Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - OPEN­ING RE­MARKS - Joshua Kurlantz­ick is se­nior fel­low for South­east Asia at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions.

has de­stroyed the in­de­pen­dence of the at­tor­ney gen­eral and tossed the op­po­si­tion leader in jail on highly du­bi­ous sodomy charges. On the cam­paign trail, Trump has shown sim­i­lar lean­ings. He puts great stock in cit­ing his poll num­bers and pri­mary re­sults; it’s hard to imag­ine Mus­solini stand­ing be­fore crowds dili­gently cit­ing the lat­est polling fig­ures to ce­ment his le­git­i­macy. But Trump dis­dains other as­pects of free pol­i­tics, promis­ing to use his power as pres­i­dent to al­ter laws that pro­tect free­dom of ex­pres­sion, to force lead­ing com­pa­nies to man­u­fac­ture prod­ucts by his rules, and to wage a trade war that would vi­o­late many in­ter­na­tional agree­ments signed by U.S. pres­i­dents.

The chang­ing na­ture of me­dia has also prompted this demo­cratic re­ces­sion. For­mer Ital­ian Prime Min­is­ter Sil­vio Ber­lus­coni, Thaksin, Putin, Hun­gary’s Vik­tor Or­bán, Malaysia’s Na­jib, and many other elected au­to­crats have en­hanced their pop­u­lar­ity by bend­ing do­mes­tic me­dia to their will. They have pur­chased me­dia out­lets them­selves (Ber­lus­coni), re­lied on prox­ies to buy me­dia out­lets (Putin, Thaksin), used po­lit­i­cal pow­ers to in­tim­i­date me­dia out­lets (all of them), and/or proved so en­ter­tain­ing the me­dia felt it had to cover them. Ber­lus­coni, in par­tic­u­lar, was a quote ma­chine like Trump—so ex­hil­a­rat­ing to cover that many Ital­ian me­dia out­lets ini­tially were thrilled to fol­low his po­lit­i­cal rise. In the pri­mary sea­son, Trump has got­ten more than dou­ble the me­dia cov­er­age of any other can­di­date, ac­cord­ing to stud­ies by Me­di­aQuant, a re­search firm.

To­day’s au­thor­i­tar­i­ans have ben­e­fited from the emer­gence of mid­dle classes that have grown dis­dain­ful of demo­cratic pol­i­tics. From mid­dle-class Bangkok res­i­dents who ini­tially em­braced Thaksin’s strong­man style to Amer­i­cans who, in the re­cent edi­tions of the World Values Sur­vey poll, show grow­ing sup­port for the idea of “a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elec­tions,” the mid­dle classes seem ex­hausted by free pol­i­tics. (In Amer­ica, the Gallup poll shows the pub­lic’s trust in the pres­i­dency and the Supreme Court is at its low­est points ever, and trust in Congress is near his­tor­i­cal lows as well.) In large part, this is be­cause demo­crat­i­cally elected politi­cians have over­promised what elec­toral pol­i­tics could de­liver, vow­ing that lead­ers voted into of­fice can al­most mag­i­cally en­sure eco­nomic growth.

In Amer­ica, elected politi­cians have re­peat­edly made the same mis­take of link­ing democ­racy to growth, though there’s no ev­i­dence that over the short term free pol­i­tics pro­duces higher growth rates. (Over the long term, many stud­ies have shown that democ­racy is bet­ter for health, wel­fare, and hu­man devel­op­ment.) Many lead­ers have made this con­nec­tion, from those in post-Cold War East­ern Europe who vowed that po­lit­i­cal free­dom would bring dra­matic eco­nomic change to Amer­i­can pres­i­dents Bill Clin­ton, Ge­orge W. Bush, and Barack Obama. And when mid­dle classes and work­ing classes see that eco­nomic ex­pan­sion has stag­nated un­der demo­cratic sys­tems or that growth has come with widen­ing in­come in­equal­ity, they be­gin to won­der whether an au­to­cratic leader might over­see higher growth rates. They be­gin to be­lieve an au­to­crat could cut through po­lit­i­cal grid­lock or take steps such as re­duc­ing im­mi­gra­tion that, they hope, could some­how lead to greater eco­nomic gains for them.

Like the elected au­to­crats, Trump preys on the anger caused by the mis­taken link of democ­racy to short-term growth. He’s more will­ing to scape­goat im­mi­grants and mi­nori­ties than some other elected au­to­crats such as Chávez. Still, his rhetoric—an­gry, but not to­tal­i­tar­ian—is sim­i­lar to that of Malaysia’s Na­jib or Italy’s Ber­lus­coni, who used racially charged lan­guage but stopped short of en­cour­ag­ing eth­nic cleans­ing and mas­sive at­tacks on mi­nori­ties.

In­deed, to­day’s elected au­to­crats have flex­i­ble ide­olo­gies that mostly re­volve around their own per­son­al­i­ties, po­lit­i­cal longevity, and en­rich­ment. They want the state to ex­ert sig­nif­i­cant con­trol over the econ­omy but not as thor­oughly as fas­cist gov­ern­ments did. Thaksin em­braced left-lean­ing pop­ulism when it brought in votes and es­poused busi­ness-friendly rhetoric when it won him po­lit­i­cal sup­port. Trump, too, is a po­lit­i­cal chameleon on is­sues from trade to health care.

But just be­cause they aren’t Mus­solini doesn’t mean these lead­ers are harm­less. The ex­pan­sion of mod­ern-day au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism breeds more au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism. The suc­cess of a strong­man in one na­tion seems to em­bolden au­to­crats in other coun­tries, just as, in the 1990s and early 2000s, the ex­pan­sion of democ­racy into some coun­tries seemed to help spark de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion in neigh­bor­ing na­tions.

Elected au­to­crats like Ber­lus­coni, Thaksin, Chávez, or Putin also usu­ally leave their coun­tries’ po­lit­i­cal sys­tems and economies in far worse shape than they found them. In Venezuela, years of statist eco­nom­ics led to bal­loon­ing na­tional bud­gets and weak­en­ing cor­po­rate gov­er­nance. Venezuela’s econ­omy is now on the brink of col­lapse, with ba­sic food­stuffs ra­tioned. Italy’s econ­omy stag­nated for more than a decade un­der Ber­lus­coni, as his gov­ern­ment spent much of its time try­ing to keep the prime min­is­ter from be­ing jailed for fraud and other charges.

Con­trary to their vow to cut through po­lit­i­cal grid­lock, mod­ern-day au­to­crats also un­der­mine in­sti­tu­tions so badly that they can take years to re­cover. Thai­land has suf­fered more than a decade of street fight­ing with no in­sti­tu­tion, in­clud­ing the ju­di­ciary, ca­pa­ble of me­di­at­ing po­lit­i­cal con­flicts. And the pol­i­tics of de­stroy­ing op­po­si­tion af­ter an elec­tion fos­ters greater po­lar­iza­tion, with op­po­nents of the elected au­to­crat sup­port­ing any means to oust them, even mil­i­tary coups such as those that de­posed Thaksin in 2006 and his sis­ter, Yingluck Shi­nawa­tra, in 2014.

To­day’s elected au­to­crats also may give strength to the world’s two big­gest, most pow­er­ful au­toc­ra­cies, China and Rus­sia. Moscow and Bei­jing have slammed shut any hopes for po­lit­i­cal re­form, while us­ing their aid, state me­dia, and other tools to den­i­grate neigh­bor­ing democ­ra­cies and high­light the strengths of au­thor­i­tar­ian rule. Elected au­to­crats are un­likely to spend gov­ern­ment funds on democ­racy pro­mo­tion and hu­man rights to bat­tle back against Moscow and Bei­jing. Hav­ing un­sta­ble elected au­to­crats take the helm in ma­jor democ­ra­cies only strength­ens Chi­nese and Rus­sian ar­gu­ments that democ­racy in­evitably leads to chaos. As China’s state-owned

Global Times wrote in mid-March af­ter protests in Chicago turned vi­o­lent, in Amer­i­can democ­racy, prob­lems are now set­tled through “fist fights among vot­ers who have dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tions.” Democ­racy is un­leash­ing dis­as­ter in Amer­ica, the Chi­nese pa­per ed­i­to­ri­al­ized, while do­ing noth­ing to ac­tu­ally rep­re­sent many peo­ple’s views. “Amer­i­cans know elec­tions can­not re­ally change their lives … why not sup­port Trump and vent their spleen?” <BW>

It’s hard to imag­ine Mus­solini stand­ing be­fore crowds dili­gently cit­ing the lat­est polls

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