By David K. Shipler
A crucial feature of the Soviet Union’s dictatorship was its enforcement by peers. Your co-workers, your schoolmates, the fellow members of your local Communist Party committee or Komsomol (Communist youth organization) were primed to call you to account if you deviated from the norm. If you went to church regularly, your Komsomol committee might hold a meeting to denounce you. If you went farther and made “anti-Soviet” statements — criticizing government policy or advocating democratic reforms — your peers in Komsomol might be assembled for a vote to expel you, which would handicap your future job prospects. In the post-Stalin era, imprisonment was usually reserved for the most stubbornly outspoken; less dramatic disobedience could be curtailed by lesser means.
It was not an airtight system. It aspired to totalitarianism but fell short. It contained eddies of quiet noncompliance, which allowed small pools of independent thinking. But orthodoxy had power, wielded both vertically from the top down, and also horizontally in a milieu of conformity. As a result, most Soviet citizens acquiesced politically and never bumped up against the hard limits of dissent. Newspaper editors, for example, rarely had to be confronted by the censors; writers and their bosses internalized the restrictions, even endorsed them, and so knew the comfortable scope of the permissible.
That is approximately what the Republican Party appears to strive for in 2021, not only in the party organization itself but in the broader society. It is a new American Dream, aspiring to a comprehensive, unitary way of thinking about history, culture, law, politics, science, religion, and race. The odd thing is that it is pursued in the guise of individualism, touting the preeminence of personal free choice, while in fact it is driven by just the opposite — the thrust of group-think.
This horizontal enforcement is a hallmark of the emerging Republican strategy. A catechism of professed beliefs is monitored for irreverence, and the punishment is akin to excommunication. Absolutism is required: adore Donald Trump, reject the 2020 election as stolen, dismiss the January 6 insurrection as insignificant, refuse to investigate it.
Peer policing has also been introduced outside the Republican Party ranks: The majority-Republican legislature in Texas recently empowered private citizens anywhere to sue abortion providers in the state over real or imagined violations of restrictive anti-abortion laws. The tactic is a ploy to make the laws harder to block in the courts, where government is typically the target of lawsuits by pro-choice advocates. Here, government would not be the enforcer; any citizen might be. But the tactic has large implications, for any citizen who wins a suit gets a $10,000 award. That creates a population of bounty hunters, diffusing power into a miasma of unaccountability, and it encourages informers, just as dictatorships do.
It is an example of Republican hostility to pluralism, to the robust debate of ideas that fuels American democracy. Recent legislative bans on public schools’ teaching critical race theory are methods of censoring the truthful history of racial bias and discrimination. Tennessee’s prohibition against health officials’ informing adolescents about COVID vaccines effectively censors scientific knowledge and stifles best medical practices. The anti-vaccine movement fostered by Republican officials and their talk-show disciples sacrifices the common good on the altar of individual freedom.
On the surface, that resistance to the collective demand looks as if it stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from Soviet Communism’s collectivist ethic. But look more closely. The mantra of individual free choice is a deception when you are manipulated by the conservative right into a collective of another kind: the subculture of alienated doubters who feel a sense of belonging to a group that fancies itself as smarter than the “experts” who have researched and developed and tested vaccines. “I Love My Country But I Fear My Government,” reads a bumper sticker on a pickup truck in Maine.
Distrust of government, of any establishment except one worshiping Trump, qualifies you for trusting membership in associations of the alienated, even if those groups exist only online. Can anyone really argue that Republicans falling in line are models of individualism?
Right-wingers who are accused of smothering respectful discourse often resort to whataboutism — what about those on the left who cancel white professors and others for racist or sexist remarks, or who fail to utter mea culpas of white guilt? Isn’t that a suppression of speech and an attack based on skin color? Isn’t that the product of herd mentality and mob thinking?
It goes without saying that intolerance and absolutism can be found at many points on the political spectrum, including the liberal end. But the claim of moral equivalency between the right and the left is a canard. Only one of the two major political parties in the United States has become a conduit of far-right conspiracy theories and apocalyptic yearnings. Only one party’s legislators are busily corrupting state electoral mechanisms, both by impeding voting and disarming and threatening principled officials and volunteers who count the ballots. It appears that the Trump Republicans’ election challenges of 2020 were merely a dry run that exposed the system’s pressure points. In state after Republican-led state, the bulwarks against rigged and fraudulent elections are being undermined.
When people are asked if they fear the loss of pluralistic democracy, many comfort themselves by citing history — the periods of strife and oppression that the country visited upon itself, and yet managed to survive. The massacres and exiles of Native Americans. Slavery. The Civil War. Racial segregation. The McCarthy-era’s witch hunts. The twisted white faces of hatred that greeted little Black children being escorted into integrated schools. Cold War surveillance and political arrests. The anguished polarization over the Vietnam War. And numerous other self-inflicted heartaches along the way. America is resilient, it is said, and Americans are deeply decent, devoted to country and freedom. We will come through this time, too.
That answer has the allure of complacency and the danger of error. It is time for all Americans who cherish democracy to emerge from their shadow of disbelief.