NPR dedicated a segment last week to how modern democracies fall. I don’t remember what show it was on, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Car Talk.
The speakers noted that historically democracies are done in by an act of violence–a coup or a revolution–but that these days they are toppled at the ballot box. That’s right: Voters vote themselves out of the ability to vote.
It’s not really the ability to vote that these people want to surrender but rather the responsibility, and if you asked them if this was true they’d deny it. And they would mean it. While they don’t realize this, it turns out that a significant number of Americans don’t care for democracy that much. They prefer authoritarianism masquerading as democracy.
Going to the dictionary is always a cheap pedantic move in a piece like this, but given the sensitivity of the topic and the current proclivity to label anything disagreeable as “fake news” reaching for my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary seems warranted, so excuse me while I whip this out. The SOED defines the word “authoritarian” primarily as follows: “Favouring or characterized by obedience to (esp. political) authority as opp[osed] to personal liberty.” It also notes that the word didn’t enter the English language until the late nineteenth century which, if online resources can be trusted, may mean somewhere between 1859 and 1862. In other words, linguistically there was no concept of “authoritarian” in American life prior to the run up to the Civil War.
I suspect that’s meaningful. Maybe someday I’ll do the research to support this, but I infer from that late entry into the lexicon that for the first nearly 100 years of American life, there was no need for a word that conveyed “the government is trying to tell me what to do.” There were plenty of Americans at the time who lived under authoritarian rule–they were known as slaves–but only when the condemnation of that practice neared its fever pitch was there a need for a word that expressed “the government is trying to tell me what to do.”
Anyway, I’m off track. I listened to this NPR discussion intently, startled by what I was hearing. How can one suggest that a group of flag waving, Freedom Rock listening, Don’t Tread On Me patriots welcome the downfall of American democracy? The notion was so far-fetched that I was awash in cognitive dissonance. It just didn’t make sense, and then it did. Imagine this scenario:
A teenager is shot and killed on his own front lawn. The shooter is a police officer who, by way of a deparmental spokesperson, explains that while on a routine patrol he observed the boy behaving erratically. The officer attempted to speak to the kid, but he was unresponsive. The boy repeatedly refused to comply with the policeman’s instructions, so the officer unholstered his weapon. The teen then swung his body toward the officer in a threatening manner and brandished a black object the size of a small firearm, at which time the officer opened fire.
Which of the following best describes your initial reaction to this hypothetical scenario:
A) The officer was justified. He had every right to defend himself, and the kid should have complied.
B) There’s not enough information here to render a judgement. Maybe “behaving erratically” means the boy was dancing, and he didn’t respond to the officer’s verbal commands because he was listening to music on the wireless earbuds synched to the black cellphone in his hand.
C) The cop was in the wrong.
None of the above answers are necessarily wrong, though given the information available “B” is the most demonstrably right. There’s not enough evidence on the page, as English professors love to say, to reach a definitive conclusion. This is why we try such matters in court rather than on social media.
Also not on the page, of course, is the personal bias that we bring to this scenario when we read it, and it is that bias more than the story itself that led us to our chosen responses. The “A’s” likely have an authoritarian bent: “Without law and order there’s chaos. If a little innocent blood needs to be shed, so be it.” The “C’s” are likely aligned with anti-authoritarianism: “All cops abuse their power. Guilty until proven innocent.” I’m a “B,” which is the pragmatic option: “The cop might have been justified, and he might have been in the wrong. Let’s gather the facts before reaching conclusions.”
This position angers both A’s and C’s, each of whom sees the the world in black and white terms. The fundamental problem with being a B is that I repeatedly overlook this point. I assume that we all want to get to the right answer, not the answer that is right for us. Such an assumption does not allow for the possibility that a percentage of the citizens in what until recently was considered the world’s template for democracy actually prefer authoritarianism. Faced with an overwhelming amount of evidence, I’m still prone to say, “Well, we don’t know their motivations. Let’s not leap to any rash conclusions about the A’s.”
But they’re out there. My guess is that around 40 percent of our fellow citizens value authority over personal liberty.
For years I’ve been baffled by the modern Republican party, and by “modern” I mean the party of the last 40 years. The GOP’s own platform states that “We affirm — as did the Declaration of Independence: that all are created equal, endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We all affirm that, at least verbally, and yet many actions of the members of that particular party result in overtly authoritarian actions or opinions. For example:
- The battle against gay marriage
- The war on drugs
- The open assault on the fourth estate, i.e., journalism
- Attempts to restrict the liberties of legal aliens
- Restrictions of citizens rights in the name of security, i.e., the rise of the NSA and the TSA
- The undermining of American law enforcement agencies (FBI) when politically convenient
- The adulation of American law enforcement agencies when politically convenient
- The undermining of the American voter through gerrymandering and other shenanigans
On and on. As a B, I have a hard time understanding why the party of small governement seems so intent on archiving my texts and emails, dictating what I put in my body and with whom I sleep, and disenfranchising my neighbors. None of that affirms our “inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” yet it does imply a desire for authoritarianism. The modern GOP’s actions repeatedly undermine personal freedoms while extolling their virtues, thereby gaslighting 300 million citizens.
None of this is as sinister as it may sound. I don’t think that even my most conservative friend wants to see journalism as we know it grind to a halt, nor would he or she welcome police in riot gear sweeping the neighborhood nightly with bullhorns and helicopters. I believe all they want is to conserve a certain vision of American life, real or imagined. Whether it’s the Leave It To Beaver ’50s or their own past, they want it captured in a snow globe, never changing–preserved, conserved. The problem lies in that sort of conservation being antithetical to the fundamentals of American democracy. We cannot all be “created equal” and “pursue happiness” and dictate that heterosexual marriage is the only form of legal marriage, for example. A certain amount of authoritarianism is required to preserve “traditional” marriage.
What’s frightening is the lack of awareness among some people regarding what they’re dabbling with. American democracy seemed bulletproof for 225 years, but it has been under great strain since the turn of the millenium and now it is threatening to crack. What the rise of Trumpism, with its 40% approval rating, represents isn’t liberal vs. conservative, nor is it white vs. black, America vs. the world, or any of the other myriad ways our current crisis has been framed. What we’re experiencing every time we get into a shouting match on social media or over the dinner table is a fundamental difference between the A’s and the C’s, between those who desire authoritarian rule (either overtly or subconsciously) and those who value personal freedom above everything else. You may think personal freedom is your most fundamental principle, but if you want to dictate how and if others worship, what they do with their bodies, and what they watch or read, then it’s time for a little self-evaluation.
In short, those who rail against the “nanny state” are giving rise to a “daddy state,” a stern father who promises to protect you in exchange for order, loyalty, and obedience. This isn’t the first time. George Wallace cracking skulls and siccing dogs on protestors was the Daddy State in action, authoritarianism in the midst of American democracy. So were both Nixon’s and Hoover’s flouting of the law. The Revolutionary War was fought in defiance of a Daddy State as was the Civil War, but who the Daddy State was in that scenario depended on what side of the Mason-Dixon line you represented.
I get it. As a B I’m fairly conservative anyway, but tack on the “white,” “heterosexual,” “male,” “middle-aged” and “parent” modifiers and I really begin to reek of fuddy-dom. Recreational marijuana is legal in my state now, for example, so every walk I take around my neighborhood smells like a Phish concert. I turn my snooty nose up at my weedy neighbors, but here’s where the rubber hits the bong: I may not care for the smell, but I have no desire to dictate what my neighbors do. There’s literally nothing that I can think of that I want to prevent my neighbors from doing, provided it doesn’t hurt anyone else. I kind of wish the guy down the road didn’t paint his house the color of lime Jell-O but hey, it’s his house.
This is a crisis of America’s most fundamental values, and what side of the line we stand on will dictate what kind of country we have as a result. Either we value our personal freedoms and accept the discomfort that may occasionally cause (“Ew, I have to make a cake for a gay wedding?!”) or we surrender them in exchange for the presumed security and stability an authoritarian state offers. This is not a new dilemna. It has underpinned American life at least since the late nineteenth century.
Everything that’s great about America requires a little bit of risk. Sometimes it’s a risk to our safety, others it’s a risk to our worldviews. An authoritarian bubble with its great walls, isolation, and xenophobia may seem safe and comforting, but it’s antithetical to the kind of country I want to live in. I’ll take a little risk in exchange for personal freedom every time.