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September 14, 2022 - 12:02am

OPINION: The rise of authoritarians on the left and the right

posted by Howard B. Owens in Opinion.

When I was a child, talking about Hitler with my mother -- she turned 18 at the start of World War II -- I said to her, "that could never happen here."

"Oh, yes it could," she told me.

Still, until the past few years, it was something I could never fathom.  Not here. Not in the United States. Not in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Not when we so seemingly revered the men and the women who paid the ultimate price to protect freedom. 

These days, I worry about authortarianism every day.  So do the folks over at Reason Magazine.

On the left, a new crop of socialists hope to overthrow the liberal economic order, while the rise of intersectional identity politics has supplanted longstanding commitments to civil liberties. On the right, support for free markets and free trade are more and more often derided as relics of a bygone century, while quasi-theocratic ideas are gathering support.

What has not changed—what may even be getting worse—is the problem of affective polarization. Various studies have found that Americans today have significantly more negative feelings toward members of the other party than they did in decades past.

But partisan animosity suits the authoritarian elements on the left and right just fine. Their goal is power, and they have little patience for procedural niceties that interfere with its exercise. As history teaches, a base whipped up into fear and fury is ready to accept almost anything to ensure its own survival. Perhaps even the destruction of the institutions and ideals that make America distinctively itself.

The United States was founded on the most radical and liberal of all ideals in human history up to that time: That all people are created equal and have a natural right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  The struggle of 1776 pitted the liberalism of the founders -- the belief in individual liberty and limited government -- and the conservative authoritarianism of monarchism, those who thought all humanity should bow to a king.

Once the country was established, the great political divide was over just how much power a central, federal government should have, but both camps were solidly liberal.

As a child of the 1970s, I grew up thinking liberal was a bad thing.  Now I understand that if you're a lover of liberty, you're a liberal.  If you want to defend the tradition of individual liberty in the United States, you're a conservative.  You want to conserve that tradition and those values.  Anything else that people use to define themselves politically is just a sideshow.

We've lost sight of what liberalism and conservative really mean, which only feeds the authoritarians on both the left and the right who want to demonize the people who oppose their brand of extremism.  On the right, all people who oppose their version of a perfect society are "libtards" and for those on the left, all who oppose their version of a perfect society are "Nazis."  

On the left, progressives and socialists want to use the power of government to achieve an economic leveling and their idea of a perfect society.  On the right, authoritarians want to silence those who disagree with them and install a government based on their version of religion and morality. 

The Reason Magazine article is full of examples of politicians and political activists on both the left and the right pushing liberal agendas.  Is a sad commentary on the state of America.

I'm reminded of Karl Popper's warning about the paradox of tolerance.  If a tolerant society tolerates intolerance it will eventually be crushed by intolerance.  To me, that only fuels my pessimism that individual liberty, the great achievement of humankind, and the gift of the Enlightenment, and part of the human experience for less than 250 years, will be snuffed out across the globe within a generation or two.

All of this makes it a very scary time to be a person who believes the greatest human achievement and happiness occurs when we're all free to conduct our lives as we each determine for ourselves. It is a scary time to believe in this core value that fueled the American Revolution.

Howard B. Owens
Howard B. Owens's picture
Last seen: 1 day 12 hours ago
Joined: Apr 23 2008 - 3:05pm

Here's an article related to my editorial, which I completely agree with, though I'm sure our local DSA members and some of our friends on the right won't like very much. Nationalism, socialism, fascism, Marxism, all the same toxic stew.


tom hunt
tom hunt's picture
Last seen: 2 days 10 min ago
Joined: Jan 31 2009 - 9:08am

To quote from the book named Animal Farm: " All animals are created equal. But Pigs are more equal than the others."

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