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Are We Dictator-Proof?

June 11, 2024 by Twan van de Kerkhof

Europe and America seem to be closer to authoritarian rule than they have been since World War II. In many countries of Europe parties have been winning recent elections that don’t have democracy and the rule of law as their priorities. In the US Donald Trump might be president again. I think that there is one thing that will keep us safe from dictatorships for now: the values of citizens and professionals and the behavior that results from them.

The quality of public institutions in both Europe and the US is still high. Yes, it should be even higher and mistakes are being made that should be avoided. But institutions help us to preserve decency. Officers in the army and the police force do their work mostly diligently. The press is still mostly independent. American states have tremendous authority, as do countries and regional governments in Europe. Judges are doing their work with little political influence. Even the most determined, inventive and organized of would-be despots are struggling to overcome these countervailing powers.

Moreover, the power of ordinary citizens should not be underestimated. In the end it is all up to us. Historian Timothy Snyder wrote the brilliant pamphlet On Tyranny (2017) with 20 lessons from the 20th century about the difference we as individuals can make, see https://snyder.substack.com/p/on-tyranny. Institutions are ours, he writes for example. “Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning.  So choose an institution you care about — a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union — and take its side.” Another is: Stand out. “Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. Remember Rosa Parks. The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.”

So, the values and behavior of both professional civil servants, judges, policemen, military and others, and those of ordinary citizens are the most important countervailing powers to would-be dictators. What also helps is the lack of quality of some of the potential despots. The Economist recently gave a devastating analysis of Donald Trump. They wrote that he “is surely unequal to the task of turning himself into a dictator, even if he wanted to. He is too easily distracted, scatterbrained and anxious to evade responsibility”. He might be dangerous, but it could be far worse if he was a real good leader.