By What Authority?

Many years ago, Clemson University briefly hosted a visiting economics professor from Russia who had emigrated because he was Jewish and felt unwelcome there.  He visited some of our classes to talk about life under communism.  One student asked whether the people of the USSR didn’t want more freedom.  No, he said. I think most people prefer to be told what to do, think and believe. 

Surely not, I thought. Some people, yes, but not most. Maybe the Soviet Union is different,  having had little experience of anything but authoritarian governments. Bur psychological research confirms that there are people who are drawn to authoritarians, seeking out authority in religion, or customs, or laws. They stick to familiar gender roles and resist diversity—whether in race, politics, sexual or gender orientation, religion, or just about anything else. They gravitate to authority figures in politics, join cults, listen only to select media, and blindly follow doctors’ orders—even that last one is not always a good thing.  In response to authoritarians moving into silos and echo chambers, those of us who do not share their worldview are driven to seek safety and affirmation by building our own silos and listening only to our own echo chambers.

I (and I imagine my readers) tend to think that authority must be earned and tested against our own values and perceptions.  But reading Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy, I am apparently in a minority.  I like diversity.  I try to seek out and listen to  other viewpoints in order to reflect more deeply on my own.  The same is true of my family members and most of my close friends. But the facts suggest we are a minority, or at worst, a silent and ineffective majority attempting to hold back the tidal waves of history. Worldwide, authoritarian regimes are taking power and stamping out resistance once they gain it by whatever means, including stealing elections and gaining control of the media. Emmanuel Macron and Volodymyr Zelenskyy are the exceptions, not the rule.

The division of society into  liberal-conservative, Republican-Democrat, religious-secular, and other binary categories is quite different from  this particular tension between authoritarians and libertarians. I do not use the term libertarian in it more recent sense of pro-free market and anti-government, but rather in the sense of questioning authority and looking for common ground between two extremes. I describe myself as both pro-life and pro-choice, pro-market and pro-government, each with their particular strengths and weaknesses and more useful as partners than opponents.  I look with sympathy and gratitude on those Republicans who are pro-free market but anti-authoritarian like Susan Collins. Lisa Murkowski, and Mitt Romney.

I am somewhere on the spectrum from pessimism to hope to optimism between the latter two. My inborn optimism has retreated to hope. But theologian Joanna Macy reminds us that hope by itself is not worth much unless it is activist hope.  Pessimism is just giving up.  Optimism is the unjustified belief, like Dr. Pangloss in Candide, that “all is [or will be} for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” Active hope is the most powerful response. Those of us who truly believe in democracy have to earn it by resistance and support.  We need to be “woke” not just to the sufferings of the oppressed but to the very real threats to tear down what protections they already have in our laws, our courts, our constitution that are now all under attack.

Where is the resistance? In the 1950s (actually 1949) there was Orwell’s 1984. In the1960s there was a Broadway play by Ionescu called Rhinoceros.  Each cast member gradually turned into a rhinoceros, following the herd, trying to conform. In the 1970s, it was The Stepford Wives .Then the anti-authoritarianism that is another deep current in American culture turned to folk music and sitcoms on the wave of civil rights, the women’s movement, and environmentalism. Since 1980, however, the tide has steadily turned, to push back,the fragmenting a society, culture and economy that had previously been perceived (inaccurately) as a unified nation (or plantation) peacefully overseen by old wealthy white men.

Where and how do we begin to revive the resistance?  Free and fair elections historically have been the most common casualty of the rise of authoritarianism around the world,aided by control of the media.T

here is a rich array of electoral tools forged in the Jim Crow era and enhanced by modern technology and gerrymandered state legislatures to suppress the vote, purge the rolls, limit access to the polls, discourage mail in ballots, and target those voters least likely to support their party and its candidates—poor, people of color, young people. Carol Anderson’s One Person, No Vote offers, a powerful account of these methods of undermining democratic elections in the last 50 years .  But there are also stories of hope. Anderson tells the story of one Native American community that resisted efforts to keep them from voting, with election officials using as a pretext the  lack of suitable IDs and mailing addresses.  A labor-intensive volunteer effort overcame those obstacles, provided everyone with a legal street address, ensured that tribal IDs were accepted, and reclaimed their right to vote.

What can you do to push back against the tide?