Who Gets to Rule a Nation? The Rise of the One-Party State

A government in which one person has unlimited power is an autocracy. A government in which a small group has a great deal of power is an oligarchy. Unlike an autocracy, there is no requirement that oligarchs have unlimited power. 

Here in the United States, we still have a representative democracy, although lately it’s been veering toward oligarchy. We also have a president who would prefer America as autocracy with himself as the autocrat.

Anne Applebaum has written a long article for The Atlantic that explains the form of government that’s on the rise around the world. Her article is labeled this way:

Polarization. Conspiracy theories. Attacks on the free press. An obsession with loyalty. Recent events in the United States follow a pattern Europeans know all too well.

Whether such governments are autocracies or oligarchies isn’t clear-cut. She suggests “single-party” or “one-party state”. The paragraphs below explain how they work and how their adherents justify them. Reading the article helped me understand the current crisis.

[Who gets to rule a nation?] For a long time, we have imagined that these questions were settled—but why should they ever be?

Monarchy,tyranny, oligarchy, democracy—thesewere all familiar to Aristotle more than 2,000 years ago. But the illiberal one-party state, now found all over the world—think of China, Venezuela, Zimbabwe—was first developed by Lenin, in Russia, starting in 1917. In the political-science textbooks of the future, the Soviet Union’s founder will surely be remembered not for his Marxist beliefs, but as the inventor of this enduring form of political organization. It is the model that many of the world’s budding autocrats use today.

Unlike Marxism, the Leninist one-party state is not a philosophy. It is a mechanism for holding power. It works because it clearly defines who gets to be the elite—the political elite, the cultural elite, the financial elite. In monarchies such as pre-revolutionary France and Russia, the right to rule was granted to the aristocracy, which defined itself by rigid codes of breeding and etiquette. In modern Western democracies, the right to rule is granted, at least in theory, by different forms of competition: campaigning and voting, meritocratic tests that determine access to higher education and the civil service, free markets. Old-fashioned social hierarchies are usually part of the mix, but in modern Britain, America, Germany, France, and until recently Poland, we have assumed that competition is the most just and efficient way to distribute power. The best-run businesses should make the most money. The most appealing and competent politicians should rule. The contests between them should take place on an even playing field, to ensure a fair outcome.

Lenin’s one-party state was based on different values. It overthrew the aristocratic order. But it did not put a competitive model in place. The Bolshevik one-party state was not merely undemocratic; it was also anti-competitive and anti-meritocratic. Places in universities, civil-service jobs, and roles in government and industry did not go to the most industrious or the most capable. Instead, they went to the most loyal. People advanced because they were willing to conform to the rules of party membership.

Though those rules were different at different times, they were consistent in certain ways. They usually excluded the former ruling elite and their children, as well as suspicious ethnic groups. They favored the children of the working class. Above all, they favored people who loudly professed belief in the creed, who attended party meetings, who participated in public displays of enthusiasm. Unlike an ordinary oligarchy, the one-party state allows for upward mobility: True believers can advance. As Hannah Arendt wrote back in the 1940s, the worst kind of one-party state “invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.”

Lenin’s one-party system also reflected his disdain for the idea of a neutral state, of apolitical civil servants and an objective media… In the Bolshevik imagination, the press could be free, and public institutions could be fair, only once they were controlled by the working class—via the party.

This mockery of the competitive institutions of “bourgeois democracy” and capitalism has long had a right-wing version, too. Hitler’s Germany is the example usually given. But there are many others. Apartheid South Africa was a de facto one-party state that corrupted its press and its judiciary to eliminate blacks from political life and promote the interests of Afrikaners, white South Africans descended mainly from Dutch settlers, who were not succeeding in the capitalist economy created by the British empire.

In Europe, two such illiberal parties are now in power: Law and Justice, in Poland, and Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, in Hungary. Others, in Austria and Italy, are part of government coalitions or enjoy wide support. These parties tolerate the existence of political opponents. But they use every means possible, legal and illegal, to reduce their opponents’ ability to function and to curtail competition in politics and economics. They dislike foreign investment and criticize privatization, unless it is designed to benefit their supporters. They undermine meritocracy. Like Donald Trump, they mock the notions of neutrality and professionalism, whether in journalists or civil servants. They discourage businesses from advertising in “opposition”—by which they mean illegitimate—media.

Notably, one of the Law and Justice government’s first acts, in early 2016, was to change the civil-service law, making it easier to fire professionals and hire party hacks. The Polish foreign service also wants to drop its requirement that diplomats know two foreign languages, a bar that was too high for favored candidates to meet. The government fired heads of Polish state companies. Previously, the people in these roles had had at least some government or business experience. Now these jobs are largely filled by Law and Justice Party members, as well as their friends and relatives….

You can call this sort of thing by many names: nepotism, state capture. But if you so choose, you can also describe it in positive terms: It represents the end of the hateful notions of meritocracy and competition, principles that, by definition, never benefited the less successful. A rigged and uncompetitive system sounds bad if you want to live in a society run by the talented. But if that isn’t your primary interest, then what’s wrong with it?

If you believe, as my old friends now believe, that Poland will be better off if it is ruled by people who deserve to rule—because they loudly proclaim a certain kind of patriotism, because they are loyal to the party leader, or because they are … a “better sort of Pole”—then a one-party state is actually more fair than a competitive democracy. Why should different parties be allowed to compete on an even playing field if only one of them has the moral right to form the government? Why should businesses be allowed to compete in a free market if only some of them are loyal to the party and therefore deserving of wealth?

Forewarned is forearmed. Please vote for Democrats up and down the ballot in November’s mid-term election. And convince your reasonable friends to vote if any of them still need convincing.