An Authoritarian Threat

Charlottesville, Virginia, August 2017; Credit: Evan Nesterak(35782612633)CC BY 2.0

The United States currently faces unprecedented risks of a collapse into autocracy, dissolution or both. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance – a Stockholm-based think tank founded to assist democratization worldwide – now lists the United States as a “backsliding” democracy. In 2021, polls showed a majority of Biden voters and a supermajority of Trump voters believe “red” and “blue” states should secede to form separate countries and state political parties openly speak of secession in a country that has known civil war. Leading former military leaders have warned of the possibility of armed conflict within the armed forces themselves in the aftermath of the 2024 vote.

The January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol – a coup attempt according to the Cline Center for Advanced Social Research, which studies such things – nearly ended the American Experiment. Spurred by an outgoing president wishing to retain power, insurrectionists forced the evacuation of the legislative branch and sought to capture and possibly kill Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The U.S. military was unable to come to the Capitol’s defense in a timely fashion. Two years after the attack, 57 percent of Americans said they thought a similar assault will occur in the next few years.

How did we get here?

In recent decades, the U.S. has allowed two vital foundations of its experiment in democracy to erode. Healthy democracies keep the two aspects of freedom – individual liberty and the common good – in equilibrium. Yet, for several decades political leaders from both parties enacted policies – from changes to the tax code and the reduction of public investments in science, infrastructure, education and social programs to the deregulation of key economic sectors – that have disrupted this balance and moved the country so far on the individualistic side of the spectrum that it destabilized communities, undermined people’s trust in one another and generated support for populist movements on both the left and the right.

Simultaneously, thought leaders, schools and politicians stopped articulating the story of America’s national purpose – its fealty to the ideals in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – creating a void that is being filled by ethnonationalists, white supremacists and demagogues. This is an existential crisis for a union that was founded by rival regional cultures that lacked a shared ethnicity, religion, history or socio-political model.