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The Fragility of the Liberal Democracies and the Challenge of Totalitarianism

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

The Fragility of the Liberal Democracies and the Challenge of Totalitarianism
Vandalizing a police vehicle during a riot in Seattle (Wikimedia Commons, Hongao Xu)

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 20, No. 17

  • The murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, triggered rioting, looting, and arson across the United States. It became evident that an underground leadership structure had been in place and set in motion a wave of violence whose destructiveness was unforeseen.
  • According to Marxist-Leninist doctrine, the goal of organized mob violence is to foment a state of civil war, which will lead to revolution. The would-be revolutionaries in the United States did so well that their success exceeded their expectations.
  • Mayors of several major cities and governors of some states where violence took place chose not to act and ordered the police and firefighters to stand down. Such inaction created a state of anarchy, leaving the public without protection.
  • The moral shock resulting from the outbreak of mob violence which was not put down may have been worse than the actual damage caused by the rioters.
  • In the United States, it has been assumed that the creation of wealth is good for society, especially if through hard work, one could achieve the “American Dream.” Nonetheless, for the past decade, life has become complicated for many young adults. The growing numbers of this increasingly dissatisfied group in society must be taken into account.
  • The fragility of the liberal democracies is a serious dilemma. There is a short distance between “peaceful demonstrations” and mob violence, civil war, and regime change. The dynamics of political warfare and the methods of mob violence are knowable. Because it is a matter of self-defense, we must use this knowledge to safeguard our democracies and our freedoms.

I. The Outbreak of Civil Disturbances in the United States, Spring 2020

During the Spring and Summer of this year, the world experienced violent civil disturbances, which have both political and social dimensions. Such events have destabilized the liberal democracies of the United States, the United Kingdom, and even now, in Israel. These outbursts have taken place against the background of the Covid-19 lockdowns and the ensuing hardship caused by the disruption of commerce, unemployment, and a sense of demoralization. Disparate as they may seem, these developments share several common characteristics, such as the attempts by well-organized political groups to by-pass the results of fair and free elections and seize power by gradually weakening the institutions of authority, such as the educational system and the judiciary, whose purpose is to preserve the values and legal relationships within a state. These groups have adopted a long-term strategy of delegitimization and decomposition, combined with continuous agitation and violent confrontations. As part of their strategy, they direct their attacks against a democratic government and its elected leaders.

The functional definition of a democracy is a government whose leaders are elected through free and fair elections.1 Additional benefits of life in a modern democracy include a free civil society, competitive politics, fiscal transparency, equality under law, cultural pluralism, and respect for human rights – particularly those of women.2 Recent scholarship affirms that the concept of equality also includes some equality of material conditions and recognizes a link between income and political stability.3 Many respected commentators have regarded education as the basic requirement of democracy, because there is a correlation between the level of education and a higher standard of living.4

During the 1930s, the Soviet Union introduced and perfected the practice of continuous propaganda and political agitation. This method was originally based on the principles of commercial advertising which included the constant repetition of political messages. In fact, political groups of both the Right and the Left used this approach. Indeed, the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 and the destruction of the Weimar Republic in Germany provide the most dramatic example of a determined and unscrupulous adversary using the weapon of political warfare in order to dismantle a liberal democracy. With the support of the Bolsheviks, the Nazis destroyed a liberal democracy in Germany, a country once thought to be among the most cultured and advanced of the era.5 These developments demonstrate that modern liberal democracies are fragile and must be defended.

The murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, triggered rioting, looting, and arson across the United States. Shortly afterward, the mob violence took on a life of its own, independent of the act of police brutality. It became evident that an underground leadership structure had already been in place and set in motion a wave of violence whose destructiveness was unforeseen. This leadership was prepared to use continuous violence and mayhem. Their “revealed intention” was to destroy the existing system, its legal structure, and accepted norms of lawful behavior. In addition, one of their methods was to attack the symbols of both contemporary authority and national heritage.6 Some of their attitudes are associated with secular messianism, including the rejection of the existing present, the demand for revolutionary change (not bureaucratic reform), and a quick and immediate revolution. This group claims the certain knowledge that their way is the only way to the truth.7

Stores set aflame
Stores set aflame in Minneapolis (Hungryogrephotos, Creative Commons)

II. The Underlying Social and Political Climate

Historians of the French Revolution, such as Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) and Crane Brinton (1889-1968), have researched the climate of ideas that preceded revolutions in general and the French Revolution in particular. Understanding this type of “slow-moving history” is helpful for our appreciation of the recent events in the United States and other countries, such as Israel. Drawing upon previous examples, Crane Brinton adopted the expression, the “desertion of the intellectuals” to describe critically important changes of collective mood before a major upheaval:

.…The bulk of those who at the higher levels of culture wrote, taught, preached, acted on the stage, wrote and played music, practiced the fine arts – and the bulk of their audience – clearly felt that the government, the political, social, and economic institutions under which they lived were so unjust that a root-and-branch reform was necessary. To put it simply, these intellectuals were disloyal toward existing legal authority.8

One of Tocqueville’s important findings was that in the era before the French Revolution, wider circles of the educated public increasingly maintained that the government did not function equitably. However, at the same time, material economic conditions were actually improving. The observations of both Crane Brinton and Alexis de Tocqueville may well apply to the present situation in America.

During the post-World War II era in the United States, several cultural and political currents became embedded in the national consciousness, sometimes in the background and occasionally, prominently in highly divisive and emotional manifestations. For example, in the 1960s and seventies, the struggle for civil rights and the opposition to the war in Vietnam resulted in a general distrust of authority. Furthermore, both civil rights and anti-war activities brought about new methods of resistance, passive and militant. In many ways, this legacy of civil disobedience of the sixties has persisted.

In the United States, it has been assumed that the creation of wealth is good for society, especially if through hard work and resourcefulness, one could achieve the “American Dream.” Nonetheless, for the past decade, life has become complicated for many young adults. Many are underemployed and carry the burden of debt which they incurred paying their university tuition. They may harbor feelings of unfulfilled expectations, have problems of loneliness and credit card debt, and take opiates, drugs, and pain-killers. Their growing numbers show an increasingly dissatisfied group in society whose presence must be taken into account.

In addition, there has been a lack of civility in the public discourse, which characterized the primaries in the Spring of 2020. Within a broader context, this campaign reflected the outlook of President Barack Obama, who distanced himself from the idea of American exceptionalism and downplayed the vital contribution of personal initiative, which traditionally had been considered a typically American virtue. For example, during a campaign speech in Roanoke, Virginia, on July 13, 2012, President Obama boldly castigated businesses and the wealthy, asserting, “You didn’t build that!”9 While he explained that the success of individuals depends on society, friendships, and infrastructure, the brutality of his accusation was shocking.

During the campaign preceding the primaries of 2020, many arguments of the different candidates were aggressive and simplistic, using promises of material benefits to all if the candidates won. The position of the two leading Democratic party candidates, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, was that something was intrinsically wrong with a system that enabled the building of great private fortunes and that the true measure of social justice should be an equality of material outcomes.

Leon Cooperman, the founder of the Omega Advisors investment firm in New York City and an identified Jewish philanthropist, challenged Elizabeth Warren’s arguments. Interviewed on television, Cooperman declared that he earned his fortune honestly and paid his taxes. After paying taxes on his gainful earnings, he had the right to share them as he wished, and in any case, his family trust would make sure that his assets would be used for philanthropic purposes. In fact, Cooperman was in tears and challenged Elizabeth Warren to a debate. She never responded.

Similarly, the former Mayor of New York, Rudi Giuliani explained in an interview that the taxes of the wealthy provide for the needs of the indigent. More recently, on July 17, 2020, the headline of the New York Post proclaimed, “AOC’s proposed billionaires tax would spur an exodus of the wealthy from New York, report says.”10

These opposing outlooks have not been reconciled and remain an open question to be decided either through peaceful dialogue or in a war on the streets. Another significant and related development has appeared in the statements of several billionaires. For example, Jamie Dimon, Chief Executive Officer of J. P. Morgan; Ray Dalio, Manager of the Bridgewater Associates hedge-fund; Bill Gates; and Warren Buffet, lamented the big gap between the super-wealthy entrepreneurs and ordinary Americans. Gates and Buffet took the initiative by launching the “Giving Pledge,” “an open invitation for billionaires, or those who would be if not for their giving, to publicly commit to giving the majority [or at least half] of their wealth to philanthropy.”11

In his essay, “Diplomacy Then and Now,” first published in 1961, Harold Nicolson (1886-1968) analyzed the social divide between the haves and the have-nots. More than half a century later, his words retain their value and aptly describe the current debate in the United States and other liberal democracies:

.…It is easy enough to convince uneducated people that they are being exploited or suffering humiliations and oppression. It is more difficult to preach to them the rewards of freedom. People who have been convinced that their rights have been disregarded will be glad to throw stones at windows or to overturn motor cars; the doctrine of individual liberty inspires no such acts of passion. We are at a disadvantage when it comes to applying propaganda to the have-nots. Dollars are not always enough; and the fact that our doctrine appeals more to the privileged classes is a fact, which cannot be exploited or even avowed.12

We have noted the correlation between democracy and education, an observation that dates back to the founding of political science in antiquity. Harold Nicolson’s remarks remind us of this. However, he has pointed out that the opposite is also true: the uneducated, who can easily be incited, have the power to prevent the enjoyment of “the rewards of freedom.”

Vehicles set on fire
Vehicles set on fire, Washington DC (Wikipedia Commons, Brett Weinstein)

III. Transforming Heroes into Villains

According to Marxist-Leninist doctrine, the goal of organized mob violence is to foment a state of civil war, which will lead to revolution and overthrowing the system. The would-be revolutionaries in the United States did so well that their success exceeded their expectations. They created “no-go” zones in Seattle and Atlanta. “Peaceful demonstrators” tried to burn St. John’s Episcopal Church, “the Church of Presidents,” at Lafayette Park, one block from the White House, and then they began tearing down statues of the heroes of American history.

The symbolic meaning of tearing down statues is not generally appreciated. This destructive act shows contempt for the heroes of American history who traditionally have been venerated. Beyond the shock value, imposing a new official narrative of the past has a distinctly totalitarian dimension. Changing heroes into villains effectively amounts to the rewriting of history and a type of thought control. Rewriting history by using the propaganda of the deed is an act of totalitarian aggression. The destruction of statues of public heroes may be compared to book burning, just as burning a church is a statement comparable to the burning of other houses of worship, such as synagogues. As George Orwell describes in Nineteen-Eighty-Four, taking over the past is the prelude to dominating the present: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past….”13

To understand the seriousness of these recent events, we must place them in the context of modern political thought. At the beginning of the modern era, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), wrote his famous work, Leviathan, first published in 1651. He described an implicit social contract between the subjects and a monarch, whereby individuals entrust the prerogative of self-protection to the state, which in turn accepts the obligation of policing and protection of property. This covenant is the cornerstone of society.14

According to Hobbes, compulsion is necessary in order to cause men to respect their covenants. Political scientist George Sabine (1880-1961) explained that “The performance of covenants may be reasonably expected only if there is an effective government which will punish non-performance.” In the words of Hobbes,

Covenants without the sword, are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.

The bonds of words are too weak to bridle men’s ambition, avarice, anger, and other passions, without fear of some coercive power.15

Mayors of several major cities and governors of states where destruction, violence, looting, and arson took place, chose not to act and ordered the police and firefighters to stand down. Such inaction created a condition of anarchy, leaving the public without protection. Instead of using the force of law, these officials betrayed the covenant, which for centuries provided the foundations of society and the rule of law (in the Judeo-Christian tradition). For this reason, the moral shock resulting from the outbreak of mob violence, which was not put down, may have been worse than the actual damage caused by the rioters. To paraphrase Harold Nicolson, the exercise of authority became unpredictable and too uncertain to give its decisions the “inevitability of public law.”16

What happened in America shows the fragility of the democratic system, and particularly, its vulnerability. Given the cowardice of the authorities, had the revolutionaries acted with greater determination, the outcome could have been a disaster. To use the expression of Edmund Burke, this time the insurrectionists lacked “the energy and vigour that is necessary for great evil machinations….”17 The first time around, the results were seriously harmful. The second and third times, the outcome may well be a complete revolution and regime change.

III. Globalization and the Impact of Civil Disturbances

We live in an age of globalization, rapid communication, and – until recently – easy travel. Therefore, we must understand how recent developments in one country can influence the domestic politics of another. For example, recent events in the United States have affected the United Kingdom and Israel. Not so long ago, one spoke of “lone wolf” terrorism, whereby individuals, influenced by their environment and the media, carried out supposedly isolated acts of terror and murder. However, the more recent violence reflects the increasing influence of the social media upon the dominant environment of political thought and action.

The work of American journalist and senior editor of the Reader’s Digest, Eugene H. Methvin, who studied the riots of the sixties and enjoyed close ties with the law enforcement community, is helpful in understanding current events. Methvin specialized in mob violence and the methods used by its perpetrators. He pointed out that among the highest priorities of the rioters were paralyzing police authority and creating an atmosphere which signals anarchy:

While agitators “keynote the crowd, young hoodlums and criminals probe and test, and police fail to respond, advertising a “moral holiday.” Prankish teenage boys and hardened rowdies start by throwing rocks and bottles. If police cannot or do not respond, the paralysis of authority signals anarchy. Behind the window-smashers, looters, and street-fillers, the fire-bugs go to work.18

The work of an Israeli scholar also is helpful. After the passage of General Assembly Resolution 3379, “Zionism is Racism,” on November 10, 1975, the Information Department of the Jewish Agency commissioned a series of studies on what became known as the “New Antisemitism.” Ehud Sprinzak, a member of the Department of Political Science of the Hebrew University, examined the process of delegitimization in an original piece of scholarship, published in May 1984:

The loss of legitimacy effectively means the loss of the right to speak or debate in certain forums. When a political entity is subjected to widespread delegitimization, whatever its spokesmen have to say, is perceived as irrelevant. They are no longer accepted as partners in legitimate discourse, no matter how cogently they may express themselves. Their position resembles that of patients in a closed mental institution: once committed by the professional board of review, they are treated as mentally incompetent, no matter how cogently they may express themselves.19

Here, Sprinzak accurately describes the beginning of what is now called the “Cancel Culture.” For years, this totalitarian method has been used against Israel and its advocates. It now claims additional victims.

In his famous essay, “The Prevention of Literature,” which first appeared in January 1946, George Orwell dealt with the destructive cultural consequences of totalitarian intolerance, “.…To be corrupted by totalitarianism one does not have to live in a totalitarian country. The mere prevalence of certain ideas can spread a kind of poison that makes one subject after another impossible for literary purposes. Wherever there is an enforced orthodoxy – or even two orthodoxies as often happens – good writing stops.”20

The fragility of the liberal democracies is one of the most serious problems we face. A determined enemy is attacking our traditional freedoms and the continuity of our respective political systems. There is a short distance between “peaceful demonstrations,” mob violence, civil war, and regime change. The dynamics of political warfare and the methods of mob violence are knowable. We must use this knowledge to safeguard our liberal democracies because this is a matter of self-defense.

* * *


1 “The central procedure of democracy is the selection of leaders through competitive elections by the people they govern.” Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave; Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991):6.

2 See Emmanuel Sivan, “Illusions of Change,” Journal of Democracy 11:3 (July 2000):78-82.

3 Seymour Martin Lipset, among others, emphasized the importance of this correlation:

From Aristotle down to the present, men have argued that only in a wealthy society in which relatively few citizens lived at the level of real poverty could there be a situation in which the mass of the population intelligently participate in politics and develop the self-restraint necessary to avoid succumbing to the appeals of irresponsible demagogues.

Seymour Martin Lipset, Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics, rev. ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), quoted in Henry S. Rowen, “The Tide Underneath the ‘Third Wave’,” Journal of Democracy 6, no. 1 (January 1996):53.

4 Ibid., 56.

5 “By forcing upon the KPD a policy of uncompromising belligerence against social democracy (‘social fascism’), he [Stalin] abetted the Nazi victory.” Robert C. Tucker, Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above 1928-1941 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992): 229.

6 Eugene Methvin, The Riot Makers; The Technology of Social Demolition. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1970, 410.

7 Interview with Golan Lahat by Vered Kelner, “The Messiah Does not Come,” Ma’ariv, 9 April 2004, Shabbat Supplement (in Hebrew): 14-15.

8 Crane Brinton, “Reflections on the Desertion of the intellectuals,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 99:4 (August 30, 1955): 219,,

9 “You didn’t build that” is a phrase from a 2012 election campaign speech delivered by United States President Barack Obama on July 13, 2012, in Roanoke, Virginia. “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen….”, July 23, 2012,

10 Carl Campanile, New York Post, July 17, 2020.

11 “The Giving Pledge,”

12 Harold Nicolson, “Diplomacy Then and Now,” Foreign Affairs 40:1 (October 1961), 47.

13 George Orwell, Nineteen-Eighty-Four (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1966), 199.

14 Many consider the Constitution to be the explicit example of the social contract of the United States.

15 Chapters 17 and 14 of Leviathan, as cited by George H. Sabine, A History of Political Theory, (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1962, 3rd ed.), 468.

16 Nicolson, 48.

17 “Letter to a Member of the National Assembly,” (1791) in Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. L. G. Mitchell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 290-291.

18 Methvin, 96.

19 Ehud Sprinzak, “Anti-Zionism: From Delegitimization to Dehumanization,” Forum of the Jewish People, Zionism and Israel 53 (May 1984): 2.

20 The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume IV: In Front of your Nose, eds. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), 90.