Authoritarian rule threatens America's democracy

Steve Corbin is emeritus professor of marketing at the University of Northern Iowa and a freelance writer who receives no remuneration, funding, or endorsement from any for-profit business, nonprofit organization, political action committee, or political party.        

Never in my wildest dreams did I think America would be on the verge of backsliding from democracy to authoritarian rule. But, overwhelming evidence abounds that some voters and one political party are moving in that direction.

With three grandchildren—ages 11, 8 and 4—I truly fear for their freedoms of speech, press, religion, and rights of petition and assembly.

Freedom House is the oldest American organization (circa 1941) that conducts research on democracy, political freedom, and human rights. The not-for-profit organization’s fact-based Freedom in the World 2022 report assesses 210 countries' degree of political freedoms and civil liberties. Content within the first paragraph of the report is daunting: “Global freedom faces a dire threat . . . the enemies of liberal democracy . . . are accelerating their attacks.”

The report identified the United States, Hungary, Nauru, Poland and India as the five countries with the largest 10-year decline in democracy attributes.

The report notes “elections, even when critically flawed, have long given authoritarian leaders a veneer of legitimacy.” Examples include Russia’s 2021 parliamentary elections (President Vladimir Putin's leading opponent Aleksey Navalny was sent to prison), Nicaragua’s 2021 presidential election (Daniel Ortega arrested seven opposition candidates), and the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

Republicans continue to push false claims of election fraud, even though 100 percent of America’s 3,006 county auditors certified the vote, some 64 court rulings and GOP Attorney General Bill Barr affirmed the accuracy of the election results, and there were only sixteen charged cases of voting illegally out of 158,397,726 ballots cast.

The report further states, “Leaders who fear losing power in a democratic system have taken to sowing distrust in elections. The assault on the U.S. Capitol was the culmination of a months-long campaign by outgoing president Donald Trump to cast Joe Biden’s victory as illegitimate and fraudulent.” On January 6, 2021 we witnessed more than 2,000 pro-Trump rioters illegal entry into the Capitol. Later the same day, 147 Congressional Republicans voted to overturn the election results. That's authoritarianism in action.

Most authoritarians are narcissistic, demand complete control over their subordinates, shift blame to others, and routinely scare people with disinformation and misinformation. Does anyone come to mind?

Authoritarian leaders like to collaborate and praise one another. Donald Trump praised North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, China’s Xi Jinping, Philippine’s Rodrigo Duterte, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin more than fifteen times.

Authoritarian attributes also include invoking discrimination against racial and ethnic minority groups, rhetoric targeting asylum-seekers, immigration, or LGBTQ people, voter suppression, book banning, and private school preference. Sound familiar?

Since Republicans gained full control of state government in 2017, they have pushed some populist rhetoric and restricted media access.

Politicians with authoritarian traits may tie themselves to organizations engaged in illicit behavior, or refuse to condemn political violence. Recall then President Trump's comments about white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville in 2017, or his advice to the Proud Boys during the first presidential debate in September 2020: "Stand back and stand by." Lambasting the media or some government institutions (like the FBI, CIA, IRS, or Justice Department) is par for the course as well.

If you're not convinced that America’s democracy is in jeopardy, perhaps you're unfamiliar with the democracy-authoritarian conundrum. Or maybe you’ve been deceived by demagogues, or your inductive or deductive reasoning skills need fine tuning.

Two succinct quotations come to mind. President John F. Kennedy observed in 1963, “the ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all." And the French political philosopher Montesquieu argued, “The tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy."

Top image: Screenshot from new footage released this year by the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 events.

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