The Financial Times has an excellent op-ed piece about the crisis of institutions that feeds into the rise of fascism. The money quote is:
The real problems lie in the dictator’s shadow, in the conditions that enable the leader’s rise. The hollowing out of those basic institutions without which no modern state or society can govern itself, the extremism of political
discourse — these things are already with us. And seem set to persist in
I’d like to add one observation about what precedes the hollowing out of the institutions (which is, admittedly, pointed out in the op-ed piece itself–with regards police and judiciary.): the politicization of the institutions and the erosion of the concept of “rights” and “citizenship.” One perverse consequence of the institutionalization of politics is that those who control the institutions set the agenda, and as such, have the right and the power to determine the political outcomes. However, once the idea of basic “rights” becomes subject of politics, “politics” becomes too serious a business to be left to the “institutions” any more: people who feel that their lives, literally or figuratively, are being threatened by abuse of power, through abuse and misuse of the institutions, feel little loyalty or respect for the institutions. Those who thought that the power of the institutions had given them the right to decide on matters of lives and death find themselves being given the finger with the words “screw you,” with the power of institutions reduced to scraps of paper, and with it arises the specter of institution-free chaos and, possibly, dictatorship.
I don’t know if the rise of an institution-free state of politics is necessarily equal to that of fascism: one movie that I like, in a manner of speaking, is Gabriel over the White House, which was essentially a pro-New Deal and rather proto-fascist film made with approval and support of Franklin Roosevelt, that depicted such things as nationalizing industries by fiat and shooting gangsters without due process of law positively. Do I approve of such things, heck no. But I can understand the sentiment that gave rise to support for such things. The real challenge is to keep the institutions of government working efficaciously enough, so that most people feel that they are being served by them within reason, so that they have some stake in defending them. Striking the balance is the tricky part: institutions need to do enough, for enough, that they are appreciated by most, but not so much that they are seen as burden by too many. A government that works is a government that does the most, for the most, without being noticed by the most, indeed, to paraphrase Max Weber’s argument about the ideal bureaucracy. Alas, this is not the government that serves the “political” needs–which needs to be seen by the most and punishes the enemies of those who hold political power in a manner that everyone knows what exactly is going on.
The “ideal bureaucracy” is not an easy goal to achieve, and perhaps impossible without a sense of trust that is earned and justified–people trust the “bureaucrats” to do the right thing and the bureaucrats do their job with both equanimity and efficiency that merits the trust. Yet, for a functioning democracy, this is the essential component–bureaucrats, not wonks.