How to Become a Dictator — and How to Prevent It

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson


In 1994, and for several years thereafter, I chaired the Western Massachusetts local of a trade union for freelance (independent) writers. Bill Clinton was in his second year as president. The morning after the mid-term election, in which the Democrats lost their majorities in both the House and the Senate, I wrote a column for the local’s newsletter. In this excerpt, I’ve removed parts that are no longer relevant, and added some that are newly important.

I think you’ll see why I’m republishing it here. If not, no worries. I’ll tell you.

If I wanted to become the United States’ first dictator, here’s what I’d do:

I’d sow contempt for and distrust of government, while pretending a passionate belief in democracy. I’d go on television, look the American people straight in the camera lens, and lie — about those who disagreed with me, and about my own intentions.

I’d brand all forms of taxation as evil, declare my intention to cut taxes for the working class, and cut them, instead, for only the very rich. I’d pit poor and working class people against each other so that they could waste their energies fighting amongst themselves on issues such as equal opportunity and immigration.

I’d impoverish our education system so that the majority of children would graduate as borderline illiterates, unable to formulate a single analytical thought. I’d get everyone whipped up about crime and the drug trade, while formulating policies to facilitate both.

I’d run political campaigns so vicious that people who value their dignity and their families’ privacy would shun involvement in the electoral system. I’d make campaigning so expensive that only the very rich could afford to run for office.

I’d tighten up the economy until it squeaked, so that all but the very rich had to devote all of their attention to keeping their economic chins above the water line. “Don’t make waves” would become the rallying cry of the masses.

Eventually, I’d get my way in all things, because no one would be around who could mount an effective challenge.

For the foreseeable future, working class people (Don’t kid yourself; I’m talking about you and me, buddy.) are in for a rough ride. We can expect assaults on the rights of workers, and short shrift for measures that would benefit us, such as universal health care.

The normal, healthy reaction of decent people is to turn inward and stop paying attention to what’s going on in government. This is the biggest mistake we could make. The whole point of this diatribe is to convince you get involved, stay involved, make your voice heard, and not give up.

The people who represent us in Congress … need more than ever to hear about your concerns, your worries, your needs. Tell them what your health insurance situation is and what it is missing. If you think the schools are not educating your children the way they should be educated, tell them.

The rest of 1994’s list has either been put to rest or has morphed into the following:

Tell them what you think about the need for

  • rational US immigration practices
  • climate change legislation
  • enforceable and enforced food safety standards
  • a fresh look at farm subsidies so they benefit family farms, not Big Ag
  • legislation to prevent corporations and their lobbyists, now that the Supreme Court has unleashed them, from taking over our elections
  • bringing our endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to an end, and what other ideas you have other ideas for how those billions of dollars could be spentl
  • legislation to return regulation to the financial services industry

Of course you’re not going to sound off on all of these at once. You know your priorities. Consider a phone call, fax, or email from the legislator’s web site once a week, or once a month – any schedule is good except never.

Remember to thank and encourage them, too, as often as you can. Although it’s hard to remember in some cases, legislators are human, and they are operating in a hostile environment of unprecedented dimensions. This is true regardless of which party they identify with. It wouldn’t hurt to let them know you expect them to do everything they can to bring about cooperation in the legislature.

Find contact information for your legislators at

I turned away from government once, in 1956, when I married and got busy breeding. I wasn’t old enough to vote until the following year, but I’d been paying attention since I was a child. When I came back to consciousness, seven years later, we were already involved in Vietnam, and I’ve never stopped feeling guilty. You may not agree, but I prefer frustration to guilt.

This I know: If you and I and others like us give up, then the meanies take over and we’ve only ourselves to blame.

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