With Donald Trump in the White House, there’s a lot of talk about a new authoritarian streak in American politics. But whatever you may think of Donald Trump — and most people have strongly held views on America’s first pompadour President — he is anything but an authoritarian. You can’t be an authoritarian when the only authority you recognize is yourself.
The words “authoritarian” and “authoritarianism” were first used in the 1850s and 1860s by American spiritualists as a pejorative term for traditional religious observance based on the authority of churches, preachers, and the Bible. They spread into political use in the 1880s, when American “individualist anarchists” railed against the authority of church and state to regulate individual conscience.
“The State is as much a theological superstition as the doctrine of the atonement. It is simply the human side of theology. It is only another application of the idea of authority, which is the central idea of theological despotism.” So declared the unsigned opening manifesto of the first edition (1881) of the anarchist magazine Liberty, edited by Benjamin Tucker. Condemnations of the “authoritarian” state soon became a mainstay of Liberty editorials.
Authoritarianism was coined as a dirty word, and in the twentieth century it came to be widely applied to illiberal political regimes of all kinds, from Latin American dictatorships to Japanese emperor-worship, from the Russian Tsars to the Russian Communists. Anywhere the unthinking masses were manipulated by dark and sinister forces, authoritarianism lurked.
The term has always lacked analytical rigor, but it has always retained its original and etymological valence. Authoritarians are people who want other people to follow the dictates of authority — their authority — and ideally to believe wholeheartedly that they should follow the dictates of authority. Authoritarians do not want people to think for themselves.
In most of the world, the traditional sources of authority have long since lost their hold on people’s imaginations. With organized religion on the wane and hereditary nobility almost gone, there are few people who are able to claim the obedience of the masses. Donald Trump doesn’t command his supporters; he panders to them.
But though the old authorities have lost their magic, new authorities have risen to take their place. And those new authorities are “us”: the educated professionals who write books, formulate policies, draft guidelines, and manage the business of government. We are the experts, and we demand to be heard. Increasingly, we demand to be obeyed.
In domain after domain of public life, (we) experts have demanded that policy decisions be taken out of the realm of democratic politics and placed under the care of expert administration. Elite consensus has replaced the church’s blessing as the unquestionable token of revealed truth. It is taken for given that expert authority, not popular opinion, should guide policy. To “politicize” an issue is to commit a sin perfidious in the implication of ulterior motives.
Should we convert to wind and solar power to fight global warming? Politicize energy policy and you’re a climate denier, on the model of a Holocaust denier. Should we use tariffs to protect jobs? Politicize trade policy and you’re fomenting a trade war that will lead to a second Great Depression. Should we limit immigration to ensure affordable housing for existing citizens? Politicize immigration and you’re a racist sliding down the slippery slope to genocide.
Comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis, those stock villains of the twenty-first century imagination, are routinely used by expert class to demonize their populist opponents. The experts who see in Donald Trump echoes of Adolf Hitler should go back to the history books. Hitler didn’t come to power in a wave of populist euphoria. He was appointed in a bipartisan consensus deal on the strength of a petition from 20 leading businessmen and an open letter of support from 51 professors.
Prewar German intellectuals had a long history of demanding strongman rule by “enlightened” dictators who could rise above politics to force good policies on an ignorant electorate. In the liberal West, intellectuals have pushed instead for governance by expert panels insulated from electoral politics. “Independence” is the order of the day.
For example, most political scientists take it for granted that democracy can only thrive under an independent judiciary. They are seemingly unaware that most US states hold elections for judges, prosecutors, and even sheriffs. Similarly, the demand for central bank independence is an article of faith in the economics profession. Yet independent central banks oversaw both the inflation of the 1970s and the financial crises of the 2000s.
All government policies involve political trade-offs, and in a democracy when trade-offs are required, the voters should be consulted. Even if independent experts were able to provide “Pareto optimal” policies that benefit literally everyone — and that’s a big if — what does their independence mean if not independence from electoral accountability?
Today’s new authoritarianism, the postmodern authoritarianism of the liberal Western democracies, is the would-be tyranny of the expert class. When experts descend into the public arena to argue their cases in front of the sovereign electorate, democracy flourishes. When expert opinion is elevated into the only politically acceptable point of view, democracy dies.
Everyone wants good government, and good government requires the disinterested advice of experts. The key word is “advice.” Advice, the electorate can disregard. But when it refuses to accept the legitimacy of electoral decisions on Donald Trump, the Brexit vote, and other populist causes, the expert class strays from offering advice to demanding compliance.
The delegitimation of opposition does not strengthen democracy. It is the first step on the road to tyranny. Even more than good policy, democracy requires respect for the dignity of the electorate. Populism is nothing but the people standing up to demand that due respect.
Salvatore Babones is Associate Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney.