“Democracy is at stake,” US President Biden told a gathering of Democratic Party governors on September 28th. His warning about the global spread of illiberalism followed the stunning gains made by populist parties in Sweden and Italy, the latter of which he mentioned directly. “We can’t be sanguine about what’s happening here either,” he added. Biden has already called much of his own domestic opposition “semi-fascist,” and fears of anti-democratic violence remain following the storming of the US Capitol on January 6th, 2020, by rioters attempting to overturn his own election.
But these worrying developments on the political Right reflect only one expression of the new authoritarianism. The Western Left, once advocates of free speech and tolerant of markets, now embrace a massive expansion of state power, complete with expansive curbs on expression and speech. Perhaps most ominous of all, expanded state power and intolerance are also now being embraced by some of the world’s most powerful corporations, which have benefited greatly from liberalism, the rule of law, and open inquiry.
Beyond the West, full-bore authoritarians are already in power—Xi Jinping in China, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey. At the end of the Cold War, the world seemed to be traveling on a natural “arc” to a more democratic future. But authoritarianism has been on the rise for almost two decades. Most critically, China’s rise offers an alluring—at least to some—model of a new corporate state that, perhaps more than anything, recalls the European fascist regimes in the 1920s and ’30s. “Democracies,” Xi is said to have told Biden, “can’t be sustained in the 21st century.”
Historical precedence and critical pre-conditions
Autocracy’s appeal lies partly in the sense of certainty and enthusiastic commitment it provides. In his 1995 work, Nazi Germany: A New History, the historian Klaus Fischer argues that the 20th century’s dictatorial regimes thrived by offering “a version of traditional religiosity with its own dogmas, priesthood and inquisitions.” Their preferred terroirs are societies experiencing economic decline and the loss of traditional social, spiritual, and political moorings. In the 1930s, radical cultural changes and depressed economic conditions fostered nationalist extremism in some places, while others rejected constitutional democracy for the siren song of Stalinism.
Without the Depression and the sense of societal unraveling during the Weimar Republic, it is unlikely Hitler would have gained power. “Fascism,” noted historian F.L. Carsten in The Rise of Fascism (1967), “was the product of a deep economic and social crisis, a crisis of European society.” Today’s social turmoil and economic decline is all too similar. North America and Europe both face the growing threat of a serious global economic downturn. Today, 57 percent of Americans, according to Rasmussen, worry that a major depression is on the way. This belief may not be justified, but it offers a snapshot of growing public anxiety and pessimism.
The generational aspect is critical here. Pew has found that 56 percent of residents in advanced economies believe their children will do worse than they did. This is not an unreasonable assumption—in 2018, half of all recent college grads in the US made under $28,000 annually, and another recent study suggests that most underemployed graduates will remain that way permanently. The frustrations of the young provide particularly effective kindling for extreme politics. In prewar Germany before the Nazis took power, notes historian Frederic Spotts in Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (2002), National Socialism was all the rage among university students and young people in general; these disgruntled youngsters also filled the ranks of the communist militias.
By contrast, support for market-centered institutions and free speech tends to diminish in hard times. Even before the current economic woes, an Edelman survey reported that a majority of people in 28 countries around the world said they believe that capitalism does more harm than good. More than four-in-five worry about job loss, particularly from automation. Rising inequality and general fear of downward mobility have boosted support for expanded government and greater re-distribution of wealth.
Faith in the democratic model, meanwhile, has fallen steadily for almost a decade, with disapproval of democracy now well over 50 percent globally, a phenomenon clearly evident in the United States. A 2020 global survey of opinion by the Cambridge-based Center for the Future of Democracy that combined data from over 4.8 million respondents—43 sources in 160 countries between 1973 and 2020—found faith in democracy falling most precipitously among Generation X and millennials.
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Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Roger Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.
Photo: Library of Congress.