The Roots of American Autocracy

Why is it that so many otherwise normal people—the neighbors you and I meet every day mowing their lawns, shopping in the grocery store, driving on our country roads and city streets—have decided that they would be just fine jettisoning our constitutional republic in favor of a monarchy led by Donald Trump and his family? It’s one thing to cast a vote for Republicans based on the belief (rightly or wrongly) that Democrats secretly want to turn our nation into a Communist dictatorship. It’s quite another thing to scrap the voting system altogether, based on the belief that our votes no longer matter.

What has led sensible people to think that way?

There are at least four underly causes—call them roots for want of a better word—that Spirited Reasoners can point to as “justifications” for this type of thinking. As you will see, all four of these spring from the belief that our votes no longer matter; i. e., that the people now governing our nation are not the product of a representative democracy. Given that assumed fact, then (according to this mode of thinking) we would lose nothing by replacing our current form of government with an autocracy. After all, our current system is no longer functioning as a representative democracy anyway.

Cause Number One: The Senate Filibuster. During the presidencies of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and now Joe Biden, there have been times when either the Democrats or the Republicans actually enjoyed majority control of both the Executive and Legislative branches of government, including both houses of Congress. If the will of the people had meant anything to those holding seats in the Senate, then our nation would have witnessed major legislative achievements during those years. Some would have been Republican victories. Some would have been Democratic. But, after one party went too far (as each party certainly would have done), we would have seen the pendulum swing in the other direction, offering voters a refreshing change of pace. Instead of allowing that normal process of swinging first to the left, then to the right, individual Senators have decided they want to keep more power for themselves than they deserve. Thus, a minority of Senators can throw sand in the legislative gears via the filibuster, thus frustrating the will of a majority of Americans. To some extent, voters can be forgiven when they conclude that their vote no longer matters. “What’s the difference who has a majority? All we get is gridlock and frustration.”

It would be a simple matter for the Senate to change its anti-democratic rule that allows a minority of Senators to frustrate the will of the majority in this fashion. But don’t hold your breath. Senators enjoy the feeling of power that the filibuster gives them.

Cause Number Two: Gerrymandered House Districts. Without diving too deeply into the arcane mathematics underlying the drawing of Congressional districts, suffice it to say that they are manufactured with the purpose of favoring the party in power in a given state. In order to make that happen, a few districts are conceded to the other party while the lion’s share are drawn in a manner that expands the majority party’s power. In other words, the shape of each district is drawn with a Red or Blue outcome in mind. The anti-democratic (and therefore pro-autocratic) side effect of this process is that these artificial districts attract extremist candidates from whichever party that district was drawn to favor. If the district was designed to be a Blue district, then progressive candidates will have an advantage in both the party primaries and the general elections in that district. If the district was designed to be a Red district, then extreme conservative candidates will have an advantage. Gerrymandered districts effectively silence the voices of the vast majority of mainstream Americans, leading to frustration with the democratic process. One remedy to the problem of gerrymandering would be the elimination of such districts altogether, replacing them with multi-winner arrangements. For example, if the latest census concludes that my state is permitted ten House seats, then every ballot in my state will list scores of candidates, asking me to select up to ten. (And there are many other tweaks that would effectively destroy gerrymandering.)

Cause Number Three: Money. If all Congressional districts were the size of New England townships, then Americans could happily attend town hall meetings to debate and vote on issues of importance. Instead, the United States has grown in population to the point where a single member of Congress must represent between 500,000 and a million residents. How can any of us be expected to know each House candidate well enough to get a true picture of their ideological beliefs and character? As our nation grows, we become more and more dependent on various forms of media advertising in the selection of our representatives. And guess what. Media advertising costs money. Why have so many candidates come to resemble shallow celebrities? Because our system favors those who look good in television and social media spots. Why are so many candidates in the pockets of megadonors and big business once they are elected? The answer should be obvious.

Cause Number Four: First Past the Post, Winner-Takes-All Voting. As this blog is being written, there is a race underway for the governorship of Oregon. That race features three women, a first for Oregon (and perhaps a first for any state.) The conservative is a right wing, anti-abortion, take-no-prisoners, Republican. The progressive is a left-wing, defund-the-police, take-no-prisoners, Democrat. The independent casts herself as the holder of the moderate middle ground yet opposes background checks and assault-weapons bans and stars in commercials trumpeting the end of our “screwed up political system.” (Sounds autocratic to me.) Since Oregon’s voting system does not provide for a runoff election, the winner of this election—whoever she may be—is likely to be opposed by a majority of voters. Ironically, while all this is happening, the City of Portland will be voting on a plan to introduce a ranked voting system for city elections. Had such a ranked voting system been in place during the primaries for the Oregon governorship, it is likely that at least one, and perhaps all three of the current gubernatorial candidates would be different people entirely. Ranked voting increases the likelihood that voters will elect a candidate closer to their overall preference.

There are undoubtedly other causes for the worrisome rise in autocratic thinking. Spirited Reasoners can only hope that voters will prefer streamlining the democratic process by addressing these four problems rather than destroying our system altogether in favor of a celebrity king.