In George Orwell’s 1984, the party’s “final, most essential command” was “to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears.
Why do some people find authoritarian leaders appealing? Why do they sometimes secure vast numbers of votes in democratic countries? These are some of the questions we’re asking in this week’s show.
Authoritarian leaders tend to corrupt the political system, rig the courts, assail the free press, jail their opponents, constrain or close universities, and lie brazenly to their citizens. They pit social groups against one another, depicting some as “real Americans” (say) and others as interlopers and/or exploiters. It’s hard to imagine what any fully rational voter could see in such a leader. Why would anyone rationally choose to vote for someone like that? At the cost of our collective rights and freedoms, and of our cohesion as a society?
One answer would be to say that supporters of authoritarians are not in fact making a rational, authentic choice. Either they’re being forced to go along with the regime (as in Germany, say, in the 1940s) or they are being tricked into it. Authoritarian regimes deploy vast propaganda operations, continually demonizing opponents, celebrating the impeccable virtue and relentless successes of the Great Leader, stroking the (perhaps wounded) ego of the fan-base, fanning the flames of prejudice, ginning up fear of outside forces (there’s always a caravan waiting to invade), and warning of the dangerous “enemy within.” (George Orwell described all of this brilliantly in 1984.) And unfortunately, propaganda has a way of working.
Another option would be to say that the irrationality comes, at least in part, from within. Maybe there is, as Adorno and others have argued, an authoritarian personality type. Some of us love the freedom and variety we find in democratic societies, with the many different lifestyles they make possible, the many different standpoints and attitudes, the many different cultures that flow into our life together. This group also welcomes (positive) social change, as taboos are overcome and barriers lifted. A second group feels indifferent to such change and variety, with no strong feelings either way. But a third group finds it psychologically intolerable. To them, perhaps, it feels like chaos; to them, anything—even tyranny—is preferable to that. (That’s more or less what the character Socrates says, give or take the psychological language, in book 8 of Plato’s Republic.)
Maybe the fear, in some cases, goes even deeper than that. There’s a fantastic section of The Brothers Karamazov in which Ivan imagines what would have happened if Jesus had returned to earth at the height of the Inquisition. The Grand Inquisitor, he says, would have had Jesus executed, because Jesus’s message of freedom is ruinous. “Nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom,” the Grand Inquisitor says. “So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship.” I don’t think this is true of everyone—but what if it’s true for some people? And what if their terror of personal freedom, intensified by the vision of unfettered choice presented by the media every day, drives them into the arms of an authoritarian?
So far we have some pretty unimpressive “reasons” for signing up: people are being tricked by propaganda, pushed by their own prejudice, or pulled by their fear of disorder, change, and freedom. We’re left with two remaining possibilities. One is that the voters in question simply have the facts wrong. (Entirely plausible in the era of widely-circulated fake news.) If someone genuinely believed that, say, cats were radioactive, that everyone was lying about them being safe, and that only Pat Smith could save us from them, maybe it would be rational—albeit misguided!—to vote for Pat. (“Fear the cat, vote for Pat.”)
But here’s a more troubling possibility. What if part of the reason is that democracy, at least in its current general incarnation, isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be? Politicians are often more interested in getting re-elected than in doing what’s best for the country; they’re often subject to pressure from lobbying groups and from rich donors; and even at its best, democracy can only deliver compromise solutions to the problems facing society.
Imagine if you could bring about sensible gun control in the USA—something substantial majorities want to see—by closing the government for a day. Would you do it? Would you be acting rationally? Would democracy survive?