The primary global geopolitical conflict of our time is not between capitalism and communism but rather between democracy and autocracy, and for the past two decades the autocrats have been winning. Democracy has been on the decline globally during the 21st Century especially in the largest democracies of the world.
Anne Applebaum, one the world’s most respected experts on the global threat of autocracy, attributes this decline to the success of global autocratic networks that have systematically worked to weaken democratic structures around the world for their own maintenance and expansion of political and economic power. Applebaum writes:
Nowadays, autocracies are run not by one bad guy, but by networks composed of kleptocratic financial structures, security services (military, police, paramilitary groups, surveillance personnel), and professional propagandists. The members of these networks are connected not only within a given country, but among many countries. The corrupt, state-controlled companies in one dictatorship do business with their counterparts in another, with the profits going to the leader and his inner circle. Oligarchs from multiple countries all use the same accountants and lawyers to hide their money in Europe and America. The police forces in one country can arm, equip, and train the police forces in another; China notoriously sells surveillance technology all around the world. Propagandists share resources and tactics—the Russian troll farms that promote Putin’s propaganda can also be used to promote the propaganda of Belarus or Venezuela. They also pound home the same messages about the weakness of democracy and the evil of America. Chinese sources are right now echoing fake Russian stories about nonexistent Ukrainian chemical weapons. Their goal is to launch false narratives and confuse audiences in the United States and other free societies. They do so in order to make us believe that there is nothing we can do in response.Anne Applebaum, TESTIMONY BEFORE THE SENATE COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN RELATIONS, ON “COMBATTING AUTHORITARIANISM: TOOLS AND RESPONSES” MARCH 15, 2022
The success of this global autocratic network leads us to the question, “What can be done in response to this worldwide autocratic challenge to democracy?” First we must recognize what it is that makes our democracies so vulnerable to decline.
In both the national and global context, it is critically important to recognize that religious and racially based nationalism is an enemy of democracy. The world’s two largest democracies are in deep peril. The flames of religious nationalism fanned by former President Donald Trump and current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are deep threats to a flourishing democracy in the United States and India. In 2016, the United States lost its status as a full democracy according to the Democracy Index and became classified as a flawed democracy. The Index currently ranks the U.S. as the 26th most democratic country in the world, and India is ranked 46th.
This peril for democracy is also affecting other counties as well. Turkey and Hungary under the rule of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Viktor Mihály Orbán respectively are two examples of countries that were not long ago touted as democracy success stories that have become democracies in name only over the last decade. Brazil has seen its democracy weakened significantly as well under the autocratic personality and practices of Jair Bolsonaro. Currently Japan is the only full democracy among the seven most populous democracies according to the Democracy Index.
It is critical that we recognize the economic factors that are a threat to a vibrant democracy. A large wealth gap between the rich and the poor weakens democracy. It is not an accident that Russia’s attempts at democracy weakened and ultimately failed as its kleptocratic oligarchy flourished. Increasing wealth inequality in the United States has weakened the confidence of citizens in the government to create a fair economic playing field, and this can lead to people becoming more easily manipulated by populist autocratic leaders who claim they alone can fix it.
It is also critical that we become more fully aware of the work being done by autocratic networks to undermine democracy around the world. It is in the interest of autocrats to weaken democracy everywhere, not only in their home countries, and democracies must be vigilant in responding to these attacks. Sometimes the attacks against democracy are violent as in Hong Kong, sometimes they are brutally violent and deadly as in what Russia is doing in Ukraine, and sometimes they are more subtle as in the attempts to influence global opinion against democracy and to sow discord among people living in democracies.
We have seen that propaganda is the tool by which autocrats control the minds and actions of their populace and by which they attempt to weaken democracy globally. When propaganda does not work; prisons, poison, violence, and even war are also options.
To address the assault on global democracy, the democracies of the world must be as committed to supporting each other as autocracies are. This requires us to learn from each other and to be cognizant of what strengthens our democratic institutions. Here in the United States, instead of making bold claims that our country is the best in the world (something we are demonstrably not), we ought to humbly learn from countries whose democracies are proving to be more robust than our own.
According to the Democracy Index the ten strongest democracies in the world are:
2. New Zealand
9. Australia – tie
9. Switzerland – tie
26. United States
The strongest democracies of the world are mostly social democracies, and they share the following the characteristics:
• The most healthy democracies in the world cultivate equality of opportunity for their citizens.
• The strongest democracies in the world have progressive tax systems rather than regressive tax systems that exacerbate wealth inequality.
• The seven strongest democracies in the world have criminal justice systems that focus on restorative justice more than retributive justice, and none of them practices capital punishment.
• According to the World Press Freedom Index, the strongest democracies in the world have the most robust laws and systems protecting the freedom of the press.
• According to Transparency International, the strongest democracies in the world have strict limitations in relation to the role of money in politics, and they regulate and create restrictions on corporate influence on political processes.
• The world’s strongest democracies have systems that prevent gerrymandering that leads to the unjust weakening of political power of persons and the possibility of permanent minority rule. Many of them have proportional systems of representation rather than winner take all elections.
• The world’s strongest democracies have systems that prevent the suppression of their people’s right and access to vote.
• According to the World Health Organization, the strongest democracies of the world have the most equitable access to quality healthcare.
• According to the World Economic Forum and the Council on Foreign Relations, the strongest democracies of the world are the least sexist in relation to the distribution of economic and political power and they have smallest gender gaps in relation to pay.
• According to Global Citizens for Human Rights as reported by the World Population Review, the strongest democracies in the world have the best systems of public education.
• According to the Corruption Perception Index published by transparency.org, the strongest democracies in the world are the least corrupt countries in the world.
• The strongest democracies of the world are the most committed to ecological sustainability and to addressing the climate crisis with the urgency it requires because they understand that healthy ecosystems and a livable climate are in the best interest of all of their people.
• And according to The World Happiness Report, the strongest democracies in the world are consistently the countries with the happiest people.
Here in the United States, if we could let go of the myth of American exceptionalism and humbly seek to improve ourselves, we would quickly see that we have much to learn from democracies that have proven to be more vibrant and robust than our own, and by learning from them we would soon find that we have so much to gain. By becoming a full democracy, we would become happier, healthier, better educated, less corrupt, more equitable, more participatory, more just, and more peaceful.
Threats to Democracy: Hopelessness
Perhaps the very best way that the United States can lead in the effort to win the global conflict between democracy and autocracy is to do everything in our power to strengthen our own democracy and become a model for how democracy contributes to sustainable human and ecological flourishing. Perhaps the best way to defeat the autocratic networks of the world is to show the world how well democracy works by doing all in our power to regain our status as a full democracy rather than remaining a flawed democracy.
The rule of Vladimir Putin is instructive in relation to how a democracy dies, albeit a nascent democracy in the case of post-Soviet Russia. When the autocrat successfully creates a context in which the vast majority of people have given up on democratic processes to remove the autocrat from power, autocracy has won and democracy is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to recover. In the case of Putin, this was done with often violent and sometimes murderous suppression of his political opposition, collaborating with Russian oligarchs to consolidate their political support and control the Russian economy, eradicating a free press, appealing to Christian nationalism and religious prejudices to gain support of religious institutions and their adherents, removing any time limits on holding the highest office in the land, and eliminating through force any meaningful expression of opposition in the media or in the public at large.
Autocrats like Putin would like for their citizenry to believe that there is no way to change society through their political participation, unless of course it is change that is desired by the autocrats. Autocrats want their citizens to believe that they do not have the ability to remove them from power and to believe it is hopeless to improve things beyond the status quo through which autocrats maintain and expand their power.
In the United States, we have seen autocrats use a similar playbook as they systematically attempt to create a sense of hopelessness among progressives seeking a more vibrant democracy. Autocrats have implemented a series of measures making it more difficult to move the social needle in a more democratic direction. One of the keys to creating an increasing sense of hopelessness for a pro-democracy progressive electorate in the United States has been the capturing of the Supreme Court by Republicans, a capture which was solidified for a generation by blocking the appointment of Merrick Garland as a justice.
An autocracy friendly Supreme Court has allowed nearly unlimited amounts of money from individuals and corporations into politics through its Citizens United decision, it has upheld extreme gerrymandering throughout the country that creates a lack of political competition and an under representation of persons of color, and it gutted the Voting Rights Act through the removal of federal pre-clearance of new voting provisions in historically discriminatory contexts – a move that has allowed many states to pass voter suppression legislation that disproportionately negatively affects persons of color.
And now with the spread of former President Trump’s big lie about election fraud in 2020, autocrats are attempting to capture election processes not only through voter suppression legislation but also through the placement of corrupt election officials and Secretaries of State who are amenable to dismantling the protection of free and fair elections.
The propaganda used by autocratic forces is full of disinformation, much of which is meant to bolster the Republican base, but it is also used to cultivate hopelessness among pro-democracy citizens. The autocratic propaganda misleads progressives to believe that both political parties are the same, that no one running is worth voting for, that there is is no way to defeat the autocrats through voting, and that resistance in general in futile.
You may have noticed that Hungary has become a model for many American autocrats. This is because autocrats in Hungary have been successful over the past ten years in more fully implementing many of measures American autocrats have been attempting to implement in the United States. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been extremely successful in using gerrymandering to maintain and expand his political power, creating something akin to an almost permanent minority rule. He has also been successful in using racism and religion to strengthen and make use of Christian nationalism as a political force in Hungary. Instead of seeing this as a danger to democracy that should be condemned, American autocrats see Hungary as a blueprint for expansion of their power in the United States.
What can be done to keep progressive pro-democracy persons in the United States from falling into a state of despair and hopelessness in which autocrats would like them to wallow? Here are some potential responses to fight back against the autocratic agenda and propaganda:
• Vote in every election (from local to national)- every single one! Autocrats do not want you to vote. Even if your candidate loses, by voting you are resisting the will of the autocrats and modeling political participation for other pro-democracy persons and groups. Sometimes an election loss can be a kind of victory if it can be shown that progress is being made through greater voter turnout and narrowing the gap of the election loss. Momentum can be built over time that can lead to election breakthroughs – see Arizona and Georgia as two recent examples.
• Support election and voting reforms that will enhance voter participation such as ranked choice instant runoff voting where voters can rank their preferences and can always vote their first choice without harming their second choice or helping their least favorite choice. Work for proportional representation as opposed to our current winner take all election format so that more persons can be more fairly represented in government. Organize and press for the use of the national popular vote for the presidency and work tirelessly for reforms that will end gerrymandering and implement independent redistricting for a more just and representative democracy.
• Press for reform of the U.S. Senate so that states like Wyoming don’t have the same number of senators as the state of California. Such reform may take time and effort, and it may never happen, but pro-democracy forces should be on the offense against such undemocratic institutions rather than simply accepting them as a given.
• Press for codifying reproductive choice, voting rights, climate justice, rights to access to contraception, and marriage equality into federal law. Autocratic forces are working to use the Supreme Court to remove all of these rights, and pro-democracy forces should be on offense to protect all of these rights by federal law.
• Work for judicial reform, including term limits for justices on the Supreme Court of the United States. Require the U.S. Senate to hold hearings and votes on judicial nominees in a timely manner.
In summary, the autocrats want pro-democracy persons to give up, to feel hopeless, to stop believing in democratic political processes. The best way to resist the autocrats is by redoubling our enthusiasm for and commitment to democracy and to use every non-violent democratic tool at our disposal to keep hope in democracy alive because we know from the evidence in other countries that the more democratic and participatory we are; the more healthy, more happy, more educated, more sustainable, more free, more just, and less corrupt we will be as a nation.
Threats to Democracy: The Lie That Both Parties are the Same
The falsehood that both major political parties in the United States are the same is propaganda perpetuated by the autocratic right to persuade progressives not to vote for Democrats or not to vote at all. It is the big lie the autocratic right tells the left to suppress voting, and just because some progressives fall for it does not make it less of a lie.
This propaganda is particularly effective and pernicious when the autocratic right succeeds in getting progressives to repeat and reinforce it. We likely would not have experienced a George W. Bush or Donald Trump presidency were it not for many progressives believing and repeating the false mantra that both parties or both major candidates are basically the same. Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader and his supporters used this rhetoric in 2000, effectively suppressing the vote for Al Gore in key battleground states, and Green Party candidate Jill Stein and her supporters such as Cornell West and Chris Hedges perpetuated this message in the 2016 campaign, a message that many Bernie or Bust folks were all too ready to accept.
Propaganda aside, the reality is that there are major differences between the two major political parties, and the Republican Party has more and more brazenly become an opponent of democracy itself. And on policy matters, the differences are clear:
• The vast majority of Democrats are for addressing the climate crisis, while the vast majority of Republicans are for protecting the interests of fossil fuel companies.
• Democrats and their platform support reproductive choice, while the majority of Republicans and their platform are against it.
• Democrats want affordable and accessible healthcare for all persons, while Republicans keep trying to abolish the Affordable Care Act while proposing no plausible alternatives.
• Democrats are for more progressive forms of taxation, while Republicans continue to push for more regressive forms.
• Democratic leadership is opposing autocrats around the world, while Republican leadership looks to them as a model of “strong” leadership and a blueprint for making minority rule a permanent reality – see for example their past embrace of Vladimir Putin in Russia and their current infatuation with Viktor Orbán in Hungary.
• Democrats are for protecting and expanding voting rights, while Republicans want to make it more difficult for all persons to vote, especially those living in poverty and persons of color.
• Democrats are for strengthening public education, while Republicans want to privatize as much K-12 education as they possibly can.
• Democrats want to limit the amount of money that persons and corporations can spend to influence political processes, while Republicans embrace the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that sees unlimited political spending as a form of free speech and treats corporations as persons.
• Democrats want to maintain the separation of church and state that protects true religious freedom, while an increasingly large number of Republicans want to abolish such a separation, with some openly calling for Christian nationalism.
Is the Democratic Party perfect? Hell to the no! Is the Democratic Party better than the Republican Party when it comes to protecting democracy from autocracy and working to make the United States a more just, participatory, and sustainable society? Hell to the yes!
As we move forward to November with American democracy in the balance, we cannot perpetuate the lie that both political parties are basically the same. It is simply not true. We cannot let the perfect become the enemy of the good or the enemy of better. The future of our democracy depends on refuting and defeating this autocratic lie.
Threats to Democracy: The Lie that Both Major Parties are Extreme
In their rationale for creating a new “centrist” political party in the United States, the leaders of the newly formed Forward Party are making the claim that the Republican Party has gone too far to the right and the Democratic Party has gone too far to the left, and hence, they claim, the need for a third “moderate” party for what they see as the unrepresented middle. In other words, they are asserting that the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are both too extreme, so what is needed is a political party that represents the mean between the political extremes.
There might be some merit to this argument if both parties were as extreme as some leaders of the nascent Forward Party are making them out to be. If we had a party of fascism on the right and a party of radical socialism or communism on the left, then a centrist party might be needed, but that is not an accurate description of our current political context either from a historical or global comparison perspective.
While there is ample evidence that the Republican Party has become much more extreme in its embrace of Christian nationalism, xenophobia, voter suppression, regressive taxation, attacks on public education, climate crisis inaction, environmental deregulation, and acceptance of violent insurrection; it is simply not the case that the Democratic Party has made a similar move to extremism in the opposite direction. By all global comparisons, the Democratic Party in the United States is not to the extreme left; in fact it is extremely moderate. Even the most progressive among the Democratic leadership in the United States are still to the right of the social democracies that have proven to be the most democratic, happiest, healthiest, most educated, most just, most participatory, most sustainable, and least corrupt countries in the world. Given such comparisons, one could make a strong argument that the current Democratic Party in the United States is not left enough. At any rate, it is certainly not extreme!
The Forward Party’s narrative that the Democratic Party is too extreme to the left falls right into the hands of the autocratic right. It allows the middle to be redefined more towards the right, and the Republican Party’s base voters are now far too ideological to be attracted to the Forward Party. The more likely scenario is that moderate to conservative Democrats and Independents will vote for such a “centrist” party, thus benefitting the autocrats at a time when the survival of our democracy is more in question than at any other time since the Civil War.
The reality is that the Democratic Party of today is not extreme left. Actually it is very similar to the Republican party of President Eisenhower’s time. After Eisenhower, the Republican Party moved further and further to the right, and now with Trumpism, it is so extreme to the right that Eisenhower would likely wonder how a country that helped lead the fight against fascism in World War II could be where it is today.
The solution during this time of existential threat to our democracy is not the creation of a centrist party that perpetuates the lie that both parties are extreme and that is likely to harm Democratic Party candidates and potentially tip the balance in the United States further towards autocracy. Until we have Ranked Choice Instant Runoff Voting becomes a reality, voting for any political party other than the Democratic Party enhances the strength of the forces of autocracy in our land and will accelerate the demise of our democracy.
Threats to Democracy: Low Voter Participation
Autocratic forces within a democratic society thrive off of lower voter turnout. The less participatory a democracy is, the more prone it is to slip into autocracy. The autocrats do not simply hope for low voter participation, rather they do everything in their power to orchestrate it through laws and processes that are created to suppress voter turnout.
The barrage of voter suppression legislation that has been passed in numerous states ever since 2013 when the Supreme Court removed the federal pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act is not the first time that anti-democratic forces have created laws and processes to suppress the vote for the maintenance of the power in the United States. Following the Civil War, African American citizens were being elected to numerous offices throughout the South – a success that white supremacists would not let stand, so they openly refused to seat a number of duly elected African American politicians and created nearly insurmountable barriers to keep African Americans from voting. It was not until the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965 that African Americans gained relatively unfettered access to the polls – an access that has been under threat ever since the 2013 aforementioned decision by the Supreme Court of the United States.
Direct barriers to voting are not the only way anti-democratic forces work to suppress the vote to maintain power. Partisan gerrymandering has been an effective anti-democratic tool for creating as many districts to be immune from real political competition as is possible. Many districts are so uncompetitive that it is difficult to recruit candidates to oppose the incumbent, thus creating a sense of inevitability that the incumbent will remain in power and a sense of hopelessness for voters that anything can change. In states such as my state of Oklahoma, the number of incumbents in the state legislature who run unopposed or who only face a primary opponent is staggering. The obvious result is low voter participation.
With consistent low voter turnout over time, citizens lose an awareness of what a difference they could make if everyone who is eligible would vote and they give into the hopelessness that nothing can change. This is precisely the desired outcome for autocrats who then can gain and maintain power while creating a reality of minority rule.
Perhaps reforms such ranked choice instant runoff voting, a move to proportional representation, and independent redistricting could help contribute to higher voter participation, but such reforms require people to vote for them. We can be hopeful that the recent vote in Kansas to protect reproductive choice can serve as a wake up call for voters to see how much power they still have if they will simply come out to the polls and vote.
The vote in Kansas is a powerful reminder of what can happen when masses of people come to the polls and vote for their interests. The autocratic right is terrified that people will turn out and vote in November like they did a few days ago in Kansas. For the sake of democracy, may their worst fears be realized.
Threats to Democracy: Oligarchs
Democracy is the rule of the people, and the most vibrant democracies have systems in place to keep gross inequities of economic and political power from occurring within society. When too much wealth and political power accumulate in the hands of a few, it typically leads to disproportionate political influence by the rich, and this leads democracies down the path to becoming oligarchies characterized by rule of the wealthy as opposed to the rule of the whole people.
The countries that have succeeded in avoiding significant wealth inequality have more vibrant and robust democracies than those countries that place little to no limits on wealth accumulation and the ability of the rich to use their wealth to exert political influence. Through greater equality of opportunity, full democracies provide more equal access to education, healthcare, a safe and healthy environment, quality infrastructure, and other core social programs and services to allow for greater opportunities for all persons in society to flourish. These countries also use progressive forms of taxation in order not to exacerbate wealth inequality and the disparity in political power it creates.
In flawed and failing democracies and in the more full blown autocracies of the world, there is much less effort to curtail wealth inequality and provide equal political representation and participation for all. Mutually reinforcing relationships between the wealthy and those in political power develop that work to keep a disproportionate share of economic and political power in the hands of the few. The relationship between Vladimir Putin and the Russian oligarchs is perhaps the most blatant example of this corrupt mutually reinforcing relationship, but it is merely the top of the iceberg of the political influence of the global oligarchy to protect their interests and preserve their profits and power.
American oligarchs may be more subtle than their Russian counterparts when it comes to wielding their political influence for the sake of power and profit, but they nonetheless possess exorbitantly greater political clout than the average citizen and are able to use their wealth to perpetuate their interests and expand their economic and political power. The Supreme Court of the United States has been captured by this oligarchic influence and has made it even easier for corporations and the wealthy to use their money to influence political outcomes – see the Citizens United SCOTUS decision as a case in point in which corporate political spending is given the status of free speech and nearly unlimited financial contributions are allowed.
Through their wealth funded political influence, oligarchs and the corporations they oversee are able not only to control the politicians and the legislation that is passed, they are also able to capture the very agencies and institutions that are meant to regulate their economic activities. One need only see the revolving door between appointments in government agencies and the corporate world to understand this reality. For example, in the United States, executives and other high level employees of industrial agricultural companies end up working in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and representatives from fossil fuel companies end up working with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For a period of time during the Trump Presidency, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency was actually a coal lobbyist.
When oligarchs control politicians and capture government agencies for their own interests, it is not only a threat to democracy, but it is also threat to all people and the planet. In the case of global fossil fuel oligarchs, they have proven that they are willing to threaten a livable climate for the sake of their power and profit. It is not an accident that the most vibrant democracies are also the most ecological sustainable societies. A government by and for the whole people would never sacrifice a livable climate for all for the sake of more profits for the wealthy few. The well being of all life on the planet hangs in the balance in the global struggle between democracy and autocracy, and the oligarchs are a direct threat to democracy. If democracy is to win in the struggle against autocracy, the oligarchs will have to be controlled and their economic and political power diminished.
Threats to Democracy: Religious Fundamentalism
Republican Senator and 1964 Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater understood the threat that religious fundamentalism posed for democracy, and he warned the Republican Party about becoming too closely aligned with the fundamentalist movement in the United States:
Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.
For a more thorough analysis by Goldwater of the dangers of the religious right, I encourage everyone to read his remarks on the topic that were inserted into the Congressional Record on September 16, 1981 in which he goes into significant detail about why he sees the insertion of religious extremism into politics as a threat to the well being of the republic.
Unfortunately, the Republican Party did not heed Goldwater’s wisdom to keep religious fundamentalism out of politics and to keep church and state separate from each other. One of the first flirtations of the Republican Party with religious fundamentalism came in the 1950s when Eisenhower and others began pandering to the religious right under the guise of fighting Godless communism. It was during this time that Eisenhower saw the political influence that fundamentalist religious leaders like Billy Graham possessed and that they could become a reliable base for the Republican Party.
It was also during the Eisenhower administration in 1954 that “under God” was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance, and it was in 1958 that the radically conservative and fundamentalist John Birch Society was formed and became a growing force in the Republican Party, though still somewhat of a fringe element throughout the 1960s.
The influence of the religious right on the Republican Party grew when Richard Nixon decided to use what has come to be known as the Southern Strategy by appealing to the religious fundamentalism of the South as a way to secure a block of the more religiously conservative southern states. Ronald Reagan further embraced the Southern Strategy and the support and political power of the religious right, most prominently seen in the power of the “Moral Majority” movement led by Jerry Falwell and others.
By the end of the 1980s, the Republican Party was no longer the party of conservatives like Goldwater who desired to keep religion out of politics. It had become the culture war and right wing religious party, a party that gave religious fundamentalists like Pat Robertson center stage at the 1988 Republican convention, with a significant wing of the party embracing the even more radical and divisive agenda of Pat Buchanan in 1992.
George W. Bush, who maintained his favorite philosopher was Jesus, continued the close affiliation of the Republican Party with religious fundamentalists. In many ways, he was more truly one of them than previous Republican presidents who simply used religious fundamentalists for pragmatic political reasons. It is interesting to note that in some ways, George W. Bush actually moderated the Republican Party’s relationship with religious right, but the influence of religious fundamentalism remained strong and is one of the reasons the United States became dangerously close to having Sarah Palin as our Vice President.
No other Republican, however, has more thoroughly weaponized the religious right for political gain than Donald Trump. Trump knew how vulnerable religious fundamentalists are to being manipulated for political gain, and he took full advantage of their enthusiasm and fervor to win the presidency in 2016. This is why Trump chose to reverse his almost life-long support for legal abortions to make reversing Roe a centerpiece of his agenda. He knew that once he had the loyalty of religious fundamentalists that he could get them to believe anything, and it was not very long before people who believed everything he said began to do almost anything he said.
With the help of fundamentalist religious leaders like Franklin Graham (who notably praised the autocratic leadership of Vladimir Putin), Robert Jeffress, Paula White, and others, Trump was able to ride a populist, xenophobic, and anti-Muslim wave to the White House, and many of Trump’s supporters have openly embraced Christian nationalism.
The correlation between adherence to religious fundamentalism and believing Trump’s numerous conspiracy theories and other forms of political propaganda has proven to be quite strong. Religious fundamentalists were more likely to believe Trump’s baseless claims that President Obama was born in Kenya, that the first impeachment trial of Trump was a witch hunt, that unproven and even dangerous treatments for COVID were effective, that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, and that Trump was justified in attempting to keep the election from being certified and blocking a peaceful transfer of power.
Senator Goldwater’s warning was prescient as we have now seen what a dangerous threat religious fundamentalism has become for the well-being of our republic. Its adherents seem unwilling to stop until they have fully implemented their theocratic and Christian nationalist vision, and such a vision is a direct threat to our democracy. Sadly, the persons who adhere to this vision are almost impervious to reason, and the only effective way to address their threat to our republic is to outvote them.
Threats to Democracy: The Fossil Fuel Industry
In similar fashion to the tobacco industry’s campaign to sow seeds of doubt about the health effects of smoking and the addictive nature of nicotine, the fossil fuel industry has spent billions of dollars over time on propaganda to create public doubt about the reality of climate change, which has now led to a climate crisis owing in large part to their successful disinformation campaign. Through think tanks, media outlets, advertising campaigns, well funded and coordinated influence over institutions of higher education, direct and indirect funding of political campaigns, and the placement of executives in state and federal government agencies; the fossil fuel industry has delayed an appropriate response to the climate crisis in order to prolong the period in which they might continue to make trillions of dollars in profit while a livable climate rapidly slips away from humanity’s grasp.
Perhaps no industry has enabled autocrats in the past 50 years more than the fossil fuel industry. From the maintenance of fossil fuel funded autocratic petro-states like Russia and Saudi Arabia to the funding of autocratic politicians within flawed and failing democracies to protect their power and profits, the fossil fuel industry has supported systems and practices that have diminished democracies and strengthened autocracies around the world. The fossil fuel industry is one of the greatest threats to democracy in the world today. Fortunately, the most vibrant democracies in the world are working diligently to move away from dependence on fossil fuels because when the people as a whole are represented, they elect a livable climate over the interests of fossil fuel companies.
One need only look at the failing democracy of my home state of Oklahoma to see what happens when a state becomes fully captured and controlled by the fossil fuel industry. In a state that theoretically should be awash in revenue for education and healthcare, we rank near the very bottom of the list of state rankings in both areas. We also suffered the effects of years of wastewater well induced seismicity that caused damage to Oklahoma homes and businesses. And the fossil fuel industry’s willingness to fund theocratic and patriarchal politicians has led Oklahoma to be the worst state in the United States in which to be woman, with reproductive choice being the latest right removed. Owing to extreme gerrymandering of the state by Republicans to maintain permanent control, a large number of Oklahomans seem to have given up on the possibility of political change, which may be why Oklahoma consistently has one of the lowest voter participation rates in the country. Instead of a vibrant democracy with strong economic opportunities for all, Oklahoma has become a commodity colony of the fossil fuel industry.
Moving beyond Oklahoma and looking at the United States as a whole, it was no accident that the most autocratic President in the history of the United States would appoint a cabinet with so many persons with fossil fuel industry ties. The mutually reinforcing relationship between petro-state autocracies and the fossil fuel industry has been waxing for decades. Why should fossil fuel companies promote democracy when the autocrats of the world like Putin and MBS are serving the interests of the fossil fuel industry so efficiently?
The appointment of the CEO of Exxon Mobil Rex Tillerson to be Trump’s first Secretary of State, a person with no state department expertise and who was awarded the Russian Order of Friendship by Vladimir Putin for his work on an oil venture partnership worth potentially $500 billion, was a powerful symbol and direct result of this relationship of profit and geopolitical power between autocrats and the fossil fuel industry.
Scott Pruitt was selected by Trump to become Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt served the interests of oil and gas companies for years as Oklahoma’s Attorney General, and on more than one occasion he often took his public talking points about the fossil fuel industry directly from email communications from Oklahoma City’s Devon Energy. His appointment to head the EPA was made through the influence of his political patron Harold Hamm, CEO and founder of the oil company Continental Resources, who had much to benefit from a roll back in environmental regulations and who served as Trump’s energy advisor during his presidential campaign. When Pruitt’s penchant for personal corruption became too public and distracting, he was replaced as administrator of the EPA by a coal lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, whose quiet demeanor made him even more effective than Pruitt in weakening environmental protections to the benefit of the fossil fuel industry.
To lead the Department of Energy, Trump appointed Rick Perry as Secretary of Energy, who was a board director at Energy Transfer Partners LP and at Sunoco Logistics Partners LP. The two companies Perry served were jointly involved in the Dakota Access Pipeline project. The ongoing development of a network of pipelines is one of the keys to creating a long term fossil fuel infrastructure that increases dependence on oil and gas and delays the transition to renewable energy.
It is appropriate to ask why the fossil fuel industry that played such a significant role in helping Trump become President and that played such an influential role in his administration has been so silent about Trump’s direct attacks on the integrity of the 2020 election, his role in inciting a violent insurrection, his rants against the DOJ and the FBI, and his endangering of American democracy in general. Could it be that the fossil fuel industry is simply continuing to put profits over patriotism and willing to sacrifice democracy for autocracy if it furthers their interests? If this is not the case, then their resistance to Trump’s attacks on democracy is long overdue.
Threats to Democracy: Racism
A full and vibrant democracy requires that its people be intentionally anti-racist. Only then does a society possess the basis for building a democratic society in which all persons are seen as equal before the law and equal in relation to each other. Only an intentionally anti-racist society will create systems that will enhance the flourishing of all persons in a diverse and pluralistic society and protect the equal participation of all in our political processes. Only then, can we truly become one out of many as a democratic community.
The presence of widespread racism within a society makes it much more vulnerable to autocracy. It is not an accident that we are seeing an attack on teaching about the reality of racism in our history at the same time we are seeing a more open embrace of autocracy by the religious and political right. Racism is one of the most powerful tools of the autocrat because it erodes the shared values of equal opportunity and equal participation in the political process that are the bedrock of a vibrant democracy. The autocrat uses racism to divide the people against one another and to put the advance of their racial group over the well being and flourishing of all persons in society. Racism is one of the most powerful fuels for nationalism and nationalistic fascism.
Very few things are more effective at convincing people that undemocratic autocratic measures are called for than tapping into their racism. In the United States, voter suppression is based primarily on race, gerrymandering is often based on race, mistreatment of refugees is most often based on race, fear and hatred of immigrants is based on race, refugee children being separated from their parents was based almost exclusively on race, calls for law and order are linked closely to race, attacks on public education and attacks on teaching real history in our schools are based on race, and we are in denial if we do not see that the attempts to overturn a free and fair election of a President who had an African American woman as his Vice President and who was elected by an extremely diverse pluralistic 81 million people as being connected to racism.
Donald Trump’s brand of autocracy Is clearly built on the foundation of racism, both his own personal racism and the widespread racism that is present within our society. Trump’s birther lie about President Obama was a test to see how racist the country was so that Trump could assess how effectively he could tap into that racism to manipulate voters. When Trump saw how many people believed his birther lie, he knew he had much to work with to create enthusiasm for and commitment to his America First/Make America Great Again message, an enthusiasm and commitment fueled by racism. This is why those who have embraced Trump’s autocratic leadership have made banning “critical race theory” their political rally cry in an attempt to come back to power.
The United States will never be a full and vibrant democracy unless it becomes an anti-racist society. The United States will never be an anti-racist society under the autocratic and racism based leadership of Donald Trump or persons who see him as their model. So for now, the most important thing the United States can do for the cause of anti-racism and the well-being of our democracy is to make sure that Trump and no one like him ever becomes President of the United States again.
Defeating Trump and Trumpism is only the beginning of moving our society in a more anti-racist and more democratic direction. As a society we have to fully come to terms with and make amends for our racist and genocidal past. If we cannot be honest with ourselves about our racist history and do something to make amends for it in the present, we will never be able to move to a more fully anti-racist and just future, and our democracy will perpetually be in peril.
Threats to Democracy: Poverty and Wealth Inequality
A society that has a significant number of persons who are living in poverty or who are experiencing a context of extreme wealth inequality is prone to autocracy. Vibrant democratic societies in which persons are happy and have their basic needs being met well are much less likely to drift towards autocracy than societies that find themselves in a situation of systemic economic injustice, extreme inequality, and perpetual poverty.
Over the past century, many of the world’s most influential autocrats took advantage of the despair and hopelessness in people brought on by woeful economic conditions. It is not an accident that totalitarian communists came to power through revolution in countries around the world that were experiencing extreme poverty and wealth inequality. It is not an accident that ultranationalists and fascists came to power in Germany, Italy, and Japan during a deep global depression prior to World War II. Persons and countries that are experiencing desperate economic conditions are prone to take desperate and even extreme political measures, and autocrats are more than willing to take advantage of the people’s desperation to gain, maintain, and expand their power.
Prior to the New Deal in the United States, there were many who were exploring the extremes of communism on the left and fascism on the right. The economic stability gained by New Deal reforms to unjust and unregulated capitalism coupled with the construction of a social safety net helped the United States become one of the world leaders in the fight against fascism in World War II rather than going down an America First fascist path, and it also kept the United States from pursuing totalitarian forms of socialism like the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba.
Over the last 42 years, many of the economic reforms, regulations, and safety nets of The New Deal of the 1930s and The Great Society of the 1960s have given way to the trickle down economics of Reaganism that has been anti-regulation, anti-unions, and anti-environment. It is not surprising then that the last 42 years have also been a time of growing wealth inequality and economic and environmental injustice. It is also not surprising that much like the 1930s, we see many persons in the United States flirting with extreme measures, from the anarchy of the extreme left to the Christian nationalism of the extreme right.
Whether we go further down the path of autocracy in the United States will in large part be determined by how well we assess the underlying conditions of poverty, wealth inequality, and economic and environmental injustice. If we allow the underlying conditions to worsen and the situation to become more desperate, then we are setting the stage for more autocracy in the near future, and the Trumps and other autocrats in the world will be emboldened to implement their extreme autocratic measures as they promise to fix our problems.
Fortunately for the United States and the rest of the world, we already have models for more vibrant democracy and more just economic processes and practices in the social democracies such as are found in the Nordic countries and in a handful of other countries that represent the most full and robust democracies in the world. These social democracies have shown us that the path to greater happiness and health, better education, less corruption, less economic injustice, and more ecological sustainability is possible, and that a full and vibrant democracy that addresses wealth inequality and provides more equality of opportunity is the answer, not autocracy.
The evidence is clear that autocrats don’t fix our problems, but rather they exacerbate them. More democracy in the world, not less, is key to a more just, peaceful, participatory, and sustainable future. In the struggle between democracy and autocracy, the well being of both people and the planet depends on democracy winning.
IF YOU FIND THE WRITINGS AT ONE WORLD HOUSE BY MARK DAVIES HELPFUL OR INSPIRING, YOU CAN SHOW YOUR SUPPORT BY MAKING A MONTHLY CONTRIBUTION USING PATREON.
YOU MAY ALSO MAKE A ONE TIME GIFT THROUGH PAYPAL.