The Rise of Global Authoritarian Populism

Richard Stanley

Well-Known Member
The following excerpt is the conclusion of an interview in The Atlantic, by David Frum with Yascha Mounk on the contours of the sad state of modern democratic republics, under attack by the rise of authoritarian Populism. The interview opens by discussing the rising trend of authoritarian acceptance among all age cohorts, due to frustrations over the reality and appearance of problems with such as technocratic bureaucracies (not to mention politicians with various hidden agendas and corruption).

From my previous analyses I sadly see this trend continuing, perhaps (and likely IMHO) being pushed over the edge by a Final Precipitous Crisis. Maybe our current pompous 'hero', ever expressing fondness for his authoritarian pals, will have a typologically staged meeting with some angry Republican Senators. Then some decades later, after the civil war, some clever populo-patriot du jour will pen The Rise and Fall of Liberal Democracy.

As discussed in the wider interview, various egghead elites are blamed, yet when understanding the cynical mechanisms behind most all such populisms, especially of the 'right', it is a yet different category of elite that will prevail, having helped ensure, via their proxies, that the mechanisms of liberal democracy have been gummed up in the first place. Create the problems, and provide the solution (that benefits those elites).

Frum: A few moments ago, you offered some comfort: Authoritarian populism may be on the rise, but has not yet taken power in most places. There’s one conspicuous exception of course.
[I'm guessing Frum means Putin's Russia here. -rs] If the United States succumbs, can others resist?

Mounk: This is really two questions. The first is about the geopolitical consequences of America abandoning its commitment to liberal democracy. Countries in Western Europe often forget to what extent America has protected them from the ill winds of world politics over the past half century. If the United States evolves toward illiberalism, the consequences would be disastrous. European democracies like France and Germany would become increasingly dependent on Russia. Japan and South Korea would become open to influence from China. This will ultimately put a lot of pressure on their domestic as well as their foreign policy.

The second question is even more important though, and it is about what it would tell us about the stability of other supposedly stable democracies if liberal democracy erodes in the United States. Despite all of America’s specific problems, it is the oldest democracy in the world. With the exception of Canada, it has the deepest experience with trying to make a multiethnic democracy work. If the forces that are pulling us apart are strong enough to make democracy fail in this country, I fear that similar reasons will also prove strong enough to make democracy fail in most other countries in the world.
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And so it begins, again. The following excerpted article explains the dynamics of the populist reactionary movement in Italy, which can also be applied to most of Southern Europe which has the same issues, much of which derive from long standing cultural issues.

The big question for me is why there seems to have been so little concern by the political elites to institute more positive economic reforms. The article discusses that the EU did take actions to mitigate immigration, but too late, with Italy being the first national election to take place since those actions.

There is a longstanding crisis of elites in Italy, considered generally corrupt and inefficient, according to Mr. Leonard. “Few wanted to vote for mainstream parties that were the authors of the stagnation of the last decade,” he said.

Further, they were led by leaders considered old or failed, like former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Mr. Renzi, while the more populist parties of the Five Star Movement and the League were led by younger, more vivid and aggressive personalities. Five Star got the most votes, and the far-right League, behind Matteo Salvini, outperformed Mr. Berlusconi.

“There are European trends, but in Italy it all came together,” said Stefano Stefanini, a former Italian diplomat. “Only in Italy did the entire center collapse, and that’s scary.” It’s a bad outcome for Brussels, he said, which had a fallback position “hoping for a center-right coalition with Berlusconi playing kingmaker. But he has no power now.” ...
Considering that Yascha Mounk is being promoted so heavily by the New York Times and other giant corporate media, I have to suspect that his purpose is more to explain and justify the collapse of democracy, rather than to make serious proposals for its resuscitation. Reviewing this interview at The Atlantic, Mounk is blaming the voters directly, without inquiring about the role of the media in selecting his "populist authoritarian" candidates, and hiding their shortcomings.

This reminds me of Deneen with his attack on Liberalism. And in Deneen's case, we were quick to diagnose that Deneen's apparent nostalgia for the opposite of Liberalism (Authoritarianism, or perhaps Feudalism?) might be related to his Catholicism.

If Collectivist were here, he'd certainly point out that Mounk is Jewish, and has published a book on his experience as a Jew in modern Germany. It's not obvious to me at this point whether there's any link between Mounk's Jewish upbringing, and his political views; but the question is well worth asking.

I also found it rather odd that although Mounk and his interviewer, David Frum, are very concerned about Trump, they stop short of concluding that democracy in America has already failed. But in another article by Mounk in The Atlantic, Mounk is much more direct in saying that effective democracy in the USA is long gone. He cites the famous study by Gilens & Page of Northwestern University, which showed that powerful elite corporations are highly effective in getting their desired policies enacted, while popular opinion has no discernible effect at all. He further notes that Trump won the election based on promises to "transfer power back to the people", but of course in reality Trump has done the opposite.

Considering the gains by the "Five Star Movement" in yesterday's Italian election, I've been doing some quick review to catch up on them. The party's public face is the comedian & blogger Beppe Grillo. He has a video production on Netflix called "Grillo vs. Grillo" and after watching for a few minutes, I have to say he seems to be a very personally appealing figure. He comes across as a slightly overweight, bearded version of Woody Allen, as opposed to Trump's channeling of Mussolini. And there are some elements of the "Five Star" platform that resonate with my Postflavian values. The "five stars" are: public water, sustainable transport, sustainable development, right to internet access, and environmentalism. They also advocate for direct democracy, "degrowth", nonviolence, and non-interventionism in foreign policy.

Unfortunately, as the WSWS points out, the reality is that there is no democratic process whatsoever, within the movement. Instead it is organized as a proprietorship, with Grillo and his co-founder, Gianroberto Casaleggio, vested with total ownership and control. And its economic policies have a distinctly Libertarian flavor, in the sense of freeing big business from any shackles whatsoever. His program includes an assault on public employees and pensioners, who would presumably get the same basic 1,000 Euro income as the unemployed. From one of many WSWS articles about Grillo's movement:

Many Italian entrepreneurs understand that Grillo defends their interests. Some, like 77-year-old billionaire and Luxottica founder Leonardo Del Vecchio, openly declare their support for Grillo. Steel entrepreneur Francesco Biasion from Vicenza said he had voted for Grillo because “the companies today are in the grip of the bureaucracy and the unions.”

Under the heading “Grillonomics,” the Süddeutsche Zeitung commented: “While most Grillo voters cast their vote because they long to escape from the sclerotic structures of their country, business circles are increasingly concluding they must be freed from the shackles of a bloated state.”
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Maybe we'll have to buy Mounk's book to see whether he offers any solutions. But, isn't he essentially correct that American 'democracy', especially at the national level has been hijacked for a very long time?

Grillo seems to be working at cross purposes, since things like sustainable development, environmentalism, "degrowth", are essentially at odds with "freeing big business from any shackles whatsoever". Yes? Big business, today, wants to privatize water. Next thing they'll want is to charge everyone for breathing. He also seems to be following the general formula of the National Socialists, where the industrialists quickly ended up falling in line behind Hitler. And they had their Romantic derived 'nature movement' as well.
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Maybe we'll have to buy Mounk's book to see whether he offers any solutions. But, isn't he essentially correct that American 'democracy', especially at the national level has been hijacked for a very long time?

Mounk's analysis is that the USA and the EU have become increasingly undemocratic, but that they are still "liberal" in the sense that individual rights are still honored to some extent. Also, he says that these historically "consolidated" democracies still have a variety of institutional checks and balances that serve to reconcile the interests of various groups.

He gives several reasons for the decline of effective democracy, including: (1) the rise of corporate influence over the political process, including vast lobbying expenditures as well as paid political advertising; (2) growing power of unelected bureaucracies such as EPA, FCC and central banks (he doesn't mention the CIA or growing militarism); (3) judicial review; (4) international treaties such as trade agreements, which put limits on local control; (5) increasing alienation, dismay and distrust of democracy, especially on the part of young people; leading to enthusiasm for alternatives such as a government by an authoritarian strong-man or military dictatorship.

He also identifies three current conditions which he believes are undermining "consolidated democracies". These are: (1) the Internet and social media; (2) economic stagnation; and (3) increasing levels of ethnic and racial diversity, creating resentments, apprehension, and rebellion on the part of the disempowered majority.

While admitting that the Internet is potentially a means for organizing democratic political movements, Mounk argues that the influence of the Internet so far has been overwhelmingly negative, as a means of spreading "fake news" and conspiracy theories, as opposed to Mounk's preferred establishment-dominated narrative.

Because of all these factors, Mounk believes that the situation in the EU and USA is highly unstable, and that the rise of "authoritarian populists" is the next step in the degradation process. Mounk defines this "populist" threat as follows:

But in the imagination of the populists, the will of the people does not need to be mediated, and any compromise with minorities is a form of corruption. In that sense, populists are deeply democratic: much more fervently than traditional politicians, they believe that the demos should rule. But they are also deeply illiberal: unlike traditional politicians, they openly say that neither independent institutions nor individual rights should dampen the people’s voice. (pp. 8-9).

As discussed in Richard's recent post, Mounk has recently concluded that Trump is an inept example of an "authoritarian populist", and that the best hope of saving democracy in the USA is for Trump to be defeated at the polls by a Democrat at the next election. He says that unity is important, and independent actions a waste of valuable energy at this point. He also helpfully suggests that the Democratic Party needs to "seek to effect real change."

It's only if Trump takes steps to become Dictator for Life, or otherwise dismantle our remaining liberal institutions, that Mounk would recommend more extreme steps such as organizing and taking to the streets in a protest movement to change the government.

As to "real change", Mounk outlines a program involving: (1) acceptance that multiculturalism is the way forward, and that voters need to give up the hope of creating racially and religiously pure ethnic nations; (2) restoring upward mobility and prosperity for the working class and middle class citizens, through a program of increased taxes on the wealthy, funding welfare programs and education for increased productivity, and reduced red tape for housing construction; and (3) rebuilding the education system, fighting elitism in the universities, and relying on social media companies like Facebook and Twitter to censor confidence-destroying conspiracy theories.

In his conclusion, Mounk says "the historical example that most haunts me when I think about the likely future of France or Spain, of Sweden or the United States is neither Hungary nor Turkey; it is the Roman Republic." (p. 262-263). His analysis is that in the earliest times, "ordinary Romans" possessed "the freedom to rule themselves". But then in 133 BC, Tiberius Gracchus was elected Tribune, and provoked a constitutional crisis by overriding the veto power of the patrician elites against his land reform program. Tiberius and 300 of his followers were clubbed to death, and "relative calm returned to Rome." But, according to Mounk, the same process repeated itself over and over.

"There was no one breaking point," he says, "no clear moment at which contemporaries realized that their political institutions had become obsolete. And yet, over the course of a tumultuous century, the Roman Republic slowly withered." This seems like a rather odd analysis to me: most historians would date the fall of the Roman Republic quite precisely to the assassination of Julius Caesar, and the subsequent rise of Augustus. But the point is well taken, that this was a culmination of a process.
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I have to suspect that his purpose is more to explain and justify the collapse of democracy, rather than to make serious proposals for its resuscitation.

Having read the book, I can't go this far. Mounk is very clear in proclaiming that he puts a high value on Enlightenment values such as freedom and democracy, and that he is opposed to the authoritarian alternatives. I have no reason to doubt his sincerity about this.

Also, I appreciated Mounk's spirited defense of multiculturalism. He does not see any viable way forward for "ethnically pure" nation-states. He insists that true democracy involves equal status for all people under the law. At the same time, he argues that limitations on freedom of speech, as well as laws discriminating against the majority population, are going too far.

But, I was of course dismayed to find that Mounk's analysis falls short in some important ways. The sensational title of the book, "The People vs. Democracy", betrays Mounk's bias to blame the problem mostly on the voters. Although he notes that the elites and the political class have benefited enormously from the decayed state of American democracy, he views them as strangely lacking in responsibility or agency. They are simply the beneficiaries of impersonal historical trends.

Mounk is also oblivious to the problems that the "consolidated democracies" cause elsewhere in the world. He has practically nothing to say about the exploitation of workers and natural resources in Africa or South America, or the ongoing holocaust in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. The threat of nuclear war with Russia or China, driven largely by establishment Neocon politicians in both of the "consolidated" US political parties, also goes unmentioned.

In his analysis of "Populist Authoritarian" politicians, Mounk tends to lump them all together into the same bucket. Hugo Chavez is seen as basically equivalent to Donald Trump in terms of his threat level. What Mounk is ignoring here, is his own argument that existing "democracies" such as the USA, were originally designed and constructed to keep power and wealth in the hands of the elite, and prevent any egalitarian progress of the kind that Mounk himself advocates. Therefore, any advocate of the working class would need to seek institutional changes as well as policy changes.

Mounk leaves us without even any vocabulary to describe a politician who genuinely seeks to improve conditions for the working class, within the bounds of "Liberal" enlightenment values. The word "Socialist" only appears twice in the book, once because it's included in the name of the Greek "Panhellenic Socialist Movement" which is described as "center-left"; and once to describe the young Mussolini's self-assessment.

Even Tiberius Gracchus seems to be lumped in the "Populist" bucket, judged negatively for the "constitutional crisis" that he created. Did Gracchus and his followers deserve the fate that they suffered at the hands of the patrician elites? Was their exercise of free speech, and their campaign for land reform, on the same ethical plane as the murderous patrician response? Mounk is conspicuously silent on this question.
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Based upon your report it appears that Mounk has equated the patrician Roman republic with the contemporary, liberal nation-state notion, which doesn't really apply perfectly, despite some obvious structural overlap. One might better equate the original American Constitutional notion, or even the Confederation notion with the Roman one. Because in these cases it was the patrician, aristocrats' interests that the respective republican democracies really served. The same was generally true for the Athenian democracy.

The Gracchi brothers' reforms were presented because it was the Senatorial aristocrats that owned most all the available productive land, leaving the lower classes to struggle with what little was left. Julius Caesar recognized the problem and forced the landed to carve out land for such as his retiring soldiers. This did not endear JC to the elites either.

This gets to the issue of how initial land rights came about, not by purchase, but by variations of conquest, and/or closeness to royalty. Hence the attractiveness of such as Georgism for fair land access. Same goes for fair access to capital, education, and such.
The following excerpt below is from a Jeff Greenfield article about the 1933 (the year Hitler won election to power) Hollywood movie, Gabriel Over the White House, urging FDR to become a fascist dictator, and what can be learned from it.

The movie incorporates the so-called Bonus Army of 1932, where WWI veterans marched on Washington D.C. to demand payment of the bonus that had been promised to them for fighting in the first world war. Some famous WWII generals were employed to suppress the Bonus Army. Marine General Smedley Butler was approached by American industrialists to support a proposed dictatorial coup, but he refused. Butler would later go on to write about, expose what the transformation of the USA into a globalist phalanx was about, in support of financial interests.

Note the typical employment of a religious trope in the movie, to assist in entraining the religiously gullible to the concept.

Of course, one can argue that Donald Trump's 'character' has been long primed or inherently better suited to killing the republic. The timing is perhaps more appropriate since the USA has assumed the militant tip of the Roman spear for many decades now on the global stage. At FDR's time the USA was yet to ascend till after the war was completed.

Everybody knows that Hollywood’s a hotbed of liberal-left-elitism, pumping out virtue-signaling propaganda in films and ceremonies, right?

So the idea of a movie celebrating fascist dictatorship as the answer to America’s dilemmas seems, at the least, highly improbable.

But that is exactly what a mostly-forgotten movie offered 85 years ago amid the throes of economic upheaval—a time that is more like our own than you might think. It also offers us significant insights into what tempts countries to travel down an authoritarian road.

In the early spring of 1933—with a quarter of Americans out of work, with banks failing by the day, threatening a complete collapse of the financial system, as farmers watched their crops rot in the field—“Gabriel Over the White House” premiered. The film, directed by Gregory La Cava, had been rushed into production with the financial help of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, and it was designed as a clear message to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that he might need to embrace dictatorial powers to solve the crisis of the Great Depression. (It was an idea embraced by establishment types like columnist Walter Lippmann, and the influential editorial pages of the New York Herald-Tribune.)

The movie stars Walter Huston as newly elected President Judson Hammond, a smug, glad-handing politician in the model of Warren Harding—complete with a private secretary-mistress and blissfully indifferent to the sufferings of the country. Unemployment? The spread of organized crime, with mobsters like Al Capone effectively controlling the Chicago police department? “Local problems,” Hammond says.

But one night, driving back to the White House at excessive speed, Hammond crashes the car; as he lies near death, the curtains of his bedroom riffle while mysterious music plays. Soon he rises from his bed, with fire in his eyes, driven by divine intervention. (We never see it, but later, his secretary and mistress intuits that “the angel Gabriel has entered the body of the president.) ...