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Life in Soft Authoritarian Regimes

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hqdefaultMuch of my academic work concerns the nature and dynamics of empires. There was a point, during the Bush Administration, when I came to a realization. Whether or not it made sense to call the United States an empire, daily life in was not really all that different than it would be in an imperial metropole.

We consume the news about forces fighting in distant lands as we sit at a coffee shop, drive to work, or eat our breakfast. For those not fighting themselves, or with family fighting, or living in the war zone, the daily grind continues as it always does. We worry about our jobs, our raises, our grades, our next meal, our love life…. Even the latest on the war must compete for time and attention with celebrity gossip, human interest stories, discussions of sportsball, and reporting on the latest ‘event’ movie. The “small wars” of empire become just so much background noise.

Later, when I spent a year working at the Department of Defense, I learned that there was a conscious effort to remind Pentagon employees that yes, in fact, the United States is at war.

It still is.

Which brings me to a terrific post written by Tom Pepinksy—a comparative-politics scholar at Cornell—about the realities of living in hybrid, or soft authoritarian, regimes The punchline: it isn’t all that different than life in liberal democracies. If we don’t recognize that fact, then Americans will be completely unprepared to mobilize against democratic backsliding in our own country.

To begin with, our vision of authoritarian rule is terribly wrong.

The mental image that most American harbor of what actual authoritarianism looks like is fantastical and cartoonish. This vision of authoritarian rule has jackbooted thugs, all-powerful elites acting with impunity, poverty and desperate hardship for everyone else, strict controls on political expression and mobilization, and a dictator who spends his time ordering the murder or disappearance of his opponents using an effective and wholly compliant security apparatus. This image of authoritarianism comes from the popular media (dictators in movies are never constrained by anything but open insurrection), from American mythmaking about the Founding (and the Second World War and the Cold War), and from a kind of “imaginary othering” in which the opposite of democracy is the absence of everything that characterizes the one democracy that one knows.

Still, that fantastical image of authoritarianism is entirely misleading as a description of modern authoritarian rule and life under it. It is a description, to some approximation, of totalitarianism. Carl Friedrich is the best on totalitarianism (see PDF), and Hannah Arendt of course on its emergence (PDF). But Arendt and Friedrich were very clear that totalitarianism is exceptional as a form of politics.

My sense is that this mythology intertwines with another, equally dangerous mistake. That is, Americans believe that, deep within us, lies some kind of special ingredient. This ingredient means that we would never, ever accommodate to authoritarian rule. Such thinking requires us to ignore, of course, our roughly ninety-year tolerance for racial authoritarianism in large swaths of the United States.

It also gets at what makes Amazon’s adaptation of Man in the High Castle both powerful and unnerving. It convincingly illustrates how the vast majority of Americans would likely have accommodated themselves to occupation by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan—and here we’re talking about situations somewhat closer to the mythology Pepinsky discusses than to contemporary hybrid regimes. Not a few—as conquered peoples invariably do—would have actively collaborated: some for personal gain, others out of ideological affinity, and many just to protect themselves and the people that they love. Most Frenchmen and Frenchwomen weren’t really, after all, members of La Résistance.

But, back to life under soft authoritarianism:

The reality is that everyday life under the kinds of authoritarianism that exist today is very familiar to most Americans. You go to work, you eat your lunch, you go home to your family.* There are schools and businesses, and some people “make it” through hard work and luck. Most people worry about making sure their kids get into good schools. The military is in the barracks, and the police mostly investigate crimes and solve cases. There is political dissent, if rarely open protest, but in general people are free to complain to one another. There are even elections. This is Malaysia, and many countries like it.

Everyday life in the modern authoritarian regime is, in this sense, boring and tolerable. It is not outrageous. Most critics, even vocal ones, are not going to be murdered like Anna Politkovskaya, they are going to be frustrated. Most not-very-vocal critics will live their lives completely unmolested by the security forces. They will enjoy it when the trains run on time, blame the government when they do not, gripe at their taxes, and save for vacation. Elections, when they happen, will serve the “anesthetic function” that Philippe Schmitter attributed to elections in Portugal under Salazar in the greatly underappreciated in 1978 volume Elections without Choice.

Life under authoritarian rule in such situations looks a lot like life in a democracy. As Malaysia’s longtime Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad used to say, “if you don’t like me, defeat me in my district.”

Read it, you should.

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