Bennie Thompson, chair of the House of Representatives’ select committee investigating the insurrection at the US Capitol, said, “January 6th was the culmination of an attempted coup.” This conclusion was also from numerous journalists in mainstream media and on the left. Conservatives and Republicans deny any such tag.
Sally Denton wrote in the Guardian about a 1930s Coup Attempt Against FDR; there had been a former such attempt. The retired US Marine Corps Maj Gen Smedley Butler testified before Congress that a group of Wall Street financiers recruited him to lead a fascist coup against FDR. None of the financiers appeared before Congress, and the Roosevelt Administration took no action on the General’s claim. It has slipped into a footnote in history.
The mob of a thousand trying to stop Congress from functioning on January 6th could squeeze into a definition of a coup. Still, it was not a military takeover of a democratic government which is a classic definition of one. Those coups happen regularly across the globe, as in Spain (1936), Chile (1973), Burma (1988), and Egypt (2013).
Focusing on a “coup,” a single violent action to overthrow an existing government, ignores the more significant practices that endanger our republic. Democracies have collapsed without being toppled by the military or even a rioting mob.
The Concentration of Political Power sets the stage
The most insidious threat is an elected leader and a single political party bending the rules to alter the balance of power between the executive, the legislature, and the courts. An executive can apply newly gained power to direct those institutions and the national bureaucracy to muzzle government critics by restraining a free press and tilting the electoral process.
Becoming an authoritarian ruler is not a solo act. Dependency on an elite of wealthy benefactors is necessary but not sufficient. A populist uprising against the status quo is also an essential ingredient. Most citizens need not revolt, but the dissatisfied must be the loudest, best organized, and plurality of the voting population.
A Young Democracy Fails
Last month, Tunisia became the most recent example of a democracy slipping into authoritarian rule when political power is consolidated at the top.
A referendum handed over ultimate authority to its President Kais Saied, passing with over 94 percent approval. Although the referendum retained the Tunisian Constitution’s clauses concerning rights and liberties, they could be effectively ignored because the president alone would now appoint government ministers and judges and reduces parliament’s authority.
The election followed with Saied consolidating his powers over the previous year as he mainly ruled by decree. He suspended parliament and fired his prime minister. As a result, he slanted the election process to favor the referendum. In response, there were mass boycotts, and many citizens were resigned to not voting on a predetermined result. Then, Tunisia was seen as the only democracy to survive the revolts that swept the region in the Arab Spring uprisings a decade ago. That is now only a memory.
An International Hero for Strongman Governing
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC. He received repeated enthusiastic applause, notably when he told them they were “in a battle to protect
Western civilization against the forces of liberalism and mass migration.”
On the other hand, mainstream media tags him as the poster child for how a democracy can be converted into an authoritarian government. Of course, CPAC didn’t advertise his appearance that way, but they liked his message and admired his ability to win elections. CPAC spokesman Alex Pfeiffer told NBC News, explaining why they invited him, “The press might despise Prime Minister Orbán, but he is a popular leader.” And there is some truth to that.
Two years before becoming Prime Minister, more than 80 percent of the electorate approved a referendum to abolish fees for doctor and hospital visits and university tuition enacted by the government. Orbán’s Fidesz party initiated it. Providing benefits in a down economy can rally reactionary populists to push for a strongman to lead a nation. As a result, Orbán’s party solidly beat the ruling Socialist Party in 2010.
Since then, his Fidesz party has controlled their parliament. While Orbán has gained both national support and international attention with his anti-immigrant policies, his political success in winning reelections is due to him undermining democratic institutions. Over the past 12 years, Orbán has converted a republic into a top-down government that effectively silenced the critics and stopped their legal and political challenges to its authority. As a result, Orbán goes down a well-worn road toward authoritarian rule. Nevertheless, his accomplishments have brought cheers from other autocrats and those attending the CPAC conference.
Fox News’ Tucker Carlson describes Hungary as a “small country with a lot of lessons for the rest of us.” Are those lessons on how to pass laws that discriminate against non-European immigrants, non-Christian religions, and non-traditional families under the banner of preserving Western Culture? Is Tucker also including how to obtain and retain political power by hollowing out obstructive democratic institutions?
By crippling the independent media, the judiciary, and the legislature, Orbán doesn’t have to call in the military to eliminate them. However, by significantly narrowing the powers of these institutions but keeping them still around, an authoritarian government arises while maintaining the illusion of a functioning republic outside Hungary. This allows world leaders like President Trump to welcome him into Oval Office, saying, “Viktor Orbán has done a tremendous job in so many different ways. Highly respected.” And he met with him again this year, proudly shaking his hand for the cameras.
Carlson was right; Orbán has some lessons that “the rest of us” could learn to obtain permanent and dominant political power. In Hungary, those lessons were methodically put into practice. Is that happening in America?
Strangle Media Outlets
In Hungary, a team of European Union NGOs specializing in Press and Media Freedom investigated Orbán’s government’s treatment of the media in 2019. They found that Orban had created a pro-government media empire, financed by allies, to allow the Fidesz party to hold on to power. The report concluded that “The Hungarian system of media control was deliberately designed to deter scrutiny and provide its rulers with superficial deniability.” Hungarian journalist Paul Lendvai said that “80% of the news is in the hands of the government.”
A year after the report was released, in 2020, the Fidesz-controlled Parliament overcame objections from opposition to granting Orbán emergency power to rule by decree, suspending elections, and providing no end to Orbán’s expanded capabilities. It mandated harsh penalties for disseminating false news, such as jail for up to five years, “anyone who intentionally spreads what the government classifies as misinformation.”
The few remaining left- and right-wing independent media are labeled as “Hungary-haters,” foreign agents, or traitors, and their private advertisers are harassed.
In America, there has been a dramatic decline in independent newspapers. According to a report by AdWeek, in June 2022, there was a loss of an average of two newspapers per week between late 2019 and May 2022, leaving an estimated 70 million people in news deserts. If the trend continues, a third of newspapers will be lost by 2025, according to the 2022 study published by Northwestern University.
Accompanying the loss of independent newspapers is the concentration of ownership among a few businesses with similar objectives. Thom Hartman in American Oligarchy argues that “roughly 90 percent of American media (by viewership, readership, and listenership) is owned by only six companies.” Title Max reports that about 15 billionaires and six corporations own most of the US media outlets. They own 77 percent of the 100 largest online news sources. Pew Research found that about four in ten Americans often get news online, which goes to half for those younger than 50.
What needs to happen?
The concentration of media outlets does not mean they are all playing the same tune. There are some clear distinctions in their politics. But, as a whole, they reflect the political orientation of their owners. Steps can be taken to stop a further drift toward a national media market having even fewer owners who could share a common political agenda, such as promoting particular businesses, religious values, or a political party’s beliefs.
The Fairness Doctrine, which was dropped by the Reagan administration and then eliminated under the Obama administration, should be revived. The Telecommunications Act signed by Clinton, which allowed media concentration, should be repealed. Legislation already introduced to provide tax incentives for locally owned media could be pursued.
Appoint the Court Justices & Change the Constitution
In Hungary, according to Human Rights Watch, “In its eight years in power, the Orbán government has packed the Constitutional Court with its preferred justices and forced 400 judges into retirement.” In 2018, the Hungarian Parliament brought the courts further under his control by creating a parallel court system controlled by the Orbán.
His justice minister will control the hiring and promotion of its judges. All politically sensitive cases concerning electoral law, corruption, and the right to protest will have to come before it as a “public administration” matter. The existing judiciary will have a reduced mandate with no oversight of these new Administrative Courts.
A Hungarian government spokesman defended the new Administrative Courts saying that many European countries have them. However, Cas Mudde, a University of Georgia professor who is an expert on populism, said that they would put the Orbán government in complete control of the elections. With no independent judiciary oversight, Hungarian elections will no longer be free and fair.
In the US, after the first 100 days in office, President Trump blamed the constitutional checks and balances built into US governance for his legislation stalling. “It’s a very rough system,” he said. “It’s an archaic system … It’s really a bad thing for the country.” Consequently, his appointments to the federal courts were checked for conformity to the Federalist Society’s reactionary beliefs.
The result has become more laws that Democrats have passed being trimmed or nullified by federal courts. Challenges to those decisions appealed to the Supreme Court are then in the hands of a majority of justices aligned with the Federalist philosophy.
Senate Republicans manipulated the process for appointing a Supreme Court Justice to tilt SCOTUS to endorse a reactionary policy agenda. Without breaking any laws but ignoring Senate norms going back hundreds of years, they refused even to hold a hearing for Obama’s nominee because they said the next presidential election was only eight months away. However, it took only 30 days from when President Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court for the Republican-controlled Senate to approve her. They ignored that the next presidential election was less than two months away.
What needs to happen?
Republican appointments have dominated the Supreme Court for over a half-century. Democrats have been a minority on the Supreme Court since 1970. Trump did not change the party makeup of SCOTUS, but he did enlarge the reactionary wing of conservative justices on it. They set about to reverse previous court decisions, which the majority of its justices now consider liberal aberrations of the constitution. These activist justices see their mission as protecting values that reflect the beliefs of the nation’s founders. However, they overlook how those beliefs harbored and protected inequalities among citizens based on race, gender, and economic status.
The Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision provoked societal outrage among non-slave-owning Americans. We see similar discontent from both the left and the right, as SCOTUS interprets the constitution in a context that preserves the biases and prejudices that were part of the nation’s original beliefs. The last time that approach was taken, the Supreme Court was expanded to counter that effort. And there are suggestions by members of Congress they should do it again.
Congress decides the size of the Supreme Court. That changed six times since the court was formed in 1790. It has had nine justices since 1869, after the Civil War. However, increasing the number of Supreme Court justices to balance philosophical views could invite a never-ending intervention. More immediately, the Supreme Court would be seen as a partisan body to be dominated by the political party in power, carrying on the practice of the Trump presidency.
By Executive Order, President Biden in 2021 established a 36-member Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court to provide an “analysis of the principal arguments in the contemporary public debate for and against Supreme Court reform, including an appraisal of the merits and legality of particular reform proposals.” The final report was issued at the end of 2021. It did not endorse any specific changes, but it reviewed, analyzed, and recommended further steps to consider if the expansion or alteration of the current structure of the Supreme Court were pursued.
Proponents and opponents of Congress changing the Supreme Courts’ design and scope of work should use the commission’s report as a shared baseline to discuss seriously if any such changes are needed and effective in protecting our democracy.
Suppose America is to avoid a collapse of our democracy. In that case, there must be Presidential and bi-partisan congressional leadership guiding an open and fair discussion of how to protect the Supreme Court’s legitimacy and our federal courts’ independence from political manipulation. If political leaders continue to inflame the national debate by accusing each other of being the enemy, our nation will tear apart.
Where does America go from here?
Democratic governments, which are democratic republics more in name than in practice, have drifted into authoritarian rule because their government’s executive office weakened their legislatures and media outlets. Our culture must believe that democracy can work to halt that trend. That belief is shaken by political leaders who attack the reliability of election results. Their messaging leads to a society that will tolerate the rise of authoritarian power. Because they believe their democracy has already been lost.
To effectively resist the social and political forces that promise a peaceful society under a one-man rule, or some variation of that, there must be a coordinated national effort to pursue a rational and thoughtful discussion on how democracies are not utopias; they are messy and chaotic at times. But they are accountable to the many, not the few. That message must be shared for all to hear. Remaining silent will only encourage those yelling the loudest that the end has come.