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A camouflaged dictatorship

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Zack Beauchamp has a good summary of the evidence that America is trending toward what’s known in the political science literature as “competitive authoritarianism.”

There are many kinds of authoritarian systems, and many ways to become one of them. In the United States, the threat that looms is a slide into what scholars call “competitive authoritarianism”: a system that still holds elections, but under profoundly unfair conditions that systematically favor one side. That process, of one party stacking the deck in its favor over the course of years, isn’t unique — we’ve seen it in countries across the world in recent years, in places as diverse as Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela.

Understanding what’s happening in the US as something fundamentally similar to what’s happened elsewhere — using the a-word, unflinchingly — helps us not only diagnose the most dangerous policy steps the GOP is taking, but also truly appreciate the gravity of the situation in which America has found itself.

We are suffering from the same rot that has brought down democracy in other countries: a party that has decided it no longer wants to play by the rules and that would instead prefer to rule as authoritarians rather than share power with its opponents.

As an aside, it’s characteristic of the absurd extent to which political discourse in the United States simply ignores the existence of Mexico that this country of 128 million people, with which we share a 2,000-mile border that is the most frequently crossed national border in the entire world, isn’t even mentioned in Beauchamp’s otherwise excellent article, even though it has been one of the classic examples of competitive authoritarianism in the post-war world.

Steven Levitsky, who along with Lucan Way is credited with developing the concept in a very widely cited 2002 paper, describes the ideological tightrope that competitive authoritarian regimes must stay on:

“Incumbents routinely abuse state resources, deny the opposition adequate media coverage, harass opposition candidates and their supporters, and in some cases manipulate electoral results,” Levitsky and Way write. “Regimes characterized by such abuses cannot be called democratic.”

Yet competitive authoritarian systems survive in part by convincing citizens that they are living in a democracy. That’s how they maintain their legitimacy and prevent popular uprisings. As such, they do not conduct the kind of obvious sham elections held in places like Bashar al-Assad’s Syria (he won the 2021 contest with 95 percent of the “vote”).

It’s critical to understand that when Republicans say “we’re a republic, not a democracy,” what they really mean is that pure democracy must never undermine fundamental rights — and the most fundamental right of all is that of white people and their party to rule America. That’s our version of competitive authoritarianism, and as Beauchamp notes it’s not, historically speaking, exactly a novel creed here in the land of free and fair elections:

The US Constitution devolved election administration to the states, giving local legislatures control over the rules around elections and the process of actually tallying up the votes. State governments are what political scientist Phil Rocco calls “the infrastructure of democracy” — the place where the terms of political competition at the national level are set.

In theory, this should serve as a bulwark against the emergence of competitive authoritarianism, preventing one faction from rewriting the rules in their favor in one fell swoop. Historically, Rocco points out, it’s often worked the opposite way: The decentralized system enabled the creation of Jim Crow, which turned Southern states into authoritarian enclaves marked by one-party Democratic rule for decades.

“Racial apartheid in the South constructed a ‘Jim Crow Congress’; insulated from electoral competition, Southern committee chairs became the fulcrum of national policymaking — foreclosing the New Deal’s social democratic aspirations,” he writes in a 2020 essay. “Episodes of democratic collapse at the state level have had profound reverberations for national politics.”

As for where we’re heading, Levitsky and many other experts are not optimistic:

Experts disagree on how close we are to crossing the line. Levitsky, for example, thinks that Republicans could fatally undermine the democratic system as soon as 2024, using a combination of state-level interference with vote counts and congressional action to illegitimately block a Democratic victory.

Aron, by contrast, thinks we’re still quite far from the point of no return — that American democratic institutions are far more vibrant than their Hungarian peers were just before their collapse.T

But even Aron, a longtime skeptic of the idea that America is on the path to authoritarianism, is rethinking her views in light of the GOP’s increased commitment to anti-democratic politics since January 6.

“I can’t say anything good” about Republican behavior, she tells me. “They want to stay in power and they want to change the system so it will benefit them as much as possible.”

This view is approaching a consensus among experts. A recent letter by 100 leading scholars of democracy warned that “Republican-led state legislatures across the country have in recent months proposed or implemented what we consider radical changes to core electoral procedures. … Collectively, these initiatives are transforming several states into political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections. Hence, our entire democracy is now at risk.”

On the other hand:

Many of our elected officials — including key Democrats — do not recognize the urgency of the crisis.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told Forbes last week that “if democracy were in jeopardy, I would want to protect it. [But] I don’t see it being in jeopardy right now.” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), in an op-ed justifying his decision to vote against the democracy reform bill HR 1, equated the bill with Republican efforts to undermine democracy.

“Today’s debate about how to best protect our right to vote and to hold elections, however, is not about finding common ground, but seeking partisan advantage,” Manchin writes. “Whether it is state laws that seek to needlessly restrict voting or politicians who ignore the need to secure our elections, partisan policymaking won’t instill confidence in our democracy — it will destroy it.”

Whether it’s people who want to destroy democracy by limiting the right to vote, or people who wish to destroy it by getting more votes than Republicans . . . ah forget it.

But in all seriousness, the evidence is strong and getting stronger that America is trending toward PRI-style one party rule, managed through “free” elections that will be free as long as Republicans win them. As Mario Vargas Llosa remarked 30 years ago of our so-often invisible neighbor directly to the south:

Mexico is the perfect dictatorship. The perfect dictatorship isn’t communism. It isn’t the USSR. It isn’t Fidel Castro. The perfect dictatorship is Mexico, because it is a camouflaged dictatorship. It has the essential characteristics of dictatorships: it is permanent, and it doesn’t depend on the rule of one particular man, but rather of a party. And it is a party that cannot be removed.

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