Max Boot wrote an article in today’s Wall Street Journal about the possibility that the United States could become a dictatorship. The full title is “What the Snowden Acolytes Won’t Tell You: Claims that the man who revealed NSA secrets saved the U. S. from dictatorship are nonsense.” A letter to the Journal‘s editor said it’s hard to digest “Mr. Boot’s blithe contention that our democracy could ‘never’ devolve into dictatorship because our democracy is so ‘stable and secure.'”
Mr. Boot starts with incorrect premises and consequently ends with incorrect conclusions. First, you can’t draw good comparisons — or contrasts — between American politics, and instances of dictatorship in other parts of the world. American democracy is unique because it started de novo, in a new land. For almost three centuries, it developed with a large degree of insulation from the world and its contentious history. If we were to experience a strong man in power, he would be a populist like Huey Long, the Kingfish. Homicidal party leaders like Mao, Stalin, and Hitler would not gain much purchase here.
Focusing on individual, criminal leaders who become dictators is beside the point in any case. Our evolution toward tyranny is clearly oriented toward the development of the national security state, not the rise of an individual strong man. Dictatorship is not the only destination for a democracy that moves away from freedom toward something else. History has seen many forms of tyranny. Criminal, destructive dictatorships that hark to fascism and communism in the twentieth century represent only one form.
With Fourth of July fireworks still fresh, together with Edward Snowden’s disclosures, we’ve had occasion to think about the past, present, and future of American democracy. Snowden showed the reach of the U. S. government’s Fourth Amendment violations. He confirmed our most extravagant fears. Fear and anxiety, not to mention anger and cynicism, make us want to keep our bearings. To do so, we might think about four general responses to Snowden’s disclosures, which amount to responses to the trajectory of American democracy during the last twelve years.
Max Boot’s outlook represents the first response. He thinks American democracy is in good shape. It is stable and established — protected by its history and sturdiness from the forces that would undo it. For Boot, people like Snowden are like mosquitoes: a nuisance and a pest, but lightweight. We do not need to worry about Snowden’s warnings, Boot says, because our democracy is not in danger of becoming a dictatorship.
Three other views follow in descending order of optimism. All three recognize that we have moved decisively away from democracy, toward something else:
Loss of freedom is necessary to protect ourselves. We have to sacrifice some freedom, some privacy, and some democratic rights to keep ourselves safe. Our government cannot protect us if we hobble it with restrictions that prevent it from acting effectively in the country’s interest.
Loss of freedom is regrettable, but what can you do? We have moved away from our traditions of freedom and given up democratic rights, but we have to accept these changes because we cannot do anything about them.
Loss of freedom is a catastrophe — we must stop it right away. The last outlook holds that we have moved rapidly away from democratic limits on government’s power, and we have to act with equal speed to save our country.
People who hold the latter two positions may differ a lot about how far we have moved from our former democratic outlook and institutions. Where you stand now depends on your original ideas about citizenship, and about limits on governmental power. Political changes over the last decade might fuel feelings of resignation or resistance as we move further from our roots. To state the matter rather too simply: the less freedom we have, the more we resign ourselves to our diminished state, or the more urgently we feel about trying to reverse course.
Resignation these days starts to look like depression, hopelessness, or cynicism. Citizens of a democracy can’t afford to become too cynical about their government’s behavior. If they do, vigilance ends and acceptance sets in. That’s what authority likes the most, acceptance. When authority encounters resistance, as it has in Snowden’s case, it goes bonkers. It sees a concerned citizen, trying to take effective action as Daniel Ellsberg did forty-five years ago, and says he is a traitor and a spy. True citizens like Edward Snowden are by far the biggest threat a true tyranny can encounter.
Authority does not like resistance. The attitude we adopt as we observe the way our government behaves has consequences for ourselves and our country. If we agree with Max Boot that our country is in no danger from its government, we will see how quickly tyranny takes advantage of our complacency. If we agree with Edward Snowden, and follow his example, we may still succumb to the worst, but not because we misread what is happening here. We may lose our democracy and our freedom, but let’s resist this outcome with all our energy and ingenuity.