Is the Anti-Democracy Movement Reaching a Tipping Point?

by | Apr 11, 2024 | Politics, Corruption & Criminality

Photo by Heidi Kaden

Is the Anti-Democracy Movement Reaching a Tipping Point?

by | Apr 11, 2024 | Politics, Corruption & Criminality

Photo by Heidi Kaden

The debate about how humans should govern themselves is the real battle of our time, both metaphorically and literally, both internationally and right here at home.

Republished with permission from Thom Hartmann

Yesterday, Politico published an interview with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy titled “Zelenskyy warns Russia has penetrated U.S. politics, invites Trump to Ukraine.” It’s a chilling read. To compound the concern, the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said this week:

“Russia threatens Europe. A high-intensity, conventional war in Europe is no longer a fantasy.”

Democracy is in trouble, and the Russian/Ukrainian conflict highlights how imperiled it is becoming in the 21st century. The real issue in Ukraine isn’t just land, any more than the real issue in the US is abortion: that’s all the activity on the surface.

What’s grinding away below the surface, however, is the erosion or outright destruction of democracy itself, whether by invasion from without or corruption from within.

Ukraine and Taiwan represent possible tipping points for democracy internationally, while Republicans passing laws that allow politicians to ignore the results of elections—and Republicans in the US House have refused to stand up for a fellow democracy for 16 months now—could be a tipping point here.

Around the world, and in America today, there are nations and politicians who do believe that democracy—governance via the will of the majority, carried out by elected representatives—is the best form of government for a republic.

At the same time, however, there are many who give lip service to democracy to accomplish their political ends but, in reality, believe that authoritarianism and oligarchy are better ways to rule a nation and keep peace around the world.

And that movement toward authoritarianism and away from democracy is growing.

Freedom House reported in 2021 that:

“[T]he share of countries designated Not Free has reached its highest level since the deterioration of democracy began in 2006, and countries with declines in political rights and civil liberties outnumbered those with gains by the largest margin recorded during the 15-year period. The report downgraded the freedom scores of 73 countries, representing 75 percent of the global population.”

One of those countries they identified as a place where democracy itself is under assault is the USA, where virtually the entire Republican Party has rejected supporting democracy at home and supporting democratic governments abroad.

While this may seem like it’s just a conflict between Russia and the US/Europe, what’s really at stake here is a much, much larger issue.

The real question at the core of the Ukraine conflict, as well as the geopolitical and domestic political positions taken by Fox “News” and many in the GOP, is simple and straightforward: 

“What’s the best way for humans to govern themselves?”

The real issue in the Russia-Ukraine and the China-Taiwan (among others) conflicts is that core question of what form of government is best.

Both Ukraine and Taiwan are asserting that democracy is the best way for humans to govern themselves; Russia and China (and about half the other countries of the world) believe they know better—and that history is on their side.

Who’s right?

Is democracy viable and natural, the “best” form of human governance, or is it a weak attempt to accomplish do-gooder goals that simply aren’t realistic or, even worse, are violations of natural law and/or human nature?

Strongman authoritarian regimes, theocracies, and dynastic empires run by ruling families or landowning cliques have been the “norm” for most of the last 7000 years of “modern” human history.

Is that proof, as many on the hard right argue, that the “experiment” of democracy is unnatural and therefore doomed to failure?  Should we let Trump overthrow democracy and establish authoritarian rule here in the US? Has the “American experiment” run its course?

This is not a new debate.

Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 book Leviathan, often seen as a seminal origin document for the Enlightenment, argued that people should ultimately be able to govern themselves (thus establishing what Americans today call the “liberal” school of political science).

Leviathan also, however, articulated the foundation of the modern-day “conservative” worldview when Hobbes wrote that, lacking the iron fist of church and state, human societies and nations would invariably revert to their “natural” state:

“In such condition, … the life of man [is], solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

One-hundred-three years after Hobbes published those words, Jean Jacques Rousseau rebutted him and established the intellectual basis used by the Founders of our American republic, arguing that the “natural state” of humankind is not violent and hierarchical but, rather, compassionate, egalitarian, and democratic.

So, again, who is right?

In my most recent book, The Hidden History of American Democracy, I laid out scientific reports on how animals, from ants and gnats, to birds and fish, to dogs and humans, are all wired for fairness and majority-rule group-decision-making, something we generally call democracy.

Sometimes it even appears seamless, and only in the past few decades have we learned of the existence of this phenomenon in the animal kingdom. Prior to these recent discoveries, generations of scientists had asserted that pretty much every animal species worked the way medieval European kingdoms did, with the equivalent of a dictatorial alpha dog dominating a submissive pack.

Now we know that this sort of authoritarian rule is quite rare in nature: it may even be the exception that proves the more egalitarian rule.

When birds migrate or fish swim in schools, each wingbeat and tail twitch is, essentially, a vote, and the votes of all the members within sight are continuously and instantly tabulated moment-to-moment by every member. Thus, when more than half the birds or fish “vote” to move 20 degrees to the right, for example, suddenly the entire flock or school moves, seemingly as if choreographed by telepathy.

On the other hand, there are some animal societies that are rigidly hierarchical, particularly among primates, which raises the question: What is the best way for humans? 

Human history only brings more confusion to this debate.

For example, Anthropologist Peter Farb, in his brilliant 1968 book Man’s Rise to Civilization as Shown by the Indians of North America from Primeval Times to the Coming of the Industrial State, lays out the structure of several dozen Native American tribes at the time of first contact with Europeans.  Some were highly to totally egalitarian and democratic; others had kings, Sun Gods, practiced human sacrifice and, here in the Pacific Northwest, even held slaves.

While the democratic tribes far outnumbered those run by strongman or dynastic types of governments, Farb and generations of subsequent anthropologists never answered the question of what is “best” or “natural” for human societies.

Russia’s president Putin clearly is more in Hobbes’ camp: government needs an iron fist to retain law and order.  As are China’s President Xi, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad Bin Salman, the ruling mullahs of Iran, and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, among others.

The United States, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, Ukraine and most of the rest of Europe (excepting Hungary) are more with Rousseau and America’s Founders.

But even here in the United States, there are powerful voices asserting that Hobbes’ authoritarianism, not Rousseau’s democracy, should be our role model.

Donald Trump openly admired strongman autocrats the world over while denigrating and ridiculing the leaders of democratic nations; men aligned with his administration like Michael Flynn, John Eastman, and Jim Jordan clearly believe, like Trump does, that “democracy is for suckers.”

The same is apparently true of authoritarian-loving Fox “News” hosts, a perspective that appears to come down on high from the authority to whom they answer: Rupert Murdoch himself and his son, Lachlan.

Australia’s former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd documented Murdoch’s profitable career undermining democracy first in Australia, then the UK, and now here in the US after the Reagan administration granted him expedited citizenship so he could set up his television empire.

Prime Minister Rudd characterized Murdoch’s empire in an op-ed for The Sydney Morning Herald as the “Cancer eating the heart of Australian democracy.”

Virtually the entire Republican Party is now committed to authoritarianism instead of democracy.  Not even one single Republican senator was willing to vote to guarantee free and fair elections when the We, the People legislation was before Congress, and the party is using Trump’s “stolen election” lie to undermine and ultimately end democracy at the state level.

Right now they are embracing Vladimir Putin instead of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the president of our Democratic ally. The Putin Caucus in the House is willing to overturn Mike Johnson‘s speakership in service of Putin.

The few former Republican holdouts, like Kinzinger and Cheney, are the exceptions that prove this rule: the GOP is no longer a political party that holds what most of the world has always thought to be “American values.”  

They’ve joined the side of Russia and China in this debate, openly asserting that political power should flow from the top down; in our country’s case, they’ve embraced a ruling class of morbidly rich American oligarchs.

A “hot” war across greater Europe may be on the way if Ukraine falls, perhaps followed by China seizing Taiwan once the precedent of “reclaiming former territories” has been set.

This debate about how humans should govern themselves is the real battle of our time, both metaphorically and literally, both internationally and right here at home.

It’s being fought across social media, battled in the billions spent on elections, and even in state and local governments across the US as authoritarian politicians work to keep minorities, young people, women, and LGBTQ+ people “in their place” and away from the voting booth.

No matter how the crisis in Ukraine works out, the underlying dispute will remain: should humans govern themselves democratically from the ground up, or with oligarchy from the top down?

The future of democracy is hanging in the balance, not just in Ukraine and Taiwan but here in the US, as well.

Thom Hartmann

Thom Hartmann

Thom Hartmann, one of America’s leading public intellectuals and the country’s #1 progressive talk show host, writes fresh content six days a week. The Monday-Friday “Daily Take” articles are free to all, while paid subscribers receive a Saturday summary of the week’s news and, on Sunday, a chapter excerpt from one of his books.

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