March 6, 2012
March 6, 2012
The 2012 GOP nominating contest has witnessed the final triumph of an unlikely figure. I say “unlikely” because his name hasn’t been invoked much (if at all) by any of the candidates, nor has he been mentioned frequently by the press in its campaign coverage. What’s more, he died in 2007. Yet when historians someday go looking for the intellectual and ideological father of the Obama-era GOP, I suspect they will fixate on one figure above all others: the Reverend Jerry Falwell.
That may sound odd: After all, Falwell was a social conservative; and social conservatives, while undoubtedly powerful within the GOP, are commonly thought to be just one of several key constituencies that make up the modern Republican Party. Moreover, isn’t the animating philosophy of today’s GOP deeply libertarian—and aren’t libertarians the intellectual descendants of anti-Christian thinkers like Hayek, von Mises, and Rand? Plus, you might point out, Falwell was an evangelical Protestant, and the three finalists for the GOP nomination this year are a Mormon and two Catholics. Can his influence really have been that strong?
In a word, yes. Falwell helped to lay the groundwork for the coalition of Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons that now makes up the social conservative wing of the GOP—and helped to bring this coalition of social conservatives into an even larger coalition with fiscal conservatives and foreign-policy conservatives. Moreover, it was Falwell who did more than anyone—even Ronald Reagan—to foreshadow the political style of the contemporary GOP, a style rooted in orthodoxy and disdainful of compromise. In short, if at any point during the past few years you’ve found yourself wondering how the Republican Party got to its present state, understanding the worldview of Jerry Falwell is a good place to start.
IN 1981, ONE OF Reagan’s top aides, Michael Deaver, told an interviewer that evangelicals like Falwell were welcome in the White House, but they had to come through the back door. When Falwell did come for a visit, Reagan assured him he could always come through the front door. Falwell told reporters, “Mike Deaver probably couldn’t spell ‘abortion.’”
The incident, and others like it, gave rise to a narrative that traditional conservatives like Deaver (who were more focused on fiscal matters), social conservatives like Falwell, and foreign policy hawks were three distinct groups within the Reagan coalition—all pitted against each other in a battle for influence within the party. But this narrative was far too simplistic because it grossly underestimated the degree to which these groups would eventually merge. And, in many ways, it was Falwell who presided over that merger.
Even before the 1980s, evangelicals had long supported free market economics and a strong foreign policy. Their commitment to both capitalism and a strong military was rooted in their pronounced anti-communism. Earlier evangelical preachers such as Carl McIntire in the 1950s had voiced their enthusiasm for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts. But for Falwell, the links between capitalism, foreign policy, and religion ran especially deep.
Falwell’s laissez-faire economic views stemmed from a particular theological perspective: his hostility to the Social Gospel movement. During the first decades of the twentieth century, liberal Protestant pastors, such as Walter Rauschenbusch, had encouraged Christians to move beyond traditional charitable concern for the poor and to support the social welfare state as an ethical matter. Falwell strongly opposed this position. In 1965, he delivered a sermon entitled “Ministers and Marches,” in which (ironically) he criticized Martin Luther King and other preachers for being too politically engaged. The sermon was printed in leaflet form to assure its widespread distribution. In that sermon, Falwell condemned the Social Gospel movement as unbiblical. “Education, medicine, social reform, and all the other external ministries cannot meet the needs of the human soul and spirit,” he told his congregation. For Falwell and other fundamentalists, efforts to improve this world detracted from the effort to attain the next.
Still, Falwell ended up backing into an exception to his lack of concern with worldly matters: anti-communism. Two years after his “Ministers and Marches” sermon, he placed advertisements in a local newspaper for two Sunday evening sermons on “godless Communism” at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Virginia. Several years later, in 1975, Falwell’s commitment to American exceptionalism, in contradistinction to communism and European-style socialism, manifested itself in a series of “I Love America” rallies. He would fly the choir from his school, then called Lynchburg Baptist College, around the country, invite local pastors and their congregations, erect a flag-bedecked stage on the steps of the state capitol building, and give an address filled with the kind of encomiums to American exceptionalism that Sarah Palin would later make a staple of her stump speech. Reagan, too, expounded a version of American exceptionalism, but it was Falwell who gave it the distinctly religious character it enjoys today, which sees the American founding as a quasi-salvific event and treats the constitution as a semi-sacred text. “The United States Constitution has as its cornerstone the Ten Commandments,” Falwell told his television audience in March 1976. “I was reading the Constitution this week. It is a masterpiece. I don’t believe it was written under divine inspiration like the Bible, but I indeed believe it was inspired. … There’s no question about it, this nation was intended to be a Christian nation by our founding fathers.”
When Falwell finally decided to jump into the political fray by forming the Moral Majority in 1979, the group’s political platform had four over-arching themes. It would be pro-life, pro-family, pro-moral, and pro-American. This last theme entailed support for a tough U.S. foreign policy. An early piece of Moral Majority literature warned against an “unprecedented lack of leadership” with the “danger of capitulation to the Soviet Union a very possible result.” In the South, where Franklin Roosevelt had often located new military bases as a way to secure the support of conservative southern senators for other parts of his political agenda, the military was becoming a central part of the culture—more so than in other regions of the country. The South was also, of course, the evangelicals’ geographic base. All of this made it the perfect environment for Falwell’s marriage of conservative theology and hawkish foreign policy.
Many commentators voiced alarm when President Reagan, in a press conference on his ninth day in office, denounced détente with the Soviet Union. In fact, he was using words that could have been lifted from any of a number of Falwell’s sermons or from the preacher’s 1980 book Listen, America, which included a chapter on fighting communism. Here was Reagan: “I know of no leaders of the Soviet Union since the revolution, and including the present leadership, that has not more than once repeated in the various Communist congresses they hold their determination that their goal must be the promotion of world revolution and a one-world Socialist or Communist state, whichever word you want to use.” And here was Falwell on the same subject: “The Soviets have always had one goal, and that is to destroy capitalistic society. They are a nation committed to communism and to destroying the American way of life.” What’s more, the fear of a one-world state—which Reagan alluded to—had important implications in the universe of fundamentalist thought. A 1980 mailing from Falwell’s “Old-Time Gospel Hour” warned that the time of Tribulation foretold in the Bible would witness a “Russian invasion of Israel” (although Russia is not mentioned in the Bible), and warned that “A powerful ruler, led by Satan and referred to as the Anti-christ, will rise to power. After leading the nations to form an alliance to help preserve the world system, he will break the treaty and be responsible for persecuting the nation of Israel and leading the last great battle against the forces of God in the battle of Armageddon.”…
March 6, 2012
The massive demonstrations that rocked Russia in the aftermath of the Duma elections of December 4, 2011, surprised everyone, including most Russians. But they shouldn’t have. The conditions for such an upheaval have been ripening as a result of the growing power and decrepitude of Putinism. It is likely that popular mobilization will continue, and that the regime’s days may be numbered.
Observers generally agree that the fraudulent elections, in which the pro-regime United Russia party won 49.3 percent of the vote, sparked the countrywide demonstrations on December 10th and December 24th, in which, respectively, an estimated thirty to fifty thousand and eighty to one hundred thousand people participated in Moscow alone. They also agree that President Dmitri Medvedev’s September 24th announcement that he and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin would swap places via the March 2012 presidential elections set the outrage in motion. And finally, they agree that the leading role in the demonstrations belonged to Russia’s middle class and youth.
Although this story is correct, it is incomplete. The roots of the Russian uprising are found in the nature of the regime Putin constructed and in its inherent brittleness and ineffectiveness. Too many Western and Russian observers took the regime’s claims of stability at face value, causing them to miss the fact that Putin had actually built a profoundly unstable political system, one that was likely to decay, decline, and possibly even crash. As the early warnings of the December protests suggest, this may be starting to happen.
It was during Putin’s first run as president in 2000 that the question of whether Russia was a “managed democracy” or a “competitive authoritarianism” first arose. For those who thought it was a flawed democracy, the modifier hinted at authoritarian imperfections. For those who considered it a flawed authoritarian state, the modifier hinted at residual democracy. Either way, Russia was supposed to be a “hybrid” political system combining elements of both democracy and authoritarianism. For a while, the emphasis on hybridity made some sense—especially after Medvedev, the ostensible liberal, replaced Putin as president in 2008. Medvedev’s liberalism rapidly proved to be illusory, however, while his connivance with Putin to transform the March 2012 presidential elections into a sham put an end to notions that Putin’s Russia was anything other than an authoritarian state.
Except that that designation isn’t quite accurate either. Authoritarian states are typically ruled by faceless bureaucrats or dour generals. Putin, in contrast, has charisma and he is popular. This factor makes Russia sufficiently different from run-of-the-mill authoritarian states to qualify it as “fascistoid”—an ugly word indicating that its hybridity quickly shifted from some combination of democracy and authoritarianism in Putin’s early years in power to some combination of authoritarianism and fascism today.
Like authoritarian systems, fascist systems lack meaningful parliaments, judiciaries, parties, and elections; are highly centralized; give pride of place to soldiers and policemen; have a domineering party; restrict freedom of the press, speech, and assembly; and repress the opposition. (Consider in this light the similarities between Pinochet’s Chile and Mussolini’s Italy.) But unlike authoritarian systems, fascist systems always have supreme leaders enjoying cult-like status, exuding vigor, youthfulness, and manliness. And unlike authoritarians, fascist leaders are charismatic individuals who promote a hyper-nationalist vision that promises the population, and especially the young, a grand and glorious future—usually echoing past national glories—in exchange for their subservience. (Consider the differences between Pinochet and Il Duce.) Unsurprisingly, full-blown fascist systems, being the instruments of charismatic one-man rule, tend to be more violent than average authoritarian states.
“Fascistoid” captures nicely the hybridity of the wretched system Putin has created, in which authoritarian institutions serve as a platform for a charismatic leader who is committed to Russian greatness, hyper-nationalism, and neo-imperial revival and who serves as the primary source of regime legitimacy and stability. The term also suggests why the regime is intrinsically weak, and why Putin’s attempt to ratchet up the system’s fascistoid characteristics by manipulating both the parliamentary and presidential elections drove hundreds of thousands of Russians into the streets.
How and when will the regime end? Accurate predictions are impossible, but good bets are not. The regime could break down overnight or decay for years. Either way, Putin’s Russia is a terminal case.
The obvious place to start diagnosing its sickness is the supreme leader himself. The key weakness of any leader-centered system is that cults of vigor cannot be sustained as leaders inevitably grow old or become decrepit. Sooner or later, supreme leaders lose their aura of invincibility and, when they do, their fans and followers fall away. In addition to the depredations of mortality, we know from Max Weber that charisma is hard to sustain, becoming “routinized” over time. Twelve years ago, Putin appeared to be an outstanding politician who could do no wrong. Today, he looks like a crafty politician who’s trying to hang on to power by martial arts exhibitions and shirtless location pics. Even if he manages to slog through what may become two six-year terms after March 2012, his youthfulness and charisma will wither away as inexorably as did the Marxist vision of the state.
While it might seem that extreme centralization of power in the hands of a supreme leader would ensure coordination and submission among the elites, the exact opposite occurs, as elites compete for the boss’s favor, pass the buck and shirk responsibility, avoid cooperating with their colleague-competitors, and amass resources as they form mini-bureaucracies of their own. Just this happened in such hyper-centralized regimes as Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and Communist China—not despite, but because of, hyper-centralization. Leader-centered regimes are thus brittle, and when supreme leaders falter—as they always do, especially during times of crisis—or leave the scene, their comrades usually embark on cutthroat power struggles to assume the mantle of authority. Succession crises are especially destabilizing in all such regimes because the pressures they create cannot be ventilated by institutional mechanisms such as elections.
Finally, supreme leaders are prone to making strategic mistakes—a point first noted by Aristotle and proved repeatedly ever since. They are responsible for everything, but physically and intellectually incapable of making the right decisions all the time. Subordinates become toadies unable to act on their own, solidifying their own positions by always passing the boss good (and therefore inaccurate) news—a point recognized by Karl Deutsch back in the 1950s. Forced to make critical decisions without accurate information, the big leader will make big mistakes, especially if he already has an obsessive ideological vision.
Putin’s involves his deeply rooted desire to achieve an in-gathering of the former Soviet territories, as manifested in the “gas wars” with Ukraine, the real war with Georgia, and the creeping takeover of Belarus. While his integrationist “Eurasian Union” project provides him and his rule with legitimacy—and many Russians, understandably distressed by the Soviet empire’s ignominious collapse and Russia’s transformation into an “Ivory Coast with the bomb,” support their country’s return to a place in the sun—it will at best distract Russia from its problems and at worst turn its non-Russian neighbors against Russia, thereby intensifying those problems. The fact is that, while neo-imperial projects serve all authoritarian and fascist leaders well at first, they invariably get them and their countries in serious trouble, as Argentina’s military leaders discovered after their ill-fated invasion of the Falkland Islands.
The global financial crisis and its impact on Russia’s economy will only intensify elite infighting and competition for scarce resources and erode Putin’s aura of omnipotence, especially if living standards continue to decline. The next few years will be particularly difficult for Russia, as Putin tries to remain firmly in control of a hybrid system while the mounting problems of the global economy challenge his claims to charismatic authority. Chances are that Putin will place the blame for his failure to modernize Russia on Medvedev, who, in turn, will blame Putin. Sooner or later, however, Putin will have to accept responsibility for the system’s failures, thereby admitting that the emperor has even fewer clothes than he wears on his topless photo ops…
The Egypt Backlash: Is it a fantasy to believe that the United States can still promote democracy in non-democratic states?
March 6, 2012
Egypt blinked. On Thursday, Egypt’s interim military government, known as the SCAF, decided to end the crisis it had provoked, or perhaps stumbled into, by raiding the offices of four American organizations which promote democracy abroad, and arresting sixteen U.S. citizens. Rather than risk the loss of $1.3 billion a year in military funding, as the U.S. Congress had threatened, Egypt allowed the Americans to leave. But the breach in U.S.-Egyptian relations will not be healed so easily, nor will the fears for Egypt’s democratic future be put to rest. And the whole affair has raised a collateral worry: Is it a fantasy to believe that outsiders can promote democracy in non-democratic states?
Foreign groups have made a difference in the past. The National Democratic Institute (NDI), one of the organizations targeted in Egypt, first cut its teeth in Chile helping local NGOs defeat the dictator Augusto Pinochet in a 1986 referendum. Both quasi-governmental bodies like NDI, which receives federal funding, and private groups like George Soros’s Open Society Institute, played an important role helping to organize democracy activists in the 2000 election that unseated Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and in the “color revolutions” in Ukraine in 2003 and Georgia in 2004.
But autocrats don’t hold onto power by being stupid. Vladimir Putin in Russia and his brethren in Central Asia “were shaken by the color revolutions” as Larry Diamond, a leading democracy scholar at Stanford University, puts it. And they fought back. In 2006, the National Endowment of Democracy — the parent body to NDI and to the International Republican Institute (IRI), also targeted in Egypt — produced a report titled “The Backlash Against Democracy Assistance,” which documented the growing efforts by autocratic states to block democracy assistance, including by expelling foreign organizations and harassing their staff. The color revolutions, Diamond points out, posed less of a threat to totalitarian regimes like those in Beijing or Havana than they did to the more numerous states, like Russia or Venezuela, which practiced “authoritarian pluralism,” in which elections offered the illusion of democratic choice without threatening the regime’s control. International groups could help local activists seize these empty rituals to threaten or unseat authoritarian rulers. And this was where the backlash was concentrated.
Groups like NDI and IRI strenuously defend their “nonpartisan” status, but they are not, of course, impartial when it comes to democracy vs. non-democracy. It’s hard to fathom why a sensible autocrat would tolerate them. Autocrats used to do so because they didn’t know any better. Eduard Shevardnadze, the strongman of Georgia a decade ago, never knew what hit him, says Lincoln Mitchell, a scholar who worked with NDI in Georgia at the time. “Now these people get it.” Mitchell argues that leaders often feel that accepting these groups is the price they have to pay to earn U.S. foreign aid, and to ensure a warm White House reception. But he sees the standoff in Egypt as evidence that rulers who seek to cling to power are concluding that the game may not be worth the candle, and thus that what was possible ten or 15 years ago is not possible today.
Autocrats like Putin wildly overestimate the capacity of democracy groups to make a difference, perhaps because they refuse to acknowledge that the real threat to their rule comes not from outsiders, but from the frustrated aspirations of their own citizens. They have adapted (and over-adapted) to the training, organizing, and polling work which groups like NDI and IRI do in the way that football defenses respond to a new wrinkle in an opponent’s passing game. Some do thus more subtly than others. The SCAF, through incompetence or inattention, managed to arouse the entire U.S. Congress and jeopardize the bilateral relation with the United States. By contrast, in 2009, Ethiopia, another autocratic U.S. ally, passed a law permitting domestic organizations to receive foreign funding, so long as 90 percent of their budget comes from domestic donors — few of whom would be foolish enough to vex the regime with such gifts. Likewise, in an earlier incarnation of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak used to allow the groups to operate while making it almost impossible for them to work with local activists.
There are, it’s true, all sorts of distinctive and peculiar aspects to the current melodrama in Cairo, which was provoked by a minister left over from the Mubarak government who appeared to be furious that some American aid was going directly to Egyptian NGOs rather than passing through her ministry. The SCAF did not premeditate the confrontation with the United States. But Egypt’s military and civilian leaders have resorted to the classic backlash playbook by appealing to nationalist outrage over alleged violations of sovereignty by the foreign groups, who are said to have carried out a hidden “U.S.-Israeli agenda.” And the appeal has worked, at least well enough to distract attention from the real goal, which is to discredit both the foreign groups and the local actors whom they fund. Leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood endorsed the decision to detain the American officials; they later defended the right of local NGOs to organize, but did not call for the release of the foreigners. The SCAF’s reversal under U.S. pressure unleashed a fresh wave of nationalist anger, which even included moderate figures like presidential contender Mohamed ElBaradei, who used Twitter to criticize “intervention in judiciary work.”…