[Note Co-Author = Larry Ozeran]
Over the last several years, there has been a subtle but consistent shift in the tenor of our dialogue as a nation. Rather than engaging in dialogue, too frequently we move towards our respective corners where each side of the discussion offers simplistic commentary rather than engaging in interactive debate. Furthermore, we seem to have moved away from a reliance upon facts toward an embrace of opinions that frequently do not have a basis in fact. Our interaction with one another has degenerated into a prevailing recital of sound bites over true dialogue. The result is a lack of communication that permeates all sides of most debates in the United States and across our global society as well. Such a reframing of facts into opinions and lies has historically been used by authoritarians to control the message and confuse the populace. We then need to ask the question: Is our democracy headed in the same direction?
Politics and policy discussions are filled with voices talking at rather than talking with. The cornerstone of effective action is the art of listening followed by hearing and then learning where we engage together to find solutions to our common needs. However, too often words divide our conversations with considerable pontificating from all sides of the debates so that our ability to reach a mutual understanding is too frequently irretrievably shattered. At the core, the natural restraints we place on ourselves during dialogue and debate are shattered with communications too frequently reduced to pithy 280-character commentaries. Furthermore, the dialogue is too often asynchronous thereby losing the benefit of an exchange that comes from sitting across from someone with a different context and perspective and the richness of communication that includes vocal tone and body language.
Meanwhile, without an effective approach to dialogue, our listening across the political spectrum has become hollow for lack of hearing one another. With a hearing deficit, the ability to move a conversation forward becomes quite limited, at best. The result is we are then stymied from having any meaningful exchange. Combining ineffective dialogue with tribalism that values relationship and who is making a statement over facts and science, opens the door for the slow march toward authoritarian rule.
Could the United States of America be led by an authoritarian ruler…right now? Let’s turn to three notable experts on the question of authoritarianism as a framework for this question. For starters, Masha Gessen recently released her book, Surviving Autocracy,[i] based on her prescient essay in 2016. Her premise — which is being borne out — is that most Americans could not fathom the unfathomable. After all, our institutions have been designed to prevent the centralization of powers. Yet, her analysis shows that, in fact, considerable centralization of power in the Executive branch has occurred over recent decades allowing for the evolution of a demagogue in the Presidency.
On another more practical authoritarian note, John Dean recently released his book, Authoritarian Nightmare.[ii] Along with his co-author, Bob Altemeyer, they provide a similar analysis to Gessen with an analysis of psychological diagnostic tools to support their premise. Unlike the other experts, theirs is based on the practical experience of Mr. Dean who was the primary force for undoing the Nixon Administration.
If we extend the review to more academic experts in the field of authoritarianism, the first book to react is Furio Cerutti’s Conceptualizing Politics: An Introduction to Political Philosophy[iii] has noted that:
Political scientists have outlined elaborated typologies of authoritarianism, from which it is not easy to draw a generally accepted definition; it seems that its main features are the non-acceptance of conflict and plurality as normal elements of politics, the will to preserve the status quo and prevent change by keeping all political dynamics under close control by a strong central power, and lastly, the erosion of the rule of law, the division of powers, and democratic voting procedures.
[[he’s more like 4th]] Juan Linz is a political scientist at Yale University considered to be one of the preeminent authorities on the specter of authoritarian rule. He has also provided a framework for considering the presence of authoritarian rule. He was born during the rule of the Weimar Republic in Germany and grew up during the Spanish civil war before emigrating to the United States. He has published extensively on the topic and outlined four essential qualities as the cornerstone for authoritarianism. They include[iv]:
1) limited political pluralism where constraints are placed on the legislature, the interest groups, and the political parties,
2) the regime is defined as the central authority for solving the problems faced in society,
3) political mobilization is used by the regime to denigrate, diminish, or suppress any opposition; and,
4) executive power rather than legislative or judicial power is used to create, define, and execute policy for the nation.
Reading between the lines of these definitions and frameworks, we are like the proverbial lobster being boiled in the slowly heating water. For most Americans, it seems likely the collective response would be something akin to “Authoritarianism here? No way! We have a free press. We have free elections. We have a Declaration of Independence and our sacred Constitution that outlines three co-equal branches of government.” And, on and on…
If we consider the Linz framework for starters, it would appear that a pluralistic discussion and debate between our political parties has already halted. The House moves legislation forward on party line votes and the Senate declines to consider the legislation or places it on permanent hold in the Senate Majority Leader’s office, a permission granted by the rules of the Senate. Furthermore, there is much discussion in both parties about appealing to “the base”, which increasingly seems to move farther toward the left or right of the political spectrum.
Considering the second element of the Linz framework, the Presidency is deemed as the central authority for solving the pandemic. Rather than providing federal leadership for managing the pandemic in a consistent manner in every state, the Administration has consistently delegated the responsibility to the states in an apparent attempt to exonerate the executive branch and blame others for the unprecedented loss of American lives to disease. This has exacerbated shortages of equipment (pitting states to bid against each other), delayed distribution of vaccines, and politicized scientific health measures (like wearing a mask) that when combined have led to the unnecessary deaths of thousands of Americans. The pandemic response by federal leadership has made the country look like the Divided States of America. To rephrase a rallying cry of the past: United we Stand. Divided we Die.
For the third element, the Administration has placed considerable emphasis on mobilizing the political base through events filled with rhetorical flourish, even when warned the pandemic spread would be worsened by public events. An effort to revive these events failed in Tulsa when the majority stayed away and those that did attend had a heightened rate of infection for the Covid-19 virus, ultimately causing the recent death of a Presidential rival, Herman Cain.
And, finally, the fourth element of authoritarian rule is clear with the executive using its power to create an extra-military force in the Department of Homeland Security and deploying those resources, despite the objections of duly elected officials in the states of Oregon and Washington. The Administration has threatened to repeat this action in other cities.
Let us extend our analysis to other areas. Do we have a free press? Well, sort of. We have had a leader who forces his messaging upon the American people by markedly limiting access to information without explicit approval from The White House. Information that the President does not like is either labeled false, a lie, or — more often — fake news. As of mid-April, the media fact-checkers have tabulated more than 18,000 outright lies or false statements by the President since beginning office in 2016. By spewing a continuous stream of misinformation, the Administration has successfully sewn immense doubt about the validity of the “liberal media”, a label given to anyone with whom the President disagrees. Through repetitive lying and spreading of misinformation, he has used the bully pulpit to control the nation’s narrative on a wide variety of important topics. He has even threatened to expand legal liability for media reporting. Tactically, every authoritarian leader works to control the narrative. The President is true to form.
Another bulwark of democracy is the presence of free elections. Do we have free elections? It is increasingly clear that we do not. On top of longstanding practices of gerrymandering and voter suppression, the regime (yes, regime) has welcomed foreign interference (i.e. Russia) and recently attempted to undermine the U.S. Postal Service through decreased funding and efforts to hinder voting by mail. Most importantly, the President has already planted the idea of widespread fraud in his recent Tweet on July 30, 2020 when he declared that a mail-in system will result in “…the most FRADULENT and INACCURATE Election in history”. In reality, study after study has shown that problems with the U.S. electoral system are miniscule. Ironically, he is arguing that voting by mail works for him but should not be available for other Americans. By sewing doubt in the electoral process and indicating that he might not accept the election results, the President is engaging in classic authoritarian behavior His Tweets and press conferences seem to be clearly set forth as the groundwork for declaring rigged elections should he lose in November. He has even implied he will not accept the results of the election (unless he wins) and has proposed to delay the elections, something only Congress can do.
As noted previously, the use of a federal quasi-military entity under the Department of Homeland Security to defend federal property that, contrary to its stated goal, actually exacerbated and inflamed protestors in Portland, Oregon. The use of such force is one clear and visceral example of outright authoritarian behavior. Federal law enforcement was used to attack unarmed Americans engaged in peaceful protests, which is their Constitutional right. When Trump’s political enemies are sent to prison, like Michael Cohen, subsequently released by the Court, it emphasizes the authoritarian leanings of this Administration. By contrast, the federal regime is freeing its political cronies, like Roger Stone, despite the opposition of many lawyers in the Justice Department. Yet, despite these and many other examples mentioned previously, The White House received very little bipartisan pressure to alter course.
Let us consider the presence of three separate branches of government. Congressional oversight and the Judiciary are defined in the Constitution, but are they working as intended? The US House voted to impeach the President for his abuses of power. The US Senate seemed to accept these abuses as not warranting impeachment and removal from office.[v] Is it possible that complicity of most Republicans in the Senate, with the notable exception of Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), was the final break from Democracy that gave us a full-fledged autocrat?
The evidence indicates that Americans do not currently live in a democracy. The slippery slope to complete authoritarianism has begun. Look around. Evaluate the frameworks provided as steps toward such government. We should not let down our guard.
Let us close by considering the elephant in the room. The pandemic sweeping the world exhibits the worst impact in the United States of America for a reason. Having every state and municipality doing their own thing is not a response. It is chaos. Federal leadership in our national crisis is absolutely essential. A vote in November will not see any immediate change in public health management. We will need to wait until January 2021 for the leadership change with real action not realized — most likely — until late Spring. If there is no change in federal leadership, hundreds of thousands of American citizens will die. Now is the time to take stock and act. Vote as if your life depended on it…because it does!
Finally, if you value living in a democracy, act now to retrieve it from the slide into authoritarianism. Soon, it may be too late.
[iii] Furio Cerutti (2017). Conceptualizing Politics: An Introduction to Political Philosophy. Routledge. p. 17.
[iv] Linz, J. Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000