What fuels the authoritarians? Refusal to imagine change

During a recent trip to the US, I was chatting to my Filipino taxi driver. California is going to the dogs, he told me.

The city of San Francisco is a mire of bad management and corruption. Tech companies have moved in bringing armies of highly paid nerds. The result: sky high property prices and a dead night life (it seems that most tech employees would rather commune all night with code than with other humans at a night club). It’s become unaffordable for most people to live in the city.

Thinking that maybe there was a perspective from which California did not seem quite so bad, I asked what he thought of the situation in his home country. “Well now we have this guy who is throwing drug dealers in jail or even having them killed. That’s what you need, it seems, to keep people in order.” It was not full-throated support for Duterte. But it was not shocked criticism either.

It was a fifteen-minute conversation. But it felt like it embodied much of what is going on around the world. People’s faith in the ability of the institutions of liberal democracy to look after their interests is falling apart. As has been the case so often, and so disastrously, in the past, they are looking for political strongmen (and they are all men) as the solution.

Poland and Hungary are firmly in the grip of strong leaders who are, at the very least, playing at the fringes of democracy. Putin is firmly entrenched and Xi will be appointing himself president for life. Trump’s appeal rested on the take-anyone-on, anti-Establishment brand of politics. Visiting Italy, I am still surprised by how many people I meet who claim that what the country needs to pull itself out of the mire is a dictatorship for a decade.

In the US, less than a third of younger Americans believe it is essential for them to live in a democracy. Today 50 per cent of Britons like the idea of a strongman ruler who does not have to bother with parliament or elections compared to 25 per cent two decades ago.

When we titled our book The Death of Liberal Democracy?, many were surprised, shocked even, that we would use such language (the question mark at the end didn’t seem to mollify). That reaction, too, reflects the realities of today. Many express shock, surprise and indignation at what is going on. But they fail to turn that into the all-important question: what have we done wrong to end up where we are today?

Instead of wondering how we ourselves opened the door to creeping authoritarianism, many seem content simply to withdraw into a position of moral self-righteousness. Let’s keep doing what we’ve always done and I’m sure the problems will go away because, after all, we’re right in our views.

Many of those who believe in the institutions of liberal democracy seem to have run out of ideas. They refuse to contemplate radical reform of those institutions even as people continue to lose faith in them. That may not be surprising seeing as the issues are deep and difficult to solve. They are not amenable to the simplistic solutions being offered by some insurgent parties,

Nevertheless, we need to show a willingness to challenge established thinking and work together to re-think and reform. We need to be willing to slay some sacred cows.

Refusal to change is the essential fuel behind the rise of reactionary parties. It is time that new energising political perspectives emerged which are not based on the politics of division and confrontation. That is the role of the radical centre. The challenge is to give it sufficient momentum to make it meaningful.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Stephen Gwynne says

    It’s not the death of democracy, it is the death of a liberalism that cannot reconcile its ideals of liberty, equality, autonomy and emancipation with increasing resource scarcity, increasing human population levels and increasing surplus energy costs in a world of nations where half are already in ecological debt. In other words, what is the point of liberty, equality, autonomy and emancipation within an economic, social and ecological wasteland. This is the true challenge of the radical centre.

  2. Robin Matusow says

    You are absolutely correct. Fear is the most powerful fuel in human nature. When we loose the ability to imagine personal change, it is balanced by the ability to change socially. When we think we have lost both, we ‘revert’ back to abdicating all power, personal and social, looking for comfort or at least, reduction of fear. Courage, demonstrated by ‘sacrifice ‘ of some sacred cows in our liberal Democracy is a start. The first one that needs to go is complacency. Liberal Democracy has misrepresented itself as powerless. Without a platform or direction. Willing to have a view based on not being the ‘other’ view instead of one built on inclusion of many to the service of all.

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