Democracy Down

An interview with Timothy Snyder about what ails our country, and why so many of us can’t see it.

A sad-looking American flag.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Last year, Timothy Snyder published a very short book titled On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century. A Yale professor who had been known for his work on World War II—specifically for his history Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin—Snyder’s focus on how to keep autocracy at bay managed to (unfortunately) capture the zeitgeist and become a best-seller. Now, he has written a much longer follow-up: The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, which examines how complacent Western societies left themselves open to anti-democratic forces after the Cold War, and how Russia—struggling with its own post–Cold War identity—fell into Putinism, which became a principle threat to democracy around the globe.

I recently spoke by phone with Snyder. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how failing to reckon with the George W. Bush years helped weaken American democracy, what Russia’s problems can teach us about our own, and why Trump’s true political strength is not what we expected it to be.

Isaac Chotiner: There has been a debate on the left about how much to focus on Russia—Russian meddling, Russian bots, Russian fake-news tactics—when we’re thinking about threats to our democracy. Some people, especially on the left, think the fear is too Russia-focused, and that many of our democracy’s problems are about us, not about Russia. What do you think?

Timothy Snyder: Here’s how I would characterize some of what I think is going on, on the left: I think it’s a kind of inverted nationalism. I think there’s a tendency, in the U.S. left, to think only in terms of the U.S. and to say, “Whatever’s going wrong, whether it’s abroad or whether it’s at home, let’s think just about America.” That’s comfortable, because we’re Americans. Most of us only know English, so why don’t we start from there?

What I would propose is something different. What I would propose is that looking abroad, looking at Russia, can help you understand some of those very problems that we have in the U.S. It can help us understand them by seeing where they might lead us. Wealth inequality is a good example. Most folks on the left would say that wealth inequality in the United States is a problem, and they’re absolutely right. One country that has a greater degree of wealth inequality than we do is Russia, and Russia shows how wealth inequality is associated with monopolies in the media, is associated with the thing that we call fake news. In order to see everything that’s going on in the U.S., you have to look at Russia.

Right, but the question is whether, even if this is true, the focus on Russia’s particular threats distracts us from fundamental problems going on here.

I don’t buy the whole distraction argument. I think that people make that argument when they’re lazy. “There’s only one problem in the world, and your argument distracts me from that.” Obviously, we have to care about all these things, and different people have to work on the ones that they most care about or can do something about, but I just think it’s bonkers to say, “Let’s not talk about Russia’s campaign to choose leaders and to influence referenda in Europe and the U.S. because we have our own problems.” The way that Russia tries to influence Europe and the U.S. is precisely by being aware of those problems and trying to make them into bigger problems. The people who care about the problems in the U.S. should be concerned about Russia, just as the people who work on cyber and are Russia specialists, and I’m closer to that end, have to be aware of the problems in the U.S. so they can figure out what Russia’s actually trying to target. To see why it works, you have to have some sense of why European and American societies are susceptible.

Do you agree that one reading of your book is that the end of the Cold War is the hinge event in this story, both because it began Russia’s descent into Putinism and also allowed Western societies to get a bit smug and overly confident about how strong their democracies were?

Let’s ask how the Cold War was a good thing for the U.S., because in many respects it was. This also goes back to your question about the left, because if you say “Cold War” to people in the American left, or at least the American left in places like New York, that’s automatically a bad thing: Cold War means CIA, means Guatemala, means Argentina.

It did in fact mean those things.

Yeah, it did mean those things, absolutely, but Cold War also meant the U.S. is engaged internationally in ideological competition, which forces it to take its own social and racial problems more seriously. It’s no coincidence that most of the Cold War—the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s—coincides with two very important developments: giving African Americans the right to vote and the creation of a social welfare state, plus generally the endorsement or at least the tolerance of labor unions, which allowed for wealth inequality to close. In the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, the gap between the top 1 percent and the bottom 90 percent was actually closing in the United States. That’s actually related to the Cold War. It’s related to the fact that the United States couldn’t allow the Soviet Union to make too much of our racial and class problems. That’s the first point.

The second point: When the Soviet Union goes away, it goes away at a bad moment, I think, in our own ideological discussions, because we’re in the midst of this Thatcherite and Reaganist nonsense about how economics is the key to everything. You don’t really have set virtues. You don’t really have set politics, because all you have to do is get the right formula in economics, and that will take care of everything.

If you go back to the early ’90s, what’s the mistake we made? Our mistake was to say, “Just get the market, and the market will build the institutions,” which is just not true. We know it’s just bonkers. If you want to have the free market the way that you expect it, you have to have the rule of law as well. We tended to tell ourselves and tell other people that the market was a shortcut to creating institutions, when really it’s the other way around. You’ve got to build the institutions so that the market isn’t going to be hugely disruptive and isn’t going to create tremendous inequality. Markets are good things, but they only exist the way we expect them to exist if the rule of law is still around them.

“There is no such thing as society.”

Exactly. A beautiful saying of Thatcher. Because the Cold War comes to an end at that moment, then we pat ourselves on the back, we Americans. We say, “We were right. We were right about everything. All you need is the right formula of economics.” We tell that to the Russians, and we tell it to the Poles, and so on. That was a disservice that we performed, but we were telling it to them because we believed it ourselves. We get into this thing, which is associated with the idea of the end of history, or that there are no alternatives, what I call in the book “the politics of inevitability,” where we say that nothing really can happen. The future is just going to be more capitalism, which leads to more democracy, and everything’s going to be fine. The end of the Cold War basically let us believe our own story about ourselves, and it cut us off from sources of possible criticism.

Tony Judt makes a similar point about Western democracy in Postwar—that essentially people don’t recognize that that postwar era was so shaped by the Cold War, and that this incredible progress that Europe made in that time is unlikely to be repeated again.

A lot of things were going on in Europe in the postwar. One is you’re recovering from two world wars. Another is that you have substantial and generously framed American aid at the beginning of the period. A third, as you say, is you have this context of another alternative, which is right before your eyes. Then, you have industrialization, so a lot of special things are going on. The U.S. in the Cold War had a way of not being alone. It had a way of not being entirely nationalist. You had to be an internationalist in some way. You had to recognize, for example, that Russia was a real place. How many people on either the American right or the American left now think of Russia as a real place that has its own intelligent leaders, that has its own way of seeing the world? How many people on the American right or the American left know Russia anymore? I think now we’re actually a much more nationalist country than we were in 1989. We’re much more cut off from things.

We’re 15 months into the Trump administration. What are you most concerned about, and what has changed in terms of your concerns, from when you wrote On Tyranny?

People have been doing a lot of really good reporting, but we’re still not doing terribly well as far as factuality. The robots are colonizing more of the intellectual space on the internet. The president is still doing an extremely good job of spreading unreality. Factuality is the basis for a republic, so I remain concerned about that. For me, the Mueller investigation is about the rule of law. Fundamentally, it’s about whether laws come first or men come first. If laws don’t come first, then we’re in big trouble, because all sorts of things are possible. One thing that I wasn’t sure about when I wrote On Tyranny, which was December of ’16, and it seems to have cleared up by now, was whether they were going to go for actual national socialism—that is, a welfare state for white people—or whether it was going to be what it’s turned out to be, which is more inequality for everybody. Both tyrannies are bad.

One of my actual concerns about Trump was that a Trumpist welfare-state-for-white-people ideology would be more popular, and therefore long-lasting. In a way, it is scarier, even though broadly I am more in favor of the welfare state than more inequality.

Yeah. That’s a great point. That is of course what national socialism means. That’s what it literally means. It means, “We agree that there should be socialism, but it’s only for us and not for other people. We’re going to exploit other people so that we can have socialism for us.” That’s the idea. I think there were plenty of people, Steve Bannon among them, who were thinking, “We really are going to do infrastructure.”

I think what we have is a different variant, which has its own dynamics. Those dynamics are, “We’re going to increase inequality. We’re not going to do anything about opioids. We’re going to make sure that the people who put us in power, that is the nontraditional Republican voters, the people who voted for Obama and then voted for Trump, or the people who came out to vote for Trump who didn’t vote for Romney in places like Pennsylvania or Ohio, we’re going to hit those people. We’re not going to help them. We’re going to hit them, and then when they’re hit, we’re going to give them more about the Muslims, and more about the immigrants, and more about the outsiders.”

I don’t know whether that’s going to work, but that’s a different pattern of politics, where you tell people, “The state can’t do anything for you,” but you tell them who they should be blaming. That’s Trump’s skillset. It turns out that’s what he’s good at.

The Bolton appointment makes me think, again, that the fact that we never reckoned with the Bush years and the Iraq war properly has in many ways warped our democracy. Do you agree? Trump is sui generis, but it feels like, in all sorts of different ways, the Bush administration laid some groundwork, and Trump is following through.

The whole series of events from 2000–03, you could look on as a kind of minor key prologue to where we are now. There was an election, which actually didn’t turn out the way that it was supposed to turn out. One of the great distorting features in politics, and this is obvious but people don’t say it enough, is when what’s supposed to be a democracy isn’t really a democracy, people try to hold onto power in ways that are not entirely democratic, like for example fighting wars against random countries, which is what 2003 was. We fought a war against an essentially random country for essentially bogus reasons, violating international law eight ways to Sunday while we were doing it.

That in many ways sets the stage. It’s very minor league compared to where we are now, but there was a whole lot of unreality and a whole lot of propaganda in 2002 and 2003 around the Iraq war. Fortunately, some folks in places like the New York Times have learned, I think, from that experience, but in general, that whole notion that you just set up a war by letting people understand things that are basically wrong, like that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11, that it’s okay to teach the population things that are basically wrong in order to fight a war, and that it’s okay for America to do things that violate basic rules. Now we’re further along. Now there are no rules, and now there is no truth, etc., but I really do think that was a run-up.

The lack of an evaluation of it is crucial, because we went to war in 2003 for bogus reasons. We made things much worse on precisely the areas where we claimed we were going to make them better by fighting the war. Nobody then writes the memoir that explains how they got it wrong. Where is that memoir? Where are the thoughtful people? President Bush may come closest to it with his portraits of veterans. That may be the closest thing, but where is the individual, let alone the national, reckoning with that? The ones who don’t learn are the ones who are ready to double down. Double down is spelled B-O-L-T-O-N.

That recalls the Cold War part of our conversation. Western democracy was not bogus, as the Soviets may have claimed, but it was flawed. And during the Cold War we did a lot of these things in terms of foreign policy that helped lay the groundwork for Bush. I guess this is the thing about democracy and how fragile it is: Some of the seeds of its possible destruction were planted when it seemed to be working.

I would say that democracy’s a really good thing. I think it would be better if actual policy preferences of Americans were reflected in the policies of our federal government. I think America would be a much better country than it is. Every level of the federal government is way off to the right of the actual opinions of most people in the United States of America, and there’s a reason for that. The reason for that is the Electoral College, and the Senate, and the gerrymandering, not to mention the deregulation of campaign financing, which is totally ridiculous, not to mention the 2013 ruling which allows states to basically purge African Americans and Hispanics from the voter rolls.

This goes back to the Russia question. It’s not that democracy is something that America exports or doesn’t. It’s a way of keeping the state going, which is probably, as Churchill put it, less bad than all of the other ones. I would like to see the United States be more like a democracy. In general, it would be a nicer thing if other places were more democratic. I see what you’re saying, that our democracy is flawed, but I think the answer in many cases is to have more democracy, to correct this thing that we have in America by making it more democratic than it already is.