On the Rise of Authoritarianism, and How Congress and Civil Society Can Push Back

Looking around the world at places like Turkey, Russia, Venezuela, the Philippines, and even the United States, an alarming truth has become increasingly apparent: Authoritarianism is on the rise. The best antidote to this authoritarian resurgence is organized and active citizenries, but Congress must act to ensure that civic spaces remain open, thereby giving civil society a forum to challenge regressive policies grounded in fear.

In his first 100 days, President Trump has shown a surprising willingness to cozy up to authoritarians across the globe. Just this past weekend, Trump invited Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte to the White House, despite the fact that Duterte has sanctioned extrajudicial killings of his own citizens in astounding numbers. A week before that, Trump called President Erdoğan of Turkey to congratulate him on winning a referendum that will greatly extend his power, even as state repression of the press and on the Kurdish minority have reached unprecedented levels.

Last month, Trump welcomed two of the world’s most notorious authoritarians to the US — President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and President Xi Jinping of China. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is responsible for killing hundreds of Egyptians, andjailing thousands more, effectively rolling back the human rights gains brought about by the anti-Mubarak protesters of the 2011 revolution. Xi Jinping has overseen the torture, imprisonment and disappearance of dissidents, and has carried out widespread internet censorship. Trump assured the Egyptian president that he had a “great friend and ally” in the US, and noted “tremendous progress” in talks with President Xi.

Why Is Authoritarianism Seemingly on the Comeback?

According to Manu Bhagavan, professor of history and human rights at Hunter College, the international rise of authoritarianism can be traced to three interconnected factors: economic globalization and the emergence of unaccountable multinational corporations; worldwide conflict as expressed in the global “war on terror”; and global crises such as climate change and public health disasters.

Bhagavan goes on to highlight that these factors have left many people feeling like their best days are behind them, and fearing that they are powerless to change such a reality. This is coupled with a generalloss of faith in international institutions (i.e. the United Nations, European Union, World Bank and International Monetary Fund), both in their legitimacy and effectiveness.

It is within this context that ascendant authoritarians have capitalized on fear, offering nationalist and nativist narratives that emphasize putting their respective nation-states “first,” and casting suspicion on anyone and everyone who would challenge the populist message.

Enter crackdowns on and hostility toward immigrants and refugees, the media and political dissidents. According toresearch from the Human Rights Foundation, there are currently 3.97 billion people (or 53 percent of the world’s population) living in countries controlled by authoritarians, and civic space is rapidly closing across the globe, making it difficult for citizenries to resist and offer democratic alternatives to the authoritarian wave.

What Can Congress Do About It?

The rise of authoritarianism predictably runs parallel to state repression and crackdowns on civil society. Maria J. Stephan, senior policy fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, recentlytestified to Congress on the growing global trend of closing civic space, underscoring the threat this development poses to human rights, democracy and national security. She said, “Closing space for civil society in countries abroad is undermining the ability of citizens to effectively advance human rights, hold their governments accountable, and serve vulnerable communities.”

Congress can work to ensure that the president’sbudget does not move forward in its current form, as it includes dangerous cuts to foreign policy tools such as diplomacy and foreign assistance that would severely limit the above mentioned efforts to keep civic spaces open.

What Can Individual Citizens and Civil Society Do About It?

The most important protagonists in the fight to stem authoritarianism are citizens and civil societies themselves. Despite the support that authoritarians have garnered by stoking the fears of their constituencies and cracking down onthe opposition, there are movements the world over that are pushing in the opposite direction, standing up for democracy and civil liberties.

Russian activists areprotesting rampant government corruption. Young Egyptians arereviving social activism to counter state-sanctioned repression. Americans from all 50 states arerising up against the Trump administration’s discriminatory policies under the banner of “the Resistance.”

The last century provides a wealth ofevidence that when ordinary citizens and civil society groups get organized to fight repressive regimes, they enjoy success in a wide variety of contexts. They do this by employing strategic civilresistance (also called “nonviolent resistance”), made up of marches, boycotts, sit-ins, strikes and other nonviolent methods.

Research shows that civil resistance is about twice as effective as armed resistance. Its success is driven by mass mobilization, allowing nonviolent movements to be highly decentralized and resilient, while offering protection to activists through the anonymity of sheer numbers. As Erica Chenoweth hasdiscovered, no nonviolent campaign that has mobilized at least 3.5 percent of the population has failed when it comes to achieving its political agenda.

Of particular importance here, civil resistance is an especially effective tool when it comes tobringing down authoritarians, and can lead to democratic consolidation when movements leverage their “people power” at the negotiating table during a transition.

Authoritarianism is on the rise worldwide and civic spaces are closing as a result. Congress should do everything in its power to keep those spaces open, and civil society should capitalize on that space, utilizing the “one-two punch” of nonviolence and negotiation to stand up to authoritarians and bring about lasting democratic gains.

This trend of growing authoritarianism is by no means irreversible. On the contrary, it has awakened individuals around the world, and provides perhaps an unparalleled opportunity for engaged citizenries to reverse the trend and usher in a new era of democracy and international cooperation, this time led by civil society rather than state actors.