Political freedom in America differs from Tinkerbell, I sometimes think, in that Tinkerbell may exist. I submit that the country is not as free as it once was, or as we usually think it is–that we retain the forms of democracy without the substance, a political parlor trick of a high order. And it’s getting worse.
Several things got us here:
First, the rise of the judiciary to primacy among the branches of government. The most important decisions are no longer made by elected representatives, over whom we have at least some influence, but by judicial fiat. The courts, and particularly the Supreme Court, enjoy absolute power without accountability. They are now regularly used to impose on the nation policies, often of enormous import, that could never pass in the legislature.
For example the Supreme Court, by discovering a hitherto unnoticed constitutional right to abortion, did what Congress would never have done. (My point here, incidentally, is not that all of these decisions were good or bad, but that they were brought about without a vote by the citizenry.) Neither could the legislature have passed Brown vs. the School Board. Nor would Congress have made pornography legal, inutterably coarsening the tone of national life. Note that whenever the dominant elites dislike a policy passed by a state legislature, they immediately appeal to the courts to have it overturned. Often it works.
Second, the near-total suppression of discussion of politically crucial topics. “Political correctness” was at first a wry expression of annoyance, but has become a national laryngectomy. We now live, as the Russians did, in a society of two tiers of discourse. One tier is what most people think, believe, or know to be true; the other tier is what one is allowed to say. (Observe that almost none of the columns on this site, other than ones about dinosaurs or boyhood in the South, could be published in any newspaper anyone has ever heard of.)
For example, one may not discuss differences in intelligence between races and sexes, a subject with vast implications for policy; suggest that massive immigration ought to be stopped; point out what feminization of the military is actually doing to the armed forces; suggest that minorities need to behave better and complain less; publish racial breakdowns on sensitive crime statistics; or detail the extremes to which affirmative action has gone in lowering standards. Yes, reasonable people of good will might fall on different sides of these subjects. The point is that debate isn’t permitted.
Third, the imposition of reprisals for political incorrectness, and of what amounts to re-education of the recalcitrant, in government, the media, the high schools, and the universities. On any campus, and in any office, a remark that offends a black or a feminist is likely to result in reprimands and heavy sanctions. Universities engage in anti-white racial hazing that is hard to believe, yet students have no escape.* The compulsory orthodoxy has ceased being funny and become relentless intimidation.
Fourth, the large size of political jurisdictions, and the concentration of power in remote cities, have sharply reduced our capacity to influence local policy. For example, if you lived in a small town in 1950 and objected, say, to the quality of your children’s schools, you could talk to the school board, whom you would know, and the principals and teachers, and the mayor, and have a reasonable chance of getting results with a reasonable expenditure of effort.
Today, the barriers to wielding influence are far higher than they once were. Most school districts are so populous that you probably don’t know your elected officials, and they probably don’t care about individuals. Ginning up political pressure in a county of 500,000 requires a full-scale campaign, with phone banks, printed flyers, ads in papers, and mass meetings. Few of us have the time.
Further, the real power over schooling (and most other things) lies with bureaucracies far away in the state capital, or at the federal level, or with the national unions of teachers, none of which cares about your kids. Practically speaking, you can’t influence distant bureaucracies. They will shrug off your phone call because they know you can’t organize the entire nation, that you will eventually give up and go away.
In short, you have the vote, but it doesn’t matter.
Fifth, a political system founded on two barely-distinguishable parties, an arrangement admirably designed for the suppression of dissent. A parliamentary system, by pooling the national vote for better schools, would allow the election of vocal representatives who would actually pursue the desired end. We by contrast cannot vote for specific policies.
Suppose for example that you favored a sharp increase in academic rigor in the high schools: Advanced courses, decent grammar, teachers who could read. For whom would you vote? What difference would it make? Both parties and all the candidates are vaguely and indistinguishably in favor of better schooling for our children. Neither party has done anything about the schools, and neither is likely to do anything.
In sum, as our influence over our lives decreases, as independence diminishes, as the web of rules and regulations and correctness tightens around us, freedom gradually, unnoticed, becomes a thing of the past. In return we get bread and circuses: A startlingly high material standard of living, countless movies to rent, tasteless television dominated by propaganda, rock concerts, ever-better computers, abundant and cheap clothing, and cars that work.
In the long run this may not be a good bargain. Crucial changes in a society are not always evident to those living through them. Romans of the third century didn’t know that the Empire was on the way out. We may well be seeing a turning almost as momentous: the end of the United States as a free country, at least in the usual sense of the word, and the imposition of a new form of government: dictatorship without a dictator.
Sometimes I wonder whether the Soviet Union so much died as just moved to a different continent, becoming much more comfortable along the way.