There’s a knock at the door. Local authorities have received a tip that you’ve broken the moral code—a new set of laws banning your once-accepted lifestyle. You’re being called in for questioning, and it’s unclear when you’ll return home.
In an authoritarian state, neighborhood trust is a thing of the past. Citizens are often encouraged to report any perceived wrongdoing in their communities to the government. There are countless examples of this in history—and around the world today. It happens in Russia, and there’s even an app for it in Saudi Arabia.
The United States appears to be creeping toward this culture of community surveillance. Texas’ SB 8 deputized everyday Americans to sue anyone who has had an abortion or assisted with one. Texans are reporting the parents of transgender children to authorities. Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin set up a tip line and encouraged parents to report teachers who are teaching “divisive” subjects. Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law encourages parents to monitor teachers. With the Republican Party increasingly embracing authoritarianism, this is likely just the start.
Tom Ginsburg, a professor of international law at the University of Chicago, says these kinds of policies are an American version of what you might see in authoritarian states.
“It incentivizes private enforcement of moral norms,” Ginsburg says. “That’s very corrosive. It’s a process that is undermining the ability of society to function in the traditional way that societies do.”
Ginsburg says he worries that we’re losing democracy in states where Republican candidates for office appear willing to subvert future elections, which means citizens’ ability to reject authoritarian leaders may be slipping away. He says he doesn’t think our conservative Supreme Court has any interest in helping prevent democratic backsliding, either.
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“The Supreme Court may facilitate the undermining of democracy from below through the general stance of, ‘Well, that’s not our problem,’” Ginsburg says.
Consuelo Amat, an assistant professor of political science at John Hopkins University, says that when a state becomes authoritarian, anything people in your community learned about you during democratic years can be used against you once the new regime takes power. She’s closely studied Chile under dictator Augusto Pinochet and says that’s what happened there. Amat says those who support the new regime can essentially become informants for it.
“When that starts happening, the dynamic for communities and neighborhoods is extremely bad,” Amat says. “The distrust that people have is huge, so people start not sharing information at all. One of the cores of democracy is neighborhood trust. You need to trust others in your society and in your community for democracy to work. Period. When there’s a very high level of distrust, you will see a fracturing of community.”
If the US moves further toward authoritarianism, you can imagine states passing more laws to disempower, criminalize, or otherwise marginalize certain groups. Anyone you encounter on a regular basis who doesn’t agree with politically could be encouraged to report you for violations of these laws as some sort of act of civic duty. They’ll have more ways to do it than ever before, considering modern technology allows us to monitor people’s social media feeds, watch them through Ring cameras, report them through community-watch apps like Citizen, and more.
Beyond the actions of an authoritarian government, Amat also worries about how paramilitary groups and right-wing extremists could be empowered to enforce a new moral code. This could be done through legal and illegal channels and range from collecting information on people to harassing or even harming political adversaries. Amat says illegal actions become more likely when these groups don’t think they’ll face consequences for their actions, as when a prominent political figure promises to pardon those people if elected and encourages supporters to act violently.
“If the rule of law starts breaking—and especially if there’s a regime that is supportive of those actions—that’s really giving space for people to take actions that are illegal,” Amat says. “Knowing you will not be prosecuted is a big thing.”
All of these sorts of things create a culture of fear in authoritarian countries. People are afraid of their neighbors, afraid to speak freely, and afraid of what might happen next. This fear is made worse by the fact that the citizens dealing with oppressive forces have no ability to hold those in power accountable when they go too far.
The future of American democracy and the rights of citizens remain in question. Amat says anyone worried about an authoritarian future needs to take actions to protect democratic institutions and their way of life.
“Institutions are not in a void,” Amat says. “They are populated by human beings who make choices.”