Dysfunctional Politics: The Path To Despair And Authoritarianism

Earlier this week, I tuned in to a webinar on the current political situation in Tunisia. I have never been to Tunisia, except for a brief stop at the Tunis airport many years ago on my way to West Africa.

I lived in its near neighbor, Libya, for a time which gave me the opportunity to contrast its stable but stultified quasi democracy with the hardline authoritarian regime of Qaddafi.

My interest in the country increased when Tunisia became the first country to erupt into revolt and the radical regime change that marked the political breakdown of what became known as the Arab Spring.

Tunisia became even more interesting when it became the only country which rejected the authoritarian option, while ultimately, in one way or another, the other countries of the Arab Spring except for Libya ended up as more authoritarian than before. Egypt’s attempt at a democratic system soon broke down and the military coup that followed quickly brought on more authoritarianism.

The Syrian authoritarian state crushed the revolt cruelly and strengthened its iron grip on the country at great human cost. And in Libya, the revolt laid bare a state that is definitely not a nation in which its leader was killed and the state melted into violent chaos that still seems to be unchecked.

Yet Tunisia, which started the Arab Spring continues to try to work its way toward a democratic system, but there is concern that its flirtation with democracy may be waning, and it is not clear that democratic parties will, in the end, come out on top.

In this regard, one of the panelists who conducts many polls in the Arab world, and especially in Tunisia, caught my attention by one statement: his polls show that democracy has continually fallen from a primary goal of Tunisians since the early years after the revolt and regime change to a very marginal place in their list of desires. Most Tunisians now say they want jobs, a better economy, political as well as economic security, better healthcare (really to get control of the pandemic), basically a better life.
Tunisia, which started the Arab Spring, continues to try to work its way toward a democratic system, but there is concern that its flirtation with democracy may be waning

In other words, the decade since the revolt and regime change, the interim democratically elected system has not made their life any better, and given the Covid-19 pandemic, life is worse now than a decade ago.

But Tunisia is not alone, and Tunisians are not the only people who feel that life has passed them by and that they have not been served well by their leaders, and just as importantly by the political systems that these leaders and the so-called elite who support them appear to manipulate to their own advantage.

I can think of few countries where the majority of the population would feel that their lives are better now than they were a decade or two ago. In fact, recently I came across a quote, by accident, from one of my favorite thinkers and writers with what I think is the perfect description of our present political dysfunction, Chas Freeman.

The world has entered a time of unreason and indifference to institutions, principles, and precedents. In the age of social media, celebrity is authority and the celebration of prejudice that is the “direct democracy” of assertive netizens sets the parameters for what is politically feasible. Ignorance and expertise have acquired equal weight in policy discourse. Convenient narratives and mass hallucinations displace strategic reasoning and analysis as the drivers of both policy and history. Self-aggrandizing, solipsistic leaders fabricate populist identities, propagate their own delusions, act on them, and reject facts that do not fit their narratives. Self-righteousness preempts empathy—the prerequisite for both strategy and diplomacy. Bluster, bullying, boycotts, subversion, sabotage, and bombing supersede comity and negotiation as means for resolving disputes between nations.

And, in a paper mainly on the US and the other democracies, he added:

‘Political systems everywhere have been overtaken by socioeconomic and technological change. There is no sign they are catching up. In the United States and other democracies, political and economic systems still work in theory, but not in practice. In some ways, the scene in Washington now resembles that in Saint Petersburg in the last days of the Tsar, with sycophants and charlatans running amok and government capacity in rapid decline. And like Tsarist Russia, America is losing its aura of imperial purpose and invincibility.’

I particularly like the part about sycophants and charlatans running amok while government capacity rapidly declines. As far as I know, Freeman is not well known outside the US, nor perhaps, inside it either. One does not see him on TV talk shows or being interviewed on the news channels. I suspect his insights are too gloomy and abstract, and his solutions so fundamentally non-partisan and broad reaching, that the partisan world he describes so eloquently, and his insistence on blaming partisans on both sides for the worldwide political dysfunction severely limits his attraction to our partisan, celebrity-seeking media.

I had my own run-in with the dysfunctional world the other day, which brings this all to mind. One of my first desiderata after my return to Washington from almost six months in California was an appointment with my dentist.

When I called, I was told that the first opening is in March 2022. How could the wait be so long, I asked, and the answer was that there is dire worldwide shortage of dental hygienists. So we have to add dental hygienists to the list of shortages that our economies suffer from, not so strategic as skilled workers in many industries including healthcare, and of important material inputs into manufacturing industries such as auto parts, microchips, into those conveying goods such as ships, shipping containers, and into protecting the population like test kits for Covid 19, and many, many others. This has been called “the everything shortage.” It is not limited to a few items like toilet paper and paper towels; those shortages, caused mainly by panic buying only foreshadowed what was to come.

The supply chains which feed the international economy have broken down during the pandemic. These supply chains grew into an international tightly woven web in the first two decades of the 21st century propelled by ideology as well as the unending search for economic efficiency. The economist Martin Wolf enunciated the ideology in his 2004 book, Why Globalization Works, and this provided lubrication to an idea and a system that was already remaking the world economy. It worked, and it worked pretty well, but the ideology and the intellectual framework did not take into account the possibility of a pandemic that would tear holes in that tightly woven web.

As one observer put it, “when the global supply chain works, it is like a beautifully invisible system of dominoes clicking forward. Today’s omnishambles is a reminder that dominoes can fall backwards too.”

The chain increased the tendency for regions to specialize in certain goods. While this would have made Adam Smith very happy, he did not foresee pandemics either. Fueled by Western government relief payments, Western consumers’ demand for Asian goods rose sharply just as the Delta variant swept through Asia and caused widespread declines in production.

Thus, the snags in the supply chains spread, as containers and ships became short, trucks to carry them on land became short. The discontinuities spread to the labor market as Covid-19 and/or generous government relief payments labor reduced the supply of loaders to cause its serious discontinuities load and unload trucks and ships.

It is not a recession, but it is something that is exacerbating the problem I began this piece with, that is the growing feeling in democracies that government, and particularly politics, is not delivering the goods, which is a better life, secure future for their offspring, and well-being they are always promised.

Most governments are feeling their way, understandably, against a pandemic that seems inexorable, and which brings in more dangerous variant viruses with unseemly speed, but there have been mistakes in many countries that perhaps are those of omission, not commission, but still reduce confidence in their leaders and the political system that still cannot get ahead of this pandemic.

Ironically, what also weakens democracy generally is its tendency to overdo itself. By that, I mean that sometimes there is too much democracy. The best illustration of that is the US in which a vocal and intransigent minority has prevented the country from getting enough people vaccinated to establish herd immunity. Of course, these are the people that, for the most part, would be happy, or think they would be, under an authoritarian system of government. In fact, one wonders if some of them might just be stirring up anti-vaccination sentiment in order to see democracy fail. That is why I believe that the most important mistake the US has made is not to make vaccination mandatory.

Nothing I hear or see on the news leads me to much optimism on the fate (and the state) of democracy worldwide or in the US. And I have to wonder if the same fate awaits democracy as has already befallen the global supply chain—that this pandemic and the shortages it is causing to heighten the discontinuities already present in the politics of the US and other democratic countries will weaken the will of people of those countries to resist the onrush of authoritarian leaders.


The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.