Are we on ĎThe Road to Unfreedomí? Timothy Snyder considers this political moment through historyís lens

April 16, 2018

Five years ago, Timothy Snyder began work on "The Road to Unfreedom," a book examining a modern political transformation: What happens when factual truth is upended? When wealth is concentrated? When battlefronts are online as well as on the ground? The Yale history professor had drafted the book ó a book about Russia and Ukraine ó by November 2016, but then Donald Trump was elected president.

Instead of submitting the book heíd planned, Snyder, perhaps best known up to that point for his critically acclaimed histories "Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin" and "Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning," published a slim, best-selling volume called "On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century." He continued work on "The Road to Unfreedom," expanding it to consider how ideas germinated in Russia in the early 2010s had spread through Ukraine and Europe to the United States.

"The Road to Unfreedom" offers a brief, potent and carefully documented history of Vladimir Putinís consolidation of power in Russia, Russiaís invasion of Ukraine, and Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Snyder centers on the notion that the world may be lurching from a "politics of inevitability" ó the notion, as Snyder writes, that a better future is ahead, "the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing to be done" ó and a "politics of eternity," or the idea that time is "a circle that endlessly returns to the same threats from the past Ö (that posits) that government cannot aid society as a whole, but can only guard against threats."

Framing the book with six political virtues, Snyder offers alternatives in his chapter titles: Individualism or Totalitarianism; Truth or Lies. "(I)ndividuality, endurance, cooperation, novelty, honesty and justice figure as political virtues. These qualities are not mere platitudes or preferences, but facts of history," he writes. "Virtues are inseparable from the institutions they inspire and nourish."

The Tribune spoke with Snyder by phone; the following is an edited transcript of the chat, condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: You are best known as a historian; why did you write a book about our contemporary moment?

A: When I look around at what the economists and the political scientists are saying about the world ó look, Iím just not sure that theyíre covering everything that needs to be covered. I think history is really helpful. History can help you to see when people are lying to you about the past and history can give you a sense of whatís possible and whatís not.

My specific motivation in writing "The Road to Unfreedom" is I think we really are passing through a crucial moment in the 2010s when things can go one way or things can go another way, and thatís what historyís all about. History isnít about how things have to go a certain way. History is about whatís possible within the given structures, so what Iím trying to do ó and itís ambitious ó Iím trying to write a kind of history of a moment as its unfolding, so we see how it unfolds and so we can see how much agency, how much freedom, how much power we have in this moment.

Q: Your book is framed by what you term the "politics of inevitability" and the "politics of eternity." How do these ideas intersect with economic factors?

A: Itís really easy to look around and just experience whatís happening to us as chaotic or emotional or somehow inexplicable, and I think whatís been revealed to us is just how important time is in politics.

The American version of (the politics of inevitability) is something like, the free marketís going to bring about democracy and happiness, and those are just the rules and thereís not really much that can be done one way or the other. Eventually you hit some sort of a crisis where it dawns on you that progress is not automatic. It dawns on you that there arenít really rules to history. In the U.S., you could say this started in 2008 for a lot of folks and then in 2016 it caught up to a lot of different people, but in the last decade or so, I think itís fair to say this notion that things are just automatically going to get better has fallen away.

What can come next is what I call in the book the politics of eternity, which is this notion that there really isnít a future, thereís just kind of a hazy past where things were better. And whatís cut us off from that hazy past is not ourselves or our policies or our rulers, but other people ó foreign enemies, native enemies. A slogan like "America First" reflects this, because it loops back to the 1930s. The idea of making America great again: You donít give anyone a future, you deny the future exists.

Iíd say economic inequality has everything to do with this. If you thought in our politics of inevitability that there were no alternatives to capitalism or that you canít even modify capitalism, you canít even dream about having a welfare state, that itself generates economic inequality both of income and of wealth. And when you get too much economic inequality, then people stop believing in progress. They stop believing in the future. They perfectly naturally start to think, no, this is actually a joke, this a trap, this is a lie, and then they become vulnerable to the politics of eternity. They become vulnerable to someone who comes around, as Mr. Trump did, and says, Look, this isnít your fault. Things used to be better, and then gives them a few slogans to explain how itís other peopleís fault. So economic conditions matter and ideas matter, and Iím trying to make sense of the relationship between them.

Q: You note that certain uniquely American institutions may be viewed as vulnerabilities by foreign agents ó particularly the electoral college and the Second Amendment. Can you explain?

A: We have these institutional restrictions ó the electoral college is built into the system, gerrymandering is permitted by the system ó and those things move us away from being a democratic system. But from the point of view of a foreign adversary, they look like vulnerabilities because they make it easier to throw the election. Itís odd from any point of view, except ours, that the president can win, even though he gets 3 million fewer votes than his opponent. But from the point of someone whoís trying to harm us, it makes it easier or more plausible to throw your weight. At the end (of the 2016 election, Russian agents) time this flood of fake news in places like Michigan and Wisconsin, which everyone thinks (Hillary) Clinton is going to win, and which she doesnít, but they can target that wave because itís not a national election. Itís an election thatís going to be determined by a few states at the last moment, and once others understand our system that way, they can try to manipulate our system that way ó which is what actually happened.

Sovereignty means that the state has a monopoly on legitimate violence, and that violence is an exception and not a rule. When you look at the U.S. from the outside, itís odd that tens of thousands of people die in gun violence every year. Itís odd that in critical tender public places, like schools, we would have these regular shootings. If youíre hostile to the United States, that looks like a place you could just push, you could just expand, you could try to make it worse, and that of course means supporting the NRA, which of course Russia does. The paradox for a lot of Americans is we might think that the Second Amendment is a right and itís about freedom, but from the point of view of a foreign adversary, uncontrolled violence that you can make worse is a way to bring us down. So we have to think about whether our own taste for this stuff doesnít become an appetite for destruction that somebody else can just encourage.

Q: You argue that a politician is entitled to a private life and that, as a society, we should be more discerning about leaks. Why?

A: Weíve started to treat politicians like celebrities, where whatís interesting about them is knowing more about their private life, and thatís actually not whatís interesting. Whatís interesting is whether they can govern a country, and thatís a completely different kind of question.

The other thing to be really wary about is being targeted for revelation. Everybody likes a revelation, Ö but what if youíre being targeted for that? What if somebody knows youíre going to find this revelation to be interesting, and theyíre very carefully selecting whatís revealed? Thatís what happened in 2016 when the Russians raided materials from the Democratic Party. I accept that the things that come out in these dumps and leaks, that those things might be pertinent, itís just that they have to be read against the intentions of the people who are doing the leaking. You have to try to imagine some larger context and not just take them the way theyíre being given to you.

Q: There have been reports that some Russians believe the influence of meddling in the U.S. election has been overblown. What do you think about that?

A: I guess if youíre in Russia itís hard to imagine what an open society is like. In particular, itís hard to imagine what an unregulated internet would look like. Our internet is so unregulated that itís just sort of extraordinary. Mr. Putinís original line about the internet was that it was a CIA plot. It took him a long time to figure out that it wasnít a CIA plot, that it was actually just what it looked like. And because it was just what it looked like, they could use it to get into American politics and change our reality.

Now I certainly do think thereís a danger in saying it was all the Russians, because if you say it was all the Russians, that means that it wasnít us. It means that (Steve) Bannonís not American, it means that Trump is not American, and it means that all these people who work in this administration are not American, and more fundamentally it means that there arenít American problems like inequality that made all this possible. Or there arenít American problems like the collapse of local news, which made this possible. I think the best way to think about it is that the vulnerabilities the Russians saw and exploited are real. Those are all real American problems, so even as we should care about having real media and cleaning up the internet and figuring out what Russia actually did, we should be concerned about those fundamental problems of social and racial inequality which made the Russian attack possible.

Q: How effective do you think recent diplomatic expulsions will be?

A: When it comes to what the Russians really care about, Russians really care about fossil fuels, because thatís how the oligarchical clan thatís in power has resources and stays in power. We are right now a very pro-fossil fuels country under this administration. The second thing the Russians care about are places where they can launder money. Are we closing offshore loopholes? No. And then the final thing would be: Are we seriously investigating electoral intervention in 2016 and are we trying to prevent it in 2018? There again, the answer seems to be no.

Q: You end the book with a call for a "politics of responsibility." What do you mean by that?

A: Iím trying to think seriously about politics on the scale of one life or one generation. My premise in this book is there really is good and evil. Some things really are better and some things really are worse, and that being a good citizen isnít just a matter of doing what everybody else does. Itís a matter of having some idea of virtue and trying to live up to that idea of virtue in public. The book is not just about things falling apart; itís about the virtues you lose when things fall apart. Things like individuality or things like equality.

What I mean by the politics of responsibility is the attempt to create a political system that makes sense over the course of one life, where thereís enough equality that young people think the system is not stacked against them and that they can grow up without resentment. The goal of all that individuality is a mature person whoís able to process the things going on around him or her to figure out whatís actually true or whatís not. Responsibility fundamentally involves caring whatís true and whatís not. That might be the most fundamental responsibility, because if we give up on that, if we give up on the truth, if we just say, everything is your opinion or my opinion, then we canít really make sensible political decisions. We canít cooperate, we canít form groups, we canít have scandals, we canít figure anything out.

So what I mean by a politics of responsibility is basically not going from a dream to a nightmare. The politics of inevitability is kind of this dream that we can just kind of sleepwalk; historyís only going in one direction, everythingís going to be fine. The politics of eternity is a nightmare; itís a recurring nightmare. The same bad things are going to happen over and over again; the other people are always out to get us, therefore we need a leader who can tell us what to do. What Iím trying to do is to keep us sliding from the first thing to the other thing ó from the dream to the nightmare. Iím trying to get us to wake up and just take our little bit of responsibility for this world.

Q: Whatís your next project?

My next project is called "Better Life." Instead of just diagnosing how things are going wrong, Iím going to try to write a book which draws on the last 6,000 years of human civilization and tries to come up with notions of what a good life would look like. Starting from the same premise that this book starts from, namely that weíre at this big turning point where things are going to be different in a few years, letís assume that we have the chance to make things better. I think one of the things thatís gotten lost in all the turmoil of our current conversation is the question of what things would be like if they were good?




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