May 21, 2012

On Police States and Political Language

Yesterday, I watched some folks describe the United States as a "police state" because of some allegations of police brutality in Chicago. Without either defending the Chicago police department or agreeing with its critics, I tweeted that those who describe the United States as a "police state" have never lived in or visited an actual police state. I then watched as leftists went berserk in response. 

As regular readers of this blog know, I believe language matters -- as does the precision with which we use it.

So let's first explore the term "police state." Political science literature has a lot to say about authoritarianism and police states, but here is the plain vanilla definition from Merriam-Webster:

a political unit characterized by repressive governmental control of political, economic, and social life usually by an arbitrary exercise of power by police and especially secret police in place of regular operation of administrative and judicial organs of the government according to publicly known legal procedures.

Now, by that definition, I think most observers of U.S. politics and comparative politics would be hard pressed to classify the system by which we we govern the United States as a police state. But let's look at the United States in comparison to other nations using the Freedom House and Polity IV surveys. The 2012 Freedom House survey (.pdf) ranks the United States as among the most free countries on earth with respect to both political rights and civil liberties. And here is the 2010 Polity IV country report for the United States (.pdf), which raises questions about some post-9/11 legislation passed in the United States (and also this crazy thing called the Electoral College) but otherwise gives the United States a clean bill of democratic health.

None of this is to say that the United States is perfect or that violations of civil liberties do not occurr too often for any of us to be comfortable with. And yes, I realize that a white guy such as myself shouldn't take his largely positive interactions with law enforcement authorities as being representative of, say, the experiences of African-Americans who live in my neighborhood.

At the same time, though, when polemicists and activists on both the left and the right so carelessly throw around pejoritive terms like "police state" and "facism" and "totalitarian," the only thing they accomplish is to strip these terms of any real meaning so that when we really do
them, they are rendered useless.

After all, if the United States is a police state, can Syria really be that much worse?