My book group recently read a book titled On Tyranny, by Timothy Snyder. It is a short book that discusses how we might know a democracy is beginning to slide from democracy into authoritarianism. I think several of these indicators are worth contemplating as we approach the general election in November.
Snyder is a history professor at Yale and he uses examples from the rise of right-wing authoritarianism, fascism and communism in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s to illustrate the roots of tyranny and to urge us to consider the proper responses to it. It is no surprise that fascist and communist regimes have used many of the same techniques to gain and keep power, as they have proven effective.
To protect our own constitutional democracy, we should be aware of these threats and recognize them for what they are. A few of Snyder’s warnings (and a couple of my own) follow:
- Censorship and suppression of the truth: When government officials demand that established scientific and other verifiable facts be removed from official reports – look out. Suppression of information was a key element in the rise of Hitler and Stalin.
- Propaganda and the repetition of false information: Repetition of lies was commonly used in Nazi Germany and Communist USSR. It is still alive and well today – made much easier by social media, where the almost instantaneous propagation of conspiracy theories and open hostility to verifiable facts makes this particularly pernicious.
- Vilification of “the other”: The literary scholar Victor Klemperer observed that Hitler’s language demonized legitimate opposition: “The people” was code for some people but not others (and definitely not Jews). Any view that differed from the party line was “defamation” of the leader. We see similar tactics in authoritarian countries around the world today.
- Vilification of the press: If the entities engaged in evaluating the truth of conspiracy theories and “alternative facts” are continually vilified by those in power as reporting “fake news,” then it is not long before they are owned and controlled by those in power. Goodbye free press. Snyder recommends getting news from as many different sources as possible rather than listening to sound bites.
- The erosion of institutions: Most of us have faith in the pillars of our democracy – the Constitution and the three branches of government. But to assume that institutions will continue automatically is a mistake. Hitler came to power in the election of 1932 and many Germans assumed the institutional status quo would be maintained. By the end of 1933 Germany was a one-party state with the traditional institutions gutted. Many “reasonable” people watched this happen without protest.
- Unidentified troops take people off the streets for interrogation: When un-uniformed forces emerge from vans and drag peaceful protestors off for interrogation, we often think of it happening in countries far from home. Yet it happened recently in Portland, Oregon.
- Paramilitary groups: Democracy and the rule of law have been undermined by people and parties who encourage, and sometimes create and fund, violent organizations. “Violent right-wing groups such as the Iron Guard in interwar Romania or the Arrow Cross in interwar Hungary, intimidated their rivals. Nazi storm troopers began as a security detail clearing the halls of Hitler’s opponents during his rallies.”(Snyder).
- The hijacking of “patriotism”: A multitude of sins can hide behind the word “patriotism.” Patriotism as I understand it involves serving your own country (not just in the military) by taking actions that help the nation live up to its ideals and values and asking the best of ourselves. Patriotism is not the same as nationalism, which as the author Danilo Kis put it “has no universal values, aesthetic or ethical.” George Orwell described a nationalist as “endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge” while being “uninterested in what happens in the real world.”
- Election shenanigans: Around the world unfair and rigged elections occur with discouraging frequency – stuffed ballot boxes, voters prevented from voting by too few polling stations, inadequate voting windows, voter intimidation by threatening groups. When those in power declare that if they are not reelected the election is rigged and encourage their supporters to intimidate voters at the polls, it is a sure sign that democracy is slipping away.
As we move toward the election it will serve us well to remember the slide from democracy into fascism in other countries and at other times. We cannot let that happen here. Be well informed; seek a variety of news sources; do not live in a “bubble”. Vote.
Chas Macquarie is a Carson City resident.