“It always happens” doesn’t imply “it will always happen”. With that correction in mind, Adam Gopnik makes an interesting point about democracy and autocracy in The New Yorker:
We are told again and again that American democracy is in peril and may even be on its deathbed. Today, after all, a defeated yet deranged President bunkers in the White House contemplating crazy conspiracy theories and perhaps even martial law, with the uneasy consent of his party and the rabid support of his base. We are then told, with equal urgency, that what is wrong, ultimately, is deep, systemic, and Everybody’s Fault. Perhaps there is a crisis of meaning, or of spirit; perhaps it is a crisis caused by the condescension of self-important élites. (In truth, those élites tend to be at least as self-lacerating as they are condescending, as the latest rounds of self-laceration show.)
Lurking behind all of this is a faulty premise—that the descent into authoritarianism is what needs to be explained, when the reality is that . . . it always happens. The default condition of humankind is not to thrive in broadly egalitarian and stable democratic arrangements that get unsettled only when something happens to unsettle them. The default condition of humankind, traced across thousands of years of history, is some sort of autocracy.
America itself has never had a particularly settled commitment to democratic, rational government. At a high point of national prosperity, long before manufacturing fell away or economic anxiety gripped the Middle West—in an era when “silos” referred only to grain or missiles and information came from three sober networks . . .—a similar set of paranoid beliefs filled American minds and came perilously close to taking power. . . . [A] sizable group of people believed things as fully fantastical as the Txxxx-ite belief in voting machines rerouted by dead Venezuelan socialists. The intellectual forces behind Goldwater’s sudden rise thought that Eisenhower and J.F.K. were agents, wittingly or otherwise, of the Communist conspiracy, and that American democracy was in a death match with enemies within as much as without. (Goldwater was, political genealogists will note, a ferocious admirer and defender of Joe McCarthy, whose counsel in all things conspiratorial was Roy Cohn, Dxxxx Txxxx’s mentor.)
Goldwater was a less personally malevolent figure than Txxxx, and, yes, he lost his 1964 Presidential bid. But, in sweeping the Deep South, he set a victorious neo-Confederate pattern for the next four decades of American politics, including the so-called Reagan revolution. Nor were his forces naïvely libertarian. At the time, Goldwater’s ghostwriter Brent Bozell spoke approvingly of Franco’s post-Fascist Spain as spiritually far superior to decadent America, much as the highbrow Txxxx-ites talk of the Christian regimes of Putin and Orbán.
The interesting question is not what causes autocracy (not to mention the conspiratorial thinking that feeds it) but what has ever suspended it. We constantly create post-hoc explanations for the ascent of the irrational. The Weimar inflation caused the rise of Hitler, we say; the impoverishment of Tsarism caused the Bolshevik Revolution. In fact, the inflation was over in Germany long before Hitler rose, and Lenin came to power not in anything that resembled a revolution—which had happened already under the leadership of far more pluralistic politicians—but in a coup d’état by a militant minority. Force of personality, opportunity, sheer accident: these were much more decisive than some neat formula of suffering in, autocracy out.
Dxxxx Txxxx came to power not because of an overwhelming wave of popular sentiment—he lost his two elections by a cumulative ten million votes—but because of an orphaned electoral system left on our doorstep by an exhausted Constitutional Convention. . . .
The way to shore up American democracy is to shore up American democracy—that is, to strengthen liberal institutions, in ways that are unglamorously specific and discouragingly minute. The task here is not so much to peer into our souls as to reduce the enormous democratic deficits under which the country labors, most notably an electoral landscape in which farmland tilts to power while city blocks are flattened. This means remedying manipulative redistricting while reforming the Electoral College and the Senate [or by making the Electoral College irrelevant]. Some of these things won’t be achievable, but all are worth pursuing—with the knowledge that, even if every box on our . . . wish list were checked, no set-it-and-forget-it solution to democratic fragility would stand revealed. The only way to stave off another Txxxx is to recognize that it always happens. The temptation of anti-democratic cult politics is forever with us, and so is the work of fending it off. . . .
It’s hard for most Americans to believe it might happen to us. We haven’t had a king or dictator since the United States was created 240 years ago. That’s why Sinclair Lewis called his novel about fascism coming to America It Can’t Happen Here. Our country isn’t destined to become an autocracy, but the past four years show that we have work to do — to make sure it doesn’t happen here.