GW Professors Discuss Anti-Democratic Tendencies in the Modern World

The trio of authors explained how their new books analyze anti-democratic tendencies throughout history that are relevant to modern politics.

April 28, 2023

Three GW professors discussed the forces that have challenged liberal democracy and propped up authoritarian regimes around the world.

Three GW professors discussed the forces that have challenged liberal democracy and propped up authoritarian regimes around the world. From left: Heather Aliano, Harris Mylonas, Elisabeth Anker and Matthew Dallek. (Kate Woods/GW Today)

Three George Washington University professors who have authored books exploring the forces that have challenged liberal democracy and propped up authoritarian regimes around the world throughout history, discussed why identifying these anti-democratic tendencies is relevant in the current political landscape. 

The conversation was held Wednesday at the National Churchill Leadership Center in Gelman Library. 

Liesl Riddle, the dean of the College of Professional Studies (CPS) and an associate professor of International Business and International Affairs, said the event brought together GW instructors from different disciplines. “The goal of this event is to highlight the salient research of our faculty and to discuss how different disciplines seek to explain developments central to modern politics,” Riddle said. 

The panel was moderated by Heather Aliano, M.P.S ’19, who currently works as the director of advancement at Craft Alliance. She started the discussion by asking the three panelists to define the central argument in each of their books. 

Elisabeth Anker, an associate professor of American studies and political science in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, discussed the themes she explores in her book, “Ugly Freedoms.” 

Anker introduced the topic by speaking about controversial moves made by lawmakers recently, including Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) signing an executive order to ban the teaching of critical race theory and Florida lawmakers passing the Individual Freedom Act that prohibited discussions about race and discrimination in schools and businesses. 

“Each of these actions uses the language of freedom to justify forms of discrimination or anti-democratic politics,” Anker said. “Throughout the history of American politics, freedom has entailed venerated practices of individual liberty or collective self-governance, but it has also entailed actions of discrimination or anti-democratic politics.” 

That is what Anker defines as “ugly freedoms,” when freedom entails the practice of harm or authoritarianism. 

She added that these forms of freedom throughout much of the celebrated moments of American history litter the landscape. For example, she said, the country’s founders won the fight for freedom and created a new democratic society while they were also engaging in the destructive process of Indigenous dispossession. 

Anker said slavery in America was seen as a condition of freedom and economic dependence for slave owners and domestic violence in marriages was seen as a freedom for a married man to have control over his wife. 

Throughout history, she said, the idea of freedom has been used to support domination. Her book also explores different ways that people can seek freedom in their everyday lives. 

“The concept of ugly freedom, the way I understand it, is a double-edged sword,” Anker said. “On the one hand, it challenges certain freedoms that are understood as unproblematic political ideals to see some of the violence that traffics in their name. But it also identifies alternative practices of freedom that might otherwise be seen as uninspiring or inconsequential…that don't rely on excluding or opposing others.” 

Matt Dallek, a historian and professor in the Graduate School of Political Management, which is housed in CPS, wrote the book, “Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right.” He believes the Birchers foreshadowed the current movement in American far-right politics. 

Dallek said the political right in the United States has long encompassed a variety of factions, including more pragmatic, mainstream Republicans versus ultraconservatives. Dallek argues that while the two sometimes had shared beliefs and values, there were sharp differences of opinions on certain issues, including spreading conspiracy theories, that pulled them in opposing directions.

Dallek said the Birch Society, a far-right organization founded in 1958, helped radicalize the American right because it bequeathed a usable past adopted by subsequent generations and forged an alternative political tradition.

The strategies used by the Birchers—including spreading conspiracy theories or making allegations of a plot against America to motivate citizens to get active in the struggle for power, are still used in modern American far-right politics, Dallek said. 

The Birchers also made a distinction in how they spoke about themselves as “real Americans” and “true patriots” compared to those who disagreed with them, who they would label as communists or establishment insiders. 

Dallek added the Birchers also defined freedom very explicitly on their terms. 

“It was not access to the ballot box for all. It was not the end of segregated lunch counters in the South and the end of Jim Crow. Nor was it the freedom to act in accord with one's own precepts,” Dallek said. “The Bircher conception of the Republic demanded the dismantling of the welfare state and dreamed of imposing their own version of Christian values on American schools and culture.” 

Harris Mylonas, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at the Elliot School of International Affairs, said his co-edited book, “Enemies Within: The Global Politics of Fifth Columns,” deals with similar themes of freedom, domination and the use of conspiracy theories and scapegoating to create divisions within a country. 

Mylonas explained that fifth-column politics is when a group of elites or a political group identify and vilify domestic groups purportedly for working with external enemies to undermine the national interest and then inciting their followers to target them. 

“These leaders exploit pre-existing prejudices, national security fears and geopolitical rivalries to weaken domestic political opponents and obviously in the process boost the cohesion of their own group,” Mylonas said. 

Fifth-column politics includes making distinctions on what a good patriot looks like, thereby creating clear boundaries on who is on the outside and who is on the inside. 

As a modern example of fifth-column politics, Mylonas identified Russian President Vladimir Putin labeling those who fight in and support the war in Ukraine as “good Russians” and those who are against the invasion as “bad Russians” and “Western sympathizers.” 

“Fifth-column politics should concern you because it's not a thing of the past,” Mylonas said. “I think we're going to witness a lot more fifth-column rhetoric and fifth-column politics in the future.” He attributed this trend to several converging factors: geopolitical instability, the spread of nationalism as a common-sense belief, the electoral success of populist and ethnonationalist movements that often resort to scapegoating and the widespread adoption of social media that can help diffuse fifth-column rhetoric.