The last remnants of overt authoritarianism in the United States have become besieged by powerful social movements. The American Civil war was fought to end the tyranny of chattel slavery. Far too many years later, the oppressive regime of the Jim Crow South was finally defeated by the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s. This is not to say that political-race relations are perfect at the moment, but to illustrate that flagrantly anti-democratic institutions are now on the decline in the US. As wealth continues to concentrate at the top of the income spectrum, the need for authoritarian institutions has also fallen over time. Instead of directly excluding sections of the population from democracy itself, political elites focus on covertly alienating the public from the material effects of policy. Ozan O. Varol’s article “Stealth Authoritarianism” describes the various legal and regulatory means by which elites manage to corrupt the democratic process.
In our modern political environment, powerful figures in domestic politics employ alienation strategies in order to solidify their already dedicated ideological bases, foment aggressive sentiment against the opposition party, and prevent and otherwise dissuade non-voters from participating in the democratic process. A system in which ideally everyone is allowed to vote but nonetheless, barely half of eligible voters actually do, is a fundamentally broken form of government. Varol points to numerous strategic mechanisms of “stealth authoritarianism” that contribute to low turnout rates and voter alienation. The primary drivers of political inequality are the structural factors that are essential to maintaining the status quo. The checks and balances that the branches wield over each other have been sharpened to the extent that the political parties are entrenched in ideological battle over every level of bureaucracy. The standards of veto powers, judicial review, and information control (what Varol refers to as “Surveillance laws and institutions”) have been interpreted from the constitution and are therefore inherent to the operations of the American state.(1)
These elements of our society are deeply rooted in our republican form of governance and are likely to remain in tact as long as there are officials that realize the potential benefits of adapting these tools for their own political gain. Bush v. Gore is the predominant example of the perversion of judicial powers in the last 2 decades. The Supreme Court decided to award Bush the presidency and prohibit further vote recounts invoking the basis of the equal protection clause.(2) This legal rationale does not make sense because equal protection refers to discrimination cases, but Gore was forced to defer to the judgement of the court as he lacked any further recourse for a recount after filing his failed lawsuit. A normal citizen has no incentive to believe that his vote counts when structural privileges like judicial review are abused in the name of advancing one elite’s career and hamstringing another’s.
On election day, the average American voter is not choosing who will do their best to uphold the common good but rather who will be put in a position of power such that they can utilize democratic institutions for anti-democratic purposes. The president and congress, and indirectly the supreme court, are motivated by ideological concerns and the quest for reelection. Once in office, every official in the United States becomes almost wholly concerned with tracking ideological conflicts and adapting to recent political developments. Changes in coalitions and policy enforcement will invariably effect the strategies that elites will use to divide us against each other. As campaign finance laws, electoral regulations, and criminal prosecutions are increasingly used as rhetorical ammunition to be flung at the other side, the stakes of political participation will only become greater and the powers afforded to executive and legislative officers will only become more comprehensive. (3)
- O, Varol Ozan. “II Countries and Regions, 20 Stealth Authoritarianism in Turkey.” Constitutional Democracy in Crisis?, 2018. doi:10.1093/law/9780190888985.003.0020.
- Bush v. Gore Supreme Court opinion
3. O, Varol Ozan. “II Countries and Regions, 20 Stealth Authoritarianism in Turkey.” Constitutional Democracy in Crisis?, 2018. doi:10.1093/law/9780190888985.003.0020.