Around the world, authoritarianism is ascendant and democracy is in decline.
A 2022 report from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance found that “over the past six years, the number of countries moving toward authoritarianism is more than double the number moving toward democracy” and that nearly half of the 173 countries assessed were “experiencing declines” in at least one metric of democracy.
The United States wasn’t impervious to this trend. The report found that America was “moderately backsliding” on its democracy.
But I fear that we’re now on the precipice of fully turning away from democracy and toward a full embrace of authoritarianism. The country seems thirsty for it; many Americans appear to be inviting it.
Confidence in many of our major institutions — including schools, big business, the news media — is at or near its lowest point in the past half-century, in part because of the Donald Trump-led right-wing project to depress it. Indeed, according to a July Gallup report, Republicans’ confidence in 10 of the 16 institutions measured was lower than Democrats’. Three institutions in which Republicans’ confidence exceeded Democrats’ were the Supreme Court, organized religion and the police.
And as people lose faith in these institutions — many being central to maintaining the social contract that democracies offer — they can lose faith in democracy itself. People then lose their fear of a candidate like Trump — who tried to overturn the previous presidential election and recently said that if he’s elected next time, he won’t be a dictator, “except for Day 1” — when they believe democracy is already broken.
In fact, some welcome the prospect of breaking it completely and starting anew with something different, possibly a version of our political system from a time when it was less democratic — before we expanded the pool of participants.
In Tim Alberta’s new book, “The Kingdom, the Power and the Glory,” he explains that many evangelical Christians have developed, in the words of the rightist Southern Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress, an “under siege” mentality that has allowed them to embrace Trump, whose decadent curriculum vitae runs counter to many of their stated values. It allows them to employ Trump as muscle in their battle against a changing America.
This kind of thinking gives license — or turns a blind eye — to Trump’s authoritarian impulses.
And while these authoritarian inklings may be more visible on the political right, they can also sneak in on the left.
You could also argue that President Biden, whose approval numbers are languishing, is being punished by some because he isn’t an authoritarian and therefore isn’t able to govern by fiat: Many of his initiatives — voter protections, police reform, student loan forgiveness — were blocked by conservatives. Could he have fought harder in some of these cases? I believe so. But in the end, legislation is the province of Congress; presidents are bound by constitutional constraints.
Trump surely appeals to those who want a president who’ll simply bulldoze through that bureaucracy, or at least expresses contempt for it and is willing to threaten it.
Furthermore, Trump’s chances will probably be helped by the portion of the electorate misjudging the very utility of voting. There are still too many citizens who think of a vote, particularly for president, as something to throw to a person they like rather than being cast for the candidate and party more likely to advance the policies they need.
And there are too many who think that a vote should be withheld from a more preferable candidate as punishment for not delivering every single thing on their wish lists — that choosing not to vote at all is a sensible act of political protest rather than a relinquishing of control to others. Abstinence doesn’t empower; it neuters.
If you want a democracy to thrive, the idea that voting is a choice is itself an illusion. Voting is about survival, and survival isn’t a choice. It’s an imperative. It’s an instinct.
It’s a tool one uses for self-advancement and self-preservation. It’s an instrument you use to decrease chances of harm and increase chances of betterment. It is naïve to use it solely to cosign an individual’s character; not to say that character doesn’t count — it does — but rather that its primacy is a fallacy.
Voting isn’t just an expression of your worldview but also a manifestation of your insistence on safety and security.
And to top it off, as Democratic Representative Ro Khanna of California told me over the weekend, the Obama coalition that Biden will rely on in 2024 is “under a lot of stress” with the issue of the Israel-Hamas war, and that coalition can be mended by “a foreign policy that is rooted in the recognition of human rights,” which includes “taking seriously the calls for a neutral cease-fire and the end to violence.”
On Tuesday, Biden warned that Israel risks losing international support because of “indiscriminate bombing,” but he has yet to endorse a cease-fire.
With Republicans beaconing authoritarianism, and without an intact Obama coalition to thwart it, our democracy hangs by a thread.
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