The Quiet Rise of Authoritarianism
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The Quiet Rise of Authoritarianism
In the background, behind the scenes of the day’s headlines, something bad is happening. Democracies around the world are under attack by authoritarian tactics. An unprecedented March 2019 study showed that a new “wave” of autocratization has been underway since 1994, and that it is happening under our noses, in a more subtle and deceptive way than ever before.
Author Robert Kagan warned in a recent book that “the jungle” is growing back—referring to the brutal, dictatorial, war-torn way of life that has filled most of humanity’s history (The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World, 2018).
In The New York Times, columnist David Brooks called it “a dark spiral”: “China is cracking down on democratic rights in Hong Kong. Russia launches cyberattacks everywhere. Iran is destabilizing the Middle East. The era of great power rivalry is coming back. We’re in a dark spiral. Americans take a dark view of human nature and withdraw from the world. Wolves like Putin and Xi fill the void and make bad things happen, confirming the dark view and causing even more withdrawal” (June 13, 2019, emphasis added throughout).
In Egypt, a referendum was passed in the spring of 2019 that extended President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s term and allowed him to run for office in 2024 for another six years, until 2030.
In China, the National People’s Congress removed the two-term limit on presidents in 2018, essentially allowing its leader to be president for life.
In areas ruled by the Palestinian National Authority, President Mahmoud Abbas was voted into office in 2005 for a four-year term that was to end in 2009. But further elections were simply never held, so he remains in office more than a decade later—even though two polls in early 2019 showed that 60 percent or more of those under his rule wanted him to resign.
In Britain, people were so unhappy with the direction of the European Union that they voted to leave in 2016. A majority of Britons no longer feel comfortable being part of a growing European superstate, with more and more control handed over to Brussels.
Things are changing, and not for the better.
Calm before the storm
Since World War II, the last 75 years have been a time of relative peace. As David Brooks further writes: “Most of human history has been marked by war. Between 1500 and 1945, scarcely a year went by without some great power fighting another great power. Then, in 1945 that stopped. The number of battlefield deaths has plummeted to the lowest levels in history. The world has experienced the greatest reduction in poverty in history, as well as the greatest spread of democracy and freedom.”
Even the Cold War ended in the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union.
Brooks then explains what made this possible: “Mostly it was because the United States decided to lead a community of nations to create a democratic world order. That order consisted of institutions like NATO, the U.N. and the World Bank. But it was also enforced by the pervasive presence of American power—military, economic and cultural power as well as the magnetic power of the democratic idea, which inspired dissidents worldwide.”
But today, Americans on the right and left are tired of maintaining this world order. The glue—America—is no longer holding things together. “Let someone else do it!” is an increasingly common sentiment. The calm is giving way to the storm.
Bob Dylan once sang, “You know something is happening, but you don’t know what it is” (“Ballad of a Thin Man,” 1965). There’s a growing feeling that things have been too quiet for too long—that our era of relative peace won’t last. There is too much bad news—famine, disease, record numbers of displaced people, civil wars, religious confusion, extremism, mass shootings, zealotry and persecution, economic disparity, corruption and nuclear threats.
And it seems the news will get worse.
“The third wave of autocratization”
The aforementioned landmark study that came out in March 2019 was titled “A Third Wave of Autocratization Is Here: What Is New About It?” The authors, Swedish political scientists Anna Luhrmann and Staffan Lindberg, warned that “an increasingly bleak picture is emerging on the global state of democracy.”
The New York Times’ newsletter The Interpreter stated this after analyzing the study:
“A new academic study reveals that we are in the sixth chapter of democracy’s global history: a third wave of democratic decline—the largest such wave yet. Sure, you have probably heard of the four or five countries infamous for reverting back to authoritarianism: Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, arguably Hungary. And you probably think of this as a recent phenomenon, perhaps beginning with the 2008 financial crisis. But the political scientists [conducting this study] . . . analyze sophisticated, year-by-year data on the democratic health of every country on earth, to try to understand the state of global democracy as completely as possible.
“They reach a chilling conclusion: This wave of ‘autocratization,’ as they call it, has been building since 1994, long before most of us noticed. And the number of countries to have taken significant steps toward authoritarianism is not four or five but 75” (“Our New Era of Authoritarianism’s Rise,” March 7, 2019).
In a graph from the report, a thick black line rising in the mid-1990s shows the sharp increase in the number of countries going through autocratization.
“Gradual” and “clandestine” shift
The authors of the study noted that this “unprecedented” trend is mainly hitting democracies. And they found that democracies turn autocratic in three stages: (1) a democratic recession occurs, (2) democratic breakdown and (3) autocratic consolidation. They also discovered that these shifts are subtle, with autocratic leaders changing their methods—becoming more deceptive, learning from past mistakes and borrowing successful strategies from each other: “Ruling elites shy away from sudden, drastic moves to autocracy and instead mimic democratic institutions while gradually eroding their functions. This suggests we should heed the call of alarm issued by some scholars.”
It’s further explained that “regime change is typically gradual and slowly leading to hybridization into electoral authoritarianism instead of sudden, dramatic transitions.”
The authors point out that “contemporary autocrats have mastered the art of subverting electoral standards without breaking their democratic façade completely.”
In other words, today’s autocratic shifts are occurring behind the scenes, one small step at a time. The study exposes these new tactics:
“Electoral autocrats secure their competitive advantage through subtler tactics such as censoring and harassing the media, restricting civil society and political parties and undermining the autonomy of election management bodies. Aspiring autocrats learn from each other and are seemingly borrowing tactics perceived to be less risky than abolishing multi-party elections altogether . . . The current wave of autocratization unfolds in a more clandestine and gradual fashion than its historical precedents.”
These 21st century autocrats typically grab power through “mostly legal means . . . Aspiring autocrats have clearly found a new set of tools to stay in power, and that news has spread.”
This is not good news. And when we dig deeper into the trends, the picture grows even worse.
Once the dominoes start falling . . .
The New York Times analysis ended on a negative note:
“The authors are careful to avoid sounding too many alarms, stressing that ‘panic is not warranted’ . . . But there is some real cause for concern here. We were stopped cold by this paragraph in their study:
“‘About a third of all autocratization episodes (N = 75) started under a democratic dispensation. Almost all of the latter (N = 60, 80%) led to the country turning into an autocracy. This should give us great pause about [the] spectre of the current third wave of autocratization. Very few episodes of autocratization starting in democracies have ever been stopped before countries become autocracies.’
“In other words, any democracy that has backslid even somewhat, during this present period in history, has had a four in five chance to keep backsliding all the way into authoritarianism. Put another way, it’s rare for a democracy to backslide just a little. Once it starts, it usually doesn’t stop. That is concerning.”
Once the dominoes within democracies start falling, the chances are great that all the dominoes will eventually fall—leaving behind a full autocratic government.
Author Robert Kagan warns about this domino effect, writing that “when things start to go wrong, they can go very wrong very quickly, that once a world order breaks down, the worst qualities of humanity emerge from under the rocks and run wild” (The Jungle Grows Back, p. 24).
These new findings paint a bleak picture for our world. Most people probably do not even realize the full extent of this “third wave.” The drama of the day’s headlines usually drowns out these bigger-picture trends. Other people simply ignore these trends and hope for the best. Or they reject the research, asserting that progress is being made in the march of democracy.
What is really happening? And where is it leading?
The Bible shows that dark times are ahead for mankind, but that they will culminate in the best news possible—the establishment of the Kingdom of God at Christ’s return. Yet before looking at what prophecy reveals, let’s note more of what Kagan has to say.
The jungle grows back
As earlier mentioned regarding Kagan’s book The Jungle Grows Back, “the jungle” is the way things have been up until the 19th and 20th centuries. For instance, during most of human history, there were no democracies.
Kagan writes: “Today there are signs all around us that the jungle is growing back. Where once many hoped that all the nations and peoples of the world would converge on a common path of liberal democratic capitalistic development, we now see authoritarianism surviving if not thriving. Today a Russian dictator and European would-be dictators boast of their illiberalism, and a Chinese leader, wielding the absolute power of a Mao, portrays his nation as a model for the world” (p. 10).
Later in the book, the author observes: “The problem is that we have lived inside the bubble of the liberal world order so long that we have forgotten what that world ‘as it is’ really looks like . . . History is returning. Nations are reverting to old habits and traditions” (p. 105).
Kagan’s observations about Germany and Europe are especially interesting. He writes: “The environment in which Germans live has an impact on how they act. Our abnormal era of peace and security has been the answer for seven decades; a return to normal would be worrying.
“Yet there is no avoiding the fact that the European environment is deteriorating . . . For the past few decades Germany has lived in a set of circumstances that made trust on all sides possible—a healthy German democracy in a healthy democratic Europe undergirded by a reliable American security guarantee” (pp. 127-128).
Kagan then asks some sobering questions:
“But what if Europe became less healthy and less democratic, more nationalistic and more fractured, less confident and less trusting? . . . Would Germans be immune to such a radical change in their environs? If Europe returned to past patterns, could Germans avoid being dragged back with the rest? We may find out, because unfortunately Europe is showing signs of returning to past patterns . . . For the first time since World War II, a far-right nationalist party has risen to claim a significant position in German politics” (pp. 127-128, 132).
“Gradually and then suddenly”
One final longer quote from the book shows how quickly authoritarian leaders can arise, seemingly out of nowhere:
“A character in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, asked how he went bankrupt, responds, ‘Gradually and then suddenly.’ That is a fair description of how the world order collapsed before the two world wars, and of how it likely will collapse in our own time. Unfortunately, Americans have since forgotten how quickly it can happen, how graver threats than we anticipate can emerge to catch us physically and psychologically unprepared.
“One would think it hard to have a 1930s mentality knowing what happened in the 1940s, but we continually comfort ourselves that the horrors of seventy-five years ago cannot be repeated. We see no Hitlers or Stalins on the horizon, no Nazi Germany, no Imperial Japan, no Soviet Union.
“We believe that the leaders of today’s potential adversaries, the Vladimir Putins and Xi Jinpings, are just run-of-the-mill authoritarians who only want a little respect and their own fair share of the international pie. They may be in it for the money or the glory, but they do not pose an existential threat to our way of life. We forget, of course, that people in the 1930s felt the same way about Hitler and Stalin.
“[Bulgarian political scientist] Ivan Krastev jokes that ‘the question is no longer whether it’s possible for Hitler to come back; it’s whether we’d even be able to recognize him.’ But it is not a joke: we almost certainly will not recognize the Hitlers and Stalins in our midst until they have emerged as full-blown, unmanageable threats.
“There are always dangerous people out there, lacking only the power and the opportunity to achieve their destiny. We used to take the ever-present evil in man more seriously. In 1973 the German social psychologist Erich Fromm wrote about man’s inherent inclinations to ‘destructiveness’ and ‘cruelty,’ the ‘specifically human’ craving for ‘absolute control,’ the tendency to ‘malignant aggression’ . . .
“Many people have evil in them, and many of those people harbor grand designs, mad or not, that they never have a chance even to try to fulfill. They are constrained by the powers and forces around them, the ‘order’. . . The circumstances in which Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini rose to power—a world in which no nation was willing or able to sustain any kind of international order—gave them ample opportunity to show what they were capable of” (pp. 143-145).
Kagan concludes this section with a powerful warning of what could be coming:
“We wanted to believe that history was taking us away from the wars, tyranny, and destruction of the first half of the twentieth century, but history and human nature may be taking us back toward them, absent some monumental effort on our part to prevent such regression. We have taken too much solace from the fact that our opponents are not communists but are merely authoritarians” (pp. 145-146).
A new dark ages
Most do not realize that Jesus Christ foretold this “dark spiral” or growing “jungle.” When His disciples asked Him what would happen just before His second coming, He told them that it would be the worst time in all human history. Notice: “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved”—that is, all mankind would be wiped out (Matthew 24:21-22).
This is a shocking prophecy—and one for our time! Jesus said that conditions around the world would be so bad that no one would survive if God did not intervene. This is a strong indicator that today’s “third wave” is only the front edge of conditions that will eventually grow much worse.
The apostle Paul also warned of these dark times in 2 Timothy 3:1-5. He said that “in the last days perilous times shall come” and that people would be “proud,” “blasphemers,” “unholy,” “fierce,” “traitors” and “highminded” (King James Version). This certainly describes our world.
Numerous other Bible prophecies show that dark clouds will gather at the end of man’s age. Political power will be centralized in a few large regions of the world. Nations once at odds will form critical alliances to survive the next world war. We are already seeing some of these alliances begin to form. Conditions will culminate in horrible world events—a World War III!
The book of Revelation paints a picture of power-hungry authoritarian governments in place at the end. It describes the ultimate authoritarian government—a world-ruling superpower called “the Beast”—which will take control of vast parts of the world. Revelation 17:12-14 shows that “10 kings”—national leaders—will for a short time hand over their power to the leader of this Beast system.
Revelation 13 also shows a dramatic picture of how the entire world will buy into this coming powerful system: “All the world wondered after the beast. And they worshipped the dragon [Satan] which gave power unto the beast: and they worshipped the beast, saying, Who is like unto the beast? Who is able to make war with him? . . . And he opened his mouth in blasphemy against God . . . and power was given him over all kindreds, and tongues, and nations. And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him” (Revelation 13:3-8, KJV).
Amazingly, billions of people will be swept up in this coming authoritarian system—a system that will bring tragic consequences and will eventually be destroyed by the triumphant, all-powerful returning Jesus Christ. Only after this dark time will the light finally break through with the coming Kingdom of God. As the saying goes, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”
The end of authoritarian governments
At last, man’s track record of power-hungry authoritarian regimes will be changed forever. The Kingdom of God, under Jesus Christ and His resurrected followers, will rule with love and real concern for the affairs of all people. All of man’s wrong and failed forms of government—including gridlocked democracies—will be read about only in history books. Jesus and His followers will rule with righteous authority.
Notice what Christ specifically said about authoritarian-style governments. After the disciples James and John presumptuously asked Christ for top positions of authority in the Kingdom, Jesus used this as a teaching opportunity. Christ told His disciples, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them” (Mark 10:42).
Christ knew that authoritarian governments have been a common part of man’s history. He acknowledged that most of the time the people’s “great ones” have been tyrannical. Most of man’s history has been autocratic, not democratic.
Christ then explained what true leadership looks like: “Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45).
Christ’s message to His servants—including us today!—is that we should focus on serving others. He led by example when He sacrificed His life in service to mankind.
In the Kingdom of God, the rule of Christ and His followers will be one of love, of outgoing concern for others and for providing people their physical, emotional and spiritual needs. It will be outflowing! Christ will not take from people but will give, exercising proper loving authority. This Kingdom will be unlike any other government before it; it will be based on the way of give, not get.
How much longer?
It is impossible to know how long this “third wave” of authoritarianism will last—if it will culminate in the horrific final events of the end time or if it will give way to another mild surge in democracy. But one thing is certain. Eventually, and hopefully soon, all forms of autocratic governments will be gone. The righteous Kingdom of God will rule over all nations, finally bringing about the peace, security and prosperity that billions of people have longed for.
As we read today’s headlines and study the sobering trends, remember the hope Christ offered when He said that when we “see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near” (Luke 21:31).
This is the ultimate good news within today’s bad news. Each day that passes brings us one step closer to God’s Kingdom!