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
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.