Soft Autocracy

Voting in America at a time when Americans are beginning to distrust democracy.

Several recent polls show a growing and disquieting distrust of democracy among Americans. One study reveals a decline in the number of people who believe democracy is “essential.” Other studies show an increasing number of Americans willing to submit to authoritarian rule.

One poll asked Americans to rate on a scale of one to 10 whether it is “essential” for them “to live in a democracy.” Seventy-two percent of the respondents who were born before World War II checked “10,” the highest value. Those born after 1980 demonstrate an increasing indifference to democracy. Only about 30 percent of younger Americans marked the top score. The same study shows that 43 percent of older Americans deemed a military coup to replace an incompetent civilian government illegitimate. Only 19 percent of millennials concurred. (Both figures are rather frightening, actually.)

At first glance, these findings seem counterintuitive. After all, are not the young more liberal than their elders? Yes, but at the same time, young Americans have reached maturity at a moment of political paralysis, legislative gridlock, declining civility in public discourse, and rising anxiety about economic security. Young Americans may be liberal on social questions — gay rights and the acceptance of social diversity — but their formative years have come during a period of institutional breakdown which influences opinions about democracy and its workings. 

Another survey found a revealing distinction between Trump voters and non-Trump voters on democracy and its discontents. Fifty-one percent of Trump supporters would grant President Donald Trump the right to overturn court decisions. Only 33 percent disagreed, while 16 percent could not decide. Such a result reveals either an appalling lack of understanding of constitutional checks and balances and the separation of powers or a frightening willingness among a segment of the public to grant overarching power to a president with whom it is enthralled.

The data suggest that Trump supporters favor an authoritarian government headed by a strong leader ruling by decree. And, among Trumpistas there is growing support for authoritarian measures such as banning gays and lesbians from the country and forbidding Muslims to enter the United States.  

The cumulative conclusion of these surveys is that there is a declining public commitment to the rule of law and democracy. Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency have exacerbated these trends and riveted attention on the lack of understanding among the public for traditional American values. But, at the same time, Trump’s election and behavior as president are only symptomatic of a fundamental crisis within the American body politic.

Viktor Orbán

The combination of a president who is ignorant of constitutional norms, cares little for civil discourse, and ignores the advice of experienced counselors with a public becoming increasingly disenchanted with the normal workings of democracy is a recipe for creeping authoritarianism. Examples from contemporary Europe show what can happen when a populist ruler like Trump comes to power in an uneasy country. Perhaps, the most meaningful illustration is Hungary, ruled since 2010 by Viktor Orbán.

Hungary is an instance of a kind of “soft autocracy” existing within the confines of the European Union, an organization ostensibly committed to democracy and the rule of law. Travelers to Budapest say the country appears relaxed. There are no evident signs of repression, and there is no cult of personality surrounding Orbán. There is no street violence, no knock on the door in the middle of the night. Yet, power is clearly in the hands of Orbán and the ruling Fidesz Party, secured through control of the judiciary and the media and by appealing to the fears and worst instincts of Hungarians. 

Fence along the Hungarian-Serbian border.

Orbán solidified his rule three years ago by building a fence along Hungary’s southern border with Serbia to stem Muslim immigrants who were using Hungary as a transit to other European Union countries. He has appealed to what he calls “Christian identity,” which he sees threatened by an influx of Muslim immigrants. “We think migration is dangerous to public security, to our welfare and to the European Christian culture,” Orbán says. To this Medieval view of Europe’s cultural makeup, Orbán recently has added suggestions of anti-Semitism with billboards featuring a grinning George Soros as a puppet master attempting to impose his leftist global vision on Europe. Soros, of course, is now an American billionaire who was born in Hungary and survived the Holocaust. (The attack on Soros demonstrates a lack of gratitude on Orbán’s part. As a young man, he attended Oxford on a scholarship funded by Soros.)

Sound familiar? The authoritarian-minded Trump is no Orbán, but like the Hungarian leader Trump has tried to intimidate the courts with attacks on justices and the judicial system. He bullies the media, calling it “the enemy of the people” and threatening to tighten libel laws. Trump based his electoral campaign, in large part, on attacks on Muslims, and he has promised to build a “beautiful wall” on the Mexican border. And, Trump has not been above veiled — and, sometimes, not so veiled — hints of anti-Semitism. This is the formula for a “soft autocracy” similar to the Hungarian model.

It could happen here.

Posted March 23, 2018

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