A Brief Textbook of American Democracy

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While the United States is freer and more democratic than many countries, it is not, I think, either as free or as democratic as we are expected to believe, and becomes rapidly less so. Indeed we seem to be specialists in maintaining the appearance without having the substance. Regarding the techniques of which, a few thoughts:

(1) Free speech does not exist in America. We all know what we can’t say and about whom we can’t say it.

(2) A democracy run by two barely distinguishable parties is not in fact a democracy.

A parliamentary democracy allows expression of a range of points of view: An ecological candidate may be elected, along with a communist, a racial-separatist, and a libertarian. These will make sure their ideas are at least heard. By contrast, the two-party system prevents expression of any ideas the two parties agree to suppress. How much open discussion do you hear during presidential elections of, for example, race, immigration, abortion, gun control, and the continuing abolition of Christianity? These are the issues most important to most people, yet are quashed.

The elections do however allow the public a sense of participation while having the political importance of the Superbowl.

(3) Large jurisdictions discourage autonomy. If, say, educational policy were set in small jurisdictions, such as towns or counties, you could buttonhole the mayor and have a reasonable prospect of influencing your children’s schools. If policy is set at the level of the state, then to change it you have to quit your job, marshal a vast campaign costing a fortune, and organize committees in dozens of towns. It isn’t practical. In America, local jurisdictions set taxes on real estate and determine parking policy. Everything of importance is decided remotely.

(4) Huge unresponsive bureaucracies somewhere else serve as political flywheels, insulating elected officials from the whims of the populace. Try calling the Department of Education from Wyoming. Its employees are anonymous, salaried, unaccountable, can’t be fired, and don’t care about you. Many more of them than you might believe are affirmative-action hires and probably can’t spell Wyoming. You cannot influence them in the slightest. Yet they influence you.

(5) For our increasingly centralized and arbitrary government, the elimination of potentially competitive centers of power has been, and is, crucial. This is one reason for the aforementioned defanging of the churches: The faithful recognize a power above that of the state, which they might choose to obey instead of Washington. The Catholic Church in particular, with its inherent organization, was once powerful. It has been brought to heel.

Similarly the elimination of states’ rights, now practically complete, put paid to another potential source of opposition. Industry, in the days of J. P. Morgan politically potent, has been tamed by regulation and federal contracts. The military in the United States has never been politically active. The government becomes the only game available.

(6) Paradoxically, increasing the power of groups who cannot threaten the government strengthens the government: They serve as counterbalances to those who might challenge the central authority. For example, the white and male-dominated culture of the United States, while not embodied in an identifiable organization, for some time remained strong. The encouragement of dissension by empowerment of blacks, feminists, and homosexuals, and the importing of inassimilable minorities, weakens what was once the cultural mainstream.

(7) The apparent government isn’t the real government. The real power in America resides in what George Will once called the “permanent political class,” of which the formal government is a subset. It consists of the professoriate, journalists, politicians, revolving appointees, high-level bureaucrats and so on who slosh in and out of formal power. Most are unelected, believe the same things, and share a lack of respect for views other than their own.

It is they, to continue the example of education, who write the textbooks your children use, determine how history will be rewritten, and set academic standards—all without the least regard for you. You can do nothing about it.

(8) The US government consists of five branches which are, in rough order of importance, the Supreme Court, the media, the presidency, the bureaucracy, and Congress.

The function of the Supreme Court, which is both unanswerable and unaccountable, is to impose things that the congress fears to touch. That is, it establishes programs desired by the ruling political class which could not possibly be democratically enacted. While formally a judicial organ, the Court is in reality our Ministry of Culture and Morals. It determines policy regarding racial integration, abortion, pornography, immigration, the practice of religion, which groups receive special privilege, and what forms of speech shall be punished.

(9) The media have two governmental purposes. The first is to prevent discussion and, to the extent possible, knowledge of taboo subjects. The second is to inculcate by endless indirection the values and beliefs of the permanent political class. Thus for example racial atrocities committed by whites against blacks are widely reported, while those committed by blacks against whites are concealed. Most people know this at least dimly. Few know the degree of management of information.

(10) Control of television conveys control of the society. It is magic. This is such a truism that we do not always see how true it is. The box is ubiquitous and inescapable. It babbles at us in bars and restaurants, in living rooms and on long flights. It is the national babysitter. For hours a day most Americans watch it.

Perhaps the key to cultural control is that people can’t not watch a screen. It is probably true that stupid people would not watch intelligent television, but it is certainly true that intelligent people will watch stupid television. Any television, it seems, is preferable to no television. As people read less, the lobotomy box acquires semi-exclusive rights to their minds.

Television doesn’t tell people what to do. It shows them. People can resist admonition. But if they see something happening over and over, month after month, if they see the same values approvingly portrayed, they will adopt both behavior and values. It takes years, but it works. To be sure it works, we put our children in front of the screen from infancy.

(11) Finally, people do not want freedom. They want comfort, two hundred channels on the cable, sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, an easy job and an SUV. No country with really elaborate home-theater has ever risen in revolt. An awful lot of people secretly like being told what to do. We would probably be happier with a king.

Fred Reed [send him mail] is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.

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