(Bloomberg View) -- For the first time since the 1940s, Americans have been asking: Can it happen here?
The question, which has been debated in the U.S. for months, is meant to draw attention to the potential fragility of democratic self-government -- and to emphasize that in some periods, democracies are especially likely to turn in authoritarian directions.
It would be fair to pose that question in any case in light of China’s continued rise, Russia’s resurgent aggression, and the disturbing developments in Turkey, Poland, Hungary and the Philippines. To his most severe critics, some of the words and deeds of President Donald Trump make it seem as if democratic principles might not be entirely secure in the U.S. itself.
But there’s good news. If “it” means genuine authoritarianism, Americans probably don’t have much to worry about. Our system of checks and balances, adopted after a war against monarchy, was specifically designed to limit the power of any would-be authoritarian.
For well over 200 years, the system has held firm. It continues to do so.
In most domains, the president cannot act on his own. He needs explicit congressional permission. Independent courts are available to strike down presidential actions that violate the law. The Bill of Rights stands as a safeguard against abridgments of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and unreasonable searches and seizures.
At multiple turns, the Trump administration, no less than its predecessors, has been stymied by these obstacles. Repeated losses in court, on issues large and small, have been a defining feature of its first 14 months.
Even if Americans need not worry about authoritarianism as such, however, the current period does justify serious concern.
1) History teaches that even in the United States, serious abridgments of civil rights and civil liberties are possible, at least when national security is threatened.
During World War I, Congress made it a crime for anyone to “cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, or refusal of duty in the military forces of the United States.” Prosecutors seized on those words as a basis for bringing criminal proceedings against dissenters. During World War II, more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans were placed in internment camps on the West Coast. In the 1950s and 1960s, the executive branch directed a range of actions against “subversive” people and organizations, including suppression of speech and violations of privacy.
Such events may seem like ancient history. But let’s not be complacent. If there is a successful attack on the country or a novel threat, liberty will face serious challenges.
2) Russia has reportedly obtained the capacity to interfere with our electoral processes -- not only through the use of social media to intensify social divisions and to promote its favored candidates, but also by targeting voting machinery. In addition, Russian hackers are even attacking our sources of power and water.
To date, the White House’s response to these threats has been unaccountably tepid -- which is worse than alarming. Russia’s actions do not mean that authoritarianism is a serious danger in the United States. But they do mean that authoritarianism may be a serious danger to the United States. If we do not response to that danger, it will grow.
3) One of the most striking lessons of the rise of fascism in the 1930s is that many citizens were simply living their lives -- focusing on their families, their friends, their jobs.
They liked the fact that the economy was improving. They did not embrace authoritarianism as such. But they did not do anything to stop it.
In 1927, Justice Louis Brandeis warned, “the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people.” The U.S. has a robust culture of freedom. But in the face of challenges to democratic norms, it is not illegitimate to ask whether Americans will be sufficiently resistant -- at least if the challenges come from a president whose policies they like.
4) President Trump has successively attacked institutions, both public and private, that do not bend to his will. So far, the attacks have generally taken the form of words rather than deeds. But delegitimation of independent institutions can weaken structural constraints on leaders -- and ultimately compromise democratic values.
5) The Trump administration has been intensifying partisan divisions, with the president himself calling for criminal prosecution of political adversaries and demonizing those who disagree with him on matters of policy.
That’s bad enough. But in politics as well as life, brutality breeds more of the same. There is a real risk that Democrats will not only lurch to the left but also engage in Trump-like rhetorical strategies -- and thus fail to treat Republicans and Trump supporters with grace, or the respect that they deserve.
That would be a disaster, because it would aggravate a situation in which people are finding it increasingly hard to engage with one another across partisan lines -- or to learn that on numerous questions, they do not much disagree, and thus can find good paths forward.
Authoritarianism almost certainly can’t happen here. But a damaged and polarized society, incapable of solving shared problems? That’s a clear and present danger.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the editor of "Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America" and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”
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