A problem for people like Dreher who wish to sound the alarm about soft totalitarianism — and a useful rhetorical tool for their critics — is that the phenomenon is not always clearly defined. There is no party whose programme explicitly outlines their support for it (although of course it has the implicit support of most mainstream parties in Western countries). It has never been put to any electorate. There is no Mein Kampf or Little Red Book for this movement, if indeed it can be described as a movement at all. It is hard to define and hard to pin down, despite its vast power.
Various attempts have been made at description. “Political correctness” was popular for a while, but suffered the terrible fate of many terms coined to describe Left-wing censoriousness: it quickly became low-status, endlessly mocked by cultural gatekeepers. Nowadays we have “cancel culture”, which is a useful term without quite capturing the way in which soft totalitarianism works. The writer Dan Hitchens calls it The Thing; the US intellectual James Poulos calls it “the pink police state”. In some internet circles the loose and informal but extremely powerful alliance between the media, academia, the public sector and the political Left — which polices and dictates the parameters of acceptable opinion — is known as The Cathedral.
Terminology per se is perhaps less important than a clear understanding of what exactly “soft totalitarianism” means. It can be best defined, I think, as a legal and cultural regime in which the expression of morally and socially conservative ideas and opinions is aggressively policed and punished by a combination of legal and social sanctions, backed up by corporate power.
…Dreher approaches the problem of the totalising ideology under which we increasingly live from an unexpected angle, in light of the experiences and concerns of people who lived under Communist dictatorship in the Eastern Bloc in the years before 1990. Live Not By Lies features testimony from many such individuals, including some who fled to the United States many years ago and now say they are concerned by the resemblances between the cultural-political atmosphere in the USA and the stifling control they thought they had left behind.
I’ve noticed that similarity myself, which is why I’ve been re-reading Vaclav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless. The image of the greengrocer, hanging his “Workers of the World, Unite!” sign in his shop window, not out of any conviction, but out of a weary desire to avoid becoming the object of angry attention from the political authorities, is especially piquant after a summer of watching Americans do the same with their black squares on Instagram, or their BLM slogans. “Please, I don’t want any trouble. I’m one of the good people. My progressive soul has been saved, and I’m going to the Right Side of History when I die. Please don’t take away my career and reputation.” I got a copy with an introduction by Timothy Snyder, the historian and author of Bloodlands. Snyder is also impressed by the image of the greengrocer and the need to fight unjust power by “living in truth.” However, like most members of the left-wing cultural class, he seems to be of the opinion that Brexit and Donald Trump, with the menacing shadow of Vladimir Putin hovering in the background of both, are the examples of oppressive tyranny we need to courageously oppose, as shown by the example of Colin Kaepernick. Snyder wrote the introduction in 2018, so who knows if he might have amended his view slightly since then. Still, I was struck by the fact that in our circumstances, even this, even this image of ordinary people resisting pressure from merciless cultural forces, can be co-opted by those very same forces and used for their own propaganda purposes. “Soft totalitarianism” truly is amorphous and difficult to out-maneuver. Did the authorities in Eastern Europe have the brass balls to identify with the greengrocer? Maybe even they still had a rudimentary sense of shame.