like the chaos and disorganization of the Trump Administration will prevent it from becoming a successful authoritarian.

Slide 4. Still, raising the question is important. We need to better understand how fascism, tyranny, and other flavors of authoritarian plutocracy might come to occur in the United States. As a society, we have never really paid enough attention to the dynamics that led to Nazi Germany. We need to understand these dynamics, so we can avoid them.

As I explained in the last post, new technologies seem like they're likely to help tyranny in one way or another.  So there's a renewed need to figure out how to defend ourselves against this. There's also a murky middle ground between authoritarianism (which is more political and more focused on tyranny, power, and the ability to violently and ruthlessly suppress others) and plutocracy (which is a softer kind of domination). There are certainly lots of reasons to believe that this new class of ultra-rich global oligarchs really do have way, way too much power over the lives of everyday citizens and that they are appropriating for themselves far more wealth than makes any sense. And for me, this skyscraper in midtown Manhattan is emblematic of all this. It now rivals the new Freedom Tower as tallest building in Manhattan. And, it's just a bunch of fancy apartments for really rich folks.

Slide 5. The other thing to be clear about is that the authoritarian threat is multifaceted. You could have autocracy, tyranny, or just plain plutocracy. Or, you could have fights over all of this that lead to anarchy (or anocracy) or even outright war, which could be more destructive than the other two possibilities. So, what we're really trying to avoid is some combination of these things, which are the antithesis of the ideal democracy that we are trying to cultivate.

Slide 6. It's also worth asking an obvious question, which is whether what's happening now really any different from typical hardball democratic politics? Are concerns about authoritarianism being overplayed for political advantage? It's certainly true the word "Nazi" gets thrown around far more often than is really appropriate – a fact which cheapens the term and hides the incredible horror of the Nazi regime.

Slide 7. To help clarify things, I thought it would useful to put together an continuum. At one end you have ideal democracy and at the other you have authoritarian plutocracy. This can be further defined along a number of different but overlapping dimensions. 

Slide 8. You can, for example, think of this as the continuum between the invisible hand in the invisible fist. At one end, you have the invisible hand, Adam Smith's notion that individual freedom and competition really work to produce a "power-with" society, where people have "power with" one another–that's democracy. At the other end, you can have the perversion of competition (what Kenneth Boulding used to call the "invisible fist") where you have folks trying to exert power over others by using their power to acquire resources which then generate more power. This is the core of autocracy and plutocracy. (There is another MBI post with more detail on this key topic:

Slide 9. Another way to look at the continuum is the Gini Index, classic measure of income inequality. A Gini index of one is perfect inequality, where one person owns everything. A Gini index of zero describes the society where everybody has exactly the same – perfect equality. Those two extremes are obviously unrealistic and don't exist in the real world. Still, societies that we like to think of as being pretty successful democracies have lower Gini indecies (~ 0.3). As the Gini index gets higher, you start getting a lot closer to plutocracy.

Slide 10. Another way of thinking about the continuum builds on the notion of "Zones of Possible Agreement (ZOPA)." In successful democratic societies, decisions tend to fall within or pretty close at least to the ZOPA, which identifies mutually beneficial outcomes. In a authoritarian plutocratic society, it's skewed to one end or another. So one person or side gets all of the benefits, while everyone else loses big.

Slide 11. Still another of the overlapping dimensions for defining the continuum focuses on the degree to which society is seen as a "winner -take-all game," where, if your side wins, you get to hammer the losing minority for all you can get. The alternative is "share the wealth" politics, where you try to find ways of advancing everyone's interests. In this context, there is reason to believe that our politics has slid into a "base-mobilization" game, where both sides try to get their base to vote so they can win the election and really stick it to the other side. That's not the kind of democracy we're trying to cultivate.

Slide 12. Going back to my favorite skyscraper, there is an important distinction to be made between boundless greed, where you get more than you could possibly ever need, or a certain sense of benevolence and sharing.

Slide 13. On yet another dimension, you have the choice between bipartisanship, where you try to reach mutually beneficial agreements, and pure partisanship which is seen as a win-lose game.

Slide 14. So going back to my continuum, you might have a society that is at the left edge of the continuum, an unrealistically utopian democracy.

Slide 15. Moving to the right somewhat, you have an ideal but still realistically possible a healthy democracy. If we really thought about it from the perspective of everybody, this, I think, is where most people would like to be.

Slide 16. A lot of societies, and certainly the United States, are certainly closer to the authoritarian end of the continuum. These societies have become overly polarized with people less concerned about sharing and more about winning.

Slide 17. In fact, as things now stand, the United States is a good bit further toward the authoritarian end of the continuum with the pursuit of a winner-tak-all majority. This is, for example, illustrated by the Hastert Rule (which is now governing the House for Representatives). The rule, first coined by Speaker Hastert is simply that "the majority of the majority rules." Under the rule, when Republicans were in the majority in the House of Representatives they would convene a caucus in which Republicans would privately debate and decide each issue amongst themselves. They would then agree to vote as a block for whatever the majority of Republicans supported. This, essentially eliminated any voice for Democrats in legislation and remove the real debate from the public record. That's one implementation of "winner take all." In fairness, I have heard stories where Democrats have tried to do similar kinds of things (though I don't know the details). In any case, this is not the kind of democracy we want.

Slide 18. So, this is where we are. Right now, we have the demonization of adversaries (that's part of the "mobilize the base" strategy.) We also have a pretty total collapse of taboos against extreme, though thankfully still nonviolent, forms of political combat. The taboos against violent combat do, however, seem to be weakening--which is also worrisome. You have extreme polarization and efforts to just disenfranchise opponents, so if you could pull it off, they would never stand a realistic chance for winning.

Slide 19. Still, things could certainly be worse. We could slide even closer to the far end of the continuum. We could get to the point where we have exploitation of all by a true kleptocracy (that is a society ruled by thieves).

Slide 20. You could have the suppression of all dissent, pervasive fear, even more extreme scapegoating and hate mongering. This is where we get into fascism, governmental intimidation, and state violence.

Slide 21. Basically, this is George Orwell's 1984 updated to 2024 technology – a pretty frightening prospect. This, I think, is the big thing. It is not just about Trump, it is about this larger trend.

Slide 22. We need to recognize that we have been sliding down this slippery slope for several decades.

Slide 23. We need to wake up and realize that we have fallen into the "boiled frog" trap. This trap, which gets its name from a kind of gross story, illustrates an important concept. If you put a frog in a nice cool pan of water and turn up the heat slowly, he won't notice that it's getting intolerable and jump out. Instead, he'll cook to death. We are falling into a similar trap. While our conflict problems are getting steadily more severe, each year is seen as being not that much worse than last year. So, it's doesn't produce the panic response (like jumping out of the pot) that we need to protect ourselves. Instead, we're slowly cooking ourselves. We need to break out of this somehow. We need to realize the depth of the threat and start taking the actions to avoid them.

Slide 24. We also need to distinguish between the many real conflicts that exist between the left and the right, and between the manipulative tricks being used by provocateurs. As we've seen as the Russia scandals have unfolded, these are really sinister and sneaky. Divide and conquer actors (here I have used as an icon the image of Philip of Macedonia who's credited in Wikipedia as having invented the strategy) are manipulating society, almost as puppeteers controlling their puppets, who are persuading us to act in ways that are antithetical to our interests, but very much supportive of the interests of the provacateurs (the tyrant wannabes).

Slide 25. So we see peacebuilding as a strategy for pushing us away from the authoritarian, plutocratic end of this continuum, back toward democracy. To be successful, we are going to need lots of independent, mutually supportive efforts. There's no single, simple solution. That's why we attach the phrase "massively parallel" to peacebuilding.

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