05/05/2014 07:21 pm ET Updated Jul 05, 2014

The Triumph of Authoritarianism: What Ukraine Reminds Us About the Flaws of Progressives and Conservatives

The battle over Ukraine may look like a simple power play between Russia and the U.S., but much more is at stake than which of the former arch-adversaries comes out ahead in the skirmish. Should the U.S. step in more forcefully? Or should we hold back? What is the right thing to do?

I was a political activist long before college, an environmental and consumer advocate battling big corporations and government bureaucracies, fighting against bad things and for good things. But like a lot of activists, I lacked a systemic framework for my beliefs -- an understanding of why bad things happen and how to drive continuous positive change. To me, it was all about identifying evil and battling to replace it with good. People are hungry? Feed them! People are homeless? House them! Corporations are polluting? Stop them!

My eyes were opened in college when I was introduced to the great works of political theory and insight, from Hobbes and Rousseau to Burke and Locke to Machiavelli and de Tocqueville to Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln.

The greatest of these, to me, was Alexis de Tocqueville, and the most powerful passage in his greatest work, Democracy in America, foretold a century ahead the great historical battle between the U.S. and Russia:

"There are now two great nations in the world which, starting from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans. Both have grown in obscurity, and while the world's attention was occupied elsewhere, they have suddenly taken their place among the leading nations, making the world take note of their birth and of their greatness almost at the same instant. All other peoples seem to have nearly reached their natural limits and to need nothing but to preserve them; but these two are growing.... The American fights against natural obstacles; the Russian is at grips with men. The former combats the wilderness and barbarism; the latter, civilization with all its arms. America's conquests are made with the plowshare, Russia's with the sword. To attain their aims, the former relies on personal interest and gives free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of individuals. The latter in a sense concentrates the whole power of society in one man. One has freedom as the principal means of action; the other has servitude. Their point of departure is different and their paths diverse; nevertheless, each seems called by some secret desire of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world." (ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE, Democracy in America, ed. J. P. Mayer, trans. George Lawrence, vol. 1, part 2, Conclusion, final paragraphs, pp. 412-13 (1969). Originally published in 1835-1840.)

De Tocqueville's words left me breathless. They were such a sweeping combination of history and forecast, insight and analysis, systemic understanding and passionate purpose. They helped me understand the purpose of freedom and the power of democracy, but also the reasons these can so easily give way to authoritarianism or, worse, totalitarianism, especially if left to passionate true-believers from the left or right. They do not believe they are authoritarians -- that is not their intent. They merely want to save the world, as every authoritarian does.

In 1989, Russia collapsed under its own weight, and America declared itself the victor of the Cold War. But I remember wondering at the time if our celebration was premature. Russia collapsed because it was the more rigid of the two Superpowers; it could not adapt to the changes of a changing industrial economy, one on the brink of a digital revolution.

But while the freer markets of the U.S. made us more adaptive to the currents of change, it seemed to me that we too were holding fast to rigid old ideas and institutions of the postwar industrial economy; that we too needed to transform; and that if we did not do so gradually, we would eventually collapse catastrophically, much like the Soviet Union.

Today, Russia is solvent, led by a smart, cunning authoritarian who with the skill of a chess player leveraged his nation's limited power to require parts of its lost empire.

The US, meanwhile, is the greatest debtor nation in the history of the world, with divided, dysfunctional government and leaders with little or no strategic sense who are provoked easily by small bands of fanatics into misguided shows of power that fuel fanaticism and undermine our adherence to the core principles that are the authentic source of our power.

As Ukraine recoils from Russia's intense military pressure, I wonder whether democracy will indeed triumph when the history of the Cold War is written, or whether Russia specifically, and authoritarianism more generally, will prove the more powerful force.

It does not have to be. In fact, I have great hope that today's digital technologies, in the hands of a free and creative people, will further undermine the power of big centralized institutions, and cultivate a society where people once again create value, where they join in self-organizing communities, as de Tocqueville foresaw, to meet each others needs and weave their own communal safety nets, no longer dependent on distant powers, whether labeled corporate or federal, to provide them with what they are better able to do for themselves and with their communities.