Over the past four years, Americans have gotten a potent dose of autocracy, witnessing Trump’s repeated violations of basic democratic norms, climaxing in his still ongoing plot to overturn last November’s presidential election.
And we need to stress that the autocratic urge in U.S. society is not a solo endeavor on Trump’s part. The assault on democracy has been overt and brazen, carried out in plain and public sight, ardently and proudly, by significant sectors of the Republican Party, right-wing coalitions, and far too many Americans who have promoted voter suppression and still support Trump’s rallying cry that the election was stolen.
But these autocratic tendencies have deeper historical roots in right-wing politics, roots that were exposed last October when the Trump administration signed a global anti-abortion declaration with 32 member states of the United Nations, many of which are authoritarian regimes or seen as severely flawed democracies. The declaration was co-sponsored by the U.S., Egypt, Hungary, Indonesia, Brazil and Uganda; other nations signing on included Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and the Democratic Republic of Congo, all of which are classified as authoritarian regimes in The Economist’s 2019 Democracy Index. And apart from the U.S., none of signatories rated higher than 95th on Georgetown University’s Women, Peace, and Security Index.
While there are doubtless multiple autocratic strains woven into the American political fabric, working counter to the nation’s ideals in actively seeking to deny people’s rights to participate fully in U.S. democracy—racism being a major one—we have to recognize that anti-abortion politics, seeking to deny women full control of their bodies are at root inconsistent with democracy.
Indeed, anti-abortion politics largely enable and normalize autocratic behavior by denying women the very status of personhood and thus equal rights.
Opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment has been fueled substantially by fear that asserting unequivocally in the Constitution that women have equal rights under the law would grant a firmer legal basis for a woman’s right to have an abortion.
So anti-abortion politics in the U.S. have been precisely about denying women constitutional rights.
Here’s the statement in the ERA this nation trembles to validate:
“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex.”
In other words, opponents of the ERA fundamentally believe that women are people and thus convered by the 14th amendment, which includes the clause:
“nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia,, for one, believed that women’s equal rights are not written into the Constitution, meaning he does not believe a woman is a person, plain and simple.
It’s important we recognize and frame efforts to deny women the right to choose, the right to control their bodies, as anti-democratic, as, in fact, autocratic, precisely because they are so overt and acceptable in U.S. politics.
Supreme Court Justices are appointed based on their perceived support of outlawing abortion—of denying women personhood and equal rights under the law.
Many citizens are proud single-issue voters when it comes to outlawing abortion and denying women their equal rights under the law.
Even though a majority of Americans support a woman’s right to choose in some form, this minority position to deny women their personhood still holds significant sway in key political decision-making that distributes and entrenches real power over our lives in U.S. society, such as the selection of the nine key justices who have incredible say in how the Constitution is interpreted and what constitutes the laws of our land ruling our lives.
While racism is alive and well, to be sure, practiced in overt and deadly ways, it’s still much less acceptable to attend Klan rallies or declare oneself a racist. To argue against granting African Americans equal rights under the law would seem unthinkable, even as we witness every day that Black lives do not matter in the eyes of the law.
The shamelessness with which one can openly and sanctimoniously, in acceptable legal and political discourse, deny women’s equal rights should signal to us, and should have signaled to us all along, the powerful cross currents undermining democracy in America.
Trump’s signing the global anti-abortion declaration makes the authoritarian capacity in U.S. culture and politics abundantly clear.
And it explains as well the powerful affinity between anti-abortion politics, or anti-woman politics, and authoritarianism.
Trump, we know, does not have a moral bone in his body, endorsing or holding no code of values except the furtherance of his own very narrow self-interests and the satisfaction of his base appetites and aggressions and of his sensitive ego. This is no secret or earth-shattering statement.
The Evangelical right, however, pretends to distinguish itself by its deeply Christian moral bearing.
So what drives the Evangelicals to Trump, despite the fact he does their bidding? While they might seem on one level like strange political bedfellows, they in fact share a deep commitment and attraction to autocracy.
For them, power is not to be distributed evenly throughout a democratic polity. There are to be those who rule and those who are ruled. Those who get to impose their ideology and values on others, and those who simply have to accept that imposition without having any say in the matter. Those who are considered persons, whose lives matter, and those denied personhood, whose lives do not matter.
If President-elect Joe Biden wants to take a strong measure against burgeoning autocracy in the U.S., he can start by removing from the nation’s signature from the global declaration against abortion, which violates the United Nation’s Human Rights Declaration, at the same time as he signs the nation back on to the Paris climate accord.
And let us all recognize that denying a woman the right to an abortion, denying her personhood, is inconsistent with democracy and enables autocracy in America.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.
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