August 23, 2007

Specter of an Authoritarian Future?

eRiposte explains that the Democratic Congress is failing in the job the American people sent it to do. As he and Glenn Greenwald have said this week, the poor poll ratings for the Congress are due to their not standing up to Bush. And eRiposte warns that if the Democratic leadership does not do a better job of asserting themselves they too can lose their opportunity to change our path.

So, Senator Reid, Rep. Pelosi, and all Democrats in Congress - this is a historical moment. Will you take the opportunity to change the face of America and bring positive and progressive change? Or will you squander this opportunity just like George Bush did after 9/11? The world is watching.

Yes, the whole world is watching. Because the world knows that if the Democrats continue to screw up, the future can be mighty bleak.

Here's how I see it. [Ed: The following essay is adapted from my July Vox Populi submission.]

Six years of the Bush administration has created a terribly dangerous situation for the American people. The administration has done so many things that have had or are yet to have horrendous consequences for our country that the American people are deeply cynical and increasingly angry.

The latest polls show that a stunning 77 percent of the American people think the country is on the wrong track. After the last election, where a strong majority voted to elect Democrats despite the efforts of Karl Rove to steal yet another election, people felt that they would finally see some brakes put on Bush and his disastrous war. Unfortunately, the Democrats in Congress have been unable to rein in Bush. There are many reasons that this is so, but the fact that they cannot just increases the cynicism of the public. One of the more telling statements of the frustration and pain people feel came from Andrew Bacevich, a noted military historian who has been a strong critic of the Iraq war, upon the death of his son in that same war.

Not for a second did I expect my own efforts to make a difference. But I did nurse the hope that my voice might combine with those of others -- teachers, writers, activists and ordinary folks -- to educate the public about the folly of the course on which the nation has embarked. I hoped that those efforts might produce a political climate conducive to change. I genuinely believed that if the people spoke, our leaders in Washington would listen and respond.

This, I can now see, was an illusion.

Furthermore, the knowledge that our government no longer listens to the people combined with the bright light that Congress is shining on what the Bush administration has been doing with their unaccountable power, has led to a sense in the country that everything is going to hell in a hand-basket.

What will come of this deep unhappiness? There is a real danger that this anger and cynicism will create an even greater possibility that our country could descend into a brutal totalitarian state, especially if there is another crisis.

And there are so many possible crises on the horizon: another terrorist attack, an oil shock, a deep and nasty recession with the collapse of the housing bubble, catastrophic hurricanes, fires, and drought as global warming clamps down, and much, much more.

Eric Hoffer wrote The True Believer in 1951 to try to explain the roots of mass movements and what attracts people to these movements. What he says is that people who are unhappy with their lives are susceptible to becoming true believers who blindly follow leaders on their crusades. And he notes that almost everyone become willing followers when there is a crisis.

People whose lives are barren and insecure seem to show a greater willingness to obey than people who are self-sufficient and self-confident. To the frustrated, freedom from responsibility is more attractive than freedom from restraint. They are eager to barter their independence for relief from the burdens of willing, deciding and being responsible for inevitable failure. They willingly abdicate the directing of their lives to those who want to plan, command and shoulder all responsibility. Moreover, submission by all to a supreme leader is an approach to their ideal of equality.

In times of crisis, during floods, earthquakes, epidemics, depressions and wars, separate, individual effort is of no avail, and people of every condition are ready to obey and follow a leader. To obey is then the only firm point in a chaotic day-by-day existence. (1)

More recently Robert Altemeyer, author of The Authoritarians, has written about how many people in the United States have already been seduced by authoritarianism. So many of our American values and rights as defined by the Bill of Rights have been rendered obsolete by the Bush administration as they use the fear of terrorism to consolidate their hold on power. The Bush administration has been repudiated by the American public, but that does not remove the specter of people choosing to blindly follow another authoritarian leader. The fact that our government uses torture and a large number of people think it is okay is a sign of how authoritarian in thinking our country has become. There is something deeply disturbing about the Republican Presidential candidates each trying to outdo each other by saying they see no problem in continuing the practice of torture.

As Altemeyer and others have said, we underestimate the power of situational pressures in shaping our responses. Ordinary people can allow and even participate in extraordinary evil when everyone around them is doing it. After describing the results of some of Stanley Milgram’s experiments Altemeyer wrote:

How people acted depended very little on what kind of people they were, and very greatly on the situation they were in – particularly on what their peers did… Milgram has shown us how hard it is to say no to malevolent authority, how easy to follow the crowd, and how very difficult it is to resist when the crowd is doing the biding of malevolent authority…The difference between low and high authoritarians is one of degree…Milgram has shown, most of us cave in…[I]t makes crystal clear…why we have to keep malevolent leaders out of power. (2)

In the past, we Americans were incredibly fortunate to have people who helped lead the country in times of crisis with wisdom and restraint. Leaders like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Each of them managed deep crises in our history not to gather power for its own sake, but to truly address the needs of their fellow citizens. They knew they were the servants to the people and they had a charge to keep. Unfortunately, in the last grave crisis to hit America - 9/11 - the country had people in charge that used the crisis as an opportunity to twist and corrupt our country for their own aggrandizement. And the factors that allowed this to happen are still strong even despite the repudiation of Bush.

Altemeyer has been studying authoritarianism since 1966 and has watched how much more receptive to authoritarianism Americans have become. And he has seen the diminishment of institutions such as a free and vigilant press that once kept authoritarianism at bay. Because of that, he fears the forces that have been driving the movement to make our government a true tyranny are close to obtaining their goal.

So what does he recommend? He’s found that one thing that is necessary to stop these forces is for a few brave people to stand up and say no – because their very act can empower others to say no as well. And he warns that it is dangerous to give into the feelings of cynicism and hopelessness.

You can’t sit these elections out and say ‘Politics is dirty; I’ll not be a part of it,’ or ‘Nothing can change the way things are done now.’ The social dominators want to you be disgusted with politics, they want you to feel hopeless, they want you out of their way. They want democracy to fail, they want your freedoms stricken, they want equality destroyed as a value, they want to control everything and everybody, they want it all…If you are the only person you know who grasps what’s happening, then you’ve got to take leadership, help inform, and organize others. One person can do so much; you’ve got no idea! And two can do so much more. (3)

Yes, it is time for all good men and women to stand up and be counted.

And we who see where the future can go must do everything we can to prevent this future. And the one thing we must do is shake up the Democratic Party enough so it can be used to prevent that dark future. We have no more time to waste and we cannot afford to not use the Democratic Party to accomplish this change. Support the Bush Dog initiative.

1. Eric Hoffer, The True Believer, Perennial Classics, 1951, pg. 118
2. Robert Altemeyer, The Authoritarians, 2007, pp. 230-231,
3. Ibid., pp, 246-247

Posted by Mary at August 23, 2007 01:22 AM | US Politics | Technorati links |