Forget Right vs. Left. Let’s Talk About Authoritarian vs. Liberal

If the latter isn’t settled, the former is irrelevant

Photo by Lucas Franco

The fundamental question Americans face at the ballot box this year is whether the United States should continue the project of liberal democracy, or if we should follow in the footsteps of Russia, Hungary, Venezuela, and other nations run by authoritarian strongmen. I sincerely wish this were an exaggeration. Unfortunately, the Trump presidency has only continued raising red flag after red flag. The world leaders Trump admires, and the policies he’s attempting to replicate, are overwhelmingly authoritarian.

In light of this, it’s time we started paying more attention to where our politicians sit on the liberal-authoritarian continuum, rather than how far “left” or “right” they happen to be.

It’s not that the left-right continuum is totally irrelevant. While flawed, it does create a somewhat useful framework for conveying roughly how egalitarian a politician or party is, relative to their rivals. That said, determining where politicians fit on this continuum will always be trickier and more subjective than the liberal-authoritarian one. For instance, if a candidate supports some progressive policy goals, like single-payer healthcare, but also some libertarian ones, such as significant deregulation of zoning and licensing laws, do we then place that person on the left, on the right, or in the center? It’s hard to say.

Similarly, let’s say a politician (we’ll call him “Joe”) held some pretty conservative views several decades ago, but is currently running on a center-left, social democratic platform. Where exactly does “Joe” get placed on our left-right continuum? Again, hard to say.

What isn’t hard to say, however, is that when the leader of a country sends in secret police to abduct dissenters off the streets without due process, calls the press “the enemy of the people,” and questions the very legitimacy of democratic elections, that leader holds the constraints of constitutionalism in utter contempt. It’s staggering how many Republicans like to role play as anti-communists, but when their president attempts to mimic the East German Stasi by making dissent a crime, all that talk of freedom, liberty, and “small government” is quickly forgotten.

The US is also a country where how far “left” or “right” you’re perceived to be has more to do with social and cultural issues than economic ones. Demands for deregulation and less government interference may still be denounced by conservatives if they simultaneously advance the cause of social justice.

A better framework for assessing our politicians could be philosopher Judith Shklar’s “liberalism of fear.” Shklar, who came from a family of Jewish refugees (first fleeing the Nazis and later the Soviets), knew a thing or two about the horrors of totalitarian states. She thereby suggested that the project of liberal democracy shouldn’t be one aimed at achieving utopia, but rather a safeguard against the kind of suffering that invariably occurs as states become more illiberal and un-democratic. While different people in a pluralistic society may disagree on what it means to live a good life, most human beings can agree that less needless suffering is a desirable goal.

Liberal democracy, then, is sort of like a seatbelt or a life jacket for human flourishing. It isn’t fool-proof, and it might restrict your range of motion a little, but you’re much safer with it than without it. Likewise, the modern Democratic Party is far from flawless, but they are, in most ways, trying to strengthen the liberal democratic institutions that their opponents are working hard to undermine. You may dislike the Democrats, but the Democrats aren’t likely to kidnap, maim, or jail you for expressing that dissent. This is the difference between liberals and authoritarians.

Other philosophers (John Rawls, for instance) have developed more positive conceptions of what liberalism can be. But at minimum, we should take the liberalism of fear seriously.

Reframing the debate in this way should make the decision we have in November that much easier. Even if Joe Biden were really a center-right politician (as some leftists wrongly claim), a center-rightist who isn’t actively seeking to erode liberal democracy would still be better than an ethno-nationalist strongman who is (I’d vote for an Angela Merkel over a Donald Trump any day).

If Biden wins in November, we should certainly reopen some of the old debates about corruption within the political “establishments,” why the US only has two electable parties, and how far “left” the Democrats should actually go. But such debates are only possible within a broadly liberal democratic society that allows dissenting views to exist. Preserving and fortifying liberal democracy therefore has to be the top priority.

Volunteer organizer. Humanist. Pragmatist. Public health advocate. Global citizen. Living that ADHD life. Part of the Greatest Generation (Millennial).

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