The counter to grassroots authoritarianism isn’t democracy – it’s freedom


When I was growing up in the 1950s, I believed that people unfortunate enough to live in dictatorships resented the governments they lived under.

The classic example was that of the communist countries of Eastern Europe. A television advertisement for Radio Free Europe showed two terrified people shouting from behind barbed wire the plaintive cry “Pravda! When I spent time in East Germany in the late 1960s and early 1970s, virtually everyone I met hated the government and many hoped to flee. Another example would have been Mobutu Sese Seko, (born Joseph Mobutu) who ruled and plundered the Congo from 1965 to 1997 with almost no popular support for his kleptocracy.

However, the view that people living there hate their authoritarian governments is not necessarily true. Although it may seem strange to some, Vladimir Putin’s Ukrainian aggression is extremely popular in Russia. Independent Russian polls show support for Putin at 83% and the operation in Ukraine at 81% (support among 18-24 year olds is somewhat lower). For China, consultancy Edelman Data and Intelligence, which for 2022 surveyed 36,000 people in 28 countries, found that 91% of Chinese trusted their government, compared to 38% of Americans.

There is a dark vision of the lure of authoritarianism, which, like the vision of the desire for liberation of my youth, is a product of previous decades. In 1941, psychiatrist Erich Fromm published the book “Escape from Freedom”, which argued that some people were drawn to authoritarianism because making choices frightened them. In 1950, four sociologists published a widely commented book entitled “The Authoritarian Personality”, which argued that certain types of childhood experiences produced a set of attitudes of submission, aggression, superstition and toughness.

If you look at Russia, and certainly China, support for authoritarianism has understandable roots. It is clear that Russian (and Chinese) government policies draw significant support from strong nationalism stemming from resentment of perceived Western humiliation; moreover, nationalism in Russia is not so remarkably different from common nationalism in the United States

The strong popular approval of the Chinese government is hardly surprising given that the government has delivered the goods – China is a country where hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty in recent decades through economic growth. explosive. You could say that Putin didn’t deliver the goods, but Russian economic performance was actually quite good during his reign, compared to the economic disasters of the late Soviet years and Boris Yeltsin (it was interesting to see some recent videos of Russian supermarkets filled with a good selection of food products, compared to poor quality food lines in the Soviet Union).

So what’s wrong with grassroots authoritarianism? In my view, it is less about the extent to which the substantive opinions in question might be unwarranted and more about the fact that those opinions did not emerge from an open process, but rather from a process where dissent at regard to the government’s opinion has been deleted. Along with the attack on Ukraine, a Russian law was passed punishing opposition to the war with up to 15 years in prison, and people have already been arrested under the law . In China, the Internet is ruthlessly censored. Such suppression is bad because it deprives people of freedom.

President Biden, through his democracy summit a few months ago, drew the contrast between authoritarianism and democracy. I’m not against it, but I don’t think it’s our strongest card as anti-authoritarians. Democracy is a political system in a world where many are uninterested in politics, and the democratic contrast seems driven more by US-specific concerns in reaction to former President Trump and our own institutional dysfunction. In contrast, emphasizing the value of freedom touches on something that is more universal and fundamental – freedom is valued as an expression of human personality that promotes human flourishing.

So, I suggest that in tackling authoritarianism, we go back to another retro 1950s concept; the “free world”. I find it fascinating that a Chinese student friend who dislikes the Communist Party often uses the phrase “free world” in messages he sends me. I think it’s an idea with broader resonance and appeal. We should talk about it more.

Steve Kelman is Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard Kennedy School and editor of the International Public Management Journal.


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