Nazi Analogies Blind us to the Real Threats to Democracy
Godwin’s Law states that the longer a political discussion goes on, the probability someone will make a comparison to the Nazis or Hitler approaches 100%. Once that happens, the conversation risks going off the rails. Discussion over. We've all seen this happen, especially online. However, Mr. Godwin clarified a caveat to this rule.
Go ahead and bring up Hitler and the Nazis all you want, but do so in a way that makes it relate directly to the topic under discussion. In other words, name-drop the Nazis if you want, but make the tie-in relevant and not just a cheap way to demonize the other side. Some Nazi analogies are better than others.
That’s fair. And yet there remains a frustrating tendency to reach straight for the Third Reich for historical comparisons when others may be more appropriate. I'm not picking on any particular side here. Left and right both do it with tedious regularity. The Nazi analogy is similar to its rhetorical cousin, the communist analogy, a familiar trope on the right that labels every progressive idea as the first step down the slippery slope to communism.
Nazis, on the other hand, transcend simple left-right binaries. This is true from Jonah Goldberg on the right to Timothy Snyder on the left and every social media keyboard commando in between. Nazis are the one personification of political evil everyone can agree on, though the interpretations vary wildly.
Do you support gun control? Well, the Nazis did too.
Are you pro-choice on abortion? Fine, but get ready to hear how abortion is like the Holocaust.
Antifa's very reason for being is to counter the far right's Nazi ambitions.
Maybe you think the media lies all of the time? Well, so did the Nazis.
Nazis, Nazis, everywhere Nazis!
Out of the wealth of historical lessons available, can't we come up with some better examples?
Is this the best we can do?
In fact, more informative cautionary tales abound. The world around us contains a wealth of less dramatic but more relevant tales of democracy dying the death of a thousand cuts. Hitler’s Germany is only the most dramatic case.
What we see today are more subtle threats from those who understand how to use democracy to undermine democracy. They never stop speaking the language of liberty and freedom, even as they slowly accumulate power and suffocate both.
Better Modern Examples Abound
Take Venezuela, for example. People forget that Hugo Chavez initially came to power riding a populist wave fueled by grievance and fear. He campaigned on the real frustration many Venezuelans felt toward a two-party status quo that no longer seemed to function. Chavez drew crowds by railing against shadowy elites, out of control corruption, and a rigged political system that only worked for the interests of the few. Sound familiar? He promised ‘authentic democracy,’ or democracy returned directly to the people, particularly Venezuela’s poor.
This resonated, winning Chavez the presidency in 1998. A year later, he held elections to populate his newly created constituent assembly, a legislative body packed with Chavez loyalists designed to do his bidding. After the elections to populate the new assembly, Chavez's party won 122 out of 131 seats, even though the opposition garnered 38% of the vote. This new assembly then set about re-writing the constitution. Chavez won re-election again in 2000 and then survived a recall referendum in 2004. It was after this referendum, which came close to toppling Chavez, that he really began to chip away at Venezuela’s democratic guardrails.
First, he blacklisted those who had signed the recall petition and then stacked the supreme court with loyalists. Yet again, in 2006, Chavez won re-election and used his mandate to weaken the divided opposition even further. He closed down one of the most popular remaining independent television stations, arrested political and media opponents, and finally eliminated presidential term limits so he could serve as President indefinitely.
Opposition in the media was hampered by laws tailor-made to prosecute pro-government critics. Chavez ranted about what he called "media terrorism" to stigmatize coverage critical of the government. Defamation laws made criticism of the President subject to a 30-month prison sentence. In 2012, Globovision, one of the last opposition television networks, was levied a fine worth 7.5% of its 2010 gross income. Why? For "excessive” coverage of a prison riot “that promoted hatred and intolerance for political reasons.” How do you legally define defamation or "excessive hatred and intolerance"? Ask the judges Chavez hand-picked. They would tell you.
In 2012, a dying-Chavez won re-election one last time, though at this point the opposition had been effectively shut out of the political process. We know how the rest of the story plays out. Chavez died soon after and his hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, now runs a failing state where democracy is still preached by the government, even if it is not practiced. This Venezuelan model represents only one example of a pattern found elsewhere.
As Chavez showed, would-be authoritarians seek to consolidate power while still offering the appearance of democracy. The most effective way of doing this is by controlling the narrative, which means controlling the media or at least intimidating it into submission. The Nazis were one of the early adopters of this strategy, labeling the independent press the "Lugenpresse" (lying press). Think of this as "Fake News 1.0." But the Nazis were not the last to do this. In addition to Venezuela, one finds other examples. And when you look at them, a pattern emerges.
After winning a super-majority in 2010, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party re-wrote the constitution to lock in its electoral advantage. Electoral districts were gerrymandered to favor Fidesz candidates. Political advertising was banned in private media and allowed only on public media outlets, which were all not surprisingly controlled by government loyalists.
Media outlets critical of the government have had to close. This all paid off in the next elections when the Fidesz share of the vote dropped from 54.5% (2010) to only 44.87% in 2014 and 48.5% in 2018. Fidesz, thanks to all the legislative shenanigans and constitutional changes, maintained its two-thirds supermajority in parliament.
This was all perfectly legal. Any outrage at this election rigging was significantly muted by the state's influence on the media. In 2016, Hungary's largest daily, Nepszababsag, was suspended. Why? The paper had uncovered a series of scandals involving the ruling party. Not long after, the suspended paper was sold to another company closely aligned with Prime Minister Orban's regime. Who's left to complain once a truly free and independent press no longer exists?
Turkey and Russia followed similar playbooks. Each ostensibly used the law to give legitimacy to the attacks. Of course, these were laws created and interpreted by courts filled with government loyalists, but it was all technically legal. In Turkey, the vast Dogan Yayin media conglomerate, which at the time controlled around 50% of the media market in Turkey, was crippled and eventually dismantled after charges of tax evasion. Facing a fine of over $2.5 billion, the company was forced to sell much of its media empire.
The buyers? They turned out to be pro-government businessmen more amenable to the president’s policies and not inclined to any critical coverage. Moreover, Turkey's crackdown on critical reporting has surged since the failed coup in 2016, with the government seizing even more media outlets, jailing critical journalists, and intimidating everyone else with the ever-looming threat of arrest or firing. Turkey, once a beacon of democracy in the Middle East, now leads the world in the number of imprisoned journalists.
In Russia, independent television station NTV’s vocal criticism of the government sealed its fate in 2001. The government unleashed the tax authorities on the station, arresting its owner and forcing him to sell off in exchange for dropping the charges. Russian media outlets these days know not to stray too far from the party line, and so passively act as the government’s mouthpiece.
Elsewhere, several senior editors were fired after the independent media outlet RBC published coverage of the Panama Papers that exposed corruption within Putin's inner circle. Where did their replacements come from? TASS, the state-owned news agency and mouthpiece of the government.
Why this matters
Opposition in these countries now operates at an incredible disadvantage. Opponents who find themselves constantly harassed and blacklisted end up wasting their limited resources fighting off trumped-up legal charges. Once a government controls the media, it controls the narrative, and dissent is muted. The government gets to decide who to vilify or praise, so it should come as no surprise who gets vilified and who gets praised.
With public debate a farce, many people learn to hunker down and refrain from political activism. Average citizens see all this happening and do a kind of cost-benefit analysis, weighing the very uncertain benefits of opposition with the very real risks. Is it really worth going to jail, getting fired, or maybe blacklisted?
For most people, the answer is going to be a pragmatic ‘no.’ Discretion becomes the better part of valor and ends up making a virtue out of civic passivity. Better to keep what little you have than to risk it all on a long shot. Such is the rationale of the alienated citizen living under an authoritarian regime.
And how can anyone blame them? Average folks are rarely political heroes and most will quietly adjust to circumstances that seem beyond their control. Authoritarians know this. What you get is a cowed society, with a token rump opposition playing against a stacked deck, and everyone else knows it.
Would-be modern autocrats are skilled at turning the messy nature of the democratic process into a liability. If people come to believe the world is nothing but a chaotic and dangerous place, then they’ll gladly trade a little bit freedom for security; and then a little bit more, and a little bit more. Love of liberty is not a given in human nature; in fact, I'd argue it's the exception, not the rule, a modern myth most of us blindly accept as a law of nature. It's not.
On the contrary, historically, it’s more an aberration than anything. The American Founders like James Madison knew this, trying to put a system in place that would safeguard democracy from the pitfalls of the past. Reading the Federalist Papers today is to see just how much the specter of other failed democratic experiments haunted their ideas.
Tyranny creeps in with the alluring message that freedom is best protected by more security, and only the government can provide that security. This is an authoritarian truism that goes all the way back to Caesar Augustus, the man who put the final nail in the coffin of the violently dysfunctional Roman Republic.
Such a message is insidious because it contains an element of truth to it. A primary function of any government is to protect its citizens. Augustus did so, at least after he had killed all the opposition. Vladimir Putin did so as well. Many Russians remember the post-Soviet 90s as a disastrous experiment in democratic and economic chaos. "No thanks," many of them said, "we'll take security and stability over political freedoms."
Can you blame them for that rationale, given the circumstances? Historically, Russian democracy was an oxymoron. And who can argue that Hugo Chavez was not tapping into something powerful when he railed against the corrupt democratic system he sought to replace? He was speaking a truth, even if his solution was anti-democratic in the end.
The danger comes when the government abuses its responsibility by dividing the populace into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ ‘insider’ and ‘outsider,’ while demonizing the opposition as traitors that must be dealt with accordingly. If people have been taught to fear immigrants, Jews, gays, socialists, atheists, globalists, neo-cons, Nazis, George Soros, or whatever other ‘them’ you can think of, they’ll turn more readily to the strongman to lead them from danger. These threats don’t need to be real; no, they only need to be perceived as real to get people to trade away some core freedoms. It is the tried and true tactic of uniting by dividing.
Unlike in Nazi Germany, a façade of democracy remains in place in the modern authoritarian regime. Yes, the Nazis were elected in open elections, but within months they dispensed with the farce of democracy and took absolute power. Modern authoritarians are more crafty. Elections continued in Russia, Turkey, Hungary, and Venezuela even, but each time, they were weighted a bit more in favor of the incumbents.
Then they rig the system a little bit with the legislative power that comes from those victories. Not surprisingly, with a finger now pressed a little harder on the scale, they win again. And so it goes: the slow accumulation of powers that work to lock in the status quo. This is all done with superficial legality, of course.
Sometimes the opposition manages to eke out a win (Venezuela, Turkey, Hungary, Russia) that hints it can be otherwise. Yet this only serves as a warning for the regime to deploy its carefully accumulated institutional advantages to neutralize the threat. These regimes' massive propaganda machines are skilled at making it all make sense. Slick media outlets drive home the messages the regime wants to spread and ignore any uncomfortable critiques. Eventually, a harried opposition finds itself effectively locked out of the political process. No dramatic coup ever takes place, just a relentless hollowing out of democracy until only the shell remains.
Are we part of the Problem?
In an age where politicians shamelessly pander to our baser natures, an uncomfortable truth is that the biggest threat to democracy is not from Nazi wannabes, but from the electorate itself. Us! Or at any rate, the stupid, gullible, fearful versions of us. Time and again, citizens have given autocrats the chains that bound them into a kind of civic slavery. It’s an irony of democracy known ever since Plato that the populace is susceptible to demagogues who use democratic tools to destroy it.
Democracy’s historic immunity to this kind of threat is spotty at best. The line between our noble image of “We the People” and a rampaging mob is razor-thin. All of this should remind us of what’s at stake, of the importance of civic engagement, volunteering, and participating in the political process, both local and national. Elect representatives for their expertise, not their showmanship. When that happens, society prospers, and with it, the republic.
The problem, as we’ve seen above, is that once freedom is given away, sometimes freely at the ballot box, it is tough to get back. Citizens end up finding laws standing in the way that their duly elected officials put in place when they weren’t paying attention. When voters vote away democracy, or can’t be bothered even to participate, they let authoritarians quietly consolidate power. An indifferent electorate begets a regime indifferent to its needs.
Venezuelans are learning this hard truth at the moment. Take-backs and do-overs are no longer possible once political freedom has been given away. Venezuelans didn’t need that freedom until they did, but by then it was too late. When it’s gone, it’s gone, with nothing left to show for it but empty store shelves. What then? Violence? Revolution?
“But hey,” this new breed of authoritarians will magnanimously declare, “go ahead and vote in your gerrymandered districts. Go ahead and challenge the ruling regime in courts they have packed with sycophants. Go ahead and criticize the government in government-owned media. Go ahead. You are free to try.”
The point is we have better examples that can heighten our understanding of democracy’s inherent fragility, rather than just trotting out another stale Nazi analogy. Lazy Nazi comparisons blind us to the real threat. Modern authoritarians take their time. They know how to chip away at institutions, grabbing a little bit here, sneaking a bit more there when no one is looking, knowing that if done right, they can acclimate the public by shifting the standards of normality.
Meanwhile, democratic norms slowly melt like a glacier toward some invisible tipping point of no return, with the very people who resort the quickest to Nazi analogies defending regimes working the hardest to undermine the democratic institutions that sustain freedom.
It doesn't have to be this way.