Authoritarian Democracy

from the book

Sharing the Pie

by Steve Brouwer


When Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union disappeared at the end of the 1980s, the frightening vision of "the evil empire" no longer served to distract our citizens from the distressing realities of economic inequality. As a short-term diversion, Saddam Hussein was built up into a Hitler substitute by the media, but most Americans were never convinced that his weak regime posed any real danger.

While it is possible that we will again resurrect the Japanese, the Chinese, or worse yet, Asians in general as the "Yellow Peril," American anger is likely to be focused in a different, more ominous direction. Our patriotic fervor is now being turned inward, in search of evil aliens at home. New authoritarianism, sanctimonious attention to the flag, and ever-more obvious appeals to racism were found in the increasingly strident conservatism that evolved during the 1980s. By the first half of the 1990s, there was extraordinary enthusiasm for right-wing talk shows featuring virulent personalities such as Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy. Popular expressions of anger and hatred were apparent throughout American culture, sometimes accompanied by eruptions of violence.


* The Religious Right spewed a steady stream of epithets at advocates of abortion. Attacks against clinics and their personnel rose from 52 in I988 to 267 in 1993.

* A militia movement using extreme anti-government rhetoric drew primarily on the marginalized, working-class white population. Members and supporters stockpiled military weaponry, sent letter bombs to liberal judges and lawyers, engaged in bank robberies, and sought to intimidate public officials throughout the nation. One set of sympathizers, operating on the fringe of the movement, staged the massive bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

* Random hate crimes were perpetrated against people perceived to be "different," particularly Latino and Asian immigrants, African-Americans, and gays and lesbians. There were arson attacks on thirty-one African-American churches in the South between 1989 and 1996, fifteen of them occurring between December 1995 and May 1996.

* In many places the majority of people advocated legal means of punishing or discriminating against expressions of sexuality. Teenagers were sent to jail for fornication in Idaho. Citizens of the state of Colorado passed a referendum justifying discrimination against gays and lesbians.

By the mid-1990s, the American social and political landscape had changed so much that forces formerly on the margins of conservatism were now mainstream. The Christian Coalition, which had fewer than 5,000 members in 1989, grew to 1.7 million members in a couple of thousand chapters by 1996, and became the respectable grassroots organizing mechanism for the Republican Party. When populist economic issues were raised during the 1996 election campaign, it was the right wing, not the left, that did the most effective job of exploiting them. Pat Buchanan, who had written celebrations of free trade and driven a Mercedes during the 1980s, was now attacking big business: "General Motors has become a transnational corporation that sees its future in low-wage countries and in abandoning American factories. "

When Buchanan playfully contemplated an attack of "pitchfork-wielding commoners" against "the castles" of the investing class, he was eased out of the campaign picture by Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed and establishment Republicans. This conflict between populism and authoritarianism within the Republican Party was not a sign of weakness; rather it demonstrated that ultraconservatives had taken over a great deal of social and political territory and that the various forces of the right had plenty of room to jockey for leadership.

Fascism Lite?

Astute social commentators had been anticipating this rightward shift since the early 1980s. Bertram Gross predicted, in his book Friendly Fascism, that the United States might arrive at a gentler form of the virulent ultranationalism, anti-labor activity, and racism which coalesced into fascism in Europe in the 1930s.4 Corporate America would tolerate such a rightward drift, so the argument went, because more government restrictions on personal freedom would enhance business efforts to discipline the labor force and increase corporate profits.

This critique had its counterpart in a well-articulated viewpoint coming from the center-right. Kevin Phillips's book Post-Conservative America suggested that populist concern in grassroots America might be focused either on economic equality or on a reactionary social agenda. He pointed out the similarities between the ideas of the New Right in America and the beliefs of the European "Conservative Revolutionaries" of the early 1900s, which made possible the rise of fascism. Both were: 1) extremely nationalistic and patriotic, and partial to authoritarian solutions; 2) anti-secular, and anti-humanist, taking their inspiration from newly invented "traditional" religion; 3) anti-liberal and supportive of a restoration of "old morality." When analyzing the growing strength of the Republican Party, especially in the South, Phillips cautioned that "any Sun Belt hegemony over our politics has a unique potential . . . to accommodate a drift toward apple-pie authoritarianism."

Ironically, Phillips, as an adviser to Richard Nixon in 1968, had helped map out the "Southern Strategy" that was partly responsible for this shift. Republicans had been impressed by the strengths of third-party candidate George Wallace in 1968 and decided to cater to the social conservatism of many white voters, both southerners and northerners, who otherwise were quite satisfied with the Democrats and their New Deal politics. The successful Republican strategy, which later stooped to open race-baiting, lured many southern white Protestants and northern ethnic voters away from their 150-year allegiance to the Democratic Party. By 1996, the Republican Party was led by southerners: Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich of Georgia; Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi; House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas. Apparently the Sun Belt's move to the forefront of American politics-political analyst Samuel Lobell called this "the mechanization of the Southern Baptists"-was complete.

It is possible that the next economic downturn-or stock market crash-will bring on further developments. During the recession at the end of the 1980s, ex-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke gathered strong support from disgruntled citizens in Louisiana for his gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races. Voters did not seem to be bothered by his record, which included plenty of statements like: "The Jews have been working against our national interest.... I think they should be punished."

Bertram Gross and Kevin Phillips had each foreseen part of a process that engendered remarkable tolerance for authoritarian political solutions. Gross correctly identified the kind of authority that the corporate world wanted to exercise over working- and middle-class Americans. Phillips was perceptive about the way ordinary Americans would participate in actually constructing a more harsh and restrictive social milieu. By the l990s the two strands were coalescing into something we could call "Authoritarian Democracy." Today it is clear that the goals of the corporate rich can be furthered by the enthusiasms of the popular classes, especially in the realms of religion.


Corporate Power Upheld by the Courts

The Supreme Court has also helped to impose social control. Although it was a champion of civil and individual rights in the tenure of the Warren Court, the Court has more often played an important role in suppressing the rights and welfare of working Americans by championing the prerogatives of the wealthy. After the Civil War, as the United States economy came under the control of corporations and the newly emergent upper class of stockholders, the Supreme Court acted to protect the freedom of corporations to invest and make money without hindrance.

During the era of the Robber Barons, the Court made use of the 14th Amendment, which, ironically, had originally been written to guarantee citizenship and equal civil rights to ex-slaves at the end of the Civil War. The Court invoked the amendment to define the corporation as a "person" under the law. This meant that government could not interfere with the activities of this corporate "person" lest it be guilty of abridging citizens' rights. This interpretation came in response to the fact that in the 1880s many states and localities were trying to limit corporate power, protect the rights and health of workers, and encourage public alternatives to corporate ownership. The Court granted corporations their almost unlimited power with the Santa Clara decision of 1886, in which it sided with the Union Pacific Railroad in its struggle to escape regulation by the state of California. In the same year the Court invalidated 230 other state laws that had been passed to regulate corporations. Justice David J. Brewer clarified the defining issue during a speech to the New York Bar Association in 1893, when he said: "It is the unvarying law that the wealth of the community will be in the hands of the few."

From the time of the Civil War to the tenure of Franklin Roosevelt, the majority of justices, men from upper-class backgrounds and/or corporate law practices, were sympathetic toward this interpretation of the Constitution. At the same time the Court was reluctant to use the 14th Amendment for its original intent, which was to protect African-Americans, and it was not until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that the Supreme Court began to strike down most of the state and local laws that allowed segregation and discrimination. According to Justice Hugo Black, writing in 1939:

Of the cases in this Court in which the Fourteenth Amendment was applied during the first fifty years after its adoption, less than one-half of one percent invoked it in protection of the Negro race, and more than fifty percent asked that its benefits be extended to corporations.


Sharing the Pie