Huffpost Homepage
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Philip Slater Headshot

The Neo-con Misunderstanding of Democracy and Why It Will Undo Them

Posted: Updated:

The Bush administration talks a lot about democracy, but it doesn't seem to have a clue what it's really about--why it's more efficient in today's world. The neo-cons don't see democracy as a system of de-centralized organization. For the neo-cons it's just a way of selecting a dictator by plebescite. But democracy hasn't been spreading throughout the world because some woolly idealists thought it would be a sweet thing to do. Nor have corporations been busy decentralizing power and flattening their hierarchies--especially in the electronics industry--because their CEOs all got religion. What they've all come to realize is that in today's world of chronic, rapid, technological and social change, authoritarianism is maladaptive.

Decentralization is a way of speeding up adaptation to changing conditions. Authoritarian systems are too slow, rigid, and clumsy. People in the field need to be able to make decisions quickly without referring everything up the line to people who know less than they do about what's going on. It's why--as Dan Baum reported from Iraq--junior officers there created their own web site to exchange knowledge and ideas, since by the time their questions had gone up through the army hierarchy and the advice or information had come back down again, what they got back was usually dated, ignorant, and irrelevant.

The inefficiency of authoritarian systems is the reason the Soviet Union collapsed--Warren Bennis and I predicted that collapse in 1964, in an article in the Harvard Business Review called "Democracy Is Inevitable.

Much of the private sector got the message. So did many nations around the world. But the Bush administration has responded to every crisis by creating mammoth, topheavy, centralized bureaucracies headed by a "czar". (To be fair, they didn't invent this particular piece of stupidity--it's been standard Washington practice for decades.) And the response to each crisis has been characteristically dated, ignorant, and irrelevant.

But inefficiency isn't the worst defect of authoritarian systems. The truly fatal flaw is their tendency to insulate their leaders from negative feedback. Yesmen are rewarded, and anyone who suggests that the ship of state's current course is on target for an iceberg is considered "disloyal".
When Liu Shaoki told Chairman Mao that the Great Leap Forward was leaping backward he was regarded as an enemy. And anyone who--like Chief White House Economic Adviser Lawrence Lindsey or Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki--suggested to Bush that invading and rebuilding Iraq might not be a slam dunk was fired or marginalized. Bush created, as Ron Suskind observed, "an echo chamber of his own making".

Such echo chambers are lethal. Ideology trumps facts, facing problems becomes disloyalty, dissent becomes treason. Since there's no way to correct mistakes, the system spins out of control, and eventually crashes. Mao initiates the Cultural revolution, Hitler invades Russia, Nixon authorizes a break-in, Bush invades Iraq. The 'inner circle' becomes narrower and narrower and more and more homogeneous until its members suddenly wake up one day to discover--as Nixon did--that everyone who matters is outside it.