In 1970, Walt Kelly’s popular cartoon character Pogo famously uttered the line: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” At that time, the observation of a small possum could be classified as humor or satire. Today this is elevated to the realm of prophecy. When President Biden, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and others have publicly stated that the greatest threat to the United States is not China or Russia, but instead the large number of American citizens who are now designated as “domestic terrorists” and/or “white supremacists,” it is clear that there has been a sea change in the way we think about our country and our fellow Americans.
A recent report by polling firm Rasmussen illustrates how deeply these divisive views have permeated our polarized national politics. In that poll, likely voters were asked who the United States’ “greatest enemy” was, and the results showed that “nearly 40 percent of Americans do not choose a foreign power, but name a domestic political party.”
For Democrats, the top three results listed Russia (31 percent) as our biggest enemy, followed by Republicans (26 percent) and China (16 percent). For Republicans, the top three are China (35 percent), Russia (33 percent) and Democrats (12 percent). Among independents, 26 percent cited China, 21 percent Democrats and 18 percent Republicans. Ironically, 12 percent of Democrats said Democrats are America’s “worst enemy,” while 8 percent of Republicans said the same about their own party.
This tendency to view those with different political opinions or voting habits as “the enemy” did not occur in isolation; it was part of broader trends such as the criminalization of political differences and efforts to suppress the free speech of those who express views different from the prevailing political or cultural orthodoxy. Individuals who criticize a particular government policy can be accused of spreading “misinformation”, which can justify the suppression of such criticism.
During the pandemic, for example, there have been countless examples of individuals questioning government policies on things like masking, lockdowns and school closures being effectively silenced, professionally ostracized and condemned as “dangerous” or accused of “costing lives” . Of particular concern has been the way in which various government agencies have apparently taken over social media platforms to help suppress dissent.
While one can to some extent understand those who believed they were acting in the interest of public health during an unprecedented national emergency, however misguided many of their policies may have turned out to be, such an excuse cannot be accepted those government agencies that have artfully transferred their suppression methodologies from the realm of health to the realm of politics. These agencies, which are expressly prohibited by law from political interference, found that social media platforms, either voluntarily or under duress, would effectively become instruments of the government’s desire to suppress undesirable forms of speech.
Recently released files on Twitter appear to show what has long been suspected about these activities, the full extent of which will not be known until the authorities decide to take an honest look at them. However, in today’s toxic environment, both political parties seem primarily interested in investigating each other.
In his classic novel “1984,” George Orwell painted a chilling portrait of the terrifying extremes to which the totalitarian impulse can lead when a government has the ability to subjugate an entire population. The key to this subjugation was the ability of the government, personified by “Big Brother,” to systematically spy on people to detect tendencies toward “deviance”—i.e. any disagreement with government policy.
During the mass purges of the 1930s, Soviet revolutionary Joseph Stalin introduced such methods, which were later imitated and improved by Adolf Hitler and the East German “Stasi”. Today, the greatest totalitarian state in history, Communist China, has taken advantage of the tremendous advances in modern technology to bring the “controlled state” to new levels of intrusion and unprecedented efficiency—and to vastly increase its ability to control and oppress its people. The US government is cracking down on companies that may be abusing biotechnology and US investment in Chinese tech companies.
No American administration has ever enjoyed criticism, but has historically tolerated it because it is “protected speech” in our democratic system. The government also knew that the vigilant surveillance media would expose illegal violations.
Now, as our recent election has shown again, politicians of both parties routinely denounce their opponents—not just as practitioners of bad policy, but as outright “threats to democracy.” It’s a short step from saying that to treating opposing sides as “the enemy” and justifying the suppression of their views.
In this malignant political environment, America has found itself on a slippery slope, and this is a real threat to democracy.
William Moloney is a senior fellow in conservative thought at Colorado Christian University Centennial Institute who studied at Oxford and the University of London and received his doctorate from Harvard University. He is a former Colorado Commissioner of Education.