Tom Pepinsky: Everyday Authoritarianism is Boring and Tolerable

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  1. Avatar Murali says:

    Democracy has not survived because the alternatives are acutely horrible, and if it ends, it will not end in a bang. It is more likely that democracy ends, with a whimper, when the case for supporting it—the case, that is, for everyday democracy—is no longer compelling.

    What is this everyday Democracy that is somehow absent in places like Malaysia and Singapore? The article says that the difference between authoritarian places like Malaysia and the US is not so stark as popular imagination suggests, but is far more subtle and understated. But once you concede that the vast majority of people go about their lives in pretty much the same way whether or not you are in a democracy, you need to do a lot more to show that it is nevertheless extremely important that we live in a democracy. Because the similar lives that people in democracies and non-democracies live becomes exhibit A for democracy* being a low priority goal

    *Or at least that particular margin of increase in democracy. Malaysia and Singapore still have regular parliamentary elections, so that has to count for some significant amount of democracy.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


      Freedom House lists Singapore as “partly free.”

      I’ve been to Singapore twice. I like the country. In some ways, I could see living in the country and in some ways it is no different than the United States. There are avant-garde art galleries, hipster coffee spots and brew bar, independent book stores which feature the kind of writing that you can see in the U.S.: relatively aimless young writers, some of whom talk about topics like childhood sexual abuse and/or abusive relationships, etc.

      But the report does raise troubling concerns. I find it shocking that parliamentary districts can be declared seven weeks before the election. That seems like gerrymandering that would make the most ardent and partisan Republican blush. I dislike that people talk about politics critically against the PAP can be sued for libel and often sued into bankruptcy. The report mentioned an underage blogger who was forced to undergo two weeks of psychological treatment/evaluation. Male homosexuality is still technically illegal in Singapore even if the law is not enforced or used.

      Maybe the PAP would dominate elections always anyway. Near continual one-party rule is possible without being a soft authoritarian country but to really figure this out, you need an opposition party that can act with total freedom and a critical press.

      I suspect Malaysia is worse off in these respects than Singapore.Report

      • Avatar Murali says:

        The thing about homosexuality in Singapore is that Singapore is insufficiently liberal, not that it is insufficiently democratic. A supermajority of the population (IIRC 70%) is still against decriminalisation. With that set of political preferences, the only way for gay rights to get a footing is via some anti-democratic measures or via a drastic change in people’s opinions.

        You can avoid getting sued for criticising the PAP so long as you can back up your claims. But either the PAP doesnt do the things they are accused or they are careful enough not to leave behind any incriminating evidence.Report

        • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

          Can you give an example where a member of the opposition has been able to sue the PAP successfully or liable or an affiliate publication.

          I admit to having American views on libel law. It should be a high bar, not a low bar, to prove.Report

          • Avatar Murali says:

            Back when our current deputy prime minister (Tharman Shanmugaratnam) was on the outs with LKY, there was a (politically motivated) charge of violating the official secrets act. Tharman managed to successfully clear himself of that charge.Report

          • Avatar Murali says:

            The PAP is very lawsuit happy when it comes to libel and defamation. Singapore law also sets a very low bar for this. The way I understand it, so long as a) it is a statement that is not a matter of opinion, b) it is personal, c) you lack adequate evidence for the claim and d) I don’t like what you said, I can sue you. In america, the way I understand it, I must be able to demonstrate that I have been harmed and if I am a public figure (at least until recently*) even that is insufficient for me to be able to launch a libel suit.

            So in Singapore, Trevor Noah would never be able to make jokes about Trump wanting to boink his daughter, at least not in public.

            *The Hulk hogan vs Gawker thing might have changed this.Report

            • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

              The Hulk Hogan suit was about invasion of privacy. Not libel.

              American libel/defamation law asks several questions upfront:

              1. Is the plaintiff a public person or private person?

              2. Is the subject matter at hand a matter of public concern or private concern?

              3. Both public figure and public concern are defined broadly.

              If the answer to one and two is yes, the plaintiff needs to prove the defendant made their statement with “actual malice” and by a “clear and convincing evidence” standard instead of the normal and lower “preponderance of the evidence” standard. Actual Malice usually means lying through their teeth with no evidence, more or less. It is a very high bar to pass.

              That being said, even with a lower bar to prove defamation/libel, I think that politicians should be loathe to use it as recourse for wrongs especially against political opponents/politicians.

              Part of being a politician should be a thick skin for better and for worse. We see how bad a thin-skinned politician can be in the orange one.Report

              • The Hulk Hogan suit.

                Worst Halloween costume ever.Report

              • Avatar Will H. says:

                IIRC, reckless disregard for the truth meets the standard as well wrt public figures.
                Shirley Jones of the Partridge Family sued the National Enquirer, and won, with that scienter.
                “Actual malice” is a matter of particularized animus; i.e., something directed at a broad group generally is not defamatory toward any particular member of that group; e.g., the opposition party.

                I’ve actually been through the whole libel suit thing, as a plaintiff, and I know a bit about it.
                OTOH, maybe those attorneys I paid a whole sh!tload of money to need their licenses revoked. It’s a possibility.

                The elements required and damages available vary from state to state (why I chose to pursue action in Wisconsin rather than Missouri).Report

        • The thing about homosexuality in Singapore is that Singapore is insufficiently liberal, not that it is insufficiently democratic.

          I think that raises an interesting point, in that something that is “democratic” can be “authoritarian,” too. I guess it partly depends on how we define “democratic.”Report

          • Avatar Stillwater says:

            I think that raises an interesting point, in that something that is “democratic” can be “authoritarian,” too

            For example, the US at the time of ratification.Report

  2. Murali, at the end of the original article, the author seems to address your last concern (though not your objection about Malaysian and Singaporean democracy):

    for knowing if you are living in an authoritarian regime versus a democratic one. Most Americans conceptualize a hypothetical end of American democracy in Apocalyptic terms. But actually, you usually learn that you are no longer living in a democracy not because The Government Is Taking Away Your Rights, or passing laws that you oppose, or because there is a coup or a quisling. You know that you are no longer living in a democracy because the elections in which you are participating no longer can yield political change.

    It is possible to read what I’ve written here as a defense of authoritarianism, or as a dismissal of democracy. But my message is the exact opposite. The fantasy of authoritarianism distracts Americans from the mundane ways in which the mechanisms of political competition and checks and balances can erode. Democracy has not survived because the alternatives are acutely horrible, and if it ends, it will not end in a bang. It is more likely that democracy ends, with a whimper, when the case for supporting it—the case, that is, for everyday democracy—is no longer compelling.

    Although he addresses it, I, like you, would like to ponder more on how the authoritarian state differs from the “democratic” one. I suppose it’s not a question of “either/or” but “to what extent.” The US has been “authoritarian” in some ways throughout its history, although the precise contours and extent of that authoritarianism has shifted and evolved.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      People think that just because they live in a democracy that their Egregore isn’t dictating their actions.

      But it is. But it is.Report

      • I don’t follow you. I looked up “egregore” and the definition from Wikipedia (“an occult concept representing a “thoughtform” or “collective group mind”, an autonomous psychic entity made up of, and influencing, the thoughts of a group of people. The symbiotic relationship between an egregore and its group has been compared to the more recent, non-occult concepts of the corporation (as a legal entity) and the meme”) doesn’t seem to be what I was getting at with my “either/or” formulation.

        Not that I necessarily disbelieve in an egregore or that I disbelieve it informs our actions, just that I don’t see the connection between what I said and an egregore.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          Sorry, I saw it hidden in the distinction you made when you said that it wasn’t a question of “either/or” but a question of “to what extent”.

          One of the largest criticisms of Libertarianism in general is the whole “you guys only care if the government says ‘you must follow these rules!’ but you don’t care when society in general uses carrots/sticks to make people follow those exact same rules!”

          The answer to that, of course, is “yeah”. Society in general is the authoritarian there. And that sort of thing isn’t incompatible with democracy for a freakin’ second.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            There is a type of democracy where people are hammering out how stuff should be done when the people are 47% in favor of this thing, and 46.5% in favor of this other thing, and 6.5% contrarian in general.

            There is a type of democracy where 98% of people are in perfect agreement.Report

          • Thanks for the clarification. And I learned a new word today.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              With luck, you’ll start seeing it everywhere.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck says:

                Only until they wake up. Then you’ll stop seeing it anywhere at all. There will be extensive societal immune systems devoted to ensuring that none of the members know they’re part of a larger organism.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                “Hacking egregores and gaining root access.”

                That’s my answer to “write a sentence that would have been incomprehensible to you in 2012 but makes waaaaaaay too much sense to you in 2016.”Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                Too bad we don’t know anything terribly useful. Yet.
                Or maybe that’s a good thing?

                [This is seriously shit that we probably ought not to be talking about, so I’m going to stay out of any more discussion.]Report

              • Avatar Will H. says:

                I’ve pretty much dropped “egregore” in favor of “entelechy.”Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                noun: Philosophy
                noun: entelechy

                the realization of potential.
                the supposed vital principle that guides the development and functioning of an organism or other system or organization.
                plural noun: entelechies
                the soul.

                late Middle English: via late Latin from Greek entelekheia (used by Aristotle), from en- ‘within’ + telos ‘end, perfection’ + ekhein ‘be in a certain state.’

                That doesn’t have the aura of menace that I find necessary for the concept, though…Report

              • Avatar Will H. says:

                I was familiar with the concept through the mysticism of the Southwest before coming across the terms of egregore or entelechy to explain it.
                It’s the same place where power animals come from. It’s what kachinas do. Totemism in its original meaning.

                Which leads me to this:

                Bobby Brady found an idol in the rubble
                Had no idea it would cause so much trouble
                When Greg tried to throw it back in the ocean
                There was a rumble, an awful commotion
                Don’t ask me how, but the Tiki found Bobby
                He thought the idol was some Hawaiian hobby
                Turned out the god was mean and vicious
                Didn’t respond to Bobby’s three wishes
                He had a Tiki god…



  3. Avatar Damon says:

    “There is political dissent, if rarely open protest, but in general people are free to complain to one another.”

    Yes, and only if you “go to far” do you disappear or have an “accident”. I’d also throw out “freedom to travel”. My girlfriend is still a Russian citizen (US too) and still has her external and internal passport. One cannot travel withing Russian without the internal passport. Now compare that to the US border control checkpoints in AZ and NM, among others. Lisc. plate readers, drug (other) dogs, BCP/cops/state cops Border Patrol can stop you within a thousand miles of the border for any reason. Tell me that my two examples are on the same spectrum and that we’ve moved towards the Russian point from where we were 50 years ago.Report