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How the Fear of Authoritarianism Is Breaking American Politics

One source of the great confusion in modern American politics is our ideological disorientation. What do the two parties stand for? The Democratic party owns the moniker \”liberal,\” a thing synonymous with freedom, but the party is frequently accused of being authoritarian. And the Republican party owns the moniker \”conservative,\” a thing that means resistant to change, but in the Trump era, the party has aggressively attacked the standard norms that govern American politics and government.

Part from the problem here is that these two words, \”liberal\” and \”conservative\” have become associated with party platforms, rather than philosophical outlooks. In common political discourse, \”liberal” means the programs which are pursued by the Democratic party\” and \”conservative\” means \”the programs that are pursued by the Republican party.\” However this hides some important lessons concerning the two political parties and their association with the \”liberal\” and \”conservative\” political traditions, and why our political polarization so dangerous for American democracy.

So as to avoid confusion, I'll make reference to the \”liberal\” political movement in the usa as \”the Left,\” while using \”liberal\” for the political philosophical tradition; likewise, \”the Right\” and \”conservative.\” The Left and liberal are not the same thing, and neither are the Right and conservative. Actually, liberal and conservative, as political philosophical traditions, aren't even properly opposed to one another: The liberal tradition teaches that as equals, people ought to be able to make their own choices-think: John Stuart Mill. Its antithesis is authoritarianism à la Thomas Hobbes. Conservatism is the belief that change should be slow, as enunciated by Edmund Burke, as contrasted with radicalism of various kinds.

It is perfectly possible-and in lots of ways attractive-to be a conservative liberal. Democrats and Republicans have for many of the last century both been liberals. In fact, there's an argument to be made the Democratic and Republican parties were, typically, both conservative liberal.

At the extremes of both parties are movements opposed to their respective conservative elements. The debates between the \”far left\” and the \”center left\” inside the Democratic party are essentially fights between the radical and conservative Democrats. There's general agreement there needs to be change, but disagreement concerning the extent of change that is needed and how quickly it should occur. Taking in the best possible light, the radical Democrats reason that justice delayed is justice denied, while the conservative Democrats focus on the pragmatic questions of policy and the way to accomplish lasting change. Similar debates have occurred within the Republican party, with conservative Republicans increasingly getting tagged with the RINO label.

Authoritarianism is usually linked to government overreach; we think of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party's unitary control over everything as the quintessential example, or of the Chinese Communist Party. But authoritarianism could be interpreted more broadly, expanding the concept to include non-governmental actors , who can also restrict individual autonomy.

The traditional distinction between the Left and the Right isn't about their liberalism. Instead, it is about their opinions about authority. They disagree not too people ought to generally cover the cost of their own choices, but about which authorities should have sway over society, and why.

Few people believe that there ought to be no authority. Outside of anarchists, virtually everyone falls somewhere on the axis between liberal and authoritarian. People needs to be able to make their own choices, up to and including point .

The difference between the American Left and Right is all about what kind of authoritarianism they fear. Many on the Right talk about their anxiety about the authoritarianism of cancel culture/political correctness, as well as socialism. Those on the Left of their fear of the authoritarianism of intolerance, and of inequality.

The Right perceives cancel culture and political correctness as social tyranny. John Stuart Mill defined this as the \”tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling,\” that is felt and enforced through social pressure. The Right and the Left both fear this sort of authoritarianism, but in recent years the Right has felt it more acutely because of social and demographic change. The transformations from the last century are an imposition, not through the government as much as by the changing society itself. Ultimately, those on the Right resent being punished for not accepting all of the elements of that changing society.

Socialism is harder to unravel since the word \”socialism\” is used to mean a number of things. Typically speaking, when those found on the Right talk about a fear of socialism, it has to do with fear of economic regulation and economic redistribution , all culminating with a general reduction of prosperity . The danger those on the Right see may be the potential for an overbearing government that dictates all aspects of economic life.

Like socialism, intolerance has multiple meanings. Take its most notorious sub-genre, racism. When those on the Right talk about their fear of racism, they usually mean something similar to \”deliberate malice towards people not of my race.\” But when those on the Left talk about racism, they also include things like \”systemic racism\” and \”implicit bias.\” Systemic racism and implicit biases are not necessarily deliberate; they are able to occur even if there is no single individual who has deliberate malice. No matter which definition we use, the worry on the Left is that individuals will not be able to live their lives the way they want to live them, as well as their choices will be restricted with techniques either overt or insidious.

Inequality essentially comes down to the power of the rich to use their wealth to control society. This happens partially through the ability to influence government . It culminates with the ability of the wealthy to exclude others from seeing the advantages of a growing economy, deriving those benefits instead solely for themselves. The ultimate fear is of the small, rich class which can dictate to a large, poor class, forcing the poor to accept depredations just to acquire the necessities of life.

Whether or not any of these fears is well-founded, what matters for that state of American politics is the fact that people do have these fears, deeply and sincerely. Both sides perceive themselves to be the side of liberalism , resisting the authoritarian impulses of their political rivals. Increasingly, the authoritarian impulses of the rival are all any partisan sees.

These impulses are accentuated because their fears are inverses of 1 another. For those on the Left, fighting racism, sexism, and homophobia often involves tools that those on the Right perceive to be social tyranny. For the Left, fighting inequality frequently involves tools that the Right calls socialist. And the opposite is true: for the Right, fighting socialism often looks to the Left like the imposition of greater inequality. What the Right considers opposition to \”political correctness\” often looks to the Left like resistance to the elimination of racism and other forms of intolerance.

This might seem counterintuitive: For both sides, fighting authoritarianism largely requires charge of the federal government.

Generally speaking people think government may be the primary source of authoritarianism. But in the perspective of the American Right, there isn't really any way to fight social tyranny, in order to fight socialism, without control of at least one branch of the government. And in the perspective of the American Left, there isn't really any way to fight racism or inequality without the same. Yes, there are stuff that each side can do without governmental control, but if the other side has control, there's not a lot that can be done to prevent them from imposing their feared agenda.

This political situation-where Left and Right are driven by their perceived defense of liberalism against the authoritarian impulses of their political rivals-is extraordinarily dangerous. This is because, as Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt masterfully argue within their book How Democracies Die, if losing an election means a political rival will impose authoritarianism, then you definitely become willing to take any means essential to prevent an electoral loss-up to and including antidemocratic measures. When that occurs, democracy is in trouble.

The antidemocratic impulse is clearer within the Republican party right now. Fear of the Left's charge of the government, including the courts, drives Republicans to engage in gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the McConnell-era blocking of Democratic judicial appointments. These have been supported by many around the Right, who perceive them as necessary to resist Left-inflected authoritarianism. But the antidemocratic impulse isn't unique to Republicans, and because actions that those on the Right perceive as resistance to Left-authoritarianism are increasingly antidemocratic, it creates a brand new set of incentives for those on the Left to retaliate in kind.

Stuart Stevens has said: \”For this democracy thing to work, someone needs to be willing to lose.\” But this isn't quite right. For democracy to work, both sides have to be willing to lose. As long as each side perceives the other as authoritarian, people on sides will believe that losing is a catastrophe that must be averted by any means necessary. Unfortunately, as long as fear may be the defining emotion of politics in the \”home of the brave,\” American democracy will be unavoidably precarious.

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