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Defending Democracy in an Autocratic World

By Bruce Knotts

This post was originally sent out on January 25 via a monthly email message from Director Bruce Knotts of the Unitarian Universalist Association Office at the United Nations. Subscribe to the UU@UN email list.

Many-colored hands reaching upward

The United Nations marks International Day of Democracy each year on September 15. The 2020 focus was on the challenges COVID-19 poses to democracy. (Copyright United Nations)

Not since the years between the First and Second World Wars have we seen such an advance of autocratic regimes at the expense of democratic government.

We currently see growing autocracy in Russia, Belarus, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Brazil, Venezuela, India, the Philippines, Uganda, Cameroon, and recently in the United States. Many of these nations have democratic forms, elections, and elected legislatures; but how power is exercised is autocratic, including suppressing the media, opposition, and voting rights.

The United States calls itself the world’s oldest democracy. That can be contested.

If democracy is government chosen by the will of the people, then that hasn’t been true for most of our history.

Perhaps we could count 1965 as a beginning of American democracy, when the Voting Rights Act was passed. But there continue to be efforts to suppress the vote in this country including voter ID laws and disenfranchisement of felons.

The U.S. has just had an election where many Americans, including members of both the Senate and House of Representatives, wanted to ignore the expressed will of the people in order to keep an autocratic president in power. Our democracy survived, but it wasn’t easy. As President Biden said in his inaugural address, “democracy is fragile.”

The book How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt mentions the following signs of autocracy:

  1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game.
  2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents.
  3. Toleration or encouragement of violence.
  4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media.

Does this look like it was written last week? This book was released to the public in January 2018, well before the insurrection of January 6, 2021. The book sees clearly that increased polarization, as well as demonizing the media and opponents, will eventually lead to violence.

Our UUA Office works with the United Nations to support democracy everywhere. We criticize human rights violations and other deplorable actions while treating representatives of violating countries with respect.

The United Nations operates with both formal and informal democratic rules to ensure peaceful, respectful, and meaningful discussions of the world’s problems. It also works around the world to promote and sustain democracy. The UU@UN is proud to participate in discussions with UN agencies, especially the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, about keeping democracy alive around the world.

The book How Democracies Die recommends tolerance and institutional forbearance as the crucial unwritten rules that sustain democracy. Constitutions, no matter how well they are crafted, cannot guarantee democracy.

Institutional forbearance means refraining from using the powers of office to bury one’s opponents.

In a healthy democracy, we must see our opponents as friendly competitors, not as existential enemies. This viewpoint does not mean that we cannot vigorously oppose positions that we feel are wrong or inhuman. But norms of respect should be adhered to in our political discussions, even when disagreements are sharp and important.

Politicians can prevent a tyrant from gaining power by supporting the opposition party. One example cited in Levitsky and Ziblatt’s book comes from the 2017 French Presidential election:

In France, it is estimated that half of François Fillon’s conservative Republican Party voters followed his surprising endorsement of Macron; about another third abstained, leaving around a sixth of Fillon’s supporters who went for Le Pen, arguably making a key difference in that country’s election.

They speculate that if prominent Republican officeholders had endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016, the United States might have been spared an autocratic president.

It takes courage to endorse the opposing party in order to preserve democracy. However, democracy is worth such courage to sustain it for ourselves and future generations.

In the U.S., we’ve been lucky to have voted to rid ourselves of an autocratic president. We now have an administration devoted to democracy.

However, white supremacy, bigotry in many forms, and the desire of many for an authoritarian leader remain.

We need to be vigilant. If we see an aspiring dictator in our own party, we must be ready to endorse the opposition in order to prevent dictatorship. Preserving democracy is more important than winning an election. As with perfecting our faith, our work to perfect our nation is never done.

About the Author

Bruce Knotts

Bruce Knotts is the Director of the Unitarian Universalist Office at the United Nations. He was born and raised in Southern California. He got his Bachelor’s Degree in History from Pepperdine University and his Master’s Degree in International Education from the Monterey Institute of...

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