Competitive authoritarianism doesn't start with a violent revolution. Instead, it's ushered in by the erosion of rights most Americans take for granted.
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One of the truisms about living in a modern country that’s fallen into some form of competitive authoritarianism (or “illiberal democracy,” as Hungary’s authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán calls it) is that life is mostly “boring and tolerable” for the majority of the population. On the plus side, in modern autocracies there usually aren’t secret police, gulags, or night raids sweeping political dissidents. On the downside, the ruling party picks the winners and losers in society, so if you’re not one of the winners, there’s nothing you can do about it at the ballot box.
The Republican Party is deliberately and inexorably taking us down the road toward competitive authoritarianism. Their political ideology is both violent and fascist. Their plan for permanent single-party rule is right out in the open: Gerrymander permanent control where possible, suppress the vote where it is not, rely on inherent biases in the non-proportional representation of the Electoral College and the Senate, fill the courts with conservative partisans; and, if all else fails, simply overturn election results they don’t like.
Minorities—who would be the targets of a government perpetually dominated by the furthest right elements of our society—are already worried. Many Black people see that the legacy of Jim Crow has never fully faded, and is poised to worsen—the actions of police forces, alone, who can randomly murder them and their children without consequences. Gerrymandering and voter suppression aim to dilute or destroy the power of their votes. Transgender people feel the Eye of Sauron upon them. The Republican Party has portrayed them as the embodiment of all that is wrong with America: a malign force that must be eliminated for the good of society. Lesbians and gays who follow politics closely enough know that the GOP still desperately wants to roll back the seminal court cases that not only legalized and recognized their marriages, but cases like Lawrence v. Texas that made homosexuality legal.
There appears to be an enthusiasm gap between Republican and Democrat voters. Younger voters have seen the Biden agenda for voting and civil rights sputter and die under the weight of a Senate tilted toward Republicans, with non-proportional representation and the filibuster-enabling minority-Republican control. Republican voters, on the other hand, can’t wait to take revenge and institute the Republic of Gilead in 2025. They instinctively know they’ve never had a better opportunity, and the politicians representing them are ready to seize it.
Josh Barro, a senior editor at Business Insider (and a gay, atheist former Republican) pointed out on Twitter that average Americans don’t care about articles describing the onrushing collapse of American democracy because said articles don’t focus on “kitchen table” issues. My argument is that it’s better for people to care about potential genocide before it happens, rather afterwards.
However, after some reflection, I recognized that Barro is right. Democrats are a coalition party of the left, center left, and some of the center. They cannot win with the left wing alone. Republicans are a far-right party in a country where it is possible to win control with almost nothing but the far right as your base, and especially when they have the ability at the state level to dictate the outcomes of elections. On a more personal level, I have long known that the vast majority of people interested in trans issues are people who would prefer it if there weren’t any transgender people, namely the religious right, alt-right, and trans exclusionary radical feminists.
Similarly, in 2012, Republicans were much more likely to list same-sex marriage as a top issue in the election, and independents thought of it as the least important among all the issues surveyed.
Nor was Barro alone in this conclusion about moderates not caring unless it could be shown how oppressive governments affect them directly. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice …”
While Thomas Pepinsky at Vox described life in authoritarian systems as “mostly boring and tolerable,” the reality is that it’s also more or less hopeless: Things never get better, they only get worse, and there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s an old Russian saying that roughly translates to: “Today is about average; worse than yesterday but better than tomorrow.”
One of the key features of both historic and modern authoritarian (fascist) movements is that they slowly and inexorably make life worse for the average person, while crushing disfavored minorities. People recognize that things are bad and getting worse. But without violent revolution there’s nothing they can do about it, and most people aren’t prepared to be the first ones to die for what’s likely a lost cause. So, they either go along with the authoritarian movement or continue participating in elections that are a farce providing a veneer of legitimacy to the government. Alternately, the only way to opt out of the system is to leave.
Historically, the pre-war “German economic miracle” was in many ways more propaganda than reality. Unemployment was artificially lowered as hundreds of thousands of Jews fled the country, women were pushed out of the workforce, men pushed into compulsory military service. Unemployed people were pushed to take low wage manual-labor jobs, or risk being put on lists of “work shy” individuals who were sent to concentration camps. The Nazi Party broke the back of unions almost immediately in 1933 and raised the workweek cap to 72 hours. Refusal would result in termination, and a potential one-way trip to a camp. Being disabled was likely to result in death, unless that disability came directly as a result of combat in World War I.
The majority of economic growth in Germany between 1933 and 1939 came from rearmament, where almost a third of the economy went into the military. As a result, spending on the public good suffered. Mortality among all age groups continued to rise through the 1930s. Nazi Germany engaged in vigorous privatization of state industry, while providing corporate-friendly policy. An M.I.T. study of wealth inequality in Germany found that it rose throughout the 1930s. These statistics are even worse when you consider that Jews who had been stripped of their belongings and means of income were excluded from the national statistics, because they were not considered citizens after the Nuremberg Laws of 1935.
Authoritarian systems aren’t efficient either; rather they are chaotic, nepotistic, and kleptocratic. Mussolini did not, in fact, make the trains run on time. The administration of the German economy was chaotic and hindered by corruption and political infighting. In a nation where all power flows from the top down, a system of patronage and unaccountability resulting in kleptocracy becomes the norm. Top German officers were rewarded for their loyalty with lavish gifts of land and property plundered from Jews, Poles, and Ukrainians. German leaders amassed extensive estates, while their relatives were rewarded with top government posts. At a local level, bribery became the “grease” necessary for the public to navigate the underfunded bureaucracy.
In modern competitive autocracies such as Russia and Hungary, we see similar issues. Russian wealth inequality is legendary among economists who like to argue about how best to interpret the GINI coefficient (which is a quantitative measure of wealth and income inequality). Life expectancy in Russia plunged after the Cold War, and oligarchs bought up state industries for pennies on the dollar. Much of this is attributable to deaths of despair fueled by drugs and alcohol. Other factors include lax safety standards for workers and drivers, as well as pollution. While these numbers rebounded a bit in the 2000s, they plunged again as a result of Russia’s secretive and haphazard response to Covid.
Similarly, Russia is considered to be one of the most corrupt nations on Earth. It became even more so under Putin. Organized crime is rampant, as oligarchs are able to pay off officials to turn a blind eye to their activities. Putin and his cronies skim billions from the public coffers, resulting in massive graft like the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. This also makes foreign investors unlikely to want to invest in Russian enterprises. Russia has laws against bribery, but they’re rarely enforced because of a judiciary that has been similarly corrupted with loyalists and a patronage system of politics.
Hungary began its descent into competitive authoritarianism a decade later than Russia, but it is charting a similar course. Though Viktor Orbán used Covid as an excuse to seize permanent emergency powers in 2020, Hungary slid into permanent single-party rule in 2010. Like Putin and the Russian oligarchs, Orbán and his cronies have become obscenely rich through graft, bribery, and corruption—and people are afraid to report it. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the $1.7B (roughly 1% of Hungary’s GDP) diverted by Orbán from independent public universities to a privately managed foundation, Mathias Corvinus Collegium, or M.C.C, which is touted as a way to serve as training ground for future nationalistic generations. Bribery is seen by much of the public as a requirement to get decent medical care. Though laws are being passed to give the impression the government is acting against bribery, Orbán has moved to neuter the courts.
And this form of government fails to benefit Hungarian workers. There’s a joke in Hungary that asks: “What’s the best way to keep migrants out of Hungary? Print our salaries on the border.” The data backs up such grim humor. Hungary has some of the worst wealth inequality in the European Union. In 2018, Orbán’s government passed a law allowing employers to demand up to 400 hours of (essentially) unpaid overtime per year. After only eight years, a million Hungarians had left the country to seek employment. This is shocking, given that it is a country of only 14 million people. The result is a country with one of the fastest declining populations in the world. Those fleeing tend to be younger and more college-educated, and who believe they will make significantly better wages in other European Union countries. Others are leaving due to increased hate directed at Jews, LGBT people, and Roma.
This is where the United States is headed. Conservative thought leaders like Tucker Carlson, Rod Dreher, and the Claremont Institute hold Hungary up as a model for what the U.S. should become: a country where the GOP wins every election regardless of how people vote, with a pro-business agenda for wealthy backers and a conservative culture war for the base. Other leaders of powerful religious-right organizations in the U.S. hold up Vladimir Putin and his government as an ideal for the way to govern a country. Over a hundred scholars who study competitive authoritarianism have signed a statement warning us that, unless we change course and prevent a GOP takeover in 2025, the U.S. will follow the path of Hungary and Russia.
But all of this brings us back to Josh Barro’s question: Why should “average” Americans care if we end up like Hungary? How does it affect them?
The simple answer is that quality of life for the middle class gets worse and worse, and there’s nothing you can do about it. There are two sets of rules: one for important people, and one for everyone else.
Imagine you’re a small business owner whose contracts with the government all start drying up, and mysteriously begin going to the company owned by the governor’s brother Cletus, or to the church run by the governor’s pastor (who curiously makes massive donations to the governor’s campaign slush fund). At the same time, business costs are soaring, as underpaid bureaucrats expect you to “tip” them to process permits in a timely fashion. In a post-democratic system, you have zero recourse. You’re never going to vote the ruling party out of office. The courts won’t do anything, and if they do, there’s a pardon waiting for those involved. Plus, there’s the possibility of punishment if you file a complaint in the first place, like a particularly intrusive tax audit.
Here’s another scenario: You’re a parent who wants your kids to go to a good school. However, public schools are all hideously underfunded, and going to a private religious school is either ridiculously expensive or requires you to be a member in good standing of a particular religion (including monitored tithing). Oh, and you’d better not be LGBT, have an LGBT relative, have expressed a pro-LGBT opinion, or even be a member of the Democratic party.
Or another scenario: You’re a worker who’s told they need to put in 72 hours a week, otherwise you’re fired. And if you’re fired, there’s no unemployment (as unemployment has been gutted as an incentive to get people to take any job). Worse, say you’re a worker who hears tornado sirens going off, and are told to keep shoveling boxes or you’ll be terminated for cause. Workplace safety standards are rarely enforced, corporations are giving your kids birth defects, wages are stagnant, and you cannot afford to move. Meanwhile, stockholders are watching share prices and dividends soar even as their tax burden drops. In a competitive authoritarian system, you will never have a remedy to any of this: Your only option is to tolerate it.
Then there’s health care. The GOP is opposed to any sort of efforts to bring down drug prices (such as insulin), while the incidence of type 1 and type 2 diabetes soars due to Covid. You’re forced to choose between paying the rent or paying for insulin. When the people at the top of the heap get rich off of ridiculous drug prices, they’re not going to side with the poor and middle-class people dying. They’re going to continue siding with the pharmaceutical companies making them richer. Your options are between dying in a gutter now or going blind and dying in a gutter later. Nothing you can say or do will alter the power dynamic that exists once democracy is gone.
And then there’s the bribes for everyone getting (under)paid by the government. Bribes for cops. Bribes for bureaucrats. Bribes for doctors at the VA, or who take Medicare and Medicaid. The money saved goes into the pockets of the wealthy, and the bribes are a tax on everyone else. While this seems unimaginable now, it is the fate of nearly every un-democratic country in the world. Corruption is highly correlated with illiberalism.
As a result, life expectancy in the U.S. continues to decline as medical care becomes unaffordable to the majority of people due to the rising costs of care, corruption, and stagnant wages.
Or imagine you’re a parent or grandparent. One of your kids or grandkids can’t take it anymore and moves away to a different country. Maybe it’s because of the lack of opportunity here in the U.S. Maybe it is because they or their children are LGBT and can’t see a possibility of a brighter future. Either way, they’re gone, and you will rarely, if ever, see them again. You’d like to punish the politicians and judges who made life in the U.S. impossible. You’d like to make it possible for them to come back, but there’s no possible way; even if you’ve removed the politicians, the judges will be in place for several more decades.
In a post-democratic America, where the GOP gets to overturn any election results they don’t like, you have exactly zero options for changing this. Your kids are going to get a crappy education at a crumbling school with lead in the water and textbooks that teach slaves were happy with their lot in life because they were given the gift of Christianity by their benevolent owners.
If these examples seem implausible, consider that they are just the next logical step of where the Trump administration and the GOP wanted to go. The Trump administration tried to strip agencies meant to protect the public, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Labor, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, of their power to regulate abuses. The Supreme Court looks likely to finish the job. The Department of Education was prepared to yank federal funding from any states that didn’t toe the line, and Betsy DeVos was a big believer that (mostly Christian) private schools should supplant secular public schools. At the same time, the GOP has made it a top priority to rewrite the way history is taught in schools, particularly if it involves race, slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, or the Civil Rights movement.
The courts have steadily weakened unions, and workers’ rights in general. At the same time, government pay was frozen even though it was usually below industry standard for comparable work. The lone legislative achievement for the administration was rolling back taxes for the wealthy, and the Trump cabinet consisted of 17 millionaires, two centimillionaires and one billionaire, whose net worth totaled over $3.2B. His administration was one of the best things to ever happen to the pharmaceutical industry.
The Trump administration was rife with nepotism and cronyism. Positions were filled not by qualified people but based on their loyalty to the president and the party. The entire administration was rife with conflicts of interest, cabinet members profiting off their positions, and abusing the system. The Administration interfered with Department of Justice cases when Trump supporters were implicated. Others were simply given full pardons for crimes committed in service of the President. Inspector Generals, intended to be independent “watch dogs” guarding against corruption in government, were systematically undermined as well.
All that’s missing between the first Trump administration and ending up like every other nasty competitive authoritarian state is the intermediate step of seizing power a second, and final time. This is less futurism, and more like describing destiny with a stage-4 cancer patient.
If Americans want to know how the destruction of our democracy will affect them, there are plenty of good examples. Hungary is one in particular, given that GOP elites point to it as their “model” for how a country should be run. The result will inevitably be an America that is sicker, poorer, more overworked, more corrupt, more unequal, and deprived of opportunity for those outside circles of power.
The end of democracy means a society where most people are bereft of hope that things will get better. Or worse, a society that sees things getting worse, and accepts government explanations that some “othered” group is responsible for the country’s woes as the nation turns inward against itself and its most vulnerable citizens, in an imitation of humanity’s darkest moments.
We’re already in a desperate situation. Without massive turnout for Democrats in 2022 and 2024, the GOP will get its wish and pursue a future that looks like Hungary. The most important thing moderates can do is understand and accept that the Republican Party intends to seize permanent minoritarian power. This runs counter to everything we’ve been taught about American exceptionalism, and the media’s desire to “both-sides” things like the January 6th insurrection. Once you accept that the threat is there, you must understand the likely outcomes for the entire country. You must accept that you will probably be personally affected by our democratic decline.
The solutions are surprisingly simple: do everything in your power to make sure that none of this comes to pass. Vote like your lives depend on it and convince others to do the same. If, and when, the moment of crisis comes, never accept an outcome that puts the U.S. in the position of Russia or Hungary.
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