After the shock of the 2016 election, liberals got a civics lesson on the electoral college established by the Constitution, and they didn’t like it. In “The Road to Unfreedom,” Timothy Snyder speaks for them in bemoaning the fact that the founders created not a direct democracy but a republic.
The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, by Timothy Snyder (353 pages, Tim Duggan Books, 2018)
I have been asking my liberal and progressive friends for some time to recommend to me a book of political philosophy that argues for their ideas, but I have not gotten a single recommendation and was beginning to wonder whether all those intelligent and highly-educated people were reading anything more serious and thoughtful than the latest screed by Paul Krugman in the New York Times. Finally a colleague, an emeritus professor of history, recommended this book to me. I found it extremely interesting and informative. The author, a professor of history at Yale, is an expert in recent Russian history, and most of the book is a riveting description of the ways in which Vladimir Putin has manipulated the minds of his people to get them to accept and support his kleptocratic government and his expansionist ambitions. Mr. Putin, we learn from Professor Snyder, was influenced by a Russian writer named Ivan Ilyin who, after the Bolshevik Revolution, became a counter-revolutionary, was exiled, and lived in Germany and Switzerland. He became a proponent of fascism and Nazism, envisioning a Russian fascist state with a totalitarian ruler. Prof. Snyder argues, with much supporting evidence, that Mr. Putin has been systematically building just such a state. An important part of Mr. Putin’s strategy is to undermine Europe and America, making them out to be the enemy of the Russian people and their culture. Prof. Snyder describes in great detail, year by year, Mr. Putin’s campaign to demonize the west and sacralize his vicious, self-serving regime. The narrative of Mr. Putin’s disinformation campaign that covered over his invasion of the Ukraine in 2014 is particularly alarming.
Thus far, it is a valuable book by an expert in the field. However, Prof. Snyder has an immediate political goal in narrating this history. His clunky title, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, should be The Russian Road to Trumpian Tyranny, for that is the true thesis of the book. It ends up being a slightly (ever so slightly) more sophisticated version of what one gets every day from one’s disgruntled leftist friends: Donald Trump colluded with the Russians and stole the election! He is destroying American democracy! Prof. Snyder’s method is argument by assertion (a logical fallacy) and guilt by association (another), with a heavy dose of unsubstantiated innuendo. It is tediously repetitious and tendentious. It is, finally, embarrassing.
As I say, the title The Road to Unfreedom is an awkward one, not only because Prof. Snyder has a tin ear for the beauties of language but because he wants above all to claim that love of freedom belongs to the left, while the right is always inevitably fascist and totalitarian. He would never dream of engaging with a conservative political philosophy that starts from a different idea of freedom from his own but values freedom none the less. (Granted, Donald Trump is not an adherent of that principled conservatism, but if a book focuses only on him it refuses to address larger issues of political theory, becoming journalism, and not journalism of the highest order.) The liberal ideal is of a freedom from—from external constraints. Traditional conservatism (following such thinkers as Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk) regards true freedom as a freedom for, for building up a healthy culture, requiring self-restraint, submission to external constraints, and obligations to others. In other words, the liberal emphasizes individualism, while the conservative emphasizes community and the individual person’s duties to the community.
Just before reading Prof. Snyder’s book, I read another recent book by a traditional conservative, Patrick Deneen. In his Why Liberalism Failed, he emphasizes this difference regarding true freedom. He acknowledges that “Liberalism’s appeal lies in its continuities with the deepest commitments of the Western political tradition, particularly efforts to secure liberty and human dignity through the constraint of tyranny, arbitrary rule, and oppression.” Here we can find common ground—or we could if our liberal interlocutors would give a similarly generous acknowledgement. Prof. Deneen goes on to say, “Yet liberalism’s innovations—ones its architects believed would more firmly secure human liberty and dignity—which consisted especially of a redefinition of the ideal of liberty and a reconception of human nature, have undermined the realization of its stated commitments.” These innovations, as Prof. Deneen describes them, had to do with claiming a radical individualism for each person, a complete freedom from constraints and obligations. The conservative claim is thus that liberalism is based on what Prof. Deneen and others of that school call a “false anthropology.” It does not take long for Prof. Snyder to announce his commitment to that false anthropology. His first chapter is entitled “Individualism or Totalitarianism” (and each subsequent chapter title also forces a simple dichotomy, implying that we have to choose one or the other). Here he lays out (in fascinating and chilling detail) Ilyin’s fascist ideas. At the end of the chapter, Prof. Snyder writes, “In the fury of their assault, Ilyin’s ideas clarify individualism as a political virtue, the one that enables all the others.” But is individualism a foundational political virtue? The political philosophers of the ancient and medieval eras urged that a polity required traditional moral virtues, ones that involved self-control rather than self-indulgence, in order to thrive. As Prof. Deneen puts it, “The foundations of liberalism were laid by a series of thinkers [he names Descartes, Hobbes, and others] whose central aim was to disassemble what they concluded were irrational religious and social norms…. The classical and Christian effort to foster virtue was rejected as both paternalistic and ineffectual, prone to abuse and unreliability.” This is a discussion worth having, but Prof. Snyder has absolutely no interest in it—and apparently not even any awareness of it. For him the only remedy for totalitarian oppression is individualism.
Prof. Snyder sets up another false dichotomy between Integration and Empire. The model of governance he admires is that of the European Union (the exemplar of integration). He sets this against Russian imperial designs, but also against the nationalist movements that have arisen in various places in Europe in recent years. He claims that there never were really nations in Europe, which is at odds with most historical analyses. I suppose he means that as nation states began to emerge they immediately turned into empires, but he doesn’t articulate the argument, being content to pontificate, nor would the argument, I think, stand up to scrutiny. And of course he does not refer to serious thinkers who favor the national model and distrust the EU. For instance, the British philosopher Roger Scruton has argued that the EU is increasingly run by unelected bureaucrats and is consequently less democratic than the nations it rules over. Dr. Scruton has made cogent arguments in favor of nation states cooperating with each other rather than sacrificing their sovereignty to a conglomerate that will not even admit that Christianity was essential to the formation of Europe. Prof. Snyder refuses to engage with thinkers like Dr. Scruton and leaves the uninstructed reader with the impression that only hateful politicians are nationalists: for him, nationalism is always fascism—a sophomoric reduction.
The body of this book, which describes in great detail the Putin regime and its vicious methods, is certainly worth reading. There are, even here, some odd omissions, however. Prof. Snyder narrates the fall of the communist Soviet Union, for instance, without mentioning the large role played by President Reagan—and that played by Pope John Paul II. I suspect he does not want to admit that these two, who are definitely not his people, did so much good. It also seems quite strange to me that in all his stories about Russian corruption Prof. Snyder never mentions the efforts of the American financier Bill Browder to obtain justice for his Russian associate, Sergei Magnitsky, who was tortured and killed in a Russian prison. Nor does he talk about the Magnitsky Act which was eventually passed, giving the United States the ability to ban Russian oligarchs from visiting the U.S. and making use of our financial system. (See Bill Browder’s Red Notice.) Perhaps this doesn’t fit Prof. Snyder’s narrative, in which Russian oligarchs have free reign in our country.
In the end, Prof. Snyder writes about Russia not to warn us that we must take a strong stance against Russian interference but rather with the express purpose of proving that President Trump is nothing but a Putin puppet and would never have been elected without the interventions of the Russians. There is much to be concerned about in the connections of Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Carter Page, Jared Kushner, and other Trump associates with Russians. The malicious interventions of the Russians through fake Facebook sites are alarming indeed. But Prof. Snyder’s book does not settle the question of “collusion” and does not prove that Russia turned the election. By the way, how does one speak of Carter Page without mentioning the Steele dossier (a document containing many unsubstantiated claims concocted by a former British spy and paid for by the Clinton campaign, which was the primary evidence used by the FBI to obtain authorization to use wiretaps in investigating Page)?
In Chapter 6, “Equality or Oligarchy,” Prof. Snyder once more offers a simplistic choice: If you don’t have systems that redistribute wealth, you have an oligarchy like the Russian one. Here he attaches the word “oligarch” to wealthy Americans (only Republicans, of course, since wealthy Democrats are pure of heart). We hear such rhetoric as this: Steve Bannon “owed his career and his media outlet to one American oligarchical clan, the Mercers; and ran a campaign to bring another oligarchical clan, the Trumps, to the Oval Office—in cooperation with a man who had helped open the United States to unlimited campaign contributions in a law suit sponsored by yet another American oligarchical clan, the Kochs.” A few pages earlier, Prof. Snyder characterized Donald Trump as “failed real estate developer”—a phrase repeated several times for tiresome emphasis—but now he is included with wealthy families such as the Kochs. And wealthy (Republican) families are now “oligarchical”—just like the families that run Russia. Surely even the humorless and unimaginative Timothy Snyder could, if he tried for a minute, see a significant difference between wealthy American families that amassed great fortunes through legitimate business ventures (the way Warren Buffet did) and the Russian oligarchs, who essentially stole valuable companies with the collusion of their friends inside the government.
Let me offer one further example of Prof. Snyder’s slippery associations. In the final chapter, he spends a few pages talking about the opioid epidemic. He marshals statistics showing that many of the counties that went big for Donald Trump in 2016 were places with large numbers of people addicted to opioids. He compares this to the way in which people in Russia and the Ukraine were said to have been “zombified” by the propaganda they were fed. You see where this is going, I’m sure: “Americans were prepared by drugs for the politics of eternity” [Prof. Snyder’s infelicitous phrase for fascist politics], for the sense of doom interrupted only by the quick hit. At least two million Americans were addicted to opioids at the time of the 2016 presidential election…. The correlation between opioid use and Trump voting was spectacular and obvious, notably in the states that Trump had to win.” This is just one egregious example of the shaky “argumentation” Prof. Snyder indulges in to score points on his demonized foe.
After the shock of the 2016 election, liberals got a civics lesson on the electoral college established by the Constitution, and they didn’t like it. Prof. Snyder speaks for them in bemoaning the fact that the founders created not a direct democracy but a republic (though he somehow avoids using this word): “In 2016, the most obvious weakness in American democracy was the disconnect between voting and results. In most democracies, it would be unthinkable that a candidate who received millions more votes than her rival would lose.” Prof. Snyder and his friends would prefer to have elections decided by the individualists in the metropolitan areas. The founders thought that the people in the vast areas outside those cities ought to have a say, and in recent elections they have done so, to the chagrin of the intellectual elites and their adherents. The scorn liberals feel for those people in the rural areas has been expressed many times and is again evident here. Those people are aware of the condescension and don’t much like it.
Getting himself worked up into a rhetorical frenzy on the last page of The Road to Unfreedom, Prof. Snyder writes, “In conditions of distrust and isolation, creativity and energy veer towards paranoia and conspiracy, a feverish repetition of the oldest mistakes.” It’s a bit hard to tell what this overwrought sentence means, but I think it is (unintentionally) a good description of the author’s state of mind, veering towards paranoia and conspiracy as ways of explaining an inexplicable defeat. Such is the frame of mind in many disappointed progressives today.
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The featured painting is a detail of “Vladimirka” (1892) by Isaak Levitan (1860-1900). It is in the public domain and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.