Three Lessons of History We’ve Forgotten
Kids in camps. Congressmen who can’t get access to them. A President denying it’s happening. What’s happening to us? We’ve forgotten three key lessons of history.
Beating authoritarianism isn’t as simple as you think. It’s even simpler. Yes, really. Not easy, mind you, convenient, comfortable, a walk in the park. But simple, as in undo the cause, undo the effect. There’s no need to overthink it — to endlessly look for nuance, as if there are a million beautiful and subtle shades of grey among dictatorships. That is a way to prove how smart we are — but it does less than nothing to beat the bad guys. In fact, overthinking it, we end up paralyzed and powerless, which is where we are now, a point I’ll return to. Let’s start here.
Authoritarianism arises in broken societies. Just how broken is America? The average American doesn’t have $500 in emergency savings, his life expectancy’s fallng, he’ll never retire, he lives with a mountain of debt, and his income’s shrinking. Inequality is higher than ancient Rome, trust has collapsed, social bonds have imploded along with towns, villages, and cities, some of which don’t have basic utilities like water, the polity is badly dysfunctional, and so on. America is a portrait of the rich world’s first failed state.
Now. We have never once seen authoritarianism arise in a working society — one where people are prosperous. I’ll get to why. First, go ahead and think about. Weimar Germany? Of course not — it was badly broken, thus Hitler. Post-Soviet Russia? Nope — life was plummeting downwards, hence Putinism. China? Nope — there were mass famines, hence Maoism. Authoritarianism arises in broken societies — there is absolutely no need to overthink it, which is a kind of denial, but to only to see: is the society we live in broken?
Here’s a simple test to use. Are real incomes falling? If so, we are more than likely to going to see authoritarian current rise, and maybe rise all the way to the top. Just like we do in America.
People turn to authoritarians for a sense of safety and strength when they feel weak and defeated. Why is it that every single American pundit — from Ezra Klein to Nate Silver to Morning Joe to David Brooks — was 100% wrong, over and over again, about Trumpism? Because they never saw how broken their society was — and so they couldn’t understand the obvious implication. When people are living right at the edge, without savings, income, denuded of meaning and purpose, without a sense of optimism and faith in the future, they feel insecure, weak, powerless. And they will, much more quickly than anyone expets, turn to the figure who gives them a sense of safety, strength, and protection again. That is how broken societies end up taken over by authoritarians.
People are often very happy to trade freedom for all that it has cost them — prosperity, stability, belonging, meaning, security. Step by step, the authoritarian makes them trade away their humanity and decency for his protection and strength too — telling them that is the only way to be strong. That is how he keeps a society under his thumb — it is exactly how cults and gangs break people — turning it into a predatory place, where he can easily control people who have lost their inner compass, their moral guidance, their courage and defiance, their sense of what is right and wrong. That is how a society gets to kids in camps in less than two years. But how is that vicious cycle to be reversed?
(Now, you are right to say, “But some people are just terrible racists and bigots!!” Of course they are. Here’s an uncomfortable truth. There will always be a proportion of society that’s that way. We don’t live in utopia, and we never will. The question is: can we quell the worst instincts in people? At least motivate them to act like decent human beings? Civilize them? And the answer to that is: when people feel safe and secure, they are less likely to give in to the worst, lashing out in rage and fear. No, not all of them — just enough of them. Some of them will always be hateful — usually between 10 and 20%, no matter what we have learned to do yet. Still, societies can function successfully, and so when we make the question black-or-white, we have failed at thinking well, too.)
The way to beat authoritarianism is to offer people a transformative new social contract. When I say “social contract”, because the Ezra Kleins of the world have reduced you to thinking that means something like a minor-league extension to some kind of ineffectual policy program or bill, you maybe roll your eyes. But policy is not what a social contract is made of at all. A social contract is about institutions. What are institutions? ICE is an institution. DHS is an institution. When we say, “abolish ICE!”, we are beginning to call for a new social contract, only we don’t know it. So let’s go all the way.
To offer a new social contract — or a new New Deal, or a New Grand Bargain, whatever you want to call it — means a new set of institutions that repair a broken society. America doesn’t need an ICE and a DHS, really. What it needs is an NHS, a National Health Services, a BBC, a good national public broadcaster, instead of a CNN and MSNBC, who failed abysmally at safeguarding the public interest from authoritarianism. It needs a Social Pension System, not just “social security”. It needs an American Investment Bank — not just Goldman Sachs — to invest in broken towns and cities and lives. It needs all the above and more — but the point is that they are new institutions, which fundamentally restructure society, by offering people a new social contract.
Now. Why do we need to “offer” a new social contract? Well, because authoritarianism presents us with a paradox. If all we do is react to it, we will never beat it. The Germans did that, the Russians did that, the Chinese still do that — and they lost. To really “beat” authoritarianism means doing so fair and square — not so that we gain the moral high ground — but democratically, consensually, so that we restore democracy in the process.
And that means offering people something that they genuinely choose over and above it. And they will do that when they are galvanized and inspired and thrilled and excited. Proud to be citizens — not just ashamed of what they are becoming — again. But we can only really do that with a grand vision and agenda for a new society.
Let me put that in perspective. In every other arena of life, American love dramatic, transformative change. In business, it’s about relentless innovation. As consumers, we love the latest fad, from Edison Bulbs to yoga. We devour the latest TV shows and films and literature. We pioneer science and art. But when it comes to society — suddenly, we become timid, hesitant, and feeble. “Can we really do that?”, we ask ourselves, bewildered? And then the cycle of overthinking it begins. But the authoritarians aren’t overthinking it. They aren’t deep thinkers. What are they?
Authoritarianism ultimately boils down to a plan for total institutional reconstruction. Total — along totalitarian lines. Reconstruction — ICE becomes something like a Gestapo, DHS becomes something like an SS. I exaggerate a little to make a point. The authoritarians have a radical plan to reconstruct society. Not a very thoughtful one — one based on hate and spite and fear. But the problem is that no one else offers an opposing one.
That is the difference between “resistance” and opposition. Opposition says — radical change is coming, one way or the other, in a broken society. Here is the positive, beneficial kind, that creates the future, not just rewinds to the barbarities of the past. But if no such opposition exists, then a society can never beat authoritarianism. It didn’t exist in Germany — bang! Hitler won, to everyone’s shock. It didn’t in Russia — pow! Putin became President for life. And so on.
And that is where America is now. It is overthinking authoritarianism, and badly. No one is offering a new New Deal, a new Grand Bargain, and so there is nothing to galvanize people, inspire them, awaken them, so that they rise up not just against authoritarians, but for themselves, their democracy, their society. Hopeless, glum, broken, Americans sit around and tweet and lament on Facebook and Twitter — but that is how a people become defeated. What is there to fight for, if there is only something to fight against?
Authoritarianism, ultimately, is a simple historical process. People who feel insecure and unsafe and weak, because their societies are broken, turn to strong men for a feeling of strength and protection — just like mafias. And so fighting authoritarians with cries of hypocrisy and evil does less than no good. You beat authoritarianism by repairing the broken society that gave rise to it.