Avoiding America's worst possible future

It isn't authoritarianism we should fear. It's violence.

Is the United States on the brink of authoritarianism? A shockingly large number of commentators seem to think so. This would appear to suggest that we should take the threat very seriously indeed — except for one crucially important consideration: Those raising alarms can be found on both sides of the political spectrum, with each camp pointing to its ideological opposite as the source of the impending breakdown of democracy and advent of tyranny in America.

That highlights another, deeper problem that threatens a very different, though no less catastrophic, outcome.

The center-left has been making versions of the authoritarian argument from the very start of the Trump administration. In addition to the president's tendency to talk like a demagogic dictator at campaign rallies and on Twitter, his hesitancy to distance himself from right-wing hate groups, and his pursuit of xenophobic immigration policies, progressives highlight GOP efforts at voter suppression, the counter-majoritarianism of the Electoral College and Senate, and Trump's own refusal to say he'll step down from office if he loses his bid for re-election. All of it adds up to a narrative of incipient Republican Party dictatorship.

The right, meanwhile, has its own story of creeping totalitarianism. Some conspiracy-minded conservatives have viewed liberals as would-be tyrants going all the way back to the New Deal, if not before. But such concerns surged into the mainstream with new fervor in the run-up to the 2016 election with the claim that Trump and his supporters were like courageous martyrs storming the cockpit of Flight 93 on September 11, willing to risk everything to avert the existential threat that a Hillary Clinton presidency posed to conservative priorities.

More recently, journalist Rod Dreher has published a bestselling book warning conservative Christians about the looming threat of "soft totalitarianism," as progressives prepare to use combined state and cultural power to enforce conformity in the United States to a "woke" moral-spiritual outlook that's virulently hostile to anything resembling traditional Christianity.

Those are the camps, each fearing and loathing the other, each seeing itself as freedom's sole savior and its opponents as freedom's mortal enemy. Obviously, both cannot be right, and in fact neither wholly is. But their civic significance lies not in the truth of the warnings each of them broadcasts about the other but in their shared conviction that those on the other side of our partisan divide pose a grave danger — so grave that permitting them to win political power may soon prove to be unacceptable and illegitimate.

That sounds like competing defenses of one-party rule — and it would be that if we had any reason to believe either side would back down and allow its opponents to seize such dictatorial powers. Another scenario is far more likely: Each side's fear of the other's authoritarianism could push it to embrace outright political violence.

I don't at all mean to suggest that I think a civil war is imminent or likely. It isn't. But when contemplating the tail risks associated with the American present, it's important to recognize that civil war is significantly more likely than the successful imposition of authoritarianism in any form. Exploring why that is and how to respond to it is among the most important tasks of the present moment, and two writers of the center-right are making crucial contributions to the task.

In a pair of recent columns, The New York Times' Ross Douthat has done a highly effective job of explaining how both sides in our politics overstate the authoritarian character of the opposition. Against the left, Douthat argues that Trump has been far too lazy, ignorant, and incompetent to effectively institute anything remotely akin to dictatorial rule — and that progressives have countless paths of cultural and political resistance to any (ineptly) attempted seizure of such powers. Against the right, he argues … much the same thing about possibilities for resistance against the left. Addressing both, he suggests it would wise to stop indulging in the fantasy that each new election serves as an occasion to achieve a Final Victory that will at long last neutralize the opposition.

With this final point, Douthat's analysis brushes up against, while never exploring, the greater danger that follows from the alarmist exaggerations of both camps — namely, that people on one or the other side could be provoked by fear of their ideological opposite to embrace outright political violence.

In thinking through how to navigate these treacherous civic waters, our best guide so far is David French's Divided We Fall. Unlike Dreher and the authors of most of the center-left books on the dangers confronting American democracy, French is a (classical, or conservative) liberal who situates himself somewhat above the immediate political fray, placing concern for the enduring ideals and institutions of American democracy ahead of his own policy preferences and partisan commitments. This allows him to see the U.S. for what it is at the moment — namely, a country coming apart, spiraling toward ever deeper and potentially calamitous division.

French examines the concrete ways in which the country could come undone, and he proposes solutions. I agree with him that our best shot at de-escalation — at accepting and learning to live with our vast differences — has to involve a greater willingness to embrace federalism. Though I also worry that this could produce a country waging a (cultural) civil war by other means. (We need to beware doing even more to foster division.)

But this is a relatively small and potentially fruitful point of possible disagreement. French's book is important because he has his eyes fixed on the real or most fundamental problem confronting American democracy, and because he doesn't allow himself to get sucked into or distracted by the more superficial conflicts that feed into that problem and make it worse. His book deserves to be widely read and debated among those who would help America avoid the worst of its many possible futures.

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