“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time; but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, continuously rule, and that public opinion, expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of Ministers who are their servants and not their masters.” — Winston Churchill, in Parliament (1947)
THE NEW AUTHORITARIANISM: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts
What is "the new authoritarianism"?
With Donald Trump in the White House, there’s a lot of talk about a new authoritarian streak in American politics. But whatever you may think of Donald Trump — and most people have strongly held views on America’s first pompadour President — he is anything but an authoritarian. You can’t be an authoritarian when the only authority you recognize is yourself.
The words “authoritarian” and “authoritarianism” were first used in the 1850s and 1860s by American spiritualists as a pejorative term for traditional religious observance based on the authority of churches, preachers, and the Bible. They spread into political use in the 1880s, when American “individualist anarchists” railed against the authority of church and state to regulate individual conscience.
“The State is as much a theological superstition as the doctrine of the atonement. It is simply the human side of theology. It is only another application of the idea of authority, which is the central idea of theological despotism.” So declared the unsigned opening manifesto of the first edition (1881) of the anarchist magazine Liberty, edited by Benjamin Tucker. Condemnations of the “authoritarian” state soon became a mainstay of Liberty editorials.
Authoritarianism was coined as a dirty word, and in the twentieth century it came to be widely applied to illiberal political regimes of all kinds, from Latin American dictatorships to Japanese emperor-worship, from the Russian Tsars to the Russian Communists. Anywhere the unthinking masses were manipulated by dark and sinister forces, authoritarianism lurked.
The term has always lacked analytical rigor, but it has always retained its original and etymological valence. Authoritarians are people who want other people to follow the dictates of authority — their authority — and ideally to believe wholeheartedly that they should follow the dictates of authority. Authoritarians do not want people to think for themselves.
In most of the world, the traditional sources of authority have long since lost their hold on people’s imaginations. With organized religion on the wane and hereditary nobility almost gone, there are few people who are able to claim the obedience of the masses. Donald Trump doesn’t command his supporters; he panders to them.
But though the old authorities have lost their magic, new authorities have risen to take their place. And those new authorities are “us”: the educated professionals who write books, formulate policies, draft guidelines, and manage the business of government. We are the experts, and we demand to be heard. Increasingly, we demand to be obeyed.
In domain after domain of public life, (we) experts have demanded that policy decisions be taken out of the realm of democratic politics and placed under the care of expert administration. Elite consensus has replaced the church’s blessing as the unquestionable token of revealed truth. It is taken for given that expert authority, not popular opinion, should guide policy. To “politicize” an issue is to commit a sin perfidious in the implication of ulterior motives.
Should we convert to wind and solar power to fight global warming? Politicize energy policy and you’re a climate denier, on the model of a Holocaust denier. Should we use tariffs to protect jobs? Politicize trade policy and you’re fomenting a trade war that will lead to a second Great Depression. Should we limit immigration to ensure affordable housing for existing citizens? Politicize immigration and you’re a racist sliding down the slippery slope to genocide.
Comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis, those stock villains of the twenty-first century imagination, are routinely used by expert class to demonize their populist opponents. The experts who see in Donald Trump echoes of Adolf Hitler should go back to the history books. Hitler didn’t come to power in a wave of populist euphoria. He was appointed in a bipartisan consensus deal on the strength of a petition from 20 leading businessmen and an open letter of support from 51 professors.
Prewar German intellectuals had a long history of demanding strongman rule by “enlightened” dictators who could rise above politics to force good policies on an ignorant electorate. In the liberal West, intellectuals have pushed instead for governance by expert panels insulated from electoral politics. “Independence” is the order of the day.
For example, most political scientists take it for granted that democracy can only thrive under an independent judiciary. They are seemingly unaware that most US states hold elections for judges, prosecutors, and even sheriffs. Similarly, the demand for central bank independence is an article of faith in the economics profession. Yet independent central banks oversaw both the inflation of the 1970s and the financial crises of the 2000s.
All government policies involve political trade-offs, and in a democracy when trade-offs are required, the voters should be consulted. Even if independent experts were able to provide “Pareto optimal” policies that benefit literally everyone — and that’s a big if — what does their independence mean if not independence from electoral accountability?
Today’s new authoritarianism, the postmodern authoritarianism of the liberal Western democracies, is the would-be tyranny of the expert class. When experts descend into the public arena to argue their cases in front of the sovereign electorate, democracy flourishes. When expert opinion is elevated into the only politically acceptable point of view, democracy dies.
Everyone wants good government, and good government requires the disinterested advice of experts. The key word is “advice.” Advice, the electorate can disregard. But when it refuses to accept the legitimacy of electoral decisions on Donald Trump, the Brexit vote, and other populist causes, the expert class strays from offering advice to demanding compliance.
The delegitimation of opposition does not strengthen democracy. It is the first step on the road to tyranny. Even more than good policy, democracy requires respect for the dignity of the electorate. Populism is nothing but the people standing up to demand that due respect.
What is the "tyranny of the expert class"?
What happened? Posed as a rhetorical question, the title of Hillary Clinton’s election memoir manifests the confused anguish of the global expert class over the election of Donald J. Trump to the Presidency of the United States. Had Clinton lost to Bernie Sanders or a generic “alternative” Republican, the world would not have stood still. But it did stand still for President Trump. Experts of all kinds decry his lack of qualifications, recoil at his speech and behavior, and warn of the gathering threat to the future of democracy. Trump is crass, certainly. But a threat to democracy? Trump is a populist and a boor, but he is no dictator. And his time in office has been anything but a march to crush all opposition: the Republican Congress can’t decide whether to work with him or against him and a hostile judiciary routinely challenges his every order. If Trump is a dictator, he is not a very good one. Overall, his administration is probably best described as “beleaguered” rather than “tyrannical.”
The closest the United States has ever come to a true populist tyranny was the Presidency of Andrew Jackson (1829-1837). The modern Democratic Party was born in the election of 1828 with Jackson at its head. The Nashville millionaire Jackson, a war hero, Indian fighter, property developer, and large-scale slave owner, won a landslide victory over the Boston patrician John Quincy Adams. The incumbent President Adams was like George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton all rolled into one: the son of a President, a Harvard professor, and a former Secretary of State. No one was more qualified to be President than he was. But Jackson had the charisma — and the votes.
Jackson portrayed himself as a man of the people, and the crowds at his inauguration really were the largest ever recorded at the time. After taking the oath of office, he rode his own horse to the White House, where he threw the doors open to the public. Once in power, he vetoed a bill that would have reauthorized the Bank of the United States (the nineteenth century equivalent of the Federal Reserve), earning the wrath of the financial establishment. To maintain his popularity, Jackson forcibly dispossessed Native Americans, fought a proxy war with Mexico over Texas, and conspired to repress the freedom of speech of anti-slavery activists. Through such policies he won reelection with a second landslide victory in 1832.
It is hard to imagine Trump’s Mar-a-Lago ever becoming a site of tourist pilgrimage like Jackson’s former slave plantation, the Hermitage. Nor is it easy to imagine Trump riding a horse to work on his first day in office, even if his Secretary of the Interior did. Yet despite being labeled “King Andrew” by his opponents, Jackson respected the two-term tradition set by George Washington and did not run for the third term that he surely would have won (the Twenty-second Amendment limiting Presidents to two terms was still more than a century in the future). The United States Constitution and system of government held firm, and Jackson’s hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren, was booted out after one term.
Jackson was vilified by the liberal “Whigs” of his day, but “Jacksonian Democracy” has come down to us as a byword for the idea that “government is controlled by the people” and “that a nation exists to serve its citizens,” in the words of Donald Trump’s inaugural address. Though such populist demands are often dismissed by political theorists as leading to a degenerate “majoritarian” form of democracy, ordinary people might be forgiven for assuming that the whole point of democracy is majority rule. Majority rule, the populist core of Jacksonian Democracy, does not imply any particular policy platform. It merely implies that the people be placed at the center of the political process. It is the demand of the disenfranchised that they be heeded and heard. As with Jackson, so with Trump.
Democracy is, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, the government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Much repeated, Lincoln’s mantra is little understood. It encapsulates, in one slogan, the strengths of three different political traditions. Government of the people, of the whole people in a single unified nation, is at the heart of conservatism. Government by the people, ensuring all people their due share in their own government, is at the heart of liberalism. And government for the people, for the benefit of the great majority of the people, is at the heart of progressivism. In balance (and in tension), conservatism, liberalism, and progressivism all contribute to the health and vitality of democracy.
Out of balance, they can destroy it. Over time, liberalism has evolved from a philosophy of individual freedoms balanced by the freedoms of others into a philosophy of individual rights that take precedence over those of the democratic polity itself. Ensuring all people the right to share in their own government is certainly a good thing, but once a privilege is defined as a “right” it slips out of the realm of democratic decision-making and into the realm of personal entitlement. As the list of such unalienable rights grows, the power to govern for the people slips out of the hands of the people and into the hands of experts, the experts who through education, social status, or sheer rhetorical agility are able to gain for themselves the authority to define those rights. The authority to identify new rights in effect gives its holders the power to define the limits of democracy itself. This authority forms the basis for the “new authoritarianism” of the book’s title.
Liberalism is not some kind of problem or necessary evil. Liberalism is a good thing. But conservatism and progressivism are good things, too. The danger in today’s liberalism is that many liberals no longer accept the fundamental legitimacy of these other ways of thinking about political society. Worse, liberals are apt to use their control over elite political discourse to delineate those ideas that are acceptable from those that are not. This is no idle power. Internet search providers, social networks, and even web hosting services are increasingly acceding to liberal pressure to control speech in much the same way as traditional publishers and broadcast networks have always controlled access to audiences. The freedom to speak only to yourself is no freedom at all. This is the tyranny that threatens Anglo-American democracy: the “tyranny of the expert class.”
Salvatore Babones is the author of The New Authoritarianism. He has authored, co-authored, edited, or co-edited 13 books and dozens of academic papers. He has written extensively for The National Interest, Foreign Affairs, and Forbes, among many other quality venues. He has lived in Australia since 2008 but he was born and will always be a proud citizen of the United States of America. In politics, he is a conservative, a liberal, and a progressive, finding much to value and respect in all three traditions.
“The happiness of America is intimately connected with the happiness of all mankind; she will become the safe and respected asylum of virtue, integrity, toleration, equality, and tranquil happiness.”
Marquis de Lafayette, Letter to His Wife, June 15, 1777
As long as our government is administered for the good of the people, and is regulated by their will; as long as it secures to us the rights of persons and of property, liberty of conscience, and of the press, it will be worth defending.
Andrew Jackson, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1829
This nation is able to legislate for its own people on every question without waiting for the aid or consent of any other nation on earth, and upon that issue we expect to carry every single state in the Union.
William Jennings Bryan, “Cross of Gold” Speech, July 9, 1896
“Democracy means the dominance of politics; politics means a minimum of objectivity. But the expert is objective, that is, nonpolitical, that is, undemocratic.”
Thomas Mann, Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, 1918
“If liberalism spells individualism, Fascism spells government.”
Benito Mussolini, The Doctrine of Fascism, 1935
“Our victory in Europe was more than a victory of arms. It was a victory of one way of life over another. It was a victory of an ideal founded on the rights of the common man, on the dignity of the human being, on the conception of the State as the servant — and not the master — of its people.”
Harry Truman, Radio Address to the American People, August 9, 1945
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
United States Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776