Is the United States really in danger of succumbing to authoritarianism? The internet and mainstream media abound with fearful speculation. Does the pandemic and economic chaos increase this danger?
An authoritarian mentality is indeed present among the population. A study from 2011 found that 44 percent of Americans without college degrees approved of the idea of having a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections. This month, Paul Krugman, Nobel Laureate and columnist for The New York Times, told us (under the headline, “American Democracy May Be Dying) that we ought to be “terrified” of an authoritarian takeover.
Think of what that would mean for young people and our descendants. The intrinsic value and dignity that democracy bequeaths us would be dumped in favor of enabling cunning usurpers to become our rulers. The moral and spiritual impoverishment would be crushing.
The authoritarian mentality arises from a psychological passivity that impedes the development of one’s integrity, graciousness, and fortitude. At a level that is largely unconscious, authoritarians have refused to acquire integrity and wisdom with its accompanying dignity and generosity. Both authoritarians and their sympathizers seek impunity from the fine print in their humanity, the hallowed call to become better people. They chose ego-aggrandizement and its collaborating ideologies over self-discovery.
Krugman wrote that feeling “terrified” was an appropriate response to the prospect of losing our democracy. Yet to be terrified of this possibility is itself a weakness. Anxiety, fear, and terror foreshadow impending crisis. (Mystery and horror writers employ foreshadowing as a literary device.) Since psychological weakness is a prime feature of tyrants and their supporters, we wouldn’t want to be fighting weakness with our own weakness.
Don’t be terrified. Instead, become smarter, more conscious! I’ve written on this subject before (here and here), and Krugman’s column, arousing my love for democracy, has inspired me to address once again how our cherished form of government is completely dependent on the decency, awareness, and wisdom of its citizens.
Democracy is a great facilitator of the sense of personal value and freedom. At the same time, our system of government requires us to return the favor, meaning we must feel and express our integrity and sense of value to protect and grow enlightened governance. Democracy was enhanced, of course, when blacks, women, labor, immigrants, and others demanded and got respect.
We won’t be able to do our part, though, when lacking inner freedom. Most of us live with some degree of inner oppression, which is a symptom of inner conflict. This oppression is experienced, for starters, as self-doubt, self-blame, self-criticism, guilt, and shame. Especially oppressive is the inner critic (or superego), a primitive part of us that can dominate our personality and serve as master of our unconscious mind. In many of us, the inner critic’s illegitimate rule prevails—and people are unconscious of how their underlying passivity accommodates this authoritarian alignment.
On an inner level, we live in a kind of passive unconsciousness, and this dopiness degrades the world around us. Through passivity, we’ve been allowing the weak to be exploited, the rich to be exalted, and earth to be blighted. I’m not pointing a finger at capitalism, which is itself under the influence of human psychology and our personal and collective talent for self-sabotage. Still, capitalists have always cozied up to authoritarians, and I do believe that vulgar wealth-seekers have been enlisting ruthless power-grabbers as guardians of the dark side of capitalism.
In all this, evil-doers and their victims, sheltered in their illusions and creeds, are barely aware of the extent of the wickedness. The doers are sheathed in narcissism, the victims in passivity.
The ruthlessness is rooted in psychology. The ruthless inner critic (superego) tends to devalue us and to question our right to feel free. People who are unconscious of their passive acceptance of this self-aggressive drive or instinct are more likely to feel, by natural extension, a certain comfort level with authoritarianism. The politics of inner life becomes an acceptable, even preferred, model for national or state government.
The authoritarian mindset has adopted the inner critic’s primitive scruples. One such scruple is the denunciation of freedom, whether on an inner or outer level. The inner critic undermines and attacks attempts to establish one’s wise inner authority. This inner oppression can feel normal or natural, as if there’s no other way to exist. Still, this lack of inner freedom is burdensome. It compels the sympathizers of authoritarianism to perceive as degenerate the free-spirited people who thrive in the culture of democratic privilege and openness. These sympathizers feel that their own sense of oppression, which arises out of unrecognized inner conflict, should prevail for everyone. Their resulting intolerance is predictable: We all find it challenging to be accepting of freedom in others when we can’t feel it in ourselves.
People with an authoritarian mentality can feel an illusion of power through their identification with a supreme leader. They soak up through that leader the supposed grandeur of being supreme and all-powerful. (They overlook the fact such leaders can be chronically fearful, hateful, and paranoid.) It follows that U.S. surrogates for the authoritarian mindset would identify Iran, a country headed by a de facto Supreme Leader, as a primary enemy. Here the psychological phenomenon of projection comes into play: We project onto others, seeing the “evil” in them and becoming hostile to that “evil,” that we refuse to recognize in ourselves.
As we connect with our better self, we feel a solid sense of our benevolent authority. We have rounded the bases and come home to our self. Having political power provides no added pizazz. Were you at this point to acquire political power, you would experience it, mostly likely, as a call to serve others and to honor your integrity.
If we’re terrified of an authoritarian takeover, we’re likely under the influence of inner passivity, a largely unrecognized aspect of the human psyche. Inner passivity produces an unhealthy emotional resonance with feelings of being submissive to a stronger force, whether that force is benevolent or malevolent and whether it is in reality all that strong to begin with. This force is first experienced in childhood when we are biologically helpless and dependent. Rebellion against it occurs during the “terrible twos.” As adults, we experience this force, often subliminally, when our biologically driven self-aggression goes on the offensive against our passive, reactive, and defensive weak side (inner passivity). This passive side of us, which inflates the sense of being oppressed, can be overcome through the knowledge of these inner dynamics.
Under the influence of inner passivity, many liberals are injustice-collectors, meaning that they’re determined to experience everyday situations and occurrences through passive reactions such as feeling oppressed, disrespected, maligned, or unfairly treated. Injustice collectors loudly decry injustices inflicted upon themselves and others while simultaneously embellishing within themselves these feelings of being victimized. They also tend to embellish the negative emotions of helplessness and unworthiness as they identify with the painful impotence and lack of value that they see or imagine are being felt by real or alleged victims. Political correctness is driven as much by appropriate sensitivity as by this unhealthy identification with others as victims of oppression and disrespect. As a result, liberals can easily identify with feeling weak, a shortcoming we shelter in our psyche, instead of seeking the personal power that democracy requires of us.
Those of us aligned with democratic values often have a hidden resistance to feeling more powerful. We can be uncomfortable with power. We might feel or believe, usually unconsciously, that power, as it resides outside ourselves, is a force that’s inherently manipulative or abusive. This emotional association can hark back to childhood when we were (or felt ourselves to have been) subjected to insensitive or arbitrary authority. We can turn our back on acquiring and exercising healthy personal power because we identify, as mentioned, with those who we imagine feel manipulated or mistreated by it. It’s important to become conscious of these kinds of resistance to becoming more powerful. When we access our better self, we’re confident the power we acquire will be used benevolently and wisely.
Confronting authoritarians is like confronting the inner critic. When we recognize our own inner passivity and bring it into focus, we see clearly the illegitimacy of the inner critic. When we see our inner passivity and begin to free ourselves from it, we see more clearly the illegitimacy and irrationality of any force that would presume to undermine democracy. As we absorb this knowledge, each of us can feel a new capacity to be a bulwark against oppression.
We don’t have to do pitched battle with those who are emotionally aligned with authoritarian aims and principles. We just have to go forward picking our battles wisely, being strong in our own person, displaying enlightenment principles in the quality of our being. The enemy will fall back and scatter before us. These principles were put forward 2,500 years ago by Sun Tzu, in his treatise on warfare, The Art of War. He wrote, “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle,” and, “He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight,” and “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” This all refers to the strength that’s inherent in the quality of our consciousness. As long as violence is avoided, higher consciousness is likely to prevail over consciousness that’s less refined.
Awareness of the influence of both inner passivity and the inner critic, along with an understanding of how they generate inner conflict, exposes the source of the authoritarian mentality. Behavioral dysfunction arises from this inner conflict, as when people are overwhelmed by desires not only for political power but also for wealth, alcohol, drugs, food, sex, and self-aggrandizement. Knowledge of these psychological dynamics is needed as we navigate perilous times.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.