Authoritarianism vs. Democracy | Opinion

Authoritarian forces are on the move today—not only in places like Hungary, Poland, Turkey, the Philippines and mainstays such as Russia and China. They are on the move in the United States as well.

Authoritarian movements are like a virus, with a tendency to spread globally. But unlike viruses that affect the body, authoritarianism is a virus that doesn't just attack its host. In many cases, it's invited in. Like diseases of the immune system that occur when immune cells start attacking the very body it is meant to protect, millions of American citizens are perversely motivated to embrace authoritarianism, even seem to enjoy it. And by extension, to attack our democracy.

At the opening of Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene's "America First Tour," Gaetz exclaimed that "America First isn't going away, it's going on tour!" And everyone knows what he's saying. He's saying that Donald Trump isn't going away. The movement Trump spawned is alive and well, not destroyed by the former president's defeat at the polls but, if anything, even more motivated. It is marching forward and continuing the work where Trump left off. From voter suppression bills to the purging of the Republican Party of anyone with any hint of disloyalty to the former president, the authoritarian movement spawned by the ex-president is growing tentacles and metastasizing.

Just as few would ever have thought one man could do so much damage to this country in the space of four years, none could have predicted this level of his continuing influence since leaving office. From his political outpost at Mar-a-Lago, without Facebook, without Twitter, without political power of any kind, he continues to exert inexplicable influence over millions of people.

In the words of Republican President Theodore Roosevelt: "Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else."

Loyalty matters. Allegiance matters. But allegiance to an ideal is very different than allegiance to an individual, and it is the ideal of our democracy that makes America great. The America Firsters have no allegiance to American greatness. They have an allegiance to Donald Trump and to whomever he deems a worthy proponent of his autocratic brand of political power.

Perhaps this should have been predicted, given how, for decades, so many American children weren't really taught the ideals of American democracy. There are at least 10 states where there's no requirement for even one semester of civics, or history, or American government. Too many children were not taught about the Declaration of Independence. No one explained to them the profundity of the notion that "all men are created equal" (a complete repudiation of aristocratic rule), "endowed by God with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" (a complete repudiation of autocracy). No one explained to them the significance of free elections, or the rule of law. No one taught them that our allegiance is to "liberty and justice for all," in direct contradiction to the capricious whims of one autocratic figure and his or her cronies. And clearly they never learned the Bill of Rights—or they'd never have been susceptible to the idea that somehow the Second one is the only one that matters.

Why then should we be surprised—given that we failed to instill in tens of millions of people a real understanding of the democratic ideal—that so many now feel no need to defend it, no particular love for it at all?

"Where there is no vision the people perish." Isn't that the truth. The struggle to "establish a more perfect union," repeated by every generation of Americans one after the other, is America's dream, the core of our national purpose. Obviously, we have never achieved that perfect union. We've never fully embodied the ideals on which we purport to stand. And our children must be taught that, too, in order to rise to the occasion in their own time, and do what they can to atone for our past mistakes and expand the democratic franchise.

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The American flag flies at half staff before a candlelight vigil and moment of silence at the U.S. Capitol, on February 23, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Al Drago/Getty Images

From slavery to the institutionalized suppression of women and people of color, to the genocide of Native Americans, the United States has seen throughout our history a constant struggle between the demons of cruelty and oppression and the angels of justice and freedom. But our dream is a world is which the angels of our better nature have triumphed. It is the struggle itself that gives the dream its meaning. From Abolition to the women's suffrage movement to the civil rights movement, people have struggled, sacrificed and in many cases died so that the dream might live on.

Now, the struggle is upon us again, as vicious and threatening as at any time in our history. Authoritarianism isn't concentrated today in one specific institutional reality; rather, its tentacles are in many places, from voter suppression laws; to demonization of the press; to the suppression of unions; to the corruption of our political institutions; to corporate control of, well, just about everything; to police brutality; to systemic racism and economic injustice and more. Most frightening of all, however, is the exaltation of a man—despite all reason—whose lying is so well-documented, whose corruption is so substantiated and whose utter disregard for the tenets of democracy could not be clearer.

The ancient lure of authoritarianism is infecting our body politic, inspiring millions of Americans to joyfully surrender the most precious gift bequeathed to us: the ideals of democracy itself. They're not only not protecting our democracy; they're actually surrendering it joyfully. "Here's our democracy! We don't want it! Take it!" say the Matt Gaetzs and Marjorie Taylor Greenes of the world. Entrusted with the most significant political power on Earth, they seek to crush it under their feet and to get others to crush it too.

Do we have a problem on our hands? You bet we do. For millions of Americans have been radicalized now, by authoritarian forces that would defeat the very ideals this country stands for. They are being encouraged in some cases by those who absolutely should know better, yet whose craven desire for power is so great that democracy itself no longer matters to them. This is not a struggle between left and right. There are high minded and principled people on both sides of the political spectrum, as evidenced by the current struggle of loyal Republicans in Congress to fend off the lie that Trump in fact won the election. They're having a hard time, obviously, and there's no predicting where the Republican Party will land.

But where America will land, we must leave no doubt. We must commit to ourselves that our democracy will not die because we the people won't let it die. We should remember the words of JFK at his inauguration, spoken with no idea that they would one day apply to forces here at home:

"Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed ..."

It doesn't matter whether the enemies of democracy are foreign or domestic, born of a global virus or an all-American homegrown authoritarianism, let our generation be no less prepared than any other to take them on, to prove them wrong and to save our freedoms for our children and our children's children. Yes, our democracy in some ways is in tatters. America has never gotten it totally right, and in some ways we've gotten and continue to get it horribly wrong. But cynicism is just an excuse for not helping. The point is that we continue the struggle. I know I speak for many when I say that we're not gonna give it up now.

Marianne Williamson is a Newsweek columnist, best-selling author, political activist and spiritual thought leader. She is founder of Project Angel Food and co-founder of the Peace Alliance, and was the first candidate in the 2020 presidential primary to make reparations a pillar of her campaign. She is the author of 13 books, among them Healing the Soul of America and A Politics of Love.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.