A society that has a significant number of persons who are living in poverty or who are experiencing a context of extreme wealth inequality is prone to autocracy. Vibrant democratic societies in which persons are happy and have their basic needs being met well are much less likely to drift towards autocracy than societies that find themselves in a situation of systemic economic injustice, extreme inequality, and perpetual poverty.
Over the past century, many of the world’s most influential autocrats took advantage of the despair and hopelessness in people brought on by woeful economic conditions. It is not an accident that totalitarian communists came to power through revolution in countries around the world that were experiencing extreme poverty and wealth inequality. It is not an accident that ultranationalists and fascists came to power in Germany, Italy, and Japan during a deep global depression prior to World War II. Persons and countries that are experiencing desperate economic conditions are prone to take desperate and even extreme political measures, and autocrats are more than willing to take advantage of the people’s desperation to gain, maintain, and expand their power.
Prior to the New Deal in the United States, there were many who were exploring the extremes of communism on the left and fascism on the right. The economic stability gained by New Deal reforms to unjust and unregulated capitalism coupled with the construction of a social safety net helped the United States become one of the world leaders in the fight against fascism in World War II rather than going down an America First fascist path, and it also kept the United States from pursuing totalitarian forms of socialism like the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba.
Over the last 42 years, many of the economic reforms, regulations, and safety nets of The New Deal of the 1930s and The Great Society of the 1960s have given way to the trickle down economics of Reaganism that has been anti-regulation, anti-unions, and anti-environment. It is not surprising then that the last 42 years have also been a time of growing wealth inequality and economic and environmental injustice. It is also not surprising that much like the 1930s, we see many persons in the United States flirting with extreme measures, from the anarchy of the extreme left to the Christian nationalism of the extreme right.
Whether we go further down the path of autocracy in the United States will in large part be determined by how well we assess the underlying conditions of poverty, wealth inequality, and economic and environmental injustice. If we allow the underlying conditions to worsen and the situation to become more desperate, then we are setting the stage for more autocracy in the near future, and the Trumps and other autocrats in the world will be emboldened to implement their extreme autocratic measures as they promise to fix our problems.
Fortunately for the United States and the rest of the world, we already have models for more vibrant democracy and more just economic processes and practices in the social democracies such as are found in the Nordic countries and in a handful of other countries that represent the most full and robust democracies in the world. These social democracies have shown us that the path to greater happiness and health, better education, less corruption, less economic injustice, and more ecological sustainability is possible, and that a full and vibrant democracy that addresses wealth inequality and provides more equality of opportunity is the answer, not autocracy.
The evidence is clear that autocrats don’t fix our problems, but rather they exacerbate them. More democracy in the world, not less, is key to a more just, peaceful, participatory, and sustainable future. In the struggle between democracy and autocracy, the well being of both people and the planet depends on democracy winning.
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