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Madeleine Albright, July 2016 © Gregory Reed / Shutterstock

How to Talk about Fascism

Madeleine Albright’s book is a valuable introduction to the state of contemporary politics and a handbook for how to be a better citizen. 

“Some may view this book and its title as alarmist. Good,” writes former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in her new bestseller Fascism: A Warning. Albright is among the few American statesmen, along with Condoleezza Rice, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, to enjoy eminence in academia that translated into influence in foreign policy.

This is perhaps why her latest book has the clear, plainspoken language of a diplomat, while showing the deep knowledge and analysis of an academician long steeped in discussions with democrats and dictators from around the world. Although she discusses the current US president’s policies at length, Albright says she began writing the book before the 2016 election in response to developments in various countries she calls worrisome.

Much of what Secretary Albright writes in Fascism is not per se new, though the fact one of America’s elder statesmen is writing in such strong terms and how she elucidates the crisis she sees makes it worth reading, particularly for non-academics. The book teaches how to talk about the current political crisis sweeping countries around the globe. The audience is not merely her fellow Democrats, but the entire political spectrum.

To illustrate this, the author imagines nightmare scenarios for America, one of politically correct leftist authoritarianism, one of an Orwellian alt-right society, and a third of a police state that reacts to deadly terrorist attacks by ending democratic freedoms. What is more important than a specific policy platform, she argues, is the health of the democratic system as a whole. 

Living History

The book is different from other recent books on contemporary authoritarianism like Tim Snyder’s On Tyranny and The Road to Unfreedom or Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die, as it avoids abstractions on what history means or reporting the results of a social scientific study. Rather, Albright directly discusses the history of authoritarianism from the 1920s until today as few can, framing the story with her family’s own escape from Czechoslovakia, first from Adolf Hitler’s occupation in 1938 and a second time after the Soviet invasion and coup d’état of 1948, and through many of her own negotiations as US ambassador to the United Nations and secretary of state with leaders like Slobodan Milošević, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Il. The personal touch gives the narrative a sense of intimacy and immediacy no academic study or policy paper can.

The author avoids focusing on a precise definition of fascism, opting instead for general characteristics. For Albright, these include authoritarianism, nationalism, a cult of personality and xenophobia. She also describes states with fascist characteristics, including the Stalinist USSR, Putin’s Russia, Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, and what she calls the world’s only truly fascist state, Kim’s North Korea. This approach comports with the book’s purpose, a warning to citizens of the authoritarian clouds on the horizon around the world. It can happen anywhere and no state is immune.

Her keen observation is to show how authoritarians learn tactics from each other. As fascists in 20th-century Europe copied each other’s tactics, so do modern nationalists emulate each other to gain and maintain power, even using the same phraseology and cheering each other’s victories. One lesson authoritarians have followed globally, Albright argues, is the erosion of democracy in steps, as one violation becomes precedent for the next and few will notice when, quoting Benito Mussolini, “feather by feather, the chicken is plucked.”

Talking Tyranny

What strikes the reader most is the author’s tone. Even when criticizing President Donald Trump in the strongest terms, she remains polite, never descending into the vituperation or ad hominem diatribe to which some journalists and politicians have fallen. This application of a lifetime of diplomacy presents an example that can instruct public discourse across the political spectrum.

In her early years in the US, “The media played a huge role in preserving our equilibrium. People actually read the editorial pages of major newspapers … We disagreed frequently, but at least we started from the same general base of information. That is no longer true.” The kaleidoscope of sometimes unreliable sources has damaged public debate to the point where a conversation cannot begin, and even if it does, a lack of respect and politeness will prevent the kind of synthesis or compromise necessary for fruitful public discourse and functioning democracy.

Another lesson is how to talk about populism. She criticizes the use of “populism” as a synonym for illiberal, “as if populism were inherently a threat to civil liberties.” Albright explains how “In Europe today, right-wing protestors are often confronted by left-wing protestors. Who speaks for the common people then?” She points out elitists may be inherently a greater risk to democracy, though that term is similarly overused into meaninglessness. All groups, no matter their policy platforms, are democratic, provided they achieve their goals by democratic means rather than subversion and violence. “We need to do a better job of describing the realities we confront,” she writes.

Populism Paradox

Toward the end of the book, Albright becomes more introspective as she contemplates how relative prosperity in some countries nonetheless led to the election of leaders with authoritarian tendencies and radically different platforms. “By any objective standard democracy, though everywhere tested, has not failed and is not failing. Why then, do we feel so often that it has and is?”

She argues citizens who are used to the instant gratification that modern communications technology provides have lost patience with democracy’s sluggish pace. As Barack Obama said in 2017, health, wealth and education have improved “in such a steady march that sometimes we have a tendency to take it for granted,” and people sometimes forget the obvious: “Better is good.” Albright’s reformulating the question is admirable, particularly for an academic who may just as easily be lulled into complacency by decades of experience and prestige.

The answer Albright provides involving impatience in the modern world leaves one unsatisfied. The economies of many 20th-century dictatorships and republics had been steadily improving when revolution or unrest brought crisis to their regimes as expectations rose. Perhaps, then, rising living standards lead to rising expectations and have always led to discontent. A more equitable distribution of prosperity, as ruling parties from the US to Poland to Venezuela have promised, may mean the right claims to fulfill a promise on which the center right and center left have failed to deliver. Indeed, that is one thing communism and fascism have in common: an authoritarian alternative to the iniquities of capitalism and the gridlock of democracy.

A Warning, an Introduction

Fascism: A Warning is a valuable introduction to the state of contemporary politics and a handbook for how to be a better citizen. Awareness of policy solutions, one’s sources of information and historical context combined with respect for those who disagree and take an active role in civic life can make society a little more pleasant and modern democracy a little stronger. Whatever one’s political orientation, citizens around the world can do well to read and take heed of Fascism’s lessons.

*[Fascism: A Warning is available from Harper Collins and as an audiobook read by the author.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.