Democracy or Authoritarianism: What are we becoming?

A standard part of most political science introductory textbooks are definitions and examples of different kinds of political systems. Robert A. Heineman’s textbook outlines the three main types of governmental systems: democratic, authoritarian, and totalitarian systems.

Most Americans are familiar with the democratic system. As participants in such a system we have come to believe, and indeed to expect, we have certain rights and freedoms. These are things like rights to select who will represent us, rights of assembly, rights of free speech, and freedom of association. However, people are less familiar with some of the characteristics of authoritarianism, at least not when these characteristics are exhibited by American governmental institutions.

Unfortunately, because of current immigration policies in many states, it is becoming important for Americans to reacquaint themselves with the definition of authoritarianism. According to Heineman, the characteristics of authoritarian governmental systems include greater control of political processes, greater citizen obedience to a strong government, restricted freedoms of expression of ideas or association, and of course governmental punishment of disobedience (p.3).

Many state immigration public policies are regrettably looking more and more authoritarian and less democratic. The most recent example is Alabama’s immigration policy, which has passed by large margins in both houses of the legislature is expected to be signed by Governor Robert Bentley.

Alabama’s new immigration policy requires children to provide documentation before being enrolled in public school, bars landlords from renting to people who are undocumented, allows police officers to ask about one’s immigration status based on “reasonable suspicion” of being undocumented, denies businesses tax deductions on wages paid to unauthorized immigrants, criminalizes the failure of an immigrant to carry documentation proving their legal status on their person, and criminalizes the transport of an illegal immigrant.

Through the measure, Alabama has gone a very long distance from our ideals of American democracy, so much so that even being in a car with someone who is undocumented becomes a crime. One wonders if public bus drivers will now ask for documentation and a bus token before letting a brown person board their bus. Alabama has a history of denying basic liberties and justice for blacks. Now it has found a new group to target its unjust and arbitrary use of state power and racism.

In a Michele Wucker’s chapter in Lockout: Why America Keeps Getting Immigration Wrong When Our Prosperity Depends on Getting it Right she quotes George W. Bush’s presidential inaugural address:

America has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests, and teach us what it means to be citizens. Every child must be taught these principles. Every citizen must uphold them. And every immigrant, by embracing these ideals, makes our country more not less American (p. 139).

Based on Arizona’s, Utah’s, and now Alabama’s most recent anti-immigration bill, we are becoming less American every day.


  1. cordoba blue

    Below is a little history about anti-immigration sentiments. Usually anti-immigration feelings surface when a country feels threatened that their status quo will be disrupted on a number of levels: economic, social, and political.
    This has happened repeatedly in American history: fear of the Irish, fear of the Catholics, fear of the Southern Europeans,fear of the Jews, fear of the Asians, and today fear of the Mexicans in particular. It’s not really rational. If Mexicans were simply allowed to enter this country as milllions of immigrants did at Ellis Island, then there would be no need for people from Mexico to have to cross the Rio Grande concealing themselves behind cactus plants. Plus, then they’d all have social security numbers and this would eliminate the controversy over who is “legal” and who isn’t. Isn’t this a waste of the taxpayer’s money checking up on the legality of people’s citizenship status?
    What exactly is America afraid of in regard to this last migration? It’s about, I believe, fear of the unknown. Change is frightening, even if it’s inevitable. This is a common pyschological phenomenon. It’s, again, not rational but based on some intangible boogey man in the closet mentality.
    If examined with a neutral eye, however, an influx of people from Central America would not have any detrimental effects on this economy. As far as changing “American culture”, whatever that is, it won’t do that either, because America is a mixture of ethnic and religious groups. In fact the idea that there is one standard and non-dynamic American culture is in itself a myth.The very term “American” is a constantly shifting construct. If history has taught us anything, it should have taught us this.

    “In the United States, anti-immigration views have a long history. For a while Benjamin Franklin was hostile to Germans in colonial Pennsylvania. President, John Adams in 1798 signed the Alien and Sedition Acts which limited the ability of immigrants, especially radicals from France and Ireland, to gain full political rights, and they became a major political issue in the 1800 election.

    Nativism gained its name from the “Native American” parties. In this context “Native” does not mean indigenous or American Indian but rather those descended from the inhabitants of the original Thirteen Colonies. It impacted politics in the mid-19th century because of the large inflows of immigrants from cultures that were somewhat different from the existing American culture. Thus, nativists objected primarily to Irish Roman Catholics because of their loyalty to the Pope and also because of their supposed rejection of republicanism as an American ideal.

    Nativist movements included the Know Nothing or American Party of the 1850s, the Immigration Restriction League of the 1890s, the anti-Asian movements in the West, resulting in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the “Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907″ by which Japan’s government stopped emigration to the U.S. Labor unions were strong supporters of Chinese exclusion and limits on immigration, because of fears that they would lower wages and make it harder to organize unions.”

  2. Maria Chavez-Pringle

    Yes, you remind us of all very good points in our xenophobic past. However, do you notice who eventually became acceptable and who didn’t depended on skin color. Italians, Germans, Poles, Jews, Croatians, and others who were white could eventually become welcomed into the American community. Rather than welcome blacks or other people of color we are changing our foundational political ideals, regardless of how real they have actual been practiced. We are now saying in public policy that it is okay to limit rights and freedoms to those who we do not consider part of the American family. And if it makes us more authoritarian so be it. This goes beyond fear to fascism in my opinion. Thanks for your insights.

  3. cordoba blue

    “Do you notice who eventually became acceptable and who didn’t depended on skin color?”
    I know you are correct Maria. Skin color has a great deal to do with acceptance in America. However, Italians and Jews, for example, weren’t at one time even considered “white” but some variation of white. But that’s not my point. Just thought I’d throw that in.
    My point is that I personally believe, regarding the Mexican immigration issue, that people from Central America should be welcomed here. They have proven themselves to be hard working for centuries, not decades but centuries. So what’s the problem? In what way are they undesirable? Race is definately at work here.There’s no question about it. White Americans think Mexicans “look very different” from white Americans, and therein lies the bias.
    However, nobody says this. It’s not politically correct. So all kinds of other factors are listed why we should semi-close our southern borders.It gets very difficult, sometimes, to see through all the smoke screens. But race is at the crux of the problem. There’s no other rational reason we are being so obstinate about the Central Americans.

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