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As everyone knows, it’s the “bomb-throwing” extremists — on the left and right — who are the true bogeymen of American democracy, poised to carelessly blow our experiment in self-government into the dustbin of history unless centrists are vigilant.
Except maybe everyone is wrong.
In my random online reading this week, I found an essay that convincingly contends the real threat to the republican democratic values worldwide may come not from La-La Land radicals but from real-world moderate centrists — like myself, I might add (although I hope not).
And data actually exists seeming to support that unnatural-sounding hypothesis. but, still, let’s not forget how crazy and scary extremists cana be, as this YouTube video above on the conspiracy movement Qanon attests.
The excellent 2018 essay by David Adler in The New York Times about the social-political divides in the United States (“Centrists Are the Most Hostile to Democracy, Not Extremists”) is in many respects still relevant today. Adler begins with this assertion:
“The warning signs are flashing red: Democracy is under threat. Across Europe and North America, candidates are more authoritarian, party systems are more volatile, and citizens are more hostile to the norms and institutions of liberal democracy.
“These trends have prompted a major debate between those who view political discontent as economic, cultural or generational in origin. But all of these explanations share one basic assumption: The threat is coming from the political extremes. …
“On the right, ethno-nationalists and libertarians are accused of supporting fascist politics; on the left, campus radicals and the so-called antifa movement are accused of betraying liberal principles. Across the board, the assumption is that radical views go hand in hand with support for authoritarianism, while moderation suggests a more committed approach to the democratic process. Is it true?”
Maybe not, he concluded, explaining that his prior research across Europe and North America indicated that “centrists are the least supportive of democracy and its institutions” and “most supportive of authoritarianism.” He examined findings in the then most recent and globally comprehensive World Values Survey (2010 to 2014) and European Values Survey (2008), two broad studies of public opinion in more than 100 countries. Among other questions, respondents were asked to place themselves along the political continuum from far left to far right. (Adler’s working paper containing a more thorough analysis of survey data can be accessed here.)
The data doesn’t seem to support the consensus that radicals at either end of the political spectrum pose the most acute risk to democracy in the world, Adler stresses.
“As Western democracies descend into dysfunction, no group is immune to the allure of authoritarianism — least of all centrists, who seem to prefer strong and efficient government over messy democratic politics,” he wrote.
Note that pre-World War II Germany was a fairly liberal democracy before the economic catastrophe of the Great Depression in the 1930s and deep resentment of Germany’s heavy World War I reparations to European victor nations coalesced to deliver the government, presumably with the support of some traditional moderates, to fascist strongman Adolf Hitler.
Likewise, many decades of the smoldering resentment of under-educated, disadvantaged, lower middle class and financially insecure Americans in 21st century America delivered the U.S. presidency to populist (some might say “fascist”) demagogue Donald Trump in 2016. More than 74 million Americans voted to give the amoral and unorthodox Trump four more years in 2020, but the campaign blessedly fell far short, as more than 80 million other voters cast ballots for the more moderate candidate and eventual victor, Joe Biden.
Which is not to say centrists are more supportive of democracy than Trumpists.
The data from just two short years ago reported by Adler strikingly suggested that Americans at the time — and, indeed, people in all democracies worldwide — were “most skeptical of democracy” compared to far left and far right citizens, “least likely to support free elections,” and, as I mentioned earlier, “most supportive of authoritarianism” (except for the far right).
In fact, a strong plurality of Americans (40 percent) were most supportive of authoritarianism in the surveys, and 38 percent throughout Europe.
The data implies that centrists may not be anti-democratic, per se, but just want government to work reliably, fairly and efficiently — and they might be willing to throw some democratic norms, values and institutions out the window if they aren’t getting the job done. Although they haven’t done that yet.
Far right and left radicals, on the other hand, seem to just want to burn the house down and start anew under their divergent dictatorial ideologies — as the Trumpian crowd appears to favor.
I wonder how many centrists quietly voted for Hitler in his day and Trump in ours. For all our sakes, I hope few for the latter.
But historically and in recent years, authoritarian leaders have been finding support at the center of the political spectrum. As Adler reported, “from Brazil and Argentina to Singapore and Indonesia … middle-class moderates have encouraged authoritarian transitions to bring stability and deliver growth.”
In conclusion, Adler warned: “Could the same thing happen in mature democracies like Britain, France and the United States?”
It not only could but apparently already has. And it hasn’t been pretty.