China has done away with presidential term limits, suggesting that Xi Jin Ping could rule the country until he dies, provoking a backlash among the country’s opposition and taunting in the ‘democratic’ world. But if you think about it dispassionately, it’s amazing that otherwise rational people can believe it’s better to have a leader who cannot fulfill his promises than one who can prevent special interests from sabotaging the greater good — as long as he is elected! I understand the lure of ‘democracy’ (‘rule by the people’ — in reality in ancient Greece, rule by free, home owning males…). But do most Chinese contest Xi’s agenda of making their country an equal player on the world stage while lifting their great numbers out of poverty to become the decade’s most ubiquitous tourists?
The label ‘authoritarian’ is relatively recent and refers to strong leaders who are elected by universal suffrage but whose ‘authority’ allows them to pursue goals that are in the interests of the majority. In Russia, after some house-cleaning following a disastrous decade under Boris Yeltsin, who literally gave away the store, Vladimir Putin made it clear to those who benefited, known as oligarchs, that they were free to continue business as usual, as long as they didn’t get in the way of his plans to bring his country up to Western living standards while resisting its social agenda.
The American media regularly claims that Putin’s comfortable majority was achieved by a rigged 2011 election, and that his 80+ ratings are faked. It seems more likely, however, that the average Russian recognizes that ‘managed democracy’, Vladimir Putin’s name for what we call ‘authoritarianism’ prevents the popular will from being thwarted by individual interests.
Dictators are perfectly acceptable to the US when they’re our dictators: from Fulgencio Batista in Cuba to the Saudi Royal family, the policy probably played a major role in the 9/11 attack and in Saudi being allowed to use US weapons against tiny Yemen. Yet Trump’s success among less educated American voters suggests that they too would welcome a president who would not be prevented by Congress from fulfilling his electoral promises, whether or not they realize that single payer is more efficient than privately billed healthcare, or that climate change is a major threat. It’s no secret that the US Congress is more likely to reflect big business than society at large, (as currently seen in the standoff with the National Rifle Association, a major election contributor), but few observers draw the obvious conclusion: far from being the most powerful man in the world, the American President is prevented from doing anything that interferes with the pursuit of wealth by the few.
In 1944, against a groundswell of concern for the democratic process, FDR won a fourth presidential term because Americans did not want an untried leader in the midst of two wars. (Unfortunately, Roosevelt died soon after that election, leaving President Truman to formulate the disastrous American policy toward the Soviet Union that brought us Cold Wars I and II.) Today, FDR’s presidency would be considered ‘authoritarian’: he pretended not to see that Japan was preparing to attack Pearl Harbor, so that a shocked nation would finally be willing to declare war on both Japan and Germany. He is famous for packing the Supreme Court, and although they were milder than would have wanted the Progressive Movement, he wrung workers’ rights and protections out of Congress by famously telling his advisors “Make me do it.” He is still revered today, while one of the polities that ranks highest on key governance criteria is Singapore, a tiny, multi-ethnic country that was led by the same man for four decades.
More recently, after achieving independence from Great Britain, Lee Kuan Yew moved Singapore’s Third World economy to First World affluence in a single generation. According to Wikipedia:
“Lee Kuan Yew’s emphasis on rapid economic growth, support for business entrepreneurship, and limitations on internal democracy shaped Singapore’s policies for the next half-century. Freedom House ranks Singapore as “partly free” and The Economist ranks it as a “flawed democracy”, however the ruling party gets 83 of 89 seats with 70% of the popular vote, while in the mid-eighties, Gallup reported Singaporeans’ confidence in the government and judicial system among the highest in the world.
Note Wiki’s admission that “Although Singapore ranks among the top countries for ‘order and security’, ‘absence of corruption’, and ‘effective criminal justice’, gatherings of five or more people require police permits, and protests may legally be held only at the Speakers’ Corner, this multi-lingual (English, Chinese and Hindu), country is among the top internationally in education and government supported health care.”
Although the system is classified as authoritarian, there is absolutely zero chance that a US president will declare that its leader ‘has to go’. And that is because Singapore combines entrepreneurship with socialist citizen protections, as does Europe and as most developing strive to achieve. Only in the US is the social safety net open to debate.
When campaigning for the people’s vote, presidential candidates present a to-do list which, if implemented, would theoretically serve the majority. But in so-called ‘democracies’, even when a president enjoys a congressional majority, the financial rewards to individual representa-tives for supporting private interests guarantee that the people’s business will be relegated to the back burner. How does this square with the popular will?
Considering the ability of Congress to thwart the winner’s program, why does the presidential election dominate the news for more than a year? One reason may be to keep Americans from noticing their government’s aggressive behavior around the world. Surrounded by ‘advisors’, it’s not far-fetched to suggest that the president of the most powerful nation in the world is a figure-head, expected to do as he is told by the financial/industrial/military complex. The media’s job is to chronicle that obeisance, spinning American values into a veritable cocoon around its ‘exceptionalism’, leaving voters no mental space to independently evaluate world events or other leaders.
And yet, polls suggest that if the American electorate were presented with the portrait of a leader anonymously based on the words and actions of the Russian president, they would prefer him/her to any American president of recent memory, as Donald Trump has remarked. American voters will probably never get to participate in that experiment, for the simple reason that Russia is the largest country in the world, with a treasure-trove of resources, in close alliance with a country whose own ‘managed democracy’ has brought the greatest number of people out of poverty in history, and that the US is determined to bring both to heel.
Today, ’authoritarianism’ is applied equally to the Saudi Arabian monarchy, where women have just been given permission to drive, and to China and Russia. Few Americans know that in 2000, when Vladimir Putin was called upon by Boris Yeltsin, America’s ‘man in the Kremlin’, to replace him for health reasons exacerbated by a drinking problem, state employees weren’t getting their paychecks on time — if at all — and virtually nothing had been done to build a fair liberal —or social democratic — system, ten years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. (When Vladimir Putin declared that this event had been the biggest geo-political catastrophe of the twentieth century, he was not, as the Western press claims, alluding to the demise of Communism, but to the terrible social conditions in which the dissolution of the vast territory left most Russians.)
At forty-eight, thanks to his steadfastness as a KGB officer in the last months of East Germany, then as advisor on international affairs to the mayor of St Petersburg, briefly head of the KGB, then Prime Minister to Boris Yeltsin, Putin had the credentials to win election a few months later. While tagged as simply ‘a former KGB officer’ in the US, the truth is that the Russian president’s previous-jobs prepared him extremely well for the challenge of reviving the largest country in the world, home to 160 ethnic groups speaking some 100 languages and practicing four different religions, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam—(estimates for this latter ranging from 5% – 14%).
The Western media claims that President Putin’s 80%+ ratings reflect a herd mentality, the result of centuries of autocratic rule under the Mongols, the Tsars and the Communist Party. In reality, unbeknownst to most Americans, today’s Russians enjoy vacations abroad and the latest cars, and I can attest that restaurants and cafes do a brisk business, while train stations and airports bustle like any in the West.
The twenty-first century is light years beyond the founders’ agrarian society, whose relatively simple goals could be voted up or down by individuals and their neighbors. ‘Really existing’ democracy has proven ever more difficult to achieve as populations and threats grow larger. Given the finality of both nuclear war and climate change, a managed democracy supported by the majority is a better 21st century choice — if its representatives across the globe cooperate rather than allowing one country to impose its will.
Deena Stryker is an international expert, author and journalist that has been at the forefront of international politics for over thirty years, exlusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook”.