When we follow world news – the invasion of Ukraine, the protests in Iran, the recent party election congress in China, the US Republican right’s denial of President Biden’s 2020 election victory and the political turbulence in Israel – we may pause to wonder about the nature and quality of democracies, as opposed to totalitarian regimes. Is governance simply a question of a leader or party’s procuring enough power to promote their agenda? Is there any significant difference between totalitarian and democratic regimes?
There is a natural inclination to relate to the familiar as better and to the foreign as inferior and dangerous – the “us versus them” concept, a tribal tendency that is in all likelihood a built-in biological impulse. Studies show that we unconsciously and immediately react differently to pictures of people like ourselves than we do to images of people who are unlike us. In the political realm, this urge tends to prejudice us against regimes different from our own, causing citizens of democratic countries to support other democracies, and leaders of totalitarian regimes to favor other totalitarian governments.
Are there any objective criteria? Is there a way to compare and contrast democracies and autocracies in order to establish which system is preferable, rather than just what strikes us as familiar?
It turns out that there are objective parameters. I believe that, despite their inadequacies and fallibility, democracies can clearly be shown to be the best political system to live under. I shall try to demonstrate this by citing Russia, Iran, China and the Middle Eastern Arab countries as examples of totalitarian regimes, and the US and Israel as examples of democracy.
The difference does not necessarily depend upon the quality of the individual leader, but rather upon the political framework – the system. If two salient terms had to be selected to differentiate democracies from totalitarian regimes, they would not be right versus left, secular versus religious or Marxist versus capitalist; rather, they would be political systems that possess built-in accountability versus those that do not; and those who respect the rights of the individual versus those who elevate the government and its leaders above the individual citizen.
Legitimate democracies are, by definition, a system of government which is accountable to the citizenry through free and fair elections. Its parliamentary opposition has the right to question government policy and demand governmental accountability. Freedom of speech and the freedom of the press help render the leadership answerable to the public, and an independent judicial system possesses the authority to enforce accountability. Citizens may criticize the government, and even its leader, without fear of imprisonment or penalty, as the head of government is not above the law. Biden’s election as president and the successful transfer of power to him despite the opposition and bluster of many Republican Trump supporters who resisted the election result is a discernible example. The state and its institutions stood firm as contrived arguments were used in an attempt to discredit the election results. Moreover, Republican-nominated judges who dealt with the issue ruled in accordance with the law rather than acquiescing to specious Trump supporter demands. Similarly, the police held firm during the Capitol assault on January 6. Historically, impeachment procedures against the former Republican President Nixon and Democratic President Clinton demonstrate that even the powerful American president is not above the law.
Under totalitarian regimes, on the other hand, criticism is not tolerated. In Russia, for example, those who object to Putin’s Ukraine policy are thrown into jail. As for lack of accountability, the Iranian regime has refused to allow an independent inquiry into the death of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Kurdish woman arrested for not wearing a hijab, who later died in custody. Nor will they allow an investigation into the fire at Evin prison, where many of the protesters have been confined. Despite declarations to the contrary, free and fair elections are not part of the political process in totalitarian regimes. In China, for example, the 3,000 members of congress representing 1.4 billion people has re-elected Xi Jinping, who has been in power since 2013, for an unprecedented third term without incurring any opposition. It should be obvious that the selection process was a sham – a public showcase that does not represent a free and fair selection process, as so many people of differing temperaments could never be expected to reach such a unanimity result on any issue, let alone on a serious matter of leadership. Furthermore, the Chinese government itself claims that its political model is more effective than and preferable to the Western democratic model, which is another way of saying that it places his government priorities above the rights of its people.
Aside from legal and human rights considerations, what is so problematic about non-accountability? After all, in theory, totalitarian regimes should be more efficient than democracies because they do not have to deal with opposition interference or spend time and resources promoting their agenda.
The problem with that argument is that lack of accountability weakens the quality of decision-making. We all have our blind spots and tend to disregard certain types of problems. If the advisors surrounding a leader are too intimidated to disagree with him, his mistakes will be neither identified nor rectified. And, as lack of accountability trickles down, perceptive critical insights will suffer repression all the way along the administration chain, replaced by corruption and incompetence. In the absence of accountability, there is no incentive to prevent incompetent or corrupt administrators from distorting priorities, concealing mistakes or abusing power for their own betterment. This process of impairment typically becomes more frequent the longer an (unaccountable) totalitarian leader and his followers remain in power. In addition, the greater the lack of accountability, the greater the gap between the leader’s perception of reality and reality itself.
Putin’s ill-conceived Ukrainian incursion is a spectacular case in point: Putin has been in power for ten straight years, and eight years previously. Had the Russian president’s misreading of the situation been picked up on earlier, he might never have embarked upon his ill-conceived Ukrainian fiasco. Moreover, the gap between Putin’s assumptions as to his army’s preparedness and the reality of a poorly equipped, barely functional military force was most likely the outcome of a situation of the kind described in the paragraph above. We can see here that while a totalitarian system has the advantage of allowing its leader to move forward quickly without the cumbersome opposition faced by a democracy, the disadvantage is that its decisions and policies are less thought out and more likely to be off track thereby being less likely to attain their intended goal.
The leaders of totalitarian regimes frequently utilize the “us versus them” ploy to blame their problems on “the other side.” They may even stretch the concept to “my side, right or wrong.” The Iranian regime, for example, recently blamed President Biden for the Iranian riots. While it is true that the American government vocally supports the protests against the enforced hijab policy, there is no evidence of American instigation behind the demonstrations. Blaming the other side can divert public attention from failing government policies and it may also foment distrust and hostility against adversaries, but it also blinds totalitarian leaders to their own deficiencies and prevents them from identifying and remedying them. When authoritarian leaders begin to believe their own lies, their perception of reality becomes progressively more distorted.
Because totalitarian leaders, no matter how incompetent, corrupt or misguided, perceive themselves as above the law and not having to be accountable for their actions, they can generally be removed only by violent overthrow from outside or within.
Not that democracies’ accountability institutions are perfect. In the US, for example, judges are political appointees by the government in power. A Republican-appointed judge’s political views may influence his ruling on certain issues, a recent example of this being the stance against abortion. Nonetheless, once appointed, a judge is independent and is expected to base his rulings on his legal training. Well aware that his reputation is at stake, he will hesitate to stray far from the norm of giving the legal aspects of his cases precedence over their political ramifications. Furthermore, as opposed to totalitarian regimes, a judge in a democracy cannot be fired or punished for making decisions the president regards as unacceptable. With regard to the media, while many papers and news outlets have their own political agenda, the overall media picture is one of pluralism and independence in which all viewpoints are covered. Moreover, newspapers and media are likewise subject to the demand for accountability. My point here is that there is a qualitative difference between the imperfect accountability blemishes and imperfections within democratic societies and the lack of any genuine accountability at all in totalitarian ones.
A government’s policy on women’s rights often serves as one of the litmus tests that distinguishes between democratic and totalitarian regimes. While there is plenty of room for improvement, in democracies, women are generally accorded equal rights. Examples include the right to vote, equality before the law and impartial access to education. Relative freedom of dress is another parameter. In contrast, in many totalitarian regimes, women do not have the same rights or freedoms as men, they may be restricted and may also be compelled to comply with an enforced dress code. The current Iranian protests highlight a totalitarian, inflexible and repressive hijab policy.
What characterizes the political regimes of the Middle East in my corner of the world? While the volume of criticism of Israel is lopsidedly greater than that of its Arab neighbors, it is the only Middle Eastern country that holds its government accountable and upholds the rights of all its citizens. The Arab world consists of over twenty countries, all of which are totalitarian. Some hold elections, but these are not free and fair as in democracies. There is no free press and no independent judiciary. Criticism of their governments or leaders can entail appalling reprisals, such as incarceration, beatings or death. Even the regimes of Western-leaning countries such as Jordan and Egypt are repressive.
Sadly, the same is true of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Neither is democratic; both are totalitarian. There have been no elections in the PA since 1994 – 26 years ago – and in 2009 Abbas was appointed permanent president. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas assumed power in 2007, without elections. The Hamas government is not recognized even by the PA, and the PA remains unrecognized by Hamas. Both governments deal ruthlessly with any internal opposition. It should not come as a surprise then that corruption, incompetence and denial of the rights of the citizenry characterize both regimes.
Israel, in contrast, has a freely elected government. The Knesset (the Israeli parliament) tolerates opposition and includes Arab members some of whom oppose the very existence of the State of Israel. There is a free press. In fact, much of the vehement criticism of Israel’s policy and its leaders stems from the country’s opposition press. To illustrate the independence of its judiciary. both an Israeli president (Katsav) and an Israeli prime minister (Olmert) have served time in prison. Unlike those of its Middle East neighbors, the Israeli government and its leaders are not above the law. Like Western democracies, Israel is characterized by accountability.
In order to compare and contrast totalitarian and democratic regimes accurately, certain distortions and distractions need to be taken into account. In democracies, there is a tendency to emphasize the problematic and take the positive aspects of government for granted. Similarly, in the Western media, negative news captures headlines, while good news tends to be regarded as less interesting. Hence, the media and public’s emphasis on the negative. For these two reasons, problems are often amplified sometimes out of all proportion. The opposite is true in authoritarian regimes. Since criticism is repressed, readers may be inclined to underappreciate the severity of their country’s problems and the degree of its incompetency. Consequently, if we simply compare the volume of criticism in democratic and totalitarian regimes we might mistakenly conclude, that, political systems of democracies are unsatisfactory, while those of totalitarian regimes are tolerable. This erroneous conclusion has been aggravated in recent years by the plethora of unfounded conspiracy theories that can result in underpinning and undermining Western governments’ legitimacy. However, a conversation with anyone who has lived under both types of systems is usually enough to persuade us that democratic governments, with all their deficiencies, are convincingly preferable to authoritarian regimes, and that those of us who live under democracy should feel grateful for our good fortune.