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Authoritarianism and Democracy


Here’s an extremely interesting and important article from Thomas Edsall (gift link), on shifting patterns of authoritarianism in American politics and culture. The most striking data point Edsall discusses is that over the last 30 years the party identification of Americans most attracted to authoritarianism has gone from 50/50 Republican-Democrat to 80/20. This is part of a worldwide trend.

Authoritarianism in the USA at present is fueled by a desire to protect the following things. I’m putting them in what seems to me descending order of importance/cultural-political negotiability, although of course the exact order is arguable:

(1) Patriarchy

(2) Christian nationalism

(3) Traditional norms regarding sexuality and gender

(4) White supremacy

These things are all obviously inter-related in various simple and complex ways.

On one level there’s something happening here, and what it is ain’t exactly unclear: Straight white Christian/Protestant men have suffered a massive cultural status degradation in this country since the 1960s, and they and their descendants are extremely unhappy about it. From Edsall’s essay, which I encourage you to read in full:

I asked Pippa Norris, a political scientist at Harvard, about the rising salience of authoritarianism and she provided a summary of her forthcoming book, “The Cultural Roots of Democratic Backsliding.” In a description of the book posted on her own website, Norris writes:

Historical and journalistic accounts often blame the actions of specific strongman leaders and their enablers for democratic backsliding — Trump for the Jan. 6 insurrection in America, Modi for the erosion of minority rights in India, Netanyahu for weakening the powers of the Supreme Court in Israel, and so on. But contingent narratives remain unsatisfactory to explain a general phenomenon, they fail to explain why ordinary citizens in longstanding democracies voted these leaders into power in the first place, and the direction of causality in this relationship remains unresolved.

Her answer, in two steps.

The first step:

Deep-rooted and profound cultural changes have provoked a backlash among traditional social conservatives in the electorate. A wide range of conventional moral values and beliefs, once hegemonic, are under threat today in many modern societies. Value shifts are exemplified by secularization eroding the importance of religious practices and teachings, declining respect for the institutions of marriage and the family, and more fluid rather than fixed notions of social identities based on gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, community ties, and national citizenship. An extensive literature has demonstrated that the ‘silent revolution’ of the 1960s and 1970s has gradually led to growing social liberalism, recognizing the principles of diversity, inclusion and equality, including support for issues such as equality for women and men in the home and work force, recognition of L.G.B.T.Q. rights, and the importance of strengthening minority rights.

These trends, in turn, have “gradually undermined the majority status of traditional social conservatives in society, and threatened conventional moral beliefs.”

The second step:

Authoritarian populist forces further stoke fears and exploit grievances among social conservatives. If these political parties manage to gain elected office through becoming the largest party in government, or if their leaders win the presidency, they gain the capacity to dismantle constitutional checks and balances, like rule of law, through processes of piecemeal or wholesale executive aggrandizement.

There’s a great deal to chew on here, but I want to throw out for discussion a particular paradox/pragmatic conundrum. It’s this proposition: the greater the commitment to anti-authoritarian norms such as democracy, the rule of law, and cultural/religious/ethnic/gender diversity, the greater the willingness individuals, institutions, and political parties who support those norms need to have to potentially violate some or all of those norms, in order to save them from semi-permanent destruction by electorally successful authoritarians. This of course is the famous paradox of tolerance, and it has morphed over the last nine years in America from an interesting graduate seminar in political theory topic into the most urgent practical question facing anti-authoritarians of all stripes, both in America and around the world.

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