US citizens of almost all political stripes tend to live their lives ignorant of what the government that operates in their name is really up to. Some of this is due to the government’s obsession with secrecy and some of it is due to the people’s political naivete (or ignorance). Perhaps the only exceptions to this statement are those that exist on what are considered the fringes of US political discourse. Thanks in part to this ignorance, most US residents live their lives unaware of the police state author Andrew Kolin describes in his recently published book State Power and Democracy: Before and During the Presidency of George W. Bush.
This isn’t just another book raging against the excesses of the George Bush administration. In fact, it is a historical survey of the slow but steady journey of the US polity towards an authoritarian regime designed to protect a relative few from the democratic urgings of the people. Kolin begins his book with a brief look at the debates over the writing of the US Constitution and its eventual incarnation as a blueprint for a centralized authority whose intention was to keep government away from the hoi polloi. Adjunct to this endeavor was a desire to expand the nation. This was done by killing the indigenous peoples living on the land to be expanded into. In order to justify this genocide, it was necessary to delineate the natives as something other than human. According to Kolin, the need for such an “other” is essential to the development of an authoritarian state. The Native Americans and the African slaves filled the need quite nicely given their obvious physical and cultural differences.
Another aspect of Kolin’s proposition that differentiates it from so many other commentaries that have been written on the police state tactics of the Bush administration is his contention that the US police state is not a future possibility. It already exists. We are living in it. He backs up this contention with an argument that dissects the elements generally considered essential to the definition of a police state and applies them to the present day United States. From torture to propaganda techniques; from the government’s ability to eavesdrop on anyone to its ability to wage war at will–these are but a few of the indices Kolin examines in his study. According to Kolin, however, the ultimate indicator of a police state is defined by whether or not the leader of a particular government (in this case, that of the United States) exists above the laws of the nation and the world. In other words, if the leader does something, is it ever illegal? Kolin provides multiple examples of every administration since Abraham Lincoln’s operating in a vein suggesting that they all operated in this way at times. However, it was not until the inauguration of George W. Bush and the events of September 11, 2001, that the word of the president became a law onto its own. When George Bush said he was “the decider” he wasn’t joking. He and every president to follow him truly have that power. They can decide who to kill, who to spy on, who to lock up, and who to attack without any restriction other than their own morality. Furthermore, they can also determine how such actions are to be done. As far as the presidency is concerned, no laws–not the Bill of Rights nor the Geneva Conventions–apply.
The march towards this police state that Kolin describes is best characterized by the phrase “two steps forward, one step back.” Historically, for every presidential administration where excesses occurred, there followed another that saw a relaxation of some of those excesses. The repression of the Palmer Raids was followed by a decade where the Communist Party became legal; the McCarthy Era was followed by a relaxation of the anti-communist hysteria in the 2960s; Nixon’s attempts to subvert the democratic process were answered with convictions and a series of laws that were supposed to prevent similar excesses. Yet, the march towards authoritarianism continued its quiet goosestep. Nowhere was this more obvious than in US foreign policy. After the US turmoil around its war against the Vietnamese, Congress passed a War Powers Act that supposedly limited the president’s ability to send US troops to other nations. In answer, every single president afterward pushed the limits of that law so that by the 1980s it was meaningless. Other attempts to limit the White House’s ability to make war like the Boland amendment which made arming the Nicaraguan Contras illegal were just ignored. By the time Bill Clinton took power in 1991, the ability of the president to attack whenever and wherever was no longer seriously challenged by Congress, leaving the White House in sole control of the nations’ military might.
The nation described in Kolin’s book is a fearful one. It is a nation whose agents torture at will and whose military wages war for no apparent reason other than profit and power. It is a nation whose political police forces operate as both judge and jury and often fail to leave their personal prejudices at home. It is a nation whose judicial system rarely interprets a law different than the chief executive and when it does that executive ignores the ruling. It is a nation where so many of its citizens live their lives under the illusion that the authoritarian rule they increasingly live with is somehow protecting them. It is a nation that refuses to prosecute officials including the former president that were involved in torture that violated domestic and international laws. Finally, according to Kolin, it is a nation without redemption that will see the powers of the police state continue to grow unless its people wake up and dismantle it.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org