Illiberalism appeals, even in democratic societies

According to Freedom House, the U.S.-based nongovernmental organization, democracy is under siege.

Its most recent annual report on Freedom in the World concluded that “democracy’s defenders sustained heavy new losses in their struggle against authoritarian foes, shifting the international balance in favor of tyranny.” The NGO’s authors and analysts say global freedom has declined for 15 consecutive years and “the long democratic recession is deepening.”

Put some of the blame on the COVID-19 pandemic, which legitimated intrusions on personal liberty — historically, pandemics expand state power — and distracted governments that might otherwise criticize authoritarian overreach, as well as the technologies that made it possible. Those rationalizations don’t explain, however, the appeal of authoritarianism and illiberalism to democratic societies. What accounts for this attraction and how worried should we be about this surge?

Easy answers first. Donald Trump had no small amount of admiration (if not jealousy) for the strongmen of Russia, China and Saudi Arabia, among others, who rule with unbridled power. His desire to emulate them reflected his personality quirks, especially his intolerance for any disagreement with or dissent from him and his disregard for democracy and its guiding principles. But no one should have been surprised by that.

And there have always been racists, xenophobes and nationalists who find common cause in their hatred. They will always be among us and they will invariably find each other. Their networking is now facilitated by the internet.

What has been eye-opening is the open arms, and too-often fawning reception, that authoritarians and their animating principles now receive in democratic societies. A growing number of people who would never admit to those ugly beliefs — and not just because those things aren’t said in polite company — admire the strongmen. In other words, the issue is the soft power of authoritarianism. Why are autocrats attractive? Why is illiberalism alluring?

For over a decade, this conversation has focused on China and its soft power. Beijing has for over a decade tried to cultivate its soft power, with mixed results.

Developing countries give China a thumbs-up when asked about their views of that country. The 2019/20 Afrobarometer — with survey data from 18 countries, collected before COVID-19 hit — shows that while the majority still prefer the U.S. over China as a development model, China’s influence is largely considered positive for Africa. That aligns with 2019 data from Pew Global Research, which shows that “throughout Africa and Latin America, most say China’s growing economy is a good thing for their country.”

Naysayers point to negative views of China throughout the developed world. Typical is a Pew poll from last year, in which “a majority in each of the (14) surveyed countries has an unfavorable opinion of China. And in Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United States, South Korea, Spain and Canada, negative views have reached their highest points” since Pew began polling on this topic over a decade ago.” Denny Roy, a scholar at the EastWestCenter in Hawaii, blames Beijing’s increasingly aggressive and coercive foreign policy. He cites Singaporean senior foreign ministry official Bilihari Kausikan, who credits “China’s Wolf Warriors for doing a better job than any American diplomat of arousing anti-Chinese feelings around the world.”

In the conventional telling, China’s soft power stems from its readiness to lend cheap money, provide vaccines for free, or offer aid that Western governments have not. Some question whether that qualifies as soft power. It probably doesn’t matter.

If we describe what China is doing as “solving problems” or demonstrating a capacity to do that, then its appeal is undeniable. Just as Japan was applauded for its development model in the 1960s and ‘70s, China is today lauded in many parts of the developing world for lifting hundreds of millions of lives out of poverty and creating the world’s second largest economy.

Two decades ago, China’s record was positively contrasted with that of India, a country that put political principle before economic expediency, and grew much slower as a result. Yet even as political space in China shrinks further and the costs of that trade-off become clearer, many governments and publics continue to value the speed and efficiency of Chinese decision-making over democratic principles.

Climate change is a fascinating test case for the Chinese model. Xi Jinping has repeatedly pledged that his country will be a champion in that fight (although in the next breath he, like other Chinese officials, insists that it will do so at its own pace, and should not be responsible for cleaning up a mess created by developed countries of the West). This week’s COP26 climate conference is a chance for China to again tout the superiority of its model for solving hard problems. Of course, it’s deeds that count, not words. But if Beijing uses its power and purpose to bring about the much-needed clean-energy transition, then it would gain a huge victory in the competition for international legitimacy.

Framed this way, the appeal of authoritarian government makes some sense. Less comprehensible — or more alarming — is the appeal that authoritarians now enjoy in some parts of democratic societies. In this case, there is a powerful erosion of support for democratic principles and practices. In “Twilight of Democracy,” journalist Anne Applebaum blames the increasing complexity of modern society for rising enthusiasm for illiberalism. “The noise of argument, the constant hum of disagreement — these can irritate people who prefer to live in a society tied together by a single narrative.”

A growing number of people are alarmed by changes they see in their own country and fear that a tipping point has been reached. These “apocalyptic pessimists” are prepared to abandon democracy because it gives voice to those who don’t agree with their preferred social order. They applaud Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Viktor Orban’s Hungary, where a like-minded government silences challengers to a state-imposed narrative that supports “traditional values.”

Putin’s consolidation of power is well known; in a 2019 interview he declared liberalism to be “obsolete.” According to Human Rights Watch, Orban has used the COVID-19 pandemic to pass emergency measures that allow him to rule “with unlimited power for an indefinite time,” the culmination of a 10-year campaign “to curb judicial independence, restrict civil liberties and gain near full control over the media.”

Apparently, that appeals to many in the United States. Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently traveled to Budapest to address conferences and the U.S. Conservative Political Action Committee will hold a meeting their next spring.

Sociologist John Galtung developed a model more than three decades ago to explain imperialism. It showed how a small group of elites in developing countries align with majority opinions in the developed world rather than those of the majority in their own population. This shared worldview provided a springboard for advancement for these elites. That accounts for some anti-U.S. sentiment found in countries aligned with the U.S.: It’s resentment against advantages those groups garnered by virtue of privileged ties to Americans, a phenomenon found, for example, among the left in South Korea.

Galtung’s model seems to work for today’s antidemocratic forces, but influence is flowing the other way. Now, illiberal governments provide models, support and reassurance for wanna-be authoritarians in developed countries. That trend will intensify as the cacophony grows in volume, stoked by politicians and opportunists for whom power is all that matters.

Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

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