Tuesday, May 23, 2006

[Thought Experiment]

An American Dystopia.

It is easy to think of democracy as the terminal point of civilization's development. After radical changes of the 20th Century, even persuasive. But there's nothing that says it must be so. Buddhists believe that the existence of everything is necessarily temporary (including Buddhism itself), and wouldn't find it difficult to believe that America could devolve into something other than the healthy exercise of republican democracy. As a Buddhist, I'm particularly susceptible to the notion.

So what would American backsliding look like? If we want to keep the government healthy, what should we be on the look out for? It's an interesting proposition.

When I first started to ponder this, I fell into the Nazi model, which is a pretty common cautionary tale we tell ourselves: an autocrat scares the nation with stories about internal rot and external danger and appeals to their nationalism so that they willing relinquish freedom for safety and a strong nation. It's a particularly appealing example because it has parallels with the ham-handed efforts by our current petit autocrat to employ fear and nationalism while removing civil liberties.

But this doesn't take into account homegrown realities. The structure of the US government, however badly it's been compromised by single-party rule in the current era, doesn't allow for easy shifts to tyranny. Even more serious are the challenges posed by libertarians on the right and left--from whose dead fingers any autocrat would first have to pry constitutionally-protected guns (both metaphorically and, in Montana and Kansas, literally). There's a certain percentage of the population you just can't scare into compliance.

Dubya's regime is less a tin-pot version of fascism than it is a warning sign about where democracy might really fail: among the people. Bush didn't assert his power so much as citizens (very broadly defined--voters, politicians, members of the media) ceded it. There were no great protests when we invaded Iraq. Bush was popular among two-thirds of the population, and 90% said they agreed it was the thing to do. There don't seem to be any protests now that he is spying on citizens.

An American failure will happen in the streets, first: that's where democracy resides. It appears that so long as we have paychecks, Wal-Marts, television, and the appearance of self-determination, we feel that the democracy is sound. An American dystopia would be a psuedo-democracy, where there was the appearance of democracy--voting, politicians--but where Americans had no influence over the government nor the policies lawmakers make. This is the revelation of Dubya: how close we already are to such a state. Life looks more or less like it has in the past, so who cares if Dubya scrutinizes your phone bill? The logical conclusion of these trends could be a new beast of civilization, a post-democracy. You have the freedom to work and buy, but your voice is only symbolic. But don't worry, the feds will make sure your radios are cheap.


zemeckis said...

i think that's: "..will make sure your ipods are cheap"

Chuck Butcher said...

I'd doubt that political philosophy would ignite a revolt, it would take some very stupid moves. On the other hand, the bottom of the wage ladder is beginning to really suffer, economics could create some real problems for the government.

fred said...

It will take a certain amount of time (frog.pot.boil) for an autocratic state to take hold (barring a substantial economic collapse), because in order to make it work, the creators of the autocracy have to provide the illusion of institutions such as a free press, universal sufferage, fair elections...

IOW, I can't envision a "Bush remains in power" scenario post-2008. But that doesn't mean eroding the edges slowly enought that people refuse to beleive them (and all of those things above have been noticed, but not truly accepted as truth--'surely it cannot be so.'

But it is very possible that in 10 years (or less, or more) you could wake up to find out that no matter what happens, the party in power remains in power while the figurehead changes every 4-8 years.

And realistically, as long as you aren't killing/torturing *everyone*, people are very accepting of totalitarian states (they have been the most common versions of government throughout history). People just want to be left alone to live their lives--and as long as those people in the middle classes (well-off enough to have idle time to feel they can do something about it but not well-off enough to be beneficiaries of the system) aren't bothered enough or large enough to constitute a threat to the status quo, autocracy(or some reasonable facimile thereof) just chugs away, unchallenged.