Thursday, July 1, 2010

Joel HillikerColumnist
A Flirt With Dictatorships
June 30, 2010 | From
Western liberals say America’s system is broken and the government needs more power. Guess who agrees.
Strange trend: Liberals in America pining for authoritarianism.
Last year the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman, lamenting the political paralysis that was hindering the Obama administration’s legislative agenda, made this remarkable comparison: “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.”
Last month on Meet the Press, Friedman warmed to his theme: “I have fantasized—don’t get me wrong—but that what if we could just be China for a day? I mean, just, just, just one day,” he said. “You know, I mean, where we could actually, you know, authorize the right solutions … on everything from the economy to environment.”
Confound those Founding Fathers, with all their limited-government, balance-of-powers claptrap. If you want to get something done, autocracy is the way to go.
Similar thinking has poked its head up from the oily waters of the Gulf crisis. In its most extreme expression, earlier this month you had Rosie O’Donnell on the radio suggesting this “solution”: “Seize their [BP’s] assets today. Take over the country, I don’t care. Issue an executive order. Say, ‘BP? Guess what.’ Call it socialism, call it communism, call it anything you want. … Seize the assets—take over BP.”
Of course, she believes, contrary to all evidence, that the government could actually manage this crisis better than a private company. In truth, the American government is already BO—Beyond Overburdened—and the more it tries to do, the worse it gets at everything.
Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating argument to hear: America is supposedly the picture of greatness, using a governing structure many have considered the envy of the world—and it’s plainly broken. We need something leaner, more agile, stronger.
Guess who’s listening—and agreeing? German elites.
“Foreign-policy specialists from Berlin’s establishment are discussing possible advantages of dictatorial forms of government,” reported on June 15. The May-June issue of Germany’s leading journal on global affairs, Internationale Politik, focuses on the question.
In the lead article, Herfried Münkler, a member of the advisory board of Berlin’s Federal College for Security Studies, reveals a theme popping up in the private conversations of the German establishment. They sound a lot like Thomas Friedman: Democracy has them frustrated, for several reasons. Its inertia. Its sluggishness. Its susceptibility to corruption by special interest groups. “The widespread tendency of politicians to talk around things because they fear being punished politically for speaking the truth” (my translation).
These German elites recognize a “state of democratic fatigue with an erosion of democratic institutions.” They call democracy “the system that has grown old.” “[D]emocracy … shows signs of fatigue and symptoms of deficiency,” Münkler wrote; “it needs a revitalization cure.”
What these movers and shakers yearn for, Münkler explains, is “a bit of dictatorship.”
That’s right. The “spreading discomfort with democracy” in Western nations brings with it “a certain seductiveness for a flirt with dictatorships.”
It’s one thing to hear a self-impressed reporter making an eyebrow-raising talking point on a Sunday morning news program. It’s quite another to get a glimpse, via a prestigious German-language policy journal, at what German industrialists and foreign-policy specialists are whispering “out of earshot of the public.” Particularly given German and European history, which has been a repetitious cycle of weak and failed administrations giving way to the rule of dictators. And the fact that Germany now languishes under a weak and failed administration.
Looking at the world today, Internationale Politik notes, the real success stories are autocracies. “The economic boom of autocratic powers such as China and Russia has reignited the competition of systems,” says the issue’s lead editorial. “Have authoritarian systems refurbished their gloss—because they are quicker at making decisions than portly democracies?”
It is not at all difficult to see the failure of the democratic model in today’s world. The particular portly democracy that Tom Friedman would like to see transformed into an Asian autocracy, even if only for a day, is not only failing at home—it is also miserably failing at efforts to export people-power to Iraq and Afghanistan. Elsewhere in that region—Lebanon, the Palestinians, Egypt and Iran among them—elections have awarded the reins of power to ideological extremists.
On every continent, the accouterments of democracy are applied at great expense; they remain, at present, a basic test of a government’s legitimacy. But underneath, the great majority of these regimes bear the hallmarks of authoritarianism—election fraud, oppression of the opposition, state media control. After all, even North Korea (excuse me, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) holds elections every five years.
Now in response—no surprise—we see intellectuals criticizing the notion that the only legitimate government is a popularly elected government. This is hardly a new criticism: Throughout history the elite have tended to sneer at the idea that government should be entrusted to the stupid and mediocre masses.
Herfried Münkler and the Internationale Politik staff ultimately reject the alternative. They conclude, “Even with all of the contradictions in democracies, with dictatorships, in all their variations, the risks are too high.” But as says, “Whether Münkler’s rejection [of dictatorship] will convince those who, according to his information, are today talking ‘of various dictatorial powers and measures’ remains, for the time being, unknown.”
Well, it would be unknown—that is, without the testimony of history. Germany’s present period of democracy is a historical anomaly. Germans—and not just the elites—have always preferred a strongman government. Democracy has always been imposed from outside. And it has always collapsed and been subsumed by a reversion to totalitarianism. Even today, support for democracy is declining among the populace; in 2006, for example, the German Statistics Office reported that only 38 percent of eastern Germans believed democracy to be good for Germany—down 11 percent from five years before.