There’s a narrative taking shape in certain corners of the political discourse right now that goes something like this: Democrats are the real authoritarians. While Republicans may have started this century leading the charge on shredding civil liberties and expanding the national security state, liberals and the Democratic Party have now taken up that torch, while the Right — with its opposition to pandemic mitigation and tech censorship, and its invocations of free speech — are the defenders of core civil rights.
This is, at best, half right. It’s true that the Democratic Party has, along with the rest of the US political center, embraced a range of authoritarian moves, from embracing and expanding George W. Bush’s “war on terror” and pushing for tech companies to censor political speech and ban users, to valorizing entities like the CIA and increasing the role of the national security state at home.
But are these alarming trends on the liberal side matched by a commitment to protecting civil liberties on the Right?
In a word, no. From criminalizing protest, to banning books, concepts, and even words from schools, to using executive power in new, repressive ways — the Right continues to be an extreme and growing authoritarian threat in today’s United States.
When it comes to basic rights, protesting is among the most crucial. It’s specifically mentioned in the First Amendment; suppressing or banning it is the hallmark of authoritarian states like Russia and Saudi Arabia; and right-wing media in the United States have themselves pointed to recent anti-protest measures from the Canadian government to make the case that there’s a new, authoritarian strain of Western liberalism.
Yet all around the country, for the past four years, Republican governors have signed into law Draconian legislation either effectively making protest a criminal act, or even creating protections for drivers who mow demonstrators down. As of February, forty of these bills have become law in twenty-three states, all of them ruled by Republican trifectas, though four of them purplish states in the form of Florida, Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin. Dozens more have been introduced in other states.
These bills were largely passed in response to a panoply of left-leaning protest movements, namely those against police brutality, fossil fuel pipelines, and various college campus issues, though some lawmakers also pointed to January 6 to spur their passage. Their provisions are the pride and joy of any budding autocrat: absurdly high fines and jail time for blocking roads and sidewalks or coming close to pipelines, a broad definition of “rioting” that would ensnare protesters simply standing near someone who damages property, and making so much as encouraging people to take part in an “unlawful assembly” an act punishable with prison.
As the conservative response to Canada’s actions against the anti-mandate truckers suggests, there aren’t many more authoritarian measures you can take than turning protest into a criminal offense. And yet Republicans have done this in state after state.
At the same time, Republicans are working state by state to silence vaguely liberal educators, something they cast as a crusade against “critical race theory,” or CRT. A once-uncontroversial analytical concept, CRT has been successfully turned into a stand-in for the often offensive cottage industry of “anti-racist” grifters who have tried to profit off the racial reckoning of the past few years.
According to PEN America, Republicans have introduced 165 bills in nearly forty states since January 2021, ostensibly taking aim at the teaching of CRT in schools. In reality, the bills are written so broadly that they’re effectively gag orders for any subject state officials decide they don’t like. Among the eleven that were signed into law is a New Hampshire law that makes the teaching of “divisive concepts” around race and gender grounds for a teacher to lose their license, which was then later copied in an Arkansas law.
A Tennessee law prohibits fourteen topics and concepts, including the idea that the United States is fundamentally racist. A Texas law has placed severe restrictions on what books can be used in the classroom, barred teachers from having to discuss “controversial” current events, and forced teachers to provide “opposing” perspectives on the Holocaust. In Iowa, teachers have been forced to avoid telling their students about the Native American genocide or answering their questions about why Gilded Age financiers were all white men.
And that’s just the ones that were passed. The author of an ultimately vetoed Wisconsin anti-CRT bill listed nearly ninety terms and concepts that would be forbidden if it passed, including “unconscious bias,” “equity,” “hegemony,” “multiculturalism,” “white supremacy,” and “racial justice.” Bills in Florida, Missouri, and other states allow private citizens to sue schools if kids are “taught, instructed, inculcated, or compelled to express belief in, or support for” certain ideas about race, sex, or other matters, or are not offered courses giving “an overall positive . . . history and understanding of the United States.” Another mandates that kids be taught about a nonexistent debate that took place between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Meanwhile, right-wing groups have been working in these same states to get books about race, gender, sexuality, or anything else deemed objectionable banned from school libraries. The targeted titles run the gamut from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and Toni Morrison’s Beloved to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and New Kid, a graphic novel about a black kid who goes to a posh middle school.
The counterargument might be that these are merely disputes over school curricula, not free speech issues. But if liberals and progressive groups passed laws banning the teaching of, say, concepts like American exceptionalism, mandating the teaching of “opposing views” about an event like September 11, or barring books like The Federalist Papers or Atlas Shrugged from school libraries, how would this be viewed?
Then there’s the variety of Republican-backed efforts to clamp down on pro-Palestinian speech and advocacy, most prominently the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to pressure Israel into changing its horrid treatment of Palestinians. According to Palestine Legal, more than two-hundred bills have been introduced across the country, with 22 percent of those passed, leaving restrictions on BDS in place in thirty-two different states. (The Jewish Virtual Library has the slightly different count of thirty-five states).
While you won’t struggle to find Democrats who back or lead on such measures, the GOP is often their driving force. At the federal level, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) has been introducing anti-BDS bills into the Senate for years, including 2019’s S.1, which would have given legal protection to state and local governments to cut off business with companies who take part in the BDS movement. As its name suggests, in an era of skyrocketing poverty, inequality, and despair among ordinary Americans, Rubio’s was the very first bill introduced into the then-GOP-controlled Senate, and he has continued to reintroduce such legislation in the years since.
That wasn’t even the most extreme one. A 2017 bill, sponsored by twenty-nine Republicans (including Rubio) and fourteen Democrats, would have made it a felony to support a boycott of Israel, at the threat of a minimum fine of $250,000 and up to twenty years in prison. Rubio insisted that the First Amendment only “applies to speech, not conduct,” an exceedingly narrow reading of the text far outside the American mainstream, but ideal for clamping down on all manner of personal freedoms. This was the same Rubio who just this year complained about “what happens to a society and a people when we empower those who believe that their job is to tell the rest of us how to live and think and believe, and how we are allowed to do it.”
Again, it’s not hard to find example after example of blue states that have passed these laws. But it doesn’t exactly speak to the Right’s anti-authoritarian bona fides that they’ve pushed for exactly the same ones, as in ruby-red Texas, whose legislature nearly unanimously passed a law that, among other things, makes people swear an oath not to boycott Israel in order to contract with the government. A judge finally struck that law down earlier this year, calling it a violation of free speech rights.
Whittling Away at Whistleblowers
Republican legislatures have passed similarly repressive laws to protect corporate interests. A notable example is the so-called “ag-gag” laws that have been introduced and signed into law around the country, aiming to criminalize whistleblowing about the stomach-churning abuse of animals on industrial farms.
The first state to get it on the books was Kansas, a state that hasn’t voted for a Democratic president since 1964, whose 1990 law made it a jailable offense to enter an “animal facility” without consent and take photos or videos. Since then, Montana, North Dakota, Alabama, Iowa, Missouri, South Carolina, and Utah have all passed their own variations on this law.
Aside from Iowa, which has occasionally swung blue the last couple of decades, these are all reliable red states in terms of both presidential voting and legislative control. More importantly, these bills have been pushed in both the states they’ve been enacted and where they’ve failed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a business-backed group devoted to “limited government, free markets, and federalism” that Newt Gingrich once called “the most effective organization” for spreading conservatism to lawmakers.
ALEC is also the fountainhead for a different set of anti-speech bills: the anti-pipeline protest bills that have been enacted in seventeen states so far. Frustrated by protests against oil pipelines that threaten the health and livelihoods of local communities, fossil fuel companies solved the problem by pushing legislation that simply makes the protesting illegal, by levying massive fines and lengthy jail sentences on anyone who trespasses on — or simply protests near — “critical infrastructure.” Aside from the purplish Wisconsin, the states that have enacted them are all GOP-dominated in the South and Midwest.
This isn’t the extent of it. ALEC has now foisted another piece of model legislation that we’ll no doubt shortly see enacted by Republican state legislatures across the country, this one using the anti-BDS model to cut off commercial contracts with any company divesting from fossil fuels.
Mere months after suggesting Biden was acting like a despot and using an executive order on gun control to “disarm” opposing voters, Fox News host Tucker Carlson jetted over to Hungary for a cozy interview with the country’s hard-right autocrat, Viktor Orbán. He’s far from alone. Orbán is feted by a variety of US conservative leaders, from intellectuals to politicians, including Rubio, who at one point let Orbán’s advisers shadow one of his campaigns. As columnist Ross Douthat put it, the US right sees Orbán’s rule as a model for “how political power might curb progressivism’s influence.”
What does this actually mean in practice? Over his last twelve years in power, Orbán has seized control of the judiciary, turned elections into a sham, put independent media under his thumb, undermined checks and balances, and used his power over cultural, educational, and religious institutions to advance his nativist and nationalist vision. He’s outlawed homelessness, rolled back LGBT rights, facilitated an upward transfer of wealth, and generally used state power to force his particular brand of social conservatism on the entire population. For Carlson, this made Hungary an “obvious success.” (Amusingly, for all Carlson’s complaints about tech censorship and vaccine mandates, Orbán enacted the latter early on and later edited out the Fox host’s criticism of China from the Hungarian broadcast of their interview).
Once again, it’s GOP-dominated Texas that’s giving us a taste of what an Orbán-style government in the United States would look like. Governor Greg Abbott has used a decades-old Texas disaster response statute to issue sweeping executive orders to either bully the state house and senate into passing his agenda, or simply go around them altogether. Lately, that’s largely meant unraveling pandemic mitigation policies, but it’s also meant upping immigration restrictions, auditing the 2020 election results, and restricting judges’ ability to release prisoners. Most recently, Abbott directed the state family protection agency to investigate the parents of trans kids who have been medically transitioning and threatening the medical professionals who approved the procedures, a staggeringly menacing abuse of state power to harass families.
Ditching the Duopoly
With the United States ever more split along cultural and partisan lines, the US right wants to sell you a simple story: it’s Democrats and liberals who are the leading authoritarian threat to democracy and basic freedoms, and it’s right-wingers and the GOP who are nobly defending both. And of course, if you watch MSNBC and other liberal programming, leading Democrats will tell you the same story in reverse.
The reality is simpler, and much more liberating. Both of these leading political tendencies and the parties that represent them are hurtling in an ever more authoritarian direction, including Democrats, who over just the course of Russia’s war on Ukraine have dramatically ramped up the use of tech censorship and “information warfare” for their own political purposes. But the idea that the GOP and the conservative movement behind it — with its widespread criminalization of protest, muzzling of educators, gagging of whistleblowers, and admiration for foreign autocrats — is somehow an alternative to this is simply laughable.
Creating a truly free society means not just rejecting and rolling back all of these repressive measures, but expanding our idea of freedom to include the right to not go hungry, to have a roof over your head, to get medical treatment, and to have autonomy and make decisions in your workplace. But doing that means first breaking away from the narrow duopoly that far too often stands in for politics in the United States.