Thanks for the outstanding March 17 Opinions Essay by Robert Kagan, “The strongmen strike back.” To find unexpectedly such an informative piece of writing made my day. I have been wandering in the same fog as many others with regard to what is happening in the world’s politics.
As an advanced-degree chemist, I guess I never got the civics lessons on how our country was formed and how we grew to where we are now. The contrast between liberal democracy and authoritarianism was beautifully described. I had read short pieces by Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates on the extreme menace that artificial intelligence poses, but I didn’t get it. Now, after the Trump election and the Russian influence, all is becoming clearer.
These ideas are important to get out broadly.
Theodora K. Watts, Lusby
Kudos to Robert Kagan for his trenchant analysis of the reemergence of authoritarianism. Perhaps one other reason for liberal democracies’ struggle to maintain ground may be the popular allure of the patriarchal nature of authoritarianism, in which central regimes substitute for independent thought. Decisions are made and actions taken on citizens’ behalf; individual answerability is minimal, beyond conformance. Getting choices right, and contending with their benign or malign consequences, rests at the government’s feet, not at the individual’s. There’s a social contract.
In contrast, liberal democracy is hard work. It requires accountability based on individual agency. Liberal democracy requires people to become informed, assess information’s credibility, analyze arguments’ soundness and arrive at independent choices. Citizens must be vigilant. Individuals must get it right for themselves. They bear the consequences, including in their choice of elected representatives; there are fewer options for offloading blame for bad outcomes. The rewards can be enormous, but so can the downsides. There’s likewise a social contract.
The tension between authoritarianism, with its risks, and the personal agency and accountability of liberal democracy, with its risks, may tilt in authoritarianism’s favor.
Keith Tidman, Bethesda
Robert Kagan argued that the greatest threat to Western liberal democracies is the ascendancy of authoritarianism. He is dead wrong. Presidents Xi Jinping in China and Vladimir Putin in Russia are not our greatest dangers.
The failure of Western governments to govern far exceeds what is an exaggerated view of the rise of authoritarianism in realizing what threatens us most. It is broken government.
Tragically, the two greatest democracies of the 20th century, the United States and Britain, are concurrently embarked on roads to ruin.
In the toxic, supercharged partisan politics that divides us, our government cannot respond to the needs of the nation nor unify it. President Trump has completed a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, rejecting its embrace of international engagement and fiscal conservatism. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is being driven to the very far left.
Brexit has torn Britain apart. The Conservative Party is irreversibly divided over finding a solution, and Labour has become toxic over allegations of anti-Semitism. Nor is democracy flourishing in Europe as governments fail to provide good government.
The greater tragedy for the West is that no righting movement to correct broken government has materialized. China and Russia also have internal problems. But until our respective publics demand good government and hold elected leaders accountable, authoritarianism will appear to be winning when it is not.
Harlan Ullman, Washington
Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and author of “Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Every War It Starts.”
As historians at a Midwestern public university, we read Robert Kagan’s essay with great interest. Mr. Kagan’s warnings about the rising threat of autocracy should concern all Americans. Teaching the history of liberal democracy, both its successes and failures, to the next generation can be the foundation of our struggle against autocracy at home and abroad.
Unfortunately, history education is under threat in our universities. The damage is increasingly apparent in our classes. Today’s undergraduates are inspired by social issues but bring little knowledge of past struggles for liberty and equality. States should require that all students at state-supported universities take at least one college-level course in U.S. history. Such laws would help to ensure that graduates have a solid grasp of liberal democracy and the struggles that have shaped this nation.
Some states already require public university students to take U.S. history. Texas requires two semesters of a comprehensive survey of U.S. history. California requires a course on “the historical development of American institutions and ideals.” If states as politically different as Texas and California agree on the significance of U.S. history for undergraduates, Americans from red and blue states can come together to ensure that young people understand their common heritage as Americans.
Jeffrey Manuel and Jason Stacy, Edwardsville, Ill.
The writers are professors of history at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.