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The Scorched-Earth Politics of America’s Four Fundamentalisms

Governance is in the hands of corporate power and the US increasingly exhibits the traits of a failed state.

Part of the Series

Americans seem confident in the mythical notion that the United States is a free nation dedicated to reproducing the principles of equality, justice and democracy. What has been ignored in this delusional view is the growing rise of an expanded national security state since 2001 and an attack on individual rights that suggests that the United States has more in common with authoritarian regimes like China and Iran “than anyone may like to admit.”(1) I want to address this seemingly untenable notion that the United States has become a breeding ground for authoritarianism by focusing on four fundamentalisms: market fundamentalism, religious fundamentalism, educational fundamentalism and military fundamentalism. This is far from a exhaustive list, but it does raise serious questions about how the claim to democracy in the United States has been severely damaged, if not made impossible.

The broader contours of the attack on democratic freedoms have become obvious in recent years. While the Bush administration engaged in torture, shamelessly violated civil liberties and put a host of Christian extremists in high-ranking governmental positions, the Obama administration has not only continued many of these policies, but has further institutionalized them. As Glenn Greenwald has reminded us, Obama has continued the Bush-Cheney terrorism and civil liberties policies, further undermining constitutional rights by promoting indefinite detention, weakening the rights of habeas corpus for prisoners in Afghanistan, extending government power through the state secrets privilege, asserting the right to target American citizens for assassination and waging war on whistle blowers.(2) More specifically, there are the ongoing revelations about the Obama administration’s decision under the National Defense Authorization Act to allow American citizens to be held indefinitely without charge or trial; the government’s increased role in using special operations forces and drones in targeted assassinations; the emergence and use of sophisticated surveillance technologies to spy on protesters; the invocation of the state secrecy practices; the suspension of civil liberties that allow various government agencies to spy on Americans without first obtaining warrants; and the stories about widespread abuse and torture by the US military in Afghanistan, not to mention the popular support for torture among the American public.(3) It gets worse. As the war on terror degenerated in a war on democracy, a host of legal illegalities have been established that put the rule of law if not the very principle of Western jurisprudence into a chokehold. How such assaults on the rule of law, justice and democracy could take place without massive resistance represents one of the most reprehensible moments in American history. Most Americans caught in the grip of simply trying to survive or paralyzed in a relentless culture of fear ignored the assaults on democracy unleashed by a burgeoning national security state. The assaults loom large and are evident in the passage of the Use of Military Force Act, the passage of the Patriot Act, the 2002 Homeland Security Act, the Military Commission Act of 2006 and the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act. Jim Garrison rightly raises the question about whether these acts inspired by 9/11 and the war on terror are worth sacrificing the Republic. He writes:

The question screaming at us through [these bills] is whether the war on terror is a better model around which to shape our destiny than our constitutional liberties. It compels the question of whether we remain an ongoing experiment in democracy, pioneering new frontiers in the name of liberty and justice for all, or have we become a national security state, having financially corrupted and militarized our democracy to such an extent that we define ourselves, as Sparta did, only through the exigencies of war?[4]

The rise of the national security state is no longer an abstraction and can also be seen in the collapse of the traditional distinction between the military and the police, as weapons move freely from the military to local police forces and contribute to the rise of pervasive police abuse against students, African-Americans and immigrants. We also have to include in this list a growing culture of manufactured indifference and cruelty, intensified through a commercially driven spectacle of violence that saturates every element of American society. The latter intensified daily by a language of hate aimed indiscriminately by the right-wing media, many conservative politicians and an army of anti-public pundits against those who suffer from a number of misfortunes including unemployment, inadequate health care, poverty and homelessness. Think of Rush Limbaugh’s cruel and hateful attack on Sandra Fluke, insisting that she was a prostitute because she believed that contraception was a women’s right and should be covered by insurance companies as part of her health coverage. Or for that matter, think about the ongoing attempts on the part of Republican politicians to cut food stamp programs that benefit over 45 million people. Another would be the call to eliminate child labor laws. Jonathan Schell highlights how this culture of cruelty manifests itself in “a steadily growing faith in force as the solution to almost any problem, whether at home or abroad.”(5) The governing-through-crime model that now imposes violence on school children all across the country is a particularly egregious example.(6) How else to explain that in 2010 “the police gave close to 300,000 ‘Class C misdemeanor’ tickets to children as young as six in Texas for offences in and out of school, which result in fines, community service and even prison time”?(7) Behavior as trivial as a dress violation or being late for class now translates into a criminal act and is symptomatic of what attorney Kady Simpkins insists is a growing trend in which “we have taken childhood behaviour and made it criminal.”(8) All of these violations point to the ongoing and growing fundamentalisms and “rule of exceptions” in the American polity that bear witness to the growing authoritarianism in American life.

Those governing the United States no longer have a moral compass or a democratic vision, nor do they have a hold on the social values that would engage modes of governance beneficial to the broader public. Governance is now in the hands of corporate power and the United States increasingly exhibits all the characteristics of a failed state. As many notable and courageous critics ranging from Sheldon Wolin to Chris Hedges have pointed out, American politics is being shaped by extremists who have shredded civil liberties, lied to the public to legitimate sending young American troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, alienated most of the international community with a blatant exercise of arrogant power and investment in a permanent warfare state, tarnished the highest offices of government with unsavory corporate alliances, used political power to unabashedly pursue legislative policies that favor the rich and punish the poor and perhaps irreparably damaged any remaining public spheres not governed by the logic of the market.(9) They have waged a covert war against poor young people and people of color who are being either warehoused in substandard schools or incarcerated at alarming rates.(10) Academic freedom is increasingly under attack by extremists such as Rick Santorum(11); homophobia and racism have become the poster ideologies of the Republican Party; war and warriors have become the most endearing models of national greatness; and a full-fledged assault on women’s reproductive rights is being championed by the current crop of Republican presidential hopefuls and a not insignificant number of Republican governors. While people of color, the poor, youth, the middle class, the elderly, LGBT communities and women are being attacked, the Republican Party is supporting a campaign to collapse the boundaries between the church and state, and even liberal critics such as Frank Rich believe that the United States is on the verge of becoming a fundamentalist theocracy.(12) Let me develop this further by examining four of the most serious fundamentalisms that now constitute the new authoritarianism in the United States.

Market Fundamentalism

A number of powerful anti-democratic tendencies now threaten American democracy and at least four of these are guaranteed to entail grave social and economic consequences. 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, and a Hobbesian “war of all against all” replaces any vestige of shared responsibilities or compassion for others. Free-market fundamentalists now wage a full-fledged attack on the social contract, the welfare state, any notion of the common good and those public spheres not yet defined by commercial interests. Within neoliberal ideology, the market becomes 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. Freedom is no longer about equality, social justice or the public welfare, but about the trade in goods, financial capital and commodities.

As market fundamentalism ensures that the logic of capital trumps democratic sovereignty, low-intensity warfare at home chips away at democratic freedoms, while high-intensity warfare abroad delivers democracy with bombs, tanks and chemical warfare. The cost abroad is massive human suffering and death. At home, as Paul Krugman points out, “The hijacking of public policy by private interests” parallels “the downward spiral in governance.”(13) With the rise of market fundamentalism, economics is accorded more respect than politics and the citizen is reduced to being only a consumer – the buying and selling of goods is all that seems to matter. Even children are now targeted as a constituency from which to make money, reduced to commodities, sexualized in endless advertisements and shamelessly treated as a market for huge profits. Market fundamentalism not only makes time a burden for those without health insurance, child care, a decent job and adequate social services, but it also commercializes and privatizes public space, undermining both the idea of citizenship and those very spaces (schools, media etc.) needed to produce a formative culture that offers vigorous and engaged opportunities for dialogue, debate, reasoned exchange and discriminating judgments. Under such circumstances, hope is foreclosed and it becomes difficult either to imagine a life beyond capitalism or to believe in a politics that takes democracy seriously.

When the market becomes the template for all social relations, the obligations of citizenship are reduced merely to consumption, while production is valued only insofar as it contributes to obscene levels of inequality. Not only the government but all the commanding institutions of society are now placed in the hands of powerful corporate interests, as market fundamentalism works hard to eliminate government regulation of big business and celebrates a ruthless competitive individualism. This type of strangulating control renders politics corrupt and cynical. Robert Kuttner gets it right when he observes:

One of our major parties has turned nihilist, giddily toying with default on the nation’s debt, revelling in the dark pleasures of fiscal Walpurginsnacht. Government itself is the devil…. Whether the tart is the Environment Protection Agency, the Dodd-Frank law or the Affordable Care Act, Republicans are out to destroy government’s ability to govern … the administration trapped in the radical right’s surreal logic plays by Tea Party rules rather than changing the game … the right’s reckless assault on our public institutions is not just an attack on government. It is a war on America.[14]

In the land of the isolated individual, everything is privatized and public issues collapse into individual concerns so there is no way of linking private woes to social problems – the result is a dog-eat-dog world. Moreover, when all things formerly linked to the public good are so aggressively individualized and commercialized, it leaves few places in which a critical language and democratic values can be developed to defend institutions as vital public spheres.

Religious Fundamentalism

The second fundamentalism is seen in a religious fervor embraced by a Republican Party that not only serves up creationism instead of science, but substitutes unthinking faith for critical reason and intolerance for a concern with and openness toward others. This is a deeply disturbing trend in which the line between the state and religion is being erased as radical Christians and evangelicals embrace and impose a moralism on Americans that is largely bigoted, patriarchal, uncritical 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, a flock of dangerous and powerful religious fanatics, who have enormous political clout, are waging a campaign to ban same-sex marriages, undermine scientific knowledge, eliminate important research initiatives such as those involving embryonic stem cells, deny the human destruction of the ecological system, overturn Roe v. Wade and ban contraceptives for women. This Taliban-like moralism now boldly translates into everyday cultural practices and political policies as right-wing evangelicals live out their messianic view of the world. For instance, in the last decade, conservative pharmacists have refused to fill prescriptions for religious reasons. Mixing medicine, politics and religion means that some women are being denied birth control pills or any other product designed to prevent conception; sex education in some cases has been limited to “abstinence only” programs inspired by faith-based institutions; and scientific research challenging these approaches has disappeared from government web sites. But the much-exalted religious fundamentalism touted by fanatics such as Santorum and many of his Tea Party followers does more than promote a disdain for critical thought and reinforce retrograde forms of homophobia and patriarchy. It also inspires a wave of criticism and censorship against all but the most sanitized facets of popular culture. Remember the moral outrage of the religious right over the allegedly homoerotic representations attributed to the animated cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants.(15) There was also the conservative Texas lawmaker who jumped onto the moral bandwagon by introducing a bill that would put an end to “sexually suggestive” performances by cheerleaders at sports events and other extracurricular competitions.

Educational Fundamentalism

The third, related anti-democratic dogma is a virulent form of anti-intellectualism visible in the relentless attempt on the part of the Obama administration and his Republican Party allies to destroy critical education as a foundation for an engaged citizenry and a vibrant democracy. The attack on all levels of education is evident in the attempts to corporatize education, standardize curricula, privatize public schooling and use the language of business as a model for governance. It is equally evident in the ongoing effort to weaken the autonomy of higher education, undercut the power of faculty and turn full-time academic jobs into contractual labor. Public schools are increasingly reduced to training grounds and modeled after prisons – with an emphasis on criminalizing student behavior and prioritizing security over critical learning. Across the board, educators are now viewed largely as deskilled technicians, depoliticized professionals, paramilitary forces, hawkers for corporate goods or money and grant chasers.(16)

At the same time as democracy is removed from the purpose and meaning of schooling, those larger educational forces in the culture are handed over to a small group of corporate interests. The dominant media engage in a form of public pedagogy that appears to legitimate dominant power rather than hold it accountable to any ethical or political standard. Operating in tandem with market fundamentalism, the dominant media deteriorate into a combination of commercialism, propaganda, crude entertainment and an obsession with celebrity culture.(17) Giant media conglomerates such as Fox News have largely become advertising appendages for dominant political and corporate interests. Under the sway of such interests, the media neither operate in the interests of the public good nor provide the pedagogical conditions necessary for producing critical citizens or defending a vibrant democracy. Instead, as Robert McChesney and John Nichols have pointed out, concentrated media depoliticize the culture of politics, commercially carpet bomb citizens and denigrate public life.(18) Such media restrict the range of views to which people have access and, as a result, do a disservice to democracy by stripping it of the possibility for debate, critical exchange and civic engagement. Rather than perform an essential public service, they become the primary pedagogical tool for promoting a culture of consent and conformity in which citizens are misinformed and public discourse is debased. As the critical power of education within various public spheres is reduced to the official discourse of compliance, conformity and reverence, it becomes more difficult for the American public to engage in critical debates, translate private considerations into public concerns and recognize the distortions and lies that underlie much of current government policy. Really, how else is one to explain the popularity of certified liars such as Michelle Bachmann, Sarah Palin, the entire Fox network and Rush Limbaugh?

Military Fundamentalism

The fourth anti-democratic dogma that is shaping American life and one of the most disturbing, is the ongoing militarization of public life. Americans are not only obsessed with military power, “it has become central to our national identity.”(19) What other explanation can there be for the fact that the United States has over 725 official military bases outside the country and 969 at home? Or that it spends more on “defense” than all the rest of the world put together? As Tony Judt states emphatically, “this country is obsessed with war: rumors of war, images of war, ‘preemptive’ war, ‘preventive’ war, ‘surgical’ war, ‘prophylactic’ war, ‘permanent’ war.”(20) War is no longer a state of exception, but a permanent driving force in American domestic and foreign policy. Cornel West points out that such aggressive militarism is fashioned out of an ideology that supports a foreign policy based on “the cowboy mythology of the American frontier fantasy,” while also producing domestic policy that expands “police power, augments the prison-industrial complex and legitimates unchecked male power (and violence) at home and in the workplace. It views crime as a monstrous enemy to crush (targeting poor people) rather than as an ugly behavior to change (by addressing the conditions that often encourage such behavior).”(21)

The influence of militaristic values, social relations and ideology now permeates American culture. For example, major universities aggressively court the military establishment for Defense Department grants and, in doing so, become less open to either academic subjects or programs that encourage rigorous debate, dialogue and critical thinking. In fact, as higher education is pressured by both the Obama administration and its jingoistic supporters to serve the needs of the military-industrial complex, universities increasingly deepen their connections to the national security state in ways that are boldly celebrated. As David Price has brilliantly illustrated, the university is emerging as a central pillar of the national security state.(22) Unfortunately, public schools are faring no better. Public schools not only have more military recruiters creeping their halls, they also have more military personnel teaching in the classrooms. Schools now adopt the logic of “tough love” by implementing zero-tolerance policies that effectively model urban public schools after prisons, just as students’ rights increasingly diminish under the onslaught of a military-style discipline. Students in many schools, especially those in poor urban areas, are routinely searched, frisked, subjected to involuntary drug tests, maced and carted off to jail. The not-so-hidden curriculum here is that kids can’t be trusted; their actions need to be regulated pre-emptively; and their rights are not worth protecting.

Children and schools are not the only victims of a growing militarization of American society. The civil rights of people of color and immigrants, especially Arabs and Muslims, are being violated, often resulting in either imprisonment and deportment or government harassment. Similarly, black and brown youth and adults are being incarcerated at record levels as prison construction outstrips the construction of schools, hospitals, and other life-preserving institutions. As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri point out in “Multitude,” war along with savage market forces have become the organizing principles of society and the foundation for politics and other social relations.(23) The consequences of their power as modes of public pedagogy shaping all aspects of social life is a growing authoritarianism that encourages profit-hungry monopolies; the ideology of faith-based certainty; and the undermining of any vestige of critical education, dissent and dialogue. Abstracted from the ideal of public commitment, the new authoritarianism represents political and economic practices and a form of militarism that loosens any connections among substantive democracy, critical agency and critical education.

Education becomes severely narrowed and trivialized in the media, or is converted into training and character reform in the schools. Within higher education, democracy appears as an excess, if not a pathology, as right-wing ideologues and corporate wannabe administrators increasingly police what faculty say, teach and do in their courses. And it is going to get worse.


In opposition to the rising tide of authoritarianism, there is a need for a vast social movement capable of challenging the basic premises of an ever-expanding, systematic attack on democracy. The elements of authoritarianism must be made visible not simply as concepts, but as practices. The Occupy movement and others arising in its wake need to build a network of new institutions that can offer a different language, history and set of values, knowledge and ideas. There is a need for free schools, universities, public spheres, and other spaces where learning can be connected to social change and understanding translated into the building of social movements. As I have written many times, young people, parents, community workers, educators, artists, and others must make a case for linking learning to social change. They must critically engage with and construct anew those diverse sites where critical pedagogy takes place. Educators need to develop a new discourse whose aim is to foster a democratic politics and pedagogy that embody the legacy and principles of social justice, equality, freedom and rights associated with the democratic concerns of history, space, plurality, power, discourse, identities, morality and the future. They must make clear that every sphere of social life is open to political contestation and comprises a crucial site of political, social and cultural struggle in the attempt to forge the knowledge, identifications, affective investments and social relations capable of constituting political subjects and social agents who will energize and spread the call for a global radical democracy.

Under such circumstances, pedagogy must be embraced as a moral and political practice, one that is both directive and the outgrowth of struggles designed to resist the increasing depoliticization of political culture that is one hallmark of contemporary American life. Education is the terrain where consciousness is shaped; needs are constructed; and the capacity for self-reflection and social change is nurtured and produced. Education across a variety of spheres has assumed an unparalleled significance in shaping the language, values and ideologies that legitimate the structures and organizations supporting the imperatives of global capitalism. Rather than being simply a technique or methodology, education has become a crucial site for the production and struggle over those pedagogical and political conditions that offer up the possibilities for people to believe they can develop critical agency – a form of agency that will enable them individually and collectively to intervene effectively in the processes through which the material relations of power shape the meaning and practices of their everyday lives.

Within the current historical moment, struggles over power take on a symbolic and discursive as well as material and institutional form. The struggle over education, as most people will acknowledge, involves the struggle over meaning and identity; but it also involves struggling over how meaning, knowledge and values are produced, legitimated and operationalized 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 systemic critique of authoritarianism, but also a language of possibility for creating actual movements for democratic social change. At stake here is combining an interest in symbolic forms and processes conducive to democratization with broader social contexts and the institutional formations of power itself. The key point here is to understand and engage educational and pedagogical practices from the point of view of how they are bound up with larger relations of power. Educators, students and parents need to be clearer about how power works through and in texts, representations and discourses, while at the same time recognizing that power cannot be limited to the study of representation and discourse.

Changing consciousness is not the same as altering the institutional basis of oppression, but at the same time, institutional reform cannot take place without a change in consciousness that recognizes the very need for such reform and the need to reinvent the conditions and practices that would make it possible. In addition, it is crucial to raise questions about the relationship between pedagogy and civic culture. What would it take for individuals and social groups to believe they have a responsibility to address the realities of class, race and gender oppression, and other specific forms of domination? For too long, those on the left have ignored that the issue of politics as a strategy is inextricably connected to the issue of political education and entangled with power, ideologies, values, the acquisition of agency and visions of the future. Fortunately, power is never completely on the side of domination, religious fanaticism or political corruption. Nor is it entirely in the hands of those who view democracy as an excess or burden. Increasingly, more and more individuals and groups at home and around the globe – including students, workers, feminists, educators, writers, environmentalists, senior citizens, artists, and a host of other individuals and movements – are organizing to challenge the dangerous slide on the part of the United States into the morass of an authoritarianism that threatens not just the promise, but the very idea of democracy in the 21st century.


1. Jonathan Turley, “10 Reasons the US Is No Longer the Land of the Free,” Washington Post (January 13, 2012).

2. Glen Greenwald, “Obama’s Illegal Assaults,” In These Times, (08/26/11).

3. Glenn Greenwald, “With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful” (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2011).

4.Jim Garrison, “Obama’s Most Fateful Decision,” The Huffington Post, (12/12/2011).

5. Jonathan Schell, “Cruel America,” The Nation (September 28, 2011).

6. Erik Hoffner, “Punishing Protest, Policing Dissent: What is the Justice System For?” Common Dreams, (February 11, 2012).

7. Chris McGreal, “The US Schools with Their Own Police,” The Guardian UK (January 9, 2012).

8. Cited in Chris McGreal, “The US Schools with their own police.”

9. Sheldon S. Wolin, “Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism,” (Princeton University Press, 2008); Chris Hedges, “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America,” (New York: Free Press, 2008).

10. Henry A. Giroux, “Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?” (New York: Palgrave, 2010); Sarah Jane Forman, “Countering Criminalization: Toward a Youth Development Approach to School Searches,” The Scholar 14:2 (2011), pp. 302-373.

11. See Henry A. Giroux, “Why Teaching People to Think for Themselves Is Repugnant to Religious Zealots and Rick Santorum,” Truthout (February 22, 2012).

12. Frank Rich, “I Saw Jackie Mason Kissing Santa Claus,” New York Times (December 25, 2005), p.8.

13. Paul Krugman, “Looting the Future,” New York Times (December 5, 2003), p. A27.

14. Robert Kuttner, “The War on America,” The American Prospect 22:8 (2011), p. 3.

15. Frank Rich, “The Year of Living Indecently,” New York Times (February 6, 2005), p. AR1.

16. See Henry A. Giroux, “Education and the Crisis of Public Values,” (New York: Peter Lang, 2012).

17. On the relationship between democracy and iniquitous wealth, see the forthcoming Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols, “Dollarocracy: How Billionaires Are Buying Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It,” (New York: Nation Books, 2013).

18. Robert McChesney and John Nichols, “Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media,” (New York: Seven Stories, 2002), pp. 52-53.

19. Andrew J. Bacevich, “The New American Militarism,” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p.1. See also the more recent Andrew J. Bacevich (ed.), “The Short American Century: A Postmortem,” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).

20. Tony Judt, “The New World Order,” New York Review of Books LII:12 (July 14, 2005), p.16.

21. Tony Judt, “The New World Order,” New York Review of Books LII:12 (July 14, 2005), p. 6. See Cornel West, “Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism,” (New York: Penguin, 2004).

22. David Price, “Weaponizing Anthropology” (Petrolia, CA: AK Books, 2011).

23. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, “Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire,” (New York: Penguin, 2004), pp. 12-13.

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