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Resisting the Abuse of Political Power

Article by David Harley

March 28, 2023

Resisting the Abuse of Political Power

Where We Are Now

The struggle between the people and their rulers, between democracy and tyranny, is as old as human civilisation. Throughout history these intrinsic patterns of human behaviour come and go, swirling around, in different guises and with varying consequences over the centuries, but never completely disappear.


In addressing this eternal question, equally strong doses of humility and hard-nosed realism are called for. It is never wise to discount humankind’s ability to make a bad situation worse. Nor should we believe the person who says airily that ‘Surely things can’t get any worse’- because they will. All the signs are there, hiding in plain sight. Only by understanding the full extent of the threats facing us can we hope to head them off. There is no guarantee of success.


We are at an epochal turning point, and living not only in dark times but also in a time of great change. ‘When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions’, as the poet said. Almost every day, we rub our eyes in disbelief at the latest looming disasters – war, famine, pestilence, climate change, recession, social unrest, autocracy – that are heading our way or have already impacted our world, chipping away at the old familiar certainties, our comfort zones rudely shaken. Borders and frontiers, both geographical and in the mind, are no longer fixed or secure. We’re not sure which way to turn, so we cling to what we think we know.


Lurking behind all these changes is the abuse of political power, for autocracy and populism thrive on chaos and the gradual erosion of constitutional checks and balances, and basic freedoms. Great swathes of the population in Europe and the United States are suffering from abject poverty and diminished life chances, their inhabitants blaming globalisation and the political class, not without justification. We find the same sense of loss of identity and resentment among the closed mines and disused steelworks in North East England, Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, and the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. For hundreds of millions of people in the rest of the world, lacking food, water and basic healthcare, the present and the future are even bleaker. As often as not, one disaster leads to another: everything is linked.


Many people, despite their better selves, instinctively deal with these threats to the status quo ante by hoping for the arrival of a strong and effective government or leader who can turn back the tide and make everything right again, as it used to be. Back to a nostalgic past that in reality never existed. But the problems and the challenges exist in the here and now. We are on a new arc of history. Even a cursory glance at historical precedent will tell us that the pattern of recent events is clear, and menacing. There may not be much time left to correct it.


Those who will suffer most if current trends continue will, naturally, be those with the least means to defend themselves, who are often in the early stages of authoritarian rule the autocrats’ most enthusiastic supporters. It was ever so. Addressing the question of the abuse of power is not a theoretical exercise, but about how the curtailing of individual rights and basic freedoms by the state impairs people’s daily lives, and limits their choices and hence their prospects for a better life for themselves and their families. Unchecked, the state throws off the shackles of accountability, while the central authority becomes ever stronger at the expense of the rights of the individual citizen, typically crushing the human spirit in the name of a spurious ideology. Resisting the abuse of political power is also about preventing autocratic and authoritarian governments from persecuting minorities, often on specious racial or religious grounds, and from hollowing out the principal institutions of the state that they see as potential sources of opposition: parliament, the judiciary, the media.


Europe is indisputably moving ever further to the right. Extremist, nationalist and populist parties that represent a threat to liberal democracy exist today, with several in government, in the majority of European countries. Most of these parties are also anti-immigration and anti-Muslim. In the United States (increasingly becoming a misnomer for a fundamentally divided country), the Republican Party supports former President Trump in his refusal to accept the result of the last presidential election, categorically rejects any responsibility for the insurrection in Congress on January 6th 2021, and promotes an orchestrated campaign of vote-rigging and gerrymandering in Congressional districts (although in certain states such as New York the Democrats are hardly innocent on the latter issue) in order to skew future elections in their favour. Almost wherever we look in the West, centrifugal forces are on the increase and the Centre is no longer holding. Up to now the European Union has stuck together and managed to steady the ship, but the strains on unity and mutual solidarity have become increasingly visible.


We thought we knew the rules for civilised survival and mostly abided by them, but we now realise that many of the old laws and principles of liberal democracy, which we subconsciously relied on and considered sacrosanct and permanent, are now in disrepair or no longer applied – ‘ripped up’ even – and it is hard to discern the way forward through the wreckage. As though a thief came into the house at night and stole a cache of objects of sentimental value, while we were sleeping. We never heard a thing, and then next morning we found it hard to take in the sense of violation and felt diminished and vulnerable.


It is that combination of simultaneous change and threat that makes us fearful of the future, both as individuals in our private lives, and for the future of the society around us, even for the survival of the planet. We sense that we are entering a new period of history, but we don’t yet know what’s coming down the road.  Rarely has Gramsci’s much-quoted definition of a crisis – when the old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born – felt more apposite.


Those of us born in the second half of the twentieth century didn’t know our luck. One reason why we find it hard to adapt to today’s multiple challenges is that most of the Western World – primarily Europe and the United States – was living, without fully realising it, in a cocoon-like era of relative peace and prosperity since the end of the Second World War. We were not well prepared or in training for dealing with these new challenges. When our attention was elsewhere, the beast sunk its claws deep into our values system, and it will take time and effort to prise them off. How can we jolt ourselves out of that intellectual complacency and inertia that has taken root in the West in recent years and infected much of our politics?


The Response

We have three options for dealing with creeping autocracy and authoritarianism, and the abuse of political power. The one we choose could shape our future, both as individuals and as society.


The first is to go with the flow of history and adapt to the new reality, without worrying too much about ideology, values and principles. What good have they done us anyway in recent times? Few things can be more important than putting food on the table for our loved ones. Most politicians are all the same, and those that are different aren’t always that bad (particularly if they are smart enough to appear outwardly friendly and polite, make attractive promises to better our lot, and generally wear ‘slippers rather than jackboots’). What’s the point of sticking one’s head above the parapet and thereby asking for trouble? This too will pass, so they say. Many people – probably the majority – ask for nothing more than a quiet life. You can hardly blame them; it almost feels like a natural human reaction. Yet that way darkness lies, in troubled times.


The second option is to look at the lessons from history and philosophy. History is like a volcano that was erroneously considered extinct but then suddenly erupts. What is happening in Europe today might feel unfamiliar to us, but in a way it is nothing new. The struggle between democracy and tyranny goes back a long way, at least as far as Ancient Greece. The same is true for the endless back and forth between borders and frontiers. We had naively thought that, largely thanks to the EU and NATO, Europe’s frontiers were finally fixed for all time. We didn’t heed the several warnings from Vladimir Putin that he didn’t share this view. In 1805 after the battle of Austerlitz, at his house in Putney, William Pitt said to his niece ‘Roll up the map of Europe; it will not be wanted these ten years.’ We’re not quite there yet, but the risk exists.


Further back still, the Vedic and Hindu scriptures talk about the three essential phases of life on earth – creation, maintenance, and destruction, leading to re-creation and the next phase in the never-ending cycle. It is hard to escape the thought, however unpalatable, that humankind may possess an inherent self-destructive impulse. How can we counter this tendency? The short answer is with courage, lucidity, and sacrifice, including being ready where necessary to give one’s life for the cause, no less. Ukraine has shown us the way. Tragically, however, history also shows us that courage and the ultimate sacrifice may not always be enough.


We should also include, in our armoury of thoughts and ideas to beat back the abusers, the recognition that, contrary to the widespread belief in the West and especially in the US, our quality of life as currently measured may not remain indefinitely on an upward curve. Writing in the Financial Times, Edward Luce pointed out that murder rates, deaths from war and child mortality went down significantly during the Roman Empire, before it was succeeded by centuries of medieval darkness and the trends were comprehensively reversed. And unlike us, during the Romans’ imperial decline, they didn’t also have to deal with global warming.


The third option for preventing the abuse of political power is the most difficult and the most necessary: to synthesise the general lessons of the past with the particular and most pressing demands of the present, and seek to change the course of events accordingly. An additional dimension to the challenge is that the Western world today is a political tinderbox: in their attempts to prevent the abuse of power, our democratically elected representatives – where they still exist – must be careful not to stoke further the flames of totalitarianism. We must navigate through the many obstacles with the utmost care.


Fortunately, there is no lack of self-help books published in recent years, particularly in the US, which provide useful guidance on some of the errors unwittingly committed by our forebears as they faced the rise of fascism, the traps not to fall into, the lines not to cross.


Timothy Snyder, Professor of history at Yale University, reminds us of Hannah Arendt’s warnings about the banality of evil and the normalisation of human wickedness. In his short volume ‘On Tyranny: Lessons from the 20th Century’, he warns against ‘anticipatory obedience’ and enjoins us ‘to defend institutions, and take responsibility for the face of the world’ (by which he means that we should be sceptical about propaganda), and makes the disturbing but verifiable point that ‘most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given’. On the abuse of political power in the US, Snyder states that ‘we have very good reason to be concerned.The British historian Richard J. Evans, author of ‘The History of the Third Reich,’ states that ‘Democracy is a fragile creation. Underpinned by the rule of law and the popular will, democracy is the only way we can prevent the arbitrary exercise of tyranny.’ In ‘How Democracies Die’, the American political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt lament ‘the end of mutual toleration’ – a euphemism for describing the lack of any common ground and profound antagonism across the aisle in today’s America (except when it comes to voting vast sums for the defence industry).


Last year the political historian Peter Hennessy, reputed and respected for his objectivity and moderation, made a similar point when he fired off a remarkable salvo against the British government then in power, qualifying its record in office as ‘a bonfire of the decencies’ and the abandonment of the ‘good chap theory’ of government (only in England…) which has shown up the fragility of the British constitution. On the bright side, relatively speaking, certain checks and balances on executive power remain in place in the UK, and the members of political parties can still choose their own leaders (although the growing role of financial backers in influencing government policy, as in the US, has raised concerns). But the erosion of basic freedoms – the right of peaceful protest and not to be arrested without charge, to claim asylum, freedom of the press in the face of flagrant attempts at muzzling and intimidation by oligarchs and their legal representatives – has undoubtedly begun. Recent government action, such as limiting the competences of the Electoral Commission and watering down the ministerial code (and even then not applying it), will further extend the powers of the state.  As chunks of masonry regularly crash down from the rotting timbered roof, the venerable British Parliament finds itself increasingly bypassed and in urgent need of repair.


Fiona Hill, Russia expert and former Deputy National Security Adviser to President Trump, has spoken about ‘treading back through old historical patterns we said we would never permit to happen again’, as illustrated by the way the West allowed Putin to interfere in elections in the US, the UK and elsewhere. Ukraine has become the front line in a struggle not just between democracies and autocracies, but in the struggle to defend a rules-based international system against the ruthless deployment of superior military and economic force.


We should listen carefully to these lessons from the past and warnings from distinguished authors, political scientists and policy practitioners, and study their eminently sensible and well argued guidebooks on how to prevent and survive tyranny. But to what extent are they still relevant? Has the Third World War, as some have claimed, already begun? Is it already too late to reverse the march of history?


Future Prospects

We are about to embark on a long and arduous journey, where the destination and the time it will take to get there are unclear. Against the background of ‘a drastically altered international constellation and in the shadow of transatlantic uncertainties’ (Jürgen Habermas), a new kind of politics is taking over. In recent years, we have seen both the re-emergence of ‘classic’ patterns that lead to the abuse of political power – the curtailment or abolition of civil liberties and the suppression of independent institutions – and new phenomena such as the proliferation of social media and a different form of politics driven by personalities and identity rather than the substance of policy and concern for the common good. This combination of old and new threats is divisive and dangerous. Populist and nationalist parties increasingly use wedge issues, dog-whistles and anti-wokeism to divide public opinion and distract from traditional liberal values. All other policies and projects outside these parties’ core messages are cynically downplayed or eliminated by a strategy known in the trade as  ‘getting the barnacles off the boat’.


We must exhaust every available form of action, both collective and individual, to resist these trends and defend our basic rights and freedoms. Randomly selected citizens’ action groups, such as the Irish example of citizens’ assemblies and similar bodies in France, Britain and Denmark, have helped to produce consensual solutions to specific societal problems. Individually, we must quite simply stand up for our views with our families, friends and colleagues at work. Individual dissent, resisting binary choices, and the ability to listen are further key attributes in slowing the perilous slide towards autocracy.


However, we should not delude ourselves. We may vigorously argue our case, support democratic parties, and make common cause with like-minded fellow citizens to take on the tyrants and the autocrats. But there are wider forces at work here, rooted partly in history and partly in contemporary phenomena, over which our control as human beings is necessarily limited. We will need infinite resolve and patience.


In conclusion, before we set out on our uncertain journey, let us recall the words of two citizens of America, the land that until recently, and despite some murky origins, symbolised optimism and endless possibilities for human betterment. In his speech at the National Cathedral in Washington on March 31st 1968, Martin Luther King reminded us that ‘we shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.’


The writer John Steinbeck wrote on the indelible duality of human nature and the cyclical character of human history: ‘All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins – it never will – but that it doesn’t die.’ There is no magic formula. Whether or not we succeed in resisting the abuse of political power is not wholly in our control. But resist we must, and the better angels of our nature will eventually prevail.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of The Foreign Policy Centre.

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