Politics & Policy

The Reflex toward Illiberal Democracy

Sen. Cory Booker at the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention in San Francisco, Calif., June 1, 2019. (Gage Skidmore)
There’s always an emergency, it seems, to justify the Left’s rush to tyranny.

There are two rules for illiberal democracy.

The first rule is that during an emergency certain illiberal and anti-democratic measures are necessary to ensure public safety, national security, and the practice of democracy itself.

The second rule is that there is always an emergency.

With the horrifying massacres in El Paso and Dayton, political entrepreneurs already are taking recourse to the tenets of illiberal democracy. But because this is the United States, and the most powerful nation in the world is governed by criminals, miscreants, and morons, illiberal democracy is not the scoundrels’ last recourse — it is their first recourse.

Cory Booker, trafficker in absurd racial conspiracy theories, is a great practitioner of illiberal democracy. In response to the shootings over the weekend, he demanded that . . . Republican campaign rallies be canceled as a public-safety measure. President Donald Trump’s rallies, he insists without anything that might plausibly be described as evidence, “inspire white nationalist attacks like the one in El Paso on Saturday.” Somehow, the pursuit of public safety always ends up disadvantaging the other party’s political efforts. One might be forgiven for failing to take Senator Booker seriously, for this and for many other reasons.

Elsewhere, progressives have called for forcibly disbanding the National Rifle Association, freedom of association be damned. Democrats elsewhere have called for designating the NRA a “terrorist organization.” Democrats in New York have abused the power they have over the financial-services industry to try to shut down the rival political organization through backdoor means.

Others have called for gutting the Bill of Rights and trampling on due process, empowering government to curtail, suspend, or revoke the civil rights of Americans who have not been arrested or charged with any crime, much less convicted of one.

To the German political theorist Karl Loewenstein we owe the term streitbare Demokratie, or “militant democracy,” the principle that liberal democratic governments must sometimes employ illiberal and undemocratic means to fight nascent totalitarian movements. This is the theory under which Germany bans certain political parties (both neo-Nazi parties and some Communist parties) while countries such as Austria can hand down lengthy prison sentences for selling forbidden political books. The United States historically has not countenanced such invasions, and classical liberalism is embedded in our Constitution through the Bill of Rights — which is, it is important to understand, a check on democracy, putting certain principles beyond referendum. The American model has targeted such organizations as the Ku Klux Klan and the Weather Underground not as ideological offenders but as organizations engaged in criminal conspiracies independent of their political views, however repugnant those views may be. But the American Left (and, to a lesser extent, certain populist constituents of the Right) has abandoned that liberalism and looks partly to Western Europe for other models.

The catalogue of illiberal policies the Left stands ready to enact is substantial and sobering. Democrats would impose licensing on political criticism in the guise of “campaign finance reform” and would prohibit the communication of certain unpopular ideas as “hate speech.” Progressives have argued for jailing people holding dissenting views on climate change, and Democratic prosecutors have in fact investigated companies and political advocates on precisely those grounds. Some elements of the Left, such as Antifa, have openly embraced violence as a means of suppressing unpopular political speech, but Senator Booker’s more polite model is more common and, if anything, more insidious.

It is strange that Democrats believe, simultaneously, that President Trump is the moral equivalent of Adolf Hitler and that the government over which he presides should be given extraordinary new powers to police political speech and other civil rights. One might be forgiven for failing to take the Democrats seriously, for this and for many other reasons.

If I may quote from The Smallest Minority:

Loewenstein argued that fascism was not an ideology but a technique, which it is—one that is independent of any particular policy content and that can be made to serve any political agenda, from Hitler’s psychotic Jew-hatred to Mussolini’s romantic corporatism to Stalin’s “scientific” socialism to Antifa’s self-professed antifascism. The classical technique of fascism described by Loewenstein relied on exploiting nationalism or other appeals to solidarity, together with newly available forms of media and communication that could be harnessed to achieve “a supersession of constitutional government by emotional government.” One wonders what he might have made of 21st-century social media: “The technical devices for mobilizing emotionalism are ingenious and of amazing variety and efficacy,” he wrote, “although recently become more and more standardized. Among them, besides high-pitched nationalist enthusiasm, the most important expedient, perhaps, is permanent psychic coercion, at times amounting to intimidation and terrorization scientifically applied.”

Loewenstein was of course correct about fascism being a technique; what he failed to appreciate was that his “militant democracy,” allowed to take its natural intellectual and political course, ends up being a technique, too — the same technique. The authoritarian political entrepreneur relies on a threat that is exterior, specific, and easily identified: Hitler and the Jews, the Communists and the capitalists, contemporary American progressives and the “1 percent,” etc. Where there is a real threat, it can be exaggerated, and its relationship with political opponents misconstrued. Where there is no useful threat at hand, one can be invented, hence the rash of fake hate crimes and politically motivated false rape accusations on college campuses and in progressive communities, and the attribution of SPECTRE-like powers of world-bestriding villainy to such amorphous rhetorical constructs as “patriarchy” and “white supremacy,” the bounds of which are in these illiterate times copious enough to embrace every shampoo commercial ever made.

Emergency is the short road to tyranny. And the 2020 Democrats, among others, are careering down that road as fast as they can.

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