When reading about Spain’s transition to democracy after dictator Francisco Franco’s 1975 death, one figure in particular stands out: Manuel Fraga. Considered one of the fathers of the country’s constitution, Fraga had previously served under Franco’s fascist government, overseeing executions of political prisoners and the 1976 massacre of striking workers.
While it’s fascinating to consider that Fraga went from a murdering henchman of a fascist dictator to an architect of democracy in just under four decades, it’s also unsettling that it took him that long to discover that authoritarianism was a terrible way to run a country.
Unlike Spaniards who suffered under Franco’s rule, most Americans alive today don’t know what it is to live under authoritarianism. While our nation has a shameful history of breaking the Constitution’s promises to people of color, women and LGBT people, at least formally we benefit today from a government that protects our rights and liberties. That’s an amazing privilege, but not understanding what the alternative entails leaves us vulnerable to the temptations of non-democratic government.
On Monday, the Stockholm-based think tank International IDEA’s annual Global State of Democracy report included a finding that made official what was long clear to many of us, but should cause every patriotic American to sit up in alarm: The US is now a backsliding democracy, and it has been since 2019.
Democratic backsliding isn’t some distant abstraction, but something real and all around us: extreme gerrymandering, impediments to voting and measures to meddle with vote counting; right-wing intellectuals and media figures admiring foreign dictators of the past and present while increasingly undisguised in their contempt for democracy at home; the increasing acceptance of violence and death threats, from fascist paramilitary thugs like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers to people openly musing about shooting political opponents – I could go on and on.
The clearest and most present dangers to democracy come from the right, but the left isn’t immune. As I write this, leaders of Democratic Socialists of America are on a revolutionary tourism excursion in Venezuela, where “socialist” dictator Nicolas Maduro’s Special Action Force routinely shoots poor people in the streets if they object to his policies.
But while International IDEA estimates that America’s democratic backsliding started in 2019, its roots go back further.
According to a 2017 study, the percentages of Americans who favored dictatorship or technocracy – rule by unelected experts rather than elected government – rose from 24-32% and 36-49%, respectively, between 1995 and 2011. While 43% of older Americans opposed a military coup if the government failed to do its job, only 19% of millennials did.
While there are undoubtedly many reasons for millennials’ apparent openness to authoritarianism, I suspect one of them relates to the 2007-2009 financial crisis and recession.
As American millennials watched their government provide half-measures to address the crisis, the Chinese Communist Party simply made growth happen, connecting futuristic high-tech cities with what would become the world’s largest network of high-speed trains. Moscow became one of the world’s most expensive cities, its nouveau riche driving Lamborghinis to chic nightclubs in the latest designer fashions.
Meanwhile, America had wasted money on a pointless war in Iraq and cut taxes for the rich, while the recovery’s benefits mostly flowed to the wealthy.
American millennials thus looked abroad and saw dirigiste dictatorships produce what at least looked like solid results while our much-touted democracy floundered.
It’s reminiscent of the Great Depression, when Americans stood in bread lines as Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin thrilled the world with shiny infrastructure and ostensible improvements in the quality of life. Dictatorship looked like the way of the future.
But then, as now, the image of strength that dictators sought to project to the world with their glimmering baubles hid their underlying weakness. As Life magazine observed in its May 9, 1938 issue, “There is no evidence that Italy’s standard of living, which is lowest of the major powers, has been raised one jot or tittle since Il Duce came to power.” German living standards likewise failed to improve under Hitler.
In China today, you can indeed ride bullet trains everywhere, but the tap water remains undrinkable. Marvel at Moscow and St. Petersburg’s glitz all you want, but people in most of Russia have vastly inferior wages and living conditions. China’s real estate market is collapsing and threatens to bring the whole economy down with it, while it turns out most of Russia’s growth was thanks to oil prices.
And as with Italy and Germany before them, global wonder at China and Russia has turned to condemnation with atrocities like the Uyghur genocide and Hong Kong crackdown in China and Russia persecuting its LGBT population while conquering Ukraine’s sovereign territory.
Look past Putin and the CCP’s carefully crafted illusions of modernity and prosperity, and you can see what Americans would get in exchange for giving up liberal democracy. Unlike most Americans, I’ve had a taste of it, having lived in China from 2001-2004.
I witnessed an old man disappear into a police van in front of Beijing’s Gate of Heavenly Peace for protesting mistreatment by the government. In Kunming, I saw police brutally beat a man they had already handcuffed in broad daylight on a crowded street to the point of tears as onlookers shrugged. At lunch in the majority-Tibetan town of Xiahe, I carefully worded my answer to a monk who asked me how the Dalai Lama was doing, not knowing whether he was a monk, an informant for the secret police, or both. And I quickly learned that cultivating “guanxi” with CCP officials was an essential business practice.
Someone with an even better of what it is to live under authoritarianism is my boyfriend of two years, who came here as an asylum seeker from Tajikistan, where government officials interrogated, beat and entrapped him for the “crime” of providing safe-sex information and resources to LGBT people and being secretly bisexual himself. This was in a country where much of the population lives in poverty while dictator Emomali Rahmon and his family live in wealth and splendor.
People in countries like China and Tajikistan don’t have the option of voting out incompetent, corrupt and abusive leaders or even protesting against them, even if they generally support their governments. Regimes like that demand unquestioning obedience and absolute conformity, while protest or expression of difference brings poverty, harassment, detention, torture or even death.
A major reason for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal was to dampen the allure of fascism and communism and rescue both democracy and market capitalism by showing Americans that they could have a better, more dignified life without resorting to fascist thuggery or communist penury. Joe Biden’s infrastructure and Build Back Better bills have a similar goal.
I hope a massive investment in the infrastructure and people of this country can similarly lead to renewal of our democracy while making its abandonment less attractive. But I’m also afraid our nation might be too far down the road to autocracy for it to make the difference it would have during the Obama administration.
If that’s the case, the question then becomes, how long will the American authoritarian regime last? For how long will we see Oath Keepers deputized to shoot at will any protestor they declare “Antifa” and thus fair game for their bullets? For how long will racial minorities and immigrants find themselves on the receiving end of brutality and arbitrary deportation at the hands of police and immigration authorities? For how long will LGBT people find themselves forced into the closet as legislators in office thanks to rigged election systems enact laws – which judges uphold – eliminating their rights? For how long will workers strain under low wages and exploitation, afraid to ask for something better, lest they find themselves at the receiving end of Proud Boys’ fists and baseball bats? For how long will America’s economic stature and allure dwindle as artists, writers, scientists and entrepreneurs join dissidents in fleeing the country for greener pastures elsewhere, driven out by a government hostile to people who ask questions?
If the anti-democratic forces gathering strength on the right have their way, that’s the kind of dystopian nightmare we’re in for. And people on the right who think they want it should remember that years before writing the 1946 poem “First they came …,” Martin Niemöller was an antisemitic supporter of Hitler and the Nazis – until they came for him when he started asking questions.
So should that happen here, how long before the regime’s architects and supporters finally wake up and realize that liberal democracy was a better way after all?
I ask because it took Manuel Fraga nearly 40 years. Many of us don’t have the luxury of waiting decades for his 21st century American counterparts to discover that authoritarianism is a terrible way to run a country.
Alaric DeArment is a journalist in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @biotechvisigoth.