[In his book Democracy Incorporated, Sheldon S.] Wolin writes that in inverted totalitarianism, consumer goods, and a comfortable standard of living, along with a vast entertainment industry that provides spectacles and appealing diversions, keep the citizenry politically passive. I asked if the economic collapse and the steady decline in our standard of living might not, in fact, trigger classical totalitarianism. Could widespread frustration and poverty lead the working and middle classes to place their faith in demagogues, especially those from the Christian Right?
“I think that’s perfectly possible,” he answered. “That was the experience of the 1930s. There wasn’t just FDR. There was Huey Long and Father Coughlin.aThere were even more extreme movements, including the Klan. The extent to which those forces can be fed by the downturn and bleakness is a very real danger. It could become classical totalitarianism.”
Appealing diversions keep the citizenry politically passive
Empire of Illusion was published in 2009. Democracy Incorporated was published in 2008, although a new, updated edition was released in 2017. But Sheldon Wolin coined the term “inverted democracy” all the way back in 2003.
This is something that’s been rattling around in my consciousness for decades. I think about it every time someone shoots up a fast food drive-thru because a minimum-wage worker got their order wrong. We’ll put up with a lack of affordable health care, lead in the water, mass shootings, but damn it, if the TV commercial says I can get McNuggets 24 hours a day, then you’d best not tell me that you’ve run out.
When we look at things that are probably irreversible, I don’t think of climate change. I think of this mindlessly selfish consumerism, devoid of empathy or the concept of consequences. It’s a short step from advertising products and services that will magically solve our problems to political demagoguery. The problem isn’t that we can’t fix a lot of these problems. It’s not even that we don’t have the will. We simply don’t want to. Not when a populist figurehead promises to do it for us. We’d much rather play video games, binge the latest show on Disney+, and anxiously await the inevitable return of the McRib.
We need minimalism so we’re not beholden to this mindset. Every political cycle there’s someone promising to bring the jobs back. There are people sitting on their front porch, passively waiting for manufacturing and other industries to miraculously return after moving overseas decades ago*. Rather than taking action, learning new skills, moving to where the jobs are, they turn to the demagogue messiah of the moment, who always promises but somehow never delivers.
*I know that there are phenomena like the oil rush in the Dakotas. Those are outliers. Even if they weren’t, there are still people patiently waiting for someone else to solve their employment problems rather than taking the reigns of their own lives.
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