The time will inevitably come when we have to respond, again, to an overreaching government that is driven by fear. The time will inevitably come when our politicians, temporarily relieved of public scrutiny, will pass unwise legislation that challenges our civil liberties. But we no longer face the immediate danger to our civil liberties that 9/11, and its I-love-Big-Brother reaction, provoked. Last November, voters rejected the power of the establishment and selected members of the opposition party to run the legislative branch of our government. Did Republicans lose because they took the wrong positions on civil liberties issues? Generally speaking, probably not. Republicans lost because the American people had gotten their natural skepticism back. This natural skepticism is a good thing, and an essential component of the democratic system, regardless of which party benefits from it.
So I have to take issue with the people who say that the United States has become a fascist state. Yes, there was a brief period of proto-fascism following 9/11--but what defines it, and what distinguishes it from real fascism?
Fascism and Rumors of Fascism
During the 2004 election cycle, an email chain letter began circulating, attributed to one "Dr. Lawrence Britt, a political scientist," who had apparently written a 14-point article listing the defining characteristics of fascist regimes. There was something to the email, and we'll get to it in a minute, but first let's address a few misconceptions. First of all, there is no "Dr. Lawrence Britt." The author of the 14-point fascism inventory, Laurence Britt, is a former corporate executive who wrote and published a dystopian novel about right-wing extremism, titled June 2004, during the height of the Lewinsky scandal. That is, to the best of my knowledge, his only published volume.
In the real June 2004, he achieved some level of fame with an op-ed published in the humanist magazine Free Inquiry. This op-ed was forwarded around from inbox to inbox, and readers eventually began putting a "Dr." in front of his name and referring to him as a political scientist who had compiled the fascism inventory independently of the Bush administration. He had not done so, and had never claimed to do so. The article was, and had always been intended to be, an argument against the Bush administration.
Does that mean that his article is invalid? Not at all. All of the 14 points he identifies can potentially threaten our civil liberties, and they are all points that the United States has in common with the twentieth century's most frightening fascist regimes. The trouble is that they're also points that the United States has in common with many non-fascist regimes, and in some cases represent longstanding elements of U.S. political culture.
Analyzing the Fourteen Points
Let's take the first point, for example: "Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism." Well, there was certainly more of this in the weeks and months after the 9/11 attacks--I wore a flag lapel pin myself for a good while--but there was also more of this during Operation Desert Storm (anyone remember Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA"?), and at almost any point in U.S. history prior to Watergate. Any time the United States is either under attack or facing a significant military engagement overseas, Americans traditionally go out of their way to support what they see as the American way of life. People close ranks when threatened. This is not fascism; it's just human nature. But, when abused, it can be used as a point of leverage for proto-fascist ideologies.
All of the other points are similarly general. "Disdain for human rights"? At what point in our country's history could it reasonably have been argued that our government didn't have "disdain for human rights," on some level? Where was this glorious era in U.S. history when nobody practiced torture and everyone's civil rights were respected? "Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause"--again, the United States and other nations have always identified enemies and scapegoats as a unifying cause. During the Cold War, for example, it was the Soviets. Before that...well, before that was World War I and World War II. And before that, it was immigrant communities. And before that, it was regional--North versus South. And before that... I could go on. Where was the period in history when our country did not define enemies and then unfairly scapegoat entire communities under the blanket of "protecting" ourselves from those enemies?
Or we could look at item 5, "Rampant sexism," and point out that it has not been very long that women could serve in the military, that we had never had a female governor (much less a viable female presidential candidate), that we had never had a female attorney general or female secretary of state, that birth control was illegal in many states, and on and on. We could look at item 8, "Religion and the ruling elite tied together," and point out that until four decades ago, the Lord's Prayer and Bible classes were part of our public school system. We could look at item 13, "Rampant cronyism and corruption," and remember the Savings and Loan scandal, Iran-Contra, and Watergate.
None of this is to say that any one of these fourteen items couldn't destroy democracy, but if we don't recognize that they represent chronic rather than acute problems, and that they will not disappear if we elect Democrats to office, then we risk falling prey to the greatest threat to our civil liberties that we have ever known.
The Blind Eye
Mississippi's election year is in full swing; for reasons unknown to me, the framers of our state electoral process have seen fit to elect statewide officials in odd-numbered years that fall between national elections. We have two candidates for governor. One describes government as a Christian institution, vows to reintroduce "voluntary" prayer in public schools, vows to enact public school Bible classes "to teach kids right from wrong," vows to fight lesbian and gay partnership rights, vows to ban abortion, plays to anti-immigrant sentiment spurred on by undocumented and legal temporary workers on the post-Katrina coast, criticizes casino gambling, and proudly wears the state flag, with Confederate emblem, on his lapel.
The other is the incumbent Republican, who talks about lowering the unemployment rate and encouraging corporate development.
I can't pretend that the Democratic challenger is a good candidate, but saying that he isn't gets me dirty looks from people who are deeply concerned about things like church-state separation, reproductive rights, gay rights, immigrants' rights, and so forth when the person threatening those rights is a Republican instead of a Democrat.
Likewise, pointing out the excesses of the last Clinton administration, or pointing out the areas where President Bush hasn't screwed up, gets me labeled a sellout, closet Republican Party hack, or--worst of all--a moderate.
Not that Republicans have traditionally done any better. Concerned about state's rights? Then why in the name of all things Goldwater are you supporting the federalization of marriage law through the Defense of Marriage Act? Concerned about small government? Then why are you countenancing the most rapid government expansion since Roosevelt's New Deal? Concerned about nation-building? Do I even need to ask the question?
And please, let all of us--members of both parties--denounce this ridiculous sentiment, expressed by General William Boykin:
"Why is this man in the White House? The majority of America did not vote for him. He's in the White House because God put him there for a time such as this."It's one thing to say, as Giuliani reportedly did after 9/11, "Thank God George Bush is President." I think I said something like that myself at the time; "thank God" is a perfectly acceptable expression of gratitude. But if you actually treat your political leader as an infallible vessel of God, you're setting yourself up for tyranny. Can't we all agree that our party's leaders, whichever party we might gravitate towards, are fallible? That they can make mistakes? That they will make mistakes, because this is what it means to be a human being? And that if one of those mistakes happens to be that the person is violating our civil liberties in some way, we stand together as Americans and say no?
One Storm Passes, Another Looms
For a short time after 9/11, Bush was very, very popular. He wasn't just "our guy" to Republicans; he was "our guy" to the entire country. That's what made him dangerous. The fact that our civil liberties are still intact to the extent that they are is evidence that we are not drifting towards fascism--because if we were, we wouldn't still be drifting. We'd already be there.
We owe it to ourselves to stand by our own values, even when those values are being trampled upon by people we happen to like at the time. We have nothing to fear from unpopular and untrusted politicians. It's the popular and trusted politicians we need to watch out for.
And there may very well come a time when we as a country like and trust another president as much as we did Bush in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. If that time comes, and I hope it will not, then that will be the time when it is most important that we keep our eyes open.
I close with a few pieces of advice from an unlikely source. President Abraham Lincoln, who was himself (ironically) one who violated civil liberties on a large scale during a national crisis, once said: "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power." He also said (emphasis his): "Stand with anybody that stands RIGHT. Stand with him while he is right and PART with him when he goes wrong."
Our temptation will always be to stand with our leaders in times of crisis. It is fine to do this to a certain extent, but we should do so with our eyes open. In national politics, as in so many areas of life, the old investment adage applies: Trust and verify.
9/11 tested our commitment to civil liberties. Six years later, with our once-popular president now facing an opposition-led Congress and one of the lowest approval ratings in U.S. history, it is clear that we passed. But we passed with a B-, which strongly suggests that if we don't keep our eyes on the ball, the time may one day come when we are tested and fail.