Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, right, speaks while Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, looks on at the plenary session during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. (Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

Why Strongmen Aren’t Going Away

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The reelection of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as president of Turkey ratifies the worldwide appeal of authoritarian leaders. Not even the poor recent performance of the Turkish economy diminished Erdogan’s aura. As the New York Times put it, “many Turkish voters appeared to have accepted Mr. Erdogan’s argument that powerful centralized authority was essential to forge a strong state and guard against the threat of terrorism.”

Erdogan promised political order against a background of overwhelming, often violent, change. Other strongman leaders, from Russia’s Vladimir Putin to India’s Narendra Modi, have made similar offers to their citizens. There’s little point in lamenting the decline of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism unless we grasp this appeal -- of powerful centralized authority -- to those who feel they have been governed badly, if at all.

Indeed, as voters in a multitude of countries now seem to prefer authoritarian leaders, it may be time to consider the possibility that, as Samuel Huntington wrote exactly 50 years ago, “the most important political distinction among countries concerns not their form of government but their degree of government.” 

A lazy, moralizing rhetoric about democracy has dominated political discourse since the beginning of the cold war. In the 1950s, American political scientists had begun to examine the prospects of new nation-states in Asia and Africa, and modernization theorists such as Walt Rostow, author of “The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto,” were convinced that development and economic growth would inevitably lead to greater democracy.

Rostow’s prescriptions were embraced by successive U.S. administrations. Fighting then to contain revolutionary communism, the U.S. hoped to persuade postcolonial countries that American-style democracy and capitalism represented the best kind of modernization -- far superior to the communist alternative. As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. put it, modernization theory “represented a very American effort to persuade the developing countries to base their revolutions on Locke rather than on Marx.”

Huntington broke this consensus among U.S. policymakers with his bold 1968 book, “Political Order in Changing Societies.” A consultant to the State Department in the 1960s and a major influence on American political thought, Huntington argued that rapid economic growth caused political instability by arousing too many unfulfillable aspirations. 

In his view, the large-scale uprooting and disruption caused by a rapidly growing industrial capitalist economy -- most prominently, the movement of millions of people from rural to urban areas -- could damage the new nation-states in the absence of developed political institutions. “Economic development and political stability,” he claimed, “are two independent goals and progress toward one has no necessary connection with progress toward the other.”

Some support for Huntington’s profoundly conservative argument came from the political scientist Myron Weiner, who in the late 1960s connected India’s relatively stable democracy to its slow economic growth. Similarly, the idea that the “degree of government” matters more than its form also seemed to be verified by East Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, where strong states played a major role in ensuring both political stability and rapid economic growth.

The policy implications of this line of thought were, of course, bleak. While criticizing democracy as inherently disruptive, Huntington spoke favorably of military dictatorships and monarchies as progressive forces. He made political stability seem a greater objective than political or economic progress, and the U.S., which was already supporting despotic regimes against the Soviet Union, went on to sacrifice more of its democratic ideals to cold war exigencies. 

But, Huntington was no simple anti-communist. He thought that the U.S. was too internally divided and dangerously disorderly. He actually admired China for undertaking economic modernization under a strong government. Communist states, Huntington argued, “may not provide liberty, but they do provide authority; they do create governments than can govern.”

Huntington’s words have an undeniable resonance in our age of breakneck globalization, as America’s long-dysfunctional democracy plunges into anarchy, China appears to be an exemplar of political order and stability, and authoritarian leaders peddling those particular virtues consolidate their position across the world. 

For all his cynicism, Huntington grasped a simple historical fact that still eludes the befuddled promoters today of democracy and capitalism: These seemingly wonderful things bring pain as much as bliss. Erdogan’s victory is further warning that disoriented masses everywhere will continue to fall for demagogues if they can credibly promise to mitigate the experience of radical change.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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