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Call it authoritarianism

The Republican Party has embraced an agenda that rigs the rules in their favor. There’s a name for that behavior.

Amanda Northrop/Vox

American democracy is in a bad way, and the Republican Party is the reason why.

Blocking an inquiry into the January 6 attack on the Capitol, embracing Trump’s “Big Lie” that the election was stolen, making it easier for partisans to tamper with the process of counting votes: These are not the actions of a party committed to the basic idea of open, representative government.

It’s common to call this GOP behavior “anti-democratic,” but the description can only go so far. It tells us what they’re moving America away from, but not where they want to take it. The term “minority rule” is closer, but euphemistic; it puts the Republican actions in the same category as a Supreme Court ruling, countermajoritarian moves inside a democratic framework rather than something fundamentally opposed to it.

It’s worth being clear about this: The GOP has become an authoritarian party pushing an authoritarian policy agenda.

There are many kinds of authoritarian systems, and many ways to become one of them. In the United States, the threat that looms is a slide into what scholars call “competitive authoritarianism”: a system that still holds elections, but under profoundly unfair conditions that systematically favor one side. That process, of one party stacking the deck in its favor over the course of years, isn’t unique — we’ve seen it in countries across the world in recent years, in places as diverse as Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela.

Understanding what’s happening in the US as something fundamentally similar to what’s happened elsewhere — using the a-word, unflinchingly — helps us not only diagnose the most dangerous policy steps the GOP is taking, but also truly appreciate the gravity of the situation in which America has found itself.

We are suffering from the same rot that has brought down democracy in other countries: a party that has decided it no longer wants to play by the rules and that would instead prefer to rule as authoritarians rather than share power with its opponents.

“All of us, as citizens, have to recognize that the path towards an undemocratic America is not going to happen in just one bang. It happens in a series of steps,” former President Barack Obama said in a CNN interview last Monday.

We’re not where Hungary is, thankfully. Democrats can and still do win power, as they did in 2020.

But the playing field is indisputably tilted against them — and only growing more so. The escalation in authoritarian behavior since January 6, from both national and state Republicans, shows that things are worse than even some pessimistic observers have feared.

It’s happened elsewhere. It can happen here, too.

The varieties of authoritarianism

When people think of authoritarian governments, they typically think of police states and 20th-century totalitarianism. But “authoritarianism” is actually a broad term, encompassing very different governments united mostly by the fact that they do not transfer power through free and fair elections. Some of these governments, like modern China, are violently and nakedly repressive; others control their population through subtler means.

Competitive authoritarian governments fall into the latter category — so closely resembling a democracy on paper that many of their own citizens believe they’re still living in one.

The concept was first developed in a 2002 paper by Harvard’s Steven Levitsky and the University of Toronto’s Lucan Way, two leading scholars of democracy. They identified competitive authoritarian systems as ones that hold elections but ensure that they’re fundamentally unfair — stacked in the incumbent party’s favor so heavily that the people don’t have real agency over who rules them.

“Incumbents routinely abuse state resources, deny the opposition adequate media coverage, harass opposition candidates and their supporters, and in some cases manipulate electoral results,” Levitsky and Way write. “Regimes characterized by such abuses cannot be called democratic.”

Yet competitive authoritarian systems survive in part by convincing citizens that they are living in a democracy. That’s how they maintain their legitimacy and prevent popular uprisings. As such, they do not conduct the kind of obvious sham elections held in places like Bashar al-Assad’s Syria (he won the 2021 contest with 95 percent of the “vote”).

In competitive authoritarianism, the opposition does have some ability to win a bit of power through, well, competition — even if the scope of their possible victories are limited.

It’s a tricky balance for the regime to pull off: rigging elections enough to maintain power indefinitely while still permitting enough democracy that citizens don’t rise up in outrage. Many competitive authoritarian regimes have collapsed under the stress, either transitioning to democracy (like Taiwan) or forcefully repressing the opposition and becoming a more traditional autocracy (like Belarus).

But many systems manage to survive. In a 2020 paper revisiting their work, Levitsky and Way found that 10 out of 35 competitive authoritarian regimes they identified in 2002 remained in place nearly two decades later. And new ones had emerged in countries that had previously been seen as solidly democratic — most notably Hungary, which is today one of the most effective competitive authoritarian systems in the world.

Hungary is, as it happens, one of the foreign countries most admired by American conservative intellectuals. In the 2020 paper, Levitsky and Way observe that features of its system are starting to show up in America.

“Competitive authoritarianism is not only thriving but inching westward. No democracy can be taken for granted,” they write. “Similar tendencies have even reached the United States, where the Trump administration borrowed the ‘deep state’ discourse that autocrats in Hungary and Turkey used to justify purges and the packing of the courts and other key state institutions.“

After the events of January 6 and subsequent Republican pushes to steal the election, I reached out to Levitsky to see how his thinking had evolved.

“I’m terrified,” he told me in a phone call. “I think Republicans are going to steal the next election.”

The GOP and competitive authoritarianism

Happily, the United States still passes the most basic test of whether a system is democratic: whether the public can vote out its leaders. But it is hard to deny that the Republican Party has begun chipping away at that baseline principle, using the flaws in our political system to entrench their power.

Republicans already have unfair structural advantages, due to our outmoded Constitution. The nature of the Electoral College means that the key battlegrounds, like Pennsylvania, are considerably redder than the country as a whole. The Senate is so biased against dense urban states that under half of Americans control 82 percent of Senate seats. The combination of anti-urban bias and intentional gerrymandering means that, by one measure, the GOP has had a leg up in House elections since 1968.

The current Republican campaign builds on these inherent tendencies of the US constitutional system toward minority rule to push us toward something more properly termed authoritarian. It combines intentional state-level election rigging with the abuse of countermajoritarian institutions at the federal level to ensure GOP control of the nationwide levers of power, all the while working to delegitimize the press and other non-state institutions that could challenge it.

Some of these developments, like extreme gerrymandering and efforts to keep their supporters in a propaganda bubble insulated from nonpartisan media, are long-running. But many of the most concerning developments, ones that directly echo the approach of competitive authoritarian regimes abroad, are new.

In Hungary, one of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s key power-consolidating moves was stacking the country’s election administration agency with cronies from his Fidesz party, allowing the party to more easily rig the game in its favor.

In 2021, the GOP has started subverting election agencies in earnest; a new report from three pro-democracy groups found that 14 Republican-controlled states have passed a total of 24 bills this year interfering with election administration. Georgia’s SB 202 is perhaps the most egregious, allowing the Republican-dominated state legislature to take over the vote-counting process from county officials.

Another important Orbán tactic has been abusing regulatory policy to punish businesses that threaten the party’s hold on political power.

In 2021, the GOP embraced this idea at both the state and federal level. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a leading 2024 presidential contender, recently signed a flagrantly unconstitutional bill that levies heavy fines on platforms that ban politicians like Donald Trump. In April, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned that “corporations will invite serious consequences if they become a vehicle for far-left mobs.” Three GOP senators proposed a bill stripping Major League Baseball of its antitrust exemption as an explicit punishment for its decision to pull the All-Star Game out of Atlanta to protest SB 202.

And then, of course, there’s the January 6 uprising and the Republican embrace of its fundamental premise: that the 2020 election was somehow illegitimate.

All competitive authoritarian regimes need some kind of ideological justification for anti-democratic politics, something to rally its supporters against their enemies. In Hungary, it’s a combination of nationalism, xenophobia, and a defense of traditional gender norms. The GOP has long employed elements of all of these but now has united around a more straightforward cause: American elections are corrupt, and Republican efforts to make elections unfair are actually efforts to fix them.

The point here is not that the GOP’s anti-democratic inclinations are completely new: In fact, they’ve evolved over decades. But the crucible of the Trump presidency and the January 6 election have forged these inchoate notions into an actual competitive authoritarian agenda.

Authoritarianism is as American as apple pie

Of course, the United States is different in many important respects from a place like Hungary. One important difference: our decentralized electoral system.

The US Constitution devolved election administration to the states, giving local legislatures control over the rules around elections and the process of actually tallying up the votes. State governments are what political scientist Phil Rocco calls “the infrastructure of democracy” — the place where the terms of political competition at the national level are set.

In theory, this should serve as a bulwark against the emergence of competitive authoritarianism, preventing one faction from rewriting the rules in their favor in one fell swoop. Historically, Rocco points out, it’s often worked the opposite way: The decentralized system enabled the creation of Jim Crow, which turned Southern states into authoritarian enclaves marked by one-party Democratic rule for decades.

“Racial apartheid in the South constructed a ‘Jim Crow Congress’; insulated from electoral competition, Southern committee chairs became the fulcrum of national policymaking — foreclosing the New Deal’s social democratic aspirations,” he writes in a 2020 essay. “Episodes of democratic collapse at the state level have had profound reverberations for national politics.”

The threat in the United States is the reemergence of this sort of bottom-up, state-level authoritarianism that has national electoral repercussions. It’s a subtle threat, one that comes into being quietly and incrementally — as is often the case when a democracy devolves into competitive authoritarianism.

“If people think that there is one day that you wake up and you’re in a competitive authoritarian system, that’s not the case,” says Hadas Aron, a political scientist at New York University who studies weak and failing democracies. “It’s actually complicated and a very, very long process.”

Experts disagree on how close we are to crossing the line. Levitsky, for example, thinks that Republicans could fatally undermine the democratic system as soon as 2024, using a combination of state-level interference with vote counts and congressional action to illegitimately block a Democratic victory.

Aron, by contrast, thinks we’re still quite far from the point of no return — that American democratic institutions are far more vibrant than their Hungarian peers were just before their collapse.

But even Aron, a longtime skeptic of the idea that America is on the path to authoritarianism, is rethinking her views in light of the GOP’s increased commitment to anti-democratic politics since January 6.

“I can’t say anything good” about Republican behavior, she tells me. “They want to stay in power and they want to change the system so it will benefit them as much as possible.”

This view is approaching a consensus among experts. A recent letter by 100 leading scholars of democracy warned that “Republican-led state legislatures across the country have in recent months proposed or implemented what we consider radical changes to core electoral procedures. ... Collectively, these initiatives are transforming several states into political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections. Hence, our entire democracy is now at risk.”

Yet many of our elected officials — including key Democrats — do not recognize the urgency of the crisis.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told Forbes last week that “if democracy were in jeopardy, I would want to protect it. [But] I don’t see it being in jeopardy right now.” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), in an op-ed justifying his decision to vote against the democracy reform bill HR 1, equated the bill with Republican efforts to undermine democracy.

“Today’s debate about how to best protect our right to vote and to hold elections, however, is not about finding common ground, but seeking partisan advantage,” Manchin writes. “Whether it is state laws that seek to needlessly restrict voting or politicians who ignore the need to secure our elections, partisan policymaking won’t instill confidence in our democracy — it will destroy it.”

This is why it’s vital to be open about what’s happening — to raise the specter of authoritarianism. Because the slide toward competitive authoritarianism is incremental, it’s easy to fall into complacency, to overlook what’s happening in front of our eyes.

When I visited Hungary three years ago, I met with Zsuzsanna Szelényi, a former member of the Hungarian parliament from Fidesz who left out of disgust with Orbán’s authoritarian instincts. She told me that the European Union, which has immense financial and diplomatic leverage over the Hungarian government, largely ignored the country’s authoritarian drift after it started in 2010.

“Five years later, they understood who this person was,” she told me. “But by that time, Hungary was completely changed.”

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