Thursday, May 18, 2017

Autocrats, dictators, and our Dynastic age. . . .

It seems to me that one of the most troubling aspects of political culture is the remarkable tendency for autocrats and dictators to garner large amounts of public support regardless of how corrupt, or even murderous, they are. Even in my own lifetime I am sure I can think of a couple of dozen such autocrats who, no matter what they did to their nation or their own people, retain high levels of popular support. The big autocratic names in this kind of popular support are, of course, names like Hitler, Stalin, The Shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos, the Perons, the Al-Assad family, Hastings Banda, Robert Mugabe, etc. Other than Al-Assad and Mugabe, I can think of a number of others who are still in power today like Duterte in the Philippines, Putin, Nazarbeyev in Kazakhstan, Karimov in Uzbekistan, etc. Social psychologists and political scientists have done lots of good work on this phenomenon, but making rational sense of something like this seldom helps us make emotional sense of it. It still, as the English say, beggers description. I want it all to make sense but no matter how much I know or understand about people and politics, I just can't quite wrap my head around it.

The Americans are in the midst of this phenomenon right now and it is just as bizarre and weird to me as it always is. Anyone with rational sense understands that Trump is an unhinged narcissist who, other than having little grasp on most other issues facing the US, simply doesn't have the temperament or basic skills for any job in which he has to be accountable, diplomatic, and consensus building. But all of that makes no difference to the fact that he is, in fact, president, he continues to be solidly popular with his base, and despite what we would like to think, it is very very difficult to remove a president from office (that is why it has never been done). Given Trump's narcissism, it is very unlikely that he will be, like Nixon, compelled to resign. And even if he is impeached by the House of Reps, it is very unlikely that the Senate will ever have 67 members that will be willing to actually force him from office. Thus it seems likely to me that we are looking at three and half more years of this. And given the popularity of autocrats and the fervency of Trump's base, I don't exclude the possibility that Trump could be reelected. We shouldn't overlook the dispiriting effect that four years could have on those who oppose Trump. And I think that this is one of the primary issues concerning the ability of autocrats to stay in power; after a while they just wear down the opposition and people lose faith in the possibility of change.

Political systems deteriorate over time because institutions atrophy, political classes become too professionalized or worse, dynastic. The deterioration of political culture results, or happens concurrently, with the breakdown of civil society. Democracy can only work or, more properly progress, with a thriving civil society. This is why Harper was so detrimental to Canadian democracy; he actively tried to shut down civil discourse and sabotage civil society. People like Harper and Trump do this by portraying any opposition media as an enemy of the people and the nation, they criticize judges or independent bodies that are meant to make government accountable, they defund education institutions and legal bodies that are meant to empower people, and (perhaps most importantly) they create an imaginary "liberal" elite, all the while promoting and strengthening the real, economic elite who pull society's strings.

I don't know where we go from here, and I am sure many Americans feel adrift on a threatening and stormy sea. The struggles for democracy, equality, justice, and civil society, are long historical struggles. As individuals, we can live nice long lives and still must realize that we are only bit players in this historical drama. The ebb and flow of tyranny and freedom is hard to measure. It makes me think of that analogy that they use in Good Will Hunting concerning the lifeline between two ships. Sometimes the swells of the ocean cause the person on the lifeline to lose sight of both ship, so you can't see where you have been or where you are going. Well, I think it is safe to say that we are between swells and waiting for the weather to clear at least a little.