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How Many Hidden Thresholds of Soft Authoritarianism have we Already Crossed?

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If Only it was this Obvious

Tom Pepinski, who wrote a terrific post on the banality of life under soft authoritarian regimes, has a new piece entitled “If American Democracy Collapsed, You Almost Certainly Wouldn’t Notice It.”

Democracy, in fact, makes it particularly challenging to know if democracy has collapsed. That is because when democracy functions, challenges to it are usually hidden, and when they emerge in the open, they are processed through a system that presumes that challenges can be handled democratically. Political actors invoke laws and Constitutions as if they were binding constraints. Stresses that pose questions about the stability of the regime over time, therefore, are fundamentally ambiguous. They may be regime-altering, or not. And the responses to them by those who hold power may be regime-altering. Or not.

And that is why, if American democracy were to collapse, you almost certainly wouldn’t notice it. Not right away, at least.

This question of democratic collapse is a different phenomenon than the suite of problems frequently labeled “democratic decline” or “democratic erosion” or “democratic dysfunction.” It may be that governments perform poorly, or govern in illiberal or biased ways, or that citizens are apathetic, demobilized, “hunkering down” and turning to blind obedience and loyalty rather than embracing rights and exercising voice. But what I mean by collapse is that it no longer is the case that one follows widely-accepted practices for securing political authority by prevailing in competitive elections that enfranchise most people. It is an open question whether or not the symptoms of decline and dysfunction predict the illness of collapse.

Although the mechanisms are slightly different, I think the same general point can be made about some classes of transformations in other political orders. For example, aspects of liberal international ordering have already substantially unravelled – but it seems like many international-affairs experts either don’t realize it or, at the other extreme, think that ongoing mutations in international order presage some kind of collapse into multipolar chaos.

In general, our tendency to think in “all or nothing” terms – to expect that significant transformations are always accompanied by explosions, flashing neon lights, and sirens – obscures a great deal of alteration in political orders. Even the kinds of events – such as impeachment – that I once thought would change this dynamic seem to be resolving into collective anticlimax. Meanwhile, Trump has transformed, in a way unlike any other modern president, the Republican party into his own personal patrimony. And the self-abasement of Senators before the Mad Emperor now just seems like par for the course.

Of course, Trump’s acquittal slides us further down the road. There’s absolutely nothing to stop him from weaponizing the executive branch to persecute his opponents and shield himself and his family. Indeed, Rand Paul’s systematic efforts to intimidate the whistleblower who called out the Ukraine Shakedown seem particularly sinister in this context.

But it’s worth noting that many of the most vulnerable people already live in an illiberal state, and Trump’s policies have overall broadened and deepened the extent of American pocket authoritarianism. To wit:

The strangers trying to arrest his mom’s boyfriend weren’t wearing uniforms or badges, and they didn’t have a warrant. So 26-year-old Eric Diaz did the only thing he could think of: Outside his front door, on the otherwise quiet Brooklyn street, he confronted the plainclothes officers.

Then, one of them shot him in the face — just below his right eye.

“He literally points the gun at my brother and didn’t even hesitate,” Kevin Yañez Cruz, who witnessed the scene on Thursday morning, told WABC. “Just pulled the trigger.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed that agents discharged “at least one firearm” in the altercation, which landed two officers and two others in the hospital, agency officials said in statements to local news outlets. Diaz and the man they were targeting are now in their custody in the hospital, activists say.

Not surprisingly, the situation is intertwined with New York’s refusal to cooperate with Trump’s ethnic cleansing. This leads to policies that put due process considerations first, as they should be. But, of course, ICE blames respect for basic civil liberties for what happened in this case.

Gaspar Avendano-Hernandez, the longtime boyfriend of Diaz’s mother, had been deported back to Mexico twice, ICE officials said.

On Monday, he was stopped by New York police for allegedly driving with a forged Connecticut license plate, a felony criminal charge, WABC reported.

Upon the man’s arrest, immigration officials issued a detainer request, asking that Avendano-Hernandez be held in jail past his release date so that they could take him into custody. New York, like other “sanctuary cities,” does not comply with these orders, which many courts have said violate due process.

“This forced ICE officers to locate him on the streets of New York rather than in the safe confines of a jail,” ICE spokeswoman Rachael Yong Yow said in a statement to the Wall Street Journal.

A team of officers tracked him down to a residential street in Gravesend, an ethnically diverse neighborhood in south Brooklyn, arriving around 8 a.m. Thursday to try to arrest him.

He would not budge.

“He resisted because they didn’t show him no papers, like, ‘Oh, I’m the police,’ no badge, no nothing, no warrant, no nothing,” Yañez Cruz told WABC.

They Tasered him. At that point, two sons of his live-in girlfriend, including Diaz, stepped outside, unarmed, to check on what was happening. The officers didn’t say anything at all, Yañez Cruz told the station.

According to ICE, that’s when the two agents were “physically attacked.” The ICE spokeswoman did not identify Diaz or say whether he was among the attackers.

Speaking of abuses of federal power, how many of you live in New York and were planning on getting, or renewing, Global Entry?

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