Is The US Still A Liberal Democracy?

In the years since 9/11, the US has built a mosaic of national security powers that undermine its claim to be the “land of the free.” According to this useful summary by Jonathan Turley, these include: Assassination of its own citizens; warrantless searches; use of secret evidence and secret courts; the rise of an unaccountable surveillance state (more on that by Glenn Greenwald). This is in addition to hosting the world’s largest prison population (both in relative and absolute numbers), which includes what for all intents and purposes can be considered a transnational Gulag as part of its efforts in the endless-by-definition “war on terror.” At least for many Muslims and minorities, the US has already not been a liberal democracy for a long time.

But at what point can a country be considered to have definitively retreated from liberal democracy? After all, though much of the above are common to authoritarian states, they are sometimes present in liberal democracies too; and besides, the US does have some mitigating features (e.g. strong freedom of speech provisions that are relatively free from PC and libel laws, unlike in the UK and much of Europe).

The argument can be made that the US ceased being a liberal democracy on December 31, 2011 – the day the NDAA 2012 was signed into law by Obama. This legalizes the indefinite detention of US citizens by the military on the mere suspicion that the suspect is “associated with” terrorism or committed “belligerent acts” against the US or its allies. Bearing in mind the incredibly broad and flexible definition of what “terrorism” actually means, this could potentially encompass any number of anti-elite groups: Anonymous, Wikileaks, Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, etc.

AK Edit: Regrettably, all the old polls have gone.

Even if we are to (very generously) assume that this law will only be conscientiously wielded against genuine terrorists, there is room for doubt that indefinite detention is compatible with liberal democracy. After all, no other countries commonly considered to be liberal democracies – so far as I’m aware – have indefinite detention powers as sweeping as those contained in the NDAA. Even many countries considered to be illiberal democracies (or outright dictatorships), such as Russia, don’t have anything like it. And, of course, this assumption of good intentions is pollyannaish, given that the government has given no cause for trust whatsoever in this matter (what with the FBI setting up terrorist plots, the numerous cases of wrongful detention at Guantanamo, etc).

Of course, this is not to say that in a few years the US will come to resemble a tinpot dictatorship. Some historical perspective is necessary. Indefinite detention and imprisonment without trial aren’t unprecedented: See the 1950 McCarran Act, introduced at the height of the red scare, didn’t exactly lead to authoritarianism (though the US at the time was a great deal more illiberal that many care to admit). Furthermore, it’s also important to note that the NDAA legislation merely codifies powers that the executive has both claimed (through the AUMF) and exercised for the past decade, and besides it is only building on past efforts such as the flopped Enemy Belligerent Act of 2010; so one can argue that the change is not so abrupt as to constitute a crossing-the-Rubicon type of event.

Perhaps. Then again, there are caveats to that viewpoint too. The 1950’s-60’s were a period of fast growth and prosperity, so there was no real base for authoritarian regression. The prospects for the next decade don’t look anywhere near as good; in fact, they are downright dismal, and may well see some combination of high inflation and default. And democracy tends to wane in days of depression. Faced with challenges from the far left and the far right, the elites may find it necessary to consolidate a profoundly different social order, a post-constitutional Third Republic of sorts: One that is fiscally and socially conservative, and more authoritarian than the current one. To do this they will need to enlist the support of the billionaires; as far as this is concerned, the Wall Street bailouts, Citizens United and corporate citizenship, SOPA/PIPA, etc. may well be only harbingers of what is yet to come.

But this is all speculation. In the here and now, the fact of the matter is that the US now has national security laws on its books far more draconian than those of any other country considered to be a liberal democracy; indeed, I doubt you would find anything similar even in countries whose democracies are often criticized, such as Russia, Venezuela, or now Hungary. These laws apply to “terrorists”, a grouping every bit as ephemeral and ill-defined as “counter-revolutionaries” under Article 58 of the Stalinist lawcode. I have no choice but to lower the US from a “semi-liberal democracy” to an “illiberal democracy” in this year’s edition of the Karlin Freedom Index.

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