USA: Autocracy or Despotism?

USA: Autocracy or Despotism?

Written by Alfonso Elizondo

Autocracy is the political term to designate those types of governments in which power is concentrated in a single person and which therefore do not allow the participation of other individuals or social groups. Complete power of decision-making and action is concentrated in this person. . Autocracy was a typical system at different stages in history and although nowadays democracy is the most common form of government, this does not prevent some political hierarchs, once they assume power within a democratic framework, from becoming autocrats over time. When this happens, it is normal for the executive branch to prevail over the legislative and judicial branches, and to try to remain in power indefinitely.


The word ‘autocracy’ comes from Greek, where the word ‘autos’ means self and ‘kratos’ government. So autocracy is the government of ‘only one’, whose most important quality is his personality and a strong, decisive character.


 For an autocracy to develop there must be no type of opposition or if it exists it has to be very weak. That is why all autocracies respond with zero tolerance and a high level of repression to those who oppose the policies and decisions of the autocrat. Autocracies can also be created within other types of government, as is the case of those that emerge when a party candidate is elected  through free, democratic elections, but when he is in power, that leader becomes an authoritarian centralist.


At present and in the past, there have been many examples of presidents who take over the government and then move towards autocracy. To strengthen themselves, they eliminate the parliament and tie the hands and feet of justice. In addition, they imprison those leaders who speak out against them and they take action against the free press, companies and organizations that do not accept their power.


I will now turn to the phenomenon currently taking place in the United States based on the insightful observation made by the French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, during his visit at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Tocqueville could not figure out why the country’s Democratic and Republican government survived when the same thing did not happen in France and the new Spanish-American republics.


Tocqueville found that the good functioning of the democratic State in the US did not stem from its bureaucratic institutions but from the customs of many individuals who were very similar and together formed a kind of collective culture, creating particular habits that sustained the government and at the same time threatened democracy.


At that time the populist Andrew Jackson, Donald Trump’s idol, was US president. It was then clear to Tocqueville that the institutions of the state were not responsible for its success and he used the case of Mexico to explain his discovery, saying that the US Constitution resembled “those beautiful creations of human industry that lavish glory and goods on those who invent them, but that remain sterile in other hands.’


The Mexicans took as a model and almost completely copied the US Constitution, but in transporting the letter of the law they could not transpose the spirit that enlivened it. Tocqueville said that its two layers of State governments and Central government obstructed and invaded each other. As a result, Mexico was constantly being swept from anarchy to military despotism and vice versa.


Tocqueville was probably right and it was the very similar customs of the American settlers that continued to successfully maintain the republic. But he warned that something serious would happen if the spirit that “enlivened” the Constitution was extinguished or radically transformed. And that’s exactly what has happened right now in the United States, even though Trump’s presidency may have been an indication that his country’s spiritual infrastructure had normalized.


As we know, nothing compels US politicians to abide by the Supreme Court’s declarations of unconstitutionality and there is no law that prevents a President from flouting or questioning the authority of a federal judge. Leaders did not do such things before because they had a strict code of conduct, like the majority of the citizens, but those types of behavior have disappeared in a large part of the society.


 Tocqueville made two observations to try to get a glimpse of the future of the United States. The first was that in a democracy the only real curb on populism is the judiciary, and it is evident that the only real hindrance that Trump has encountered so far has been the courts. Tocqueville’s second observation was that egalitarian societies are prone to sacrifice the rights of some in order to achieve collective goals. He said that all democracies have a natural instinct to disregard the rights of some in order to achieve collective goals, such as to ‘make the country great again’ as Trump says. All this is very powerful and from the start US society has a major weakness in the face of these claims.


Tocqueville believed that democracy had antidotes for despotism, such as freedom of the press, NGOs, independent courts, etc. However, it seems that for the first time in history, the United States faces the danger of becoming an autocracy or the danger of despotism of the kind that Tocqueville observed during his visit to America in the early nineteenth century.