The United States is a police state. Not in danger of becoming one. Is. And it's too late to restore democracy.
That's the stark message of Andrew Kolin's brave, lucid and important book State Power and Democracy: Before and During the Presidency of George W. Bush.
Kolin comes out swinging: Illusions about America as a democracy, much less a benevolent one, don't stand a chance. The United States, Kolin says, shares all the major attributes of a Third World police state: a constant state of emergency; sidestepping of laws by the government; excessive secrecy; the use of preventative detention and holding enemies of the state without filing formal charges; the manufacturing of reasons to go to war.
"The expansion of state power over the course of U.S. history came at the expense of democracy," Kolin begins. "As state power grew, there developed a disconnect between the theory and practice of democracy in the United States. Ever-greater state power meant it became more and more absolute. This resulted in a government that directed its energies and resources toward silencing those who dared question the state's authority."
Some find Kolin's deadpan delivery disconcerting or depressing. I think it refreshingly honest. Notice the past tense? The United States is over. It's always been over. Creeping authoritarianism, Kolin says, began "not long after the end of the Revolutionary War."
A hundred pages in, you'll either be stuffing rags into Molotov cocktails or slitting your wrists. I was surprised to learn that Kolin is a professor at Hilbert College in upstate New York. His methodical walk through U.S. history feels like a tight legal brief.
The fix was in from the start. "The framers [of the U.S. Constitution] needed to establish a government that could promote and protect property, regulate the economy, create an elaborate infrastructure, and acquire native Indian lands, adhering to the policy of North American expansion, while allowing the democratic surge from below to be both expressed and contained," Kolin writes.
Where the book becomes indispensable is its last third, focusing on the Clinton, Bush and early Obama administrations. This, the author argues, is when American citizens lost our basic freedoms and civil liberties.
For Kolin, the USA Patriot Act, passed in haste by a cowardly Congress that hadn't had time to read it after 9/11, marks the final end of formal democracy in the United States.
I can imagine one logical objection to Kolin's thesis. The government may have the right to oppress, but it is not impelled to do so. So long as officials are well-intentioned, stout of heart and full of integrity, they will refrain from abusing the rights they claim against us.
However, our government is not run by such individuals. And even if it were, who would want to live in a nation where the difference between democracy and dictatorship relies on the whims of a coterie of elites?
Though "a glimmer of hope seemed to appear after President Obama took office," Kolin shows how the Democratic president "merely modified police state practices."If you've somehow managed to ignore Obama's record over the last few years, and you're still thinking of voting for him next November, this book will change your mind.