Has America Become an Authoritarian State?
The debate in both Washington and the mainstream media over austerity measures, the alleged fiscal cliff and the looming debt crisis not only function to render anti-democratic pressures invisible, but also produce what the late sociologist C. Wright Mills once called "a politics of organized irresponsibility." For Mills, authoritarian politics developed, in part, by making the operations of power invisible while weaving a network of lies and deceptions through what might be called a politics of disconnect. That is, a politics that focuses on isolated issues that serve to erase the broader relations and historical contexts that give them meaning. These isolated issues become flashpoints in a cultural and political discourse that hide not merely the operations of power, but also the resurgence of authoritarian ideologies, modes of governance, policies and social formations that put any viable notion of democracy at risk. Decontextualized ideas and issues, coupled with the overflow of information produced by the new electronic media, make it more difficult to create narratives that offer historical understanding, relational connections and developmental sequences. The fragmentation of ideas and the cascade of information reinforce new modes of depoliticization and authoritarianism.
At the same time, more important issues are buried in the fog of what might be called isolated and manufactured crises, that when given legitimacy, actually benefit the wealthy and hurt working- and middle-class individuals and families. Gerald Epstein rightly argues that the debate about the fiscal cliff is
a debacle on the part of the Obama administration and for progressives and for workers and for families. It's a real disaster.... We shouldn't be having to sit here talking about this; we should be talking about what are going to do about the employment cliff or the climate change cliff. But instead we're talking about this fiscal cliff, which is a manufactured crisis.
The fiscal cliff argument is manufactured both in that it is not a real crisis (except for its impact on poor and middle-class families), and it serves as a diversion from pressing issues ranging from mass unemployment and widespread poverty, to the housing crisis and the student debt bomb. Moreover, it undermines understanding how these various problems are interrelated ideologically and structurally as part of an assault by religious and market fundamentalists on all aspects of public life that address the common good.
The expanded reach of politics in this discourse of distraction shrinks, and in doing so separates private troubles from public considerations, while undermining any broader understanding of the confluence of socio-economic-cultural interests and interrelated issues and problems that characterize a particular age. For instance, the debate on gun control says little about the deep-rooted culture of symbolic and structural violence that nourishes America's infatuation with guns and its attraction to the spectacle of violence. Similarly, the mainstream debate over taxing the rich refuses to address this issue through a broader analysis of a society that is structurally wedded to producing massive inequities in income and wealth along with the considerable suffering and hardships produced by such social disparities.
In this denuded notion of politics, the connection between facts and wider theoretical frameworks and the connection between politics and power disappear just as the relationship between private troubles and larger social realities are covered over. Under such circumstances, politics is cleansed of its extremist elements and informed modes of dissent are not only marginalized but also actively suppressed, as was obvious in the FBI surveillance of Occupy Wall Street protesters and the police's ruthless suppression of student dissenters on campuses across the country.
Blind Publics in an Authoritarian Age