Stuck in the middle (with the left and right)

L. Glenn Lawrence, writing from Ronda, Spain

“Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am stuck in the [anocratic] middle with you.”

I ask a thousand pardons of Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan for mangling the lyrics to their great song, but I couldn’t resist. With both right-wing and left-wing autocrats on the ascendancy around the globe (the reader is free to assign “clown” and “joker” labels to their choice of extremists), I am deeply concerned about the future of the world’s leading democracies that seem stuck in the middle.

I recently learned a new term: anocracy—a way station on the distressing road from democracy to autocracy. An anocracy involves elements of both democracy and autocracy; it is an unstable hybrid stuck between the dissimilar systems. An example would be a country with democratic elections but with a critical lack of due process and freedom of the press.

Democracy is on the wane globally, while autocracies are booming. Alarmingly, in just the last decade, the autocratic proportion of the world increased from 49 percent to 70 percent. According to a recent study by the respected V-Dem Institute, the world has regressed to autocratic levels last reached before the end of the Cold War.

To the left of me are rising autocracies in Europe (Hungary, Serbia), naked dictatorial maneuvers by Putin, and a Big Brother-like technological stranglehold on citizens in China, while to the right is rising autocratic extremism in the formerly democratic United States of America.

According to respected observers of the health of democracies around the world, the U.S. fell from the rank of democracy to that of an anocracy during the past few years. Among many reasons, Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and domestic attempts to interfere with the transfer of power in the 2020 election triggered the fall from democratic grace. These are hallmarks of autocracies, not of democracies.

It required only two and a half centuries for the U.S. to descend into an extremist mess that the country’s Founding Fathers strenuously tried to prevent in drafting the Constitution.  

Fortunately, in the last year or so, the U.S. has climbed far enough out of the muck that it has rejoined the lower echelon of democracies. But unfortunately, with increasing extremist maneuvering to gain undue control over future elections, it’s a short drop back into the anocratic cesspool.

The danger of being stuck in the middle is that anocracies are three times more likely than a democracy to suffer civil war.

Barbara Walter, professor of international relations at the University of California at San Diego, serves on the Political Instability Task Force, a CIA advisory panel. She offers a good description of the conditions that have historically led to civil war. [And by the way, it’s scary when such a task force has to turn its focus on the U.S.].

As quoted on Washington Post Live, Professor Walter outlines the variables that have proven predictive of civil wars: “The first is a variable… called ‘anocracy’… countries that are neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic… The second factor [is]… ‘ethnic factionalism’…”

The U.S. is not literally suffering from ethnic factionalism, at least not to the degree of places like the countries of the former Yugoslavia. But belief systems and political factionalism in the U.S. are potent analogs to ethnic factionalism. Extremist clowns and jokers are causing saner voices in the moderate middle to be silenced. The U.S. already suffers from virtual civil war through social and other forms of media. Youngsters raised in fervent “red” and “blue” households are learning to hate those of the other color, much like Serbs and Croats, and Arabs and Israelis.

The seeds of civil war are being sown, with a potential intermediate step being political and belief factionalism developing into terroristic strife like that between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

With social media fueling America’s political and extremist factionalism, I’m not optimistic about the future of the liberal democracy the Founding Fathers tried to engineer. [Liberal in this context means supportive of individual rights and civil liberties, not “progressive” or “left-wing”.] The U.S. was supposed to feature civil political discourse, religious freedom, and a government with checks and balances to avoid extremist autocratic power.

In an excellent article in The Atlantic, “Why the past 10 years of American life have been uniquely stupid,” the author makes a highly compelling case for laying the blame for fanning the flames of extremist ethnic-like divisions at the feet of ill-managed social media. The result has allowed extremists to take over the stage like preening divas while crowding out moderate voices. This outcome fuels the devastating growth of extremists with dictatorial aspirations.

The global decline in liberal democracies means we need to stay flexible with our international lifestyle plans. It doesn’t mean we can’t commit to making a home in an expat country of choice. Still, it’s crucial to be aware of how free (or not) the political system is where you may establish your expat home, domicile your investments, or spend a substantial amount of your time.

Flexibility means thinking globally, not locally; it means not anchoring your entire life to a single jurisdiction. It means having migratory insurance policies in the form of escape plans with the legal right to remain in more than one country and the right to travel between numerous countries freely.

Ideally, these rights are in the form of different passports, but long-stay residency visas and permits, in some ways, can be more important. Their importance lies in the greater ease of acquisition for many of those not of the lucky birth lottery club who can acquire first-rate second citizenship through ancestry or who can easily afford an economic citizenship from a country with a desirable passport.

I found my path out of the anocratic netherworld long ago—will you find yours today? I can’t claim prescience about the U.S.’ descent into anocracy, but I can claim becoming a proponent of an international lifestyle decades ago when I sadly witnessed early warning signs.

Signs such as the ramifications of the declaration of an interminable war against a stateless enemy (the War on Terror), previously unfathomable violations of personal privacy and suspensions of due process via the Patriot Act, and the growth of virulent extremism enabled and fueled by social media.

If you want help in planning your path to an international lifestyle including a plan for second residencies and passports, we at Sovereign X stand ready to assist.


L. Glenn Lawrence is co-founder and managing partner of Sovereign X.