John Whitehead's Commentary
The Age of Authoritarianism: Government of the Politicians, by the Military, for the Corporations
“I was astonished, bewildered. This was America, a country where, whatever its faults, people could speak, write, assemble, demonstrate without fear. It was in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. We were a democracy... But I knew it wasn't a dream; there was a painful lump on the side of my head... The state and its police were not neutral referees in a society of contending interests. They were on the side of the rich and powerful. Free speech? Try it and the police will be there with their horses, their clubs, their guns, to stop you. From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.” ― Historian Howard Zinn
America is at a crossroads.
History may show that from this point forward, we will have left behind any semblance of constitutional government and entered into a militaristic state where all citizens are suspects and security trumps freedom.
Certainly, this is a time when government officials operate off their own inscrutable, self-serving playbook with little in the way of checks and balances, while American citizens are subjected to all manner of indignities and violations with little hope of defending themselves.
As I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, we have moved beyond the era of representative government and entered a new age—the age of authoritarianism. Even with its constantly shifting terrain, this topsy-turvy travesty of law and government has become America’s new normal.
Don’t believe me?
Let me take you on a brief guided tour, but prepare yourself. The landscape is particularly disheartening to anyone who remembers what America used to be.
The Executive Branch: Whether it’s the Obama administration’s war on whistleblowers, the systematic surveillance of journalists and regular citizens, the continued operation of Guantanamo Bay, or the occupation of Afghanistan, Barack Obama has surpassed his predecessors in terms of his abuse of the Constitution and the rule of law. President Obama, like many of his predecessors, has routinely disregarded the Constitution when it has suited his purposes, operating largely above the law and behind a veil of secrecy, executive orders and specious legal justifications. Rest assured that no matter who wins this next presidential election, very little will change. The policies of the American police state will continue.
The Legislative Branch: It is not overstating matters to say that Congress may well be the most self-serving, semi-corrupt institution in America. Abuses of office run the gamut from elected representatives neglecting their constituencies to engaging in self-serving practices, including the misuse of eminent domain, earmarking hundreds of millions of dollars in federal contracting in return for personal gain and campaign contributions, having inappropriate ties to lobbyist groups and incorrectly or incompletely disclosing financial information. Pork barrel spending, hastily passed legislation, partisan bickering, a skewed work ethic, graft and moral turpitude have all contributed to the public’s increasing dissatisfaction with congressional leadership. No wonder 86 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing.
The Judicial Branch: The Supreme Court was intended to be an institution established to intervene and protect the people against the government and its agents when they overstep their bounds. Yet through their deference to police power, preference for security over freedom, and evisceration of our most basic rights for the sake of order and expediency, the justices of the United States Supreme Court have become the guardians of the American police state in which we now live. As a result, sound judgment and justice have largely taken a back seat to legalism, statism and elitism, while preserving the rights of the people has been deprioritized and made to play second fiddle to both governmental and corporate interests.
Shadow Government: America’s next president will inherit more than a bitterly divided nation teetering on the brink of financial catastrophe when he or she assumes office. He or she will also inherit a shadow government, one that is fully operational and staffed by unelected officials who are, in essence, running the country. Referred to as the Deep State, this shadow government is comprised of unelected government bureaucrats, corporations, contractors, paper-pushers, and button-pushers who are actually calling the shots behind the scenes right now.
Law Enforcement: By and large the term “law enforcement” encompasses all agents within a militarized police state, including the military, local police, and the various agencies such as the Secret Service, FBI, CIA, NSA, etc. Having been given the green light to probe, poke, pinch, taser, search, seize, strip and generally manhandle anyone they see fit in almost any circumstance, all with the general blessing of the courts, America’s law enforcement officials, no longer mere servants of the people entrusted with keeping the peace but now extensions of the military, are part of an elite ruling class dependent on keeping the masses corralled, under control, and treated like suspects and enemies rather than citizens. In the latest move to insulate police from charges of misconduct, Virginia lawmakers are considering legislation to keep police officers’ names secret, ostensibly creating secret police forces.
A Suspect Surveillance Society: Every dystopian sci-fi film we’ve ever seen is suddenly converging into this present moment in a dangerous trifecta between science, technology and a government that wants to be all-seeing, all-knowing and all-powerful. By tapping into your phone lines and cell phone communications, the government knows what you say. By uploading all of your emails, opening your mail, and reading your Facebook posts and text messages, the government knows what you write. By monitoring your movements with the use of license plate readers, surveillance cameras and other tracking devices, the government knows where you go. By churning through all of the detritus of your life—what you read, where you go, what you say—the government can predict what you will do. By mapping the synapses in your brain, scientists—and in turn, the government—will soon know what you remember. And by accessing your DNA, the government will soon know everything else about you that they don’t already know: your family chart, your ancestry, what you look like, your health history, your inclination to follow orders or chart your own course, etc. Consequently, in the face of DNA evidence that places us at the scene of a crime, behavior sensing technology that interprets our body temperature and facial tics as suspicious, and government surveillance devices that cross-check our biometrics, license plates and DNA against a growing database of unsolved crimes and potential criminals, we are no longer “innocent until proven guilty.”
Military Empire: America’s endless global wars and burgeoning military empire—funded by taxpayer dollars—have depleted our resources, over-extended our military and increased our similarities to the Roman Empire and its eventual demise. The U.S. now operates approximately 800 military bases in foreign countries around the globe at an annual cost of at least $156 billion. The consequences of financing a global military presence are dire. In fact, David Walker, former comptroller general of the U.S., believes there are “striking similarities” between America’s current situation and the factors that contributed to the fall of Rome, including “declining moral values and political civility at home, an over-confident and over-extended military in foreign lands and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government.”
I haven’t even touched on the corporate state, the military industrial complex, SWAT team raids, invasive surveillance technology, zero tolerance policies in the schools, overcriminalization, or privatized prisons, to name just a few, but what I have touched on should be enough to show that the landscape of our freedoms has already changed dramatically from what it once was and will no doubt continue to deteriorate unless Americans can find a way to wrest back control of their government and reclaim their freedoms.
That brings me to the final and most important factor in bringing about America’s shift into authoritarianism: “we the people.” We are the government. Thus, if the government has become a tyrannical agency, it is because we have allowed it to happen, either through our inaction or our blind trust.
Essentially, there are four camps of thought among the citizenry when it comes to holding the government accountable. Which camp you fall into says a lot about your view of government—or, at least, your view of whichever administration happens to be in power at the time.
In the first camp are those who trust the government to do the right thing, despite the government’s repeated failures in this department. In the second camp are those who not only don’t trust the government but think the government is out to get them. In the third camp are those who see government neither as an angel nor a devil, but merely as an entity that needs to be controlled, or as Thomas Jefferson phrased it, bound “down from mischief with the chains of the Constitution.”
Then there’s the fourth camp, comprised of individuals who pay little to no attention to the workings of government, so much so that they barely vote, let alone know who’s in office. Easily entertained, easily distracted, easily led, these are the ones who make the government’s job far easier than it should be.
It is easy to be diverted, distracted and amused by the antics of the presidential candidates, the pomp and circumstance of awards shows, athletic events, and entertainment news, and the feel-good evangelism that passes for religion today. What is far more difficult to face up to is the reality of life in America, where unemployment, poverty, inequality, injustice and violence by government agents are increasingly norms.
The powers-that-be want us to remain divided, alienated from each other based on our politics, our bank accounts, our religion, our race and our value systems. Yet as George Orwell observed, “The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians.”
The only distinction that matters anymore is where you stand in the American police state. In other words, you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution.