Why the Right Abandons Democracy in Favor of Authoritarianism

There is a theme that has been emerging since the Tea Party was formed in reaction to Barack Obama’s election. It has most recently been articulated in response to the online exchange between Sohrab Ahmari and David French. As I noted previously, Andrew Sullivan did a good job of summarizing Ahmari’s position.

He wants the state to act boldly “to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”…

He wants to shut down the primacy of individual autonomy in a country where different people can coexist with others of radically different politics or faith…

“Civility and decency are secondary values,” Ahmari writes. “They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral.” Rewind that one more time: Ahmari wants to enforce his moral order on others. He believes pluralism is merely a cloak for libertinism.

And that’s why many on the right, even and especially conservative Christians, support Trump. He may be morally corrupt but he can be relied on to enforce moral order against the destabilizing forces of individualism and secularism.

Josh Marshall captured the theme embedded within Ahmari’s position in a post titled, “The American Right Gets Tired of Democracy.”

The basic thrust is a political vision that prioritizes hierarchical social cohesion and has the government takes a leading role enforcing traditionalist cultural and social values and keeping conservative Christianity as the taproot of the state. Church and state are both on the same team and working, collaboratively, toward the same end. The pluralist vision of the state most of us are familiar with, in which it is a semi-neutral arbiter between lots of different visions of how people should live their lives, is anathema…

As others have noted, the idea is that the culture war and the related battle for an ethno-nationalist identity are simply too important, immediate and dire to have any time to worry about things like the rule of law or even democracy.

Adam Serwer has a similar take.

The tide of illiberalism sweeping over Western countries and the election of Donald Trump have since renewed hope among some on the religious right that it might revive its cultural control through the power of the state. Inspired by Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Vladimir Putin in Russia, a faction of the religious right now looks to sectarian ethno-nationalism to restore its beliefs to their rightful primacy, and to rescue a degraded and degenerate culture. All that stands in their way is democracy, and the fact that most Americans reject what they have to offer.

…the illiberal faction in this debate retains Trump as its champion precisely because the president is willing to use the power of the state for sectarian ends, despite being an exemplar of the libertinism to which it is supposedly implacably opposed, a man whose major legislative accomplishment is slashing taxes on the wealthy, and whose most significant contribution to the institution of the family is destroying thousands of them on purpose. It is power that is the motivator here, and the best that could be said for these American Orbánists is that they believe that asserting an iron grip on American politics and culture would offer the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Every authoritarian movement has felt the same way.

This willingness to eschew democracy in favor of authoritarianism was forecast by Zachary Roth before Trump’s election. He noted that, recognizing that they were about to become a permanent minority, Republicans decided that “being outnumbered doesn’t have to mean losing.” The strategies employed to undermine democracy included voter suppression, gerrymandering, fighting for the involvement of dark money in politics, judicial engagement, and something called pre-emption, by which red states overruled laws passed by more progressive local communities.

But the most prescient analysis of what has recently become more obvious came from Doug Muder back in 2014 in an article titled, “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party.” He compared what was happening in the Republican Party following the election of the first African American president to the response of confederates to Reconstruction following the Civil War:

After the U.S. forces won on the battlefield in 1865 and shattered the organized Confederate military, the veterans of that shattered army formed a terrorist insurgency that carried on a campaign of fire and assassination throughout the South until President Hayes agreed to withdraw the occupying U. S. troops in 1877. Before and after 1877, the insurgents used lynchings and occasional pitched battles to terrorize those portions of the electorate still loyal to the United States. In this way they took charge of the machinery of state government, and then rewrote the state constitutions to reverse the postwar changes and restore the supremacy of the class that led the Confederate states into war in the first place.

By the time it was all over, the planter aristocrats were back in control, and the three constitutional amendments that supposedly had codified the U.S.A’s victory over the C.S.A.- the 13th, 14th, and 15th — had been effectively nullified in every Confederate state. The Civil Rights Acts had been gutted by the Supreme Court, and were all but forgotten by the time similar proposals resurfaced in the 1960s. Blacks were once again forced into hard labor for subsistence wages, denied the right to vote, and denied the equal protection of the laws.

In the end, Muder defined the confederate world view that has become a resurgent force in American politics.

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.

To return to Marshall’s analysis, this isn’t the first time in this country that “the American right got tired of democracy.” We can contrast that with a powerful description from Serwer.

Black Americans did not abandon liberal democracy because of slavery, Jim Crow, and the systematic destruction of whatever wealth they managed to accumulate; instead they took up arms in two world wars to defend it. Japanese Americans did not reject liberal democracy because of internment or the racist humiliation of Asian exclusion; they risked life and limb to preserve it. Latinos did not abandon liberal democracy because of “Operation Wetback,” or Proposition 187, or because of a man who won a presidential election on the strength of his hostility toward Latino immigrants. Gay, lesbian, and trans Americans did not abandon liberal democracy over decades of discrimination and abandonment in the face of an epidemic. This is, in part, because doing so would be tantamount to giving the state permission to destroy them, a thought so foreign to these defenders of the supposedly endangered religious right that the possibility has not even occurred to them. But it is also because of a peculiar irony of American history: The American creed has no more devoted adherents than those who have been historically denied its promises, and no more fair-weather friends than those who have taken them for granted.

There is no greater example of what it means to be privileged than watching the right abandon democracy in favor of authoritarianism as a means to maintain power.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.