"Polite totalitarianism," part one
"Polite totalitarianism," part two
"Polite totalitarianism," part four

From Vol. I, No. 3
of The Last Ditch (November 1994)


Polite totalitarianism
Part three



A fourth weapon in the arsenal of polite totalitarianism is co-optation and its mirror image, marginalization.

When the first meetings were held in 1993 to prepare a bill nationalizing health care, I remembered that during the Lyndon Johnson regime, the American Medical Association vigorously opposed Medicare. When Medicare passed anyway, the AMA and other associations were chagrined to note that while they had been opposing the bill, still other groups had participated in designing it. Only the designers had helped determine the final form of the bill; the AMA and other opponents had been left out in the cold. Last year, when the next round of nationalization loomed, medical associations determined not to be left out. Desiring to influence the task forces's deliberations and ensure that their membership's supposed interests were considered in the designing of a bill, professional medical organizations stumbled over one another to get a hearing before the illegal secret health-care task force. Not one categorically opposed the efforts to enslave their membership; to oppose and be defeated was to face going back to the membership empty-handed with a lame "We tried." Instead, each interest group was concerned that the interests of whatever group it purported to represent be advanced in some way, or at least that harm to those interests be minimized. To have participated in those efforts and have some of their policies or proposals adopted allowed them to face their membership with a proud "Here's how effective we are."

Thus, the dynamic of "being a player" converts opposition to government action into participation in the governing process. The Permanent Regime rewards that participation with a hearing and with the promise of possible effectiveness; genuine opposition will result in nonparticipation and is not silenced so much as simply not heard.

It is when one's views are incompatible with the established terms of debate or with the pivotal suppositions of a society, and therefore need not be considered, that marginalization occurs. Advocates of marginalized opinions are made to appear to be backward, ignorant, or just harmless eccentrics, not to be taken seriously. Nothing can be more deadly in public debate.

Thus, "responsible debate" requires that one not propose measures that have no hope of success — such as, say, repealing the Sixteenth Amendment or dismantling the standing army. Even where it appears that the state has "declared war" on what it describes as a domestic problem, certain proposed solutions are simply not part of the debate. As this article is being written, nearly every branch of government has set its sights on the tobacco industry, but we have yet to hear a credible proposal in any subcommittee that subsidies to tobacco farmers be discontinued. Oh, yes, we can tax cigarettes, and we can grill industry executives in hearings, and we can place the entire industry at the mercy of the Food and Drug Administration, but God forbid that anyone should actually vote against existing subsidies! After all, keeping a business groveling for money or power (they call it "lobbying") is one way of controlling that same business. But more: it keeps the industry and everyone in it within the boundaries of polite and acceptable opposition. When the Permanent Regime no longer has anything to offer a subpopulation, members of that group have an incentive first to withdraw from the debate and then to think dangerous thoughts. If a group is large and wealthy, the Permanent Regime traditionally finds it easier to forge a working relationship before events can come to that pass.

Controlling the terms of debate works equally well to govern citizens in their private capacity. Formerly, the manufacturers and merchants of infants' car seats had to try to persuade parents to purchase their products. Today there is no federal legislation requiring you to have an infant car seat — but if you want to drive with your younger children in the car, they must be harnessed into such a seat. (Had you told me in 1964 that I should live to see the day in America when a mother was prohibited by federal decree from holding her newborn baby in her arms in a car, I do not think I would have known how to believe it.) The legislative debate never included questioning the authority of the state to pass such legislation; that authority is tucked away with one of those mute commandants mentioned in part two of this article. If you questioned that authority, you were obviously unfamiliar with the intricacies and complexities of policy formation, a kook whose only outlet in the media was to be a caller on radio talk shows, along with people who opposed motorcycle helmet laws, who saw images of an apotheosized Princess Grace, or who believed they had been made pregnant by UFO aliens. Once marginalized views have been excluded from the established media, the primary outlets for their expression are limited to computer bulletin boards, barbershops, taxicabs, and small-circulation, desktop-produced newsletters.

Like the devices discussed in part two, co-opting opposition to policies when possible (and marginalizing it when it is not) operates without the need for police spies or jeeps squealing to a stop before front doors and unloading military thugs to bash in windows or locks. Polite men in business suits say that such-and-such should be done, and everyone predictably defers to them. In this country there is hardly ever a defiant resistance formed against any decree.

It is important to note, however, that marginalization is often accomplished by people who hold no official positions in the state and yet function as its intellectual guardians. They make recommendations, they propagate views in their approved formulas, and they marshal support for state actions. A kind of inchoate support emerges not so much as a result of the subtle advocacy of such citizen collaborators, but from the collaborators' role in defining what constitutes acceptable opposition and marginalizing what is unacceptable. It is neither desirable nor possible that all opposition disappear, for then the fašade of democracy will be lost. Nevertheless, the opposition must be carefully circumscribed; where it cannot be made to fit into the desired debate, it must be marginalized.

When opposition is not co-opted, intellectual marginalization is usually the end of the story. But if the Permanent Regime, for whatever reason, begins to regard an intellectually marginalized group as a threat, that same marginalization sets the state free from its polite stance. Such a group will find that the marginalization is not merely intellectual; it will find itself so far removed from the protection of ordinary civility or the law that sympathy for its members' rights or even existence will simply have vanished. Such widely disparate groups as suspected drug dealers and the Branch Davidians have both suffered the consequences of "extreme marginalization." Indeed, the latter became the object of national enmity virtually overnight, leading some of us to imagine that we had missed an all-important Two Minutes Hate program. A supposedly free people acquiesced in a law-enforcement agency's lynch-mob ferocity against a church at its retreat compound; they seemed never to wonder whether the Davidians — supposing that any of them killed anyone in the February 28 gunbattle — had acted in self-defense; and they accepted as true whatever the lap-dog media was fed by the besiegers of the compound. Americans' obsequious acceptance of the initial attack and apathy to the Davidians' rights simply was not based on their considered rejection of conflicting opinions. There is no better testimony to this than that virtually anyone who discusses the incident will refer to the Davidians as a "sect," a word not one American in 25 will use in ordinary conversation. The more natural word "church" does not come to the lips in this context — not because of Americans' sophisticated sense of ecclesiology, but because their ears still ring with the word-choice of a media that served as the besiegers' tireless public- relations arm.

G.K. Chesterton said that democratic socialism was not possible, for under socialism the state supplies everything; since democracy implies the existence of an opposition, we can scarcely expect the state to supply its own opposition. And yet — by a process that may be called "supply by definition" — that is exactly what has happened in the United States. We listen to the news, and voices using a uniform vocabulary tell us which opposition is to be permitted access to the public discourse and which is beyond the pale.

Posted December 19, 2007

To Part four (conclusion).
To "Polite totalitarianism" table of contents.


Published in 1994, 2007 by WTM Enterprises.

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