On the floor of the House Sunday, Republican Congressman Devin Nunes decried health care reform, warning darkly of the awakening of the "ghost of communist dictators," and urging the House to reject "totalitarianism."
Nunes is not alone, of course, in using this kind of language. For a year now, we've been hearing from various corners of the American right that President Obama is comparable to Hitler and Stalin, the classic exemplars of totalitarian dictators.
There is lengthy historical literature describing totalitarian dictatorship. The key features include:
- A single party dictatorship, with all political opposition outlawed
- A total monopoly on all forms of public communication -- print, broadcast media, etc.
- Political terror -- employing mass violence as a means of punishing any dissent and maintaining total control of society
Since Nunes seems especially exercised by the prospect of America becoming a communist totalitarian regime, it might be useful to remind him that the Republican Party remains a perfectly legal organization, entitled to raise money, organize opposition and criticize the President relentlessly, as Nunes himself has done. As far as I am aware, at no time has he been arrested or threatened with arrest as a result of his criticisms of Democrats in general or the President in particular.
This stands in stark contrast to political reality in the Soviet Union, where only one political party, the communist party, was legal, enshrined in the Soviet constitution. It might also be news to Congressman Nunes that when Joseph Stalin issued a new policy, there was no equivalent of FOX news, Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck and similar media outlets and personalities that had the legal right to broadcast their intense hatred of the leader to millions upon millions of people every day (and become fabulously wealth in the process). Instead, there were only communist-controlled newspapers and broadcast media that would never, under any circumstances, present a dissident view of the leader except to ridicule it, shortly before the source of that dissident view was thrown in jail or given a bullet in the back of his head, not infrequently along with his family.
Finally, perhaps it would be of some comfort to Mr. Nunes to know that Stalin likely sent at least twenty million people to their deaths, via forced famine, political murder on a massive scale (during the so-called Great Terror, from 1935 to 1938, Stalin may have had upwards of half a million people summarily executed) and, of course, through the notorious Gulag Archipelago, the system of slave labor camps that was a backbone of Stalin's terror, to which millions of Soviet citizens were shipped during his rule.
In other words, Congressman Nunes can, perhaps, breathe a sigh of relief. Hard as it is to believe, when Russians recoil in horror at the memory of the crimes of Stalin, it's not because their memories are haunted by Stalin's ruthless campaign not to allow people to be denied health care coverage due to pre-existing conditions. Extending health care coverage to some thirty million additional Americans, predominantly via the mechanism of private insurance companies, may be bad policy. But it doesn't quite add up to totalitarian communism. Thanks, though, Representative Nunes for enlarging and ennobling our public sphere, by suggesting that this legislation brings us to the precipice of mass murder on an unimaginable scale. We're all better off for your carefully considered concerns.
Jonathan Weiler's second book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in Contemporary American Politics, co-authored with Marc Hetherington, was published in 2009 by Cambridge University Press. He blogs about politics and sports at www.jonathanweiler.com.