We who live in the post-World War II period possess an immensely valuable symbol, even if we don't understand it or use it effectively: the example of Nazi Germany.
"The German experiment, except to those who are its victims, is particularly interesting, and, like the offer of a strong man to let himself be vivisected, should make a great contribution to political science. For the Germans are the most gifted and most highly educated people who ever devoted the full strength of a modern state to stopping the exchange of ideas; they are the most highly organized people who ever devoted all the coercive power of government to the abolition of their own intellectual life; they are the most learned people who ever pretended to believe that the premises and the conclusion of all inquiry may be fixed by political fiat."
Walter Lippmann. (1936), The Good Society
The 2004 election revealed that American citizens are as intellectually and morally incompetent as the Germans in 1930. Such incompetence and ignorance always lead to tyranny. The United States is exactly at the same point in national degradation as the German nation in the 1930s when Hitler assumed absolute power and began his regime of mass murder and war crimes against the people of the world.
We've been conditioned to see Germany under Hitler as an unquestionably horrible example of dictatorial tyranny and inhuman barbarity--and to see our present American culture as completely opposite to that of Nazi Germany. And we like to think that if a tyranny such as that in Germany under the Nazi regime were present and growing in America we'd unquestionably be able to see it.
So it's a shock when we realize: most people living in Nazi Germany didn't see the tyranny! They thought it was the best time of their lives!
Milton Mayer's book, They Thought They Were Free, concerns Germans still living after World War II who had been members of the Nazi Party. Mayer came to know them and studied their lives and attitudes.
"As we know Nazism, it was a naked, total tyranny which degraded its adherents and enslaved its opponents and adherents alike; terrorism and terror in daily life, private and public; brute personal and mob injustice at every level of association . . .
"These nine ordinary Germans [who lived in Nazi Germany] knew it otherwise, and they still know it otherwise.
"An autocracy? [they say] Yes, of course . . . But a tyranny, as you Americans use the term? Nonsense."
How could Germans living under Hitler's National Socialism not have seen what it was? How did their lack of social and personal awareness make them blind to their reality?
How could Americans now possibly be living under a creeping dictatorship and not know it? And how could we not only not see a police state condition but actually think we're living in complete freedom?
Because most of us don't WANT to know what's going on. We've lost the ability to think critically about political, economic, and social dangers confronting us.
If we have a job--as most people did in Nazi Germany--if the political-economic system seems stable--as it does in America--then that's all we want to know.
"When [modern man] is completely infantile ... he does not need and does not have an understanding of the outer world. It exists for him merely as gratification or denial."
Walter Lippmann (1889-1973)
To the Germans in Mayer's study, each occasion of Nazi violence was worse than the last, but only a little worse. So they waited for the one shocking event, thinking that they would join with others if or when it happened. But as the violence escalated, no one rose up to condemn the concentration camps and general oppression. No one wanted to act alone, and when a mass uprising failed to occur, the common people just let events take their course. They progressively lost the ability to understand the horror of Nazism and the will to oppose it.
Similarly, we don't see the growing fascism in America and the world because we don't want to see it and because it happens somewhat gradually, which makes it almost imperceptible to those who don't think critically. Everything in your society--Nazi Germany or twenty-first century America--seems so ordinary.