America and Authoritarianism

One assumption about American society is that it is a free and generally democratic. Problems in the US are often brushed aside by others in the West by pointing out that there are similar trends in other places and as intrinsic excesses of democracy by totalitarians elsewhere.

There is, however, one idea that is always omitted in official discourse: American authoritarianism. In Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes, political scientist Jose Linz distinguished between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. The former, he argued was based on ideology and a cult of personality, in the fashion of the historical dictator like Stalin or Hitler, whereas the latter was based more on the manipulation and maintenance of institutions (legal procedures) favorable to the ruling class. It is also the latter that seems to better reflect the present state of the American experiment.

Though it seems difficult to believe, the US has many of the characteristics that were described by Linz:

  • The US lacks lacks political pluralism, largely due to the influence of closed primaries and caucuses and the two-party system driven by the semi-plurality majority voting system/”first past the post” (semi, because of the primary system)
  • The US has a long history of political repression (See America and the Cold War) and for a long time was a racial/ethnic democratic type of authoritarian state like South Africa under apartheid.
  • The US infamously has and continues to attempt to destroy mass mobilization efforts with the crackdown on activists historically through the FBI and in the present with the Patriot Act.
  • And worst of all, the President has enormous and vaguely defined powers with executive orders, war powers (See America and Presidential Wars) and fast-tracking authority.

While one might be tempted to state that the US is the most progressive society in the world, many of the features that enable American authoritarianism have been resolved with systemic policy measures in other societies. Many other developed countries don’t use FPTP, have a tolerance for left Marxism without devolving into name-calling, and in France in particular, many of the powers of the president have been reduced thanks to continued protest and struggle. It is time to acknowledge that the US has fallen behind, and that in order to continue the progress of society, it should take into consideration significant political reforms, as it has done again and again in the past.

 

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