Orban and Putin Don't do Debates EitherRoundup
tags: Republican Party, Vladimir Putin, authoritarianism, presidential debates, Viktor Orban
Ruth Ben-Ghiat is professor of history at New York University and author of Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present.
"This is insane. Why." Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) tweeted about the news that the Republican National Committee will require candidates for America's highest office to pledge to not participate in debates run by the Commission on Presidential Debates.
The nonprofit commission, which has organized the debates for 30 years, is bipartisan. That's a big problem for the GOP, which is now an authoritarian party that has withdrawn its support for bipartisan rule and democratic institutions. In vacating the debate stage, the Republicans are mimicking autocratic heads of state like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Debates between presidential candidates enact the democratic principle of mutual tolerance: the notion that those who don't share your political views have a right to free expression. The public hears an exchange of views by two individuals who are on equal footing and bound by the same rules, which are enforced by an impartial arbiter.
This is anathema to the authoritarian mindset. Personality cults posit the leader as a man above all others, and the egalitarian staging and format of debates make them dangerous to his brand. Since authoritarians sustain their power through disinformation, threat, and corruption (including fixing elections) who knows what might be exposed if they submit to spontaneous questioning by a rival or a third party?
Putin, who came from an intelligence background into politics, understands this well. He set the tone for 21st century illiberal rulers when he refused to debate his opponents during a 1999-2000 presidential race marked by the resumption of Russia's war with Chechnya and a series of apartment building explosions that were devastating for Russians but conveniently timed for the emergence of his strongman persona.
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