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  • Writer's pictureBrendan Szendrő

Is American Democracy Backsliding?

When you start looking into it, The United States doesn't compare favorably to other democracies. In fact, we have all the warning signs of dictatorships that used to be democracies.

Maybe the most frustrating take I’ve seen recently is a spate of arguments that we should “be glad we have a right to protest, because there are countries that don’t.” This is a bad faith argument that compares us to the absolute bottom of the barrel, and it’s that kind of thinking that makes autocracies happen to begin with.

It’s true that the United States is more comparatively “free” than, say, Turkey. We are also much, much wealthier than Turkey, and with the exception of China we are less free than every other wealthy country. It’s also true that we don’t look that much different than Turkey did 10 years ago. More people died in the George Floyd protests than in the Turkish Gezi Park protests, and while relative population sizes matter, it was also in a much shorter period of time.

Sure, we haven’t had a coup yet. Give it time. It took three years between the repression at Gezi Park and the 2016 crackdown. This notion that Americans pat themselves on the back because we’re not a brutal dictatorship — yet — is the most banal, elitist and tone deaf thing I’ve ever seen. It’s this Orientalist smugness quietly bragging about western dominance and civility, and it’s almost laughable when you look at America in comparison to its actual democratic peers.

The notion that we have “rights” and “freedoms” other countries don’t is an argument that was actually used in the 60s against civil rights marches. White Americans overwhelmingly told marchers to be thankful that they had more rights than those living under dictatorships in sub-Saharan Africa. Which is not really the point — we claim to be a “free” country but only compare ourselves favorably to dictatorships, because when you start looking into it, we actually don’t compare favorably to other democracies at all.

In fact, we have all the warning signs of dictatorships that used to be democracies. The United States has more per capita killings by police than any other democracy. Around nine times as many as Canada, 34 times as many as Germany, and 90 times as many as the United Kingdom. Yes, 90. We also have the highest incarceration rate in the world even compared to the worst dictatorships.

So why is that? An obvious response is that we have higher crime rates. An obvious answer, then, is why do we have so much more crime than any other developed country? It becomes clear within minutes of basic, logical analysis, that America has so virulently resisted social welfare as to be, functionally, no different than an impoverished nation if you're not at the top of the socioeconomic ladder.

When you add our long list of inequalities between black and white, rich and poor, immigrant and native-born, and so on, we have much more desperate people in this country than any nation as wealthy as ours should. Then, when these desperate people demand change, they are accused of violence and attacked.

Some of these incidents we’ve seen have been violent, sure, but police have acted as the instigators, not the peacekeepers. Even so, we’ve watched police break up entirely peaceful protests — we’ve seen videos of police tear gassing violin players, tackling people for carrying milk jugs, and so on. We’ve seen them fire rubber bullets at kids spray painting on public property, because apparently graffiti is now an act of war. "Law and order!" for people who have never stepped outside the Suburban Lifestyle Dream® and think it's scary when young people do young people things.

We’re seeing law enforcement use counterinsurgency tactics. Methods developed to be used in military-occupied disputed territories. It’s questionable whether these methods should ever be used against anybody, but the fact is that they were designed to be used against terrorists hiding in foreign populations, not domestic protests.

And now, of course, we’re watching the emergence of paramilitary federal shock troops, defying constitutional law to detain people indefinitely on suspicions alone. All the while, we’re watching the president of the United States try to “postpone” the election. This is how autocracies start. America, is, actually, the spitting image of many of these “backwards” countries Americans like to scoff at.

All of this gets justified by these vague boogeymen like “antifa” or “George Soros” and so on. Ideas meant to imply that protesters don’t actually have anything to protest, and that we’re being “divided” by mythological “agitators,” “globalists,” and “socialists” trying to hoodwink Americans into disagreement.

Without getting into the roots of those myths — myths heavily based on antisemitic ideas — it really gets to me to see the same people screaming about the expansion of government power in regard to Covid restrictions cheer for federal troops violently repressing “antifa terrorists” whose “crimes” consist of minor vandalism and violating local noise ordinances.

People have a tendency to sort groups into “good” and “bad” and assume that the past was inevitable. When we look back on the warning signs of autocracy we assume that it was set in stone. As such, we can’t recognize the warning signs in our own backyard because “those people were bad, our people are good.” We can call this normalcy bias — “we” are “normal” so “weird” things don’t happen to “us.”

There was a point in time where all of history’s great criminals were regarded as normal people. There was a point in time where Turkey’s Erdogan was a modernist, and Hungary’s Orban was a liberal. There was a point in time where fascist parties were considered just one of many political parties in Europe, and no more of a threat to democracy than any other.

It is striking to see how the language of autocracy has become commonplace in our home, and how so many people are willing to look past it because “it’s different,” somehow, than the other places where it happened. Because those were “other” places, and this is “our” place.

If you don’t want to take democracy for granted, stop giving it away.

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