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When I taught at Dartmouth many years ago, I used to argue politics at the coffee machine in the main office with a colleague who was far to my left. (We were good friends and we used to host the student radio station’s election coverage together.) I was pretty far to the right back then, and he was a former 1960s campus radical, and so it was easy for us to end up shouting at each other every day.
We’d run through a whole lexicon of political insults, but my favorite moment was a day when I exclaimed “Bolshevik!” and he barked “Hun!” and the two of us broke up in a prolonged fit of laughter.
Neither of us got tenure at Dartmouth, but let’s not open that can of worms.
Anyway, we enjoyed these jousts, in part because we understood the words we were using and knew when we meant them and when we were kidding. We argued over who had the better policies, and over whose view of human nature and the right order of society should prevail. But I didn’t think he was a Communist and he didn’t think I was a Nazi.
Now we use these terms all day long and no one knows what they mean. I was talking with my friend Preet Bharara, the proprietor of a newsletter on politics and justice, and we were frustrated (as many of us are) by how much of our public discourse is short-circuited by people who don’t understand basic terminology. I wondered if I should write something about this, and Preet suggested that I do it.
He’d already challenged me to eat my fill of Indian food, and that went well, so I decided to try it.
Still, it’s hard to boil these concepts down to basics. There was a thing, years ago, called The Handbook of Political Science. It’s now out of print, but no one wants to read hundreds of pages of that. Instead, let me offer a quick and dirty version of some of these terms, with a bit of snark and apologies to Ambrose Bierce (wherever he is) for incompetently lifting a Devil’s Dictionary approach.
Some of my fellow political scientists and historians will take issue with what I have here. I say to them: If you want to have long arguments about Juan Linz or Hannah Arendt, let’s do that in our patched elbows over some sherry. For now, I just want informed and engaged citizens to think twice about the kinds of words they’re slinging about a tad too loosely these days.
Let's dive in.
What it is: A system of government that lets you read cranky articles about politics like the one you’re reading right now.
More specifically, democracies derive a ruling mandate from the free choices of citizens, who are equal before the law and who can freely express their preferences. Liberal democracies enshrine a respect for basic human rights (including the right of old cranks to speak their mind). Rights are, one might say, unalienable: The losers of elections do not have their rights stripped away. All citizens abide by constitutional and legal rules agreed upon in advance of elections and are willing to transfer power back and forth to each other peaceably.
What it isn’t: “The majority always rules.” Getting everything you want every time. Governing without negotiation or compromise. Winning every election. Never living with outcomes that disappoint you. Never running out of toilet paper or cat food.
Democracy, in sum, is not “things you happen to like.”
What it is: A system in which you’d be afraid to subscribe to this magazine or read this article.
It is a system in which power is exercised by a single person or ruling group without the consent of the population. The primary requisite of a “citizen” is obedience to those in power.
There are a lot of forms of authoritarianism. It is the most common regime type on Earth and in human history, and it comes in a lot of flavors, some more sour and toxic than others. Monarchies ruled nations in the past with various levels of beneficence or oppression, but all of them were vigilant lest the locals get ideas about displacing the royal family. In some modern regimes, the ruling group co-opts leading institutions in society and grants them privileges in return for support.
In other, tougher regimes, there might be a kind of Thugocracy where crossing the Top Boss means ending up in a river in concrete galoshes.
Depending on the nature of the ruling group, there may be relatively unhampered spaces of activity—private enterprise, religious organizations, nonpolitical civic clubs, and the like—so long as they do not annoy the regime. The ruling group’s ethos is “You leave us alone and we’ll—mostly—leave you alone. Stay away from the red lines of politics, and the rest of the time you may amuse yourself more or less as you please.”
What it is not: Any rules you don’t like. Any laws you don’t like. Any election that you didn’t like. Anything that inconveniences or annoys you. Anything that limits you doing whatever you want, whenever you want, in any way that you want. Paying your taxes, obeying speed limits, or wearing a mask in a store are not “authoritarianism.”
Authoritarianism, in sum, is not “anything you don’t happen to like.”
What it is: A system of government in which you’d be terrified to read this magazine or this article because it could result in torture or death for you and perhaps anyone else you know or care about.
This is the super-lethal version of authoritarianism (with subspecies of fascism and Stalinism and Maoism) in which the Leader and the State are the only sources of social and political life. These systems rest on three pillars: a cult of personality around one leader, a highly disciplined mass political party, and a “totalistic” ideology that is meant to define all aspects of your life.
Unlike more garden-variety oppressive regimes, these states harness all social activity—from religion to stamp collecting—to the Party and its leader. All bonds of human affinity are broken (by force and repression) and reoriented upward toward the Leader and the State. You shall not love mother and father more than the State; the State is your mother, your father, and your god.
These are different from authoritarian regimes. Think of it this way: Authoritarians want obedience, and they don’t really care why you obey. The caudillo or El Presidente or whoever is pulling the strings wants you to shut up and go to work. Totalitarians, however, are insidious. They want to remake you as a human being so that it becomes your nature to submit. You will not merely obey Big Brother; you must love Big Brother—and you’d better mean it.
Authoritarians want to see you on your knees; totalitarians lean in closely to hear what you’re saying while you’re on your knees. Authoritarians want you to do what you’re told; totalitarians want you to believe what you’re told.
This is what makes totalitarianism the scariest form of authoritarianism. These regimes care what you think. Your obedience is only the beginning. And if you can’t be molded into a New Soviet Man—or if you were born into something other than the Master Race—the camps and the firing squads await.
These regimes are very rare; while there are a lot of wanna-be fascist parties running loose, none of them is, as of this writing, in power anywhere. The closest thing to a currently functioning totalitarian government might be North Korea.
What it is not: Any government that lies. Any government that is horrible. Any regime that uses political violence. Any regime that engages in ugly repressive measures or censorship. Any political party that tells you to do things you don’t like to do.
Totalitarianism and fascism, in sum, are not “anything you don’t happen to like.”
What it is: Whatever you want.
What it isn’t: Whatever you don’t want.
(I will get angry mail from libertarians. But that was inevitable the moment I wrote libertarians.)
I’m going to leave nationalism and patriotism for another day, because they deserve a longer discussion on their own. But what about economic systems?
What it is: Before I begin, have you subscribed to my newsletter and paid for your subscription to The Atlantic?
Okay, okay. We all know what markets look like. Capital (owners) and workers (labor) in a mutual relationship that is, depending on your view, free and efficient, or captive and exploitative. Markets exist, in various forms, and with varying levels of regulation. These markets require things like negotiable prices and enforceable contracts that protect private ownership. There are investments of capital—money—and these investments return profits.
What it is not: Bartering. Communal living. Hunting and gathering. Forced extraction of money, goods, or labor by violence. (See: authoritarianism and totalitarianism.) It’s not socialism or communism, but I’ll get to that.
In sum, capitalism is not all the things you love or hate.
Also, remember to pay for your subscription.
What it is: State ownership of the means of production.
One more time, for the people in the cheap seats:
State ownership of the means of production.
In a socialist regime, private ownership, beyond small enterprises, doesn’t really exist. Large enterprises and other assets are held by the government—in theory on behalf of, and for the good of, the public. (This is why, in the old Soviet empire, everything was “The People’s This” and “The People’s That,” as part of the idea that the “State” was holding assets in trust for “The People.”)
The state nationalizes most enterprises—especially the big producers—and directs the economy as the major holder or owner in all businesses and natural resources. The government is the main employer.
What it isn’t: High taxes. A generous welfare state. Government participation in the economy. Government shareholding in business. Government control of some natural resources. Natural monopolies owned by the government (like the military). Government investment.
Policies in which the government does something large for the good of society isn’t “socialism.” Regulating your workplace isn’t socialism; nationalizing your workplace, seizing it from its owners, and making you an employee of the government is socialism.
In sum, socialism is not “anything you don’t happen to like.” (Perhaps you’re sensing a theme here.)
What it is: Have we read our copies of Marx and Engels, comrades? Communism is the socioeconomic system that eventually replaces socialism.
When? Who knows.
The state “withers away,” the division of labor is undone, and all resources are held in common by all people. Governments and wars are things of the past. Allocations of goods are done by common assent about need and ability. (How? Who knows.)
What it isn’t: A form of government that has ever existed.
Also: It is not “anything you don’t happen to like.”
Yes, I know, there’s a lot to argue with here, but these basics should remind us that “governments that trade with the United States” are not necessarily democracies, and that the guy proposing a higher capital-gains tax is not necessarily a socialist. More importantly, precision helps you to frame responses. If everything you don’t like is fascism or socialism, if you think democracy is always getting your way, then you will think every democracy is a failure—or worse.
And this is what’s happening. Too many Americans think they’re living under “socialism” and “fascism” and most of them have no clue what those words mean. (I have regularly challenged people who come to my public-speaking engagements to define those terms and then tell me why they think they apply to America. Inevitably, the answer is: “Well, I just don’t like a lot of things Biden/Trump/Obama/whoever is doing.”)
The term I wish more people would think about—and this is why I wrote a book about it—is illiberal democracy, because that’s where we’re headed. This is what happens when everything about liberal democracy—tolerance, trust, secular government, the rule of law, political equality—gets hollowed out and all people remember is the word democracy.
And of course, once you dump all that other stuff, democracy means “absolute rule by 50.01 percent of the voters.”
This is what we’re seeing now in Turkey, Hungary, Brazil, India, and many other places—including the United States. All that matters is elections, and all that matters is winning them in order to claim the right to untrammeled power. This isn't “fascism” or “socialism”—yet. It is people fighting to win elections—real elections—and then spending their time in power trying to extinguish the rights of others and head off future challenges from their political opponents.
The danger here is not that Donald Trump or Viktor Orbán or others are fascists. They’re not, and unlikely to be, since they lack the infrastructure, mass party, ideology, and absolute cult of personality that we saw in the 1930s. (Trump is far too stupid to be an effective fascist, but he definitely has a cult of personality. Still, the Trump Cult is small potatoes compared with what Hitler or Stalin or Mussolini built. Trump is more like a Mickey Mouse version of Juan Perón.)
No, the danger is that people like Trump and Orbán are like starter kits for tomorrow's aspiring dictators. They destroy all the guardrails of a democracy, which opens the door later for authoritarian rule and then, if enough things go wrong, perhaps a full-blown totalitarian regime.
I worry less about this than our decay into illiberalism and from there into authoritarianism, a future where life looks much as it does now, but without the element of political choice. (I wrote about that here in a previous newsletter.)
I know this has been something like a lecture. But it matters. If we continue to throw words around without knowing what they mean, and try merely to squeeze incantatory power from them for sheer effect, we will numb ourselves to real threats. We can only cry wolf so many times before we cease to care about wolves—or lions, or bears, or real enemies at the gates.