KYIV, UKRAINE – FEBRUARY 25: A residential building damaged by a missile on February 25, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Yesterday, Russia began a large-scale attack on Ukraine, with Russian troops invading the country from the north, east and south, accompanied by air strikes and shelling. The Ukrainian president said that at least 137 Ukrainian soldiers were killed by the end of the first day. (Photo by Pierre Crom/Getty Images)
As a college history major, I have always followed the motto society needs to learn from history lest we are doomed to repeat it. Now, almost 40 years after earning that degree, I find a great deal of the history we need to learn from is not what is recorded in textbooks but things that have happened in my lifetime which represent a rise in authoritarianism and threat to our democracy.
The horrors taking place in Ukraine today seem to be footage from the nightly news of my youth instead of pages from history books. Scenes of Russian tanks on the streets and human rights abuses echo the worst of the Soviet Union. Now it is the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the opening of the Iron Curtain that seem like ancient history, as events in Eastern Europe do not square up with the narrative of the end of the Cold War and the triumph of democracy.
Unfortunately, the ebb and flow of history does not always result in an upheaval of the world order. The Western world celebrated the demise of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, but the breakup of a sprawling nation-state which had only existed for 70 years did not signal the end of the authoritarian tendencies of the Russian leadership.
After a few years of chaos, the seedlings of democracy in Russia withered and died. A more compact nation emerged with a strongman at its helm who was prepared to reinstitute the late 20th century characteristics of the Soviet Union. This “new” Russia sought to join a more authoritarian China as foils to the United States and Western Europe and began to use both new (cyber sabotage) and old (invasions of its neighbors) tricks to make the world take notice.
As the halting steps toward an open society which took place in China and Russia were dramatically (and brutally) suppressed, wobbles began to occur in other parts of the world. It now appears liberal democracy is the form of government which has been knocked back on its heels.
The rise of political leaders such as Narendra Modi in India and Viktor Orban in Hungary demonstrate how authoritarian forms of government under the guises of democracy are taking root and are popular with a significant proportion of the population in countries all over the world. Marine LePen’s candidacy for the Presidency of France attracts significant support from the French, while Jair Bolsonaro brought echoes of the repressive military governments of the 1960s and 1970s back to Brazil.
This form of “authoritarian democracy” reflects the efforts of those who desire the type of power wielded by Putin in Russia or Xi in China to gain enough popular support to manipulate the democratic system to their advantage. The exploitation of religion, cultural differences, and fear of minority populations are all part of this push to establish power. The suppression of those opposed to this effort comes next.
Of course, the United States is not immune to these tendencies. The rise and continuing influence of Donald Trump reflects the growing face of authoritarianism in what is supposedly the world’s beacon of democracy. The question we face as the popularity of authoritarian democracy increases in our country is what can we learn from history to reverse its growth?
Controlling the narrative is one lesson. Many in the United States seem shocked Russians believe Ukraine is the aggressor in Putin’s War. But many Russians have only one source of information, state media, which gives only the government’s view of the situation.
Unfortunately, a similar propaganda effort exists in our country. Millions of Americans get all their information from Fox News and similar right-wing media outlets which do not pretend to present a balanced perspective on events. It is why so many Americans still believe the 2020 election was stolen, or Trump could be reinstated to the Presidency.
The rise of Fox News and right-wing talk radio is a recent part of our history and occurred at least partially as a result of the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcast outlets to cover issues in a way which present opposing perspectives. This has resulted in too many Americans believing things that simply are not true – as any good propaganda outlet would desire.
The influence of media power and money in government means we will not see the Fairness Doctrine restored. Yet history has demonstrated liberal democracy can only thrive with an informed electorate, presenting us with a dilemma with no easy answers other than a continuing effort to counter lies and misinformation.
Propagandists for authoritarians all over the world have worked to prevent the populace from knowing the truth, and the situation in Ukraine today is a result of their success in Russia. We must learn from this example and find ways to ensure Americans hear more than one view on issues of importance. Because, from both a historical perspective and our future needs, repeating the years of the presidency of Donald Trump is a doom we cannot afford.
Ray Landis writes about the issues that matter to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @RELandis.
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