Photo: “2021 storming of the United States Capitol 2021 storming of the United States Capitol DSC09268-2 (50820738198),” by Tyler Merbler licensed under CC Attribution 2.0 Generic. Hue modified from the original.
Waller, Julian G. “Authoritarianism Here?” American Affairs Journal, 2022. https://americanaffairsjournal.org/2022/02/authoritarianism-here/.
The question of authoritarianism in America has become a hot-button issue in our era of political discontent. A great deal of ink has been spilled by Left and Right on the rise of authoritarian threats in recent years—from Trumpian populism to Covid bio-surveillance—and many prominent social scientists have made strident arguments about democratic “backsliding,” “erosion,” “autocratization,” and similar dangers to the health of the American republic. Much of this has been couched in rather hyperbolic language, yet good, sane research on the subject also exists and competes for attention among the policy-minded set.
For the purposes of this essay, we can bracket questions of whether or not these arguments have been convincing. Instead, it may be more illuminating to focus on the common analytic problem shared by most of these discussions of backsliding and regime threats—an insufficiently fleshed-out account of what authoritarianism in modern America would look like in real terms.