In 1970, Walt Kelly’s beloved cartoon character Pogo famously said, “We’ve met the enemy and he’s us.” At the time, observation of the little opossum could be classified as humor or satire. Today he has been elevated into the realm of prophecy. When President Biden, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley and others publicly declared that the greatest threat to the United States is not China or Russia but, instead, vast numbers of American citizens now labeled “domestic terrorists” and/or “white supremacists,” it is clear that there has been a radical shift in the way we think about our country and our fellow Americans.
A recent report by polling company Rasmussen illustrates how deeply these divisive attitudes have permeated our polarized national politics. In this poll, likely voters were asked who the United States’ “greatest enemy” was and the results showed that “nearly 40 percent of Americans do not choose a foreign power but nominate a domestic political party.”
For Democrats, the top three results named Russia (31%) as our “greatest enemy,” followed by Republicans (26%) and China (16%). For Republicans, the top three are China (35%), Russia (33%) and Democrats (12%). Among independents, 26% cited China, 21% said Democrats and 18% Republicans. Ironically, 12% of Democrats said Democrats are America’s “greatest enemy” and 8% of Republicans said the same about their party.
This tendency to view those with different political views or voting habits as “enemies” hasn’t occurred in isolation; it has been part of larger trends, such as the criminalization of political differences and efforts to suppress the freedom of speech of those expressing viewpoints different from the dominant political or cultural orthodoxy. Individuals who criticize a particular government policy may be accused of spreading “misinformation”, which may justify suppressing such criticism.
During the pandemic, for example, there have been countless examples of individuals who questioned government policies on things like masking, lockdowns and school closures who were effectively silenced, professionally ostracized and denounced as “dangerous” or accused of “costing lives”. Of particular concern has been how various government agencies have evidently co-opted social media platforms to help suppress dissent.
While some sympathy may be accorded to those who felt they were acting in the interest of public health during an unprecedented national emergency, no matter how wrong many of their policies may have turned out to be, no such apology can be accorded those agencies governments that have artfully transferred their methodologies of suppression from the realm of health to that of politics. Expressly barred by law from political involvement, these agencies found that social media platforms, willingly or if coerced, would, in effect, become tools of government wishes to suppress unwanted types of speech.
Recently released Twitter files appear to show what has long been suspected of these activities, the extent of which will not be known until those in authority choose to honestly look into them. However, in today’s toxic environment, both political parties seem primarily interested in investigating each other.
In his classic novel, 1984, George Orwell painted a chilling portrait of the appalling extremes to which the totalitarian impulse can be taken when government possesses the ability to subjugate an entire population. The key to this submission was the government’s ability, embodied by “Big Brother”, to systematically spy on people for tendencies towards “deviationism” – that is, 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, the largest totalitarian state in history, Communist China, has harnessed the extraordinary advances in modern technology to take the “surveillance state” to unprecedented new levels of intrusion and efficiency – and has immensely improved its ability to control and repression of his people. The US government is cracking down on companies that may be abusing biotech and US investment in Chinese tech companies.
No US administration has ever enjoyed criticism, but it has historically tolerated it because, in our democratic system, it is “protected speech.” The government also knew that a vigilant media watchdog would expose illegal wrongdoings.
Now, as our recent elections once again demonstrated, politicians from both parties systematically denounce their opponents, not just as purveyors of bad policies but as outright “threats to democracy”. From saying this to considering opposing parties as “enemies” and justifying the suppression of their opinions, it’s a short step.
In this malign political environment, America is on a slippery slope and this is the real threat to democracy.
William Moloney is Senior Fellow in Conservative Thought at Colorado Christian University Centennial Institute who studied at Oxford and the University of London and received his doctorate from Harvard University. He is a former Colorado education commissioner.