Democracy is at risk in the United States. Why do leading political observers like Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (How Democracies Die) fear for the fate of our democracy? Because anti-democratic forces have taken over one of America’s primary political parties — the GOP; because GOP officials, governors, and legislators openly conspire to subvert future elections; because GOP activists and officials work intensively in state legislatures to restrict voting rights for non-Republican voters, including people of color and city dwellers; and because the Supreme Court no longer protects the Constitution and the rights that it embodies.
Here is how Levitsky and Ziblatt summarize their urgent concerns about the future of our democracy in a recent Atlantic article (link):
From November 2020 to January 2021, then, a significant portion of the Republican Party refused to unambiguously accept electoral defeat, eschew violence, or break with extremist groups—the three principles that define prodemocracy parties. Because of that behavior, as well as its behavior over the past six months, we are convinced that the Republican Party leadership is willing to overturn an election. Moreover, we are concerned that it will be able to do so—legally. That’s why we serve on the board of advisers to Protect Democracy, a nonprofit working to prevent democratic decline in the United States. We wrote this essay as part of “The Democracy Endgame,” the group’s symposium on the long-term strategy to fight authoritarianism.
Any reader of the morning newspaper understands how deadly serious this threat is. Many residents of Michigan find it absolutely chilling that the most recently appointed GOP canvasser for Wayne County has said publicly that he would not have certified the election results for the county in 2020 — with no factual basis whatsoever (link). With GOP officials in many states indicating their corrupt willingness to subvert future elections, how can one have a lot of hope for the future of our democracy?
So, tragically, it is very timely to consider this difficult question: what might an anti-democratic authoritarian system look like in the United States? Sinclair Lewis considered this question in 1935, and his portrait in It Can’t Happen Here was gloomy. Here is a snippet of Lewis’s vision of a fascist dictatorship in America following the election of the unscrupulous populist candidate Berzelius Windrip and his paramilitary followers, the Minute Men:
At the time of Windrip’s election, there had been more than 80,000 relief administrators employed by the federal and local governments in America. With the labor camps absorbing most people on relief, this army of social workers, both amateurs and long-trained professional uplifters, was stranded.
The Minute Men controlling the labor camps were generous: they offered the charitarians the same dollar a day that the proletarians received, with special low rates for board and lodging. But the cleverer social workers received a much better offer: to help list every family and every unmarried person in the country, with his or her finances, professional ability, military training and, most important and most tactfully to be ascertained, his or her secret opinion of the M.M.’s and of the Corpos in general.
A good many of the social workers indignantly said that this was asking them to be spies, stool pigeons for the American OGPU. These were, on various unimportant charges, sent to jail or, later, to concentration camps—which were also jails, but the private jails of the M.M.’s, unshackled by any old-fashioned, nonsensical prison regulations.
In the confusion of the summer and early autumn of 1937, local M.M. officers had a splendid time making their own laws, and such congenital traitors and bellyachers as Jewish doctors, Jewish musicians, Negro journalists, socialistic college professors, young men who preferred reading or chemical research to manly service with the M.M.’s, women who complained when their men had been taken away by the M.M.’s and had disappeared, were increasingly beaten in the streets, or arrested on charges that would not have been very familiar to pre-Corpo jurists. (ch xvii)
But perhaps this is extreme. Foretelling the future is impossible, but here are several features that seem likely enough given the current drift of US politics, if anti-democratic authoritarian politicians seize control of our legislative and executive offices.
Undermining of constitutional liberties
- weakening of freedom of the press through additional libel-law restrictions, bonds, and other “chilling” legal mechanisms
- weakening of freedom of thought and speech through legislation and bullying concerning critical / unpopular doctrines — “Critical Race Theory”, “Queer Studies”, “Communist/anarchist thought”, …
- weakening of freedom of association through extension of police surveillance, police violence, “anti-riot” legislation limiting demonstrations, vilification by leaders, trolls, and social media of outspoken advocates of unpopular positions
Further restrictions on voting rights and voter access to elections
- extreme gerrymandering to ensure one-party dominance
- unreasonable voter ID requirements
- limitations on absentee voting
- voter intimidation at the polls
The imposition of laws and mandates that are distinctly opposed by the majority of citizens by minority-party-dominated legislatures
- repressive and unconstitutional anti-abortion legislation
- open-carry firearms legislation
Implementation of an anti-regulation agenda that gives a free hand to big business and other powerful stakeholders
- weakening of regulatory agencies through reduction of legal mandate and budget
Intimidation of dissenters through violent threats, paramilitary demonstrations, and the occasional murder
- encouragement of social violence by followers of the authoritarian leader
- persecution through informal and sometimes formal channels of racial and social minorities — immigrants, people of color, Asians, LGBTQ and transgender people, …
- threats of violence and murder against public officials, journalists, and dissidents
These are terrible outcomes, and taken together they represent the extinction of liberal democracy: the integrity of constitutionally-defined equal rights for all individuals, and the principle of majoritarian public decision-making. But what about the extremes that authoritarian states have often reached in the past century — wholesale persecution of “enemies of the state”, imprisonment of dissidents, forcible dissolution of opposition political organizations, political murder, and wholesale use of paramilitary organizations to achieve the political goals of the authoritarian rules? What about the secret police, the Gulag, and the concentration camps? What are the prospects for these horrific outcomes in the United States? How likely is the descent imagined by Sinclair Lewis into wholesale fascist dictatorship?
One would like to say these extremes are unlikely in the US — that US authoritarianism would be “soft dictatorship” like that of Orban rather than the hard dictatorship of a Putin involving rule by fear, violence, imprisonment, and intimidation. But actually, history is not encouraging. We have seen the decline of one after another of the “guard rails of democracy” in just the past five years, and we have seen the actions of a president who clearly cared only about his own power and will. So where exactly should we find optimism for the idea that an American Mussolini or Windrip would never commit the crimes of the dictators of the twentieth century? Isn’t there a great deal of truth in Acton’s maxim, “power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely”? Here is Acton’s quote in its more extended context; and it is very specific in its advice that we should not trust “great leaders” to refrain from great crimes:
If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.
Would any of us want to trust our fate as free, equal, and dignified persons to the kindness and democratic values of a Greg Abbott, Ron DeSantis, or Donald Trump?
The best remedy against these terrible outcomes is to struggle for our democracy now. We must give full and deep support to politicians and candidates who demonstrate a commitment to democratic values, and we must reject the very large number of GOP politicians who countenance the subversion of our democracy through their adherence to the lies of the Trump years. This is not a struggle between “liberals” and “conservatives”; it is a struggle between those who value our liberal democracy and those who cynically undermine and disparage it. And perhaps we will need to take the example and the courage of men and women in Belarus, Myanmar, Thailand, and Hong Kong in their willingness to stand up against the usurpation of their democratic rights through massive peaceful demonstrations.