The Threat of Authoritarianism in the Name of Bigotry

On Memorial Day, we remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice to protect the freedoms we enjoy as a result of living in a democratic republic. But it is important to keep in mind that those freedoms have been granted to many in this country only recently. A study by Steven Miller and Nicholas Davis points out why they might still be under threat.

Using World Values Surveys from 1995 to 2011, we find that intolerance toward cultural, ethnic, or racial “others” reduces the value that white Americans assign to democracy. Perhaps more troubling, these attitudes also increase white individuals’ openness to undemocratic alternatives—white Americans who exhibit social intolerance are more likely to dismiss the value of separation of powers and to support army rule.

In other words, for these Americans, xenophobia trumps democracy when it comes to priorities. Or as Noah Berlatsky puts it: “when intolerant white people fear democracy may benefit marginalized people, they abandon their commitment to democracy.” He further concludes:

The World Values Survey data used is from the period 1995 to 2011 — well before Donald Trump’s 2016 run for president. It suggests, though, that Trump’s bigotry and his authoritarianism are not separate problems, but are intertwined. When Trump calls Mexicans “rapists,” and when he praises authoritarian leaders, he is appealing to the same voters.

All of that reminded me of a consequential piece written by Doug Muder back in 2014 titled, “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party.” He noted:

The essence of the Confederate worldview is that the democratic process cannot legitimately change the established social order, and so all forms of legal and illegal resistance are justified when it tries…

The Confederate sees a divinely ordained way things are supposed to be, and defends it at all costs. No process, no matter how orderly or democratic, can justify fundamental change.

As the researchers point out, this is not a new phenomenon in America.

Black people, Asians, Native Americans and women were prevented from voting for significant stretches of American history. America’s tradition of democracy (for some) exists alongside a tradition of authoritarianism (for some). The survey data doesn’t show people rejecting American traditions, then, Miller says, so much as it shows “a preference for the sort of white-ethnocentrism that imbued much of the functional form of democracy for the better part of two centuries.”

In the scheme of American history, inclusive democracy as we understand it today is fairly new. There are people in this country who would embrace authoritarianism as the vehicle for getting back to the “good old days” when the democratic franchise wasn’t so expansive. The Republican Party has been pandering to those folks since at least the days of Nixon’s Southern Strategy. The presidency of Donald Trump has allowed them to come out of the shadows and into the spotlight.

As I wrote earlier today, there are Republicans like Chelsea Abney who could be persuaded if they heard the truth rather than the lies media tells them about Democrats. Those are not the people that Miller and Davis are talking about. They simply need to be defeated at the ballot box.

In the last days of the 2016 election, President Obama famously said:

Our progress is on the ballot.
Tolerance is on the ballot.
Democracy is on the ballot.
Justice is on the ballot.

Obviously, some people didn’t take him seriously. They should have.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.