This article is a partial expression of the central thesis of The Human Basis of Democracy, a manuscript in process that shares findings from 3+ years’ of ethnographic data collection— post 11.8.16 — in a variety of American cultures.
Announcements about the arrival of American authoritarianism now abound in mainstream media. I’m sure you’ve read your share. This article offers something a little different: a focus on how authoritarianism functions in our relations with one another and how each one of us can embody relationally democratic practices. Now, more than ever, we need to drag our attention away from the spectacle of authoritarianism-as-regime and its drumbeat of inevitability by understanding how authoritarianism functions in practices between us that we can change.
Authoritarianism is a Power Imbalance
Authoritarianism is, at bottom, a severely imbalanced power relation where one (person or state) steals power from another (person or state) and hoards it. Authoritarian practices are currently proliferating in the United States, between individuals and at the state level. They are most obvious at the state level, and we see the practices employed by those in the highest government offices using state resources.
The list of current American state-level authoritarian practices is long: intimidation, bullying, threats, exclusion, and other attempts to silence free press; militarization of police; use of military force to crush civilian dissent; use of force to kill unarmed citizens; open embrace and support of white nationalists and militia; active attempts to suppress electoral processes; unremitting streams of propaganda and disinformation; massive human rights abuses, and alliances of those in the highest offices with authoritarian regimes around the world. There is no room for argument. The evidence shows a clear and obvious authoritarian threat to U.S. state-level democratic processes and systems.
Authoritarianism in the U.S. is not new, however. State-level authoritarian practices have existed here since the beginning. Severe power imbalances founded the American legal story. Our white forefathers committed genocide, murdering and enslaving native inhabitants of the land, stealing as much power as they could from those brown bodies. Our economy was born and built on the backs of slaves: the state stole as much power as possible from Black and brown bodies, further empowering itself and those who claimed authority and control over resources.
The power relations that founded our institutions, our laws, our systems and processes, and “the people” could not have been more severely imbalanced.
American racism is a form of authoritarianism. So is classism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and speciesism. Each has as its core feature an imbalanced power relation. Each imbalanced relation functions in (racist, classist, sexist, heterosexist, ableist, and speciesist) practices that are entrenched in systems and processes and also present relationally between individual human beings.
The over-focus by most authors on authoritarianism-as-regime has brought us to a world now filled with authoritarian regimes. Our stories about authoritarianism have been and continue to be radically incomplete and dangerous: they focus on the “top” (regimes, tyrants, ideologies) perpetuating a lethal sense of inevitability. They also obscure our view of a way forward from the “bottom”: by recognizing, understanding, and changing the living connections between us, our relations with one another.
Authoritarianism Functions in Power-Stealing and Hoarding Practices
Beyond the page, abstract political theories, and your imagination, both state-level and relational authoritarianism occur in practices and can be defined this way: power is stolen and hoarded by those few who claim authority, forcing those with less or very little power to adapt to that power scarcity and comply or face punishment in some form, the threat of which is directly expressed or implied.
This functional definition of authoritarianism is accurate whether we’re talking about power-stealing using government processes, systems, and resources or power-stealing that happens in the relations between humans.
Power, in its most basic form, is the ability to generate and maintain our forward momentum. Forward momentum is hardwired into all beings; human beings move forward in time and gain momentum unless barriers slow, stagger, or stop us. Our power is inherently a part of us: we are born with it and we own it.
Power can be shared or stolen in relations with other humans. Relational practices that steal power rather than share it are authoritarian. Practices that steal power do so by functionally erecting barriers to our forward momentum, making it difficult to generate and maintain our progress. Relational power-stealing also destroys healthy human connection in the process.
The following are categories of power-stealing practices that I observed and documented in the field in both professional and personal contexts (case study data will be publicly available at The Relational Democracy Project):
- Passive aggression (offering of inaccurate relational information intentionally)
- Bullying (repetitive aggression in the form of personal attacks and exclusion)
- Name-calling (intentional or mindless use of language to reject, condemn, and demean)
- Weaponized fear (telling unfounded or exaggerated stories of danger meant to scare into control)
- Willful ignorance (intentional exclusion of commonly accepted or new information)
- Outright watching (in public spaces and around home)
- Calling the cops (personal appropriation of state power)
- Asking to speak with the manager (personal appropriation of professional power)
C. Marginalization and Invisibility
- Gatekeeping (blocking access to community resources or communication channels)
- Exclusion (intentional lack of eye contact, acknowledgement, and response)
- Cynicism (intentional disparagement of optimism, hope, and altruism)
- Lack of transparency (intentional vagueness and informality to hide intent and discourage informed response)
- Unfounded doubt (intentionally ignoring commonly accepted credentials and qualifications)
- Stoicism (intentional withholding of emotion, imagination, and creativity)
- Inaccurate information offered intentionally (lying, selective truth-telling and truth-remembering, pretending not to understand, and faking faulty memory)
- Passive aggression (intentionally offering inaccurate relational information)
- Trivialization (downplaying feelings as being too sensitive or events as unimportant)
Each practice functions to slow, stagger, or stop dead forward momentum. The body of power-stealing practices that constitute American relational authoritarianism is much more than a collection of “mean,” “rude,” or “insensitive” behaviors. When relational power-stealing practices outnumber and outpace power-sharing practices, they also crowd out the development of democratic norms. Put simply, authoritarian practices make democratic norms impossible.
State-level practices mirror relational practices. When you strip away all the variables discussed when examining state-level authoritarianism and focus instead on power at the relational level, you find that all the “little” interpersonal practices when understood as a phenomenon culturally support state-level authoritarianism, which is made up of the same practices, just supercharged by state resources.
Democracy Functions in Power-Sharing Practices
Power is shared at a state level through democratic processes and systems. Relational practices that are open, transparent, and accurate share power and are the enabling conditions that support healthy democratic systems and processes. Relational power-sharing supports everyone’s ability to generate and maintain their forward momentum and to exercise their agency (which is power aimed at a chosen goal).
Democratic ecosystems are most healthy and abundant when the social soil in which they grow — the cumulative cultural effect of individual power-sharing practices and norms — is also healthy. Power-sharing practices in a culture create trust, make space for vulnerability, nurture creativity, celebrate difference, and foster expression. Democratic norms are open and inclusive: they “turn-toward,” seek out, and embrace diversity in all its forms. Democracies thrive when those committed to power-sharing via systems and processes contribute novel and creative cultural ideas and practices.
Each individual democratic practice — each granular act of relational power-sharing — counts in a culture to outpace and outnumber power-stealing practices. The cumulative effect of individual democratic relational practices, over time, build democracies and support power-sharing systems and processes. Put differently, democracy is not in elections or issues or candidates; not in systems or processes. The heart of democracy is in the human commitment to share power in everyday practices.
What It All Means
We need to reframe. The problem of American authoritarianism has been framed in election terms: everyone who cares needs to vote out the tyrant at the top. Framing solutions in top-level processes and systems, however, leaves out of the frame the bottom-level cultural conditions that have existed for decades and will exist long after an election. Voting is the very least we can do. Even if the 45th POTUS is not elected to be the 46th, that outcome will not stop the authoritarian practices that continue to proliferate in the United States.
We need a relational frame to understand American authoritarianism. Relations are the basis of change in the universe, and our relations with one another — whether masked and in-person or virtual — are where power moves between us in practices. Cultural change happens when the relations between us change, and we change those by changing our practices. We can orient our culture back toward democracy by embodying democratic practices.
State-level American authoritarianism is designed to control and distract. Its practices seek division and destruction of human connection, and they effectively overwhelm and discourage many who read the news regularly. Because there is woefully little an individual citizen can do to stop U.S. state-level power-stealing, the pressure of spectacle and suffering causes relationally democratic citizens (power-sharers) to turn away, check out, and give up, leaving the way unobstructed for the bulldozer of American authoritarianism to clearcut democratic practices.
Relational authoritarian practices have no place in a struggling democracy. Democracies require healthy social soil, which is created in relations between humans. In a democratic culture, relational power sharing is fundamental, and it creates the conditions for the possibility of including all humans and all other beings in consideration.
Democracy cannot be imposed. It cannot be elected. It cannot be bought. It cannot be attained through prayer. It must be lived in bodies, in relations, in all of us. Every single day.