Life in an Authoritarian State is not What Most Imagine
Americans would probably accept life in an authoritarian state so long as that authoritarian state kept the trains running and didn’t resort to violence. Life in a “benign” authoritarian state (no such state could truly be “benign,” but I’ll use that word to character lack of violence and clear oppression) is banal. People would feel no need to rise in arms against the state; they would likely accept that regime with little question.
Authoritarianism does not necessarily come with the violence, surveillance, and absolute infringement of rights that many might imagine when hearing the word. That type of totalitarian police state that can border on fascism through its corporate structure and glorification of violence is an exceptionally malevolent form of authoritarianism. It generally arises when a threatened authoritarian state uses violence to enforce order and stability, therein inviting further pushback from the populace and evermore oppressive measures from the regime.
That governing structure, which manifested itself in fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and the repressed satellites of the USSR, has little in common with modern – benign – authoritarianism.
Authoritarian States Need Not be Totalitarian
These varieties of authoritarianism involve a single individual or, more likely, party maintaining unilateral government control for decades on end, either through uncompetitive elections or continued, unquestioned rule. Free speech exists, at least to a degree, because it doesn’t threaten the regime. The press either finds itself under government control or in the hands of regime allies. Civil liberties exist, somewhat, dissidence is tolerated (to a degree), and life goes on.
Presence of elections dominated by a single party or leader implies a competitive authoritarian state in which the rulers could theoretically be defeated, but it doesn’t happen. Continued victory could happen for any number of reasons: Immense popularity, fudged results, surgical voter repression, bribery, or promises of government contracts and a favorable distribution of resources given a “correct vote.”
In some benign authoritarian states, though not too many, there simply aren’t elections. Citizens tolerate that so long as the government is of use — that is, the economy continues to chug, people have jobs or access to them, and day-to-day life is not affected by a lack of democratic representation.
A Weak Connection to Democracy
Americans would probably tolerate that. Already, many have only a weak connection to democracy, favoring strong or unilateral rule that bypasses the separation of power to more speedily enact policy. Political scientists have argued that in the solid post-Reconstruction South, residents happily supported a quasi authoritarian system in which elections had no consequences. A single party dominated the region, especially at the local and state level.
In fact, many Americans might not notice a slip into authoritarianism. Even in the most decisive election, only 60 percent of the voting age population casts a ballot for president. That number falls and falls as elections become more local. Those living in staunchly Democrat or Republican areas have become so accustomed to single-party rule that its extension and consolidation of power may only seem a natural progression — if anyone bothers to think about it.
Others may welcome an evolutionary authoritarian state (one that slowly consolidates power and erodes the separation of powers and checks and balances). Congressional approval hovers around 10 percent and voters decry a slow-moving federal government. A benign authoritarian state would pass legislation with ease and, if it had interest in survival, do so in a non-combative, non-threatening way.
Watch for Evolution, Not Revolution
Misconceptions about authoritarianism and its inception – many thing it comes in a one event, following a revolution or coup d’etat where it usually happens as a process of democratic backsliding – can make a state vulnerable to creeping authoritarianism.
Voters don’t believe or recognize the diminished effects of election and the slow consolidation of power as signs of an encroaching authoritarian state. We remain less vigilant of small infractions because we fear totalitarianism; we fear the opening of concentration camps, or using the military to forcefully squelch dissent. With eyes averted, authoritarianism can sneak in.
To avoid an authoritarian state, we must understand the above symptoms – consolidated power and elections that have no influence on policy – and resist those. It’s important to recognize that authoritarianism comes not with a bang, but with a whimper — and many will simply accept the changes.