Monday , March 4 2024

SXSW Convergence Festival: The Authoritarian Playbook

When people think “SXSW” (“South by Southwest”), music and movies usually come to mind. The SXSW Conference includes many more cultural facets, however, in its Convergence Festival, including government. That’s where you could have found the SXSW 2018 Authoritarian Playbook session.

The session featured three highly experienced speakers discussing the common indicators that suggest a country is moving toward authoritarianism. Mary Beth Goodman served as Special Assistant to President Obama and Senior Director for Development and Democracy at the White House National Security Council. Doug Rutzen, President of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, teaches at Georgetown Law School and serves on the Advisory Board of the United Nations Democracy Fund. Gayle E. Smith worked in National Security Council roles for Presidents Obama and Clinton and has over 20 years of experience helping and reporting on NGOs in Africa.

The Slant

The playbook included what the speakers felt were lessons Americans could learn from other countries that had gone down authoritarian paths. “Authoritarian,” according to, means “of or relating to a governmental or political system…in which individual freedom is held as completely subordinate to the power or authority of the state.”

Gayle E. Smith shared experiences working for for Presidents Obama and Clinton.

Goodman, Rutzen, and Smith took turns reading from their prepared manuscripts, keeping impromptu comments to a minimum. The description in the SXSW schedule hinted that this would be an hour of Trump-bashing. There was only a small amount of that, though, and I give the participants credit for taking an analytical, non-emotional approach to the subject. They even criticized Venezuela, which, because it is socialist, is usually off-limits to any negative comments from the left.

The Playbook

The Authoritarian Playbook – a metaphor rather than an actual publication – has six chapters, the titles of which form the acronym VACUUM: Victory, Amass Power, Control Critics, Underscore Legitimacy, Undermine Democratic Norms, and Maintain Power.

Rutzen began with the “Victory” chapter. Authoritarians, he said, will often try to find a group that feels anxious or threatened. People in this position are more likely to support forceful measures against parts of society they believe are having a negative influence.

Then, for the “Amass Power” stage, he suggested that it is handy to have someone to blame. As an example, he cited the U.S. being blamed by the government of Venezuela and Jews being blamed everywhere else.

Authoritarian Playbook

Goodman helped with Chapter 3, “Control Critics,” citing polarization and scapegoating as ways in which opposition could be silenced. This, combined with benefits for the authoritarian’s friends and sanctions for those in opposition, help create control.

Goodman and Rutzen went on to say that the “Underscore Legitimacy” technique of Chapter 4 could be achieved by first invoking the past as an ideal or justification. Then, they suggested, focusing on the future gives authoritarians the opportunity to gloss over problems with the present.

Democratic Norms

That, the panel agreed, plays into Chapter 5, “Undermine Democratic Norms.” Rutzen cited the position often taken that “We won the election, therefore we don’t have to govern democratically.” I was reminded at this point of President Obama’s declaration that if Congress didn’t pass the laws he wanted, he had a “pen and a phone” and would get things done anyway.

They also cited techniques such as changing the boundaries of a voting district or the mechanics of a census to focus on the result of the contest, not the traditional rules.

Smith focused on Chapter 6, “Maintain Power.” After lamenting the fact that most authoritarian leaders, like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, live into their 80s or 90s, she listed several typical methods of maintaining power.

She said that authoritarians like to create an “us versus them” mentality. This allows their followers to focus on “the other” rather than facts. This goes hand-in-hand with “label, don’t listen.” The rationale is that if you label someone, you no longer have to pay attention to what they say. Having labeled the other, she suggested, you can then question their motivations.

Is There Hope?

Having laid out authoritarian strategies, the panel pointed out that authoritarians are able to accomplish these only if citizens are passive.

The People’s Playbook

Their answer was The People’s Playbook. This time the chapter titles spelled PEOPLE: Participate, Engage Locally, Organize Coalitions, Promote Democratic Norms, Listen, and Envision the Future.

They argued that participation was the strongest bulwark against authoritarian tendencies. An example of engaging locally was to focus on election day, not on the entire election process.

They also said that organizing should be a person-to-person project, rather than relying entirely on social media. Democratic norms could be supported by teaching civics and history and getting people to vote while they are young, so a habit is established.

Goodman suggested expanding the “see something, say something” mantra to “see something going wrong with our democracy, say something.”

Listen and Trust

Rutzen emphasized the importance of listening. “How did you survive the deepest moments of authoritarianism?” he asked. “With circles of civility – people don’t need the government’s permission to be nice to one another.” He said that people should remember not to speak truth to power but with power.

Smith citied an example of listening and envisioning the future. “Under George Bush, conservatives, people of faith, the LGBT community, and students all got together and discussed the AIDS problem,” she said. “Bush dramatically expanded the treatment program, and increased funding. The end of the epidemic is now in sight. People didn’t agree on a lot of things but agreed on ending the epidemic.”

The final chapter of the People’s Playbook is “Envision the Future.”

Goodman suggested a practical project: getting involved with the 2020 census. She emphasized its importance to representative apportionment and funding. “Get active and pay attention to how the census is run,” she said.

Rutzen invoked a different aspect of envisioning the future. “When Martin Luther King went to Washington,” he said, “he did not say, ‘I have a problem.’ We must dare ourselves to dream. Envision what you want the world to look like in 2040.”

Photos by the author

About Leo Sopicki

Writer, photographer, graphic artist and technologist. I focus my creative efforts on celebrating the American virtues of self-reliance, individual initiative, volunteerism, tolerance and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.

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