Two-Choice Tyranny


In these United States, we are proud of our nontotalitarian system. We call ourselves a “democracy,” and — good for us! — we have actual choices. But how many of us really know that?

A totalitarian political system is, essentially, an exclusive operation: a done deal. What makes it totalitarian is that it serves a closed system of big-government power. But is our own, in its present condition, so very different? It certainly offers us a proposition more seductive than the mailed-fist slam dunk of power characteristic of North Korea, Nazi Germany, or the former Soviet Union. Since we get two choices instead of one, we are assured that we are truly “free to choose.”

Those choices are, however, very narrowly defined. We are pressed to choose only between the two offered by the powers-that-be. The state monopoly on legalized force still needs to keep us contained within borders enabling it to hold its power without any real opposition.

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney . . . how many millions of people do we have in this country? Yet these are the two candidates between whom we have to choose? Obama and Romney can honestly be said to represent the best, the smartest, the highest to which our chief executive may aspire?

Excuse my sacrilege against popular piety, but I must revise a line from that Lee Greenwood song that’s played every national holiday to get us all glowy: “God help the U.S.A.”

My friends know I’m a libertarian, so they generally indulge my eccentricities. But lately they’ve been getting very tired of me. I simply won’t fall into line and declare my allegiance to either major party. I don’t like either one of them, and I refuse to accept that my choice must be limited to such a gruesome twosome.

I participate in a local group of gay conservatives, and this group generously embraces libertarians. Most of the time. They’re not so sure about us now. I’ve been stirring up trouble on our blog, and have been sternly chastised for being “rude.”

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney . . . how many millions of people do we have in this country? Yet these are the two candidates between whom we have to choose?

I probably could have been nicer to the commenters with whom I tangled — one of whom I’ve since met, and is quite nice — but my blood is up. I’m the oldest member of the group, and I’ve been hearing the same mindnumbing and intelligence-insulting “either/or” ultimatum in every presidential election for 24 years. Ronald Reagan (for whom I voted both times, in the first two elections in which I was old enough to vote) entered office with the very best of intentions. He was thwarted at nearly every turn, not only by those dastardly liberals but by big-government “conservatives” in his own party. George W. Bush was certainly no small-government devotee, but he might have been nudged farther in that direction had he not spent all his time being dictated to by war hawks and religious zealots.

Republicans’ choices are being dictated to them by Republicans, and Democrats’ by Democrats. There is no evil “other side” bewitching them into behaving like soldiers in an army of zombies. We are tyrannizing ourselves.

We get a feel for the narrowing of the funnel — the constriction of the process — in the constant reminders that “we could have been stuck with Rick Santorum,” the GOP’s runner-up for presidential nominee. “No,” I tell my Republican friends, “you could have been stuck with Rick Santorum.” I am only slightly more likely to vote for Mitt, come November, than I would have been for Little Ricky, so I may not choose to stick myself with either of them. But come November, we are all going to be stuck with somebody few of us can stand. Again.

I sense fatalism in my friends’ repeated rationalizations for their conformity. “This is simply the way it is,” they tell me. When I ask them why they think so, they look at me the way they might look at a 3-year-old who’s asked them why ponies can’t fly.

They seem to think that of the millions of Republicans in the United States, the only two of presidential timber were Romney and Santorum. The multitude was scared away from even considering Ron Paul, the evil Doctor No. And Gary Johnson couldn’t get the media to ask him about any subject other than marijuana, so the country has never found out why he would be a possible choice (and, I still believe, the best one). For three and a half years, Republicans have been gathering forces to battle the Obama Antichrist, yet this is the best they can do?

The choice, as always under a two-choice tyranny, comes down not to a fight for principles but to the preservation of power. The only principle that big government mandarins care about is power. Citizens of the former Soviet Union were unhappy because they knew they had no choices. We are pacified in our servitude by the myth that two choices mean freedom, simply because two choices are — theoretically — better than one. But if both choices serve a closed big-government system, we may rightly ask whether our victory in the Cold War was truly all it’s been cracked up to be.

Eventually, Soviet citizens grew so unhappy that they forced a revolution. We may well question what’s become of it, but at least they’ve replaced their old tyrants with some new ones. Perhaps, when people live for too long under tyranny of any sort, they lose the will to be truly free and are content with the illusion of freedom. Like frogs in water brought to a boil too slowly to perceive the rising heat, will we make the leap out of the kettle before we’re cooked?

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Frank Ricciardone

The truth is there is plenty to dislike about each of the two major political parties. When I hear someone proclaim themselves either a staunch Democrat or stanch Republican, I know this is a person without objectivity and who is a prisoner of bias.

For myself, I no longer vote for either of them. I vote against one or the other depending on current circumstances. Sometimes I vote against jingoists, war mongers, or gun nuts or those who would make their party an American version of the Taliban. Other times I vote against the remnant Communists among us, the Anti Capitalists, the anti business, anti success, envy driven fanatics.

For all the pretenses, neither party has balanced a budget since the Eisenhower years. The simple fact that you can not spend more than you have eludes the genius’s we elect and we will soon come to bankruptcy.

What the country desperately needs is a third party, a party of common sense. I had hoped for a long time that the Libertarian party would fill that bill, but I have given up on it. Instead of concentrating on issues of sound fiscal policies, limited government, individual rights, they crusade against being forced to wear seat belts in cars or helmets on motorcycles. Wake up for goodness sake, are these things really important? I know, it’s the principle of the thing, but aren’t there greater issues? Libertarians have made themselves petty and that is why their party doesn’t gain traction.

It must be that a certain number of Republicans and a certain number of Democrats can see the virtue of some of the positions of the other party, if they would just step out and join forces, step away from lockstep bias, declare themselves the party of Common Sense, the country might yet be saved; but, of course, this is a pipe dream.

Michael Morrison

Yes, excellent (as usual) essay, but may I please make a suggestion, for you, Lori, and for everyone else: Don't say "major parties."
Say instead "old parties."
And don't say "third parties."
Say instead "new parties."
"Third parties" implies second-class status; it implies acceptance of the myth of "two-party system."
In truth, the two old parties are old parties, and their ideas (using the term loosely) are as old as feudalism.

Bob Link

Excellent points well presented, Michael.
Another suggestion: "Challenge people to consider specific proposals rather than confronting them with philosophies."
And, one of my favorite quotes: Magicians have long known that distracting an audience is the key to creating the illusion of magic. It is also the key to political magic. ~Thomas Sowell, Hoover Institution, Stanford University. This is our greatest challenge in convincing people of the truth.

Glen Raphael

The notion that you can cook frogs slowly without them noticing and trying to escape is a myth. If a real-world frog can escape, it will.

An unfortunate thing about our current circumstance is that escaping is hard. If we had more right of exit - if it were easier to leave the country and stop paying taxes to support it then the fact that actual frogs do jump would constitute something of an upper limit on tyranny.

Jon Harrison

A well-written essay containing much truth, but people have been complaining about the major parties being essentially two sides of the same coin since at least the Sixties. So nothing new there. Furthermore, there is a case to be made for the perpetuation of such a system: it's stable and generally keeps politics nonviolent, allowing people's energies to be diverted into productive tasks like expanding the economy. It's difficult to argue with the success of such a system, given its overall track record in Britain and the USA -- the two countries that, over the past three hundred years, have provided their citizens with more freedom and prosperity than any other polities in history.

What we suffer from today is the overripeness of our system -- its very success has caused it to become bloated and unwieldy. Add to this the truly vast sums of money we allow to pollute the system ("over there they sell policies" Lloyd George commented as far back as 1920 in response to a complaint that in Britain honors, i.e., knighthoods and peerrages, were for sale). It remains possible that after this election, the two parties will come together to strike a fiscal compact, saving us from the fate of Greece. On the other hand, things may just have to play out, with disastrous consequences for people and system alike. Then we may find a more direct form of authoritarianism entering our politics (or rather, perhaps, putting an end to our politics). Individual freedom has already been diminished b the establishment of the National Security State, the War on Drugs, the War on Terrorism, etc., etc. If we suffer an economic collapse, freedom as we have known it may perish. Still, we aren't there yet.

Which brings me to a final point. Totalitarianism is a very strong word, and not truly applicable here. The USSR under Stalin was a totalitarian system. Even Nazi Germany was not completely totalitarian until the Reichstag approved Hitler's decree of Apr. 26, 1942, giving him absolute power without any judicial check. To suggest that our present mess is a form of totalitarianism is not a mere pardonable exaggeration. Words, as they say, should convey meaning.

Lori Heine

Nowhere in my essay do I state that our system is politically a form of totalitarianism. It is not, like totalitarianism, something imposed on us, but something we have imposed on ourselves. It has an effect on the human spirit somewhat akin to totalitarianism. That was my point.

I am concerned less about the legal form of a political arrangement than on its moral – even its spiritual – effect. There are certain recurring themes in human nature. They don’t recur in exactly the same form every time; we never step into the same river twice. But in a system such as ours, where free speech remains, we can certainly examine ourselves as we wade in that water again.

That was what I was attempting to do. Fatalism – a sense that this is simply the way it must be – is at work here. I don’t expect the storm-troopers to march in tomorrow. As I say in the essay, we are tyrannizing ourselves.

In a variety of ways, we are lulling ourselves into complacency. We comfort ourselves that we are not as bad as somebody else. No, we’re not as bad as Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany. This is much the same argument used by social Right-wingers to justify the kinder, gentler, softer Christian Taliban rule they would impose on us. They're not as bad as those awful Islamists, so what are we crying about?

I simply don’t believe we became a great nation by remaining content not to be quite as bad as other people. That’s allowing them to set our standards, instead of setting them ourselves. I’d like us to return to the aspiration that we can be better.

Jon Harrison

Good response. I can't really take issue with anything except your first sentence: "Nowhere in my essay do I state that our system is politically a form of totalitarianism." Let me ask you to re-read your second paragraph (particularly the first three sentences), and then re-read the second to last sentence of my comment, with particular attention to my use of the word "suggest". If you were not suggesting that our system is a form of (or in some way resembles) totalitarianism, then you were being most unclear. If you had no intention of comparing our system to totalitarianism, then the word totalitarian ought not to have been used -- unless, of course, you were seeking simply to titillate your readers.

Lori Heine

I intended to show that similarities exist between our system in its present form – to which we have permitted it to degenerate – and totalitarianism. I never said that because similarities exist between them, they are identical.

The word totalitarian was used not to titillate readers, but to jar them. To stimulate thought. One more choice than one is definitely better than one. But it is still only one more than one. We are, indeed, removed from totalitarianism, but not as far removed from it as I believe we should be.

I find it alarming that any similarities exist at all. Which is why I wrote this essay. There’s a difference between being a frog in boiling water and being a frog in water that is merely lukewarm. But lukewarm water can be brought to a boil, and if the temperature is only turned up one notch at a time, the frog will be cooked before it even notices.

Jon Harrison

And I didn't say that you said they were identical. You state in your last reply to me that we are "not as far removed from it [i.e., totalitarianism] as I believe we should be." The clear implication of your statement is that we could be on the road to totalitarianism. Obviously, you're entitled to your beliefs, but the fact remains that you're way off base. The picture conjured up by your musings doesn't conform to reality. Had you used "authoritarianism" instead, I'd have said nothing. By bringing in the notion of incipient totalitarianism, you've wrecked your argument. Words, as I said, should have meaning.

Lori Heine

Mr. Harrison, as you yourself reminded me, Nazi Germany did not begin as a totalitarian state. This is itself an implication that a nation may slide from non-totalitarianism into totalitarianism.

I fear that may, in time, happen to the United States. Evidently you do not. As you have graciously allowed me my opinion, I allow you yours.

I certainly do mean the words I say. I simply said something with which you don’t agree. I suppose we simply must agree to disagree, and leave it at that.

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