By Emily Holland and Hadas Aron
We recently came across a great read in the Guardian on authoritarian tendencies in the United States in the Age of Trump. According to Jonathan Freedland, many Americans would prefer “a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections.” In the current atmosphere of global uncertainty and economic instability it is perhaps unsurprising that a leader like Trump is capitalizing on fear. Many leaders have used these periods in history to establish non-democratic regimes or curtail democratic or liberal rights. The most prominent example of our times is of course, Vladimir Putin, who came to power during a period of democratic instability in Russia and built his “vertical of power” around myths of victimization, a promise of return to former glory, national chauvinism and the vilification of political enemies, both internal and external. If this sounds familiar to you, it is because Trump is taking a page from Putin’s illiberal regimes leader manual. We discuss this very manual in an academic paper that you can read at your leisure here.
However, there are of course striking differences between the United States and Russia. In 2000, Russia’s shaky experience with democracy was less than a decade old, resulted in utter economic collapse, frail institutions and was linked to the fall of empire and national humiliation. At that period, Putin not only had great material to work with, but also a population that had little experience with democracy and was already fed up with its outcomes such as a sharp decline in the standard of living and extremely uneven distribution of wealth. The survey mentioned in the Guardian supposedly locates the same sentiment in Americans, Freedland argues that this means that “one in three US voters would prefer a dictator to democracy.” While the World Values Survey results are troubling, we doubt this is the case.
Americans are used to their freedoms, they have experienced the longest run of democracy in modern history and have fully assimilated democratic and liberal values. Of course in any democracy there are hidden non-democratic values: consider the debate over Guantanamo and torture for combatting terrorism. The implication of this debate is that some view juridical processes as contradictory to national security. German political theorist Carl Schmitt noted back in 1921 that democracy is practically eliminated in a state of emergency where liberal rights are suspended in the name of national security. Putin used this strategy early in his tenure with Chechnya and terrorist attacks in Moscow and in fact continues to create ongoing states of emergency to preserve his rule. On the other hand, our experience with 9/11 shows that the United States cannot live in this state for very long. There is an ongoing public debate on the trade-off between liberalism and national security, and the mere existence of this debate is a testament to the strength of U.S. democracy.
There is still cause for concern over Donald Trump’s success. Democratic decline has a positive feedback mechanism: when it becomes unpatriotic to raise certain concerns, liberal rights can be curtailed more easily. When liberal rights are curtailed, so is public debate. Brexit has shown us that Trump could win, as populism won in a place with a very long liberal tradition. This victory could either encourage Trump to continue on his path, or it could serve as an alarm bell for American voters. Given the current political climate, it is difficult to tell in which direction the election will go. Nate Silver relies on statistics and thus has no such qualms.