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Authoritarianism wins once more

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There was a recent vote over liberalism, and liberals lost. I am not talking about the slang definition of “liberal” but the historic consensus by those on the center left and the center right around fundamental values such as freedom of speech, independent judges, government ethics, and support for the rule of law around the world. The election was held in Poland, and friends of those democratic values have reason to be concerned.

President Duda, an ally of Donald Trump, won 51 percent of the vote in the runoff election against centrist Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski. Duda ran his campaign based on fear, which seems to be the powerful motivator of voters at this time. Fear of Jews. Fear of gays. Fear of foreigners.

It is part of a trend of ugly authoritarianism. From President Duterte in the Philippines to President Trump in the United States, populist leaders have been stoking fear to rip people away from accepted norms. Trump attacks judges and journalists. President Erdogan of Turkey imprisons judges and journalists. Duterte deploys extrajudicial killings of his citizens.

In Poland, the supporters of Dude alleged that his opponent Trzaskowski was backed by “shadowy foreign forces” and took “money from Poles and disbursed it to Jewish interests.” Duda has described gay and transgender rights as an ideology worse than Soviet era communism, and proposed to prohibit same sex couples from adopting children with the law.

The race was closely watched as an indicator of the health of democratic liberalism. Trump did his part by meeting Duda at the White House before the election and praised him. Supporters of democratic norms take solace in how close the election was. Opponents only shrug their shoulders and promise that Duda will double down on his efforts to rein in the judiciary and expel unfriendly media outlets until his term expires in 2023.

Democratic illiberalism marches on, crushing what remains of the center left and the center right. In Germany, the far right Alternative for Germany is now the third largest party in the Bundestag, despite trying to dress up fidelity to Nazi principles in appropriate garb. Hungarian President Viktor Orban peddles his antisemitic tropes across billboards and media outlets. Count on the list Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, as well as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

So the question is why? Why have Europe, Latin America, the Philippines, and the United States provided such fertile soil for demagogues to till? I think this is a collective response to three fairly recent events that shook public confidence in the norms. These are the September 11 attacks, the flood of refugees triggered by the war in Syria, and the 2008 economic meltdown. Each challenged our senses of comfort and security, ignited anxiety, and could very easily be exploited by fear mongers.

The Polish election coincides with the release of “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism” by Anne Applebaum. In the book, she explores how people who used to be dependable allies of democratic norms drift to illiberalism and take their countries with them. It is a good companion to “Road To Unfreedom” by Timothy Snyder and “Fascism: A Warning” by Madeleine Albright. When many bookshelves start to crowd with the same theme, something is happening in society.

Time will tell whether the pendulum swings back or catapults forward. By time, I mean less than four months from now, when Americans cast their votes in the election this year. The choice will be no different than those offered in other countries that are now losing their democratic character. Our decision will decide whether the world retains its liberal democratic norms or shifts to be something much darker and different.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and was the chairman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.

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