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Can It Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America Paperback – March 6, 2018
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“[Trump] is a cult leader of a movement that has taken over a political party – and he specifically campaigned on a platform of one-man rule. This fact permeates Can It Happen Here? . . . which concludes, if you read between the lines, that “it” already has.” (New York Times Book Review)
“Sunstein gathers together 17 provocative, topical essays...[that] rouse the reader to think carefully and deeply about the prospects for American authoritarianism.” (Publishers Weekly)
“Sunstein, for his part, takes a clear-eyed view of the threats to democratic structures… Can it Happen Here? seeks to investigate the questions raised by Lewis in the modern context” (The Progressive)
“Several of the contributors — mainly law professors, with some diplomats, economists and psychologists tossed in — agree that American politics is susceptible to creeping authoritarianism and provide the intellectual underpinning.” (Washington Post)
“These essays are serious and thought-provoking.” (Pittsburg Post-Gazette)
“A renowned legal scholar assembles a dream team of other legal authorities and cultural and political analysists to ponder the title, substance, and current relevance of It Can’t Happen Here...Cautionary pieces well-informed by history, legal theory, and patriotism, all bubbling in a cauldron of anxiety.” (Kirkus)
“Through these carefully sourced essays, readers will gain a framework in which to evaluate the hyperbolic rhetoric disseminated on so many platforms. And the topics covered here continue to ripple in the daily news out of Washington.” (Booklist)
From the Back Cover
Can It Happen Here?
With the election of Donald J. Trump, many people on both the left and right feared that America’s 240-year-old grand experiment in democracy was coming to an end, and that Sinclair Lewis’s satirical novel It Can’t Happen Here, written during the dark days of the 1930s, could finally be coming true. Is the democratic freedom that the United States symbolizes really secure? Can authoritarianism happen in America? Acclaimed legal scholar, Harvard professor, and New York Times bestselling author Cass R. Sunstein queried a number of the nation’s leading thinkers. In this thought-provoking collection of essays, these distinguished thinkers and theorists explore the lessons of history, how democracies crumble, how propaganda works, and the role of the media, courts, elections, and “fake news” in the modern political landscape—and what the future of the United States may hold.
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One problem I had with the overall project was that most of the contributors are law professors. I would've liked to see more diversity of academics. But this is more of a personal preference than a criticism of the book.
If you, too, are uneasy about democratic backsliding globally and Trumpism in particular, this is a good place to go.
The problem for the book is that it is only able to identify things that suggest a verbal *tendency* toward Authoritarianism rather than actions that are changing the system itself in that direction. Many of the authors tend to make the mistake of equating words and deeds within the system. What all of the authors tend to miss is that what is really needed to change the system in a lasting way are overwhelming legislative and electoral majorities. It is supermajorities that allow parties and politicians to change (or game) the system to keep themselves in power. Its the power to remove judges or change constitutions that tends to lead to authoritarian rule.
There are essays (Jack Balkin) which see democracy as requiring a "trust in government" and sees political polarization as somehow being incompatible with democracy. But its difficult to make a case that either is a requirement for a democratic system. In fact, political systems where parties dominate together and enforce a joint political consensus could be seen as less democratic than a system where are parties that stand for dramatically different things. In fact the "big tent" party era that some Americans yearn for was less an expression of vibrant democracy than it was a holdover from the US civil war. Liberal republicans and conservative democrats were a side-effect of the long struggle over civil rights. But after the dramatic changes of the 1960s and 1970s, sectionalism broke down and alignments become more based on political beliefs.
The book often makes (directly or indirectly) the rather obvious point that the federal courts are the ultimate backstop to authoritarian or fascist government. Not often made so well is the point that one president within a limit of eight years has both a limited opportunity to re-shape the courts and almost no opportunity (given the speed of the legal system) to take advantage of the courts they have re-shaped. There is a generally worthless essay on the Korematsu case (Japanese internment) from World War II. Worthless because the verdict matters little now. Generally speaking, the power of the courts to grant powers to the executive in "emergency" situations has always been a feature of the system and not one that can be removed. The US constitutional system, like many consistitutional systems, depends on the ability of the courts to enforce the constitution and most especially enforce it in a crisis.
One of the more interesting essays is that of Jack Goldsmith on the so-called 'deep state". He tries in his own mind to have it both ways. He sees the potential for abuse in the "deep state" both historical and in terms of potential. But he also sees the it as a final defender of the system against dangerous, corrupt or authoritarian political figures. Goldsmith wants it both ways but he is unable to articulate a standard by which government activity conducted in secret in an unaccountable way could always be assured of being done with good intent. The essay ends in total confusion with the author falling into the old trap of seeing domestic usage of counterintelligence resources as situationaly acceptable.
As would be expected, the essay of Samantha Power is the worst in the book. A neoconservative democrat whose favored solution to every problem in the world is another war, she offers a paranoid tantrum that would make Joe McCarthy blush. Rather than fascism being the problem, in her view the problem (ala McCarthy) is an international conspiracy to destroy america complete with traitors hiding under every bed. She talks like Trump and ironically represents the same dangers as Trump complete with anti-press rants and the desire to find enemies everywhere.
With exceptions, much of the book was interesting reading. Many of the authors reflected the difficulty of these questions and there was at least some resistance to the easy answers usually offered in recent books on this subject.
I would agree with another reviewer that the analysis of Poland and Hungary is less than perfect. Those examples don't really fit with what is happening in the US at this time.
What I thought was missing though was a thoughtful look back at past incidents where the constitutional system has come under great strain. What comes to mind is Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, Johnson and Nixon. Each pushed the system to the very brink and it would have been interesting to see thoughtful analysis of both the short-term and long-term consequences of what they did to the system.
It would have also been interesting to see some analysis of the difficulties any president has in exercising power beyond a certain point. As Trump has discovered, while the president's power within the white house and in the media is very strong, often his ability often to directly impact government departments is less strong.
Not the best book objectively. But it deserves credit for being more serious about the issue than most of the other books on this subject published these days.
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