As government leaders marshal to fight COVID-19, they’re amassing sweeping new executive powers. Democracies around the world are looking increasingly authoritarian as officials limit movement, expand surveillance, and postpone elections in the name of public safety. (The Washington Post)
NH: If there is one absolute truth in history, it is that a genuine crisis--in the economy, in health and public safety, or in civic order--always and everywhere enhances the power of top-down authoritarian leadership.
With well over half of the world's population under emergency lockdowns and with nearly every economy contracting rapidly, such a crisis has arrived. People everywhere are watching their national leaders (or, in America, their state governors) give daily addresses about what rules they must follow and what kind of future they can look forward to. Even democratic governments are shutting down borders. And many are mandating GPS, telecom, or drone surveillance (and other Stasi-like technologies... yes, even in Israel) to catch rule-breakers.
Meanwhile, the fiscal regimentation of entire economies is turning most businesses and ordinary people into effective wards of the state. And you think that too doesn't come with rules?
"End of Freedom" was the London Daily Telegraph's banner headline three weeks ago when the UK went under total lockdown.
And now the second rule of history: In such crisis eras, leaders who have always favored a more authoritarian approach to governance will use this moment to strike. "Never let a crisis go to waste" was chief of staff Rahm Emanuel's advice to President Barack Obama back in 2008, which he recently invoked again in his call for Democrats to "think big" in their response to the pandemic. I'm not sure U.S. Democrats are in a position to do much. But many other leaders around the world sure are.
In Latin America, the main subject of this WP story, authoritarians everywhere are using COVID-19 as an excuse to consolidate power. For Jeanine Áñez in Bolivia, it means postponing elections and throwing critics in jail. For Iván Márquez in Colombia, it means hunting down ex-FARC leaders. For Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, it means shooting up the favelas to distract investors from massive capital flight. Harsh stuff. But maybe not as bad as the grinding poverty of Venezuela, the out-of-control death toll in Ecuador, or the economic prospects in Argentina after its expected (9th) default.
Or let's turn to Eastern Europe, where aspiring authoritarians have never had it so good. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been granted emergency powers to "rule by decree." In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party is going ahead with a May election knowing that the opposition will find it almost impossible to field candidates under lockdown. (The EU finds itself too distracted to object to either of these moves.) Oh yes, and in Russia Vladimir Putin was finally able to push term-limit removal through the Duma, ensuring that he can now be czar for life.
In South and East Asia, the resurgence in authoritarian leadership hardly requires elaboration. But let me mention the sweeping emergency measures recently put in place in India by Narendra Modi and in the Philippines by Rodrigo Duterte. Indonesia may be the next nation to move from utter denial to total crackdown.
This global ascendance of authoritarianism (and populism) was not, by any means, triggered by the recent pandemic. It is a generational (or, to use my term, "turning") trend that has been with us for over a decade. According to Freedom House, 2019 was the 14th consecutive year of declining freedom worldwide. (It's been downhill ever since 2005; see "Free Speech Declining Around the World.") But there's no question that 2020 is going to push the world a lot lower in the Freedom House index. While the pandemic did not cause this trend, it is certainly accelerating it.
Yet there's a deeper question to consider. And that is whether the pandemic not only raises the perceived need for authoritarian leadership at a time of crisis but also raises the popular appeal of authoritarian leadership as a default governing style. I have pointed out before that Millennials, as a global generation, have much less attachment to "democracy" or "due process" than older generations. (See "Are Millennials Giving Up on Democracy?")
No, western Millennials are not enamored of autocratic regimes like Xi Jinping's China--but then again, they aren't as turned off by it as their parents or grandparents. At least, they think, these nations invest heavily in the future, enjoy rising living standards, and prioritize community. And what about regimes like Halimah Yacob's Singapore? Here, maybe, you can get a lot of Millennial nods.
Why does the current pandemic pose this question yet again in stark terms? Well, let me quote myself here. "Today, the sweeping and centralized mobilization of citizens in Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea is being compared favorably to the slower and less coordinated response of governments in western Europe and the United States. Confucian societies respond well to epidemics because citizens sign on quickly and fully to top-down authoritarian policies. Western cultures have many strengths, but this isn't one of them." (See "How Epidemics Change History.")
Very simply, today's liberal democracies are being put to the test: Do they have the energy and flexibility to adopt top-down solutions when they make eminent sense? Or have they become so enervated and sclerotic that they have lost the capacity to save themselves even when facing a clear and present danger?
These questions come to mind when I watch the huge civil-liberties controversy over plans by Slovakia (mimicking Singapore and South Korea) to introduce mandatory GPS tracing of infected and contacts. Italy, Czechia, Poland, and Serbia are apparently holding back on similar plans. Controversy? Are you kidding? Do you actually prefer indiscriminate mass lockdowns?
The Carnegie Endowment recently took this question head-on in an excellent essay entitled "Do Authoritarian or Democratic Countries Handle Pandemics Better?" The authors note, correctly, that some authoritarian states are not handling this pandemic well (Iran, Russia). And that not all democracies are handling it poorly (South Korea). They conclude, rather, that the key endowment enjoyed by governments that do a good job--democratic or not--is public trust.
And that points to the real challenge facing western democracies: Today, most of them are not much trusted by their citizens. And what's worse, the more they hesitate and vacillate in their response to this pandemic, the less they are trusted.
In order to break out of the box they're in, what these democracies need are decisive and capable leadership. I hope it comes soon. The only alternative is the rising emergence and appeal and spread of illiberal autocrats, who don't want to defend democracy but rather want to undermine and replace it.
The last time we saw that happen on the global scale was in the 1930s. This was also the last time we saw the spread of autarkic nationalism and the rolling back of globalization. (See "The COVID-19 Recession of 2020 Puts Globalization Into Deep Freeze.") The parallel between the 2020s and the 1930s may also extend to market behavior. But to hear that argument, don't listen to me. Listen instead to Ray Dalio in his recent "Ted Connects" interview.
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ABOUT NEIL HOWE
Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.
A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.
Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."
Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.
Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.
Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.