On June 6, we discussed Madeleine Albright’s book Fascism: A Warning (2018).
We focused on her book largely due to her recent death, but the book was a revelation, with its insights into the history of fascism as well as the minds of intolerant leaders and those who follow them. Early in the book she tells us: “Fascism takes hold where there are no social anchors and when the perception grows that everybody lies, steals, and cares only about him- or herself…. The wise response to intolerance is not more intolerance or self-righteousness; it is coming together across the ideological spectrum of people who want to make democracies more effective.”
Where people have lost their sense of trust and community, they still seek solutions to their emotional and economic malaise — real or imagined. Pointing fingers and telling people they are wrong only makes them more entrenched. Instead, we should emphasize the advantages of democracy when it is operating according to its ideals of fairness and equal rights.
Those of an autocratic mind are intolerant of views outside of a narrow range. That usually includes the view that some people are superior to others.
The author tells us that “heads of government with autocratic bent have won reelection in Russia, Hungary, Egypt, Venezuela, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Cambodia. In each case, the field of competition was tilted heavily in favor of the incumbent.” Genuinely democratic countries are becoming fewer over the last twenty years. Once elected leaders gain power, some of them rig the system to keep themselves in charge. Alternative candidates often are arrested or harassed, and opposition parties are outlawed. Autocrats learn these oppressive methods from each other.
Not too long ago, democracy seemed to be on the ascent. “In June, 1989, the demands of dockworkers and the inspiration of a pope born in Poland brought democratic governance to Poland. That October, Hungary became a democratic republic, and in early November the Berlin Wall was breached…. In Prague’s historic Wenceslas Square, a crown of 300,000 joyously rattled keys to emulate bells tolling the end of Communist rule.” Now, “We must ask what happened to that uplifting vision; why does it seem to be fading instead of becoming more clear? Why is democracy ‘under assault and retreat’ according to Freedom House?”
Albright emphasized the importance of democracies supporting each other. The common enemy is authoritarianism. There have been many cases of democracies allowing incidents of aggression to go unaddressed, such as the invasion of Crimea by Russia, and Syria using poison gas against its own people. The apparent message of democracies, when we don’t provide clear consequences, often is that this is permissible.
Fascism dangles “the prospect of renewal or by vowing to take back what was stolen” for the population. But it is not only dependent on those who feel they have fallen behind to succeed. It also depends on a segment of the community that is wealthy and convinced to support the fascist leader to stay in power.
In our day, “technology has made it possible for extremist organizations to construct echo chambers of support for conspiracy theories, false narratives, and ignorant views on race.” This appeals to the “near-universal desire to be part of a meaningful quest.”
Mussolini, who coined the term fascism, “warned workers that the elite classes would never relinquish their privileges without a fight and that no parliament would take their side against the bourgeoisie…. Revolution was essential.” Once in power, he engaged in the behavior that leads to the downfall of many authoritarian rulers. He stopped listening to his advisors because he believed his instincts always were right. But the Italians never were ready to fight a large-scale war. He picked a conflict with an easy target, Ethiopia, instead. Mussolini eventually admitted that dictators “lose any sense of balance as they pursue their obsessive ambitions.”
In 1933, Hitler sought approval from the legislature to ignore the constitution and rule by decree. “He assured his listeners that they had nothing to worry about; his party had no intention of undermining German institutions.” We all know how that worked out. Much of his success was the result of castigating mainstream politicians for ignoring the needs of the people. He knew that most people desired to have faith in something, and stated that for most people, it made no difference what that was. The army was required to swear allegiance to him alone, and by implication to Germany’s superiority. Beginning in 1934, Hitler, like Stalin, ordered the murder of many of his followers who did not show adequate obeisance.
The 1938 Munich Pact was a cowardly concession for “lasting peace” by France and Great Britain to award a third of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, who signed a non-aggression pact with Stalin, only to then invaded the USSR in 1941.
The Spanish Civil war of 1936 posed the rebels of Franco’s army against the newly elected Republic. It cost over three million lives. After Franco took over, he ruled with an iron hand, executing more than 100,000 of his political enemies.
The appeal of Communism was that it would address the vast inequalities that existed in capitalist societies; many believed they would be eliminated by closing the gap. Many people who backed Stalin refused to believe his abuses and murder of millions because they were seduced by the gospel of Communism.
Tribal loyalty within us can become extreme to the point where we no longer see others as truly human. According to Harry Truman (1945), “Fascism did not die with Mussolini. … Hitler is finished, but the seeds spread by his disordered mind have firm roots in too many fanatical brains. It is easier to remove tyrants and destroy concentration camps than to kill the ideas that gave them birth.”
At times — particularly during the Cold War — the US has supported governments that have seriously violated human rights. Examples include South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Zaire, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Brazil, and most of Central America.
The Nuremberg trials after World War II (as well as the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann) established the principle that neither “obeying the law” nor “following orders” is a sufficient legal defense for those accused of violating basic standards of civilization.
Human-rights violations can be imposed by both right- and left-leaning leaders. Juan Peron (Argentina, 1946–55) confiscated much property and imposed restraints on the press by use of a heavy-handed police force, although the average person’s income did gain under his leadership. Hugo Chavez (Venezuela, 1999–2013] had considerable popular support, but used his brand of populism to ignore democratic norms. He picked his own judiciary, removed non-compliant public servants, and suppressed free speech.
In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became president after serving eleven years as prime minister. He originally campaigned as a socially conservative leader who sought to continue alliances with Western nations. Foreign investment lifted the Turkish economy, renovated the infrastructure, and modernized the country, while greatly improving wages. Erdoğan then used his popularity to clamp down on dissent and move the country in a more fundamental Muslim direction. He now has become a polarizing figure, challenging gay rights, and opposing secularism, liberal values, and women’s equal treatment. After an attempted coup in 2016, his hand was strengthened to suspend civil rights and assume nearly total power.
People may wonder why Russia has twice been unable to create an equitable society: after the Russian Revolution and after the fall of the USSR. Albright participated in a survey of Russian attitudes in 1991. The people had little idea about what democracy was. They had relied on the state for jobs, housing, medical care, and everything else, and didn’t know about entrepreneurship. After the collapse of the USSR, people still were not able to create a viable state, which led to hunger, so they welcomed a return to stability and relative prosperity under Putin in 2000. His view is that “his government isn’t doing anything the West hasn’t already done: invade countries, meddle in elections, exert economic leverage, and plant false stories in the media.”
Russia today lacks any political competition, and the last independent news media was recently closed. Its politics includes only shadow parties that actually have no power or ability to compete. Putin is able to capitalize on nationalism to gain support from the Russian people. His attacks on Ukraine and the Crimea were met with weak responses from the West that encouraged further aggression.
In areas once part of the Soviet Union, democracy seemed like a real possibility that now has been largely crushed. Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary have become largely autocratic, with opposition parties, parliaments, and the judiciary largely controlled by the executive. Immigrants and minorities generally are maligned to help keep the controlling coalition in power.
On the subject of immigration, Albright says: “The movement of people from their homes does not occur without good cause.” Whenever possible, we should work with countries where people are tempted to leave to make their lives easier.
After WWII, Korea seemed on the verge of democracy Then the Soviet army made incursions from the north. The result is a dictatorial regime with no formal peace and continual threats. According to Albright, she was making peace overtures to North Korea, and actually visited there before George W. Bush became US President and declared it part of an “axis of evil,” which destroyed all possibility of a peace agreement. In North Korea, a person accused of a crime may be executed, in public, without trial, as may his or her family.
In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, who has been in power since 2016, uses the police to kill suspected drug dealers and has ignored the rule of law. (Recently, a new president has been elected, so we will see if human rights abuses continue.)
The book expressed concern that fascistic thinking could emerge in the US or other Western countries. If leaders become elected because of those they denigrate — rather than building toward a country where the needs of all are addressed — there always are those who will support such a leader. There are billionaires in many countries who support candidates who attempt to disrupt an emphasis on the common good for policies that favor the privileged few.
The author is concerned about countries — particularly the US, lately — acting unilaterally. She believes that the only real way to solve international problems is via cooperative efforts on the part of a coalition of nations to arrive at real and lasting treaties.
In a real democracy, the will of the majority is respected, but the rights of the minority always are protected.
When considering prospective leaders, Albright believes we should ask:
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Steve Zolno is the author of the book The Future of Democracy and several related titles. He graduated from Shimer College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Sciences and holds a Master’s in Educational Psychology from Sonoma State University. He is a Management and Educational Consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been conducting seminars on democracy since 2006.