Dictators are a curious and dangerous breed, but they have many common characteristics once they get power:
1. They usually rule autocracies, or a government with a single leader with no check on his exercise of power.
2. They usually retain or expand their power through use of the mass media.
3. They usually use secret police and spy on the citizens of their state.
4. They usually remove or severely restrict individual freedoms.
5. They usually foster cults of personality, or hero worship, through the use of propaganda.
6. They are sometimes holders of the highest military office.
Our constitution has several safeguards in place to keep anyone from becoming a dictator in the US.
Against #1 above, we have a co-equal tricameral (three chamber) government, with elected officials in one of the three. The states select the president through the Electoral College through methods chosen by the states’ legislators. (All states allow residents of their states to select the electors for the president of their choosing.) Before the adoption of the 17th amendment, the states selected their senators and the people selected their representatives; after adoption, the people selected both, thereby nudging the states’ direct representation out of the federal government. Additionally, these three branches of government have three totally different (and defined) roles. The Congress (House and Senate) creates the law, the Executive (President) implemnents and enforces the law, and the Judicial (Supreme Court) interprets the law as it applies to cases brought before it.
Against #2, the first amendment of the Constituion protects the freedom of the press, to act as a check against the entire government. The founding fathers did not trust the government to act responsibly in all occasions, so the press (and the people) were protected in their criticism and exposure of the government’s follies.
Against #3, the fourth and fifth amendments protects our citizens against unreasonble search and seizures, and requires warrants issued only on probable cause for specific and enumerated items to be searched for – the police can’t simply come in and do a fishing expedition on your stuff because they want to.
Against #4, our individual freedoms are explicitly understood to be protected not only by the bill of rights, but also by the limited enumerated powers of the federal government. But to make that abundantly clear, the ninth and tenth amendments take away all doubt by explicitly stating that even with the enumeration of some specific rights within the Constitution, it does not mean that those are ALL of the individual rights held by its citizens, and that any powers NOT delegated to the federal government in the Constitution are reserved for the states or the people.
Against #5, in terms of propaganda, the first amendment also provides a check against that as well – allowing a free people to speak freely against not only the government, but the press as well. This is one of the most pure distillations of the phrase “The truth will set you free”.
Regarding #6, our president is the highest operational military position, that of Commander in Chief, even though it is not a military rank in itself. This was thought to be necessary as the military would then have to answer to a civilian authority.
It is pretty easy to see that the original design of the Constitution was based on a sharing of power between the people, the state governments, and the federal government – with the people retaining the large portion of the power, then the states, and finally the small and highly limited federal government.
But, in recent years (not just the last 5 or 6 years, but many decades) we have seen some of these checks and balances compromised. The states have been all but nudged out of the operation of the federal government – first by the adoption of the 17th amendment, and more recently by the weakening of the 10th amendment.
We have seen individual freedoms be curtailed both by legislation and regulation, from freedom of speech, to the right to keep and bear arms, the use and exploitation of our own property, the right to raise our children as the parents see fit, and most recently the adoption of spy programs which are degrading our fourth and fifth amendment protections.
Very recently, laws have been repealed which allow the federal government to use propaganda against its own citizens. And with the degradation of the first amendment, this is a highly dangerous combination.
But back to the whole dictator bit. The executive branch was never meant to have dictatorial powers, or to exercise the valid powers of the executive in a dictatorial manner, but always in line with the laws passed by congress which respected the rights of the states and the people.
That means that the laws passed by congress were the authority under which the executive may operate. The executive may not select bits and pieces of the laws to enforce, nor may the executive change the law without going back to congress and doing it the proper way. He also can not bypass the congress and make laws on his own. If an executive does not follow those rules, there is a de-facto dictatorship in place, as the representatives of the people no longer have final legislative authority.
I ask you to evaluate your news sources with the knowledge of the above. I also urge you to watch the state of the union tonight with both the constitutional checks and balances AND the characteristics of a dictator firmly in your mind. And I urge you to remember that this is not about any one president (Not Obama, Bush, or Clinton) but about what the office has been morphed into.
Very soon, we all will be facing a momentous choice. One between freedom and serfdom. We must choose wisely, with an understanding of what was, and what has become, of our system of government.