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Dirty Democracy and the Politics
of the U.S. (In)Security State

Henry A. Giroux
Ongoing revelations in the mainstream media about the Bush administration’s decision to allow the National Security Agency to spy on Americans without first obtaining warrants, the disclosure by the Washington Post of a network of covert prisons known as “black sites” established by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in eight countries, the rampant corruption involving some of the most powerful politicians in the Bush administration, the ongoing stories about widespread abuse and torture in Iraq and Afghanistan, the passing of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 – which conveniently allowed the former Bush administration to detain indefinitely anyone deemed as enemy combatant without recourse to the traditional right to challenge their detention – and the disappearance of detainees into the torture chambers of violent and repressive regimes are just some of the elements in the popular press that point to a growing authoritarianism in American life. The U.S. government, as many liberal critics ranging from Seymour M. Hersh and Gore Vidal to Robert Kennedy Jr. have pointed out, has been, up until the Obama election, in the hands of extremists who have shredded civil liberties, lied to the American public to legitimize sending young American troops to Iraq, and alienated most of the international community with a blatant exercise of arrogant power. These right-wing extremists have also tarnished the highest offices of government with unsavory corporate alliances, used political power unabashedly to pursue legislative policies that favor the rich and punish the poor, and disabled those public spheres not governed by the logic of the market. With the rise of new forms of insecurity, the emergence of new forms of terrorism, and the Bush administration’s appeal to «fear as the only effective basis for obedience»[1], we have witnessed over the last eight years the rise of a powerful national security state. The national security state is and will wage a fierce battle against the «public character of spaces, relations, and institutions»[2]that do not succumb to the logic of both neoliberalism and the ideology of militarism, which normalizes war and «organizes civil society for the production of violence»[3],both of which bespeak of the enduring attraction if not «rehabilitation of fascist ideas and principles»[4]. While it would be ludicrous to suggest that the United States either represents a mirror image of fascist ideology or mimics the systemic racialized terror of Nazi Germany, it is not unreasonable, as Hannah Arendt insisted in The Origins of Totalitarianism, to learn to recognize how different elements of fascism crystallize in different historical periods into new forms of authoritarianism. Such anti-democratic elements combine in often unpredictable ways, and I believe they can be found currently in many of the political practices, values, and policies that characterize U.S. sovereignty under the Bush administration.
Indeed, war and warriors have become the most endearing models of national greatness, mimicking President Bush’s declaration one month after 9/11 that «[E]very American is a soldier»[5]. Rejecting any form of internationalism at odds with its own global interests, legitimized as a never-ending war on terrorism, the United States has refashioned a notion of sovereignty defined through a biopolitics in which «daily life and the functioning of power has been permeated with the threat and violence of warfare»[6]. Human beings are no longer protected by domestic and international law, and state violence becomes the defining feature of the imperial rogue state. As an instrument of unchecked biopower, law and violence become indistinguishable, and sovereignty is reduced to waging a war on terrorism that mimics the very terror it claims to be fighting. Within this notion of sovereignty, state violence is organized around the mutually determining forces of security and terrorism, which increasingly «form a single deadly system, in which they justify and legitimate each others’ actions»[7].
Unchecked power at the top of the political hierarchy has been increasingly matched by an aggressive attack on dissent throughout the body politic and fuels both a war abroad and a war at home. In the United States, a shameful attack has been waged against poor young people, Muslims, Arabs, and people of color who are even now being either warehoused in substandard schools, harassed, or incarcerated at alarming rates. But these are not the only targets. Universities were accused of being soft on terrorism and un-American in their critiques of the Bush administration; homophobia became the poster-ideology of the Republican Party; and a full-fledged assault on women’s reproductive rights was championed by Bush’s evangelical supporters – most evident in Bush’s Supreme Court appointments. While the legal rights and support services of people of color, the poor, youth, the middle class, the elderly, gays, and women were attacked, the former Bush administration supported a campaign to collapse the boundaries between the church and state to the extent that even “New York Times” op-ed columnist Frank Rich and reformed conservative Kevin Philips believe that the United States was on the verge of becoming a fundamentalist theocracy[8]. Violence, fear, and death have become the principal elements shaping the biopolitics of the new authoritarianism that emerged in the United States and continues to extend its reach into broader global spheres, from Iraq to a vast array of military outposts and prisons around the world. The sources of this threat are multiple.
1. Market Fundamentalism
As the state of emergency, in Giorgio Agamben’s aptly chosen words, becomes the rule rather than the exception, a number of powerful anti-democratic tendencies threaten the prospects for both American and global democracy[9]. The first is a market fundamentalism that not only trivializes democratic values and public concerns, but also enshrines a rabid individualism, an all-embracing quest for profits, and a social Darwinism in which misfortune is seen as a weakness – the current sum total being the Hobbesian rule of a “war of all against all” that replaces any vestige of shared responsibilities or compassion for others. The values of the market and the ruthless workings of finance capital become the template for organizing the rest of society. Everybody is now a customer or client, and every relationship is ultimately judged in bottom-line, cost-effective terms as the neoliberal mantra “privatize or perish” is repeated over and over again.Responsible citizens are replaced by an assemblage of entrepreneurial subjects, each tempered in the virtue of self-reliance and forced to face the increasingly difficult challenges of the social order alone. Freedom is no longer about securing equality, social justice, or the public welfare, but about unhampered trade in goods, financial capital, and commodities. As the logic of capital trumps democratic sovereignty, low-intensity warfare at home chips away at democratic freedoms, and high intensity warfare abroad delivers democracy with bombs, tanks, and high-tech weapons.
2. Religious Fundamentalism
The second fundamentalism now affecting the United States can be seen in the religious fervor embraced under Bush and his cohorts, one that substituted blind faith and intolerance for critical reason and social responsibility[10]. Under the former Bush administration, the line between the state and religion was erased as government officials, many now proxies for radical Christian evangelicals, embraced and imposed on American society a rigid moralism and set of values that are largely bigoted, patriarchal, and insensitive to real social problems such as poverty, racism, the crisis in health care, and the increasing impoverishment of America’s children. Instead of addressing these problems, right-wing Christians with enormous political clout continue to wage a campaign to ban same-sex marriages, serve up creationism instead of science, privatize Social Security, eliminate embryonic stem cell research, overturn Roe v. Wade among other abortion-rights cases, and pass legislation to sponsor “abstinence-only education,” in spite of a spate of research suggesting that such programs do not work. The Bush administration also succumbed to pressure from religious fundamentalists by eliminating information from government Web sites about alternative forms of birth control, citing falsified scientific information such as assertions that using the birth control pill promotes higher rates of breast cancer, and producing curricula that claim that «half of all gay male teenagers in the U.S. are HIV positive»[11].
3. The Attack on Critical Education
The third anti-democratic dogma can be seen in the relentless attempt on the part of the Bush administration to destroy critical education as a foundation for an engaged citizenry and a vibrant democracy. The attack on critical thought and diversity was evident in the attempts to corporatize education, exclude poor and minority youth, standardize curricula, and use the language of business as a model for school governance; it was also evident in the ongoing efforts of corporations and neoconservative ideologues to weaken the power of university faculty, turn full-time jobs into contract positions, and hand over those larger educational forces in the larger culture to a small group of corporate interests. Higher education – under attack as a repository for critical thought, debate, and the shaping of an informed and engaged citizenry – is still being reduced to the imperatives of job training, a major recruiting site for the CIA and other intelligence agencies, and the ideological demands of patriotic conformity. But there is more at stake here than simply substituting training for education, military ideals for democratic values, and ideological conformity for critical learning; higher education is also a central player in the construction of the national security state. Universities are now the recipients of lucrative research grants, professional personnel, scholarship opportunities, and job opportunities in order to provide the expertise, knowledge, information, and academic credentials necessary to expand the security imperatives of the U.S. government. Of course, higher education is not the only site of education under siege. Under the sway of a market fundamentalism and government bullying, the dominant media, which drive the educational force of the culture, have deteriorated into a morass of commercialism, propaganda, televangelicism, and infotainment[12]. Engaged in a form of public pedagogy that legitimates dominant power rather than holds it accountable to the highest ethical and political standards, giant media conglomerates such as Clear Channel Communications and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation (Fox News) have become advertising appendages for dominant political and corporate interests. Such media restrict the range of views to which people have access and thereby undermine democracy by stripping citizens of the possibility for vigorous public debate, critical exchange, and civic engagement.
4. Racism and the Politics of Disposability
Other tendencies that supported the Bush administration’s efforts to extend and exercise its power regardless of the consequences for democracy include the brutal sexism, the homophobia, and a resurgent racism taking place in the United States coupled with the language of hate and scapegoating that spews forth daily on talk radio and from infamous conservative talking heads such as Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and Michael Savage, all of whom reflect a disdain for human rights and reveal something dreadful about the narratives that the Bush administration used to define American culture. The global war on terrorism, according to Paul Gilroy, has produced the «crudest expression of racial antipathy... redolent of imperial and colonial domination»[13]. Inside the blandest discourses of nationalism and patriotism, racist practices shape the widest dimensions of culture, symbolizing all “racial others” as an alleged external threat to American civilization. This is amply illustrated in the war against African-Americans – exemplified in the government’s horrifying neglect of the largely black and poor victims of Hurricane Katrina, and by the fact that 70 percent of all prisoners incarcerated in the United States are people of color. The supposed danger to domestic order has also been expanded to others from the global south who are now perceived to compromise national security. Political theorist Samuel P. Huntington rails against the threat of “Hispanization”[14] while CNN television host Lou Dobbs believes the country is being overrun by illegal immigrants. In addition, the U.S. global war on terror promotes its policy of permanent war and empire building through not only a discourse of disavowal in which it fails to acknowledge the contradiction between its call for democracy and its use of bombs, guns, and occupying armies to impose it, but also through neoracist ideologies which conflate an ethno-religious signifier – “Arab” and “Muslim” – with poisonous terms such “Islamo-Fascists” and “Islamic Fascists”.
5. Militarism
Combine these particularly insidious abuses of human rights with the aforementioned anti-democratic tendencies, an expanding hyper nationalism, and the emergence of an unbridled militarism, and the contours of an ascendant authoritarianism become more visible in the United States. All of these forces gained strength through a fourth anti-democratic dogma that is shaping American life: the ongoing militarization of public life. That is, the emergence of militarism as what David Theo Goldberg calls a «new regime of truth»[15], a new epistemology defining what is fact and fiction, right and wrong, just and unjust. Americans are not only obsessed with military power; «it has become central to our national identity»[16]. How else to explain the fact that the United States has «725 official military bases outside the country and 969 at home»[17]? Or that it spends more on “defense” than all the rest of the world put together[18]? Bush’s permanent war policy with its unilateral legitimation of preemptive strikes against potential enemies not only sets a dangerous precedent for ushering in authoritarianism, but also encourages similarly demagogic policies among other right-wing nations. Tony Judt has argued that the United States is a country «obsessed with war: rumours of war, images of war, ‘preemptive’ war, ‘preventive’ war, ‘surgical’ war, ‘prophylactic’ war, ‘permanent’ war»[19]. By blurring the lines between military and civilian functions, militarization deforms our language, debases democratic values, celebrates fascist modes of control, defines citizens as soldiers, and diminishes our ability as a nation to uphold international law and support a democratic global public sphere. Unless militarization is systemically exposed and resisted at every place where it appears in the culture, it will undermine the meaning of critical citizenship and do great harm to those institutions that are central to a democratic society.
6. Conclusion – The Struggle for Critical Education
I want to highlight the political importance of what I call public pedagogy and the diverse sites through which it takes place as well as the importance of higher education as a democratic public sphere. Education has assumed an unparalleled significance in shaping the language, values, and ideologies that legitimatize the structures and organizations that support the imperatives of global capitalism. The educational force of the culture along with various forms of schooling is the terrain where consciousness is shaped, needs are constructed, and the capacity for individual self-reflection and broad social change is nurtured and produced. The struggle over education is about more than the struggle over meaning and identity; it is also about how meaning, knowledge, and values are produced, authorized, and made operational within economic and structural relations of power. Education is not at odds with politics; it is an important and crucial element in any definition of the political and offers not only the theoretical tools for a systematic critique of authoritarianism, but also a language of possibility for creating actual movements for democratic social change and a new biopolitics that affirms life rather than death, shared responsibility rather than shared fears, and engaged citizenship rather than the stripped-down values of consumerism. Education remains a crucial site combining symbolic forms and processes conducive to democratization with broader social contexts and the institutional formations of power itself. In its diverse spaces, spheres, and forms, it is a major political arena for the production and struggle over those pedagogical and political conditions that provide the possibilities for people to develop forms of agency that enable them individually and collectively to intervene in the lived processes and ideological practices through which the material relations of power shape the meaning and practices of their everyday lives.


[1] M. FOESSEL, Legitimation of the State: The Weakening of Authority and the Restoration of Power, “Constellation”, 13:3 (September 2006), p. 313.
[2] J. RANCIERE, Democracy, Republic, Representation, “Constellations”, 13:3 (September 2006), p. 299.
[3] John Gillis cited in C. WOMACK, Anthropologies of Empire and Militarization: A New Anthropology of Empire, New York Academy of Sciences (March 18, 2004). Online:
[4] P. GILROY, Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (MA) 2000, p. 148.
[5] Cited in J. ORR, The Militarization of Inner Space, “Critical Sociology”, 30:2 (2004), p. 452.
[6] M. HARDT, A. NEGRI, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, Penguin Press, New York (NY) 2004, p. 13 (it. trans. Moltitudine: guerra e democrazia nel nuovo ordine imperiale, Rizzoli, Milano 2004).
[7] G. AGAMBEN, On Security and Terror, trans. Soenke Zehle, “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”, September 20, 2001. Online:
[8] F. RICH, I saw Jackie Mason kissing Santa Claus, “New York Times”, December 25, 2005, Late Edition, p. A8.
[9] G. AGAMBEN, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell, University of Chicago Press, Chicago (IL) 2005 (it. ed. Stato di eccezione, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino 2003).
[10] What now seems a typical occurrence is the takeover of school boards by right-wing Christian fundamentalists who then impose the teaching of creationism on the schools. See, for example, Associated Press, Wisconsin School OKs Creationism Teaching, Common Dreams News Center (November 6, 2004), The attack on science in the schools, of course, has been dealt a severe setback with the recent court ruling forbidding the teaching of intelligent design in the high school biology curriculum in Dover, Pennsylvania.
[11] Cited in L. FLANDERS, Bush’s Hit List: Teens and Kids, Common Dreams News Center, February 13, 2005. Online:
[12] On the relationship between democracy and the media, see R. W. McCHESNEY, Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times, New Press, New York (NY) 1999, and J. NICHOLS, R.W. McCHESNEY, Tragedy: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy, New Press, New York (NY) 2006.
[13] P. GILROY, Postcolonial Melancholia, Columbia University Press, New York (NY) 2005, p. 142.
[14] S. P. HUNTINGTON, The Challenge to America’s Identity, Simon and Schuster, New York (NY) 2004.
[15] Cited in S.S. GIROUX, On the State of Race Theory: A conversation with David Theo Goldberg, in G. OLSON, L. WORSHAM (eds.), The Politics of Possibility, Paradigm Publishers, Boulder (CO) 2007, p. 76.
[16] A. J. BACEVICH, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War, Oxford University Press, New York (NY) 2005, p. 1.
[17] T. JUDT, The New World Order, “The New York Review of Books”, July 14, 2005, p. 16.
[18] Ivi, p. 16.
[19] Ibidem.
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