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Democracy and authoritarianism

On July 25, the first day of the Minnesota Executive Order requiring people to wear masks in public spaces, two individuals chose to protest the order by wearing masks that displayed a large swastika. One of the individuals stated, “If you vote for Biden, we’re gonna be in Nazi Germany. That’s what it’s gonna be like.”

Four days earlier, in a letter to the Independent, a team of authors turned to the dictionary to describe Marxism, Communism, socialism, and capitalism. Given the recent event, they should have included democracy and fascism on their list.

I agree with the conclusion of the authors that we should be informed about what kind of government we want to live under. In fact, socialism and capitalism are not forms of government at all as much as ways of organizing economic systems. Political systems are about how you form and run governments, not about how you organize an economy. For the most part, governments can be democratic or authoritarian.

Democratic governments are characterized by free elections, the rule of law, protections of civil liberties, and crucially, the belief that people can be loyal to the nation but opposed to the government. In our democracy, the people are sovereign, lawmakers work for the citizens, and every two, four, or six years, voters decide if they continue to work for us.

In authoritarian governments (dictatorship, monarchy, fascist, Communist), political opposition is not tolerated and those opposed to the government are frequently jailed or executed, laws do not apply to government officials, the media is controlled by the government, and elections, if they happen, are conducted are neither free nor fair.

There are democratic governments that have socialist economic systems (Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway) while many authoritarian nations are capitalist (Hungary, Saudi Ariba, Turkey, Russia). Moreover, most nations, whether authoritarian or democratic, combine capitalist and socialist models of economic organization.

For example, nearly every nation permits widespread forms of private property with free market exchange, particularly the ownership of small business and farms. And likewise, almost all nations provide significant forms of government sponsored supports like public schools, old age pensions, and fire protection.

So the question we need to be informed about is not whether we want socialism or capitalism, but whether we want democracy or authoritarianism.

On Sunday, President Trump was asked if he would accept the results of the election if Joe Biden wins. He responded, “No. I have to see.” Asked again if he would accept the results, Trump said, “No, I’m not going to just say yes. I’m not going to say no, and I didn’t last time either.”

Not accepting the results of an election is the very definition of authoritarianism — the very antithesis of democracy. Joe Biden is not a socialist, voting for him will not transform America into Nazi Germany. In America your political opponents are not the enemy, they are your fellow citizens.

In 1787, as the Founders crafted our Constitution, Benjamin Franklin was asked by a woman outside Independence Hall, “Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” To which Franklin responded: “A republic, if you can keep it.” 

Citizens of Southwest Minnesota, the question before us in November is not whether we become socialist or remain capitalist. It is, whether “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

— Jeff Kolnick in the history department at Southwest Minnesota State University

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