O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Look at those two final lines. They’re an obvious question, but normally, it’s sung like a statement. Let us consider the question, though: Is the answer yes or no?
Of course the answer is no! We’re not Venezuela or Cuba with their bargain-basement socialist “economies” — we have free enterprise. We’re not China or Vietnam with their censored press that mandates that you roll over for the Communist Party like a dog — we have a free press and the right to free speech. And you can bet your bottom dollar that we’re not lawless Zimbabwe or Somalia — in this country, we have the rule of law and the right to a fair trial, not arbitrary nonsense based on crazy delusions and passing fancy. And unlike North Korea, we’re not some one-party state; we have a democracy, where we can vote for our leaders. Even with our weakened economy, quality of life in this country is pretty good; our conditions have not reached the desperate level in places like the above-listed countries.
I’d leave it at that, but that does not tell anywhere near the complete story.
Our system of “free enterprise” is a highly regulated mess of alphabet soup agencies that all want their cut of the taxpayer dollars and block out any aspiring Horatio Algers; on top of that, fully one-fourth of people require permission from the government to do their jobs.
As for our free speech rights, yes, the government keeps its nose out of things (but not always — ask the Tea Party about the IRS sometime) but the private sector has stepped in to fulfill that role; the widely-used Twitter and Facebook social networks scrub unfavorable political speech at random, and politicized mobs often hound risk-averse employers into firing those who dissent from the (usually progressive) party line, a line which grows more stringent with each passing day.
SWAT teams are overused for nonviolent offenses, the police seizing assets without a conviction, and the high cost of good legal representation make our notions of law a sad joke. What good is the right to a fair trial when you’re forced out of your home by men in military gear, crammed into a cage on exaggerated charges, and forced to sign a plea bargain declaring your guilt?
And lastly, our two-party system is actually a one-party system in disguise, since no one can vote out the Republican or Democratic parties; the election system perfectly defends against third parties by splitting the vote, so the established parties can always rely on each other to be there, as can any influencers who want power in Washington. There’s no need to outlaw opposing parties if they have absolutely no chance of gaining significant federal offices.
Given these constraints — and many, many others — one can argue that the United States of America is an authoritarian state, perhaps the most efficient one in the world. It avoids most overt displays of political repression by letting overzealous private citizens punish dissidents, and any police brutality that is seen is explained away by as either an isolated incident or human error. To top it all off, the citizenry feels as if they have a genuine voice, but they really don’t.
However, I believe that the United States is not yet over the line, because the repressive machine has holes in it that don’t exist in Cuba, China, or similar places.
Local governments can reduce some regulatory burdens, and different states have different policies; this doesn’t end all regulation (especially federal), but it can ease the burden a bit. Not all employers are politically correct, and the outrage mobs rarely become violent. Police can be filmed, and it goes a long way toward keeping them honest.
These holes, these open spaces, allow groups of private citizens to peacefully call for political and social change. Still, it requires unwavering commitment to actually make a dent in the USA’s emerging totalitarian state. Once the line of open authoritarianism is crossed, the great American experiment will be over for good, and it will end badly not just for us, but for the whole world.