0954 GMT January 17, 2022
By Mohammad Memarian*
Daniel Little is a philosopher and professor of sociology and public policy at University of Michigan, better known in Iran for a Persian rendition of his book, Varieties of Social Explanation: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Social Science. In a recent post in his weblog, “Understanding Society,” he wrote about the imminent threat of the failure of democracy in the US, describing in horrifying detail what the US might look like should anti-democratic forces within the GOP prevail. In an exclusive interview with Iran Daily, he elaborated on his views.
One might say that this gloomy picture of the failure of US democracy is a bit farfetched, or even dystopian. Do you intend it to be provocative enough to awaken the people to a mere possibility in some distant future, or do you indeed see the metaphorical city under siege?
Unhappily, I believe that these fears about the decline of US democracy are very realistic. It is hard to take the idea of a catastrophic earthquake seriously until it has happened, even when there have been many warning shocks. Very intelligent historians who have studied the rise of dictatorships in Europe and Latin America have seen very alarming signs of erosion of democratic values among right-wing politicians since 2016.
Figures including Timothy Snyder, a historian of the Holocaust, Nazi Germany, and Stalinist USSR, whose book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century provides very worrisome details about how authoritarian leaders and governments seize power; and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, whose 2018 book How Democracies Die draws upon their research on the rise of dictatorships in the twentieth century. Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright raises similar serious alarms in her book Fascism: A Warning. Albright, Snyder, Levitsky and Ziblatt, and many other sober historians and political scientists have raised the alarm about the assault on democratic institutions and values in the United States that is coming from the extreme right, and from the Republican Party.
Those alarming signs, I wonder if they are scattered
instances or indeed constitute patterns.
The key indicators of authoritarian assault on liberal democracy in the United States include at least these trends: a deliberate effort by Republican leaders to undermine confidence in US electoral institutions (led by Donald Trump’s outrageous lies about the 2020 election); efforts by former president Donald Trump to discredit the judicial system and the Federal government itself; efforts to discredit journalists and the press; efforts by Republican majorities in numerous states to restrict the voting rights of their opponents; endorsement by Republican congressional leaders of racist and white supremacist rhetoric; and acceptance and encouragement of the use of violence against political enemies through armed militias and paramilitary groups, culminating in the January 6 assault on the Capitol in an effort to block the election of the duly elected Democratic candidate for president. These alarming political actions are identified by disinterested scholars as “red flags” in the slide towards authoritarianism in the United States.
What about outsiders? How do foreign observers assess the situation?
International research organizations have raised these concerns as well. The V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenberg in Sweden provides an annual assessment of the world’s democracies based on a set of recognized criteria. In its most recent report the V-Dem Institute finds that the US Republican Party is rapidly moving in an authoritarian direction in its rhetoric: V-Party’s Illiberalism Index shows that the Republican Party in the US has retreated from upholding democratic norms in recent years. Its rhetoric is closer to authoritarian parties, such as AKP in Turkey and Fidesz in Hungary. Conversely, the Democratic Party has retained a commitment to longstanding democratic standards. The threat to US democracy is very real but not irresistible.
Reading your observations, I was reminded of the warning former president Eisenhower made against the threat that the “Military-Industrial Complex” posed to US democracy. To what extent, if any, do you think that this possible future might be a realization of his prophecy?
I don’t think that president Eisenhower’s concerns turned out to be a large threat to American democracy. I see the rise of authoritarian politics and the increasingly strident language of mainstream Republican leaders in the United States as stemming from a different dynamic.
It’s the dynamic of racial politics, white supremacy, and radical populism. It reflects a demographic shift in the United States, from a very strong and dominant white Christian majority, to a more diverse population involving many racial and religious groups. It is based on a “politics of hate” in which political entrepreneurs on the far right attempt to cultivate a mass following that can be mobilized around fear, hatred, and disrespect for other groups in society. In Europe the far right has mobilized around antagonism towards refugees and immigrants. In the United States the far right mobilizes around the fears of a dwindling white majority that their prerogatives and economic wellbeing are threatened by the rising demographic presence of other racial groups: African-American, Latino, and recent immigrant populations.
What about Trump’s anti-establishment rhetoric?
What I can say is that there has also been a strong and persistent drumbeat of “anti-government” ideology coming from the right in the United States that has become entrenched in the political perceptions of a significant percentage of Americans.
Your analysis might be described as an indictment of the GOP, and one which might have not been applicable prior to the 2016 presidential election. How did the Republican Party undergo such a radical transformation in such a limited timeframe?
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 was indeed a turning point in the re-orientation of Republican political strategies towards a right-wing populist platform. During and after the Trump presidency the effort to undermine the institutions and values of a liberal democracy became much more explicit than in prior years.
Any concrete examples?
For example, Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) tweeted in October 2020 that “we’re not a democracy,” and in April 2019 Donald Trump described the white supremacists whose violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, led to the murder of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, as “very fine people”.
What about its origins?
Certainly, Trump’s election was not the origin of this shift. If anything, we might say that disgraced former Republican president Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” of covert racism was an early effort in this direction. Nixon and his party chose to mobilize Southern white resentment of the Civil Rights movement, the Civil Rights Act (1964), and the Voting Rights Act (1965) as a political lever to shift southern white voters from their Democratic allegiances to Republican affiliation. Ronald Reagan’s use of the “welfare queen” language as a racist stereotype was a central strategy in his campaign against Gerald Ford in the Republican primary in 1976. Social scientists Doug McAdam and Karina Kloos document this political strategy, extended over four decades, in their very important book about American politics, Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America. The history of racist and populist appeals in the Republican Party extends over decades.
What differentiated Trump’s election?
What is different since 2016 is the full assault that Republican leaders, emboldened by former president Trump, have been willing to make on fundamental institutions and values of American liberal democracy.
In your piece, you talked about “police surveillance.” Some observers, however, argue that the most prevalent form of contemporary surveillance comes in the form of new communications media. What role, if any, would you assign to big tech companies in their probable contribution to the possible collapse of democracy?
The threat to democracy created by big tech social media, in my opinion, isn’t so much through the issue of privacy as it is the power that platforms like Facebook have to amplify hate-based ideas and mobilization. It is clear that various actors – activists, trolls, and foreign government disinformation departments – have been able to create large followings for a range of hate-based organizations and movements. Messages and groups involving anti-immigrant, racist, anti-Semitic, anti-homosexual, or anti-Muslim slogans and appeals are used to generate more hate and more activism. And thanks to the ability provided by the platforms to target affinity groups based on user profiles, it is possible to place these messages in front of people who are especially susceptible to the content of the messages. Increasing sociological attention is being paid to this medium as a powerful causal influence on racist thought and violence in the US and elsewhere.
What about the standard defense, effectively saying that “Social media platforms simply stand for unrestricted freedom of expression”?
It is no longer convincing, given the very significant use that weaponized social media campaigns have had on instigating racism, anti-immigrant violence, and other kinds of fundamentally unacceptable kinds of behavior. White supremacists, violent nationalists, and other violent groups continue to make extensive use of social media platforms to spread their ideologies and calls to action. Most recently, it seems clear that online “chatter” among violent extremist anti-government and militia groups in the United States contributed to the January 6 riot at the US Capitol building, with the attendant threat of violence against elected officials and Capitol police.
Your analysis of the threat is mostly at institutional level, things which might be done through manipulation or obstruction of open elections and the legal authority to pass threatening legislations. What about the treatment of the issue at a popular level? After all, former president Trump was the result of a fair election in 2016, and the sentiments into which he tapped do not seem to be gone for good.
This is a very perceptive question, and an alarming one. Other right-wing leaders in the United States (the governors of Florida and Texas, for example, and a handful of representatives and senators in Congress) have seen the political advantage they can derive from the Trump-inspired extremist language, and these leaders continue to inspire a very large number of Americans. A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute finds that 30% of Republicans believe that armed violence may be necessary to “save” the United States. These people are “true believers” in the lies told and repeated by Donald Trump asserting that the election was stolen by fraud. There is no factual basis for this claim whatsoever; but Trump and his followers have managed to convince the true believers in right-wing America that Democrats are the enemy, and that violence against them would be justified. This is profoundly worrisome. Many astute observers look with very great apprehension to the next presidential election in 2024 and the possibility that Republican state governments will have installed enough compliant election officials to allow them to overturn the results of their own state’s voters. It should be remembered that during one of the presidential debates in 2016 between candidates Trump and Clinton, Hillary Clinton asked Trump this telling question: “Trump, will you accept the results of next week’s election?” His response was telling: “We’ll have to wait and see.” Personally, I’m very apprehensive about what the future several years hold for our democracy, and our system of civil liberties and majority rule.
Since the dawn of the century, the supremacy of the US in the international arena has been seriously challenged, if not in a constant decline. Would you agree that some of the tremors in the foundations of the US governing system might be a reflection of its weakening position in global affairs?
Here too I think this is a minor factor. Conservatives use international issues as a basis for negative political messages against President Biden – for example, the chaos of the withdrawal from Kabul. But I don’t really think it’s a very potent political issue. More potent is the accumulation of anti-government rhetoric, racism, xenophobia, anti-vaccination and anti-mask propaganda, and “culture wars” phony issues like banning “Critical Race Studies” from classrooms – these are the issues that are motivating and mobilizing the far right in the US today. Right-wing media personalities and propagandists like Tucker Carlson (Fox) have made cynical and effective use of these issues to mobilize their followers. Hatred of other groups, antagonism to government, and a pathological love of firearms all hang together in a potent “right-wing populist coalition” of increasingly dangerous leaders, militants, and followers.
But such dispositions, or orientations, have not been this explicit before the election of Trump.
Sure. Fundamentally baffling is the swiftness with which elected Republican officials and leaders have abandoned their commitments to the fundamental values of our American democracy – rule of law, neutrality of the courts, equality of citizenship, individual rights of expression and association – in their haste to join the Trump bandwagon. This switch demonstrates a fundamental moral corruptness that is difficult to understand in men and women who swore to protect our constitution and to serve the public wellbeing. It gives an uncomfortable feeling of being in Italy in 1922, Germany in 1933, or France in 1940. In each case legislators, often including liberal politicians, abdicated their responsibility to resist a seizure of power, and dictatorship followed.
At the beginning, you used the metaphor of a catastrophic earthquake. How should people be prepared for its sudden occurrence?
That reminds me of a story. In 1968 I was an undergraduate student in physics and was introduced to an émigré Austrian engineering professor who had been compelled to do his scientific work in Nazi Germany. He shared with a group of students two items he kept in his office: A megaphone, so his voice of opposition could be heard if occasion arose, and an emergency bag containing a passport and a bundle of money, so he could flee if necessary. His words were memorable: “Never again will I be trapped in a dictatorship.”
* Mohammad Memarian is a staff writer at Iran Daily.