How Americans can join the fight against authoritarianism

Want to join the global fight against authoritarianism?

Then participate in your community’s local government.

Because authoritarians do not teleport fully formed into national leadership. They first must learn how to rule anti-democratically, usually at the local level. Stopping authoritarianism globally requires all of us to identify our hometown autocrats, and make sure that local governments are as democratic as possible.

Detecting would-be authoritarians isn’t always easy. Some spend too little time in local government —  like Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who had two quiet years on Rio’s City Council — but many local authoritarians make their tyrannical ambitions explicit.

“If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor,” then-Davao mayor Rodrigo Duterte said while campaigning for the Philippine presidency. “All of you who are into drugs, you sons of bitches, I will really kill you. I have no patience, I have no middle ground, either you kill me or I will kill you idiots.”

Tragically, he was as good as his word — presiding over the killing of more than 30,000 people during his drug war, while rolling back the rights of dissenters.

Fighting crime isn’t a prerequisite for authoritarians. Participating in questionable enterprises works just as well. Consider Vladimir Putin, and his record as deputy mayor and the top economic official in St. Petersburg, under a novice mayor in the 1990s.

Russia experts Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy have reported that St. Petersburg fell behind Moscow and other Russian cities in incomes, profits, and investment — and surged in unemployment, out-migration, and suicides — during Putin’s time as deputy mayor.

According to Steven Lee Myers’ book “The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin,” Putin arranged contracts for St. Petersburg to buy food and basic goods from state-owned enterprises that never materialized. He also gave away the rights to operate casinos, without getting significant public benefits in return. Putin used licensing authority to target business and investors — both legal and illicit — in service of his own power.

Putin avoided accountability for his corruption, by increasing the mayor’s power while reducing the oversight power of the city council, which had called for Putin’s firing for “complete incompetence bordering on bad faith,” Myers reports. In the process, Putin developed the model of corruption and oligarchy he’s used to rule Russia, and enrich himself, ever since.

Putin’s sins in St. Petersburg should have been obvious. It’s harder to spot budding authoritarianism when it’s wrapped in competence and governing in the public interest.

That’s the story of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, formerly leader of the state of Gujarat. In his book, Inside Out India and China: Local Politics Go Global, Bill Antholis described how Modi “combined the pragmatic and efficient spirit of Gujarat’s entrepreneurs with charismatic and potentially destructive, divisive and bellicose Hindu nationalism.”

Modi’s national leadership has followed that local formula — aggressive economic action and infrastructure development, but sullied by a cult of personality that punishes dissenters and exploited religious nationalism in ways that endanger Muslim lives.

Checking relentless, successful authoritarians requires matching their relentlessness. Even removal from office may not be enough.

Take Recep Tayyip Erdogan, elected mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s. He successfully addressed problems—water, traffic, garbage —but was removed from office on charges of inciting religious hatred. He eventually made a comeback and won election as prime minister.

Today, commentators remark on how little Erdogan’s agenda has changed since he was mayor. He has improved government services, while centralizing power, attacking secularism, and increasing spending (fueling hyper-inflation).

These different authoritarians share one experience: All worked in contexts where everyday people had relatively little power in local government. So, these budding autocrats could do as they wished, without being confronted by citizens.

In the years since these men were in local government, it’s become easier to build anti-democratic local empires. Political scientists blame a decline of political diversity around the world. Highly polarized countries — like the United States — are full of politically monochromatic localities and regions that are perfect breeding grounds for authoritarian extremists.

Ironically, local authoritarianism can be a bigger problem in democracies than in autocracies. As countries democratize nationally, they often decentralize power — creating stronger local governments that can become power bases for aspiring autocrats.

That is why the greatest weapon the planet has against authoritarians is you. When you challenge local leaders, you defend democracy both where you live, and around the world.

Joe Mathews writes the Democracy Local column for Zócalo Public Square.

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