The move from democracy to autocracy isn’t a sudden shift. It is not a switch that flips from light to dark with nothing in between. But it’s also not quite right to call the path to authoritarianism a journey. To use a metaphor of travel or distance is to suggest something external, removed, foreign.
It is better, in the U.S. context at least, to think of authoritarianism as something like a contradiction nestled within the American democratic tradition. It is part of the whole, a reflection of the fact that American notions of freedom and liberty are deeply informed by both the experience of slaveholding and the drive to seize land and expel its previous inhabitants.
As the historian Edmund Morgan once wrote of the Virginians who helped lead the fight for Anglo-American independence, “The presence of men and women who were, in law at least, almost totally subject to the will of other men gave to those in control of them an immediate experience of what it could mean to be at the mercy of a tyrant.” Virginians, he continued, “may have had a special appreciation of the freedom dear to republicans, because they saw everyday what life without it could be like.”
Similarly, the legal scholar Aziz Rana has observed that for many Anglo-Americans in the 18th century, freedom was an “exclusivist ideal, accessible only to Anglo-Saxons and select Europeans, whose heritage, land practices, and religion made them particularly suited to self-rule. Such exclusivism presupposed that settler security, as well as more grandiose dreams of utopian peace, required the subordination of internal and external enemies, who threatened Anglo social and political supremacy.” Freedom and domination, he writes, were “bound together.”
This duality is present in our federal Constitution, which proclaims republican liberty at the same time that it has enabled the brutal subjugation of entire peoples within the United States. The Constitution both inspired the democratic vistas of radical antislavery politicians and backstopped the antebellum dream of a transcontinental slave empire.
Move a little closer to the present and you can see clearly how American democracy and American autocracy have existed next to each other, side by side, with the latter 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 racial separation and when the Supreme Court affirmed it — then close to three generations of American elites lived with and largely accepted the existence of a political system that made a mockery of American ideals of self-government and the rule of law.
It was a system that, as the legal scholar and former judge Margaret A. Burnham writes in “By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners,” rested on “the chronic, unpredictable violence that loomed over everyday Black life.” In one of many such episodes detailed in the book, Burnham recounts the last moments of Henry Williams, a Black GI killed in 1942 by an Alabama bus driver named Grover Chandler for what Chandler perceived as “impudence on the part of the young soldier.” Rushing to escape the bus after being assaulted by the driver, Williams spilled his laundry on the ground. “As he turned to pick it up, Chandler fired three shots, one hitting Williams in the back of the head. He died instantly right there on Chandler’s bus.”
All of this took place while the United States was fighting a war for democracy in Europe. Which is to say that for most of this country’s history, America’s democratic institutions and procedures and ideals existed alongside forms of exclusion, domination and authoritarianism. Although we’ve taken real strides toward making this a less hierarchical country, with a more representative government, there is no iron law of history that says that progress will continue unabated or that the authoritarian tradition in American politics won’t reassert itself.
If we do see even greater democratic backsliding than we’ve already experienced over the past decade — since the advent of Donald Trump, yes, but also since the decimation of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder — there’s no reason to think that most elites, and most people, won’t accommodate themselves to the absence of democracy for many of their fellow Americans. After a time, that absence of democracy may just become the regular order of things — a regrettable custom that nonetheless should more or less be left alone because of “federalism” or “limited government.” That, in fact, is how many politicians, journalists and intellectuals rationalized autocracy in the South and reconciled it with their belief that the United States was a free country.
In his 1909 biography of John Brown, W.E.B. Du Bois reflected on the legacy of the antislavery martyr with an observation about what it does to a society to tolerate exploitation, degradation and unfreedom. “The price of repression is greater than the cost of liberty,” he wrote. “The degradation of men costs something both to the degraded and those who degrade.”
American traditions of authoritarianism have shaped American traditions of democracy in that they frame our ideas of who, exactly, can enjoy American freedom and American liberty. They degrade our moral sense and make it easier to look away from those who suffer under the worst of the state or those who are denied the rights they were promised as members of our national community.
As we look to a November in which a number of vocal election deniers are poised to win powerful positions in key swing states, I think that the great degree to which authoritarianism is tied up in the American experience — and the extent to which we’ve been trained not to see it, in accordance with our national myths and sense of exceptionalism — makes it difficult for many Americans to really believe that democracy as we know it could be in serious danger.
In other words, too many Americans still think “it can’t happen here,” when the truth is that it already has and may well again.