1. Why Has Democracy Declined Worldwide in Recent Years?
The organization, Freedom House, says that democracy has been declining steadily on the global scene since 2006. Anyone scanning the world scene can see that a fascist force – in one form or another — has been rising in countries around the world.
We can see versions of this trend in the increasingly authoritarian rulers of nations such as India, Turkey, Brazil. Even where democracy still survives – as in Italy, Israel, Sweden and, most recently, the Netherlands – fascist forces have lately gained power. In the United States, some figurative “bullets” have been dodged in a couple of recent elections, but the very survival of American democracy remains seriously threatened by the most fascistic major political party in the nation’s history.
For many years, after World War II, it seemed, democracy was overall advancing around the world. What accounts for a reversal of that trend?
The Zeitgeist Mystery
It’s always deeply intriguing when similar developments of this kind occur simultaneously in a whole variety of places that don’t seem connected. There must be some connections, one infers, even if whatever is at work is not visible.
Such manifestations of a Zeitgeist (spirit of the times) intimate the operation of deep forces operating below the surface.
- Why is it that the image of the detective inferring hidden truths from subtle clues emerged in diverse forms in Victorian Europe, exemplified by the figure of Sherlock Holmes in literature and by Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic method?
- Why was it that at the end of the 1960s, were there seemingly kindred youthful uprisings in various nations whose social and political dynamics one might have supposed were unconnected – from the United States dealing with an unpopular war, to France with its 1968 upheaval, and even to Communist China where the Cultural Revolution tapped into apparently similar energies of youthful revolt?
Likewise in today’s world scene, with the fascistic political developments in Turkey and India and Brazil (and France, Israel, the Philippines, and the United States), in which something of the same kind is happening in many seemingly quite separate political and cultural worlds.
The global trend toward fascism is clear evidence that – somehow — the separation is less than it appears. Whatever the explanation, we are compelled to conclude that some kind of a wind is blowing across the planet that has been driving much of the civilized world generally in the same (fascistic) direction.
This mystery of the Zeitgeist phenomenon intrigues me. But I must confess, these presumed invisible connections remain mostly a mystery to me.
The Shifting Status of Great Power Role Models
There are, however, a couple of causal factors that seem to offer part of the explanation. The developments in the two old Cold War rivals – Russia and the United States – have likely had a global influence.
The whole world witnesses how great powers on the world stage are faring, and their examples can gain prestige and inspire emulation or lose status and be rejected– according to how well they succeed. And that matters especially when these competing great powers represent alternative paths for human society. Like Democracy or Fascism.
For the past twenty years, Putin’s Russia has been the biggest champion of the Force of Fascism in the world. And the United States has long been – by virtue of its traditions and its dominant power – the world’s major champion of Democracy.
Putin was long rightly seen as playing a bad hand well – up until his colossal blunder in invading Ukraine. Before he made such profound misjudgments, Putin had been steadily building Russian power and status in the world. He navigated his way to being a major player on the world stage, more important than the lows of the post-Soviet period that Putin inherited.
In the aftermath of Putin’s dismantling of the nascent Russian democracy, and his replacing it with a fascistic and kleptocratic dictatorship, Putin’s successes bolstered the Force of Fascism in the world.
(His successes included also his direct efforts to undermine democracy in the West, through disinformation, the sowing of division, and aiding in the election of a President of the United States who seemed determined to serve Putin’s interest, by undermining NATO and the American role as “leader of the free world.”
So, as the big powers act on the world stage, we can imagine that fascism got a boost from Putin’s success in gaining power and status for his nation. The appeal and permissibility of the fascist path could kind plausibly been enhanced by Putin’s achievements.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the world’s original “democratic political system,” and the nation that leads the Democratic World, was becoming increasingly dysfunctional and disreputable.
Ever since its founding, the image of America – in the minds of people around the world – served as a powerful force for Democracy. (There was a reason that France sent that wonderful Statue of Liberty as a gift to this country back in the 19th century.) And in the post World-War-II world, the United States has frequently been regarded around the world as the champion of human rights and democracy (even as the U.S. has not always lived up to its ideals)
But over the past twenty years, the American beacon has dimmed as an inspiration for the world’s peoples, because of:
- International conduct (launching an invasion of Iraq against the will of the international community and international law) that undermined America’s image as a leader in the establishment of an international order based on “the Rule of Law.”
- An increasing inability of American democracy to deliver the goods for the people and the nation. (If one created a timeline showing all the various important and good things the United States government has accomplished, from setting up Social Security to building the Interstate Highway System to passing Civil Rights Legislation. One would see that in recent decades, the ability of the American government to accomplish good things for the people and the nation had greatly diminished.)
- A continual erosion of America’s political norms and constitutional processes. (Political forces working in fascistic directions gained so much power that – according to a growing number of knowledgeable observers – that they have imperiled the very survival of American Democracy.)
And one should not neglect, in this context of the competition among models of ways for societies and/or their rulers to achieve their goals, the world’s other superpower: China.
The conventional wisdom used to be that the achievement of the economic dynamism of capitalism required a liberal democratic political order. China’s economic dynamism from harnessing the market economy has proved that assumption to be false. While operating in a one-party authoritarian state, the Chinese have expanded their economic power at an astonishing rate, attaining an economy roughly the size of the American economy, and have used that economic dynamism to become a formidable political-military power as well. That Chinese achievement, too, has likely shifted the balance of prestige away from the side of Democracy. (And like Putin’s masterful chess-playing earlier, China’s economic miracles seem to be suffering potentially serious setbacks now.)
But I expect that there are other things happening at deeper levels. We have entered an era of mass migrations, and various polities have been pushed in the direction of fascism by the disturbance that immigration seems to arouse in the publics of democratic societies. (Sweden, so long the showcase for social democracy, is now governed by anti-immigrant right-wing parties. Brexit — that self-inflicted disaster in the UK — was fed by people’s unease with the influx of immigrants.)
And perhaps there’s some way in which the functioning of our modern democracies is failing to meet some important human needs. Perhaps, in some way, what would seem to be the blessings of contemporary life in reasonably prosperous and free societies — in comparison with the historical conditions of civilized life — are not satisfying a large segment of their citizenry.
But those are just my speculative wonderings.
One thing we have seen in the United States is how clever propaganda campaigns can exploit the ways in which people are already broken to rouse them to support fascism, despite its obvious ugliness.
2. The Deeper Meanings of the Battle Between Democracy and Fascism
The Problem of “Who Will Wield Power” is as Ancient as Civilization Itself
In the second entry in the series published here – “The Ugliness We See in Human History is Not Human Nature Writ Large” — I asserted that, because civilization inevitably emerged into Anarchy (which inevitably produces a struggle for power), “the Spirit of the Gangster” would play a dominant, disproportionate role in how civilization evolved.
That assertion concerned the Anarchy among independent civilized societies. But, to a somewhat lesser degree, a similar kind of anarchy – lack of regulation of the distribution and use of power — will exist within civilized societies as well:
Unless some well-ordered system to govern power squeezes that anarchy out of the system, the same nightmarish dynamic will play a big role determining the answer to that crucial question, “Who will wield Power?”
That question has yielded nightmarish answers throughout history. For example:
- the tyrannies of the ancient world, with their wall carvings celebrating the enslavement or extermination of conquered peoples.
- the huge impact on the world, in the first half of the 20th century, of monsters like Hitler and Stalin.
- still more recently, Saddam Hussein wading his way through blood to become the Iraqi strong man, and Vladimir Putin, destroying the still-emerging Russian democracy to become a dictator with the power to embroil the entire world in crisis, by single-handedly launching a war of unprovoked invasion.
Wherever the workings of power within societies have been uncontrolled – or inadequately controlled – power tends to go to thugs who, almost by definition, are willing and able to do whatever it takes to get power.
The American Constitution was designed to enable a nation to escape from that nightmare. It tries to replace the Anarchy with an order that empowers “the will of the people” – and not the cruel lust of the power hungry – to wield the decisive power in the society.
Thus, “Democracy vs. Fascism” is a modern version of an ancient dichotomy. And more, this dichotomy is…
A Battle Between Opposites (Which Closely Parallels What has Traditionally Been Called “Good vs. Evil“)
It would be difficult to overstate the profundity of the difference between these two ways – Democracy vs. Fascism — of dealing with the problem of power in civilized societies:
- Democracy is a system in which power is controlled by the people. With Fascism, by contrast, the ruling Power controls the people.
- Democracy creates an open space for Truth to prevail. Fascism blocks unwanted truth in order to control the people through deception and manipulation.
- In Democracy, government serves the common good. Fascism enables an unaccountable few to exploit the many for their own purposes.
These dichotomies map rather well with “the Battle Between Good and Evil.”
“Evil” can usefully be defined as “A coherent force that consistently spreads a pattern of brokenness.” (Or “consistently makes the human world worse.”) Meaning that “Evil” consistently undermines whatever helps life to flourish (and sentient creatures to find fulfillment) in our world.
(And it is Life-vs-Death and Fulfillment-vs.-Misery that are the ultimate criteria for Good-vs.-Evil.)
By that definition, Fascism is clearly an Evil.
It’s coherence is obvious: Fascism presents not as a bunch of individual entities operating separately, but as a mass mobilized as a fist.
(The reality of such a “coherent force” in the human world in less obvious ways is demonstrated in “The Discernible Reality of A ‘Force Of Evil’.”)
And the Fascism’s consistency in “spreading a pattern of brokenness” is demonstrated by these general tendencies historically displayed by regimes with strong fascistic elements:
- Its impulse is to set the world at war (Hitler, 1939; Putin, 2022). Whereas, by contrast, “Peace on Earth” is what Wholeness calls for.
- Its tendency to deal dishonestly, using lies to manipulate the people to act in ways they wouldn’t if they saw the reality. (Like the Nazi’s Big Lie, and Trump’s Big Lie, and Putin’s lying to his people about his “special military operation” in Ukraine.) Honesty and integrity are the hallmarks of Wholeness.
- Its stoking of people’s hatreds, directing their rage against vulnerable scapegoats. (Jews in Nazi Germany, Blacks and immigrants with the fascistic force in America today.) By contrast, it is “Goodwill to Men” that makes the world better.
- Fascistic rulers exploiting the many to serve themselves. (As when Putin’s kleptocracy steals billions for his oligarchs, while the people’s condition languishes; and as when today’s Republican Party shows a complete lack of interest in improving the quality of life even of its own supporters, instead pursuing only its own power.) Wholeness would have the rulers to serve the people, requiring power to be used with “the consent of the governed,” because “All men are created equal” means that each person’s well-being deserves equal weight, society’s members’ as much as its rulers’.
How Fascism in Russia and the U.S. Has Spread Brokenness
Brokenness—sowed by the Fascism controlling Russia, through
- tens of thousands of people killed, war crimes and atrocities committed, because of a lawless invasion;
- cities leveled in a genocidal attack on a nation and a people;
- world economies damaged, and food-security undermined, under the impact of dislocations, and sanctions;
- the kindling –in Fascism’s victims — of hatreds that will take generations to heal;
- the traumatization of millions, leaving life-long painful effects.
Brokenness (making the human world worse) has also been the impact of the fascist force that’s risen in the United States, with its
- responding with corrupt selfishness to a deadly pandemic, resulting in more than a hundred thousand avoidable American deaths.
- transference of wealth to the richest at the expense of the rest, widening inequalities that were already dangerously degrading the health of American society.
- unprecedented refusal to acknowledge the outcome of a legitimate election;
- betrayal of its supporters with its blatant lack of caring about using power to make people’s lives better, demonstrated by the choice to obstruct almost across the board regardless of the merits of the proposals;
- making a dogma out of an obvious and destructive lie (the “Big Steal”), sowing division in the nation, and attacking the fundamental American covenant by which Americans have agreed to a set of rules for settling disagreements peacefully.
- stoking antagonism between groups of Americans on the basis of race, and political and religious viewpoints.
- working — through disenfranchisement and other means — to establish a minority-rule, authoritarian regime that is not accountable to the will of the people.
With Fascism’s perverse and persistent insistence on making things more broken, it should be recognized as one of the main modern vehicles for Evil – defined as above — to do its work in the world.
In the battle against Fascism, Democracy — although imperfect — therefore necessarily represents the Good. And, as argued above, over the centuries and millennia, Democracy has been a hard-won Good.
While it was inevitable that tyranny would be the first power-arrangement in full-blown civilized societies, it took millennia of painful history before some civilized societies could create the possibility for Democracy to emerge, could at last to turn power from a weapon used against the people into an instrument wielded by the people and for the people.
Democracy, as an instrument of the Good, has in turn built a foundation for greater human flourishing. It is a notable fact that the world’s most free and decent and humane and prosperous societies have been the liberal democracies of our times.
The contention between Democracy and Fascism, therefore, is a modern battlefield in the age-old central drama in the human story: the battle between (two coherent forces reasonable to call) “Good” and “Evil.”
And the outcome of that battle — between two coherent forces pushing in opposite directions — will go a long way toward determining whether humankind can meet the Central Challenge that faces any civilization-creating creature: whether it will order its civilization well enough—and soon enough – to thrive for the long haul or whether it will culminate in self-destruction.
The two main ways that human civilization might destroy itself – nuclear holocaust and environmental destruction – are both apparently made more likely by the conduct of Fascist regimes.
- The concern over the possibility of nuclear war between great powers has been greater lately than at any time since the Cold War—and that greater worry has been the result of the nuclear sabre-rattling of the Fascist dictator in Russia, and of the aggressive posture the dictatorship in China has taken regarding Taiwan, threatening the possibility of seizing that society by force.
- It is the fascistic political party in the United States that has consistently impeded the effort to deal responsibly with climate change (and it was the fascistic regime of Bolsonaro in Brazil that accelerated the potentially disastrous destruction of the “lungs of the world,” the great Amazonian rainforest).
Hence, the outcome of the Battle between Democracy and Fascism is part of what will determine whether Human Civilization will survive and thrive, or whether Life’s experiment with this new form of life (the first shaped by the creative intelligence of the creature itself) will culminate in a failure, a self-inflicted catastrophe, that could bring down not only Civilization but possibly much of the rest of Life-on-Earth.
3. What Shifts the Balance of Power in the Battle
In every society, both constructive and destructive forces are always at work. But the balance of power between those forces is not constant. Such factors as the quality of its leadership and the impact of its national experience can strengthen either the best or the worst in a society.
When the dark side of the battle – like Fascism – gets more powerful, it is important to look at how the lighter side of the battle – like Democracy – got weaker.
For one thing, it is in the nature of civilization that there is always a force operating that is working to make things more broken, having emerged (with the rise of civilization) in the realm of power, which proves so difficult to control. So we can pretty well assume that, unless the Force of Wholeness is in good shape to resist that Force of Brokenness, there will rise to power something tyrannical and cruel.
In the body politic of an established Democracy, Tyranny/Fascism can be thought of as a disease that lurks in the body politic of an established Democracy, but only breaks out into a life-threatening disease when the “immune system” of the society has been weakened. (Like Karposi sarcoma, which struck people with AIDS.)
When Fascism arose in several major nations in the 1920s and 1930s, one could point to some traumas had greatly stressed and weakened the body politic. (A series of blows — the traumas of the terrible Great War, of catastrophic inflation, followed by economic Depression –helped open the way for Fascism to gain power in the world. The battle between Democracy and Fascism in that era required a second truly global War to resolve.)
But such traumas don’t explain the adverse shift in the balance of power – between constructive and destructive forces, between Democracy and Fascism – in the United States over the past thirty years. Over that span of time, the American experience has been pretty free from such profoundly wounding historical developments. (Neither 9/11 nor the financial crisis of 2008, though important, had nearly that magnitude.)
So, what is the explanation?
As I see it, an important part of the answer is that the “immune system” in America – the component of the American body politic to which feel the job of fighting off the deadly “virus” of Fascism – had been weakened by deficiencies in the secular worldview of these times.
(With “secular worldview” understood as the sum total of all the ways by which Americans whose understanding is not based on some received religion view the world.)
The secular worldview is relevant because it is a major – perhaps dominant – form of thought within Liberal America, and thus also in its political arm, the Democratic Party. And when the Force of Fascism took over the Republican Party, America was necessarily compelled to rely on America’s only other major political force, i.e. the Democratic Party.
So the question arises as to why that “immune system” proved so ineffective in countering the rising Fascist Force. Why was it that the fascist component of the Republican Party could reap the rewards of increasing power for bad behavior that should have been punished?
Those failures, I propose, have been largely a function of the inadequacy of large parts of the secular worldview for understanding WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST; a worldview that fails to recognize some fundamental realities of the human world that the religious traditions had provided a way of comprehending.
- “The Discernible Reality of ‘a Force of Evil.”
- “How Civilization Inevitably Gives Rise to a “Battle Between Good and Evil.” And
- The reality, importance, and life-serving functions of the Moral and Spiritual Dimensions of Human Experience.
All these understandings, which our religious traditions provided in their way, our current secular worldview has lacked, with costly consequences.)
This series – dedicated to laying out the major lines of the “integrative vision” that has been my life’s work – attempts to demonstrate those fundamental realities in a manner consistent with how the secular worldview believes in coming to the truth: by applying reason to the evidence.