The counter to popular authoritarianism isn’t democracy — it’s freedom

Associated Press

When I was growing up in the 1950s, I believed that people unfortunate enough to live in dictatorships chafed under the governments under which they lived. 

The classic example was the countries in Communist Eastern Europe. A TV ad for Radio Free Europe showed two terrified people crying out from behind barbed wire the plaintive cry, “Pravda!” When I spent time in East Germany in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, essentially everyone I met hated the government, and many were hoping to flee. Another example would have been Mobutu Sese Seko, (born Joseph Mobutu) who led, and plundered, the Congo from 1965 to 1997 with almost no popular support for his kleptocracy.

The view that people living in them hate their authoritarian governments is not necessarily true, though. Though it might seem strange to some, Vladimir Putin’s Ukrainian aggression is wildly popular in Russia. Independent Russian polls show support for Putin at 83 percent and for the operation in Ukraine at 81 percent (support among 18-24-year-olds is somewhat lower.) For China, the consulting firm Edelman Data and Intelligence, which for 2022, surveyed 36,000 people in 28 countries, found that 91 percent of Chinese trusted their government, compared to 38 percent of Americans.

There is a dark view of the appeal of authoritarianism, which like the longing for liberation view of my youth, is a product of earlier decades. In 1941, the psychiatrist Erich Fromm published the book “Escape from Freedom,” which argued that some people were drawn to authoritarianism because making choices frightened them. In 1950, four sociologists published a widely discussed book called “The Authoritarian Personality,” which argued that certain kinds of childhood experiences produced a set of attitudes of submission, aggression, superstition and toughness.

If you look at Russia, and certainly at China, support for authoritarianism has understandable roots. It is clear that Russian (and Chinese) government policies derive significant support from a strong nationalism growing out of resentment of perceived Western humiliation; furthermore, nationalism in Russia is not so remarkably different from nationalism common in the U.S.  

High popular approval of the Chinese government is hardly surprising given that the government has delivered the goods — China is a country where hundreds of millions of people have been lifted from poverty in recent decades thanks to explosive economic growth. One might argue that Putin has not delivered the goods, but Russian economic performance has in fact been pretty good during his rule, compared to the economic disasters of the late Soviet and Boris Yeltsin years (it was interesting to see recent videos of Russian supermarkets filled with a good selection of food products, compared with the food lines and poor quality in the Soviet Union).

So, what is wrong with popular authoritarianism? In my view, it is less the extent to which the substantive views in question might be unjustified than the fact that those views did not emerge from an open process, but rather, through one where dissent from the government’s view was suppressed. In conjunction with the attack on Ukraine, a Russian law was passed to punish opposition to the war with up to 15 years in jail, and people have already been arrested under the law. In China, the Internet is ruthlessly censored. Such suppression is wrong because it denies people freedom.

President Biden, through his Democracy Summit a few months ago, has drawn the contrast between authoritarianism and democracy. I’m not against this, but I don’t think it’s our strongest card as anti-authoritarians. Democracy is a political system in a world where many aren’t interested in politics, and the democracy contrast seems more driven by U.S.-specific concerns in reaction to former President Trump and to our own institutional dysfunction. By contrast, emphasizing the value of freedom hits something that is more universal and more basic — freedom is valued as an expression of the human personality that promotes human flourishing.

So, I suggest that in taking on authoritarianism we return to yet another retro concept from the 1950s; the “free world.” It is fascinating to me that a Chinese student friend who doesn’t like the Communist Party often uses the phrase “free world” in messages he sends me. I think this is an idea with wider resonance and appeal. We should be talking about it more.

Steve Kelman is the Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard Kennedy School and editor of the International Public Management Journal.

Tags Authoritarianism China Chinese Communist Party Democracy promotion by the United States Democracy summit Joe Biden Kremlin Mobutu Sese Seko putin popularity Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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