Published in 2018, this book is both a history of how democracies turn into dictatorships while still holding elections, and a warning of how often elections stop or become meaningless in democracies that dance with fascism. Albright (along with ghostwriting co-author Bill Woodward) starts by describing her Jewish family fleeing Czechoslovakia –twice. First they fled Hitler, then they fled the pendulum swing of the corrective regime that quickly turned her home country Soviet. Without ever using the term, Albright talks quite a bit about the horror of pendulum swings as regimes move between types of governance.
One of the things that impresses me about this book, which covers a whole lot of rises and falls, is how evenhanded she is. Starting with Mussolini as the Godfather of Fascism, she analyzes multiple countries without blaming specific systems–not even in Americam where she outlines three ways Fascism could rise here (one by liberals, one by conservatives, and one by disaster) nor in any of the multi-party countries she discusses.
It’s as if a wise grandmother sat you down in front of a warm stove, gave you a bowl of soup and hunk of homebaked bread, and said, “Now listen carefully, dear. Here’s how it happens, and here’s what to do about it personally, and collectively if possible.” She has a lot to say about personal responsibility in her final chapter.
She also defines Fascism and doesn’t let name-calling rise to a fine art, as it has in so much of America today. Fascism was Number Two on definitional searches of the Merriam Webster dictionary in 2016, she points out with the casual humor that pervades this book–in surprising and useful ways, given the heaviness of the subject. The only term more searched was “surreal.” And she points out that Fascist is a word people use when they disagree with each other as a one-size-fits-most insult.
This is not helpful, Albright suggests. Fascism might best be viewed “less as a political ideology than as a means for seizing and holding power.” It builds from a sense of what people in a particular group feel, usually a smouldering resentment that they have been denied something, people upset about what they should have and what they fear they may never get unless they take back something they used to have. Which gets complicated because fairly often what they used to have isn’t what they want, and therein lies the manipulation of class, race, ethnicity, geography, ideology, and a few other identifiers. Take back what never belonged to you, is the beginning of many histories that wind up in Albright’s book.
Fascism isn’t always right wing, and not every dictatorship is fascist, but fascist leaders become dictators. And they are almost always charismatic. She ticks through the usual suspects and hits a few others: Stalin, Orban, Putin, Kaczynski, the unusual North Korean dynasty from grandfather to grandson, unusual among Fascist regimes. Also how long they last, and why. The history is fascinating.
The warning is a little less fascinating than subtle. Here is one of my favorites quotes: to a small d democrat, process matters more than ideology. The fairness of an election is more important than who wins.
With that quote, Albright indicts all politicians who manipulate process in an attempt to increase power, and she does it throughout the book. She is less concerned with outcomes than with the ways in which those sworn to uphold the Constitution, the System of Checks and Balances, the promise of Free and Fair Elections are now trying to interpret loopholes and pivotal words.
It is an apt warning, directed equally at all sides. Fascism isn’t right-wing or populist alone. A person who seeks power, even if originally for a good reason, can be corrupted into believing their way is the correct way. Or they can start with the intent to become The Only Leader. It doesn’t matter, both roads lead to violence without due process.
Albright died in early 2022. I wish she had written an epilogue to this book before she passed. It would have been quite a read.