By Rudy Barnes, Jr., April 2, 2022
The world seems to be at a culmination point in the battle for legitimacy in democracy and autocracy. It's a contest between those who seek to be masters of their political destiny and those who allow demagogues like Russia’s Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, and Trump’s supporters in America to deny them their freedom. It’s a test of the future of democracy.
There are precedents for autocracies in the history of American democracy. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some southern states elected racist demagogues who became politically secure with white racist majorities. Among them were Louisiana’s Huey P. Long, the Kingfish, Pitchfork Ben Tillman of South Carolina, and George Wallace in Alabama.
Donald Trump was a narcissistic and racist demagogue elected as President in 2016. All demagogues elected to office in the U.S. were “legitimate,” since elections are the test of political legitimacy in a democracy. While history shows that democracy does not prevent political tyranny, it remains the best way to protect freedom from an authoritarian regime.
In America the military represents an authoritarian regime within a libertarian democracy. It must limit the freedom of its members to provide the good order and discipline needed as the last line of defense for our freedom. In a libertarian democracy, freedom is a sacred right; but without adequate legal and moral restraints, freedom can be lost to autocracy or anarchy.
Libertarian democracy requires laws that balance freedom and human rights with the prevention of corruption and violence. Russia is a democracy that elected Putin president in 2018, and the next election is in 2024. In other democracies like Egypt, human rights are not protected. Even in America, there are questions on whether rights are adequately protected.
Democracy is not a political panacea, but it provides regime change with ballots not bullets. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine sparked antiwar protests that could be his undoing, but only if a majority of Russians reject him as president in 2024. Putin’s popularity before his invasion of Ukraine and his control of Russian news media make that seem unlikely.
Is there any other way to oppose oppressive demagogues in a democracy? Don’t count on Christian majorities loving their neighbors of other races and religions as they love themselves and promoting political reconciliation. Most white Christians in America voted for Trump in 2016; and the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church supports Putin’s aggression.
In the battle for legitimacy in democracy and autocracy, neither can be relied on to provide world peace and fundamental human rights. Without a benevolent dictator, autocracy most often produces political oppression, and history indicates that human depravity corrupts both democracy and religion. As Pogo once noted, We have met the enemy and it is us.
On racist politics and religion in South Carolina:
(6/12/21): From Hammond and Tillman to Trump: A Legacy of Shame for South Carolina
(12/5/20): Musings on the Preference of White Christians for Demagoguery over Democracy
(12/16/17): Can Democracy Survive the Trump Era?
(12/23/17): If Democracy Survives the Trump Era, Can the Church Survive Democracy? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/12/if-democracy-survives-trump-era-can.html.
(8/3/19): Musings on the Dismal Future of the Church and Democracy in America
On Human Rights, Religion and Moral Responsibilities:
(4/16/16): Religious Violence and the Dilemma of Freedom and Democracy
(8/20/16): The Freedoms of Religion and Speech: Essentials of Liberty and Law
(5/10/15): Religion, Human Rights and National Security
(8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(4/2/16): The Freedom of Religion and Providing for the Common Good
(5/20/17): The Freedoms of Religion and Speech: Where Human Rights Begin
(7/25/20): Musings on Rights and Responsibilities
On the military as an authoritarian regime in a libertarian democracy, see
(4/21/18): The Legitimacy of an Authoritarian Military in a Libertarian Democracy
On elections as the means of regime change in a democracy, see
12/25/21): Christmas Musings on Bullets not Ballots in American Democracy
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