Kolin: How the US Became a Police State

Andrew Kolin writes in a guest column for Informed Comment

To understand how the U.S. government became a police state, look no further than how it freed itself from colonial rule. For the American Revolution was, by and large, the result of a mobilization of the masses by the elites to liberate the colonized from a colonizer. It was the starting point of the myth of how the post- Revolutionary government would embody democracy.

The truth was that after the American Revolution, the thinking among economic and political elites was that America had become too democratic, especially as mass democracy expressed itself on the state level. The appearance and growth of democratic practices was perceived by elites as a threat to the expansion of state power. The government responded primarily through the use of force and violence, seeking to extend control over people and territory within North America through genocidal and ethnocidal measures against American Indians. Slavery was increasing in importance to the economy, in service of the expansion of state power. It is no coincidence that American Indians and slaves were the earliest groups defined by the government as political outsiders. Groups depicted as enemies of the state throughout U.S. history and described as “others” served as a convenient justification to enlarge state power at the expense of democracy.

Organized labor, especially its more radical elements, also challenged elite rule in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and political repression was turned loose against them. In surveying U.S. history, it becomes clear that the actions of the government in the end were intended to disrupt and eliminate progressive, mass- based political movements. The state viewed labor organizations as political outsiders, seen as seeking to subvert the government by forming an alliance with external enemies of the United States. Whether applied to organized labor, Socialists, Communists or terrorists, state ideology remained the same in perceiving the threat as coming from political outsiders, hence the need to employ emergency measures.

As police states are, by their nature, hostile to rule of law, political repression is accomplished through the use of essentially illegal measures, such as the Alien and Sedition Acts and the Espionage Act. This outlawing of political thought and alternative viewpoints persists as an ongoing theme. From the 1920s onward, in order to combat political outsiders, many state governments formed a partnership with local police officials with the goal of stamping out grassroots democracy. These Red Squads, a political police force, engage in surveillance, disruption, and, in many instances, the destruction of political organizations active in nonviolent political expression. The Red Squads acted in similar ways to the FBI, as agents of the state seeking to instill in American society social and political conformity.

The development of other essentially political police agencies within the federal government, to supplement the work of the FBI, such as the CIA, NSA, and a host of other intelligence gatherers on the federal and state levels, were an ominous sign. State repression was accelerating during the Truman administration with the passage of the National Security Act, and the growth of the CIA. Inside the federal government, there was an increasing subordination of the legislative branch to the executive branch., concentrating power in the context of a permanent emergency——and causing the government to become more determined to eliminate mass democracy. For instance, during World War II and in the name of a national emergency, Roosevelt ordered the internment of Japanese American citizens. This targeting of outsiders identified as an internal and external threat, continues to the present day; the alleged menace, was first Communism, and later, terrorism.

While mass democracy was being crushed in the United States, foreign policy in the postwar period remained consistent, extending control over more people and more territory, resulting in alliances with dictatorships so as to crush democracy overseas as well. After World War II, the military industrial complex became another key component in the twisted road to police state practices, based on the premise of permanent war making, with a cold war arms race, the sending of troops, and the establishment of military bases across the globe. This is another defining feature of a police state: a nation placed in an ongoing state of mobilization to prepare and fight wars throughout the globe. Police states, incorporate war-making into normalized state functions. Permanent war making translates into the global subversion of democracy. Supplementing the military in undermining democracy overseas, the CIA was one of many federal agencies during the second half of the twentieth century that was carrying out an essentially antidemocratic mission in the name of national security.

In assessing the successes and failures of progressive movements in the United States, in many ways, their limitations can be attributed to the intensive scale and scope of political repression, such as the FBI’s Cointelpro Program, which clearly diminished their effectiveness and in most cases, fundamentally undermined them. In many ways, Cointelpro was significant in paving the way for a police state, for progressive movements that developed after Cointelpro were much smaller and less effective in advancing mass democracy.

The ending of procedural democracy was yet another step toward the establishment of a permanent police state. The Constitution is supposed to place legal limits on the concentration of power within parts of government. Instead, with political repression of mass-based movements justified by declarations of national emergency, the government consistently stepped outside Constitutional legal boundaries. As a result, by the early 1970s, large- scale political movements were on the wane, in particular, as the events of Watergate unfolded, in many ways, a dress rehearsal for a police state. Watergate represented a political assault, not just on the supposed external threats to the Nixon administration, but political repression was extended to the government’s internal enemies. That meant taking action against the Democratic Party by seeking to rig an election, one of the most blatant attempts to destroy procedural democracy.

The concentration of power within one branch of government had been manifesting itself increasingly as an imperial presidency. Postwar presidential administrations define their power largely in relation to foreign policy initiatives. The foreign policies of post- Nixon administrations were outwardly anti- Communist and antiterrorist but in reality were driven by the maintenance and extension of a global American empire. Post-Watergate administrations were largely successful in finding various ways around the so- called Watergate reforms, seeking to enlarge the powers of presidents at home and overseas.

By the time we reach the presidency of George W. Bush, the executive branch had become a branch that saw itself as above the law while making law. The state came to embody the will of. Bush and his inner circle. The spark that ignited the transition toward the final form of an American police state was the attacks on the World Trade Towers in 1993 and 2001. In response, the government acted outside the Constitution by passing the Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act, and other measures, producing a direct assault on civil liberties.

The clearest indication of American police state practices is the use of preventive detention. In one example—extraordinary rendition—all the government has to do is accuse anyone of anything related to terrorism, sufficient reason to seize and ship individuals elsewhere to be tortured.

The twisted and extensive use of signing statements also indicates that an administration is functioning outside the law. In a distorted extension of the theory of a unitary executive, President Bush’s excessive use of signing statements resulted in dictatorial powers.

What is the future of the American police state? If history tells us anything about police states, it is that they all eventually crumble, in large part, because over time, they become dysfunctional. The same can be said of the police state of the Bush administration. During the second term, there were indications of a breakdown in how this police state functioned. Some of the clearest symptoms of this dysfunction were the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib, the National Security Agency’s surveillance program, and the large number of prisoners released from Guantanamo Bay. In addition, opposition mounted to the reauthorization of the Patriot Act and the Supreme Court ruling in the Boumediene case, which called into question the use of the Military Commissions Act. In the early days of the Obama administration, the trend seemed to point toward an American police state that will be modified, but not eliminated.

Andrew Kolin is Professor of Political Science at Hilbert University. This essay is adapted from his State Power and Democracy: Before and During the Presidency of George W Bush (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)

Posted in Islamophobia | 32 Responses | Print |

32 Responses

  1. There’s undoubtedly a intense battle going on at present for democracy and human rights in the world, not only in North Africa, but also here at home in the United States.

    The difference is that the forces for good are currently winning there but losing here.

    Contrary to those deluded into thinking that the Obama administration has brought policies back into line with the rule of law and human rights, the administration is continuing many of the same illegal approaches of the Bush administration, including the Patriot Act, torture by proxy and restrictions on basic citizenship rights through use of no-fly lists and the like (e.g. the recent Gulet Mohamed case), massive warrantless surveillance and dataveillance, rendition, military tribunals, repression of dissent under expansive definitions of “domestic terrorism” and “material support” (cf Obama and Holder’s recent FBI raids in various US states on peaceful anti-war and international solidarity activists), the expanded use of the “state secrets” privilege to achieve the complete dismissal of lawsuits against torture, rendition, and warrantless surveillance, ensuring the impunity and defeating accountability for these abuses. And Obama has embraced what you call the “clearest indication of American police state practices” — preventive detention. He is reportedly about to sign a new Executive Order enshrining this more broadly into US law for the first time.

    The American people could usefully take a little inspiration from their North African brothers and sisters.

    Chip Pitts

  2. Mr Cole, I must admit I almost dropped my jaw at the most profound piece of writing I’ve seen beyond the comments. It’s too bad the people that really need to read Kolin’s book won’t because mostly they don’t read and are instead hypnotized by the radio and TV–depicted as Evil Eye Fleegle and his consort Stupefyin’ Jones in Lil’ Abner.

    • Dear Karlof1 Thank you for the expression of appreciation for my research. I would add to your other comments that recent events in Egypt point to the limits of a Police when the Masses rise up. It is not out of the question that in the united states, the masses will also begin to resist the American Police State. Respectfully Prof. Kolin

  3. Nicely done Professor Kolin. Looking forward to reading your latest book. I wonder if you can see Israel’s trajectory in the same light, as a mini-US experience? I think such things as assassination of opponents, setting up reservations to corral the natives, aggressive preemptive wars and the way the US/West dismissed International Law whenever it was raised while relying on it whenever they needed to get someone out of the way has made those policies and actions the norm today. No one says anything beyond the usual suggestions that all states should follow international law. In other words, firing missiles at “enemies” regardless of the innocents in proximity was something the Israelies made legal merely by doing it and have pundits both sides of the Atlantic rationalize it through the fear meme.

    Anyway, a rather sad reality. We should stop calling our first leaders the Founding Fathers and refer to them as our Founding Overlords. It would be more appropriate.

    • Dear Homellessus Thanks for the support of my book. I would like you to know that as the son of a Holocaust survivor It is most upsetting that Jews in POWER will also resort to extreme forms of Political repression. the problem with State Power has been a general lack of will to rein it in if National Interest conflicts. the so called Framers and those Political elites had a shamful Histiorical record of suppressing Mass Democracy Respectfully Prof kolin

  4. Professor Kolin writes, “The appearance and growth of democratic practices was perceived by elites as a threat to the expansion of state power.”


    In the early days of the Obama administration, the trend seemed to point toward an American police state that will be modified, but not eliminated.

    Concentration of power requires a police state, but it also requires (a) a population that can not or will not think for itself, (b) refuses to accept an unpopular truth, and (c) that is married to and completely dependent on the system.

    Look for central government planners to (a) support educational measures in the public school system that destroy critical thinking, (b) allow Fox news to broadcast the elite’s “believe this or else you are a socialist” message, and (c) take a dim view of the self sufficiency movement, perhaps to the point of labeling off-grid farmers as terrorists, which would be very illogical, but if (a) and (b) were to be accomplished …..

    • Dear James Speaks . Many thanks for your insightful comments. i would add that Absolute Power in the long run is DYSFUNCTIONAL. At it’s most oppressive it is also it;s most weakest. Respectfully Prof. Kolin

  5. We were warned:

    “Of all enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.” James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution.

    Professor Kolin (and Chalmers Johnson, among others) warns us again. Is it too late for the US to choose democracy rather than empire? Maybe.

    William Hartung offers the best and most hopeful (but tough) prescription: cut Pentagon and Intelligence spending 30%. Now. The U.S. with 20% of the world’s GDP is bankrupting itself by spending 40% of the world’s expenditures on military, e.g., 750+ major military bases outside the US, around the world.

    What the US needs is a Citizen Commission composed of Bill Moyers, Hartung, Ray McGovern, etc. to review US expenditures on empire and prescribe a 40-50% cut in spending over the next three years or so. And follow Art. I Sec. 9 of the US Constitution requiring publishing “a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money”–no more secret CIA budgets.

  6. As a polemic I’d buy it; As a explanation of reality, forget it. Things are far more nuanced. The essential conflict of haves and have nots, reactionaries and progressives, old and young, is as old and as fundamental as the tension between fathers who cling to the past and their sons who are creating a future.

    We hope for a prudent balance, which in the US has been afforded by sheer wealth: it becomes a two steps forward and one step backward thing (or one step forward, two back, pick your ratio). Yes, there is this danger in any society, especially cropping up in recent years, but there are correcting mechanisms. The wheel never ceases to turn.

  7. “to liberate the colonized from a colonizer” ?

    That is a myth !

    Those american revolutionaries were not colonized, they were the colonizers, and they never intended to liberate the native americans, who were the colonized.

  8. Voting rights have been a big concern of the elites since the beginning also. They have been very focused on making sure that only the “right people” get to vote. In the segregated south after slavery times they used literacy tests and poll taxes. Even now most jurisdictions exercise control by making the voter registration process difficult and troublesome, often striking people off the registration list on the basis of suspicion without proof that something is wrong. I think this explains the obsession with “voter fraud”, the deep concern that inappropriate people might get to vote.

    The simple process of voting in an election is also made difficult by scheduling it on workdays with waiting in long lines. And they want to make it harder with ID checks, background checks and so on.

    And there is still a movement to restrict voting to property owners or taxpayers. This idea has been around since the beginning of the constitution. Thomas Jefferson prevailed on extending the vote to all (white) men because he thought it was a good idea to allow them some kind of outlet for their discontent. Mostly he thought they should vote because they had guns and might use them to express their political preferences.

  9. I have not read Professor Kolin’s book, but all the key points Kolin makes in this post are present–frequently with blistering clarity– in Sheldon Wollin’s book of 2008, Democracy Inc. One area Wolin emphasizes that Kolin does not mention in this short post is the depth, breadth, and subtety of persuasion that may be brought to bear in the service of manipulation of the voter, and the unremitting employment of that full strength which has become a norm in America. As Wolin puts it, once manipulation (the cry of “Terror!”) has successfully destroyed ‘normal’, a democracy becomes easily managed. By making this point, Wolin does not allow the artifice of “voting” to remain as a politically consequential act. Once managed, democracy may remain in place as a figurehead system, with voting retained as an ineffectual mollifying activity for patriotic citizen subjects, with the real decisions being made by a thin slice of the population.

    Wolin in turn fully echoes the generalities of Jacques Ellul’s prescient 1964 book, The Technological Society, which establishes the evolutionary potential for advancing technology to create pressure toward totalitarianism. One of the many myths of America is that it is a successful, steady-state democracy, possessing the ability and strength to withstand change from all quarters. Current views of Americans, however, uniformly apprehensive about America’s direction, and ranging across the political spectrum, clearly suggest a confused and growing doubt of that myth. I would be interested to read whether Kolin shares Wolin’s conclusion that a democracy possessing a rapidly developing technology has a predisposition and dynamic toward totalitarianism, and where exactly, in such a timeline, America stands right now.

    • Dear James L In a short post it is difficult to elaborate the points you raise. My research follows a similar and different approach followed by Wolin. With a historcal approach I discuss the supression of Democracy at Home and Overseas as well as the Idealogy behind it. In addition the Formation of anti- democractic agencies- such as the FBI, CIA and NSA. Prf, Kolin

      • Thank you for your response Prof Kolin. I did not intend my remarks to be in any way negative. I look forward to reading your book.

  10. Andrew Kolin seems to use “elite” as a perjorative. Perhaps he’d like to reveal which nations were not begun by elites.
    The problem is not elites – which always rule in times of normalcy – but factions or parties.
    The question of the day: How can Egypt organize itself without becoming prey to anti-democratic factions, like those who front corporations or religious interests?
    I submit that good people are trying, but that a new method of founding is needed. If the readers of Dr. Cole are interested, I’ll present a different plan in which the natural elites are able to withstand or overcome the factions that can be expected to battle for Egypt’s power. It will require some new thinking, but we can all agree – when considering a failing democracy like the U.S. – that this should be welcome.

    • Do not publish your plan on the internet. Send it out in the mail if you want it to have any value.
      You can mail one copy to:
      Kloster Str. 36
      52531 Uebach-Palenberg

      I would like to see your plan.

  11. I think his main fault lies in treating “colonial elites” as some sort of monolithic entity.

    It makes a lot more sense to treat revolutions as contested terrain. For example, the main force behind the Glorious Revolution was the great Whig magnates. But it was also claimed by veterans of the “Good Old Cause” with sea-green banners, who did their best to recuperate the Revolution for themselves.

    The American Revolution on the ground was as much about farmers on local committees of public safety and committees of correspondence out in Podunk, Mass., as it was about Samuel Adams. I think there’s a lot of virtue to Merrill Jensen’s treatment of the Federalist movement as a counter-revolution against the main grass-roots body of the Revolution, and Shay’s Rebellion as a direct continuation of the real thing.

    Today we see the same thing in the so-called Color Revolutions. In the end they may be coopted by the IRI/NED/Soros Foundation, and bring in rule by the IMF and World Bank with Havel or Mandela as a brand-name image. But that doesn’t alter the fact that such revolutions are actually fought by real people doing their heroic best to overthrow Apartheid or Ceaucescu.

  12. I have three obvious questions for Prof. Kolin (and any reader inclined to his view):

    1) What is your definition of a police state, and a non-police state? You seem to be arguing that from its inception the U.S. has been a police state. Since, by definition, the elites are very much smaller in number than the masses, could there ever be not be a police state under capitalism (since that’s the era you’re talking about)? In your view, has a non-police state ever existed during this era among the major industrail nations?

    2) If the U.S. is currently a police state, how could Juan Cole’s blog exist as a daily public entity, and your piece and book be published openly even though the “police state” controls the internet and has substantial influence over “the elite’s” publishing houses? How could you and Prof. Cole be employed at universities, which are obviously directly and indirectly controlled by those elites?

    3) And from the perspective of historical accuracy, how is it that you make no mention of the Russian Revolution of 1917 or of the Soviet Union, although they were the explicit justification used by U.S. officials for the institutionalization of the U.S. “police state” from World War I, up until the fall of the Soviet bloc around 1990?

    Police powers used in a limited way, sometimes more, but usually less extensively in the context of an apparent democracy doesn’t seem a viable working definition of a police state.

    • Dear HY I will answer your questions in the following order from question 3- My research focused on the UNITED STATES and not Russia. but there certain similarites between russia and the US, such the unforfilled promise of Democracy. that in both countries in russia after 1917 and the US after the drift towards Authortarian pratices were gradual. In Russia and the US when the State seeks to dominate the minds and bodies of it;s people you have an essential element of a Police State. Question2 is not all that difficult to answer. Any Police State TOLERATES dissent so long as there is no clear threat to State Power Question 1- The US has many traits of a Police State, Such as PREVENTIVE DENTENTION State of NATIONAL EMERGENCY, SUSPENSIONN of CIVIL LIBERTIES and TORTURE to name a few. As for Capatalist ecominies ,they tend towards extreme meaures to maximize profits . Prof Kolin

      • People often forget that post-1917 Russia was a country partially dismembered (by Brest-Litovsk) and under attack by foreign-supported counter-revolutionary armies. The revolution was almost immediately followed by civil war fomented by Western European and US Govts. This immediately put the Bolsheviks in a desperate situation in which (a) they saw enemies everwhere because there were enemies everywhere and (b) they saw clearly that there was no chance of normal relations with non-Communist Govts.

        In the US, by contrast, there was no external threat after the end of the Revolutionary War. The new US Govt. was far more able to develop its own policies and strategies than was the Bolshevik Govt. in Russia in the years following 1917.

        I don’t know why people insist on forgetting this fundamental difference. How a Bolshevik Govt. might have developed in Russia after 1917 if there had been no foreign-supported civil war will always remain one of the tantalising “ifs” of history, but there is no reason to assume that it would have been exactly the same as what actually occurred.

    • I think that you have asked some pretty good questions.
      I would only like to offer a few thoughts on question number two.
      My understanding of the situation is that the US is a modern Ottomon Empire. Its lawlessness is directed primarily externally. In oder to maintain domestic unity the state allows quite a bit of domestic critisism with in boundaries.
      Of course do not try to organize and expand a union in the US or the State will wage war against you. Do not try to bring socialism to the US or the state will wage war against you.
      Do not try to mobalize African American Restiance to the economic conditions in the country or the state will wage war against you.
      The means of state warefare may not always be violent but they will be diablical.
      In fact by allowing a wider range of domestic criticism the state can claim that all is well in the realm.
      It can also, especially with internet, monitor and thereby attempt to manage the development of dissent.
      Remember Scott Ritter, I have always wondered who he is really working for. The reason why is that although he said damageing things about the US government but he told one huge lie during his time in the limelight which was that members of the miltary could not legally say no to going to war. The are in fact obligated to say no to a war of agression even if it voted on and approved by 100% of the American people, approved by Congress and ordered by the President. Now in some cases it might be hard to know if the country is launching a war of agression but in some cases it is absolutely not hard to know.
      Scott Ritter was setting a boundary of dissent with in US soiciety. It is possible that he himself set this boundary becasue he thought that he would be blacklisted if he crossed it. If that is the case then there was still a boundary that he thought that that he could not cross.
      I hope that has given you something to think about that you have maybe not thought about before.

  13. How much power or influence can Pres. Obama or anyone who follows him into office have, in the face of this nightmarish scenario? Americans will probably put up with a lot more anti-democratic abuse before they go Egyptian, but hopefully, it’ll be sooner than ‘twenty centuries of stony sleep’, when they wise up. cheers, rmdw

  14. Thank you so much for this excellent piece Professor Kolin. I have already sent it to a few people and will share it with many more. We need more articles like this bringing these very important issues to light.

    I hope that more members of my generation start to become more politically aware. I feel that we have reached a very critical impasse. We cannot allow our government to torture and imprison innocents in the name of “prevention” and homeland security.

    I look forward to reading your book.

  15. I would argue that the workers in the American Revolution who made the revolution on the streets of Boston weren’t just “colonizers”. Most immigrants to the colonial US were indentured servants, which was a deceitful slaveowners term for white slaves. Few people had any “choice” to come to the US in those days. While Merchant prince Whigs, and Virgina planters may have been in charge of the revolution, the people who started it were people like Tom Paine and the victims of the Boston Massacre.

    The Unions in Egypt and Tunisia played a key role in support for the old regimes. Workers in Egypt have been staging more and more militant strikes for several years now. Labor struggles go unnoticed in the media but often they exhibit signs of greater things to come.

    While the middle classes and “professionals” will probably support of El Baradei/Muslim Brotherhood government with the blessing of the US government. This will not end unrest in Egypt as long as the economic bases for this uprising remains unanswered.

    The background of these uprisings in the Arab world today is one that we all share, specifically declining rates of job creation worldwide, rising commodity prices caused by the ruling class which has socked it money away into the very things people need, driving prices for basic necessities up beyond people’s means. At the same time you have corrupt regimes run by the military and the police where all society and social spending go to the “security” apparatus and everyone else gets thrown under the bus.

    The only reason this hasn’t happened in the US is that people here are under an intense ideological bombardment because the US is a core part of the capitalist world and thus people here get subjected to intensified ideological manipulation and control. They will be slower to react than in a peripheral country where ideological manipulation is less important because the regimes on the periphery of the capitalist world can rely more on brute force to crush people so their propaganda tends to be clumsy. Propaganda in the US grows out of our “public relations” industry in advertising, this is what makes it so refined and effective as it is geared towards selling, people, commodities and dominant ideas.

    The world rulers and the middle classes worry about “stability” and call for “restraint” from those rising up as if they were responsible for their own oppression or had not right to simply overthrow the regime that oppresses them. It is too late for that and sell-outs and half-measures aren’t going to be enough to stop this. Eventually the rulers will stop accommodating and conceding and decide that the movement needs to be drowned in blood. Israel coming to the defense of the Mubarak regime, of any Egyptian leader is extraordinary.

    I am glad to have lived to see workers fighting back once again.

  16. Let’s try that again correcting inadvertent awkward wording.

    With the exception of Hy who asks challenging questions, most of this is sycophantic drivel, as is Kolin’s article–drivel, that is– parading as erudition. Anyone reading history can see that the perpetual state of mankind is and has been one of rulers over susbjects. The only question is one of benevolence on the part of the rulers.

    I worked my way through all the responses to see if there were any dissenting opinions. And the only reason I’m on this site at all is that a friend referred me to it. He, unfortunately overly enamored of his (grossly exaggerated) intellectual abilities, has fallen into this game of ostentation. I hope to rescue the poor dope, but so far have been unsuccessful.

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