What Makes a Government Despotic? A History Lesson Certain Presidential Candidates Should Watch

December 29th, 2007

While stuck at the airport in Tyler, Texas yesterday, I ran across a fascinating history lesson in the comments section of a random Sadly, No article. Produced right after World War II, the short Encyclopedia Britannica film “Despotism” looks at the aspects of a society that make its government free versus those that make it authoritarian. What’s shocking is how much our political culture has changed in just 60 years — the producers of this film lived in a country that had just seen REAL despotism in the form of Nazi Germany and a military-ruled Japan (note the brownshirt-style uniforms, and also the lack of any of any depiction of their Soviet equivalents), and they pull few punches about what leads a society away from freedom. Do citizens treat each other with basic respect? Is power shared or concentrated? Is the distrbution of WEALTH balanced or slanted? Is information controlled or uncontrolled?

The economic aspect is particularly striking — the authors clearly saw the rise of European authoritarianism as being in part a reaction to the worldwide economic distruption of the 1920s and ’30s, and hence perceived the disproportionate concentration of wealth as a danger to democracy. These attitudes were widespread in postwar America, and it’s no accident that the 1950s saw a profound expansion of the American middle class — among other things, government policy in the form of the G.I. Bill and progressive taxation encouraged it.

I can think of more than a few presidential candidates who would benefit from watching this film, from Mitt “Our most basic civil liberty is the right to be kept alive” Romney to Ron “Lincoln was a despot” Paul to all the Democrats who didn’t stand with Chris Dodd on the FISA bill. The word “fascism” gets tossed around pretty loosely these days, but government institutions in and of themselves aren’t usually the problem — it’s how they’re used and who uses them that we need to watch.

Yes, it’s a little dry, but it sure beats the crap on cable news….


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