Resisting authoritarian leaders

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by Hans Dembowski

For democracy, curiosity matters more than obedience

Authoritarian leaders’ policies often do not make sense. That is one reason why freedom of speech is so important. Education also helps to enable people to critically assess what politicians promise. Unfortunately, some people prefer the comfort of hierarchical order to independent thinking.

As I pointed out in an earlier post, Donald Trump’s foreign policy proposals do not make sense. I’ll not delve into the details here, but just give another example of what the presumptive presidential candidate of the Republican party promises to deliver in the USA. He says he’ll build a wall along the Mexican border and “make Mexico pay”. The slogan may resonate with some US citizens, but it is clearly absurd.  

Rodrigo Duterte who was just elected president of the Philippines is also a reason for concern. He has said he is willing to fight crime by killing thousands of criminals without trial. You cannot, however, stop gang wars by prevailing in gang wars for some time. The Philippines needs the rule of law, not grandstanding.

Sadly, authoritarian tendencies are becoming stronger in Europe too. And no, their policies are not more coherent. Germany’s right-wing party AFD, for example, argues that Germany should leave the euro zone. It does not consider that such a step would result in a fast appreciating new Deutsche Mark, which in turn would make German exports much more expensive. In macroeconomic terms, the proposal is as ridiculous as the idea of the Mexican government paying for a wall it does not want.

In Britain, right-wing populists want their country to leave the EU. They pretend the United Kingdom can regain absolute sovereignty rather than pooling it with other European nations without the UK’s cooperation with its neighbours being affected in any major way. It took them a long time to acknowledge that the UK would not stay part of Europe’s single market.

Flawed reasoning is typical of authoritarian politics. The fewer people understand that slogans do not add up, the more dangerous those slogans become. It is precisely for this reason that authoritarians like to limit the freedom of expression once they are in power. They do not want people to understand what is going on.  

Stanley Feldman is a social scientist from the USA. In the 1990s he found a way to measure who in America has authoritarian leanings. He does not ask people about political issues, but about how to educate children. What do they think is more important for a child to have: respect for elders or independence? Obedience or self-reliance? Good manners or curiosity? Do they want children to be well-behaved or considerate?

At first glance, these questions are about parenting, but the answers reveal a respondent’s thinking on hierarchy, conformity and order, which are things authoritarians like. What they do not like is independent, self-reliant, curious and considerate individuals.

It is worth pointing out moreover, that the questions are not about whether young people should show contempt for elders and forget about manners. Surely being considerate is more important than formal good behaviour. And curiosity certainly beats good manners for understanding the substance of a policy argument.   

Feldman’s insight is interesting. It suggests that rich democracies are probably a bit better insulated against authoritarianism than developing countries and emerging markets, where respect for elders and hierarchies tend to be emphasised more. As a matter of fact, a management consultant recently told me that in Germany’s private sector, young people now resent taking orders so their superiors must treat them as autonomous, intelligent partners if they want to get things done. Similar trends have been noticed in other advanced economies. The young people want to rise to challenges, they are not shying away from work. The encouraging thing is that, if someone does not want to be a pawn in someone else’s game at work, he or she is unlikely to obey authoritarian demands anywhere else.

Ignorance and lack of self-confidence matter. Fear, anger and frustration, however, often play into authoritarians’ hands. Some people are perfectly able to understand that populist slogans are nonsense, but they do not want to. Hierarchy and conformity gives them a comforting sense of order. That is why authoritarian politicians sometimes gain more than just a foothold even in advanced economies. Silvio Berlusconi, who dominated Italian politics for almost two decades, was an example. Norbert Hofer, who may soon win the final round of Austria’s presidential election, is another.

Experience tells us, on the other hand, that authoritarians sometimes fail in developing countries. Peoples’ power uprisings have twice toppled authoritarian presidents in the Philippines in the past. More recently, Sri Lankans elected Maithripala Sirisena instead of confirming Mahinda Rajapaksa as president. Rajapaksa had become ever more dictator-like in office. In Burkina Faso, civil-society activism made sure that Blaise Compaoré, the strongman of almost three decades, could not run for re-election again. That movement, it is worth pointing out, was driven by young people who were fed up with being pushed around.

All too often, however, people do not get the chance of free elections under authoritarian rule. It is better to keep them away from power to begin with – and to make that happen, it is important that people use their brains. A strong civil society depends on people doing so.    


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