Which road to despotism?
May 31, 2005 11:15 PM   Subscribe

If the United States of America becomes a despotism, what sort of despotism might it be, and by what steps might we arrive there?

In my last question to you, I asked What events would have to happen for you to conclude your country had become a despotism?

Now I'd like to know, what sort of despotism can America most readily become? More importantly, I'd like to know how you think we'd arrive at this dystopia?
  • Will an oil crash halt transport and trigger food riots and martial law in the cities?
  • Will Iraq War veterans raise Freikorps to defend the Red States from the threats posed by immigrants and homosexuals and evolutionists?
  • Or will modern day Esaus slowly bargain away their American birthright of liberty for a mess of security pottage?
  • Or....?
What despotism is most easily achieved, and what sequence of events gets us there?
posted by orthogonality to Law & Government (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Philip Roth's newish book, The Plot Against America, gives one possible account.
posted by ori at 11:53 PM on May 31, 2005

Some time ago on Slashdot, SF author Spider Robinson asked why so many people today viewed the future with fear and uncertainty. My reply to him was that we are, today, living in the sort of dystopia that SF writers used to project. Corporate elites control the levers of the government, the military and the news media. Pervasive surveillance is becoming the norm. Reason is ignored, education is discouraged, privacy is obsolete, human rights disparaged as "quaint." We're already there, and we won't see this yoke lifted in our lifetimes.
posted by SPrintF at 12:02 AM on June 1, 2005

According to precedent, an incompetent one.
posted by veedubya at 12:09 AM on June 1, 2005

Empires fragment. Afterwards, everyone complains that it was the barbarians what dunnit. And the barbarians wonder why it is that they always arrive to find the pary's over. After all, they did bring a bottle.
posted by TimothyMason at 12:41 AM on June 1, 2005

I'm a complete idjit about stuff like this, but I would say a corporate despotism, under the veil of a theocracy that encourages civilian divisiveness and spectacle. Imagine a toned-down Cultural Revolution under the aegis of an institutionalized bible-based moral code in the service of multinationals. Something like that. And all via constitutional amendment.
posted by taz at 12:57 AM on June 1, 2005

I reread the definition. Your initial question doesn't necessarily marry to your final one. Easiest and likely aren't the same. Easiest would be to simply declare martial law and suspend or disenfranchise Congress. But they seem unlikely as specific steps.
The events since 9/11 are instructive. It seems to me that there has been incremental shifts towards despotic leadership in some ways, particularly with the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security and railroading through Congress of the Patriot Act. These govermental instruments and their practical effects are perhaps the thin edge of the wedge.

If I was to put money on a scenario that would move USA into the realms of true despotism I think I would go with a multisituational scenario involving changes in oil availability/pricing and resultant economic hardships/unemployment together with some extreme terrorist/national attack on American interests. With the precedents of the last few years, it would not be too far a shift in public policy for a government faced with national security and economic disaster sequences to gain widespread qualified support for suspension of the normal check and balance system.

Mobilizing of the National Guard and Army, suspension (maybe even with bipartisan support) of Congress, instituting of emergency White House powers, curfews, bank access restrictions, fuel rationing and centralizing of the media under governmental dripfeed if not actual control. Once such a state of emergency was declared, it would be a simple matter for the powers that be, to merely tweak press statements and policing/food rationing/economic/curfew policies and fear monger to entrench their despotic power network.

Obviously these are all steps that to one extent or another, have been individually or in combined form instituted somewhere along the line in the recent-ish past. I see those steps, particularly in these last few years, as being a kind of softening up of the general public such that when any fullblown crisis emerges down the track, the populace will be have less of a distance to be moved into an effectively subjugated state.

Were it to happen (and of course it's easy to say that it is in fact happening now, just in an evolving or dare I say, intelligently designed manner), I think historians in time will look back at 9/11 as both the catalyst and the point at which public skepticism or angst or outrage levels were lowered so as to make the transition later on more easily instituted.
posted by peacay at 2:36 AM on June 1, 2005

it's easy to say that it is in fact happening now
it's difficult to imagine a situation less like single party rule than one in which the current party wins elections by around 1% of the vote. if you think that is despotism, what is it when a single party gets 60 or 70 or 80 or 90 or 95 or 99% of the vote?
posted by andrew cooke at 6:18 AM on June 1, 2005

andrew cooke, I was just considering steps on a continuum. It's the centralizing and widening of the governmental powers. Even if the people vote 100% for a single group of politicians and they tweak things so that they control society with an iron rod and eradicate democratic 'fail safe' mechanisms, it's still despotism. My guess is that's at least partly why orthogonality's asking the question -- these changes can be subtle and at least at the start can be said to have been approved by the voters.
posted by peacay at 7:36 AM on June 1, 2005

errr...that crack about 100% comes across a bit silly. I know what you mean when it's 51%:49% --- but the vote is irrelevent if that government moves towards a more concentrated form of governing --- it's not despotism of course, but it's moving towards it or at least changes of that nature are commensurate with a move towards despotic governing; hence for some people, it's 'easy' to say that it's happening now because of Homeland security changes.
posted by peacay at 8:34 AM on June 1, 2005

I dunno, orthogonality, people have constantly predicted the collapse of the US into despotism from well before the time of Lincoln. In the early 1900s, it was going to be an anarchist revolt, in the 1930s, a fascist rising, in the 1950s, the communists, in the 1990s, right-wing militias would declare independence. The issue has always been the strength of the institutions in the United States and the number of competing interests that maintain them. Extrapolating from political events that make you uncomfortable does not mean despotism. In general, the US has less restrictions on speech and behavior than it ever did in the past, or in past wars, and appeals to patriotism have always been common. Collapse could take any form, but it is unlikely to be something obvious.
posted by blahblahblah at 9:17 AM on June 1, 2005

How about "All of the above"?

I think we're pretty much already there in a lot of ways - and have been for a long time. But it hasn't always been like this, not even here in the US.

True, things can always get worse. Things can always get worse. But what kind of an argument is that?

And a frequent counter-argument to the general "Argh. I'm sick of this oppressive society/country/company" is "What do you mean you're being oppressed? You live in the most free land on earth!" like that logical fallacy supposed to be some sort of consolation prize and assuagement - knowing that it may indeed be much worse elsewhere, but hoping it isn't.

I argue that we are and have been under/in an ideological and theocratic state of oppression for quite some time.

Drugs are bad. Our body is shameful. Sexuality is sinful. Pleasure is contraband and wasteful. Being curious is bad. Not wanting to kill strangers is unpatriotic. Not wanting to work like a slave for someone else for most of your life means that there's something wrong with you. Questioning the methods and content of our state schools means you're a fringe wacko.

Objectively questioning the sanity of the countless number of insane ways we do things here in the US means you're a dangerous fringe wacko.

Doing anything anywhere at anytime that even remotely runs counter to the status quo (despite it not directly affecting anyone but yourself) usually gets you punished - if not within the legal and penal system, then within the economic system, often with horrifyingly brutal results that may as well have come from the barrel of a gun.

Or from a boot stamping on a human face. Forever.
posted by loquacious at 9:21 AM on June 1, 2005

"So that's how Democracy dies, with thunderous applause." - Padme. Star Wars Episode III

Some more large terror attacks on US soil coupled with economic crisis, say from energy prices, lead congress to grant the executive branch further authority. Something really big happens which scares everyone and martial law is declared - game over. It Can't Happen Here (1935) by Sinclair Lewis (see link in the question above) paints a pretty scary picture of how we could willingly march to such fate.
posted by caddis at 9:46 AM on June 1, 2005

We're already living in Brazil.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:56 AM on June 1, 2005

ori's suggestion is excellent. not a great book, but what an interesting read. Roth's idea is that the system actually works, the checks and balances are so well-embedded in it that it even can isolate and overcome fascism that has contaminated the system. I tend to agree with him, and hope he's right
posted by matteo at 10:46 AM on June 1, 2005

We'd call our despot "coach".
posted by kenko at 11:49 AM on June 1, 2005

Firstly, I'd like to say that I think that it's actually pretty unlikely that a true despotism will form. America may have its bad points (of which anyone who reads mefi and isn't named ParisParisimus is aware), but it's a long road from a more conservative democracy to an actual despotism. Remember, you can still say, "I think Bush is a moron" in a public place, and although some might get offended and yell at you, the police won't drag you off that night and shoot you in the head.

That being said, if America does go into despotism, I think this is the probable chain of events:

1. More terrorism. Note I mean real terrorism, not a government conspiracy. The X-Files to the contrary, our government couldn't conceal a Snickers bar much less a major conspiracy without getting caught. The government just isn't very competent at keeping secrets. If it was, Russia wouldn't have been able to swipe the Bomb so easily.

2. More terrorism leads to increased anger and xenophobia. There's been more than a bit of this already, but nothing like what we'd see if, for example, terrorists caused casualties in the 100,000 range.

3. Anger and fear leads the population to follow a popular leader who is more charismatic than Bush and his a military record, and give him the political leverage to declare himself a dictator, probably by first declaring some kind of state of emergency. I suspect that this leader will appeal to militarism rather than religion. Religion's a good way of getting votes, but it alone will never give the cloud needed to set up a dictatorship, and there will be too many religious groups that won't go along with the government.

4. The leader would be the head of a militaristic oligarchy. Upon his death, retirement, or resignation, the oligarchy would decide on a new leader behind the scenes, in much the same way as the Chinese Communist party.
posted by unreason at 12:23 PM on June 1, 2005

I doubt there'll be a legal despot any time soon. The future will look much like East Germany I imagine.

Privacy will go out the window. Both the government and the feds will have total access to most anything and everything.

Legal rights will decrease without end. The government's already established that, under certain circumstances, it can lock people up without charging them. We've already got secret trials, also. Again, presumably, for non-citizens. The next step is the power to arrest people without making their arrest public record. Once the feds can disappear people, in the literal sense, surveillance laws won't even matter, really. People will be eager to share everything with the government for fear of undisclosed arrests.

The power of corporations will expand unchecked. Whether corporations establish their own private security firms or just rely on the government, same difference.

The net effect will likely be a kind of cultural despotism akin to the former Communist states. People will be desperate to toe the official line--whether that's Conservative Christian or something else doesn't really matter--for fear of their security.
posted by nixerman at 12:46 PM on June 1, 2005

The problem with unreason's scenario is that, ultimately, it's bad for business. The essential benefit of the rule-of-law is that it allows for market-driven risk assessment. If you declared a permanent state of martial law you'd end up having to shut down Wall St. There'd never be a full on dictatorship; the corporations just wouldn't allow it.
posted by nixerman at 12:49 PM on June 1, 2005

Ooo! Ooo! Ooo! I have a question! *waves hand in air desperately* ...wait, no, dammit, I already asked my weekly question...

What loquacious said, so very much.

But I have to add: Limiting the question to despotism is liable to yield useless answers, because despotism is so, like, passé. Today, if you want to grab power and subjugate people, there's no need to resort to something as obvious as despotism. That just invites resistance. Buy up the media instead. Look at the subjugation of minds wrought by Rupert Murdoch—and those people have no idea they're in lockstep. They think they're thinking for themselves.

I'd say more, but I'm saving it up for next week...
posted by bricoleur at 1:27 PM on June 1, 2005

andrew cooke:
"it's difficult to imagine a situation less like single party rule than one in which the current party wins elections by around 1% of the vote."

No, that IS single party rule, whether by 1% or 100% it's single party rule, and it is trivially easy to imagine a situation less like single party rule than this - a modern democracy sporting all the features that should be the bare minimum in this day and age (like proportional representation), such that no party can realistically hope for a majority, (because people in a free society are so varied that no one party can coherently represent the majority on the finer points) meaning that the only legeslation that can pass is that which has the agreement of multiple parties more accurately representing the values of a far broader slice of society than one party can. Certainly, one party rule is theoretically possible under pretty much any democracy, but when you get to the point where one party is in a position to ram its idealogically-driven agenda into law without the consent and agreement of any other party, then that democracy earns an "F", having failed to prevent pseudo-majority-rule and dictatorship, is relegated to the lesser Plan-B task of ensuring that the situation becomes somewhat changeable at the next election, rather than becoming more firmly entrenched.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:03 PM on June 1, 2005

SPrintF, could you provide a link to that Slashdot discussion? Sounds interesting.
posted by Jaie at 2:42 PM on June 1, 2005

harlequin - there is, in my opinion, quite a difference between arguing for one type of democracy over another, which is a fairly nuanced discussion, and saying that any kind of democracy - especially one in which people have wealth and freedoms (the two going pretty much hand in hand - see amartya sen et al) that most of the rest of the world can only wonder at - is a dictatorship.

your comments sound fine within the incestuous pool of american politics, but take a look outside. have a look at some real despotisms. get, in other words, a sense of perspective.
posted by andrew cooke at 3:09 PM on June 1, 2005

Andrew Cooke:

I'm basing my comments on having been outside American politics (not to the same extent as you), and my concept of democracy doesn't revolved around founding father figures :-) But I don't see the "other places are so much worse" line as very relevant here, true though it is. A system in which one party is in complete or near-complete power, is a Bad Thing and is far removed from a well functioning system. Saying it is "difficult to imagine a situation less like" one party rule is silly.

Pointing out that things could be a hell of a lot worse is not a relevant defence against the point that things should be a lot better. Maybe there are people in the world who are content to sink to whatever depths on the grounds that they're a long way from the bottom of the barrel, but it seems like a really bizzare justification to me.

You (seem to) misunderstand my reference to "dictatorship" - it was not some a emotionally-loaded claim to being at the bottom of the barrel, but the observation that a situation in which the (possibly benevolent) ruling party is not constrained by the agenda of the opposition or by law (by being able to write them), is pretty much a dictionary dictatorship and this reflects very poorly on the democracy that allows it (however briefly). A one party majority government (particually a landslide one capable of changing the democratic foundation) is a dictatorship. Dictatorship does not mean totalitarian state, nor banana republic, nor oppressive regeime, just that the ruler could unilaterally make their whims the law of the land. But though it doesn't mean oppressive, it should be avoided due to the great potential for abuse. Yes, you may consider this a "soft" definition, I consider it a less loaded-with-prejudice definition :-). Anyway, a democracy that produces such potential for abuse rates very poorly against the stated aims and aspirations of democracy.

If the use of the word is going to make people miss the point due to obsessing over the word itself, then I hereby invoke that it is striken from my post. (invoking is about all I can do since there is no edit :). I'm not interested in debates about what is or isn't "dictatorship", my points were that is it quite acceptable and accurate to describe a party with unilateral legeslative power unchecked by the opposition as "one-party rule", and that any democratic system that creates such a situation should be overhauled to take advantage of the large advances in democratic systems that have developed since many nations last checked the oil and changed the tires of their democracy.

As regards the subject of the USA, I'm sure that the unholy conjunction of whitehouse, senate, and congress, will come to an end, and the one-party rule will end with it. But it is still a black eye for the US system.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:21 PM on June 1, 2005

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