Totalitarianism: Can It Happen in America?

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What does totalitarianism look like? In the 20th century, it took the form of secret police violently silencing anyone who spoke out against the government. Now, it has a very different face — one we should be wary of just the same. Rod Dreher, author of Live Not By Lies, explains.

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Here’s the good news:

The secret police are not coming with guns to take you away to a prison camp in a frozen wasteland for speaking out against the government. They did that in Communist countries in the twentieth century. It’s not going to happen here in America or in Western Europe.  

Here’s the bad news:

The secret police aren’t coming for you because they don’t have to. There are ways to shut you up and keep you quiet that don’t involve physical force. The powers that be—and that now includes major corporations, the educational establishment, the media, and the government—can just kick you off the Internet, put you on a no-fly list, and bar you from using the banking system. 

We can describe scenario number one as hard totalitarianism and scenario number two as soft totalitarianism. 

There are big differences between them, but in the end, you arrive at the same place—submission and silence. 

To grasp the threat of totalitarianism—hard or soft—it’s important to understand exactly what it means. 

According to the famous political scholar Hannah Arendt, a totalitarian society is one in which an ideology seeks to displace all prior traditions and institutions, with the goal of bringing all aspects of society under control of that ideology. 

The state literally defines and controls reality. Truth is whatever the rulers decide it is. 

These rulers might say something like… 

Men can have babies. 

Or,

Skin color is more important than character.

Or,

The American Revolution was fought not for freedom, but to protect the colonists' slave interests. 

Or,

Those who resist a vaccine mandate are enemies of the people.

And insist that you not only believe it but affirm it.

If you don’t, you might lose your job, your business, and your good name. 

That dystopian future, of course, is now. And, we’re only at the beginning of this process. 

Where does it lead?

To less freedom—that much we know.

Again, no guns, no violence—we just go along. Nobody kicks the door down. We open the door and invite them in. 

The more information the government has about you, and the more the tech sector can see what you’re doing and saying online, the easier it is to monitor your behavior. 

How long before the government creates a digital profile of each citizen? 

And how would the government use that profile? 

It might go like this:

If you do socially positive things—as defined by the government—nothing really changes.  You can do whatever you want. Maybe you’re even rewarded for good behavior—a faster internet connection, preferred medical treatment, or even the best seats at a concert. If you do socially negative things—again as defined by the government—you lose privileges. You’re pushed to the margins of society. You become a non-person.

Sound far-fetched? 

It shouldn’t. It’s happening right now in China. 

It happened in Russia and Eastern Europe not that long ago. Talk to anyone who lived behind the Iron Curtain, and they will tell you we are headed down a dangerous road. 

 “No,” you say, “It can’t happen here—in the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

I wouldn’t be so sure. 

Ronald Reagan famously observed that freedom can be lost in a single generation. That’s because the human inclination is not toward liberty, but security. 

Freedom is a value, not an instinct. 

It entails personal responsibility and risk. Security requires little risk and little personal responsibility. So, it comes with little freedom.

That’s why every new generation must be taught the supreme importance of freedom and develop the strength of character to maintain it. 

Of course, the people who want to take away our freedom say they’re doing it in the name of compassion—for the many victims of oppression. 

Unlike the Bolsheviks of the old Soviet Union, the left of today’s America gets its way not by shedding blood, but by shedding tears.

Don’t be fooled. The objective is always the same—submission and silence. 

So, how do we stop the drift toward soft totalitarianism? This is not an easy question, but we can create a base from which we can start to act. 

Let it be this: 

You may not have the strength to stand up in public and say what you really believe, but you can at least refuse to affirm what you do not believe. 

You cannot overthrow this soft totalitarianism on your own, but if enough of us find within ourselves, our families, and our communities the means and the courage to live in the dignity of truth, no matter what it costs, we can keep America free.

Otherwise, we will learn how easy it is to become a totalitarian country—soft or hard.

I’m Rod Dreher, author of Live Not by Lies, for Prager University.