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Can democracy supporters find any common ground with authoritarians?

By Leslie Cannold

Arguing with those you disagree with feels impossible these days. On this we all agree, although the diagnosis of the problem varies widely: hyperpolarisation of the polity, social media anonymity and silos, snowflakism raising the stakes, etc.

But what if the real problem is that some citizens — perhaps up to 25% — have no interest in arguing, well or otherwise? What if they don’t care about the preservation or success of the democratic forms of governance of which such civilised debate is a hallmark, and that it supports? Instead they have other ideas about how to solve disagreement. Like humiliating, standing over, repressing or — when all else fails — simply blowing those they consider foes away?

Welcome to the authoritarian voter, a person whose primal needs have been reshaping American democracy since way back when, whose commitment to violence has made home-grown terrorism a persistent and evolving threat in the United States and whose grievances and rage are now being cultivated in Australia.

The key characteristics of authoritarian-leaning citizens are psychological and emotional, not rational. They include being more fearful than other voters and have a more profound need for sameness in the face of change. That’s why they’ll follow any “strong leader” who promises to reinstate order and punish the dastardly foes who frightened these submissives by challenging their privilege and/or black-and-white worldview.  

It’s important to realise that while in the US, the UK and Australia authoritarian voters are right-wing, that’s not always the case. Consider Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro or the 80% of Russians who support Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal war of aggression against civilians in Ukraine.

In fact, leftist authoritarians comprised half of the 25% of Americans who recently told pollsters that they “definitely” or “probably” felt it justifiable to engage in violent protest against the government. It’s just that in a Biden-led America they are not the ones under threat right now, which is why the one in 10 who supported violence now to achieve their political aims are ideological conservatives. This figure of those endorsing violence to settle political differences rises to nearly one in five for Republican men.

Make no mistake. These figures are terrifying and testify more eloquently than words the clear and present danger to the American experiment with democracy. As one former Donald Trump security expert put it: “These are big numbers. I … can attest from a national security and public security standpoint that we‘ve never seen numbers like that … It’s not just a political issue. It is now a public safety issue.”

How did this happen? And more critically as we approach the federal election, what can Australians do to ensure our democracy doesn’t go the same way?

I’ve discussed many options in this column before. We must rely on mainstream parties to expel and otherwise marginalise would-be authoritarian strongmen like Trump, rather than think they can control them as the Republicans did. When these dangerous types show up on our ballot papers as independents, UAP or One Nation candidates, we voters must put them last and insist they come last in party-controlled preference flows, too.

The terrible truth is that submissive and fearful voters have been and will always be with us. After the pandemic, the desperate need for certainty at any cost — no matter how undemocratic — could become more pressing. We cannot find common ground because it is the common ground we used to have, our shared commitment to democracy, that their anxiety has seen them forsake.

We need to keep our commitment to shared governance front and centre in all that we do, and keep those with authoritarian tendencies — both politicians and those who would vote for them — well off the main stage.

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