Danger of Authoritarianism May Come From the Center, Not the Right

By Michael Barone

June 1, 2018 6 min read

"Across Europe and North America, centrists are the least supportive of democracy, the least committed to its institutions and the most supportive of authoritarianism." So wrote political researcher David Adler in The New York Times after analyzing responses to two multi-country surveys on values.

Adler found that centrists are less likely to regard democracy as "very good" and to consider free elections and protecting liberties from state oppression "essential" features of democracy. His study is subject to criticism, notably that his classification of centrists is overbroad, but it contains at least a kernel of truth.

The most vitriolic critics of electoral decisions in recent years around the world have been long identified — and celebrated — as centrists. They have been arguing that extremists, mostly on the right, are undermining the foundations of democracy. Democracy, in their view, is becoming dangerously undemocratic.

That is the essence of much of the "Resistance" in this country to Donald Trump. His election was the result of a handful of Russian-sponsored Facebook ads. His complaints about the press are seen as a prelude to shutting it down. Hillary Clinton's election-season denunciation of those unwilling to accept an election result has given way to nonstop whining from someone who bridles at accepting an election result.

Similarly, in Britain, Tony Blair has refused to accept the June 2016 Brexit referendum, in which more voters supported leaving the European Union than have ever voted for any party. Blair is looking to the House of Lords and the courts to force a revote.

In Colombia, voters in October 2016 rejected President Juan Manuel Santos' peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas. Centrists disapproved of the vote; four days later, Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But voters have persisted, and in last Sunday's election, Santos' handpicked successor got only 25 percent of the vote.

In Italy, the normally ceremonial role of president has just changed. The current president is about to force another election because he refused to approve the new euroskeptic government's nominee for finance secretary based on his threats to leave the eurozone.

Blair, the Nobel committee and the Italian president — and the would-be Trump impeachers — evoke the oft-cited attitude of one American military officer in Vietnam: They believe they have to kill democracy to save it.

Of course, they could argue — and sometimes do — that the policies advocated by the winners in the democratic process would be harmful and that they would undermine democracy. But that's a stretch, particularly coming from leaders whose centrist policies have proved to be far less successful than people used to think.

Take Blair, whose decisions were seldom challenged in his 10 years as British prime minister. He surreptitiously changed policy to admit hundreds of thousands of low-skilled immigrants and led a government that refused to prosecute Muslim gangs that preyed on young working-class girls. If it hadn't been for the opposition of his colleague and rival Gordon Brown, who would become prime minister, Blair would have ditched the pound and put Britain on the euro.

The euro was the work of political centrists — and was clearly an enormous policy blunder. The decision to admit a million mostly Muslim young men to Germany, made without consultation by the most praised current centrist politician, Chancellor Angela Merkel, was another obvious blunder.

Another centrist policy, eased mortgage standards for minority homebuyers, got staunch support from both George W. Bush and Barack Obama — and was a major cause of the Great Recession.

Given this record, it's not surprising that centrist leaders are increasingly the objects of voters' scorn. "The chief accomplishment of the current educated elite," wrote centrist David Brooks in The New York Times this week, "is that it has produced a bipartisan revolt against itself."

Meanwhile, the centrists' warnings against the authoritarianism of the extremes look like a case of projection — attributing your own shortcomings to others.

It's slightly absurd for unelected and unaccountable European Union officials to criticize decisions of national electorates as undemocratic and to refuse to accept the results of national referendums and force revotes until the people get it right.

As for freedom of speech, centrist governments in Britain, Sweden and Germany aggressively suppress reports of violence and crime by Muslim immigrants. Supposedly centrist colleges in the United States routinely suppress free speech, and their recent graduates hired by Silicon Valley firms — Google, Facebook, Twitter — are busy suppressing speech in the larger society.

So if you're worried about extremists' authoritarianism, keep an eye on the centrists, too.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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