Barriers to authoritarianism in the United States

Recent events in the United States, paralleling political movements around the world, seem to signal a move from democracy to authoritarianism. However, a number of factors that historically appear in authoritarian states would be difficult to institute in the US. This could either frustrate moves toward authoritarianism or, as some commenters have suggested, lead to a subtler form of authoritarianism that eschews the more heavy-handed repression of the Nazi or Stalinist regimes.

I’m applying the term “authoritarianism” to governments characterized by centralized power, a tolerance for corruption, and the repression of minorities and dissent, among other things. I don’t claim expertise in political matters, so this essay is meant not to lay down a thesis, but to ask questions. I’ll explore five traditional areas of authoritarianism in the hope that others will pick up the question and do their own investigations.

Protest in Boston, Massachusetts


Dictatorships famously require wars to rally a nationalist population and justify repression. The US is engaged in several wars right now — some barely reported, such as in Yemen and the Philippines — but none are proper for the types of jingoism used to bolster nationalism. In fact, the current interventions are largely unpopular. Far from boosting the US foreign policy, they have created a new “Viet Nam syndrome” that sours the population on all interventions. At some point, these wars will not be sustainable without a draft, which would trigger widespread rebellion.

Finally, there are no good candidates for a successful war. North Korea is much too dangerous, and China is even more so. Venezuela would be a laughable choice, given that it poses no risk to any other country. Any authoritarian regime in the United States would have to pursue its public relations goals without the convenience of a major war.

Internal scapegoating

This is another fixture of authoritarian regimes, and the one where current US aspirants to authoritarianism are most successful. Not just Muslims, Jews, and immigrants, but all people of color along with gender non-conforming people and the preferred boogiemen of all populists — the so-called “elites” — have been successfully implicated in a political backlash. The problem here may be that the targets of disparagement are too many: they probably constitute fully half of the population, perhaps more. And although the various marginalized demographic groups have clashed with each other in the past, blatant repression is helping them unite. Biased voting systems have enabled the authoritarian core group of middle-class (mostly older and male) white voters to maintain government control, but they can’t achieve any fantasies some may have of national ethnic purity.

Information control

Authoritarian regimes crack down on the media and the Internet. Polarization and the bubble effect of hearing views that reinforce prejudices played a critical role in the recent election, but the same factors can help a critical media survive repression. The bastions of authoritarian propaganda — Fox News, Breitbart, etc. — are also fracturing and presenting messages that contradict one another, as are traditional conservative outlets such as the Wall Street Journal.

Although Internet spying has been legally enabled, and the government is pushing a few hoary ideas such as “responsible encryption” (meaning ineffective encryption), the US is nowhere near the kinds of digital controls that have been imposed by authoritarian regimes.

There will be no unified, Orwellian source of information in the US in the near future. Information control in the US has depended historically not on censoring dissidents, but on a multi-pronged strategy of controlling the framework for debate, suppressing news about topics outside the pale, and presenting entertainment as a distraction. Although all these strategies are being continued, they may lose their effectiveness as dissatisfaction with the status quo mounts.

Public works

Authoritarian governments always throw money into enormous public work projects, partly to boost employment, partly to win the loyalties of the benefactors, and partly to demonstrate the glory of the regimes. The United States is in desperate need of infrastructure work, but little is happening there. This should not be surprising, because several factors hinder the government from addressing the needs.

First, the current Congressional majority is beholden to rich corporations and individuals who seem to be prioritizing wealth maximization over public expenditures. We are not going to repair bridges and cut corporate tax rates at the same time.

Second, any public works project will depend on the very people who were demonized during the rise to power of the current rulers. Construction cannot be carried out by white men alone (especially the middle-class white men who carried the day in the recent election).

Finally, the one public works project that was repeatedly promised — a fantasy “wall” between Mexico and United States — would be too far from inhabited areas to inspire anyone.

Unitary state

Authoritarian regimes tend to combine all operations, particularly the use of force, under the thumb of a single leader. Many analysts have commented that the separation of powers in the US Constitution places barriers in the way of such consolidation. But current trends allow some ways to bypass these constitutional checks and balances. The Congress has been sufficiently neutralized and seems to accept its impotence. The judicial branch overturns many administration initiatives, but over time this check on power will drop away as the administration appoints new judges.

But central to dictatorship is the use of force, and this is particularly hard to centralize in the US. One national body, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has been pressed into service to strike fear into immigrant communities (most agents eager to fill their expanded role). Given its free-wheeling mandate to accost and arrest individuals, ICE can create a hostile environment nationwide for all people of color, but it lacks the ability to actually harm most of the US population.

A decentralized strategy to force is therefore being adopted, combining:

* Renewed militarization of the police through tanks and heavy weapons

* Threats to treat drug use again as a crime and to reverse the steps toward decriminalization of marijuana

* Release of restraints against the biased and violent treatment of people of color by police

Although all these policies have been shown to be ineffective in reducing crime, they will succeed in creating a kind of prison out of lower-income minority neighborhoods. Still, they require local, on-the-ground policing, not a centralized body. We will probably also see increased use of independent vigilante forces to terrorize minorities and dissidents. Still, the plethora of city, county, state, and national bodies presents strong barriers to a unitary state.

What path, then will the backers of authoritarianism take in the US? I would like to hear suggestions.

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