Illiberalism and Authoritarianism in the American States

85 Pages Posted: 21 Jul 2020 Last revised: 5 Feb 2021

Date Written: November 3, 2020


Federalism contemplates subnational variation, but in the United States the nature and significance of that variation has long been contested. In light of the recent turn, globally and nationally, toward authoritarianism, and the concurrent sharp decline in public support not merely for democracy but for the philosophical liberalism on which democracy rests, it is necessary to discard or to substantially revise prior accounts of the nature of state-to-state variation in the U.S. All such accounts implicitly presuppose a common commitment, across the political spectrum, to the core tenets of democratic liberalism, and consequently that subnational variations in policy preferences and modes of self-governance reflect nothing more than disagreements within the shared American liberal tradition. That assumption, if it was ever valid, may be no longer. As in other federal states in which subnational “illiberal enclaves” have persisted over time, the United States may be witnessing a replication at the subnational level of what appears to be happening at the national level: a growing chasm along a cleavage between democratic liberalism and illiberal authoritarianism, in which some states remain committed to inherited forms of democratic liberalism while others cling to (or develop, or resurrect) patterns of illiberal authoritarianism.

The paper examines both the “large-C” formal constitutions of the states and their “small-c” informal constitutions and behavior for evidence of such a development. The evidence shows that North Carolina and Wisconsin have advanced the farthest down the road to subnational authoritarianism, with Florida, Texas, Kansas, Arizona, and Alabama not far behind. Disturbing initial signs of democratic backsliding may be seen as well in Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. Although subnational authoritarianism in the United States is at this point far less severe than that found elsewhere in the world, the evidence suggests considerable cause for concern.

Keywords: liberalism, illiberalism, authoritarianism, federalism, democratic backsliding

Suggested Citation

Gardner, James A., Illiberalism and Authoritarianism in the American States (November 3, 2020). University at Buffalo School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2020-001, 70 Am. U. L. Rev. 639 (2021), Available at SSRN: or

James A. Gardner (Contact Author)

University at Buffalo Law School ( email )

Room 514, O'Brian Hall
Buffalo, NY 14260-1100
United States
716-645-3607 (Phone)
716-645-2064 (Fax)


Do you want regular updates from SSRN on Twitter?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics