Column: The authoritarian and his followers

The first of three columns prompted by a panel discussion on “Reporting Emerging Authoritarianism” at the 2017 International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy. (I might add a fourth column, one of these days.) Published on April 11, 2017.


One difference between the Marcos years and today: Today there is deservedly more attention paid to the role the public plays in empowering authoritarian regimes. A panel discussion on “Reporting Emerging Authoritarianism” at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, which it was my happy task to moderate, brought this difference home to me.

Alexa Koenig, who serves as executive director of UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center, began by outlining a useful framework for understanding the subject. Yavuz Baydar, a prominent Turkish journalist living in exile since the postcoup total crackdown by President Reycep Erdogan, drew lessons from his country’s degeneration into a “robust authoritarian regime.” Tamas Bodoky, a Hungarian investigative journalist who founded the watchdog site (“transparent” in Hungarian), described “defining features” of emerging authoritarianism, based on the Hungarian experience under Prime Minister Viktor Orban. I presented five theses on the Duterte presidency.

Version 2

The audience for the panel discussion, in the Sala del Dottorato. 

Koenig quoted a leading scholar on authoritarianism, Bob Altemeyer: “Ultimately, in a democracy, a wannabe tyrant is just a comical figure on a soapbox unless a huge wave of supporters lifts him to high office.” She added: “I think Donald Trump is an individual who very well encapsulates that particular idea.” But she also highlighted the importance of the second part of the quote: “[We] need to pay attention, not only to the individual who is charged with beginning to shape an authoritarian regime, but [also to] the individuals who ultimately help that individual to have the kind of power that’s necessary to mobilize large swathes of the population.”

She then used Juan Linz’s four elements of authoritarianism to read the current American experience. First, limited political pluralism: “The idea behind the unitary executive theory [in the United States] is that the executive … will have expanded powers in times of crisis,” and since 9/11 there has been this “continual state of concern.” Second, legitimacy based on emotion. Third, constraining of social mobilization, including the “suppressing of political opponents.” And fourth, informally defined executive power: “So, vague or shifting powers,” she said, noting that “the very term ‘war on terror’ is a merging of two different ideas.”

Baydar offered a “personal observation”—that Erdogan did not set out to become authoritarian. Rather, “the deeper the corruption of his regime and his family ties became, the drive for authoritarianism” became stronger. In other words, “he saw no other way than becoming authoritarian.”

How did Erdogan dismantle Turkey’s democratic project? “Three ingredients.” First, “creeping control of state institutions.” Second, “the use of religion in rhetoric” (in founder Kemal Ataturk’s original design, Turkey was a proudly secular country with a Muslim majority). And third, “ongoing constant domination of the silent majority.”

Bodoky zeroed in on related attacks on journalism. “One of the defining features of authoritarian tendencies is the suppression of investigative journalism or watchdog journalism … and that’s exactly what happened in Hungary after 2010.” And “the other feature of authoritarian regimes is a high level of spending on propaganda campaigns … demonizing certain groups.”

Version 2

The programme in English. (The Italian had a different emphasis.)

I tried to paint a balanced picture. First, Mr. Duterte is genuinely popular. Second, his popularity seems more broad than deep (my example: three-fourths of Filipinos say they fear they could be the next victim of the so-called war on drugs). Third, he has authoritarian tendencies (his “constitutional dictatorship” idea, his attacks on the media). Fourth, he is genuinely conflicted, about the presidency and his tendencies. And fifth: Even if that conflictedness is resolved in favor of democratic institutions, the public must still be on guard against possible authoritarianism. The wave of killings is eroding the rule of law.

Strategies like stoking a sense of continuing crisis; using religion, for or against, as an emotional trope in the leader’s speeches; demonizing the opposition or the nonaligned—these work in part because the public allows it. Koenig’s warning rang clear in the Umbrian air: “Authoritarians do not rely on mass popular support. They rely on mass passiveness, [on] passivity.”


1 Comment

Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

One response to “Column: The authoritarian and his followers

  1. Pingback: Column: The Catholic (as) fascist | John Nery | Newsstand

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