Thursday, January 20, 2022

Can We Predict What America's One-Party Autocrats Will Do?

by Neil H. Buchanan
 
I have no plans to move out of the United States, but I have been spending a fair bit of time lately writing about that topic.  And for obvious reasons.  Especially now that Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have joined with every Senate Republican to end American democracy -- although Manchin somehow thinks that "the government" will protect voting rights, even without Congress requiring it -- pretty much nothing stands in the way of Republicans (mostly at the state level) now fully gutting voting rights, installing partisans in formerly nonpartisan counting-and-certification roles, and so on.

No matter whether I personally pull the plug, there are very important questions about what will happen after elections no longer matter in this country.  In a Verdict column last week ("Where to Move?"), I explored the question of expatriation generally, along the way inquiring whether the UK is on the same path as the US (making it pointless for an American to move there).  Soon after, in a column on Dorf on Law, I looked at Canada as an alternative, concluding optimistically that our polite neighbors to the north are not only nearby but might be (more) immune to the ill winds that have begun to sweep across other once-solid democracies.
 
Here, I will discuss what happens when a policy-free political movement seizes all of the levers of power and then has to make policy.  How can anyone, anywhere in the world, anticipate what Republicans will do at that point?

Yesterday, I spoke to the Australasian Tax Teachers' Association (ATTA), which is holding its annual meeting this year in Christchurch, New Zealand.  (Because of the time difference, I actually spoke there today.  Except that today is now tomorrow.  Never mind.)  Unfortunately, I had to deliver the speech from the US via Zoom, whereas I have spoken at previous ATTA conferences in person in Melbourne in 2011, in Brisbane in 2014, and near Wellington in 2017.  Despite my personal disappointment, those countries are wise to keep people like me out these days

My new Verdict column ("Where Else to Move?"), published this morning, picks up on my columns from last week and expands on a point that I made to the ATTA audience.  (It also clarifies some points about the UK's situation, based on feedback that I received from English colleagues, but that is not pertinent here.)  I pointed out that the death of constitutional democracy in the US is bad not only for Americans but for everyone else.
 
My advice to the folks Down Under was to have their governments prepare for an unprecedented wave of immigration applications.  It would not take much to push NZ -- a country of just over 5 million people -- into an immigration crisis.  I noted in my first column on this subject, however, that the many appealing features of Australia and New Zealand are being offset by pandemic-related considerations, making Canada even more appealing.  In this morning's Verdict column, I suggested gently that the Canadian national ethic of generosity and openness could be pushed beyond the breaking point.
 
In the TV series "The Handmaid's Tale," Canada continues to be a welcoming country and is a haven for refugees from Gilead.  I have no doubt that Canada's leaders and people would in principle wish to step up in that way.  But with 330 million Americans sharing a long land border, even a tiny percentage of Americans showing up at border crossings in Niagara Falls, Windsor, Vancouver, and so on could overwhelm their system AND put stresses on their internal politics.  Reaction against The Other -- even a familiar other, as Americans are to Canadians -- is more likely when resources are pushed to the breaking point.
 
The other question that I addressed in my ATTA talk, however, is important as well.  What do autocrats do?  The answer, I suppose, is not literally anything they want to do.  There are limits on, say, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and even Kim Jong Un -- all of whom have been the subject of Donald Trump's admiration and even "love."  Even dictators worry about internal dissent, potential uprisings, and so on.  Although they are ultimately willing to engage in brutal crackdowns, they have various reasons to hope that things need not reach that point.

Therefore, even if my worst-case scenario for countries like NZ and Canada never comes to pass, meaning that they are able to peacefully and smoothly integrate any politically motivated unusual surges in immigration, what should the at-least-for-the-time-being allies of the US anticipate when we become post-democratic?

Today's Verdict column hints at the many challenges elsewhere that would arise when the world's last superpower potentially becomes belligerent and a model for other ethno-nationalist movements.  Those are important, but what about garden-variety policy?  Because the middle letters of ATTA stand for "tax teachers," my audience was particularly interested in what Republicans will do regarding tax policy.  My message to them was, in essence: "I have no freakin' clue, and neither does anyone else."

One might think that this conclusion (or non-conclusion) does not follow from my premise that the US will become autocratic.  After all, being an autocrat means (notwithstanding the minimal limits on the autocrat's powers, as noted above) being able to do pretty much whatever one wants without having to compromise with one's political opposition, and without having to worry about losing voters due to unpopular policies.

Counterintuitively, however, I offered the hypothetical example of a dictator who, for some reason, happens to be a committed environmentalist.  Such a person could impose all kinds of excellent policies -- conservation measures, transition to alternative energy sources, and so on.  That right-wing autocrats tend to come out of the pro-corporate political world that strongly opposes such policies makes this hypothetical situation extremely unlikely, but the broader point is three-fold: (1) an autocrat/dictator can do pretty much what he wants, when he wants, (2) what he does might or might not be good policy on the merits, and most significantly (3) this might or might not be knowable in advance.

On the last point, imagine being a worried Aussie politician who wants, at the very least, to know what Republicans will do.  In my speech yesterday, I said, "I can't say with any confidence what they will do -- but I know it won't be good!"  But even that says that there is some certainty.  We know that Republicans will accelerate their gutting of environmental, labor, and consumer protection policies.  Specifically on taxes, we know that they will change the laws in economically regressive ways, corrupting the system to tilt advantages even more strongly toward big businesses and the ultra-rich.

Even that, however, is not especially helpful to our government minister friend in Canberra.  What exactly will the Republicans' regressive agenda look like?  Will they replace the income tax with a consumption tax?  Will they adopt an explicitly territorial international tax regime to replace our current hybrid worldwide system?  (No need to worry if those terms are unfamiliar.  The policy specifics are unimportant here, even though other countries' tax ministers will care quite a bit.)  Will they rely more heavily on tariffs?  Will they withdraw the US from tax treaties?

Those are all extremely important questions for foreign governments to ponder.  The main reason that none of us can offer an answer to that question is, as I noted (and as President Biden finally said forcefully yesterday) that Republicans as a group are not for anything.  As I told my ATTA audience: "Republicans are mostly against things, in particular being 'woke.'"  The surprised looks on the faces in the Zoom boxes spoke volumes.

Still, it could be that Republicans do have an ultimate policy agenda but are merely not talking about it right now, both because their base loves being hyped up on culture war nonsense and because the Republican agenda is in fact quite unpopular.  Until the autocratic takeover of our elections is complete, why take even a small risk of losing votes by being honest?

But even that does not help us here, because the Republicans do not seem to agree among themselves about many policy matters.  There are the full-on vacuous types who could not understand policy questions in a million years, such as Lauren Boebert or Louie Gohmert; but even among those who are not mentally deficient, it is not at all clear what they would affirmatively like to do as a group.

During Q&A, a professor asked me whether the US would become anti-trade more generally (both in the tax realm but also with straight quotas and so on).  Answer: "There are globalists -- plenty of them -- in Republican leadership.  But there are Trumpist neo-mercantilists as well (although we probably should not give them credit for having a coherent theory).  Even the globalists are afraid of the xenophobic Trump base.  There is no way to know who will win those internal battles."  I then invoked the image of the post-democratic Republican power struggles as equivalent to the Soviet Politburo, which I described in a Dorf on Law column almost exactly a year ago.

Italy's fascists were infamously and incorrectly credited with "at least making the trains run on time."  Were that true, it would have to have been because the regime actually cared to make something specific happen in the world other than reinforcing its own power.  America's rising autocrats certainly care about securing their own power, and they care about hating their opponents.  What we know about their thinking does rule out a lot of policy possibilities, but because they are leaderless and incoherent -- and recall that the most recent version of a Republican "ideas guy" was the flimflam artist Paul Ryan -- we cannot know even the general direction in which many of their terrible policy choices will go.
 
That is bad for everyone, including leaders and citizens in other countries who would like to know how to prepare for a post-democratic United States.

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