The transition from democracy to autocracy is not a sudden change. It’s not a switch that goes from light to dark with nothing in between. But it’s also not entirely accurate to describe the road to authoritarianism as a journey. Using a metaphor for travel or distance is to suggest something external, distant, alien.
In the US context at least, it is better to think of authoritarianism as something of a contradiction embedded in the American democratic tradition. It’s part of the whole, a reflection of the fact that American notions of liberty and liberty are deeply shaped by both the experience of slave ownership and the urge to confiscate land and drive out its former occupants.
As the historian Edmund Morgan once wrote of the Virginians who led the struggle for Anglo-American independence: “The presence of men and women who were almost entirely subject, at least legally, to the will of other men gave those who were in control of them a first-hand experience of what it can be like to be at the mercy of a tyrant.” Virginians, he continued, “may have had a special appreciation for the liberty that Republicans hold dear, because they saw each day as life without she could be.”
Similarly, legal scholar Aziz Rana has noted that for many Anglo-Americans in the 18th century, liberty was an “exclusive ideal” accessible only to Anglo-Saxons and select Europeans whose heritage, land practices, and religion made them particularly suited to self-government. Such exclusivism presupposed that settler security, like grander dreams of utopian peace, required the subjugation of internal and external enemies who threatened Anglo social and political supremacy.” Freedom and domination, he writes, are “bound together.”
This duality is present in our federal constitution, which has proclaimed republican liberty while allowing for the brutal subjugation of entire peoples in the United States. The Constitution inspired both the democratic views of radical anti-slavery politicians and the pre-war dream of a transcontinental slave empire.
Step a little closer to the present and you can clearly see how American democracy and American autocracy have coexisted, the latter being just another feature of our political order. If we date the beginning of Jim Crow to the 1890s—when white Southern politicians began to mandate segregation, and when the Supreme Court upheld it—then nearly three generations of American elites lived with the existence of a political system that did , and largely accepted it as a mockery of American ideals of self-government and the rule of law.
It was a system that, as legal scholar and former judge Margaret A. Burnham writes in By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners, was based on “the chronic, unpredictable violence that lurked over the daily lives of black people.” In one of the many episodes detailed in the book, Burnham narrates the final moments of Henry Williams, a black GI who was killed in 1942 by an Alabama bus driver named Grover Chandler because Chandler describes it as “impudence on the part of the young soldier.” “ felt. Williams rushed off the bus after being attacked by the driver and spilled his laundry on the floor. “As he turned to pick it up, Chandler fired three shots, one of which hit Williams in the back of the head. He died right there on Chandler’s bus.”
All of this happened while the United States was waging a war for democracy in Europe. That is, for most of that country’s history, America’s democratic institutions, processes, and ideals have coexisted with forms of exclusion, domination, and authoritarianism. Although we have made great strides in making this country a less hierarchical country with a more representative government, there is no ironclad law of history that says progress will continue unabated or that the authoritarian tradition in American politics will not change will prevail again.
When we see an even greater Democratic backslide than we’ve seen in the past decade — since the advent of Donald Trump, yes, but also since the Shelby County anti-Holder voting rights law was decimated — there’s no reason to think that most elites and most people will not reconcile the absence of democracy for many of their fellow Americans. After a while, this lack of democracy can just become the normal way of things – an unfortunate habit that should nevertheless be left more or less alone because of “federalism” or “limited government”. In this way, many politicians, journalists, and intellectuals rationalized Southern autocracy and reconciled it with their belief that the United States was a free country.
In his 1909 biography of John Brown, WEB Du Bois reflected the martyr’s legacy against slavery with an observation of what it does to a society to tolerate exploitation, degradation and bondage. “The price of oppression is higher than the price of freedom,” he wrote. “The humiliation of the people costs both the humiliated and the humiliating.”
American traditions of authoritarianism have shaped American traditions of democracy insofar as they frame our ideas of exactly who can enjoy American liberty and American liberty. They debase our moral sense and make it easier to look away from those who suffer the worst consequences of the state or are denied the rights promised to them as members of our national community.
As we look to a November in which a number of vocal deniers poised to win powerful positions in key swing states, I think the great extent of authoritarianism is linked to the American experience — and the extent to which we have it trained not to see it, according to our national myths and sense of exceptionalism — makes it difficult for many Americans to truly believe that democracy as we know it may be in serious jeopardy.
In other words, too many Americans still think, “This can’t happen here,” when in fact it has already happened and may happen again.