Defining Totalitarianism

A quick hit and run post to provide a proper definition.

Sohrab Ahmari in the NY Post writes (The drive to sink Kavanaugh is liberal totalitarianism):

If Senate Democrats and their media allies manage to destroy Brett Kavanaugh, they will bring America one step closer to a new, liberal style of totalitarianism.

I don’t use the “T”-word lightly. I’ve spent years pushing back against those who fling it about in free societies like ours. But totalitarianism doesn’t require cartoonish, 1984-style secret police and Big Brother. The classical definition is a society where everything — ethical norms and moral principles and truth itself — is subjugated to political ends.

No, it isn’t.

Here’s the classic definition from Friederich and Brzezinksi:

  1. An official, all-encompassing ideology covering all aspects of existence and to which everyone living in the society must adhere.
  2. A single mass party, typically led by one person, combined with and inseparable from the governmental apparatus, and monopolizing all political activities.
  3. A system of terroristic police control employing modern torture and surveillance techniques.
  4. A technological monopoly in the hands of the party or dictator controlling all means of mass communication, such as the press, radio, television, and motion pictures.
  5. A similar monopoly, under the same control, of all means of armed combat.
  6. A central control and direction of the entire economy, including bureaucratic coordination of all formerly independent interest associations, typically including all group and corporate activities

As such, a political process that results in a nominee not being confirmed, however messy, is hardly the thin edge of the wedge of totalitarianism.  Totalitarianism is Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s USSR, or Kim’s North Korea.  A dispute over allegation of sexual assault in the context of a highly politically charged nomination is not totalitarianism, especially when the likeliest outcome is that Kavanaugh gets a seat on the Court and the next likeliest result is that Trump nominates someone else and they get the seat.  A distant third is that enough delay allows Democrats to win the Senate and we go at least two years with 8 Justices.  None of that is Nazi Germany.

I don’t have time to deal with the Kavanaugh part and the politics thereof (I hope to find time to write more on that soon), but sometimes a definitional correction is required.

If you want to know more about totalitarianism, go read some Juan Linz.

FILED UNDER: Politics 101, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Kathy says:

    Sohrab Ahmari may not use the “T-word” lightly, but he sure uses it wrongly.

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  2. Franklin says:

    liberal style of totalitarianism

    Seems like he doesn’t know what liberalism is, either.

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  3. Moosebreath says:

    “The classical definition is a society where everything — ethical norms and moral principles and truth itself — is subjugated to political ends.”

    Clearly, he slept through the Merrick Garland nomination.

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  4. SKI says:

    Excellent Steven. Can you do one on Socialism and Communism next?

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  5. @MBunge,

    I stopped reading at “Have you gotten so used to being deliberately dense that you can’t stop?” and deleted the comment. I have repeatedly asked you not to be rude.

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  6. Kathy says:

    Tyranny: When someone takes the rules or laws you’ve drafted or supported, and attempts to apply them to you.

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  7. JohnMcC says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Thank you!

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  8. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    A dispute over allegation of sexual assault in the context of a highly politically charged nomination is not totalitarianism,

    It is if it means that you’re not gonna get your SCOTUS nominee through and you need to rile up the rubes in the hustings.

    My cynical conspiracy theory nut cake persona finds itself wondering what is so important about THIS particular guy when there are soooooo many other sellout Conservative political hacks in the Right Wing branch of the judicial system available. Why AREN’T they just moving on to the next hack?

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  9. SKI says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    My cynical conspiracy theory nut cake persona finds itself wondering what is so important about THIS particular guy when there are soooooo many other sellout Conservative political hacks in the Right Wing branch of the judicial system available. Why AREN’T they just moving on to the next hack?

    Two concepts: Unitary Executive and Republican Presidential immunity to charges and testimony.

    Where Kavanaugh differs from his Federalist Society brethren is his commitment to an ultra-strong theory that POTUS is supreme and can’t be checked with respect to the Executive Branch (aka firing Comey or Mueller) and in his zeal, found post Starr Investigation, that POTUS can’t be charged with a crime or be subjected to deposition or discovery. Basically, he is Trump’s dream SCOTUS appointee.

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  10. SKI says:

    Weird, no option to edit to fix typos immediately after posting…

    Never mind. After posting this one, the option appeared for both this and the previous. Strange.

  11. Kathy says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    My cynical conspiracy theory nut cake persona finds itself wondering what is so important about THIS particular guy when there are soooooo many other sellout Conservative political hacks in the Right Wing branch of the judicial system available. Why AREN’T they just moving on to the next hack?

    Partly the timing. While unlikely, the Democrats might take the Senate. If they do, they’ll simply vote down whoever it is Trump picks off the list he was given. Assuming, of course, a hack to replace Kavanaugh cannot be voted on before the next Congress comes into session.

    Partly, but I suspect most importantly for El Cheeto, avoiding the embarrassment of walking back a SC nominee a la W. Bush.

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  12. Mister Bluster says:

    @SKI:..Never mind

    I saw the same glitch yesterday.

  13. Franklin says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Trump supporters don’t know any other way to argue than ad hominem attacks. One wonders where they get it from!?

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  14. Stormy Dragon says:

    There was an excellent article in the Atlantic recently that is relevant to this discussion:

    A Warning From Europe: The Worst Is Yet to Come

    One of the major points is that unlike previous totalitarian regimes, the “New Totalitarianism” we see in Putin, Trump, Poland, Hungary, etc. is that is largely non-ideological and instead tends to be based around a “inciting conspiracy theory”.

    This makes them more stable than previous iterations because the lack of an explicit ideology allows them to be more flexible and thus better adapt to changing situations.

  15. @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    My cynical conspiracy theory nut cake persona finds itself wondering what is so important about THIS particular guy

    I think it is just the sunk cost fallacy in operation (that and people not wanting to “lose”).

  16. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Thanks to all of you, that persona now has some theories to mull over that will keep it occupied for a week or 3. (It mulls very slowly.)

  17. Kathy says:

    I’ve been saying this more and more since the 2016 election: Yet another reason why “1984” should be required reading in high school.

  18. Eric Florack says:

    @Franklin: welcome to the world the Democrats have made themselves.

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  19. An Interested Party says:

    welcome to the world the Democrats have made themselves.

    Oh look, a perfect example that makes Franklin’s point…

  20. Franklin says:

    @Eric Florack: Another troll who fails to make an actual argument. But you’ve been doing that for 10+ years that I know of. Still waiting for a conservative here who can make actual arguments.

  21. Ben Wolf says:

    It should be pointed out the six criteria of that definition can be argued not to have accurately described nazi Germany, either in part or in total. And much of it can describe the United States regardless of domestic party affiliation; #3, for example.

    The level of

  22. Ben Wolf says:

    Also, regarding Ahmari’s claims: Walter Benjamin argued the aestheticization of politics, of theater and pagentry over substance and form over fact, is a key ingredient of fascist regimes. Someone should tell him to keep that in mind given the current president is a TV star.

  23. dennis says:

    @Franklin:

    Agreed, Franklin; although, to be honest, they’ve been at it long before Trumpelstiltskin arrived on the scene.

  24. Ben Wolf says:

    @Franklin: Conservatives are people who believe in traditional values, which in the American context means enlightenment values. That means real actual conservatives are on the left.

    The people who call themselves conservatives are radical authoritarians. You can draw a direct line from their thinking to the bolsheviks and fascists.

  25. Franklin says:

    @Ben Wolf: I should have been more careful with my words, since I have respect for actual conservatives. My earlier post said “Trump supporters” which is somewhat more accurate, even though that brand of “conservative” pre-dates Trump (as dennis said).

  26. @Ben Wolf: Any definition, and its application, can certainly be debated and I never assume that a post (let alone one like this) is the last word.

    I would disagree that the list doesn’t fit Nazi Germany pretty well.

    I will counter that as problematic as matters might be in the US in areas of law enforcement or torture, none of it rise to the level of Gestapo and SS.

  27. Ben Wolf says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: The problem lay in the qualitative nature of the definition. It requires a judgement of degree in determining whether a criterion is met.

    American prisoners are subject to forced labor. They are routinely humiliated, beaten, confined to solitude, starved and denied medical care. Prisoners regularly die to mistreatment. Over a thousand citizens were executed by police in 2017. One can make the argument American police forces are more brutal.

  28. Ben Wolf says:

    @Franklin: Wasn’t my intent to correct you or even argue you’d written something wrong. Only that history has become so distorted we have people who hate everything about traditional values claiming to represent them.

  29. Eric Florack says:

    @An Interested Party: it always makes me laugh when extreme people complain about people being extreme.

    @Ben Wolf: perhaps it would be useful if you would enumerate a few of those Traditional Values you speak of

  30. Ben Wolf says:

    @Eric Florack: Just read Thomas Jefferson, Adam Smith, John Adams and James Madison.

    1) The employer-employee dynamic was an affront to self-determination.

    2) Financial markets are tools of private tyranny.

    3) Concentration of wealth destroys liberty.

    4) Government intervention is good when it benefits “the working man.”

    5) Individuals must be their own masters,
    not the government official, not the church and not the wealthy.

    6) Selling one’s labor is not fundamentally different to chattel slavery.

    7)

    The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour and live on. If, for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be furnished to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not the fundamental right to labour the earth returns to the unemployed. It is too soon yet in our country to say that every man who cannot find employment but who can find uncultivated land, shall be at liberty to cultivate it, paying a moderate rent. But it is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state.

  31. An Interested Party says:

    it always makes me laugh when extreme people complain about people being extreme.

    You must laugh at yourself a lot…