Dawn of the Daddy State

If terrorism has made a global trend toward greater state power inevitable, then it's important to get authoritarianism right. Here's how
More

Last fall, on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, a federally funded agency chartered to spread liberty around the world, President George W. Bush delivered a speech holding out some "essential principles" as "common to every successful society in every culture." The first of these, the President declared, is that "successful societies limit the power of the state and the power of the military so that governments respond to the will of the people and not the will of the elite." That was what America had learned in its 200-year "journey" on the road to perfecting its democracy, Bush observed, by way of encouraging less mature works in progress—namely, post-Taliban Afghanistan and post-Saddam Iraq—to follow this tried and true path.

The rhetoric may seem unexceptionable. But in the context of our age—an age in which certain dark forces, most prominently terrorism, confront the state with the elemental task of maintaining security and civic order—the principles Bush named are not just irrelevant but almost precisely the opposite of the ones we should be dedicating ourselves to. Leaving aside the question of military power, the necessary response to terrorism is not to limit the power of the state but, rather, to bolster it, so as to preserve the basic order without which the defenseless citizen has no prospect of enjoying the splendors of liberty. In the wake of Madrid, in the wake of 9/11, in the wake of suicide bombings in Moscow subway stations and Jerusalem cafés, the state is impelled to become even more intrusive and muscular than it already is. How well today's leaders meet this obligation to construct more-vigilant states is very likely to stand as one of history's most important criteria for assessing their stewardship.

An authoritarian push is often seen as coming from above, forced on an unsuspecting public by would-be autocrats. But today's global trend toward what might be called the Daddy State is propelled by the anxious demands of majority blocs of citizens. The Russians recently re-elected Vladimir Putin, a former KGB colonel, with 71 percent of the vote, handing him a mandate to continue his crackdown on Chechen terrorists. The Israelis are demanding the Fence—envisioned as a sniper-patrolled, electrified national barrier aimed at keeping out Palestinian suicide bombers. Not only do Americans broadly support Bush's Patriot Act, but women—who worry more than men do that they or someone close to them will fall victim to terrorism—tend to view the measure as not tough enough, according to a recent Gallup poll. Europeans are demanding closer policing of their rapidly growing Muslim minority, which now stands at 15 million in the EU.

In short, we are at the dawn of a popularly sanctioned movement toward greater authoritarianism in the domain of what is now fashionably called "homeland security." As Thomas Hobbes explained in his mid-seventeenth-century treatise Leviathan (a work that can be read as a primer on homeland security), there is no real contradiction in the idea of authoritarianism as a choice. In a proverbial state of nature, man willingly gives up some portion of his liberty to a sovereign as the only conceivable protector of his life and property. During times of relative quiet and prosperity it is easy to forget that this sort of bargain exists—but in times of danger, woe to the sovereign that neglects its duty to protect.

To say that we are at the beginning of an authoritarian age is not, of course, to end the conversation but to begin it. The challenge is to get authoritarianism right, and it's important to identify what could go wrong as we try to meet the demands of this new era. One obvious danger, fascism, already lurks at the door of Russia, a humiliated country whose color has shifted from red to brown since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991. Putin is proving to be a manipulative paternalist, exploiting fears of Chechen terrorists and thuggish business oligarchs to nourish nationalist sentiment and his own cult of personality in the Kremlin.

Nor is Putin respecting the prudent boundaries of a Daddy State. There is no popular demand for an increase in state power over the market or the media—yet the Putin regime is exerting greater control in those areas, too. (All major television stations are now state-controlled.) With democratic institutions so weakly grounded in Russia, there is likely to be no check on Putin's impulses without pressure from Western governments.

America illustrates the hazards of the opposite problem: too many constraints on the Daddy State. In particular, Congress—the body positioned between the executive and the people—is proving a serious hindrance. For example, just after 9/11 alarmed legislators sensibly created a Transportation Security Agency, with broad powers to improve airport security. But since then Congress has hamstrung the agency's effort to develop a computerized profiling system that would help identify potentially dangerous passengers—in part because of pressure from airlines worried that travelers inconvenienced by "false positives" would blame them for missed flights. Such is the classic defect of legislatures, which reliably respond to the will of the majority in emergencies but afterward tend to succumb to the predations of well-entrenched lobbies.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Paul Starobin

The writer is a contributing editor to National Journal and the author of After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Is the Greatest Story Ever Told?

A panel of storytellers share their favorite tales, from the Bible to Charlotte's Web.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In