the age of the strongman

China: Xi Jinping is “a president who has ruthlessly centralised power while embarking on an ambitious project to revitalise Communist rule and to secure the party’s future. … One of his major themes is a war on ‘western values’, including a free press, democracy and the constitutional separation of powers, all of which he believes pose an insidious threat to one-party rule. … Xi considers himself the antithesis of the ‘weak man’ who turned out the light on the Soviet empire.”

India:  A “cult of personality is slowly building around” Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “No surprise, then, that he rules firmly. … Many fear that unchallenged by a weakened opposition, Mr Modi will help turn the world’s largest – and most diverse – democracy into a Hindu nationalist state. There’s trepidation over a lack of tolerance among many of Mr Modi’s supporters, particularly on social media, to any criticism.”

Russia: “The elevation of Mr Putin as a father of the nation, a man who may be elected in a nominal political process but is in fact apart from and above politics, is a symptom of Russia’s ‘deep demodernising trend’, according to Andrei Zorin, a historian at Oxford University.”

Turkey: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip “Erdogan’s achievements are now shadowed by his undeniable lurch toward autocracy. Over the last year, he has initiated a harsh crackdown against peaceful protesters, political opponents, and independent media outlets.”

This is a radically incomplete list, but it includes the leaders of countries with nearly 3 billion subjects and great international influence. How profoundly disappointing that the ascendant ideology of the 1930s should again confront us.

Of course, the momentum in the direction of macho, nationalist, centralizing authoritarianism is not unstoppable. This trend is of fairly short duration–so far–and could still be checked. The question is whether we can develop a sufficiently cohesive, energetic, optimistic, and truly global democratic movement to resist it.

See also: postcolonial reaction;  why is oligarchy everywhere? and why is oligarchy everywhere? (part 2).

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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