With the urgency of Thomas Paine’s revolutionary pamphlets, Naomi Wolf issues a warning to a young patriot that democracy is fragile. That the democracy he expects to inherit is in the process of being altered forever. Wolf identifies the ten steps that must be taken to shut down democracy. She shows how those steps were implemented in dictatorships around the world and where America is in the process of meeting each of those steps. We take our liberty for granted. We think it eternal, unchanging. But our founders would be shocked, they would think us naive. They knew the abuses of the Crown. They knew how easily freedom could be lost. How natural tyranny is for a leader. They had fled repressive societies to come to America. They had first hand experience with criminalized speech, arbitrary arrests, show trials, state sanctioned torture and murder. This is why they spent so much time on the system they put in place to protect our liberty. They put in real checks and balances to restrain each branch of government to prevent them from stripping our personal liberty. We think, this is America, it can’t happen here. We have lawyers, scholars, activists, and politicians—experts on the constitution to protect our rights. But the founders did not intend for us to contract out the job to professionals, people with their own agenda, they expected the people, ordinary people, like you and me to govern ourselves; a government of the people, for the people and by the people. Wolf notes that, “Americans tend to see democracy and fascism as all-or-nothing categories. But it isn’t the case that there is a pure, static ‘democracy’ in the white squares of a chessboard and a pure, static, ‘fascism’ in the black squares. Rather there is a range of authoritarian regimes, dictatorships, and varieties of fascist state, just as there are stronger and weaker democracies—and waxing and waning democracies. There are many shades of gray on the spectrum from an open to a closed society.”
Wolf uses Hannah Arendt’s definition of totalitarianism; defining totalitarianism as a mass movement with a leadership that requires “total domination of the individual.” And she uses the Columbia Encyclopedia’s definition for fascism; which defines fascism as a “philosophy of government that glorifies the state and nation and assigns to the state control over every aspect of national life….Its essentially vague and emotional nature facilitates the development of unique national varieties, whose leaders often deny indignantly that they are fascist at all.” Wolf explains that that both Italian and German fascism came to power legally and incrementally through functioning democracies. They used legislation, cultural pressure, baseless imprisonment, and torture, to progressively consolidate their power. Wolf uses the Concise Oxford Dictionary’s definition for authoritarian, defining it as “favoring, encouraging, or enforcing strict obedience to authority, as opposed to individual freedom.” She sees this definition as an apt description of our current executive, who has disregarded the restraints of the other two branches of government. Wolf comments that, “Unfortunately, while it is difficult to sustain an open society, history shows that is fairly simple to close one down. The same ten steps have shut down democracies all over the world at many different times. And these steps are no secret: after all, Mussolini studied Lenin; Hitler studied Mussolini; Stalin studied Hitler; and Chinese communist leaders studied Stalin, and so on….Is the United States in 2007 parallel to Italy in1922 or Germany in 1933, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Chile in 1973, or China in 1989? No. But over the past six years we have been watching the United States move closer to becoming a more closed society.” The first step in closing down an open society is to invoke an external and internal threat. This is essential because citizens will not easily give up freedom, but it is human nature to trade freedom for security. The enemy’s role is functional and the fascist leader must not eliminate the enemy but maintain him as the enemy. The enemy may be very real, but fascist leader mobilizes the passions of the population in a battle of good against evil, stirring a passionate nationalism. Wolf elucidates on Robert Paxton’s observation that, “Among the themes that fascist elites develop when they are driving towards an authoritarian system are: a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions; the belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without moral or legal limits, against its enemies, both internal and external; and the superiority of the leaders instincts over abstract universal reason.”
The second step is to establish secret prisons. The fifth amendment assures us that “no person shall be…deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The sixth amendment assures us that, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury….and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witness against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Council for his defense.” These right have long standing roots. The Magna Carta, signed in 1215, held that everyone deserves some kind of judicial process before being thrown into prison. This right to not be thrown into jail randomly was strengthened with habeas corpus in 1679. Habeas corpus means that if they throw you in jail, you have the right to see the evidence against you, face your accuser, and have a hearing before an impartial judge or jury to establish whether you have committed the crime you have been accused of. Wolf asserts that, “Just as habeas corpus, or some equivalent procedure, is the cornerstone of virtually every democracy, so is a secret prison system without habeas corpus is the cornerstone of every dictatorship. You cannot push an open society into submission without a secret prison or, more effective still, a system of secret prisons . By ‘secret prison,’ I mean a prison system that is not accountable and is beyond the rule of law. Building a secret prison system beyond the rule of law permits everything else that follows. Without the real threat of such a secret prison system, citizens speak up, activists are forceful, and democracy is stubborn.” These secret prison systems, initially, only target people seen by the rest of the population as being ‘evil.’ The prisons, their mistreatment, and torture of prisoners are generally accepted with approval. They make the general citizen feel safer; they cannot imagine that they might be subjected to such mistreatment. But then the mission creep begins. The mission expands, slowly or quickly, to seize civil-society leaders, journalists, clergy and the political opposition. In Federalist No, 83, Alexander Hamilton noted that, “Arbitrary impeachments, arbitrary methods of prosecuting pretended offenses, and arbitrary punishments upon arbitrary convictions have ever appeared to me to be the great engines of judicial despotism.”
The third step is the development of a paramilitary force. Wolf notes that, “Because the colonists had experienced abuse at the hand of soldiers of an occupying army, the Founders set up our system to prohibit the rise of unaccountable armies on our soil. That is why the Founders gave the states the right to establish Militias accountable only to the people. In contrast, a would-be dictator never bypasses the step—key among the ten steps—of creating a paramilitary force accountable only to himself.” We have seen the rise of a paramilitary force inside the United States, and it is available for action outside the scrutiny of congress. The for-profit paramilitary force, Blackwater, has found itself virtually unregulated by any legal system. Wolf asserts that, “The president—or anyone with the cash—now has access to a paramilitary force that includes some of the world’s most vicious thugs. And the president can now direct a private army of highly trained men who are not accountable to Congress—exactly one of the possibilities our Founders feared.” The fourth step is the surveillance of ordinary citizens. Tyrants place populations under surveillance as means of control. Their scrutiny breaks down a citizen’s sense that he can act freely against those in power. The surveillance erodes citizen loyalty to civil and professional groups and redirects that loyalty to the state. Dictators defend the surveillance on the grounds of national security. Wolf says that, “The USA PATRIOT Act set the stage for booksellers, librarians, and even doctors to have to turn over to the state information about Americans that had private up until then. You might ask why you should worry about that if you are doing nothing wrong, but as Wolf asserts, “That faith presupposes that no one can get away with using your words or actions against you unfairly. This is a good assumption in a working democracy—but disastrous naiveté in a fascist shift.”
The fifth step is to infiltrate citizen’s groups. Wolf explained that, “Dictatorships and would-be dictators routinely infiltrate legal citizen groups and report back to the group in power or seeking power. Historically, infiltrators are also directed to disrupt or harass such organization. The goal: to make sure that it becomes too costly and nerve-wracking to act out as a citizen.” Dictators often send ‘agents provocateurs’ to marches and rallies with the intent to provoke violence, which set up the protestors to look like a danger to society. This provides a rationale for the dictator to declare martial law as a means to ‘restore order.’ The sixth step is to arbitrarily detain and release citizens. Because you could not be arbitrarily detained in the United States, protests have been a part of our history. But that is changing. We know that since 9/11 the government has compiled lists of suspected terrorists. We don’t know who on the list, how you end up on the list, there is no way to get off the list. CBS’s 60 Minutes obtained a copy of the list; it was 540 pages long with 75,000 names on it. The fourth amendment protects us from unreasonable search and seizure. Colonial Americans knew first hand what it was like to have the British crown, under a general warrant invade their home and their privacy to search their belongings. A general warrant permitted them to go wherever they wanted without having to demonstrate to a magistrate that there was a reason to search the person’s home. Brandon Mayfield, a ordinary yuppie lawyer, living in Portland Oregon, came home with his family to discover his home had been broken into, his law office searched and his computer seized. The FBI Claimed his fingerprints were found on evidence from the Madrid bombings, but the Spanish government protested that the fingerprints did not match. Ignoring the facts, the FBI had him jailed for two weeks in 2004, including solitary confinement in the prisons mental ward. Then all charges were dropped. This is exactly the kind of behavior on the part of the government that our founders were trying to protect us from with the fourth amendment.
The seventh step is to target key individuals. Wolf informs us that, “All dictators or would-be dictators strategically target key individuals. Job loss or career setbacks are the first kind of pressures these people are likely to face.” In 2001, the National Science Foundation stated that grants would no longer go to research that undermine the Bush administration agenda. Professors across the country have found themselves pressured to conform their teaching to current administrations policies. Entertainers have felt this same pressure, with their patriotism questioned if they criticize the administration. As the U.S. Attorney scandal revealed, by the firing of judges for political reasons, the cost for civil servants could be the end of your career if you did not pass partisan muster. The eighth step is to restrict the press. Wolf maintains that, “In all dictatorships targeting the free press begins with political pressure—loud, angry, campaigns for the news to be represented in a way that supports the group that seeks dominance. Attacks escalate to smears, designed to shame members of the press personally; then editors face pressure to fire journalists who are not parroting the party line. A caste of journalist and editors who support the regime develops, whether out of conviction, a wish for advancement, or fear.” Wolf continues, observing that, “America is still a fairly open society in which assertions can be independently verified and a thriving Internet community can tear apart false allegations. Even in the United States, though opinion is being penalized, and false news is being disseminated which disorients the public.” In 2004, the Bush administration appointed Kenneth Tomlinson as chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He hired a hired a firm to assess the political leaning of PBS programming, so that he could eliminate ‘liberal’ bias. During the Revolutionary era, farmers artisans, and small shopkeepers read and wrote pamphlets. Today’s equivalent is the blogger. Wolf calls on ordinary citizens to publish online, becoming rigorous and fearless documentarians and reporters—to not just critique the news, but to generate the news. Our original patriots did not subcontract out the task of speaking up to a professional pundit class. They contributed their voice to the crafting of the Constitution and the life of the new nation.
The ninth step is to cast criticism as ‘espionage’ and dissent as ‘treason.’ Article three of the U.S. Constitution states that, “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” Our founders found themselves harassed and intimidated by accusations of treason, so they intentionally made it difficult to label someone as a traitor. Wolf contends that in a fascist shift, “Leaders introduce and then seek to establish new categories of offenses that criminalize citizens’ ideas, action or speech. This is an important turning point. The next step is that new laws or new interpretations of existing laws attach criminal penalties for these acts of ‘treason.’ As this verbal ‘third rail’ becomes established, certain subjects become too charged to address, or begin to be avoided altogether, because addressing them carries possible criminal penalties.” History has shown that these kinds of shifts from inflammatory accusation to criminal charges can occur very quickly. The tenth step is to subvert the rule of law. Americans have great faith in the democratic social contract, we expect out leaders to play by the rules. But as Naomi observes that, “Fascists coming to power in a weakened democracy simply start to ignore those assumed agreements. What has happened in the past is that at a certain point in a weakening democracy, would-be dictators pretend that everything is as it should be, but simply stop responding to the will of the people and the representatives. While the nation is trying to grapple with this interim period, then such leaders deploy sudden unexpected changes that assertively upend Parliamentary protocols and expectations…At this point in a weaker democracy than ours, the police forces and the army are negotiated with. In any late shift, the final stage is the establishment of government by emergency decree or actual martial law and the leader’s assertion—usually using the law to defend this assertion—that he is above the law, or that he is the law: he is the decider.” The Fiscal Year 2007 Defense Authorization Bill contained a provision that guts the Posse Comitatus Act, which gives control to the states over their National Guard units. This enables the president to send in the National Guard to quell a protest against the wishes of both the state in which the protest is occurring and the state in which the soldiers come from. Previously only insurrection would have permitted the president to deploy troops as a domestic police force, but he now can do so under any ‘emergency.’ Naomi notes that, “The Revolutionaries were certain that an American president, if he were not checked, might raise a standing army of Americans and unleash them against American citizens…The Framers believed that this kind of military aggression was not possible as long as the Constitution functioned: they could not foresee The Fiscal Year 2007 Defense Authorization Bill. Nor could they have foreseen the development of private armies such as Blackwater.” History has shown us that without checks and balances leaders will be tempted to maintain emergency powers after the crisis has subsided. He will be tempted to enforce his will through edict rather than submitting to the arduous process of negotiation and compromise.
Wolf concludes by telling her young patriot that we must, “hold house parties, set up town halls, convene our neighbors, pass out users’ guides to the Constitution, overwhelm our representatives, and the Presidential candidates with demands for them to restore the rule of law. ...Bullies are cowards: Time and again, when people have awakened to danger and risen together to confront those who have sought to oppress them, citizens in their thousands have crumbled walls and broken open massive prisons. …When this happens, there is no power that can hold these patriots back. I hope that this emboldens you.”