An inverted totalitarian regime, precisely because of its inverted character, emerges, not as an abrupt regime change or dramatic rupture but as evolutionary, as evolving out of a continuing and increasingly unequal struggle between an unrealized democracy and an antidemocracy that dare not speak its name. Consequently while we recognize familiar elements of the system— popular elections, free political parties, the three branches of government, a bill of rights— if we re-cognize, invert, we see its actual operations as different from its formal structure.
Its elements have antecedents but no precedents, a confluence of tendencies and pragmatic choices made with scant concern for long-term consequences. For example, the contemporary phenomenon of privatization by which governmental functions, such as public education, military operations, and intelligence gathering, are shared with or assigned to private entrepreneurs represents more than a switch in suppliers. The privatization of public functions is an expression of the revolutionary dynamic of capitalism, of its aggrandizing bent. Capital brings its own culture of competitiveness, hierarchy, self-interest. Each instance of the private inroads into public functions extends the power of capital over society. Services such as public education that had previously been viewed as essential, not only to the literacy of the citizenry but to its empowerment, are now increasingly being ceded to private entrepreneurs....
As the example of privatization suggests, re-cognition enters as we discern connections between phenomena that, when naively noted, seem unrelated. Thus at first glance forms of popular culture such as newspapers, cinema, TV, or radio seem more or less unchanged except in technology. Occasionally we are told of changes that we cannot see, that “ownership is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.” Even less frequently are we told that ownership brings control of content, how that control is manifested, and what its political bearing might be. ...
The normalizing of deviations occurs when the main political institutions, such as legislatures, courts, elected law enforcement officials (e.g., district attorneys), mayors, governors, and presidents are able to exploit a fearful public and promote the powers of an increasingly militarized police but not their accountability. The usual justification is one that draws the citizenry into complicity: the public, according to polls, favors harsh sentences, safer streets, the names of sexual predators publicized and their residences listed, and no coddling of prisoners in those rehabilitation programs favored by liberals at taxpayers’ expense. In these examples we see the ingredients whereby antecedents become precedents: an empowered police, an officialdom that sanctions expanded police powers and reduced legal and political safeguards, and public opinion that appears to favor methods which weaken legal safeguards and diminish the institutions whose traditional role is to oversee, check, and alert the public to dangerous tendencies in the system. (From Wolin, Democracy, Inc., Chapter 11 "Inverted Totalitarianism: Antecedents and Precedents")
The value in Wolin's book lies in the way it provides a phenomenology of the withering away of the American democratic ideal. Its withering is following a pattern recognized by the ancients, but now in a postmodern key. The ancients considered democracy the second worst form of polity. Tyranny was the worst. Democracy was the second worst because the sovereign demos was too easily manipulated by demagogues to transfer that sovereignty to them. They are conned into thinking, usually during a crisis real or manufactured, that it is in their best interests to support the strong man who will bring order and a return to prosperity, and in this way the sovereign demos give away its sovereignty.
Isn't that what Wolin is describing as happening now in the U.S.? The demotic faction with the most political influence in the U.S. right now is the Tea Party, which is actively supporting factions within the elite that are destroying the freedoms they believe they say they care so much about. It's classic. I don't think this evolving into the tyranny Wolin calls 'inverted totalitarianism' is a consciously engineered process, and neither does Wolin. That's what makes it inverted. It's just kind of happening because nobody is resisting it because on the surface it seems so benign. It's just interests pursuing their interests, but their doing so has resulted in a situation where some interests have accrued so much power that their interests are the only ones that matter, and the interests of ordinary people have become irrelevant.
This is an old story. Once interests are entrenched, they do what they need to do to ensure that those interests are protected, and that requires doing whatever is necessary to co-opt or disempower those who have reason to oppose them. They have so far successfully coopted the Tea Party, nationalists, nativists, religious zealots, etc. And they have been very successful in disempowering those whom they cannot co-opt by divide & conquer tactics, by limiting voter enfranchisement, by increasing levels of economic insecurity, by ridiculing or otherwise delegitimating the progressive left, etc.
It's working. Why? Well, in part it's because of complexity that nobody understands or is able to control so there is no coherent actionable alternative to letting things just play out. And this complexity, as someone said, "the few never sleep, while the many remain barely awake." The few are fully, actively, wakefully engaged in pursuing their interests at the highest levels, and so in the short run they find ways to bend the complexity to serve their interests. But even they don't control the complexity, and because their approach to it is so narrowly short-sighted and self interested,they are dooming themselves and the rest of us to inevitable catastrophe. They have the resources for now to keep the bubble from bursting, but Reality sooner or later is going to break in.
So in the meanwhile the ancients are probably right about democracy and they will be until a society can emerge in which most people are awake enough most of the time and are vigilant enough to actively resist the con job foisted on them by the few from age to age. I'm not without hope that we ordinary humans who are not interested in being among the few are capable of vigilance and resistance at some point in the human future, but probably not in my lifetime.