Jimmy Carter is making waves: "America does not have a functioning democracy at this point in time,” he told a meeting of the American Bridge, held in Atlanta, when asked about Edward Snowden’s exposure of Washington’s secret global surveillance system. Looks like the only outlet that covered the meeting was Der Spiegel, but word is spreading and it won’t be long before the Usual Suspects start ranting about what a flake Carter is, and that he should shut up already and go lock himself in his presidential library. But think about it: for a former President to say this is unprecedented in modern times.
The NSA spying scandal, he went on to tell his audience, is subverting democracy around the world: he warned that one consequence of the Snowden revelations will be increasing suspicion of American online platforms, such as Facebook and Google, both of which he characterized as major factors energizing pro-democracy movements abroad.
Carter’s previous statements about the Snowden affair were mildly supportive: he told CNN he thought "the secrecy that has been surrounding this invasion of privacy has been excessive," and that Snowden’s bringing the secret surveillance of Americans "to the public notice has probably been, in the long term, beneficial." Yet this new statement goes way beyond that: it is a sweeping condemnation of the current regime. That a former US President would say such a thing has got to be the scariest public pronouncement I’ve heard since the Watergate era. What’s even scarier: Carter is right.
America is no longer a democracy in the sense we have traditionally meant it. This is really the essence of what Snowden has revealed. The various surveillance programs he’s exposed – PRISM, "Boundless Informant," Tempora, the telephony "meta-data" dragnet, etc. – are all tools necessary for the construction of what can only be called a police state.
An authoritarian regime has no way to measure public discontent except in this manner: since there is no free media, no political pushback to the regime’s depredations, and no way to discover what people really think, the only way to track – and crush – dissent is by spying on the population. The Soviets and their allies did this – and now it is the turn of their American successors.
Oh, but how can you say that? – I can hear the objections before they’re even vocalized. After all, America has free elections, a free (unregulated) media, and all the accouterments of a Western liberal democracy.
Except all of the above is mostly untrue.
Sure, America has elections, but how democratic are they, really? There are only two political parties in this country, and both of them are privileged by the state over all other political entities and parties: they get automatic ballot status, while other parties must jump over the most onerous hurdles to be listed on the ballot. "Third" parties are effectively outlawed. Hardly what one might expect of a nation so zealous to export "democracy" to the rest of the world, but then lack of nerve was never an American shortcoming.
Given this electoral duopoly, it is quite easy for the political Establishment to manage the system and make sure it doesn’t go "out of bounds" in nominating – or, worse, electing – a candidate dubbed too "extreme" by the Powers That Be, and so duly labeled by our compliant media. Which brings me to the "free" media question….
There is no censorship of the media in the US – because it isn’t necessary. The media censors itself quite willingly. More than that: as the Snowden affair has shown, the "mainstream" media is even more fanatical than US government officials about shutting down dissent. It was David Gregory, you’ll note, and not the Attorney General, who demanded Glenn Greenwald give a reason why he shouldn’t be arrested along with Snowden. None other than longtime respected reported Walter Pincus, of the Washington Post, echoed Gregory’s remarks. And of course there’s the minor league pundits, like MSNBC’s Joy Reid – on the "left" side of the spectrum – alongside neocons like Bill Kristol and some of the more unhinged among the Fox News crowd, who have been calling for Snowden’s head from Day One.
This is not to say there aren’t voices of dissent in America – there are. But there are similar voices in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and I don’t hear anybody hailing that country as a bastion of liberal democracy. Russia, too, has an uncensored media, and for precisely the same reason we do – because official censorship is redundant. The media self-censors without even being asked.
Okay, there’s an imprecise formulation up there: "for precisely the same reason" isn’t very … precise. The reason we stand virtually alone in the world in having a media uncensored by government is this document we call the Constitution, specifically the First Amendment, which guarantees citizens the right to speak freely. However, this right has been abridged over the years to the point that it can be violated by government officials almost at will: the WikiLeaks case proves that beyond any doubt.
The Obama administration’s war on whistleblowers is an important part of that generalized assault on the Constitution because tyranny requires one big ingredient in order to take root and metastasize: secrecy.
There are two views of the process by which the US government created a vast surveillance apparatus that scoops up virtually all data transmitted over fiber optic cables in the US and abroad. There’s the naïve liberal view, which says it was a gradual and largely undirected process that eventually got out of hand and created the infrastructure of an American police state by accident. It was all a big mistake!
This view makes zero sense, and should be dismissed out of hand. The reason: the dirty deed was done in the dark. Not even members of Congress knew about it, and those who did were forbidden from telling their constituents the truth. They could only drop hints, here and there, ambiguous warnings that Big Brother is bigger than anyone imagined. It took Snowden to unveil the face of the Leviathan for all to see.
The other view of this is mine: that the whole procedure was (and is) part of a deliberate plan, a long term project by our wise rulers to ready themselves for the day when their power confronts a serious challenge. No, I’m not talking about the American state defending itself against a terrorist attack, or any kind of external threat – I mean a homegrown threat, one perhaps provoked into action by an economic crisis or some other cathartic event.
Anybody who thinks PRISM, "Boundless Informant," Tempora, or any similar outrages against liberty still be to exposed have anything but a tangential relation to our government’s "war on terrorism" is living in a fool’s paradise. Sure, we want to spy on foreigners, as our European allies have discovered to their chagrin, but don’t kid yourself: the real purpose of the Panopticon is spying on the American people.
We are repeatedly told by regime apologists that the spying is focused on overseas calls and online communications: only if someone in America is talking to a foreign terrorist suspect do authorities investigate any further. But Chris Inglis, NSA deputy director, testified before a congressional committee the other day that his agency probes "three hops" from a link to an overseas suspect. This is an admission of a far wider reach than previously acknowledged. As Philip Bump puts it in The Atlantic:
"Think of it this way. Let’s say the government suspects you are a terrorist and it has access to your Facebook account. If you’re an American citizen, it can’t do that currently (with certain exceptions) – but for the sake of argument. So all of your friends, that’s one hop. Your friends’ friends, whether you know them or not—two hops. Your friends’ friends’ friends, whoever they happen to be, are that third hop. That’s a massive group of people that the NSA apparently considers fair game.
"For a sense of scale, researchers at the University of Milan found in 2011 that everyone on the Internet was, on average, 4.74 steps away from anyone else. The NSA explores relationships up to three of those steps. (See our conversation with the ACLU’s Alex Abdo on this.)"
Of all the key aspects of an authoritarian regime, secrecy is the most vital in effecting the transition from relative freedom to a full-fledged police state. As the foundations of the liberal democratic order are eaten away by political termites operating in the dark, the democratic polity retains its traditional republican form – but is hollow at its center. That’s why the prescient Garet Garrett called the rising statist trend in the United States a "revolution within the form" – superficially, our old republic appears intact, but the old meanings of such concepts as "democracy" and "the rule of law" have been turned on their heads. Beneath the surface, the tyrant lurks, waiting for his moment….
A real innovation of our "democratic" despotism is the introduction of secret law. One of Snowden’s greatest "crimes" was revealing the text of a routine FISA court order authorizing the massive collection of all of Verizon’s meta-data in a given time period: apparently this was one of a series of periodic court orders, issued to other providers as well, giving the government authority to vacuum up all phone records.
The FISA court isn’t really a court in the Western tradition: it is more like something that might have existed in the old Soviet Union, where everything was done in secret and there was no pretense of democratic oversight. The court meets in a special sealed-off soundproof bug-proof chamber, there are only government lawyers present making their case, and there is no public record of the court’s decisions, let alone transcripts of the proceedings. All very Soviet: all that’s lacking is a portrait of Lenin staring down on the participants in this "legal" farce.
Worse, the law itself – or, rather, the administration’s and the FISA court’s interpretation of it – is secret. We aren’t allowed to know the "legal" rationale behind the government’s sweeping data grab. It can’t be discussed in Congress, at least in open session, and can’t be contested by civil libertarians – because they won’t tell us what it is! This is a radical innovation that not even the commissars of Stalin’s Russia imagined: leave it to the US Congress, which passed and amended legislation establishing and strengthening the FISA courts, to surpass even the Soviet Politboro in its ability to fasten the noose of state power ’round the necks of its subjects.
The institutionalization of secrecy as a principal aspect of any part of our legal system represents the equivalent of gangrene in the body politic. I know this may come as a shock to some people, but without public scrutiny, government officials are just like the rest of us – liable to take the path of least resistance. The rule says there must be a "foreign" connection, but, hey, this is an important case – and just think about that promotion when they finally notice what a crack analyst I am! The rule says "three hops," but why not four? After all, who will know? Or care?
For every Snowden – and potential Snowden – there are probably dozens, if not more, NSA "analysts" who have spied on their ex-girlfriends (or ex-boyfriends), pulled a prank or two, or listened in on a few phone conversations they shouldn’t have. Like every bureaucratic monstrosity, the NSA keeps records on everything and there are no doubt internal reports of "abuse": Just wait until that comes to light! How do I know this? The general principle regarding political institutions, and, indeed, all human institutions, which goes double in the age of the Internet: dirt always floats to the surface of the toilet bowl.
Before this is over, I fully expect to see evidence of "overreaching" even within the very broad and loosely-interpreted guidelines we’re assured are in place – including specific examples of illegal intrusion by government spies on politically sensitive targets. With all that juicy data there just waiting to be mined, are you trying to tell me – in all the years our burgeoning Surveillance State been in operation – that no one in Washington has ever tried to utilize it for some personal or political advantage?
Grow up, bud: there’s a real world out there.
No, the United States isn’t any longer a free country, and one of the ways we can gauge that is the sudden emergence of a category of Americans who formerly were the rare exception rather than the increasingly common rule: political prisoners such as John Kiriakou, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, Thomas Drake (who fought them and won), all of whom have been targeted by the American government for exposing and trying to stop the biggest power grab in our history.
On the other hand, the US cannot be fairly described as an authoritarian state, either. It is on the cusp between liberty and tyranny, as is Britain, although the liberties of our cousins across the Atlantic are in a much more advanced stage of degeneration. There the most elementary rights, such as free speech, are no longer operative, and politically this is fully supported by what passes for the British "left." They have actually set up a government-media commission to decide how to regulate all media content in the UK, and, meanwhile, the EU, a supra-national authority with ultimate decision-making powers over the British people, has even more draconian "speech codes" that regulate what one may say on certain subjects. This is a trend that has taken root in American universities, and it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump before we see American "progressives" taking up the cry to ban "hate speech."
Now, wait a minute – no dictatorship can exist without popular support, or at least the simulacrum of it. Aside from the faculty lounges of certain American campuses, where does a political base for a real authoritarian regime in America – a "democratic" despotism that retains the forms of democracy, minus their content – actually exist?
I’ll tell you where it exists: in a good part of the base that fervently supported the election of Barack Obama, which we are now seeing coming out in favor of universal surveillance: the Obama cultists and the neocons. Extreme Democratic partisans have been among the most vicious calumniators of Snowden and the reporting team that divulged the details of the NSA’s global spying operation, rivaling and often surpassing the routinely vicious neocons in their ferocious denunciations of the "traitor" Snowden.
The key ingredient in bringing tyranny to America is a left-right coalition that will institutionalize the Surveillance State, and destroy the last remnants of the Bill of Rights. United on the need to continue America’s wars of aggression in the Middle East and elsewhere, this left-right coalition is closing ranks in Congress and in the hawkish wings of both parties in defense of the Surveillance State. Why do you care if the government has a record of all your emails – what do you have to hide? This is the rallying cry of a real authoritarian movement in this country, one that – like its opposition – transcends the traditional left-right paradigm.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.