Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Key premises of analytical sociology

Image: residential segregation by race, NYC 2010

In Dissecting the Social Peter Hedström describes the analytical sociology approach in these terms: 

Although the term analytical sociology is not commonly used, the type of sociology designated by the term has an important history that can be traced back to the works of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century sociologists such as Max Weber and Alexis de Tocqueville, and to prominent mid-twentieth-century sociologists such as the early Talcott Parsons and Robert K. Merton. Among contemporary social scientists, four in particular have profoundly influenced the analytical approach. They are Jon Elster, Raymond Boudon, Thomas Schelling and James Coleman. (Dissecting the Social, kl 113) 

And here is how Hedström and Bearman describe the approach in their introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Analytical Sociology

Analytical sociology is concerned first and foremost with explaining important social facts such as network structures, patterns of residential segregation, typical beliefs, cultural tastes, common ways of acting, and so forth. It explains such facts not merely by relating them to other social facts -- an exercise that does not provide an explanation -- but by detailing in clear and precise ways the mechanisms through which the social facts under consideration are brought about. In short, analytical sociology is a strategy for understanding the social world. (Hedström and Bearman, eds. 2009 : 3-4) 

Peter Demeulenaere makes several important points to further specify AS in his extensive introduction to Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms. He holds that AS is not just another new paradigm for sociology. Instead, it is a reconstruction of what valid explanations on sociology must look like, once we properly understand the logic of the social world. He believes that much existing sociology conforms to this set of standards -- but not all. And the non-conformers are evidently judged non-explanatory. For example, he writes, “Analytical sociology should not therefore be seen as a manifesto for one particular way of doing sociology as compared with others, but as an effort to clarify (“analytically”) theoretical and epistemological principles which underlie any satisfactory way of doing sociology (and, in fact, any social science)” (Demeulenaere, ed. kl 121). So this sets a claim of a very high level of authority over the whole field, implying that other decisions about explanation, ontology, and method are less than fully scientific. 

Analytical sociology rests on three central ideas. 

First, there is the idea that social outcomes need to be explained on the basis of the actions of individuals. Hedstrom, Demeulenaere, and their colleagues refer to this position as methodological individualism. It is often illustrated by reference to "Coleman's Boat" in James Coleman, Foundations of Social Theory (Coleman, 1990, 8) describing the relationship that ought to exist between macro and micro social phenomena (link). The boat diagram indicates the relationship between macro-factors (Protestant religious doctrine, capitalism) and the micro factors that underlie their causal relation (values, economic behavior). Here are a few of Hedström's formulations of this ontological position: 

In sociological inquiries, however, the core entity always tends to be the actors in the social system being analyzed, and the core activity tends to be the actions of these actors. (Dissecting, kl 106) 

To be explanatory a theory must specify the set of causal mechanisms that are likely to have brought about the change, and this requires one to demonstrate how macro states at one point in time influence individuals' actions, and how these actions bring about new macro states at a later point in time. (Dissecting, kl 143) 

In other words: according to analytical sociologists, a good explanation of a given social outcome is a demonstration of how this outcome is the aggregate result of structured individual actions. In particular, an explanation should not make reference to meso or macro level factors. 

In his introduction to Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms Demeulenaere provides an analysis of the doctrine of methodological individualism and its current status. He believes that criticisms of MI have usually rested on a small number of misunderstandings which he attempts to resolve. For example, MI is not "atomistic", "egoistic", "non-social", or exclusively tied to rational choice theory. He prefers a refinement that he describes as structural individualism, but essentially he argues that MI is a universal requirement on social science. Demeulenaere specifically disputes the idea that MI implies a separation between society and non-social individuals. That said, Demeulenaere fully endorses the idea that AS depends upon and presupposes MI: “Does analytical sociology differ significantly from the initial project of MI? I do not really think so. But by introducing the notion of analytical sociology we are able to make a fresh start and avoid the various misunderstandings now commonly attached to MI” (Demeulenaere ed. kl 318). 

A theory based on the individual needs to have a theory of the actor. Hedström and others in the AS field are drawn to a broad version of rational-choice theory -- what Hedström calls the "Desire-Belief-Opportunity theory". This is a variant of rational choice theory, because the actor's choice is interpreted along these lines: given the desires the actor possesses, given the beliefs he/she has about the environment of choice, and given the opportunities he/she confronts, action A is a sensible way of satisfying the desires. (It is worth pointing out that it is possible to be microfoundationalist about macro outcomes while not assuming that individual actions are driven by rational calculations. Microfoundationalism is distinct from the assumption of individual rationality.) 

Second is the idea that social actors are socially situated; the values, perceptions, emotions, and modes of reasoning of the actor are influenced by social institutions, and their current behavior is constrained and incentivized by existing institutions. (This position has a lot in common with the methodological localism; link.) Practitioners of analytical sociology are not atomistic about social behavior, at least in the way that economists tend to be; they want to leave room conceptually for the observation that social structures and norms influence individual behavior and that individuals are not unadorned utility maximizers. In the Hedström-Bearman introduction to the Handbook they refer to their position as “structural individualism”: 

Structural individualism is a methodological doctrine according to which social facts should be explained as the intended or unintended outcomes of individuals’ actions. Structural individualism differs from traditional methodological individualism in attributing substantial explanatory importance to the social structures in which individuals are embedded. (Hedström and Bearman, 2009, 4). 

Demeulenaere explicates the term by referring to Homans’ distinction between individualistic sociology and structural sociology; the latter “is concerned with the effects these structures, once created and maintained, have on the behaviour of individuals or categories of individuals” (Demeulenaere, Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms, 2011, introduction, quoting Homans, 1984). So “structural individualism” seems to amount to this: the behavior and motivations of individuals are influenced by the social arrangements in which they find themselves. 

This is a direction of thought that is not well developed within analytical sociology, but would repay further research. There is no reason why a methodological-individualist approach should not take seriously the causal dynamics of identity formation and the formation of the individual's cognitive, practical, and emotional frameworks. These are relevant to behavior, and they are plainly driven by concrete social processes and institutions. 

Third, and most distinctive, is the idea that social explanations need to be grounded in hypotheses about the concrete social causal mechanisms that constitute the causal connection between one event and another. Mechanisms rather than regularities or necessary/sufficient conditions provide the fundamental grounding of causal relations and need to be at the center of causal research. This approach has several intellectual foundations, but one is the tradition of critical realism and some of the ideas developed by Roy Bhaskar (link). 

Here is Hedström's statement of the position:

The position taken here, rather, is that mechanism-based explanations are the most appropriate type of explanations for the social sciences. The core idea behind the mechanism approach is that we explain a social phenomenon by referring to a constellation of entities and activities, typically actors and their actions, that are linked to one another in such a way that they regularly bring about the type of phenomenon we seek to explain. (Dissecting, kl 65) 

A social mechanism, as defined here, is a constellation of entities and activities that are linked to one another in such a way that they regularly bring about a particular type of outcome. (kl 181) 

Demeulenaere also emphasizes that AS depends closely on the methodology of social causal mechanisms. The "analytical" part of the phrase involves identifying separate things, and the social mechanisms idea says how these things are related. Causal mechanisms are expected to be the components of the linkages between events or processes hypothesized to bear a causal relation to each other. And, more specifically to the AS approach, the mechanisms are supposed to occur at the level of the actors--not at the meso or macro levels. So this means that AS would not countenance a meso-level mechanism like this: "the organizational form of the supervision structure at the Bhopal chemical plant caused a high rate of maintenance lapses that caused the accidental release of chemicals." The organizational form is a meso-level factor, and it would appear that AS would require that its causal properties be unpacked onto individual actors' behavior. (I, on the other hand, will argue below that this is a perfectly legitimate social mechanism because we can readily supply its microfoundations at the behavioral level. So this suggests that we can legitimately refer to meso-level mechanisms as long as we are mindful of the microfoundations requirement. And this corresponds as well to the tangible fact that institutions have causal force with respect to individuals. Here is an earlier discussion; link.) 

In addition to these three orienting frameworks for analytical sociology, there is a fourth characteristic that should be mentioned. This is the idea that the tools of computer-based simulation of the aggregate consequences of individual behavior can be a very powerful tool for sociological research and explanation. So the tools of agent-based modeling and other simulations of complex systems have a very natural place within the armoire of analytical sociology.  These techniques offer tractable methods for aggregating the effects of lower-level features of social life onto higher-level outcomes. If we represent actors as possessing characteristics of action X, Y, Z, and we represent their relations as U, V, W -- how do these actors in social settings aggregate to mid- and higher-level social patterns? This is the key methodological challenge that sociologists like Gianluca Manzo have explored (Agent-based Models and Causal Inference), and it produces very interesting results. 

This brief summary of the central doctrines of AS provides one reason why AS theorists are so concerned to have adequate and tractable models of the actor -- often rational actor models. Thomas Schelling's work provides a particularly key example for the AS research community; in field after field he demonstrates how micro motives aggregate onto macro outcomes (Schelling, 1978, 1984). And Elster's work is also key, in that he provides some theoretical machinery for analyzing the actor at a "thicker" level -- imperfect rationality, self-deception, emotion, commitment, and impulse (Elster, Ulysses and the Sirens). 

In short, analytical sociology is a compact, clear approach to the problem of understanding social outcomes. It lays the ground for the productive body of research questions associated with the "aggregation dynamics" research program. There is active, innovative research being done within this framework of ideas, especially in Germany, Sweden, and Great Britain. And its clarity permits, in turn, the formulation of rather specific critiques from researchers in other sociological traditions who reject one or another of the key components. However, the framework of analytical sociology should not be mistaken for a general approach to all sociological research and explanation. It is well suited to some problems, and less so to others.

(Here is an earlier post summarizing Peter Demeulenaere's account of analytical sociology; link.)

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Meso-foundational explanations

One of the catechismal ideas of analytical sociology is the microfoundations model of explanation: to explain a social fact we should provide an account of the microfoundations that produce it. That means identifying the facts about individual motivations and beliefs that lead them to behave in such a way as to bring about the social fact in question. Here I want to ask a deliberately provocative question: is it ever legitimate to look for a meso-foundational explanation?

There is an almost trivial answer to this question that is already implied by Coleman’s famous boat diagram (link): when we want to understand how actors came to have the motivations and beliefs that we have observed.

The local prevalence of Catholic values and practices is the causal factor that explains the distinctive mentality of French Catholic young people in Burgundy in the 1930s. Here we are proposing to give a meso- or macro-level account of a micro set of facts. As another example, we might account for the low percentage of stocks in the retirement plans of men in their 50s in 1970 by the mistrust of the stock market created in people who reached adulthood in the Great Depression. This too is a meso- to micro- explanation.

Are there other kinds of meso-foundational explanations? Can we provide satisfactory meso-level explanations of meso- or macro-level facts? Consider this possibility. Suppose we find that S&L institutions are less likely to become insolvent than large commercial banks. And suppose we find that the regulatory regimes governing S&Ls are more strict than those for commercial banks. The mechanism leading to a lower likelihood of insolvency is conveyed from "strict regulations" to "low likelihood of insolvency". (We can provide further underlying mechanisms, of the traditional microfoundational variety: officers of S&Ls understand the requirements of the regulatory regime; they prudently miminize the risk of civil or criminal penalties; and their institutions have a lower likelihood of insolvency.) This is a meso-level causal explanation of a meso-level fact, representing a causal relationship between one meso-level factor and another meso-level factor.

What about meso-foundational explanations of macro-level features? And symmetrically, what about macro-foundational explanations of meso- and micro-level features? Each of these pathways is possible. Consider a macro-level feature like “American males have an unusually strong identification with guns”. And suppose we offer a meso-level explanation of this widespread cultural value: “The shaping institutions of masculine cultural identity in a certain time and place (mass media, high school social life, popular fiction) inculcate and proliferate this feature of masculine identity.” This is a meso-level explanation of a macro-level feature. Moreover, we can also turn the explanatory lens around and explain the workings of the meso-level factors based on the pervasive macro-level factor: the prevailing male obsession with guns reinforces and reproduces the meso-level influences identified here.

The conclusion to be drawn from these observations is a bit disorienting. The examples imply that there is no “up” and “down” when it comes to explanatory primacy. Rather, social factors at each level can play an explanatory role in accounting for the features of facts at every level. Explanation does not necessarily proceed from “lower level” to higher level entities. "Descending", "ascending", and "lateral" causal explanations all have their place, and ascending (microfoundational) explanations have no special priority. Rather, the requirement that should be emphasized is that the adequacy of any explanation of a social fact depends on whether we have discovered the causal mechanisms that give rise to it. And causal mechanisms can operate at all levels of the social world.

The diagram at the top of the post, originally prepared to illustrate the idea of a "flat" social ontology, does a good job of illustrating the multi-directionality of social-causal mechanisms as well.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

New thinking about how authoritarian rule works

image: Russian police arrest Moscow anti-war protester

The risk to democracy in the United States is more serious than it has ever been (link, link, link). Unabashed strongman wannabes like Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis have made it very clear that they have no allegiance to the principles and values of a liberal democracy, and their social goals would require autocratic rule in order to be achieved. This is plain when we consider the mismatch that exists between public opinion and extreme-right social policies and values. The majority of the US population favors some level of rights to abortion, sensible gun regulation, and the freedom to think, speak, and associate as they wish; whereas the political program of the GOP is opposed to each of these goals. So it is important for all of us to have a more detailed understanding of what autocratic rule involves, how it comes about, and how it maintains power.

Johannes Gerschewski's The Two Logics of Autocratic Rule tries to answer several of those questions. Gerschewski is Research Associate in the Global Governance Department, Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Socialforschung (WZB), as well as academic coordinator of the "Theory Network" of the Cluster of Excellence "Contestations of the Liberal Script (SCRIPTS)", Freie Universität Berlin (link). The book represents some excellent "next generation" thinking about the nature of authoritarianism and dictatorship, following upon theorizing by Hannah Arendt in the 1950s (The Origins of Totalitarianism) and Juan Linz in the 1970s (Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes).

The question of regime stability is crucial: how does an autocracy maintain power, given that its actions will find favor and disfavor among diverse constituencies over a period of time? After all, Franco was not universally beloved by all segments of Spanish society from his ascension to power in 1936 to his death in 1975. So how did the Franco state maintain its stability throughout that 39-year period?

Gerschewski addresses this question by considering what counter-forces exist in an authoritarian society, and what strategies can be used to prevent successful resistance. He identifies the primary constituencies of an autocratic government in these terms:

In this book, I argue that the threats to the survival of autocratic regimes can emanate from three sides: from ordinary citizens, from the opposition, and from within the elite. (kl 299)

These are the sources of power that might endanger the survival of an authoritarian government. Gerschewski argues that authoritarian regimes pursue three distinct strategies in order to contain these threats to authoritarian rule: repression of the opposition, cooptation of elites, and legitimation of the regime to the masses of ordinary citizens. And he notes that the resources available to the authoritarian regime are always limited, so a "configuration" of strategies must be chosen. Even dictatorships face a "hard budget constraint". He finds that, broadly speaking, there are two distinctive configurations of strategies that can be chosen, and they have different logics -- hence the title of the book. These configurations are identified as "over-politicization" and "de-politicization" of issues.

Here is how he describes the over-politicization configuration of strategies:

I argue by employing the work of Carl Schmitt that politicization is the process of inflating a contrast, a societal cleavage, be it of ideological, religious, nationalistic, moral, cultural, economic, or ethnic couleur, into an absolute distinction, constructing so a friend-foe distinction (Schmitt [1932] 2002). As such, the over-politicizing logic attempts to politicize even previously unpolitical issues and to create an internal foe of such magnitude that repression against this foe seems to be even justifiable. (kl 337)

The over-politicization configuration is visible in US politics today; the use of racism, xenophobia, Christian nationalism, and the "war on woke" illustrates the politicization configuration chosen by the GOP today.

The de-politicization configuration is aimed at creating a culture of passivity among citizens, a willingness to accept the dictates of the state without protest.

The de-politicizing logic, in turn, focuses on the regime’s social or economic performance, images of law and order, internal security, and material well-being to keep the people satisfied with the regime’s output. (337)

This is the "chicken in every pot" strategy. And, strangely enough, de-politicization also seems to be a part of GOP strategy today. Many US citizens are strangely passive when it comes to Donald Trump's shameless lies, his well-known pattern of sexual harassment, his brutal mistreatment of immigrant children, and his scoffing indifference to the rule of law.

Here is a diagram representing the factors involved in Gerschewski's analysis (kl 554).

The relevance of Gerschewski's treatment of the chief strategies of authoritarian regimes (and aspiring authoritarian parties) to contemporary US politics is evident. But it is also interesting to consider the applicability of Gerschewski's theory to Vladimir Putin's Russia. Repression, legitimation, and cooptation all have visible roles in Russia today. Opponents of the war against Ukraine are treated harshly in the streets; massive propaganda efforts are made to legitimate Putin's goals through appeal to "Russian nationalism and destiny"; and cooptation is plainly an important ongoing process in managing military, political, and oligarch circles. As Gerschewski puts the point,

Coups remain the most frequent way that an autocracy ends. To maintain intra-elite unity, therefore, has been, for good reason, at the core of the most recent explanations of autocratic regime stability. (524)

Gerschewski offers a theory of authoritarian regime stability; but he also wants to test this theory. This he attempts to do by considering a wide range of cases. In particular, he examines authoritarian regimes in East Asia to assess whether the strategies and constituencies he hypothesizes are to be found empirically in these heterogeneous cases of authoritarian rule. This work involves a comparativist methodology. Gerschewski provides "individual case narratives" for forty-five regimes. Each case attempts to estimate the "stability" of the authoritarian regime in question, and Gerschewski methodically examines each case with regard to the strategies chosen for managing conflict and destabilization from citizens, opponents, and elites.

The Two Logics of Autocratic Rule is an important book on several levels. Methodologically, it makes a strong effort to provide empirical evaluation for a broad theory of autocratic regime stability, using the methods of comparative research. Substantively, it can be seen as a sort of converse to Levitsky and Ziblatt's book How Democracies Die, in that Gerschewski's topic is "how autocracies survive". And finally -- though this is not an application pursued by Gerschewski himself in this book -- it can be seen as a field guide for understanding many of the political choices of anti-democratic far-right parties within functioning liberal democracies like the GOP today.

Friday, May 12, 2023

Sources of technology failure

A recurring theme in Understanding Society is the topic of technology failure -- air disasters, chemical plant explosions, deep drilling accidents. This diagram is intended to capture several dimensions of failure causes that have been discussed. The categories identified here include organizational dysfunctions, behavioral shortcomings, system failures, and regulatory dysfunctions. Each of these broad categories has contributed to the occurrence of major technology disasters, and often most or all of them are involved.

System failures. 2005 Texas City refinery explosion. A complex technology system involves a dense set of sub-systems that have multiple failure modes and multiple ways of affecting other sub-systems. As Charles Perrow points out, often those system interactions are "tightly coupled", which means that there is very little time in which operators can attempt to diagnose the source of a failure before harmful effects have proliferated to other sub-systems. A pump fails in a cooling loop; an exhaust valve is stuck in the closed position; and nuclear fuel rods are left uncooled for less than a minute before they generate enough heat to boil away the coolant water. Similar to the issue of tight coupling is the feature of complex interactions: A influences B, C, D; B and D influence A; C's change of state further influences unexpected performance by D. The causal chains here are not linear, so once again -- operators and engineers are hard pressed to diagnose the source cause of an anomalous behavior in time to save the system from meltdown or catastrophic failure.

And then there are failures that originate in problems in the original design of the system and its instruments. Nancy Leveson identifies many such design failures in "The Role of Software in Spacecraft Accidents" (link). For example, the explosion at the Texas City refinery (link) occurred in part because the level transmitter instrument for the splitter high tower only measured column height up to the ten-foot maximum permissible height of the column of flammable liquid in the high splitter. Otherwise it only produced an alarm, which was routinely ignored. As a result the operators had no way of knowing that the column had gone up to 80 feet and then to the top of the column, leading to a release and subsequent fire and explosion (CSB Final Report Texas City BP) -- an overflow accident. And sometimes the overall system actually had no formal design process at all; as Andrew Hopkins observes,

Processing plants evolve and grow over time. A study of petroleum refineries in the US has shown that “the largest and most complex refineries in the sample are also the oldest … Their complexity emerged as a result of historical accretion. Processes were modified, added, linked, enhanced and replaced over a history that greatly exceeded the memories of those who worked in the refinery. (Lessons from Longford, 33)

This implies that the whole system is not fully understood by any of the participants -- executives, managers, engineers, or skilled operators.

Organizational dysfunctions. Deepwater Horizon. There is a very wide range of organizational dysfunctions that can be identified in case studies of technology disasters, from refineries to patient safety accidents. These include excessive cost reduction mandated by corporate decisions, inadequate safety culture embodied in leaders, operators, and day-to-day operations; poor inter-unit communications, where one unit concludes that a hazardous operation should be suspended but another unit doesn't get the message; poor training and supervision; and conflicting priorities within the organization. Top managers are subject to production pressures that lead them to resist decisions involving a shutdown of process while anomalies are sorted out; higher-level managers sometimes lack the technical knowledge needed to know when a given signal or alarm may be potentially catastrophic; failures of communications within large companies about known process risks; and inadequate oversight within a large firm of subcontractor performance and responsibilities. Two pervasive problems are identified in a great many case studies: relentless cost containment initiatives to increase efficiency and profitability; and a lack of commitment to (and understanding of) an enterprise-wide culture of safety. In particular, it is common for executives and governing boards of high-risk enterprises to declare that "safety is our number-one priority", where what they focus on is "days-lost" measures of injuries in the workplace. But this conception of safety fails completely to identify system risks. (Andrew Hopkins makes a very persuasive case for the use of "safety case" regulation and detailed HAZOP analysis for a complex operation as a whole; link.)

Behavioral shortcomings. Bhopal toxic gas release, Texas City refinery accident. No organization works like a Swiss watch. Rather, specific individuals occupy positions of work responsibility that may sometimes be only imperfectly performed. A control room supervisor is distracted at the end of his shift and fails to provide critical information for the supervisor on the incoming shift. Process inspectors sometimes take shortcuts and certify processes that in fact contain critical sources of failure; or inspectors yield to management pressure to overlook "minor" deviations from regulations. A maintenance crew deviates from training and protocol in order to complete tasks on time, resulting in a minor accident that leads to a cascade of more serious events. Directors of separate units within a process facility fail to inform each other of anomalies that may affect the safety of other sub-systems. Staff at each level have an incentive to conceal mistakes and "near-misses" that could otherwise be corrected.

Regulatory shortcomings. Longford gas plant, Davis-Besse nuclear plant incidents, East Palestine Norfolk Southern Railway accident. Risky industries plainly require regulation. But regulatory frameworks are often seriously flawed by known dysfunctions (link, link, link): industry capture (nuclear power industry); inadequate resources (NRC); inadequate enforcement tools (Chemical Safety Board); revolving door from industry to regulatory staff to industry; vulnerability to "anti-regulation" ideology expressed by industry and sympathetic legislators; and many of the dysfunctions already mentioned under the categories of organizational and behavioral shortcomings. The system of delegated regulation has been appealing to both industry and government officials. This is a system where central oversight is exercised by the regulatory agency, but the technical experts of the industry itself are called upon to assess critical safety features of the process being regulated. This approach makes government budget support for the regulatory agency much less costly. This system is used by the Federal Aviation Administration in its oversight of airframe safety. However, the experience of the Boeing 737 MAX failures has shown that the system of delegated regulation is vulnerable to distortion by the manufacturing companies that it oversees (link).

Here is Andrew Hopkin's multi-level analysis of the Longford Esso gas plant accident (link). This diagram illustrates each of the categories of failure mentioned here.

Consider this alternative universe. It is a world in which CEOs, executives, directors, and staff in risky enterprises have taken the time to read 4-6 detailed case studies of major technology accidents and have absorbed the complexity of the kinds of dysfunctions that can lead to serious disasters. Instructive case studies might include the Longford Esso gas plant explosion, the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion, the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster, the Boeing 737 MAX failure, the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, and the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant incidents. These case studies would provide enterprise leaders and staff with a much more detailed understanding of the kinds of organizational and system failure that can be expected to occur in risky enterprises, and leaders and managers would be much better prepared to prevent failures like these in the future. It would be a safer world.

Friday, May 5, 2023

Authoritarian steps in Red state legislatures

Is it so hard to picture a United States that has succumbed to authoritarianism and the sacrifice of our basic democratic rights? Not really, because we can see this process at work in a handful of Republican-dominated state governments already. Here are just a few examples of states in which governors and legislatures are using the power enabled by "super-majority" status to limit the rights and liberties of their citizens with impunity. These are just a few examples, and it would be very useful for a trusted organization like the ACLU to do a full audit of these kinds of actions in the states.

  • Florida -- legislation limiting freedom to teach about "uncomfortable" subjects in public schools and universities; ideological takeover of a public university by the governor and hack politicians; banned books in school libraries; a declared war on a private corporation using the power of the state to punish Disney
  • North Carolina -- new Republican majority on North Carolina supreme court reverses prior supreme court decision on racially suspect gerrymandering and voter ID requirements
  • Tennessee -- expulsion of democratically elected representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson from the Tennessee House of Representatives
  • Montana -- Montana Republicans bar duly elected transgender lawmaker Zooey Zephyr for "decorum"
  • Idaho -- legislation prohibiting people in Idaho from helping pregnant minors leave the state to obtain abortions; similar efforts in other Republican super-majority states
  • Texas -- legislation enacted to permit the Texas secretary of state to overturn elections in the state's largest county; legislation prohibiting "Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion" programs at universities moves forward; ban on use of FDA-approved mifepristone to effect medical abortion; other states and conservative Federal court rulings abet this effort
  • Multiple states -- near-total abortion bans in twelve states (Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia)

It is a terrible picture, if you care about the equal worth of all citizens, and a commitment to full and extensive liberties for all. Reproductive rights are suddenly limited; rights of freedom of thought and expression are limited; groups of citizens are singled out for punitive treatment, including LGBTQ and trans people; voting rights for urban people and people of color are deliberately limited; teachers, librarians, and faculty are intimidated from teaching and speaking independently.

How are we to understand all of these regressive uses of state power? Here is a very plausible thought: They represent an incipient authoritarian imposition of Christian nationalist ideology on the whole of our society. And what is this, if not an early stage of Orbánism in America? It seems evident that numerous Republican-dominated states have already taken clear steps in that direction. Is the soft authoritarianism of today's Hungary the future of political life in the United States? What will it take to restore democratic freedom and equality in our country?