Why Are Republicans Adopting Authoritarian Practices?
The simple answer is that, of the options they believe are available, authoritarianism has the most promise for keeping Republicans in power. The Democrats are on the morally correct side of the issues that need the most attention: environment, gun violence, immigration, racial justice, escalating inequality, and democracy. In our two party system of identity politics the Republicans are expected to take an opposing stance on these issues, which guides them directly to a focus on being against whatever the Democrats want to do. They are left with little to be in favor of and their major funding sources support unpopular issues: fossil fuels, gun sales, and lower taxes on the rich.
This puts the Republicans in the position of fighting unpopular battles which do not have broad support. And their current base of support – mostly rural, non-college, white Christians – is shrinking. They are left with few options, and the authoritarian politics of fear, of lies, of conspiracy theories, of hating the opposition, is able to get them enough votes to continue as a competitive political party.
Authoritarianism has taken hold in many countries around the world including China, Russia, Romania, and North Korea; and it’s gaining support in many others, including the U.S. Many people are afraid of the changes they see happening around them and want a strong leader who understands their fears and promises to help them.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has said that more concentrated power at the top enables him to respond quickly to situations that arise such as COVID, and that democratic governments are not able to respond as quickly. The downside is the situation that has arisen currently in China.
It’s still pursuing its zero-Covid policy, enforcing draconian restrictions on everyday activities every time new cases emerge. This is creating immense personal hardship and cramping the economy; cities under lockdown account for almost 60 percent of China’s G.D.P.
Governments need to be able to change policy in the face of changing circumstances and new evidence. And what we’re seeing in China is the problem with autocratic governments that can’t admit mistakes and won’t accept evidence they don’t like.” (How China Lost the Covid War, Paul Krugman, NY Times, Nov. 28, 2022).
Another major downside of authoritarianism is, of course, what is happening in Vladimir Putin’s senseless war against Ukraine.
Sending troops into Ukraine from the north, south and east on 24 February, he told the Russian people his goal was to “demilitarise and de-Nazify Ukraine“. His declared aim was to protect people subjected to what he called eight years of bullying and genocide by Ukraine’s government – claims which have no basis in evidence. It was framed as an attempt at preventing NATO from gaining a foothold in Ukraine. Another objective was soon added: ensuring Ukraine’s neutral status.
High on the agenda was toppling the government of Ukraine’s elected president. “The enemy has designated me as target number one; my family is target number two,” said Volodymyr Zelensky. Russian troops made two attempts to storm the presidential compound, according to his advisor.” (Why did Russia Invade Ukraine and has Putin’s war failed?, Paul Kirby, BBC News, Nov. 16, 2022.)
Democracy has its shortcomings, but its system of checks and balances, focused on the needs of the people, is still a much better approach to government than authoritarianism. The Republicans need to pick a better path that will help the country, not harm it.
However, the issue is bigger than the Republican Party. The underlying problem here rests in our two party system of government. It pits one party against the other, as opposed to letting us choose from a number of qualified candidates who may or may not be affiliated with a particular political party. In the words of author Lee Drutman in his book Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America:
a fully divided two-party system is completely unworkable when the partisan divide is over the character of national identity, as it is today. This raises the stakes impossibly high and makes compromise impossible. It poses an existential threat to the future of American democracy.
Two-party winner-take-all politics is fueling a calamitous zero-sum toxic partisanship. But there’s a way out. America can become a multiparty democracy and break the destructive binary.
In his book Drutman goes on to suggest a solution for how to break the two-party doom loop. It includes the following:
- Multiparty democracy using proportional representation within states based on votes received by each party (this reduces gerrymandering)
- Ranked-choice voting, with multi-member districts (larger districts than currently, but they have multiple people representing the district)
- Ranked-choice voting for the Senate
- Expanding the size of the House and getting rid of primaries
Multiparty democracy would “improve voter turnout and engagement, create more compromise-oriented politics, produce better governance, and improve representation of racial minorities”. He believes the conditions in America are ripe for this reform today. Public dissatisfaction with the status quo can put pressure on politicians to change the system, and incumbent politicians will realize that a new system can work for them just as well, if not better than the current system.
Finally, we must act now because a broken political system cannot solve the mounting problems America is confronting – economic inequality, wage stagnation, drug addiction, climate change, polarization, and the rise of authoritarianism.