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American democracy is dying, and it’s not an accident. The people in the United States have less and less influence on the government. The Republican Party is hastening the process along by tearing down the legal, institutional, and cultural guardrails that would prevent autocracy and effective single-party rule, while simultaneously rigging the game in favor of themselves. We are closely following the blueprint laid out by other failed democracies of the past 30 years.
Since the end of the Cold War, a new type of hybrid government has emerged in countries like Hungary and Russia: competitive authoritarianism. It’s neither democratic, nor authoritarian because there are still elections, but the playing field is so highly tilted that the opposition has almost no chance of winning. There’s still a legal system, but court rulings almost invariably favor the ruling party. There is still law, but it is applied unequally to the ruling party and the opposition.
Votes are counted, but they don’t really matter given how heavily weighted the system is against the opposition. Ruling parties create electoral systems that promote non-proportional representation, preventing opposition from having a chance. For example, in Hungary, Orban’s Fidesz party won only 44 percent of the votes, yet ended up with a two-thirds supermajority of the legislature, allowing them to change the constitution at will.
“Free” media still exists under competitive authoritarianism, but it either self-censors to avoid angering the regime or is available only to liberal elites. (The New York Times does both when it uses euphemistic headlines to describe the outrages of the administration and puts its content behind a paywall). The rest of the media, available to the masses and the most widely seen, are all effectively controlled by the government. In Hungary, approximately 80 percent of the media is controlled by the government, or government-aligned oligarchs.
In the end, it creates a system where the opposition party can run whatever candidates they wish, hold rallies, collect donations, and function almost normally. They can even win seats in the legislative branch. However, because the ruling party has deliberately weaponized the functions of government against them, the opposition will almost certainly never regain sufficient power through elections or the legal system to oppose the ruling party. One autocrat summed up how things go on after they seize power as, “They will make a fuss for a few days, and then they will calm down and life will go on as usual.”
Nor are these states totalitarian: The average person can criticize the government (if not too loudly). There isn’t 24/7 surveillance for thought crimes. There are no gulags for political enemies, though the most meddlesome opponents of the regime are imprisoned on trumped up charges. Protests occur, though sometimes they are assaulted by pro-government thugs and paramilitaries, who do so with a wink and a nod from the police and the government. Most of the time, the government isn’t going to waste time on these people because they understand protesters are powerless to actually make any change occur. Thus, for most people, living under competitive authoritarianism is boring and stable.
Stability has, surprisingly, turned out to be a hallmark of such regimes. Social scientists up until the mid-2000s believed that governments that were neither democratic nor authoritarian (or totalitarian) were weak, and likely to collapse. This may have been true of developing nations during the Cold War, but has not been true since. There are now about twenty competitive autocracies today that have endured for more than 15 years.
Most of these governments are right-wing, religiously conservative, xenophobic, and populist: they tend to frame everything as us vs. them, the good, “real” rural people against urban elites. Immigrants and LGBT people, as well as religious, racial, and ethnic minorities, tend to be scapegoated for all that ails the nation. The government promises to return to a mythic past when these sorts of people, and tolerance of them, were far scarcer. Part of the us vs. them philosophy is a seething hatred of cosmopolitan values. The ideology of most competitive authoritarian states is essentially fascist. It’s an oft-repeated chapter in history books that we can’t seem to recognize or stop until it’s too late.
And now we are following in the footsteps of competitive authoritarian governments like Russia, Hungary, and also Turkey, Poland, and, soon, Brazil
Because for the past four years, Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and the GOP have been aggressively pursuing these goals by filling vacancies on the court with unqualified ideologues. They are attacking the media, while Sinclair, Fox News, and conservative “news” outlets dominate the airwaves and social media. Reputable news sources are being bankrupted, sued, moved behind paywalls, or intimidated into providing coverage that normalizes anti-democratic actions by the administration.
Legally, the administration cannot be touched. The Senate has abdicated oversight and the Office of Government Ethics gutted. Inspector Generals that investigate Trump cronies are fired and replaced with more cronies. Federal Attorney Generals who attempt to investigate Trump or his cronies are fired or given window seats back at the home office. Trump either pardons his people who get caught committing crimes, or the Department of Justice drops charges.
Justice is also unequally applied. Career federal employees live in fear of violating the Hatch Act, which prohibits using federal assets for political purposes. Trump, and the GOP, revel in actively flaunting defiance of it. He is declaring that the only way he can lose the election is fraud and has legal teams in place to challenge every electoral outcome he doesn’t like. He has repeatedly announced that he will try to violate the constitution by running for more than two terms.
With John Roberts as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, he’s unlikely to succeed in stealing an election that Biden legitimately wins in 2020. In four more years, with Breyer and Bader-Ginsburg gone—giving him a 7-2 advantage and two more hand-picked hyper-partisans on the court—he, or the GOP candidate running instead, will almost certainly succeed.
Trump, and the GOP, are doing little to hide the fact that this is an autocratic attempt, with competitive authoritarianism as the end state goal. They understand that they are on the cusp of permanent power and the ability to shape the nation as they wish, constitutional and human rights be damned. Democratic politicians will not call this what it is for fear of seeming alarmist: an autocratic attempt by a fascist movement.
This leads to impoverished thinking by leftists who are unhappy that Biden and Harris are insufficiently progressive for their taste. They tend to believe that both parties are the same, and that a second Trump term affords them the opportunity to get a leftist candidate that they really want.
Neither is true.
Democrats want to bolster democratic processes and guardrails. Republicans are dedicated to destroying them. Moreover, if Trump gets a second term, 2020 is likely to be the last meaningful federal election in our lifetime. We will get a competitive autocracy, and leftists will never have another realistic opportunity to elect a presidential candidate they like. They can nominate whoever they like, but they will not win. Joe Biden is political triage. You don’t turn it down when you’re in the process of bleeding out.
To cast a protest vote, or worse—to abstain—is to vote for never having a say in our country’s future again.
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