University of Louisiana, Lafayette

Backrubbers of the Elite: on the U.S Surveillance State & Doubting the “Arc of History”

There is almost no other political expression as irritatingly frustrating to me as the “arc of history” is. The phrase, as popularized by President Obama during his tenure, has become a safety blanket for American liberals to cling to; fears about things not going their way (particularly the Trump presidency) are assuaged with the constant, snobbish, ahistorical repetition of the placating idea that being on the “right side of history” that “bends towards justice” in an apparently inherent manner is a sufficient political position in any way.

It is through the academicizing of such simplistic reassurance that thinkers like Pippa Norris, given the necessary high-brow credibility (Harvard), are able to reach such heights of popularity (see: Steven Pinker) in the mainstream. All the left wants, it seems, is to be comforted and told that things only get better with time, not worse, that liberalization and democratic expansion are natural, that waiting and trusting in the system will suffice. In other words, the real market for academic thought is based around a desire for backrubbers of the elite that assuage the public’s concerns in favor of trusting the system, redirecting potentially radical concerns towards blind faith in the status quo.

Throughout her piece “Is Western Democracy Backsliding? Diagnosing the Risks”, one of the baseline pieces this course is based around, Pippa Norris goes one-by-one through different fears about the erosion of democracy culturally and institutionally, arguing that “the consolidation of democracies can be understood as a mature stage when regimes prove resilient even under periods of severe crisis and electoral turbulence” (Norris 12). By focusing on evidence from Freedom House, Norris explains that the quality of Western democracies has not actually deteriorated over the last few decades, no matter what popular opinion might lead one to believe. To her, the actual, serious risks to democracy are from randomized terrorist attacks and the rise of populist-authoritarianism rather than any sort of inherent structural failures.

In other words, to Norris, very specific disruptions to the status quo take precedence over all. The individual populist (i.e the current president) is therefore entirely deserving of the level of attention that Trump currently receives, as under this mindset removing him from office is tantamount to saving democracy at-large.

This, however, is exactly how Bormeo explained that democratic backsliders across the world thrive: by doing just enough of the “right” (or simply subtle) things to keep the relevant governments from changing policy in response. This need for subtlety is in many ways helpful in limiting the amount of actual illegal actions, but it is not the same as solving the situation and in fact the secrecy involved can sometimes be just as insidious as outright corruption. While it is easier to see such weaknesses of democracy that democratic indexes like Freedom House attempt (and struggle) to keep track of in other countries, it is necessary for Americans not to let the comforting views of those like Norris distract their view of America’s real democratic failures: those of the popularly accepted yet horrifyingly executive-aggrandizing policy creations that have occurred under the last few Presidents (and no, not just Trump).

As Bermeo explains, “contemporary forms of democratic backsliding are most ambiguous and most difficult when they marshal broad popular support—and they often do” (Bermeo 16). This is exactly the case with when it comes to its most egregious executive overreach and aggrandizement: the U.S. PATRIOT Act. Passed just one month after the 9/11 attacks, the Act gave unimaginable surveillance power to the U.S Government under the very popular, seemingly reasonable facade of national security concerns.

In his work on stealth forms of authoritarianism, Ozan Varol explored the ways in which such large scale surveillance can threaten democracy, including the chilling of the  “exercise of civil liberties” (fears of communicating openly given the knowledge of such surveillance) and the ability to use accrued information for blackmail (Varol 1710-11). This “surveillance state” is the true threat posed by terrorist attacks that Norris references as a possible concern under authoritarian-populists like Trump (that is, the populist oriented security response), yet it is a threat that has in reality already been fully realized. Thus, discussions of the fact that there “could be serious dangers” posed by Trump being in a position to implement such policies (Norris 10) are not merely meet but actually dangerous, obfuscating the reality of the situation to the benefit of the continuously growing executive branch.

Hand-waving academics and liberal pundits that concentrate solely on Trump as an individual force threatening their real priority (the status quo) weaken the possibility that the larger, structurally embedded erosions of democracy like the modern day surveillance state can ever be properly dealt with. Cultural critics that accuse millennials of being too cynical about the future fail to recognize how badly things already are, and therefore just how dangerous comfort and trust in the very institutions that caused these problems in the first place can be.

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