‘Sleep walking into fascism’

When I was a teenage political science undergraduate at University, I was taught that ‘the more institutions there are the more stable society is’. In order for fascism to displace democracy, institutions must first crumble – which is a slow and gradual process. Mussolini compared accumulating power to ‘plucking a chicken one feather at a time, go slowly and no one notices’. As the late Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State, argues in ‘Fascism: A Warning’ (2019), fascism in pre-World War II Europe did not happen all of a sudden. It was incremental. Step-by-step democracy was undermined by eroding liberty. There was no overt overthrow. It can begin with the dehumanising of vulnerable people. In their book, ‘How Democracies Die – What History Reveals About Our Future’ (2018), Professors of Government at Harvard University, Stephens Levitsky & David Ziblatt argue, ‘Democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders – presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power … More often … Democracies erode slowly, in barely visible steps. … Many government efforts to subvert democracy are legal, in the sense that they are approved by the legislature or accepted by the courts. They may even be portrayed as efforts to improve democracy – making the judiciary more efficient, combating corruption, or cleaning up the electoral process. … People do not immediately realise what is happening. Many continue to believe they are living under a democracy. … Because there is no single moment- no coup, declaration of martial law, or suspension of the constitution -in which the regime obviously crosses the line into dictatorship, nothing may set off society’s alarm bells. Those who denounce government abuse may be dismissed as exaggerating or crying wolf. Democracy’s erosion is, for many, almost imperceptible. … The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy – gradually, subtly, and even legally – to kill it.’ The professors developed a set of 4 behavioural warning signs which can help us to recognise an authoritarian when we see one – ‘we should worry when a politician (1) rejects in words or actions, the democratic rules of the game, (2) denies the legitimacy of opponents, (3) tolerates or encourages violence, or (4) indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents. … A politician who meets even one of these criteria is cause for concern.’ So one day, and without realising what has been happening over a period of years, you may wake up and find that you are living in an autocracy. That is why speaking out is critical to the resilience of democracy and safeguarding the rule of law so that politicians who are not above the law are held to account for their rhetoric and actions which are destructive of the institutions that bind society together in a democracy.


Madeleine Albright on the slow rise of fascism | CNN