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Neither Normalization Nor Alarmism

Responding to Ivan Krastev

Ivan Krastev has long been one of the most insightful commentators on the politics of populism in post-communist Eastern Europe. His just-published New York Times piece, “What’s a Bigger Threat, ‘Normalization’ or Alarmism?” raises an important question: how should liberal democrats respond to the rise of anti-liberal elected governments, in Poland, Hungary, and the United States. It also furnishes an answer: an “alarmist” response is a bigger threat than a “normalizing” one, because it plays into the hands of the populists, fueling their extremist energy, which is driven by hostility to “normality.”

Krastev is surely right that the current situation is distinctive (indeed all situations are distinctive), and simplistic analogies to 1930’s fascism or 1970’s communism are misleading.

He is also right that “alarmism” is mistaken (after all, when is “alarmism,” as opposed to “sounding the alarm,” ever a good thing?), and that the defense of democracy requires “passion and a readiness to defend one’s values” yet also requires “a sense of proportion.”

Such a sense of proportion is especially necessary because, as Krastev notes, the right-wing populists thrive on polarization and alarmism. But who are the liberal “alarmists” that so concern Krastev? I am aware of few serious liberal and democratic opponents of “illiberal democracy,” beyond the small group of “antifa” activists, who regard as exemplary the German “young leftist radicals” of the 1970’s who “were so obsessed with the idea that there were no major differences between Nazi Germany and the postwar German Federal Republic that they made profound errors in judgment and, at times, ended up as terrorists and enemies of democracy.” Nor are there many calling for Jan Palach-style self immolations.

But many of us are sounding the alarm about the dangers of the current anti-liberal movement, which is transnational and powerful. One reason is because the anti-liberal governments, while elected, are threatening to use their electorally-based power to attack press freedom, independent judiciaries and regulatory agencies, civil liberties and protections for minorities, and even freedom of association, thereby privileging their own power in ways that jeopardize the future of constitutional democracy. The second reason is precisely because they are successfully mobilizing millions of people in support of this agenda, in the process exploiting and inflaming mass resentment and anger that has already spilled out into civil society, engendering vigilantism and violence.

Krastev understands this, and has elsewhere analyzed such dangers. And yet, by emphasizing the elected nature of the principal threats, and framing his piece around the dangers of “alarmism,” he is effectively minimizing these dangers. This is unfortunate. Because most of us who advocate “resistance” to the anti-liberals hardly take our cue from “polarizing” or “alarmist” radicalism, and we have much more judicious, and also powerful, sources from which to draw. It is too bad that Krastev does not attend to these.

One place to look would be to Tony Judt’s short book The Burdens of Responsibility, which brilliantly elucidates three exemplary modalities of 20th century anti-totalitarian resistance of relevance to our present: Leon Blum’s party-political opposition to fascism, Albert Camus’s “rebellious politics” of resistance (and Resistance), and Raymond Aron’s “engaged spectatorship.” Each of those figures sounded an alarm without being alarmist. Each enacted a kind of conscientious resistance to authoritarianism that was not moralizing and that was linked to a sense of real political agency and possibility. A second place to look would be to those who in fact organized successful resistance to communism in Eastern Europe only a few decades ago: not Palach, but Havel, and Michnik, and Haraszti and Konrad and Kis and Kuron. Some of these people are now gone. Many of them live, breathe, and continue to oppose authoritarianism.

To be clear: these are merely a few examples among many that might be offered. Further, they are hardly examples of self-sufficient or unadulterated “success.” Both the defeat of fascism during WWII, and the 1989 “Refolution” that brought down Communism in Eastern Europe, involved complex intersections of political resistance and geopolitics, and of good judgment and good luck. And both engendered compromises, and mistakes, and outcomes that, perhaps tragically, marginalized many of those conscientious resisters.

My point is a simple one. There are traditions of thinking about and enacting resistance to authoritarianism that elude the dichotomy of “normalization” versus “alarmism” that frames Krastev’s essay. The current form of authoritarianism being instituted by our new “illiberal democrats” is fueled by contemporary injustices, grievances, resentments, and viral media of digital communication. And it requires mindful contemporary responses. There are no obvious or guaranteed strategies of resisting it or reviving the kinds of liberal-and-social democratic movements, institutions, and policies that played important roles in the past. Krastev is right that “overreaction” is a danger. But so is “under-reaction.” Indeed, today, like always, the defense of democracy requires “a sense of proportion,” but also a “passion and a readiness to defend one’s values.” And because it does, those of us who wish to be “neither victims nor executioners” need to sound the alarm, and to act judiciously, and to refuse to normalize the forms of small-mindedness, xenophobia, racism, and fear-mongering that are seeking and acquiring power in our midst. It may be that in some of these places, like Poland, many months of protests of the right-wing government have not shaken and might even have strengthened the government. It may also be that right now in many places — including the United States? — the defense of liberal values and constitutional democracy cuts against the grain of a powerful populism. Perhaps protest needs to be better linked with other forms of civic initiative and party-political activism. There are different ways to resist. And Krastev’s piece offers a useful cautionary note. But if “alarmism” is to be avoided, so too must be “normalization.” For while certain strategies and tactics of resistance might be “dangerous,” it is also possible that they are less dangerous and more promising than they might seem. Moreover, what seems most dangerous right now is not the resistance, but the mobilization and empowerment of bigotry and Know Nothingism that the resistance seeks to counter.

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Jeffrey C. Isaac

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