The Autocrat Problem – The New York Times


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The European Union seems to be functioning better than the United States in some big ways right now. Europe has been far more successful in subduing the coronavirus. It has also passed a recent economic stimulus bill, while the U.S. Congress has not.

But Europe has a major problem.

It has a rising autocratic movement that the continent’s leaders have no clear strategy for confronting. If anything, the pandemic has strengthened the most autocratic E.U. governments, in Hungary and Poland. Other countries have put a higher priority on fighting the virus and helping the economy than trying to stop the erosion of democracy.

As my colleague Matina Stevis-Gridneff, who covers the European Union from Brussels, told me, “The leading E.U. member states have been willing to partly turn a blind eye to achieve realpolitik gains right now.”

The background: Hungary’s governing party, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has undermined democracy by changing election rules, packing the courts with allies and insisting on uncritical media coverage. Orban has used the virus as an excuse to centralize authority even further.

Poland’s governing party, led by Jarosław Kaczynski, has taken a similar approach, mostly by neutralizing the judicial system.

When the E.U. expanded to include Hungary, Poland and six other countries in 2004, the bloc’s leaders made the mistake of assuming that Eastern and Central Europe were on a one-way path to democracy and the rule of law. (The naïveté bears some resemblance to American assumptions about how China would democratize after joining global trade treaties.)

As a result, the E.U. did not create an easy process for punishing countries that move away from democracy. Doing so can require either a unanimous vote or a supermajority, and Hungary and Poland have defeated either.

Some European officials pushed for a tougher approach in the recent stimulus bill, but in the end, the E.U. leaders chose to avoid a big fight during a crisis. Afterward, Orban gloated about winning “a very important battle.” (This Times analysis does a nice job of explaining the debate.)

There are no easy answers here. Allowing autocracy to flourish may encourage its rise in other countries. But confronting it risks pulling the E.U. apart.

“In the long run, it seems to me, rule of law issues will undermine the E.U.,” Steven Erlanger, The Times’s chief diplomatic correspondent in Europe, says.

The chief executives of Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook fielded more than five hours of tough questions from members of Congress. Unlike most congressional hearing these days, Democrats and Republicans acted as if they had a common foe, though for different reasons.

Republicans questioned whether the platforms censored conservative viewpoints, while Democrats accused the companies of stifling competitors.

In Europe: Officials are pursuing at least half a dozen new laws and regulations that target tech companies.

Representative Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican who has frequently refused to wear a mask, has tested positive for the coronavirus. Gohmert has been actively participating in hearings this week. In a video recorded in his office after the diagnosis, Gohmert said he had probably gotten the “Wuhan virus” because he had occasionally worn a mask.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded by requiring lawmakers and staff members to wear masks on the House floor, on penalty of removal.

In other virus developments:

  • A $600-a-week federal unemployment benefit that has helped keep tens of millions of Americans afloat is likely to expire on Friday, without agreement among the White House and Congress about whether to extend it.

Teachers and their unions are pushing back against plans to reopen schools, causing tensions with some parents and lawmakers.

Many teachers say it’s unfair to ask them to return to crowded indoor spaces while a pandemic is raging, especially after they went beyond their normal duties in the spring. Unions are calling for longer school closures and stronger safety measures — as well as limits on what teachers must do in virtual classrooms. Without adequate safety provisions, some unions have threatened to strike.

Critics say the unions are being inflexible and trying to have it both ways: reluctant to return to school, but also resistant to teaching online. “You can’t just keep saying you’re scared. We’re all scared,” said one parent, an essential worker in the Bronx with an autistic son. “Our kids need in-person learning.”

How it could work: The Times has created an illustrated guide to how schools will try to control the coronavirus.

A new podcast: Nice White Parents” from Serial — a podcast company The New York Times recently acquired — investigates what happened when a group of white families arrived at a predominately Black school in Brooklyn.

In private fund-raisers for Joe Biden, Barack Obama has unloaded on President Trump, bringing up accusations of sexual assault and warning about Trump’s efforts to push “nativist, racist, sexist” fears and resentments.

At an event this week with the actor George Clooney, an attendee asked Obama what kept him up at night these days. His answer: fears of voter suppression and a potential effort by Trump to question the election’s legitimacy.

Today: Obama is expected to deliver a eulogy for John Lewis, the civil rights leader and congressman, at his Atlanta funeral.

In The Times: Two days before his death, Lewis submitted an Opinion piece that he hoped would be published on the day of his funeral. “Though I am gone, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart,” he wrote.

The pandemic has isolated many children from their friends and extended families — and appears to be leading to a rise in mental health problems. In one recent survey, almost 80 percent of adolescent girls reported feeling more lonely since the pandemic began. “It’s not just the fear of missing out, it’s the actual missing out,” one expert told The Wall Street Journal.

What can parents do to help?

  • Limit screen time. Many girls are spending more time talking to friends on social media, while boys are turning to video games. Both can deepen loneliness. Vivek Murthy, the former U.S. surgeon general, suggests phone or video calls instead.

A listening recommendation: On the “Teenager Therapy” podcast, five California high schoolers talk mental health, family and regaining a semblance of normalcy during lockdown.

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The Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, also known as Eid el-Kabir, begins tonight in the United States. To celebrate — or just to enjoy a great meal — try Nargisse Benkabbou’s recipe for mrouzia, a Moroccan tagine of lamb shanks in a rich sauce infused with honey and raisins. The centuries-old dish, often served to commemorate special occasions, is delicious with couscous or bread.

Find more recipes for the holiday here.

In normal times, more than 130,000 fans descend upon San Diego around this time of year for Comic-Con International, a pop-culture convention full of elaborate costumes and winding lines for merchandise and autographs. In 2020, of course, there was none of that.

Instead, the event broadcast prerecorded panels (with guests like the cast of “Star Trek”) and online movie screenings (of crowd-pleasers like “Spaceballs”). The critic Maya Phillips, a longtime fan of the event, tuned in with high hopes but explains all the ways it went wrong.

In a small Nigerian town, the body of a young man turns up on his mother’s doorstep. That’s the setup for “The Death of Vivek Oji,” the third novel by Akwaeke Emezi, which is both a mystery and a coming-of-age story. Elisabeth Egan goes into more detail in her latest “Group Text” column — a monthly feature for book-club members and other readers.

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