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Columnists

The Siren Call of Demagogues and Dictators

President Biden’s call for creating an alliance of democracies recognized a scary fact: democracy has lost its appeal to far too many people across the world. Authoritarian systems, whether collective and party-run as in China or a single strong man in Turkey, today seduce as lethally as Homer’s Sirens did Odysseus. China claims that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) better understands the needs of people and can better provide for their well-being than tumultuous and uncertain western democracies. The CCP boasts that China crushed COVID-19 faster, fielded a vaccine sooner, and restarted economic growth earlier than the United States or the EU. This claim resonates among countries in China’s orbit and in countries it wants to bring into its orbit as well. Autocrats in particular welcome the Chinese message because it helps them justify repression. Turkey’s President Erdogan came to power as a democrat undoing the Turkish military’s eight-decade control by building spectacular economic growth for which he can justifiably take credit. Once that aura and his popularity waned, as inevitably happens in democracies, Erdogan weaponized religious nationalism by resurrecting popular nostalgia at the loss of a glorious past, the Ottoman Empire. Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Andrzej Duda rose to power by exploiting the loss of comfort and security of the communist past. They each cut a Faustian bargain with the antediluvian bishops who head the Catholic Church in their countries, offering abortion bans and the criminalization of gays and other ‘unnatural’ people. To ensure that they can stay in power indefinitely, both autocrats and their parties have undermined their countries independent judiciaries. Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi overthrew a democratically elected but incompetent President and imposed the most brutal regime in modern Egyptian history. He has retained sufficient popularity to stay in power by growing Egypt’s economy financed by billions in aid from fellow Arab autocrats seeking to prevent the spread of the democracy virus. President Trump and his now supine political party (formerly known as the Grand Old Party), confronted with the reality that they have become a permanent minority, have taken a similar path seeking to stay in power forever. They have stacked the courts and are trying to systematically suppress voters who may oppose them. A Trump Party lawyer defending voter restrictions in Arizona before the Supreme Court, in a moment of perhaps unscripted honesty, stated “[If the Court overturns the Arizona law] … it puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats. Politics is a zero-sum game…” Interestingly, the Trump Party has abandoned virtually the entire political philosophy of what used to be the GOP, such as states’ rights and balanced budgets in favor of the populist appeal of its septuagenarian leader who has focused on inciting racial hatred to rally his minority bloc. One can argue that younger Trumpists are riding Trump’s coattails in the not unreasonable expectation that he will pass from the scene sooner rather than later. The voter suppression laws of today will thus ensure permanent control of the country by Trump’s GOP after Trump.

The new autocrats discovered sooner than most that worldwide trends are more in their favor than we “old (small letter) democrats” believed. Last October, Britain’s Cambridge University conducted a study of the political attitudes of more than 4.8 million millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) in 160 countries. The study indicated that more than half of millennials worldwide did not believe that democracy satisfied their needs. It appears that the economic crisis of 2008 sparked the change from the pro-democracy views of older generations. The crisis disproportionately robbed younger people of jobs and opportunities for the future. Millennials have also grown particularly susceptible to the politics of resentment at growing inequality, a sentiment that Mr. Trump has proven remarkably capable of exploiting. (Admittedly, the image of Trump playing a Siren from the Odyssey jars the imagination.)

President Biden understands, perhaps better than younger politicians, that the future of democracy in the United States rests in changing the paradigm. One post-election survey comparing the 2016 elections with 2020 found that counties across the United States that prospered during the Trump term voted more for Joe Biden while counties that got poorer voted more for Trump. Republicans understood this; they opposed the recent $1.9 trillion pandemic rescue bill precisely because it will make people’s lives better.

Biden also understands better than most of us that not fighting the autocratic threat to democracy internationally threatens democracy at home just as much as not fighting the virus globally undermines the struggle to defeat the pandemic at home. His Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, laid out Biden’s most urgent foreign policy priorities: ending the COVID-19 pandemic, reviving the economy, reasserting U.S. leadership in technology, and renewing democracy at home, which in turn go hand in hand with rebuilding democratic alliances. His other priorities, tackling climate change and reforming immigration, cannot succeed unless we can take back our leadership position in the world. Biden knows that China will win any competition with the United States in appealing to the interests of autocratic regimes. Too many of my colleagues in the foreign service, myself included, once believed that we should tolerate oppressive dictatorships abroad because they offered stability and certainty in an unstable world. We were wrong.

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