Totalitarianism in the US: An Accident Waiting to Happen
First appeared in The Agonist
Listening to Paul Ryan’s speech at the Republican National Convention, I couldn’t place where I had come across something quite like this before. Then it struck me – Pravda! I used to subscribe to Pravda in high school and college, first to learn Russian, and second, to pursue a college program in Soviet studies. Pravda was a newspaper that specialized in the Big Lie – the Five Year Plan was always ahead of schedule, Soviet industrial capabilities exceeded that of any other country, people were starving on streets all across America. The newspaper was a non-stop stream of lies, just as Paul Ryan’s speech was studded with Big Lies – lies that were easily disprovable, such as Barack Obama did nothing about the Simpson-Bowles recommendations to reduce the budget deficit (Paul Ryan didn’t mention he voted against these recommendations when the House killed any chance of enacting them); or that Obama made it easier for people to live off welfare (the President altered the enrollment rules of welfare at the request of Republican governors); or the Romney favorite – Obama cut over $700 billion of Medicare benefits for individuals (the cuts were imposed on hospitals and insurance companies, not beneficiaries, and Romney has the same cuts in his economic plan). (Image: Wikipedia)
Let’s look at some of the key features of a totalitarian governing structure.
Party over polity
In the Soviet Union, the Communist Party was the paramount political governing body, not the state. The Soviet parliament was a theatrical agency designed to give the illusion that the people had any say in policy, when the supreme policy body in the country was in fact the Politburo of the Communist Party. The Republicans have taken one step in this direction, when they announced at the beginning of the Obama administration that the sole objective of Republican policy was to organize his removal from office. Republicans had already showed themselves willing to use the Constitutional power of impeachment to remove a president, even on the flimsiest of grounds, but the Republicans do not currently control the Senate or have enough votes to wield this weapon effectively. Instead, they have chosen to subvert the Constitution altogether by neutering the Senate, tying it up in endless filibusters, and altering it from a body run on majority rules, to one run on super-majority rules. Since the Democrats do not have a super majority of 60 votes to overcome these filibusters, the Senate has been useless for nearly four years. Showing themselves willing to traduce the Constitution, the Republicans have taken the first step towards making the Congress into a theatrical body, good for giving the illusion of providing the people a voice in legislation and policy. The next step would be to find a way to convert the Congress into a permanent rubber-stamp, or at least one that operates that way whenever the Republicans control the White House.
A sham election system occurs when the totalitarian state, as represented by the party, runs unopposed in elections, or always wins an overwhelming percentage of the vote. The US already has sham elections occurring in many parts of the country, especially for House seats, where incumbency becomes a powerful advantage that scares off challengers and chokes off money for opponents to the incumbent. The Republicans benefit from this system, but they don’t control the entire Congress because of the gerrymandering that has divided up most of the seats securely between the two parties. This provides the blue state – red state configuration in US politics, which locks in the Democratic Party in some states, and the Republicans in others. To break free of this restraint, the Republicans have taken to subverting the electoral process in the blue states through voter suppression efforts, and possibly through rigging of voting machine computers. The voter suppression attempts are blatant and out in the open – one Republican official admitted recently the intention was to prevent blacks and poor people from voting. What is on display here is the Republican Party urge to obtain political power at all costs, along with a refusal to play the role of loyal opposition by compromising with the Democrats when they are in power so that the business of the nation can be managed. (Image: Dean Terry)
State control of the economy
Everything about Republican Party economic ideology speaks to free market capitalism and laissez-faire economics, a far cry from the Soviet model where the government issued detailed five year plans that fed inputs to every major factory in the country. There is, however, a back door way to create state control (or some degree of control) over the economy, and that is by having the government team up with large industrial, financial, and other interests. It’s called fascism, technically – the merger of the state with business as a means of controlling the country – and as we saw in WWII, fascism is a handmaiden to totalitarianism. (Image: f-l-e-x)
The Republican Party has long been known as the party of big business and of the wealthy, but its transformation recently to the party of oligarchs – the party funded by billionaires such as the Koch Brothers – is something quite different. The last time the Republicans were in complete power, they showed themselves willing to auction off government services to the highest bidder (the K Street project, as well as the fund-raising targets set for each Congressman), and they allowed corporate lobbyists to sit in on Congressional mark-up sessions where bills are amended. The Citizens United Supreme Court ruling will provide the first test this November as to the power of unlimited corporate donations to campaigns. Since the Democrats have found no way to oppose these developments – since in many cases the Democrats are themselves participating in the destruction of the rule of law and its replacement by the rule of the wealthy and corporations - some form of classic fascism is already operating in the United States (without the brown shirts and trains running on time, but there is always the potential at least for brown shirts to appear on the streets of America. The trains are another story).
Show trials and party purges
The Republican Party has not yet been able to use the judiciary as a means of enforcing party dictates (other than through the traditional means of stacking the courts with Republican judges). Even though we haven’t had 1930s style show trials in the US, there has been an ominous development this week that has set the Republicans on the path of purges that weed out undesirables in the party. The usual process of the quadrennial political conventions is for the first ballot to be an open ballot, so that all the candidates who have run in the primaries and who won delegates to the convention will allow their name to be placed in nomination and votes counted from their supporters. Even in the case where a candidate such as Mitt Romney has locked up the nomination, this ritual is observed, if only to preserve party unity in the election (the losing nominees after the first ballot “free up” their delegates and urge them then to vote for the winner of the primaries). (Image: Ron Paul)
This ritual was not observed this week at the Republican National Convention. Ron Paul received a substantial number of votes in the primaries and had a large number of delegates at the convention. The Romney team pushed some of these delegates off the floor and out of the convention quite unceremoniously, using trumped up reasons (with the seating of the state of Maine’s delegates, for example). Then, when it came time for the first ballot, even though the states went ahead and announced the votes for Ron Paul, the chair would ignore those and announce only the votes for Mitt Romney. Worse was to come. The party introduced rules that will make it much harder in future primaries for someone like Ron Paul to get much if any votes. These were put up for voice vote, and even though the nays obviously shouted louder than the yeas, the chair – in this case House Speaker John Boehner, called the vote for the yeas. In fact, people could see the teleprompter Boehner was using, where it clearly instructed him to say the yeas had won the vote no matter what he heard.
This is a classic party purge, and a number of Ron Paul delegates walked out of the convention in disgust (many of them are using the internet to announce they have left the party altogether). For the first time, and despite the fact Romney is in a very tight race for the presidency, party purity is more important than party unity. Once purges begin they are very difficult to end, and since Romney is something of an empty vessel on matters of principle (his policy program is nothing but the trite Republican bromides of tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation, and endless defense spending), it is up to the Tea Party faction to fight it out with the Evangelical Christian faction and the Oligarchic funders of the party to see which side will remain standing.
Summary arrests and disappearances
The Republicans under George W. Bush pushed the nation down a very dangerous path with the establishment of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp for accused terrorists. No charges were filed against these prisoners, though some have been brought in front of military tribunals. Despite campaign promises to shut down Guantanamo, Barack Obama has been unable to close the camp down. He has also expanded the powers assumed by George Bush which allow the president to order summary executions for suspected terrorists without benefit of trial. Obama has now assumed the power to execute American citizens solely on the strength of his signature.
This is what we know publicly about the assaults on due process and citizen’s rights. Much has been done under secrecy, and Obama has been a foe of transparency in government from the start. He has hounded and punished government whistleblowers far more rigorously than Bush, the most notable being Bradley Manning, who sits in prison now for two years without any charges being filed against him, and with some indication he has been subjected to some of the tortures used against prisoners in Iraq. (Image: Abu Ghraib)
None of this has been taken very seriously by the American public, because it has been dressed up as essential for their safety and as protection against terrorism. Nor is this an example of party abuse of power – it is strictly government abuse of power, so far. Alarm will come when the Republican Party takes the step of arresting and disappearing political opponents. If that happens, by then it will be too late to stop the practice.
State control of the media
The Republican Party since the days of Ronald Reagan has had control of the political airwaves – the bandwidth that is used on radio and television for politically-oriented programming. The Republicans dominate talk radio and talk cable television, and Rush Limbaugh, the Spiritual Leader of 55 million registered Republican voters, dominates the talk media celebrities. The Republicans do not have control of the print media, but newspapers and magazines have been shrinking in the face of competition from the internet. Even so, the Republicans have kept up a fierce criticism of the “liberal media”, which intimidates any newspaper which wishes to take a liberal line on policy. The defensive response by the print media, and reporters for major television stations, is to adopt a “balanced approach” between conservative and liberal viewpoints, giving equal credence to both. This allows the Republicans to move the political focal point of the country ever rightward, because no matter how outrageous a statement someone like Rush Limbaugh might make, the rest of the media will call him out only briefly if at all. Limbaugh still talks about Sandra Fluke in derogatory terms, for example, and his advertisers have slowly climbed back on board.
The only area of the media not under state or party control is the internet. At the moment, the internet is theoretically wide open, and anti-Republican and anti-government sentiments can be expressed freely. There are attempts, however, to control or shape the discourse. Corporations and the US military pay millions of dollars to have agents monitor the internet at all times for any statements that may be derogatory to their interests. Rebuttals are posted almost immediately, and sometimes legal threats are made against the offending parties. Other countries have gone much further than this. China and Iran censor the internet, using technology made for this purpose by American companies. When the internet intrudes on the prerogatives of any government, the reaction is swift, as was witnessed with Wikileaks. In the US Congress, Republicans have introduced bill after bill to constrict free use of the internet by imposing bandwidth and pricing measures, and while opposition to these bills can forestall progress, eventually the Republicans will win by tiring out the opposition. Inevitably, too, the US government will bring Chinese-style censorship to the internet, at the very least to protect the interests of the government and their partners in business.
It doesn’t seem likely any of this will lead to true totalitarian control of the media, where nothing negative about the government is printed or heard publicly. But totalitarianism creeps in a step at a time, and the first steps in this area have already been made.
Limited rule of law
In the Soviet Union the law was not a tool of justice, but a tool of oppression. Regime critics were dragged before the courts and sentenced to long prison terms. As with many of these other analogies, the US is heading down this path but has a considerable way to go before the courts are completely subverted. The Supreme Court has already begun to be suborned to political party, government, and big business interests; the US Chamber of Commerce, which lobbies on behalf of big business, has had its highest-ever success rate this past session, with the Supreme Court voting in favor of big business, and accepting the arguments in briefs submitted by the Chamber of Commerce, nearly 100% of the time.
Of course, it is not necessary to use the courts at all to subvert justice, and this has been the policy of the Obama administration when it comes to financial crimes. There is more than enough evidence in the public domain to support the establishment of a major investigative task force to prosecute high-profile financial executives, as was done during the Savings & Loan crisis of the 1980s, but the Obama administration refuses to do so. Despite the FBI handing juicy files over to the administration; despite the Senate Banking Committee providing the Justice Department with its evidence of criminal behavior in the mortgage industry, the Justice Department announces time and again that the cases are not worth prosecuting. Jon Corzine, the CEO of the failed financial broker MF Global, which stole over $1.0 billion of its clients’ money, was just given a Get Out of Jail Free card by the Justice Department.
Not surprisingly, many of the lawyers working at the Justice Department are holdovers from the Bush administration, which began this practice of selective application of the laws, when it ignored evidence of torture by the CIA in Iraq, or evidence of deliberate leaks of sensitive national security information by the Vice President’s office in the Valerie Plame affair. Justice continues to be meted out, sometimes severely, to petty criminals, drug dealers, and tax cheats, but not to politically connected, powerful, and wealthy people.
The security state
Republicans introduced under George W. Bush the first extensive expansion of a domestic security and spying apparatus. There are a variety of government agencies, chief among them the NSA, which are now known to spy and eavesdrop on the conversations of millions of American citizens. The No Fly rules established an extensive and arbitrary policy that forbids certain citizens from entering an airplane. Borders have been shut down, and a preposterous security screening process, complete with requirements that people remove shoes, belts, and all personnel possessions, has been put in place that seems to have very little to do with actual security and everything to do with training the public to behave in an obedient, deferential and docile fashion in the face of officialdom. This process continues, with the introduction of body-scanning machines that give small doses of radiation to the passenger, while affording Michael Chertoff, former head of the Department of Homeland Security, an extremely nice living since he lobbies the Obama administration to use the machines manufactured by his client, OSI. There are two benefits here to the government: an established member of the political elite, one of thousands who rotate in and out of government and lobbying jobs, is allowed to grow rich off his government service; and the American people are forced to endure yet another degrading and intrusive inspection just because the government says so. The public goes along with these demands sheepishly because it has no choice. There are no politicians demanding an investigation into the Chertoff abuse of power (he first began investing in these body scanning companies when he was head of Homeland Security), and few politicians are interested or willing to stand up to the massive internal security apparatus that the Republicans put in place after 9/11. (Image: Patriot Act)
The US is not at the stage where everyone must travel about with their “identity papers”, subject to inspection by an official at a moment’s notice, and subject to imprisonment for any irregularities in the papers. Searching one’s papers was a common tactic used by the Germans in WWII to round up Jews. But wait – if you are Hispanic, in certain states you are indeed subject to arbitrary inspection of identity papers and arrest. And if you are black or Latino, you now must produce your identity papers in certain states if you ever show up at a voting booth. The message here – brought to us by the Republican Party – is get out of the country if you are not a legal immigrant, and don’t bother to vote if you are poor without a car or home-bound and can’t get a proper government license.
Can the US Reverse Course?
What we have established here is that the political system in the US has taken the first steps towards authoritarianism, which leads to totalitarianism. These first steps do not allow anyone to say Aha! – the Republican Party is no different than the Communist Party. The Republican Party still operates within the confines of the two-party system. The Constitution is still operative for the most part, and even Republican judges have stood up to their own party on occasion when it comes to expansion of state power. The American people have free access to information, at least through the internet, and they can go about their personal business largely unfettered, even though they are watched by cameras anytime they are in public, and their electronic communications are being monitored. (Image: gerriberryng)
But that’s not the point. The Russians of 1920 had some personal safeguards as well, though opponents of the tsar were known to be tortured and arbitrarily imprisoned or executed. Then along came Lenin, who believed in party supremacy over all aspects of the government, including the military and the state police. Lenin died at a relatively young age in 1924 of a stroke, and his successor, a man he did not trust, took matters one step further – Stalin began imprisoning and executing his political enemies and anyone who stood up to his abuse of power. A few objected, but paid for their courage with their lives. Everyone else cowered and shivered before the tyranny that was put in place in the Soviet Union.
This can’t happen in the US, you might say, because it has a long history of honoring human rights, and ingrained democratic practices and impulses that will prevent descent into totalitarianism. But the US also had a long history of abhorrence of torture, born out of the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Now we have a former President and Vice President of the United States bragging about how they used torture while in office, and they would do it again if they had to. No one in the US is clamoring for them to be punished, and the man who has the authority to do so – Barack Obama – and who says he outlawed torture, has reportedly approved its use in the case of Bradley Manning (who is also apparently being allowed to rot in his jail cell for the rest of his life without ever being charged with a crime or brought to trial).
You see how the pavement is being laid out, and how so much has changed since Reagan took office, determined to overdo the political reforms that were put in place after the Watergate scandal. American citizens are being watched routinely as they go about their daily affairs; they cannot travel freely about the country without being humiliated at airports; some cannot travel at all without the risk of being profiled, stopped, and arrested; they are being taught and trained to obey petty government officials, and at this point most Americans would march freely into a prison camp if they were told if was for their own safety from terrorists; their civil liberties are increasingly circumscribed, to the point any American can be arrested, held without trial, and executed if the government desires; government is thoroughly in the pockets of big business and oligarchs who fund the two major political parties; the courts are now being used to promote the interest of government and business, and criminal behavior by business actors or politicians is ignored; the media tout only the government line and label dissenters and objectors as misguided souls or fools.
And behind all of this are the two political parties, who are increasing their stranglehold on the political system, and permanently locking out any other players. And while the Democratic Party still professes to uphold the rule of law and the Constitution, it is a Democratic president who has furthered the policies of the Republican Party that promote authoritarianism and eventual totalitarianism. And every time the Republican Party obtains hold of the White House, it lays yet more pavement that leads to totalitarianism. It looks for ways to convert this country to a one party system, and it seeks the means to neuter Congress and the courts into useless lapdogs of the president. It is so confident of its hold on power and its ability to hoodwink the people, that it has offered for president a man who is an exemplar of the corporate, oligarchic elite who have already severely damaged the economy (but not at their own personal expense). It has also taken a dangerous step toward purging the party of all but the most faithful, and in so doing, it has shown its confidence that the electoral system is rigged or close to being rigged in its favor, so that it is irrelevant whether the Republican Party shrinks to a small band of true believers – they will still control the government.
If offers for Vice President a man on the surface who is a decent husband and father, but who throughout his adult life has worshipped the memory and teachings of a woman who reveled in her own sociopathy, who taught that selfishness is a virtue, and who patterned her literary heroes on a serial killer from the 1920s.
Even if he is elected as Vice President, or eventually succeeds to the presidency, Paul Ryan may well remain a decent, family man. But who follows him? Which president will take that fateful step of detaining or arresting a political enemy, just to teach him a lesson? From there things can spiral down very quickly, and a democratic government can convert itself almost overnight into a totalitarian dictatorship, with no one really noticing at first. It’s happening in Russia right now. The machinery is being put in place for it to happen in the US. These preparations are not part of some conspiracy by Republicans or Democrats to destroy democratic governance in America – they are more a result of circumstances giving politicians the opportunity to expand their power and wealth at the expense of democratic traditions and safeguards. These preparations are being motivated by personal desires for power, and by personal greed.
But once the building blocks of totalitarianism are in place, all it takes is an accident of nature – one man in the Oval Office with such a desire for power, with a sociopathic inability to sympathize with others, with a lack of morality, to use the machinery at his disposal for his own dictatorial fancies. America is now exposed to that accident of nature, and as we all know, accidents do happen.
Original article, reposted with the authors permission