The Uniquely American Future of US Authoritarianism

The Uniquely American Future of US Authoritarianism
Written by Techbot

The US Republican Party has become increasingly authoritarian and extreme in recent years, and it doesn’t seem likely to moderate that in the foreseeable future. Despite performing poorly in the 2022 midterms after running many candidates the public saw as too extreme, the GOP has decided to elevate and empower far-right lawmakers like representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz. 

In Florida, books have been removed from school shelves as governor Ron DeSantis tries to reshape the public education system in his own image. Republican lawmakers around the US have passed abortion bans that put pregnant women’s lives in danger. The rights of transgender people are under attack throughout the country. 

Nearly half of Republicans say they would prefer “strong, unelected leaders” over “weak elected ones,” according to a September Axios-Ipsos poll, and around 55 percent of Republicans say defending the “traditional” way of life by force may soon become necessary. About 61 percent of Republicans don’t believe the results of the 2020 presidential election. 

Finding examples of extremism, a lust for authoritarian leaders, and general antidemocratic beliefs in America is not difficult these days—just spend a few minutes online. The question is how far down the rabbit hole the United States has gone and where it may end up in the not-too-distant future. 

“To call a party democratic—committed to democracy—they’ve got to do three basic things: They have to unambiguously accept election results, they have to unambiguously renounce violence, and they have to consistently and unambiguously break with extremists or antidemocratic forces,” says Steve Levitsky, a professor of government at Harvard University. “I think the Republican Party now fails these three basic tests.”

Levitsky says far too many Republican leaders have flirted with using violence to achieve their political goals and spread lies about the most recent presidential election. He says politicians like DeSantis appear to be experimenting with an authoritarian way of governing in their own states that could be applied at the national level should they successfully run for president. 

It’s difficult to find an apt comparison between the Republican Party and authoritarian movements that have risen elsewhere for a variety of reasons. One, Levitsky says, is that Donald Trump took over a party that has existed for nearly 170 years and made it more authoritarian. Historically, authoritarians tend to start their own parties. Another is that a relatively small percentage of the populace was able to wield such great power under Trump.

“There’s a minority of the population that’s pretty reactionary and, by a bunch of measures, fairly authoritarian in really all Western democracies,” Levitsky says. “The question is, how are they channeled into politics? What’s exceptional about the United States is that 25 percent or so was actually able to wield national power. Is MAGA comparable to far-right parties in Europe? Yeah. With the exception of maybe Golden Dawn in Greece, though, probably more openly authoritarian.”

Authoritarian movements of the past share characteristics with what we’re seeing in the US today—from Turkey and Hungary more recently to the rise of fascism in the 1920s—but the US governmental system and political parties present particular hurdles and windows of opportunity. 

Assuming democracy remains intact in the years to come, Levitsky thinks the GOP will have to eventually moderate its stance in response to changing demographics. The current extremism will not be sustainable if the party hopes to win enough elections to wield power in the future. However, Levitsky thinks any adjustments could take longer than one would hope.

“The problem is our incentives—the Electoral College, the Supreme Court, the fact that sparsely populated territories are dramatically overrepresented in our electoral system—allows the Republicans to wield a lot of power without winning national majorities,” Levitsky says. “If the Republican Party actually had to win over 50 percent of the national vote to control the Senate, to control the presidency, to control the Supreme Court, you would not see them behaving the way they’re behaving. They would never win.”

It remains to be seen whether Trump will be the Republican nominee in the 2024 presidential election, but there’s clear evidence that the effects of his actions wouldn’t simply disappear if he wasn’t controlling the party. A lot of Americans have been radicalized since he first took office, and it’s not easy to roll that back.

“I think the consensus is that democracy is not in the clear, and that’s because the rhetoric and actions of the GOP have emboldened their supporters to sort of accept certain behaviors that we wouldn’t have thought were in line with democracy,” says Erica Frantz, an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University. “Suddenly it’s OK to question if our elections are free and fair. Suddenly it’s OK to be provocative and suggest you might use violence if the election doesn’t go your way.”

Frantz says large sectors of the US population accept the authoritarian messaging Trump spearheaded, and that is likely going to have lasting effects. She says the fact that Trump was successfully removed from office despite his attempts to overturn the election in 2020 is a big deal, but there’s still a lot of work to be done to protect American democracy.

“I don’t think we’re going to backslide to dictatorship. The probability is higher than before Trump, but it’s still low compared to many other countries,” Frantz says. “It is very possible that we’ll muddle along for quite some time in this situation where undemocratic norms are being spouted and perpetuated by one of our main parties.”

In terms of what supporters of democracy can do in the face of an authoritarian movement, there’s no silver bullet—but there are ways to push back. Levitsky says it’s important to form large coalitions to “isolate and defeat” authoritarians, which means uniting democracy supporters on the left and the right. 

A. James McAdams, a professor of international affairs at the University of Notre Dame, says those who oppose authoritarianism need a strong message that will appeal to people who might be pulled in by authoritarian leaders. 

“If you look back historically, one of the big problems in democracies has always been that the forces of reason can’t figure out what they stand for,” McAdams says. “We’re at a point in history today in the United States and Europe where moderate parties aren’t sure what to say.”

You also need to support and strengthen democratic institutions like the courts, McAdams says. He says this is particularly important because weak courts are often part of the reason authoritarians are able to take power and chip away at democracy, such as in Latin America in the 1970s. 

“If you do have stable democratic institutions—particularly viable courts—then there’s a lot of bullshit that you can overcome,” McAdams says. “Perhaps the greatest victory for American institutions in the Trump age was that the courts weren’t overpowered.”

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