America’s Descent into Third World Politics

Having worked in the international arena for over ten years, I have personally observed the replacement of decades-long progress in advancing democracy and the rule of law worldwide with the stunning rise of an authoritarian model of politics. Studies now document a worrisome trend: freedom and democracy are in retreat.

Democracy is not just about elections; it is about the rule of law and respect for individual rights.  The retreat of democracy today is harder to detect because it hides behind a superficial commitment to elections. Elections are held, of course, but are increasingly a pathway for the rise of tyrants who have little interest in constitutional limits on power.

The patterns are familiar everywhere.

In every case, authoritarians attack and undermine opposition groups in civil society. For them politics is a zero sum game; if they can’t have what they want, no one will. They take personal control of whatever political party they manage to capture, then shred it to pieces if they must once they’ve achieved their objective.

Among the tyrant’s many enemies is the press, even as the press is used in their rise. They bully into submission reporters who get in their way. They threaten to curb the free press (“open up our libel laws”). They allow their loyal ruffians to physically intimidate adversaries, all the while denying responsibility.

In every case the demagogues and extremists blame the outsider for their countryman’s woes. Their product is paranoia, fear and contempt for anyone different from themselves. Foreigners are a part of a conspiracy to destroy their country from within, they say. Other countries are robbing them blind and they are getting nothing in return, they claim. Free trade means the theft of our jobs, never job creation.

Truth and facts matter little if at all, particularly from those calling attention to the leader’s deep personal flaws. Facts can’t be allowed to get in the way of power. So they cut off all social media and information sources but their own; others can’t be trusted.

Ruthless and narcissistic candidates rarely present a policy program to fix problems, believing that knowledge and competence is a sign of weakness. The solution is not a policy program; it is a person – the Big Man. The Big Man knowingly lies and manipulates, often with broad approval, and surrounds himself with sycophants who bow in obedience in his presence.

Tyrants always exploit society’s divisions. The most convenient scapegoat among demagogues and extremists is the least popular religious or ethnic minority. If our group has lost power, it can only mean that some other group has gained it at our expense.

Never are voters told that they share responsibility for improving their own lives, like working hard at their own education to adapt to a changing economy. Nor does the citizen bear responsibility whatsoever to help improve his country – only to vote for the strong man who will do it all for them.

Does any of this sound familiar?

There are two things that are equally shocking about the above in the age of Trump. For one, Mr. Trump apparently admires this model. He has suggested that authoritarians are better at running their countries and has advocated more advanced forms of torture.  He quotes Mussolini, and in the most telling revelation of Trump’s undemocratic authoritarianism of today, he expresses admiration for Vladimir Putin, one of America’s top foes.

The second sobering reality is that a sizable block of the Republican Party has embraced Trump, apparently concluding that challenging times requires desperate measures. That voters are angry over the collapse of the America dream deserves our full respect; their choice of an authoritarian solution does not. It is a sign of broad moral failure and cultural decline. Trump is winning, fair and square, in spite of many well-known defects, offering proof that authoritarianism can be seductive even in America.

One thing is likely, whatever the outcome of this year’s election, existing party politics will almost certainly never be the same and will need to be rebuilt. Dangerous toxins have entered the blood stream of American politics.

The Republican Party is close to being captured by the very demagoguery that the Founding Fathers feared, and the Democratic Party is being riven with a movement describing itself as revolutionary, led by a self-described socialist espousing a program well outside the American mainstream. There many not be an easy short-term solution. In the meanwhile, Americans who see the dangers and wish to resist the expansion of these influences need to do what conscience requires.

Don Eberly served in the White House under two Presidents, played critical roles in Iraq and Afghanistan’s postwar reconstruction, and published several books on civil society.



Better Angels on Christianity Today’s “Quick to Listen” Podcast

Christianity Today has a launched a new podcast called “Quick to Listen” (A warm twinkie to those who can tell us where that title comes from!) Hint here.

Anyway, this week’s podcast – on the issue of balancing religious freedom with LGBT protections – mentions an important meeting that Better Angels hosted at Centre College a few weeks ago. One of the podcast’s participants discusses her participation in and experience at the gathering and gives a nice shout-out to David and the project in a special section at the end of the show.

It’s worth listening to!

Red States Redder, Blue States Bluer

The study shows that state policies across the country became more liberal between the 1930s and 1970s — and then stopped. In more recent years, overall economic policies have been constant, but social policies have become more liberal.

The findings also confirmed what might have been suspected for some time: that over the past 20 years, states have become more politically polarized — not just in voting for president or members of Congress but also in state-level policies. And that if a state has conservative economic policies, for instance, that conservatism prevails across social policies as well.

Someplace More Polarized Than the U.S.

A really interesting article about political polarization in Turkey.  Here to me is the money quote:

According to the recent study, 83.4 percent [of Turks] do not want their daughters to marry a member of the party constituency they feel is most distant to them. Some 78.4 percent do not want to do business with a member of the most distant party, 76 percent do not want each other as neighbors, and 73.9 percent do not want their kids to be friends with such people.

Demagoguery NYTs Style

We tend to judge the judgmental statements of others from our own place in the world. Among many cultural elites – found in DC, NYC and LA and many university campuses – it is a given that the world-class judgmental demagogues are found on FOX News, in the GOP and among Southern religious conservatives while those on the other end are reasonable, caring and insightful. The former think they are right, but it’s really the latter who are right.

I could be very wrong, but it turns out, I am not. The NYT’s editorial board affirmed my understanding this week in their editorial on the Iowa Caucus. It truly is a piece of work and out foxes FOX in being unreflectively extreme.

Take time to read the short piece here.

Let me give you some examples of their conclusions about each party’s candidates and let you judge whether their piece really brings any honest insight or help to their readers as they prepare for this upcoming election.

  • They lament the “emotional venting common to both parties” but these parties “could not have been more different in the particulars” and nature of this venting.
  • “The Republican candidates,” they explain,  “for the most part, show no real sign of wanting” the emotional venting to subside and only one candidate, in their estimation, tried to “inject a tone of decency and hopefulness in the Republican contest.” They praise Gov. Kasich as this lone person who is capable of any decency and hope.
  • They explain that Marco Rubio has been very crafty as he “tried [tried!] to put a younger, more charming face on the basic Republican message of anger, xenophobia, fear and hate…” as if his manner of politics is merely a political smoke and mirrors trick. Holy Cow!
  • But they explain he couldn’t keep up the rouse because “he fairly quickly veered into demonizing President Obama” on issues such as Obamacare and national security. Rue the day that presidential candidates started passionately pointing out why they think their opponent’s policies are wrong-headed and even dangerous.
  • The GOP stands in stark contrast from the Dems because at least the Hillary/Sanders contest is a genuine “competition of ideas” and criticized each other and their opponents “with more civility than the Republicans and in service of talking about what they wanted to do, not what President Obama failed to do.” Goodness.
  • Hillary Clinton, in contrast to the wild-eyed and mean spirited GOP crowd, “frames her candidacy much more cerebrally and pragmatically”. She will get great good accomplished as she “made rousing calls to protect women’s rights, on wage equality, and on health care, but her primary pitch was that she detailed ideas and the ability to make them happen.”

The editorial board has made this complex race simple by showing who’s who.

GOP: mean xenophobic haters who only know how to  whiners, complain and have no solutions whatever.

The Democrats: Smart, serious, compassionate, solution oriented, addressing the real issues head-on.

Now take your pick people.

Theirs is as good a case-study as any in how to do political analysis without getting bogged down in any sort of nuance whatever. Just keep it black and white. Easier that way.

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In the News

With the Anti-Trumpers in New York
David Blankenhorn, The American Interest, 3/21/2016

Is There a Movement to Depolarize America?
Allison Pond, Deseret News, 3/6/2016

Understanding Trump
David Blankenhorn, The American Interest, 2/23/2016

To the Editor: Where Our Political Compass Points
David Blankenhorn, New York Times, 2/22/2016

The Seven Habits of Highly Depolarizing People
David Blankenhorn, The American Interest, 2/17/2016


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