In the public comment I submitted last week on the Rainy River Watershed Withdrawal, I made the point that completing the withdrawal would not only help protect the Boundary Waters. It would also serve the interest of good government. A new article by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way in Foreign Affairs helps set this point in the context of an unfolding American crisis.
“America,” argue Levitsky and Way, “may no longer be safe for democracy, but it remains inhospitable to autocracy.” Even so, the ongoing push toward autocracy is likely to bring a prolonged period of democratic instability and political violence. Even when they do not succeed in their autocratic ambitions, autocrats and their cronies in the public and private sector will destabilize government, undo rulemaking, and undermine legitimacy, as we saw clearly during the Trump era:
Trump proved to be as autocratic as advertised. Following the playbook of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and Viktor Orban in Hungary, he worked to corrupt key state agencies and subvert them for personal, partisan, and even undemocratic ends. Public officials responsible for law enforcement, intelligence, foreign policy, national defense, homeland security, election administration, and even public health were pressured to deploy the machinery of government against the president’s rivals. (emphasis mine)
America’s chronic legitimacy crisis could once again turn acute.
If Trump or a like-minded Republican wins the presidency in 2024 (with or without fraud), the new administration will almost certainly politicize the federal bureaucracy and deploy the machinery of government against its rivals. Having largely purged the party leadership of politicians committed to democratic norms, the next Republican administration could easily cross the line into what we have called competitive authoritarianism—a system in which competitive elections exist but incumbent abuse of state power tilts the playing field against the opposition.
Corruption and political interference at Interior and USDA around a single mining project may not rank among the most serious abuses of state power we’ve seen lately or are likely to see. But documenting and understanding what happened in the case of the Rainy River Withdrawal can help us appreciate where things might be heading.