As much as we’d like to believe otherwise, authoritarianism and illiberalism are not new to American politics. Nor do we have to focus on the fact that for almost the first century of our history a substantial percentage of the country’s population was owned as property and were believed to have, as the Chief Justice of the United States put it, “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” There was also a pronounced anti-democratic turn in American politics in the late 19th century; there were various political movements in the US in the early part of the century which qualify, both on the right and left; even our language of illiberal extremism remains largely defined by Richard J. Hofstadter’s 1964 essay ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics.’
None of this is new.
Yet for all of this history and for all the ways that many eras of our past were clearly worse, this moment is unique. I can think of no period in our nation’s history in which there was a growing authoritarian political movement in the United States and it was led by the incumbent President. Talking about a rising authoritarian movement doesn’t just mean Trump, his backers and what we see unfolding in front of us. It predates Trump. There is pretty hard political science data not only demonstrating the rise of authoritarian thinking but more specifically, the sorting of people who think in authoritarian terms. Authoritarians used to be more evenly distributed between the two political parties. In recent decades they’ve been migrating into the Republican party and vice versa. (If you’re interested in more on this look at the work of Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler. Here’s their book and their work has been written up in many news articles.)
What has occurred to me with growing intensity in recent months is that we do not have a public language and sense of political identity tied to civic freedom. This may sound odd since invocations of liberty and freedom are ubiquitous in American political discourse. They are so ubiquitous as to be trite in many cases. There is also a strong small-l libertarian streak in American political identity. But here’s what I mean. They say that a fish doesn’t know it’s in water because it doesn’t know anything but water. Similarly there are many basic values and assumptions I think as Americans we barely know and have seldom needed to state support for explicitly because they have been so assumed. We can’t assume those things any more.
Of course, we know this in a general sense. Many people were aghast to see the White House Press Secretary last week say it’s “highly inappropriate” to question a four star general. Lots of people can see that norms and values that seldom had to be stated in the past are now trampled on routinely. But that’s not quite the same as identifying what it is that is being trampled on – not just in the individual and specific cases but the larger vision of government and values.
It may sound like this is just semantics or an issue of naming. But that’s not true. Political values don’t long subsist if they’re not embedded in a deeper sense of identity and an articulated set of precepts, a language and even group of verbal and visual signifiers. When you see the people around Trump lining to floridly praise and thank him in the language of a cult of personality, what is that? It doesn’t feel like us. But what is it and what is the other thing that we identify with and fear is being abandoned?
Here’s another example. In the first decade or so after the fall of the Soviet Union, American reporting about Russia generally spoke of “hardliners” or authoritarians and “liberals”. Certainly a lot of that was a simplification looking at another country through a narrow aperture of our own assumptions. But ‘liberals’ was a fairly straightforward way to signify the group that believed in free elections, civil liberties, press freedoms, labor rights and the bundle of other rights and norms we associate with civic liberalism and democracy. Indeed, we use similar language when talking about other countries with authoritarian governments or fragile democracies. Most of us instinctively see these people as those who espouse values we support, the good guys for lack of a better word.
It’s true that the US has frequently not supported the ‘good guys’ in other countries, especially when the government in question is friendly to the US. But there’s been a pretty broad consensus that those values should prevail in the US. That does not feel like the case anymore. It predates Trump but Trump is radically catalyzing it. Look at Steve Bannon’s speech before the California Republican party over the weekend. His may not be a fascist political movement but it is certainly illiberal and authoritarian in ways we’ve seldom seen for mainstream political movements in the US, ones with real electoral traction.
It seems normal to point to countries with authoritarian governments and have a short hand to refer to the people who believe in the kind of values we associate with American political culture. We need a language to be able to refer to those people here. Because it’s no longer a given that it is the great majority of people. The majority? I am pretty confident of that. But the overwhelming majority? That gets murkier.
It probably does not make sense to use the word ‘liberals’ for this in the US since we use the term to refer to more than just civic freedoms and civic liberalism. In the US it generally means the moderate left. We’re talking about something that is related to but distinct from support for a mixed economy and other policy priorities we associate with American liberalism. In any case, given its usage in the US, it excludes many people who believe in civic freedom but are not part of the center-left.
We do not currently have a clear public vocabulary of civic freedom in the US or a cultural penumbra that surrounds support for the same. We didn’t need them before. Now we do.