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In 1970, Walt Kelly’s beloved cartoon character Pogo famously uttered the phrase, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” At that time, the little possum’s observation could be categorized as humor or satire. Today it has been elevated into the realm of prophecy. When President Biden, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley and others have stated publicly that the greatest threat to the United States is not China or Russia but, instead, vast numbers of American citizens now labeled as “domestic terrorists” and/or “white supremacists,” it is clear that there has been a sea change in how we think of our country and our fellow Americans.
A recent report by the Rasmussen polling firm illustrates just how deeply these divisive attitudes have permeated our polarized national politics. In this poll, likely voters were asked who is the United States’s “greatest enemy” and the results showed that “nearly 40 percent of Americans don’t choose a foreign power but name a domestic political party.”
For Democrats, the top three results named Russia (31 percent) as our “greatest enemy,” followed by Republicans (26 percent) and China (16 percent). For Republicans, the top three are China (35 percent), Russia (33 percent) and Democrats (12 percent). Among independents, 26 percent cited China, 21 percent said Democrats and 18 percent, Republicans. Ironically, 12 percent of Democrats said Democrats are America’s “greatest enemy” and 8 percent of Republicans said the same about their own party.
This tendency to view those with differing political opinions or voting habits as “enemies” has not occurred in isolation; it has been a part of broader trends, such as the criminalizing of policy differences and efforts to suppress the free speech of those who express viewpoints different from a reigning political or cultural orthodoxy. Individuals who criticize a particular government policy may be accused of spreading “misinformation,” which can justify suppressing such criticism.
During the pandemic, for example, there were countless examples of individuals questioning government policies on such things as masking, lockdowns and school closures who were effectively silenced, professionally ostracized, and denounced as “dangerous” or accused of “costing lives.” Particularly troubling was the manner in which various government agencies evidently co-opted social media platforms to assist in the suppression of dissent.
While a certain understanding can be granted to those who felt they were acting in the interests of public health during an unprecedented national emergency, no matter how wrong-headed many of their policies may have turned out to be, no such excuse can be granted to those government agencies who artfully transferred their methodologies of suppression from the realm of health to that of politics. Expressly forbidden by law from political involvement, these agencies found that social media platforms either willingly or if coerced would become, in effect, instruments of government desires to suppress unwanted types of speech.
The recently released Twitter Files appear to show what was long suspected about these activities, the full extent of which won’t be known until those with authority choose to honestly look at them. However, in today’s toxic environment, both political parties seem mainly interested in investigating each other.
In his classic novel, “1984,” George Orwell painted a chilling portrait of the frightening extremes to which the totalitarian impulse can be carried when the government possesses the capacity to subjugate an entire population. The key to this subjugation was the ability of the government, epitomized by “Big Brother,” to systematically spy on people to ferret out tendencies toward “deviationism” — i.e., any dissent from government policy.
During the mass purges of the 1930s, Soviet revolutionary Joseph Stalin pioneered such methods, and later, Adolf Hitler and the East German “Stasi” imitated and improved upon them. Today, history’s largest totalitarian state, Communist China, has seized upon the extraordinary advances of modern technology to bring the “surveillance state” to unprecedented new levels of intrusion and efficiency — and immensely enhanced its capacity for control and repression of its people. The U.S. government is cracking down on companies that may misuse biotechnology, and U.S. investment in Chinese tech companies.
No American administration has ever enjoyed criticism, but historically has tolerated it because, under our democratic system, it is “protected speech.” The government also knew that a vigilant watchdog media would expose unlawful transgressions.
Now, as our recent elections again demonstrated, politicians of both parties routinely denounce their opponents — not just as purveyors of bad policies but as outright “threats to democracy.” It is a short step from saying that to considering opposing parties as “enemies” and justifying suppression of their views.
In this malignant political environment, America finds itself on a slippery slope and that is the real threat to democracy.
William Moloney is a Senior Fellow in Conservative Thought at Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute who studied at Oxford and the University of London and received his doctorate from Harvard University. He is a former Colorado Commissioner of Education.
free speech suppression
threats to democracy