The rise of this national security state has entailed a vast expansion in the government’s powers that now touch every aspect of American life, even when seemingly unrelated to terrorism. Some 30,000 people, for example, are now employed exclusively to listen in on phone conversations and other communications within the United States.
In the past, the U.S. government has built up for wars, assumed emergency authority and sometimes abused that power, yet always demobilized after the war. But this is, of course, a war without end.
So we continue to stand in absurd airport lines. We continue to turn down the visa applications of hundreds of thousands of tourists, businessmen, artists and performers who simply want to visit America and spend money here, and become ambassadors of good will for this country. We continue to treat even those visitors who arrive with visas as hostile aliens - checking, searching and deporting people at will. We continue to place new procedures and rules to monitor everything that comes in and out of the country, making doing business in America less attractive and more burdensome than in most Western countries.
We don’t look like people who have won a war. We look like scared, fearful, losers.
The U.S. has 760 prisoners per 100,000 citizens. That’s not just many more than in most other developed countries but seven to 10 times as many. Japan has 63 per 100,000, Germany has 90, France has 96, South Korea has 97, and Britain - with a rate among the highest - has 153….
This wide gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world is relatively recent. In 1980 the U.S.’s prison population was about 150 per 100,000 adults. It has more than quadrupled since then. So something has happened in the past 30 years to push millions of Americans into prison.
That something, of course, is the war on drugs. Drug convictions went from 15 inmates per 100,000 adults in 1980 to 148 in 1996, an almost tenfold increase. More than half of America’s federal inmates today are in prison on drug convictions. In 2009 alone, 1.66 million Americans were arrested on drug charges, more than were arrested on assault or larceny charges. And 4 of 5 of those arrests were simply for possession….
America just does not have a very broad ideological spectrum. If you look at America’s two parties, they’re actually very close together in terms of their ideological differences. Both American parties - the Democrats and the Republicans – would fit comfortably as center-right parties in Europe. You have no real social democratic party. You have no real hyper-nationalist parties. If you look at the width of the European political spectrum, the United States occupies a kind of narrow position on it. So it makes sense that we don’t have ten competitive parties.
That may change, however, because one of the things that kept America ideologically narrow, if you will, was the fact that we had a big middle class society with big middle class politics that everyone agreed on.
I think that as we become a more unequal society with greater disparities and greater diversities, you could very well imagine different political movements, at the very least, starting up. The Ron Paul movement would represent a very different phenomenon than the Rick Santorum movement and that would be very different from the people who would want to vote for Barack Obama.
I don’t know if this divergence translates into parties. It probably won’t. But you’ll have very, very distinct and incompatible political movements beginning to develop in the United States.
In 2009, Senate Republicans filibustered a stunning 80% of major legislation. Given how the chamber is composed— two Senators per state, no matter how thinly populated— people representing just 10% of the country can block all legislation. Is that how a democracy should function?
- Fareed Zakaria