Democratic to Authoritarian Rule: Tools of Authoritarianism

Big Fist Over People

These are my notes for the third set of lectures about Democratic to Authoritarian Rule at the University of Michigan. The rest of my notes can be found here.

juan1The third set of lectures, Tools of Authoritarianism, begins with a set of lectures by Juan Cole, a Professor of History at the University of Michigan. He speaks about the Arab Spring of the 2010s. The Arab Spring took place because the post-colonial Arab world was ruled mainly by presidents-for-life. The Millennials became angry and scared because the colonial times that these presidents had saved their countries from had been long before the Millennials were born – the Millennials couldn’t remember and therefore couldn’t relate. Some of these presidents-for-life were setting up their children to take over for them, and the Millennials wanted a democratic vote. They mobilized by word-of-mouth and social media and managed to overthrow their governments. However, the presidents who were voted in during the Arab Spring also had authoritarian tendencies, such as arresting dissenters and suppressing gatherings using military force. These presidents had learned their lessons about social media and began to monitor it. Professor Cole warns against ignoring such prying into our private documents here in the US.

s200_brian-porter-sz_csThe third set of lectures continues with a commentary by Brian Porter-Szucs, a Profesor of History at the University of Michigan. He talks about everyday authoritarianism in today’s Poland. Poland is ruled by the party that is in control, rather than by the President or Prime Minister per se. That means the leader of the Law and Justice Party (PiS), Jaroslaw Kaczynski, is the authoritarian ruler of Poland. Porter-Szucs points out that in any political argument, someone always gets compared to Stalin or Hitler, and says that this is usually an overstatement. However, he also points out that to MOST people during Stalin or Hitler’s regimes, life went on like normal. They went to work, fell in love, hung out with their friends, dreamed their dreams. It was the minorities targeted by these regimes that mainly suffered. Porter-Szucs’ point is that it is easy to ignore what is going on around you, and to not even realize that an authoritarian regime is being built.

image-1519164454718Pauline Jones, the Director of the University of Michigan’s International Institute and a Professor of Political Science, completes the third set of lectures by describing Putin’s Russia. He came to power through what seems to be a fair democratic vote, but soon started changing the laws so that the country became an autocracy. For instance, he increased the length of time he could be in power before another vote. He also indirectly supported assaults against, and assassinations of, journalists who disagreed with his regime. Professor Jones’ main point was how easy and often legal it is for a person in power to begin the first steps to create an autocracy.


The third set of lectures ends with this discussion question: Extreme polarization in a democratic society is viewed as many researchers as an early sign of authoritarian rule. Do you agree and why?

I guess I can see how extreme polarization could be one of the first signs of authoritarian rule – because authoritarian leaders use media to spread propaganda which people either believe or strongly disagree with. However, I don’t think it is necessarily a sign of authoritarian rule. In the US, politics began to get very polarized and started down a slippery slope during George W. Bush’s, then Obama’s, then Trump’s administrations. I wouldn’t say any of these leaders (as of yet) is authoritarian – although I see why people would believe any of the three of these leaders WAS authoritarian.


Democratic to Authoritarian Rule: Lecture Set 2

Big Fist Over People

These are my notes for the second set of lectures about Democratic to Authoritarian Rule by Professor Arun Agrawal at the University of Michigan. The rest of my notes can be found here.

In his second set of lectures, Professor Agrawal talks about Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian rule in India from June 1975 – March 1977. Gandhi was democratically elected as Prime Minister in 1975, but the election was declared void by the Allahabad High Court due to electoral malpractice. Instead of stepping down after her appeals failed, Indira Gandhi had the President of India declare a state of emergency in India – purportedly because the protests were a danger to the country. During the state of emergency, Gandhi broke all five of the key components of democracy as outlined by Professor Agrawal. When she declared a state of emergency, she shut down electricity to media outlets so that the situation could not be fairly reported. She arrested her opposition, and the ones she couldn’t arrest had to go into hiding. Thus, all five of the key components of democracy (as outlined by Professor Agrawal) were broken: rule of law, freedom of expression, presence of a coherent and organized opposition, a free judiciary, and free and fair elections where all citizens have the right to vote.

The scary thing about this situation is how quickly it happened. One night, people went to sleep in a democracy. When they woke up, they were in an authoritarian regime. Just like that.

For discussion, Professor Agrawal asks: What do you see as the two most important institutions of democratic politics whose decline should set alarm bells ringing for citizens and why?

Of the five institutions of democratic politics, I think the most important should be free and fair elections where all citizens have the right to vote and the rule of law. As I see it, these are the most basic ones that define democracy, and are the easiest to break.


Democratic to Authoritarian Rule – A Teach-Out by University of Michigan

Big Fist Over People

The University of Michigan is teaming up with Coursera to create Teach-Outs which (as far as I can determine) are week-long MOOC lecture series which address problems currently faced in society today. I have belatedly signed up for their Teach-Out “Democratic to Authoritarian Rule” which started on 2/12/2018. 

arun_agrawal_0The first lecture was by Professor Arun Agrawal, who explained how modern democracy can become authoritarian. In both older and modern authoritarianism, the leader/regime attempts to disable the basic building blocks of democracy, such as elections, free press, check and balances on their power, and rule of law. They may also unfairly enforce laws against people of certain race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. For instance, the regime might promote what they call a democratic election, but undermine the election by keeping some populations from voting (like the modern ID laws, which make it difficult for very poor and homeless people to vote) and by calling the election fraudulent when they don’t agree with the outcome. They might undermine the rule of law by criticizing the judicial system when it disagrees with the regime’s own point of view. (Or by removing the Judicial Branch from the list of government branches on the White House webpage.) They can undermine free press by calling it “fake news” and handing out awards for the “fakest” news. They might claim that they are above the law (for instance, are unable to be sued). [Specific examples aimed at Donald Trump are my own insertions.]

Professor Agrawal ends his lecture with a prompt to introduce ourselves by noting any experience we have had with authoritarian politics and/or our concerns about democratic vs. authoritarian tendencies in our own countries:

I am a soon-to-be-married white middle-class woman from the USA, who has been privileged enough to not be personally impacted by what I would consider the authoritarian tendencies of Donald Trump. I can vote, and I’m fairly confident that my vote wasn’t unfairly discounted due to claims of fraud or lack of identification. I have not been banned from traveling, though I personally know people who have been stuck on one side of the border or the other by such bans. I have not been immediately affected (though I expect the impact to come eventually) of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, and his denial and suppression of climate change data. Despite my relative safety from these issues, I am very frightened of where Donald Trump’s plans (or lack thereof) are leading the US and the world. I know that if he continues as is, many more people will suffer, and I am saddened by where our county is headed.

However, I also realize that many people felt the same way about Obama (though I can’t imagine how they can rationalize that). I also know that we, in the US, have it pretty good compared to millions others in authoritarian countries. For that, I am grateful.





Practicing Tolerance in a Religious Society: The Church and Jews in Italy – Enrollment!

Practicing Tolerance in a Religious Society: The Church and Jews in Italy

Well, I’ve shown a terrible lack of discipline this week. Quite against the spirit of Resolution 5: Please, Just Stop! I have signed up for several Coursera MOOCs this year – Practicing Tolerance in a Religious Society begins on March 10, and runs for 6 weeks. I intend to post my thoughts on this course weekly. 

a little later…
I’ve now looked over all the lecture notes for the first week and I’m so thrilled at all the wonderful supplemental reading suggestions provided by Dr. Cooperman! One reason I only rarely sign up for these Coursera classes is because I have an OCD need to read all suggested readings and totally immerse myself in a subject. And such a thing simply isn’t possible within a course’s time-frame. And then I get all nervous and shaky and feel overwhelmed. So I tend to focus on Great Courses lecture series instead, because I can go as slowly as I want. But I really love being able to interact and network with people who have similar interests (albeit different opinions) – and that’s what I love about Coursera.  

So I’ve vowed that I will simply move through this entire course and not fret about reading everything. I’ll just write down all the suggested readings, and I can get to them later during my personal studies.

Does anyone else have this tendency to get frustrated when you can’t read everything, or to over-commit to your passions and interests?