Who knew it would be so easy? In Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here,” he needs real violence for a fascist takeover of the country. In fact it took almost nothing at all.
We were lulled into complacency. The institutions setup at our founding had lasted hundreds of years. They weren’t perfect, but at least we had regular changes of power.
It turns out there was much we overlooked. It’s easy to make a list now:
– The Constitution functions only as it is interpreted by the Supreme Court. A Court majority willing to exercise power can do almost anything. For starters: corporations are people; the first amendment precludes any control of money in politics; voting rights are not guaranteed. Appointments are for life, and reasons for decisions are arbitrary and non-reviewable.
– The President and Senate have complete power over lifetime appointments of judges. There are no controls on job requirements or procedures for appointment.
– The Attorney General is a creation of the President and can interpret laws in any way that the Supreme Court allows. He, together with the Court, can quite legally be the President’s enforcer.
– Going one step farther, the impeachment process has laid bare the biggest threat of all, that there is no Constitutional check on a President whose party controls the Senate and will support him as a matter of principle. Who is left to enforce the law? In such a case the Constitution becomes a dead letter, supplanted by the whim of the dictator.
There is an old and probably apocryphal story that the mathematician Kurt Gödel, on reading the Constitution to prepare for his US citizenship interview, told Einstein that he was shocked to discover a path for a fascist takeover. Einstein told him to shut up and get on with it. It seems Gödel was right.
However institutions are only a part of what we missed. Apparently the founding fathers were well-aware that in human history democracies have been rare and short-lived. However as creatures of the Enlightenment, they were rather optimistic about the workings of the human psyche.
With that too there is much to go wrong.
– It turns out that people aren’t terribly rational. They are intensely tribal and unwilling to change opinions based on facts. Both advertising experience and economic theory have shown that there are many techniques to successfully manipulate opinions. Two examples: the brain confuses ease of access with truth, so that repetition works great; people process issues in bunches, so that opinions about abortion translate conveniently to opinions about tax rates.
– It turns out that even perceptions of factual reality are easily manipulated. We no longer directly perceive reality; reality is what we glean from the information streams around us. In the US we already made a terrible mistake (deliberately pushed through under Reagan) to remove the fairness doctrine on television—clearing the way for Fox News and other propaganda channels. Now we have an even more serious problem with social networks.
– Finally and most fundamentally we’ve misjudged people’s commitment to democracy and fairness. What we’ve found is that there may have been a commitment out of habit, but it was no more than skin deep. If you can be sure of winning all the time, why even consider giving it up? Democracy is just one more item on the list of things where “I just don’t have to care.”
Is there a way back?
Based on history, it seems we need two things:
– A unifying figure as President, to function as a creature for change. It helps if the person is not too directly tied to factions.
– A renewed commitment to the non-legal underpinnings of democracy. That is, to the unstated rules of cooperation that made democracy work for 200 years. Much as you might like to, you just can’t legislate everything.
We like to think about Athenian democracy as a model (ignoring that Athens was in fact a quite unrecommendable imperialistic power). After the rise of demagogues, they did in fact take the first step back, but they never managed the second.
We’ve been a much more successful democracy than they were, but we’re now at the same juncture. The 2020 election is perhaps our last chance.
This is not just about an abstract idea of democracy. With Athens it was the end of economic dominance and everything they stood for. Same for us too.