As a nation, we’ve been slipping and sliding downward for many months. The first sign of fraying — if not outright disintegration — of the fabric of our society could be seen in our inability and/or unwillingness to talk openly, productively about the issues that face us. This led rather quickly to a profound alienation that prevented discussion altogether. I began writing several years ago that this was something being done to us, not something we would have chosen on our own, and that it was by malevolent design.¹ That it wasn’t an organic, natural evolution but, instead, a product of specific acts designed to force us into opposing, warring camps. And we, for the most part, have allowed it to happen. In many ways, we’ve come to support and, worse, sustain it. Some no doubt even like it, thinking ‘Finally, we can say out loud what we’ve been thinking for years.’ Such is the nature of our unraveling.
From a functional democracy standpoint, things have continued to deteriorate since then. Dramatically so. Want a good scare? Check out Timothy Snyder’s book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.² It’s a short read, one you won’t soon forget — and one every American, anyone interested in preserving our democracy, regardless of your political affiliation, should read. An introductory quote by Leszek Kolakowski, a mid-20th century Polish philosopher and historian, sets the stage perfectly: ‘In politics, being deceived is no excuse.’ Snyder’s message: we are all being taken for a ride to a place we’d likely never want to visit, much less live. A ride we may never fully recover from.
The place Snyder describes is The State of Tyranny (caps added). A society in which power is absolute and consolidated without legal right. A state far from democracy, in a reality diametrically opposed to our constitution, to our American way of life.
What does such a place look like? History suggests that there are 15 defining characteristics. Some are based on Snyder’s beliefs, others are drawn from the step-wise progression in countries that were taken down the dark path to tyranny.³ While perusing the list, please note that the term ‘president’ is used here generically. It is not used to denote our current president but, instead, any ruler of a country. The characteristics, listed in the order in which they typically emerged in other countries experiencing the transition from some form of democracy to a state of tyranny, include:
1. ‘Truth’ and ‘facts’ are defined by the president and the administration, while science is denigrated. In the process, the president, by virtue of his or her self-aggrandizement, assumes the role of the country’s savior.
2. Scapegoats are blamed for the country’s ills. Issues related to jobs and crime — which are often contrived — are assigned to immigrants and specific minority(s) in order to alienate, unify the base, and justify aggressive actions to remedy the ‘country’s serious problems.’ Leaders of a tyrannical state need villains. If none exist, they must be created.
3. Intimidation rules supreme. Coercion and the threat of retribution are used to control political rivals and allies alike.
4. Competitors are isolated, vilified and/or punished for their opposition. Those who criticize the president or question his or her motives or decisions (e.g., the press, others in public or private life) are often labeled ‘unpatriotic,’ ‘traitors’ and/or ‘the enemy of the people.’
5. Voting rights of minority groups are suppressed. The ruling party takes active steps to inhibit voting among demographic groups likely to hold opposing views in order to maintain control. Targeted groups are typically defined by age (especially the young), ethnicity, and/or economic status.
6. The judicial system, historically intended to be wholly independent of the executive branch, is attacked, weakened, and/or fully controlled by the president.
7. The rule of law, as defined by the country’s constitution, is ignored and, later, invalidated, as the president assumes ever-greater authority.
8. Power is further centralized by co-opting government functions (i.e., the judicial system, the foreign service, the budget, the military).
9. With the support and blessing of the ruling class, the president is elevated to something equivalent to a king with absolute authority and runs the country with few, if any, limitations.
10. Supporters of the president are given preferential treatment — both financially and legally to increase personal wealth and/or avoid legal ramifications of their behavior or the behavior of their businesses — assuming their public advocacy of the president is strong and continues unabated.
11. Allocated budgeted funds are controlled not by Congress but by the president and his allies, with preferred projects receiving funding without concern for the law or the approval process.
12. The national debt, which grows unchecked, becomes the burden of the people, not the ruling class.
13. The president profits handsomely from decisions he or she makes while in office (above and beyond the usual book deals and speaking engagements).
14. Funding of local and social services declines as the national debt rises. Investment in local services, maintenance and infrastructure diminishes over time as the national debt increases and income to the state is channeled to favored monopolies.
15. The ruling class profits disproportionately as a result of preferential treatment from the government. In the extreme, the country is operated as a private commercial enterprise for the exclusive profit of the ruling class, in which profit, derived from the private exploitation of public lands, is enabled by the collusion of the state, elected officials, and favored economic monopolies.
This last characteristic, although quite a mouthful, helps explain why tyranny is enabled and sustained: it is incredibly profitable for those in the ruling class. Absolute power and near-unlimited profit are yours for the taking.
Regardless of your political affiliation, I hope we can agree that tyranny is something we need to avoid. Ideally, at all costs. Because once it becomes reality, it is difficult — if impossible — to eradicate. And, critically, because a democratic society is far superior to that of a tyrannical state. Just ask anyone who has ever been forced to survive one.
So, I leave you with two questions on this Presidents’ Day:
1. How far from democracy have we fallen? And,
2. Assuming we are sliding ever closer to a state of tyranny, what can we do about it?
These and other questions will be answered next week, along with the introduction of The Tyranny Index. In the meantime, read Snyder’s book and stay vigilant. It’s going to take all of us to save the republic.
² Snyder, Timothy, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Tim Duggan Books, 2017.
³ See: Germany, Italy, Venezuela, Chile, Russia, North Korea, Pakistan and Zaire, among others