Modern authoritarian states excel at keeping up democratic appearances, while keeping the real sources of their power inscrutable and so safe from public scrutiny.
Authoritarianism has been winning lately.
Authoritarian rulers have gotten better at playing what I’ll call the legibility game: They have gotten better at concealing from domestic audiences the disagreeable structures and actions that permit autocratic rule. They have also gotten better at preserving and playing up certain vestigial parts of democracy. These parts tend to be visible, popular, and inconsequential. In general, whenever a feature of the democratic process has these properties, authoritarians keep it and talk it up. Whenever despotic measures must be used to enact the regime’s true intentions, those measures are kept invisible, arcane, doubtful, and debatable–in a word, they are kept maximally illegible.
This unevenness of vision is a problem, as states came to realize. Soon they began taking steps to make the people and places they governed easier to survey — and thus to control. States’ efforts to measure us have produced many familiar parts of the modern world. Scott writes:
The permanent patronym, which most Westerners have come to take for granted, is in fact a comparatively new phenomenon. The invention of permanent inherited patronyms was, along with the standardization of weights and measures, uniform legal codes, and the cadastral land tenure survey, a vital technique in modern statecraft. It was, in nearly every case, a state project designed to allow officials to identify unambiguously the majority of its citizens. The armature of the modern state: tithe and tax rolls, property rolls, conscription lists, censuses, deeds, birth, marriage and death certificates recognized in law were inconceivable without some means of fixing an individual’s identity and linking him or her to a kin group. The permanent patronym was, in effect, the now long superseded precursor to modern photo‐ID cards, passports, fingerprints, personal identification numbers, fingerprints, iris scans, and, finally DNA typing.
My suggestion here is to flip Scott’s script: Populations also judge states by metrics that are legible–to populations. Populations can see some things better than others, and they judge states according to their own uneven vision. This remains true, and may even become more true, in the ages of mass and social media.
It should be no surprise that states have begun to respond. They have begun to hide the things that matter, and to make more legible the things that are popularly associated with democracy, but that do not matter very much.
A good modern autocrat might advise as follows: Don’t be like 1984. Conduct no great purges of the Party. Keep the show trials few. All you really need, as in Russia, are a few unacknowledged assassinations that hardly bear mention. Sporadic, unacknowledged killings are a lot less legible. For that very reason their practical effects are deeper: You want people to think that the beliefs of those around them arose spontaneously and were not the mere result of culling the herd. Preference falsification works better that way.
New‐style tyranny has also found that ideology is basically useless: Don’t write your ideas in a book, because books are unyielding, and one day a book might be used against you. Don’t raise up a class of intellectuals, because intellectuals are quibblers, and quibbling people make trouble. (Trouble, in this vernacular, is another word for “the possibility of freedom.”) As Hannah Arendt noted, ideologues at least stand for something, and standing for something can become inconvenient.
It’s a fairly antique autocracy that doesn’t even bother to hold fake elections. They all do that, and they have done so for years. And yet fake elections in the high style — the kind with only one candidate on the ballot, and where the winner takes 99% of the vote–are outmoded. People have caught on to that kind of thing.
The modern approach, as pioneered by Iran, is to hold elections that are free, fair, open, plural, and yet strangely inconsequential: All of the difficult questions have been settled before the voting takes place. In Iran, only Islamist parties may operate or run candidates for office. Parties may be banned at any time for holding the wrong views or otherwise making trouble. Individual candidates are pre‐approved, or not, by a Guardian Council controlled by religious hardliners. The Guardian Council may disqualify any candidate, even sitting officeholders. Its decisions are final, and its members are never accountable to the public.
But hey, there are elections, right?
In a smart authoritarianism, the pageantry of the contested election is carefully preserved. Thus if anyone raises a democratic protest, the first reply is always to gesture at the democratic process, such as it is. And when this is met with the reply that the election’s outcome is moot, already a share of the protest’s energy has been spent. Some portion of the electorate will have been satisfied, and that’s quite often enough.
And yet inquiring further–much further–is exactly what a liberal democracy must do. Consider one reformist candidate who won an election in Iran last year:
I suspect many of the incoming reformist members of parliament may hold more progressive views in their heart, but given their lack of experience I also expect them to be timid and easily intimidated. For example, hours after the results were announced, a newly victorious female MP called Parvaneh Salahshori said in an English‐language interview with an Italian reporter that women should not be forced to veil. A day later, I presume under pressure, she disavowed the interview.
Two key words: “I presume.” Was she pressured? We don’t know. I doubt that many Iranians know either. In a functioning liberal democracy, a representative would be asked repeatedly about her change in position. Sooner or later she would have to give an answer. We trust that that answer would be free from external threat. We in liberal democracies take seriously the idea that legislative deliberation must be fearless. (Iran’s Guardian Council, meanwhile, works hard to inject fear into the process. But it’s inscrutable, so few will complain.)
In a liberal democracy properly speaking, the voters can decide for themselves whether a politician’s answer is reasonable, or questionable, or a sheer prevarication. That process, with all of its inconclusive back and forth, is clearly not as legible as the mere fact of holding an election. Yet as messy and unsatisfying as our inquiry may be, such inquiry is a key step that closes the cycle of representative democracy. We need that step for the whole system to work, and for our representatives to be both representative and accountable.
Legible: elections. Less legible: the ongoing back‐and‐forth of public accountability. See which one gets preserved? And which one gets knifed in the shadows?
Back in our own country, this is also why the fake news phenomenon matters so enormously. Just as the process of legislative deliberation should be messy, so too the process of reporting the news. The purpose of journalism is not to produce a highly visible and uniform agreement. It’s to produce a civil, productive — and probably ongoing — disagreement. It is to revise continuously, as breaking news shades into daily news, and daily news shades into commentary, and commentary shades into history. And you do know what historians do? They argue. Literally whenever a historian is not nose‐down in the archives, he is arguing about the stuff that used to be argued about in the news.
An ongoing disagreement, stretching across the entire lifetime of a contested fact pattern, is not a breakdown of the liberal democratic process. It is the liberal democratic process. It’s exactly what freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech should achieve.
If this sounds counterintuitive, I implore you to consider the opposite outcome: Easy, never‐challenged, dead‐certain judgments handed down by a licensed and comfortable press are not the stuff of a free press. Nor of course does freedom of inquiry consist of the summary dismissal of all news that one happens to dislike. A responsible consumer of the news will be aware not only of fact patterns, but of how these patterns are contestable and contested. It would be better, perhaps, if news outlets spent more time publicly corroborating or refuting the stories found in other outlets, particularly those other outlets whose ideological priors are far removed. Much work of this type happens already, of course, but it is not as legible perhaps as it should be, and the process has suffered as we pine away for the dead certainties that we think we are entitled to.
The same factors apply to the judiciary. Show trials fail to promote authoritarianism these days, but only because we see right through them. A court system in a free society, meanwhile, will rarely make a satisfying show. Overwhelmingly, trials are and should be complicated, boring, back‐and‐forth affairs that only the lovers of procedure for its own sake could possibly admire. Trials should be argumentative to the point of tedium. We allow them to be not entirely satisfying, so that they may never become entirely horrifying.
This brings me to my most important prescription: We must uncover and make legible the parts of liberal democracy that are obscure, important, and therefore endangered around the world. We must get used to those obscure aspects of our political culture and come to understand and defend their value. Paying attention to the easy and visible parts of liberalism, while neglecting the difficult, fiddly, and functional ones, saps our political culture in two ways. First, the erosion of the illegible deprives dissenting groups — of any party — of the avenues they require for success. Second, when only the legible but inconsequential remains, the persuadables in the populace may be falsely comforted. This must not be allowed to happen. A successful modern authoritarianism is boring and tolerable, provided you’re not in an oppressed group, and this is exactly the sort of society that we must not become.