Frank Babb

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Is Authoritarianism Our 21st Century “Democracy”?

An essay in the July 10 edition of the New York Review of Books is worth discussion: “Are the Authoritarians Winning?” (Some of you, I know, subscribe to the NYRB and have probably already read the essay.) The author is Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian and former professor at Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, and Toronto and, while living in Great Britain, a radio broadcaster for “The Observer.”

The essay refers to four books or articles: Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order by Richard Haas, Restraint: A New Foundation for U S Grand Strategy by Barry Posen, The Fourth Revolution: the Global Race to Reinvent the State by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, and Reforming Taxation to Promote Growth and Equity by Joseph Stiglitz. Micklethwait and Wooldridge are editor-in-chief and managing editor, respectively, of The Economist. I have not read Haass, Posen, Micklethwait and Wooldrige’s books but I have read Stiglitz’s essay and the special section of a recent edition of The Economist summarizing some of the ideas Micklethwait and Wooldrige discuss in The Fourth Revolution. The books I haven’t read are on my fall reading list.

Professor Ignatieff and the authors of the books he discusses think the answer to the question in the title of the essay is “yes.” I agree with their conclusions that authoritarianism is a present danger to our form of government which I do not view as the democracy envisioned by the Founders of our nation. The end (at last!) of the feckless 113th Congress motivates me to post this blog and to ask readers to think about the essay, the various ideas set forth by the authors who have different views as to what is needed to address the problems, and to suggest how we the people can force politicians to consider our interests in their decisions and not just the interests of the authoritarians and their 600+ lobbyists who are well along the road to purchasing our politicians.

In their sum-up paragraph of the essay, Micklethwait and Wooldridge say:

“There is nothing new about this [the present] challenge. Inequalities of wealth have recurrently threatened to overwhelm the rough and ready political equality without which a liberal state cannot function fairly. Recurrently, defenders of the liberal state, in the Progressive era, the Roosevelt New Deal, and the dawn of the European welfare state responded to the challenge and restored the state as the guarantor of the order and freedom of market society. Where Micklethwait and Wooldridge are surely right is that the genius of the West lay in its invention of rights respecting limited government, grounded in the revocable trust of ordinary people. It was this set of robust and enduring institutions that made us what we once were and what, if we restore their constitutional vigor, we can be once again.”

On a note of irony, Professor Ignatieff was recruited from the Harvard faculty in 2006 to be the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. In the 2011 national election he lost his seat in Parliament in the worst drubbing the Liberal Party ever suffered at the polls. A prestigious professorship at a major university does not assure an elected official in the U S or Canada a high political rating.

Your thoughts and comments are welcomed.

6 Responses to Is Authoritarianism Our 21st Century “Democracy”?

  • howard crise says:

    I don’t understand what distinction Ignatieff is trying to make in saying, “Democracy can only work if politics is conducted between adversaries. Right now, America’s constitution is stymied by a politics of enemies.”

    To me the words adversary and enemy are, if not synonymous, certainly not antonyms! I guess he means adversarial politics versus give-no-quarter politics.

    He also notes a “conflict between authoritarianism and democracy,” as if those labels are mutually exclusive, thereby avoiding any discussion of “authoritarian democracy”—in my humble opinion what has come to pass in the United States and why we face economic, political and social gridlock if not arnachy.

    Our constitutional democracy has lost its equilibrium, as a lame-duck president spars with a dysfunctional legislature and the justices tip the scales in favor of the 1%.

    • Frank Babb says:

      Yes, I think he is referring to dialogue between groups or individuals who have opposing views but are committed to reaching decisions for the common good. In prior times (it seems like ages ago) Democrats and Republicans recognized there were problems that needed to be dealt with (like budgets, or healthcare), each side or sides presenting their ideas for resolution, and in meaningful, substantive committee meetings with each other and their opponents reached agreements that in most instances were better, or at least more workable, than their respective initial views on the subject. Today, a stated view of some Republicans is that” government in general is bad” and by refusing to negotiate for reasonable solutions prove to their public that “government never works.” As a lawyer I spent thousands of hours with clients preparing for and participating in meetings where all sides wanted and needed to reach the best solutions attainable under the existing circumstances. The present day attitude of “my way or the highway” was seldom, and certainly never successfully, used by the parties. Compromise and organizing objectives in the order of their priorities are necessary and useful in reaching solutions to problems.

      Although I am not in favor of the seemingly acceptable expansion by the past three Presidents of their executive branch powers, I do approve in Congress’ disgusting political absence of President Obama’s using the powers he has to try to resolve major issues that a world-class nation shouldn’t shirk.

  • Billy Conn says:

    Frank, At the risk of sounding simplistic. American Democracy as conjured by the Founders, a fractious group from a cross section of colonial Amerrica, was dealt what may become a death blow by none other than the Constitutional Protector thereof: The Supreme Court.


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