Self-Interested Civics and the Authoritarian Appeal

We in the West tend to labor under the delusion that we know what is best for the rest of the world. 

Take that most odious phrase, flung by armchair liberals at mystifying blue-collar-diner-Obama/Trump voters and inexplicably populist third-world voters alike, namely: “they voted against their own best interest.” 

What a wonderfully efficient way of minimizing the motives of these haplessly misguided voters; what a relief, such simple dismissals. 

I have a suspicion that the rising alternatives rolling back global Western-style democracy might be worth legitimately considering, rather than reducing—i.e., why are the authoritarians and antiliberals so appealing, and what might it reflect about our fragile civic compromise? 

Our operative World Order is an intricately neurotic network of liberal, multilateral, norm-based institutions spider webbing across the modern world. It is also an edifice founded on a faulty assumption: that the rest of the world would follow America’s lead in perpetuity

The coronation of the ultimate form of human society was scheduled for 1989, amidst the dust of the formerly erect Berlin Wall, and America–squatting, indispensable–named this the “End of History.” This snappy turn of phrase roughly translated to our half of the world has won and thus we have perfected human society and indubitably it is simply a matter of waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with us here at the triumphant conclusion to human advancement or something like that; it’s all German to me.

America’s civic, economic, and moral ways of life bestrode a subdued world. Now, that institutional sprawl—the Liberal International World Order, as it’s hammered into the frontal lobes of international relations majors—is coming apart at the seams of its own presumptuousness. 

I have a suspicion that we can do better–an unexamined consensus is not worth abiding by, perhaps. 

Clear eyes, removed from sand, might note that democracy is in massive retreat on every habitable continent. 2018 marked the 13th consecutive year of a “consistent and ominous” pattern of democratic decline, according to Freedom House. The World America Made™ (in 1945) and Secured™ (in 1989) has lost its most vocal backers to abiding apathy or internal hemorrhaging. Meanwhile, the paradigm of norms and values that it has championed is under assault.

Voices in myriad languages have proclaimed an End to the American Century, the rise of a multipolar world, or a bifurcation into a bipolar world split between mutually exclusive, antagonistic orders. 

China is most often cast as the potential pole opposite America’s. Newly ambitious and sentimentally expansionist (and Black Mirror-esquely technodystopian), Xi Jinping’s China is offering an authoritarian-friendly model of sovereign rule (feat. Human Rights Lite). This is an explicit alternative to a western system that they (rightfully) feel has been tailored to exclude them–call it the authoritarian bundle, and at all-time low: Chinese-subsidized prices! One belt, one road, two fatty bulges counterweighting an antagonistic world. 

So, what if we’re wrong? In a liberal international consensus rupturing into nationalistic hostility, wracking trade wars, and competing spheres of global governance, it serves us—the comfortable—to interrogate our assumptions, the ideological skeletons of our fleshy world order, and the end of our animatingly narrative histories.

Let us consider, apart from our downy dogmas and comfortable assumptions, why voters actually turn away from democracy and towards the antiliberal ruffians herein generalized as authoritarians. Let us question what they might be communicating, dashed across scornfully illiberal ballots. Let us accord others the same rationality we allow ourselves and presume that the civic masses know exactly who and what they’re voting for. And let’s pivot towards more interesting questions in the process, such as, reductively, what is the authoritarian appeal

At last, let us run through some competing theories for an unfolding and unmastered phenomena. They are in no way exclusive, exhaustive, or especially insightful. 

A promising first proposal is “The Authoritarian Switch,” neither red nor plastic but just as actionable (see Stenner’s seminal Authoritarian Dynamic). Essentially, threat responses trigger a “draw up the drawbridges” reactionism, a battening down of the hatches against perceived threats: internal, external, varied, subjective and often channeled by self-interested opportunists of all ilk and title. Here we reach the limits of tribe, empathy, inclusivity, plurality, and many more of your favorite post-’45 greatest hitshigher Maslowian goods afforded to the comfortable like Christmas after a big raise.

Or perhaps, as a breed, authoritarians are particularly persuasive. History attests that they tend towards bombast and bravado, booming with sweeping promises. Often, before they dismantle the resistant norms of the systems they inherit, authoritarians’ smooth execution of (unfounded) bombast into law is less than frictionless—see Promises vs Policy, written by me. 

Authoritarians tend also to wield a reliable anti-system energy, one channeled broadly by antiestablishmentarians of all sort, from Bernie to Trump to Perot. Put in headphones and listen, really listen to the rallies. Perhaps there exists some implacable perverse anti-PC energy, some crossroads of “he says it like it is” and “you, the people” and brutish populist stumping of every sort. See, really see the blocky denunciations, the coarse demographic quantifications, the urgently assigned Outsiders–see that maybe it’s working and all my synonyms are founded in deep discomfort with the potential implications. See: a great long essay on the decline of liberalism in a cradle of Central Europe, Poland; a tragedy of rough appeal and accretive injustice and aggressive entrenchment; ie “Polarization in Poland: A Warning from Europe,” by Anne Applebaum. 

Fine, I’ll drop my final conceits. 

Maybe after all, the Cruelty is the Point (appropriated from an article of the same name by Adam Serwer). Perhaps authoritarianism, nationalism, xenophobia, and us-vs-them urges must be predicated on some Us elevated above some Them. Perhaps pluralism and broadness among humankind are the first casualties of retreating liberalism and norm-based decency. Perhaps naked meanness is the point, the jeers at rallies and clubs at Charlottesville and slurs at immigrants are the point, the cruelty unites and activates and it is the point

Or perhaps I’m dead wrong, and the masses of humanity crowding, jostling our global civics really don’t have any idea what they’re doing, busy voting from their gut or somewhere lower and being led by the nose against their own interests and into exploitation and manipulation of every nefarious sort—and there really is no sense to it, and we’re all doomed.


In dawdling to the finish line I feel compelled to consider the opposite side of the strong-man coin (golden, their face stamped onto it)–i.e. the governance on the other side of elections. Regardless of appeals of any salience, authoritarians retain a soft underbelly–their actual efficacy once they’re in office. 

This is the question at the heart of every brutal, repressive, dissent-demolishing civics-crushing bunker-busting authoritarian apparatus; there amidst naked fear that the answer might dissolve their “right” to rule (the appearance, at most, of legitimacy via a popular mandate) and might read “not great.” 

I’m sure I’m not sure, but surely all that’s up to them–the aural and independent peoples of our shared planet, and maybe several more talented writers of opinion pieces, besides. I’m simply pivoting away from the most depressing part of this sojourn so that we might linger on something hopeful, here in our last lines together. I just think we can try a little harder, maybe question a little more rigorously. I’ll show myself out.

Categories: Philosophy

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