11, 2001, hastened a significant shift in our
nation's self-understanding. It became commonplace
to refer to an "American empire" and to the United
States as "the world's only superpower."
of those formulations, try to conceive of ones
like "superpower democracy" or "imperial democracy,"
and they seem not only contradictory but opposed
to basic assumptions that Americans hold about
their political system and their place within
it. Supposedly ours is a government of constitutionally
limited powers in which equal citizens can take
part in power. But one can no more assume that
a superpower welcomes legal limits than believe
that an empire finds democratic participation
administration before George W. Bush's ever claimed
such sweeping powers for an enterprise as vaguely
defined as the "war against terrorism" and the
"axis of evil." Nor has one begun to consume such
an enormous amount of the nation's resources for
a mission whose end would be difficult to recognize
even if achieved.
previous forms of totalitarianism, the Bush administration
boasts a reckless unilateralism that believes
the United States can demand unquestioning support,
on terms it dictates; ignores treaties and violates
international law at will; invades other countries
without provocation; and incarcerates persons
indefinitely without charging them with a crime
or allowing access to counsel.
drive toward total power can take different forms,
as Mussolini's Italy, Hitler's Germany and Stalin's
Soviet Union suggest.
American system is evolving its own form: "inverted
totalitarianism." This has no official doctrine
of racism or extermination camps but, as described
above, it displays similar contempt for restraints.
also has an upside-down character. For instance,
the Nazis focused upon mobilizing and unifying
the society, maintaining a continuous state of
war preparations and demanding enthusiastic participation
from the populace. In contrast, inverted totalitarianism
exploits political apathy and encourages divisiveness.
The turnout for a Nazi plebiscite was typically
90 percent or higher; in a good election year
in the United States, participation is about 50
example: The Nazis abolished the parliamentary
system, instituted single-party rule and controlled
all forms of public communication. It is possible,
however, to reach a similar result without seeming
to suppress. An elected legislature is retained
but a system of corruption (lobbyists, campaign
contributions, payoffs to powerful interests)
short-circuits the connection between voters and
their representatives. The system responds primarily
to corporate interests; voters become cynical,
resigned; and opposition seems futile.
Nazi control of the media meant that only the
"official story" was communicated, that result
is approximated by encouraging concentrated ownership
of the media and thereby narrowing the range of
can be augmented by having "homeland security"
envelop the entire nation with a maze of restrictions
and by instilling fear among the general population
by periodic alerts raised against a background
of economic uncertainty, unemployment, downsizing
and cutbacks in basic services.
instead of outlawing all but one party, transform
the two-party system. Have one, the Republican,
radically change its identity:
a moderately conservative party to a radically
a party of isolationism, skeptical of foreign
adventures and viscerally opposed to deficit spending,
to a party zealous for foreign wars.
a party skeptical of ideologies and eggheads into
an ideologically driven party nurturing its own
intellectuals and supporting a network that transforms
the national ideology from mildly liberal to predominantly
conservative, while forcing the Democrats to the
right and and enfeebling opposition.
one that maintains space between business and
government to one that merges governmental and
corporate power and exploits the power-potential
of scientific advances and technological innovation.
(This would differ from the Nazi warfare organization,
which subordinated "big business" to party leadership.)
resulting dynamic unfolded spectacularly in the
technology unleashed against Iraq and predictably
in the corporate feeding frenzy over postwar contracts
for Iraq's reconstruction.
institutionalizing the "war on terrorism" the
Bush administration acquired a rationale for expanding
its powers and furthering its domestic agenda.
While the nation's resources are directed toward
endless war, the White House promoted tax cuts
in the midst of recession, leaving scant resources
available for domestic programs. The effect is
to render the citizenry more dependent on government,
and to empty the cash-box in case a reformist
administration comes to power.
are now facing a grim situation with no easy solution.
Perhaps the just-passed anniversary of the Declaration
of Independence might remind us that "whenever
any form of Government becomes destructive ..."
it must be challenged.
S. Wolin is emeritus professor of politics at
Princeton University and the author of "Politics
and Vision: The Presence of the Past" and "Alexis
de Tocqueville: Between Two Worlds."
© 2003, Newsday, Inc.
August 25, 2003