Something brought to mind a few days ago Thomas Paine’s Common Sense arguments against hereditary monarchy . . .
One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is, that nature . . . turn(s) it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion.
. . . .
But it is not so much the absurdity as the evil of hereditary succession which concerns mankind. Did it ensure a race of good and wise men it would have the seal of divine authority, but as it opens a door to the foolish, the wicked; and the improper, it hath in it the nature of oppression. Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions.
So how is it that a supposed democracy or republic produces the same?
Many of you have read historian Christopher R. Browning‘s essay, The Suffocation of Democracy or at least Chauncey Devega’s interview with him about the essay on sites like Salon or Alternet. Many American readers will be very familiar with what follows. I found it helpful to set out these notes from Browning’s essay and I have (mostly) resisted temptations to intersperse them with any further commentary of my own.
Browning acknowledges broad parallels between what is happening in the United States today with her domestic and foreign courses in the 1920s, and even with 1930s Germany. But the differences are also stark, so stark and dramatic that it is easy to underestimate the seriousness of what is happening in the United States since Obama’s presidency and now under Trump. History rarely repeats, but it does echo and rhyme.
Comparing Foreign Policy
US was isolationist; shunned League of Nations.
High tariffs crippled international trade.
Dramatic increase in “income disparity and concentration of wealth at the top”
“Congress and the courts eschewed regulations to protect against the self-inflicted calamities of free enterprise run amok”
Restrictionist immigration policy, bias against Catholics and Jews (Asians already banned by this time).
Today, President Trump seems intent on withdrawing the US from the entire post–World War II structure of interlocking diplomatic, military, and economic agreements and organizations that have preserved peace, stability, and prosperity since 1945. His preference for bilateral relations, conceived as zero-sum rivalries in which he is the dominant player and “wins,” overlaps with the ideological preference of Steve Bannon and the so-called alt-right for the unfettered self-assertion of autonomous, xenophobic nation-states—in short, the pre-1914 international system. That “international anarchy” produced World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Great Depression, the fascist dictatorships, World War II, and the Holocaust, precisely the sort of disasters that the post–World War II international system has for seven decades remarkably avoided.
I sat in school learning about those post WW2 structures understanding that they were designed to prevent the a repeat of the chaos of the 30s and 40s. I had naively assumed we all knew the reasons for them and would never think of abandoning them.
Gravediggers of Democracy
Hindenberg had been elected president in 1925 and given emergency powers to defend German democracy in the event of any crisis.
Enter the Great Depression and the “hyperpolarization of German politics”.
Hindenberg began appointing chancellors “who ruled by decree rather than through parliamentary majorities”, given the impossibility of forming ruling majorities in the fractured political landscape. Enter the appointment of Hitler.
The traditional conservatives believed they would by able to easily control the popular Hitler. And at the beginning they were getting all they could hope for and much more:
banning of the Communist Party
the suspension of freedom of speech,
….. the press,
….. and assembly
….. and then of parliamentary government itself,
a purge of the civil service,
and the abolition of independent labor unions.
Paul von Hindenburg had been given powers to protect democracy but abused them so that he saw the end of democracy in Germany.
Browning suggests some sort of analogy with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
On February 13, 2016, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died. Later that day, McConnell issued a statement indicating that the U.S. Senate would not consider any Supreme Court nominee put forth by President Barack Obama to fill Justice Scalia’s vacated seat. “‘The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president,’” McConnell said. On March 16, 2016, President Obama nominated Merrick Garland, a Judge of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, to the Supreme Court. Under McConnell’s leadership, Senate Republicans refused to take any action on the Garland nomination. Garland’s nomination expired on January 3, 2017, with the end of the 114th Congress. In January 2017, Republican President Donald Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch to fill the Court vacancy; Gorsuch’s nomination was confirmed on April 7, 2017. (Wikipedia)
If the US has someone whom historians will look back on as the gravedigger of American democracy, it is Mitch McConnell. He stoked the hyperpolarization of American politics to make the Obama presidency as dysfunctional and paralyzed as he possibly could. As with parliamentary gridlock in Weimar, congressional gridlock in the US has diminished respect for democratic norms, allowing McConnell to trample them even more. Nowhere is this vicious circle clearer than in the obliteration of traditional precedents concerning judicial appointments. Systematic obstruction of nominations in Obama’s first term provoked Democrats to scrap the filibuster for all but Supreme Court nominations. Then McConnell’s unprecedented blocking of the Merrick Garland nomination required him in turn to scrap the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations in order to complete the “steal” of Antonin Scalia’s seat and confirm Neil Gorsuch. The extreme politicization of the judicial nomination process is once again on display in the current Kavanaugh hearings.
Result: judiciary can only be appointed when President and Senate belong to same party. Hence separation of powers (executive, judiciary, legislative) is in jeopardy.
Trump’s personal “idiosyncracies” do not detract from the benefits of his rule for those who have made their alliance with him:
huge tax cuts for the wealthy,
financial and environmental deregulation,
the nominations of two conservative Supreme Court justices (so far) and a host of other conservative judicial appointments,
and a significant reduction in government-sponsored health care . . .
Like Hitler’s conservative allies, McConnell and the Republicans have prided themselves on the early returns on their investment in Trump.
Inversion of Previous Political Orientations
Hitler and Mussolini were allowed to take power largely as a consequence of the virulent divisions of the leftist parties:
The Catholic parties . . . liberal moderates, Social Democrats, and Communists did not cooperate effectively in defense of democracy. In Germany this reached the absurd extreme of the Communists underestimating the Nazis as a transitory challenge while focusing on the Social Democrats—dubbed “red fascists”—as the true long-term threat to Communist triumph.
By 1936 in France and Spain
the democratic forces . . . had learned the painful lesson of not uniting against the fascist threat. . . . In France the prospect of a Popular Front victory and a new government headed by—horror of horrors—a Socialist and Jew, Léon Blum, led many on the right to proclaim, “Better Hitler than Blum.”
We are familiar with the Trump lines of defence:
First: claim there was no collusion; the claim is a hoax
Are any readers old enough to recall Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders? I see Amazon sells a reissued 2007 edition of it. My copy was already old, published 1960, when I first read it. Hidden Persuaders was my introduction to the way the science of psychology was used by the marketing industry to influence potential buyers by subtle manipulation of emotions.
Much later I finally caught up with Manufacturing Consent by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky; then Taking the Risk Out of Democracy by Alex Carey. Many other works on media have followed and I can now say I have some awareness of the history and methods of how stealthily propaganda has worked to guide “the masses” ever since Edward Bernays and the World War 1 era.
Four Corners brings you the undercover investigation that has left social media giant Facebook reeling through the unmasking of the secretive political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.
Four months in the making, this ITN investigation for Channel 4 in Britain used hidden cameras to reveal the tactics used by the UK firm Cambridge Analytica to influence elections and undermine the democratic process in several countries.
Propagandists know the importance of avoiding any message that looks like propaganda. Soviet and Nazi propaganda was too crude to genuinely persuade millions. Hence control by fear was even more important than the message. Propagandists in western style democracies are far more successful because they are far more subtle. They know how to manipulate behaviour by appealing to emotions. Head arguments and cold facts are irrelevant.
In the program key persons in Cambridge Analytica are filmed boasting how they won the election for Trump by a mere handful of 40,000 votes in key states. It was their research that led them to target those states and focus on the margin of potential swing voters.
Can we begin to raise awareness and push for the role of propaganda to be taught in high schools as part of a core civics curriculum? Without such community awareness how can we expect democracy to ever survive surface.
Since a good number of Westerners have been led to fear Muslims as a whole partly because of the publicizing of violent events in Bangladesh, it is worth drawing attention to the actions of the overwhelming majority of an even larger Muslim nation.
Courageous Pakistani Muslims have been defiantly standing up against the murderous Taliban terrorists, risking their lives for the sake of democratic institutions and voting in democratic elections in their country.
About half of the 70,000 polling stations have been declared at risk of attack from Taliban who have warned Pakistanis to boycott the election. It hasn’t stopped voters from turning out to support the democratic process.
Read the news article from Michael Edwards and watch the video interview. It’s inspiring and encouraging news.
Strange how so often I read public indignation over WikiLeaks comparing what Wikileaks has done with having their own personal files being hacked and made public. The presumption is that the government has all the rights of a private person. It’s as if many people really want their government to have all the privileges of private individuals. Many seem to think that unless the government has such personal privacy rights then it cannot protect their — the public’s — interests!
What happened to the presumption that governments are accountable to the people? I used to think of governments as public bodies. There was something called the “public service”. We used to speak about the “public interest” and the public’s right to know. Democracy itself was predicated on a free and open information society.
So when someone in that public service leaked a document to the press and the press published it, the scandal that would ensue would be over what the government had been up to in secret for fear of those to whom it was accountable.
The turn around from all of these values and assumptions staggers me somewhat. What an amazing turnaround that so many people now seem convinced that a government really should be treated like a private brother, only a bigger one.
In France new mothers can request the State public institutions for a free nanny to assist them with all the things that new mothers face — the need for someone to babysit, to do the cooking, buy the groceries, clean the house and do the washing, to give them time for needed breaks from the pressures that inevitably arise in modern environments when extended family assistance is not always easy to come by.
While I was in Singapore I read a horrific tragic news story of a stepfather who was to hang for drowning a baby that drove him mad with its incessant crying.
In France people get out into the streets to demand their rights and force the government to behave in the public interest. It is, after all, a publicly elected public body for the public interest. In Singapore and an many other places it works the other way around — governments keep themselves in power and free to do their own factional will by fanning fear among large sections of their citizenry or inculcating wherever possible a public fear of their governing power itself. And as Michael Moore points out in his new documentary, Sicko, no wonder some of those governments are happy to see a public suspicion of anything French. 🙂