Historians like to point to the 20th century as the age of authoritarianism, characterized by the rise of Fascism as well as communist dictatorships. It is not the only one as a significant argument can be made for monarchies as well, the theory of divine right, the notion that a king was born a king and therefore his/her actions should not be questioned by any legislative body being the method by which they protected their power.
It might even be argued religion and religious leaders have taken on the mantle of authoritarianism. Would the Egyptian Pharaohs be any less authoritarian than the Emperors of dynastic China? Would the Catholic Pope be any less authoritarian than the ancient Persian king Darius I or his successors?
The fact is that authoritarianism has been part and parcel of the human experience since civilization purged us of our hunter-gatherer ways, coaxing us to adopt a more sedentary and agrarian lifestyle. Some historians suggest among the first authoritarians were the grain distributors of ancient Mesopotamia, who, by virtue of their position, garnered significant authority due to their power over the distribution of grain.
Whatever the cause, authoritarianism is, and has been, part and parcel of the human experience when living in communal arrangements, and for most of history, that arrangement has been acceptable and even encouraged. While there were earlier attempts to bring to heel this authoritarian bent, none were overly successful and eventually devolved into the very authoritarianism said societies wished to avoid.
The most successful of those early non-authoritarian civilizations were the Greeks, a society built upon reason rather than religion or some sort of theocratic model prevalent in the ancient world. Despite the success of Athens, even it succumbed to the lure of authoritarianism in the form of Pericles, himself never a dictator but “first citizen” who extolled the fortunes of Greece and its democracy whilst simultaneously maintaining outsized influence and power in determining its direction.
Even the Romans, those of ancient lore who founded the notion of indirect democracy by virtue of Senate election also succumbed to the lure of the “great man”, those who worked within the system to garner power beyond the scope of what government design dictated. Sulla was the most prominent of those early usurpers, followed eventually by the most famous of them all – Julius Caesar. Despite the continual existence of the Roman Senate, their powers were eventually usurped as well, Romans giving themselves over to numerous dictators eventually being called “gods” after their deaths – many of the violent sort and often killed at the hands of their own guards for going beyond reasonable means during their rule.
The Slow Creep of Authoritarianism
The remedy for such authoritarian action was to spell out and limit the power of the central government, doing so by constitutional means. In Western history, there have been attempts such as the English Bill of Rights (1688-89) which was not a constitution but did attempt to spell out what rights people had. During the French Revolution, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen did much the same thing, both with limited success in limiting the government, and in the case of the French, devolving into the Napoleonic Period.
It is the United States, until the Woodrow Wilson presidency, who demonstrated more than any government in history, what limited centralized power could do, backed by a constitution expressly written to curtail the power of the federal government. Limits imposed, written, and followed were what allowed private enterprise and, indeed, the private individual to flourish. This was the mantra of the Founders, and despite Hamilton’s objection and garnering of power as the first Secretary of the Treasury, the system held. Even under Presidents in the early Republic who longed for more power the Constitution held firm, limiting their power to get overly involved in its citizens’ lives.
One could argue Theodore Roosevelt and his Square Deal policies opened the door to more government involvement, but the die was cast during the Wilson Administration and their actions as the First World War approached. The Wilson administration would strain the limits of the Constitution to the breaking point, paving the way for government to break free of the many walls the Founders put in place to keep government at bay – the 9th and 10th Amendments be damned (It’s surprising to know how many people don’t know either amendment or why they were made part of the Bill of Rights). It would seem, then, no matter the roadblocks, government expansion was/is inevitable with authoritarianism not far behind.
What is Authoritarianism?
There is much talk on both the left and right of our political spectrum on this topic, with each side hurling the “authoritarian” insult towards each other. Even the splatter of “Nazism” is tossed about like tomatoes on a summer salad, with both sides and their partisans knowing little of what Nazism actually is (Hint: Neither side is right – a half truth is still a lie).
In short, American authoritarianism is when policies are adopted and enacted by the Federal government or even the state and local government which infringe upon the civil rights and civil liberties guaranteed by our Constitution; rights that belong to the individual rather than the state yet are limited because of state or federal intervention.
When laws and government actions are such that they infringe on the Constitutionally guaranteed rights of the populace it is not hyperbole to suggest such actions are authoritarian in nature; a threat to not only the freedoms guaranteed us in the Constitution but a threat to the very existence of our Republic.
The best example in the United States today is the call for limiting free speech under the guise of creating “safe zones” or protecting people from “hurtful rhetoric”. Universities are the most culpable in this regard, ensuring disparate voices are not heard on campus, disinviting conservative speakers for commencement ceremonies, and otherwise limiting speech that “doesn’t comport with university standards.” While said universities extol the virtues of diversity, they do not, in large part support diversity of opinion, the very reason for their existence.
Even the Federal government has broached this authoritarian model with the latest iteration of its so-called Disinformation Team. The design, at current, is to develop programs and polices that protect political figures and journalists from disinformation, abuse, and harassment.” The panel includes the United States Attorney General Merrick Garland, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkes.
As pointed out in an earlier article, the Republicans are not without fault on this score either, with the Army McCarthy hearings in the 1950’s as proof.
The Coming of Authoritarianism
Authoritarian actions, as a first step, attempt to eliminate dissenting voices in any form, preferring an echo chamber for their ideas, essentially brain washing the populace. While the term “brain washing” is distasteful , the fact is when an echo chamber is all there is, brain washing occurs. This is why radical movements choose to eliminate any counter-narrative to their message. Dissonance is the enemy of authoritarianism.
Second, an enemy must be pointed out – specifically an enemy who is a threat to the existing order of things – so much so that order must be changed in order to protect the institutions…and the only way to do that is to grant power to those that wish it. Why? For the safety of the collective. The Enabling Act in Germany prior to Hitler’s ascension to power, the plebiscite vote prior to Napoleon’s eventual control, Robespierre’s Reign of Terror during the French Revolution and the creation of gulags during the era of the Soviet Union are all examples of such emergency control.
In our own nation, government has used perceived threats as a method for expansion of power – World War I created the income tax along with the Sedition Act of 1918 which greatly expanded the power of the government to “look into” and curtail speech that was seen as anti-war. The New Deal, erroneously taught in schools to be a massive success (most of it was deemed unconstitutional, the response by FDR was to attempt to expand the Court), was a significant step toward government control and subversion of the Constitution. The existence of Social Security as well as significant government regulation of business and massive tax increases (all of which were failures) being just a couple examples. Ironically, Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini marveled at FDR’s control with Mussolini exclaiming “Behold, a dictator!”.
Listen to the words of FDR himself in 1912: “They passed beyond the liberty of the individual to do as he pleased with his own property and found it necessary to check this liberty for the benefit of the freedom of the whole people.”
Finally, inculcation of the young…schools….is where authoritarians put most of their chips. It is a long process; one that demands patience and time, but a game if played correctly, will yield significant results. To wit:
-The Prussian School (19th century)which exaggerated and re-wrote German history to focus on Prussian values and history in steering its youth toward the creation of a militaristic German state.
-The creation of the Hitler Youth
-Government control of schools during the Soviet Union’s era
-Carlsbad Decrees (1819) which forbade liberal ideas such as universal manhood suffrage, the freedom of speech, as well as other liberal ideas. Support of the existing monarchies was the goal as liberalism was seen as the main reason for the French Revolution and the Napoleonic period.
Authoritarianism seeks to not only dismantle but render null and void any of the traditions and history of said nation as it seeks to expand itself. Consistent propaganda wars, the willingness to call into question and reason away long held cultural institutions in favor of the new matrix is it’s goal…expressing the notion that embracing said changes will result in cultural safety, a notion that appeals to populations in the extreme but is largely unattainable, especially in so-called “free” societies. In order to make that safety a reality a society’s freedoms must be curtailed…the populace willing to abide as they’ve been stoked to fear and crave said safety.
There is much more to this notation of rising authoritarianism, and the examples are many in the timetables of history. Our Constitution was set up to avoid such an occurrence, but the document itself is rendered null and void if there is no one to defend it. It is merely parchment with high sounding words and thoughtful ideas – and little more which is why government officials take an oath to protect those words. I wonder if they really believe what they utter.