24 June 2014

The Authoritarian Constituency

To Michael Ignatieff, the 21st century looks a lot like the 1930s. Unlike neocons, for whom it's always the 1930s, this generation specifically resembles the Thirties in the way frustrated democrats around the world seem to envy effective "authoritarians" in other countries. In Mussolini's day people proverbially appreciated fascism's ability to make the trains run on time. Today, Ignatieff writes in the New York Review of Books, democrats return from places like China "wondering why autocracies can build high-speed rail lines seemingly overnight, while democracies can take forty years to decide they cannot even begin." He worries that people might reject democracy, or specifically liberal democracy, in favor of authoritarian models, while at the same time authoritarianism has taken the offensive at the Russia-Ukraine border. Ignatieff recommends that fledgling democracies like Ukraine (never mind the current regime's origins in a coup d'etat) should be protected from authoritarian predators, while democracies need to get their act together. The latter looks like the hard part, in large part because Ignatieff's diagnosis of democracy's troubles is muddled.

Like a good Democrat, though he is Canadian, Ignatieff wants to blame democratic dysfunction on money in politics. It's clear that his real subject is American dysfunction when he notes that "to citizens of other liberal democracies, the Supreme Court doctrine that money in politics deserves the protection accorded speech seems like doctrinal insanity. For other Western democrats money is plainly power, not speech, and needs to be regulated if citizens are to stay free." I don't disagree with this quote, but earlier in the same paragraph Ignatieff observes that the once-admired American constitutional system has fallen into disrepute because it has fallen into "the hands of polarizing politicians." In a subsequent paragraph, he writes that "Democracy can only work if politics is conducted between adversaries. Right now, America's constitution is stymied by a politics of enemies." Later still, he explains that "what is required is ... courts and regulatory bodies that are freed from the power of money and the influence of the powerful." Does Ignatieff believe that money in politics is the cause of polarization or the "politics of enemies?" It seems more likely that the flood of money into politics is a consequence of that polarization, unless he really believes that the conservative reaction of the last fifty years is entirely an uprising of billionaires. To repeat: money in politics is a problem, but it may not be the problem.

"The saving grace of democracy is its adaptability," Ignatieff writes. But from his own account it looks like American constitutional democracy has failed to adapt to a polarization that has more causes than the flood of money into politics. Maybe Ignatieff believes that liberals would automatically win all elections if not for that corporate money, but I have my doubts. Instead, let's return to the original comparison: why does constitutional democracy seem wanting, on certain important scores, compared to authoritarian government? Do authoritarians keep money out of politics? Ignatieff suggests not. In fact, he may expose his own blind spot by suggesting that authoritarianism appeals primarily to the sort of elites whose money allegedly paralyzes democratic politics.

The new authoritarians offer the elites of Africa and Eurasia an alternate route to modern development: growth without democracy and progress without freedom. That is the siren song some African, Latin American, and Asian political elites, especially the kleptocrats, want to hear. (emphasis added)

Ignatieff is probably making a big mistake if he assumes that authoritarianism appeals exclusively to elites. After all, would he characterize the people who envy China's high-speed rail construction as elitists? Some Americans would -- the Republicans and libertarians whom Ignatieff presumably blames for paralyzing constitutional democracy. What is this paralysis, after all? The cause -- or at least an important cause among several -- is the ability of political minorities to obstruct majorities by constitutional or at least legal means. If outsiders really envy authoritarian states, what they envy is certainly not the suppression or intimidation of dissent but the perceived lack of obstruction when a government wants to accomplish something. Not only elites want governments to accomplish something. Ignatieff thinks that authoritarianism's weak point emerges when we see "demands by the middle class to be treated like citizens." By this he means their dissent, their ability to say no to their governments, but he also recognizes that for many citizens in liberal democracies, being treated like citizens means receiving services from the state: "health care, employment insurance and retirement pensions," etc. They have positive demands on government and resent the obstruction of their fulfillment. Increasingly, they may question why political minorities should be able to obstruct their fulfillment. But as Ignatieff implicitly concedes, the U.S. Constitution and other liberal government systems were not designed primarily to provide services on popular demand. Instead, they are loaded with safeguards against assumed government overreach that serve practically as protections for vested interests.

If constitutional democracy, understood as a government with built-in checks and balances to prevent overreach or abuse of power, is seen primarily as a system for the protection for vested interests, at the potential expense of the popular majority, we should expect to hear demands for more "authoritarian" government, understood as government liberated from obstruction by vested (or "special") interests. For the right wing, the remedy is to get people to stop demanding so much from the state -- to give up their "entitlement mentality." The American right wing remains unreconciled to the idea of the state as how people preserve life; for them the only reason to have a government is to protect those who earn from those who would simply take. From that perspective the ability to obstruct is essential to democracy as they know it, and the removal of that ability is "authoritarian." By blaming the current paralysis of obstruction in American government on money in politics, Ignatieff seems to be dodging an essential question for weighing the relative merits of liberal democracy and authoritarianism. To what extent should people be able to obstruct -- not merely dissent from, but obstruct -- the mandate of legitimate government and the will of the people behind it? Ignatieff can avoid the question if reducing money in politics reduces obstructionism, as he seems to expect. But in the first place, it looks like we'd have to overcome concerted obstructionism to reduce the power of money in politics. And if reducing the power of money in politics fails to have the healing effect Ignatieff hopes for -- then what? I'm not sure what Ignatieff would say, and that means I either need to read more of his work or he needs to think more about democracy and authority in the 21st century.


Anonymous said...

If you are seeking THE problem with American government, the answer is simple: Americans.

Samuel Wilson said...

Too easy. It's hard to imagine Iraqis or Ukrainians faring better with the U.S. constitution, to give just the most current examples. And if you want to argue for some kind of American exceptionalism, then our system seemed to work OK until what happened, exactly?

Anonymous said...

The people in those countries wouldn't have accepted the American constitution. No, this mess we call "politics" is a purely American mess. I don't think any other culture could have done so brilliant a job of screwing up so simple a system.