Blogs > Cliopatria > What do YOU mean by "Equally Nasty"?

Aug 22, 2004 5:31 am

What do YOU mean by "Equally Nasty"?

An anonymous comment at Crooked Timber is trying to find a light at the end of the worst-case scenario tunnel, but I think we're going to have to have a definitional discussion, first. The question, paraphrased, is: assume that Bush is re-elected, and is really as bad as we think; are there historical examples"where an equally nasty group of people got into power but has since been gotten safely out of it?"

Nixon was their first approximation answer, but he was brought down by a rather specific set of circumstances rather than a broad movement. Someone suggested Ceauçescu, the object of the Romanian 'Velvet Revolution', but that raises the definitional question. Another commenter dismissed the suggestion on the grounds that Bush, even in an unrestrained second-term, three-branch-control state, couldn't be as bad as a communist dictator. In all fairness, they're probably right, though the increasingly loud cynicalvoice in my head also thinks that we shouldn't underestimate Bush and his circle, either.

That's the problem, isn't it? How 'nasty' is neo-imperialist evangelical Republican rule likely to be? Is it on a par with the de Gaulle years in France, or is it more like early Mussolini? How about FDR? Peron? Sandinistas? Franco? Disputed election, war footing.... This is one historical experiment I'd rather not run, to be honest.

Second Thoughts: One of the more interesting cases of political evolution within an unmodified constitutional system and without intervention from outside is Japan. The Meiji constitution, enacted in 1889, was designed to maintain oligarchic rule and provide the least possible democratic access to power while presenting the appearance of participatory process. But the 'power of the purse' turned out to be more substantial than they realized (there's a clause providing for the continuation of the previous year's budget if no budget is agreed upon, which would have prevented some of our showdowns and shutdowns, but which was unusable in that age of constantly rising budgets) and political parties gained access to cabinet posts, then oligarchs joined political parties, then political parties determined the PM, and things looked pretty democratic. There was about a decade of reasonably democratic rule over fifteen years, interspersed with 'emergency unity' governments, then things went downhill after the military embarked on its Manchurian projects. Not the most heartwarming story, in the long run, but that has more to do with the vagaries of an Imperial system; though we might call him a"Prince President", it isn't true, yet.

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Jonathan Dresner - 8/29/2004

I'm not trying to demonize the President or his party, but there are anti-democratic forces at work within our society, particularly prominent in the Republican party, that do indeed make me fear the prospect of fundamental, systemic change under a continued (and unchecked, if they continue to dominate all three branches plus major media) Republican regime.

Even the Constitution, including the two-term limit, is vulnerable to panic or popularity: there was talk of amendment in Reagan's second term, for example, and Orrin Hatch recently proposed modifying the 'native-born' requirement (mostly in honor of Gov. Schwarzenegger).

So what I really want, when I express these concerns and raise these analogies, is to see strong evidence allaying my fears. I don't see it.

William Leroy Nichols - 8/29/2004

Do you really believe this is so, that the Republican candidate is seeking an imperium? I will admit you don't stoop to the total demonization of President Bush that some do, but still to compare him to Napolean III or Mussolini or even Peron is a bit of a stretch. I can see some validity to the FDR thought, though unlike him, Bush won't be able to run for another term after his second term in office. To you though I suppose that simply means that President Bush intends to become George I, Emperor of America sometime in the next four years. If it doesn't mean that, then why do you imply it so strongly?

Jonathan Dresner - 8/27/2004


You're right that the British comparisons might provoke less of a response (except, perhaps, among current and former Commonwealthers) but there's also the factor of working within the knowledge that we have. It's hard enough getting people to think in terms of non-US analogies.....

Lloyd Kilford - 8/27/2004

I remember reading your article on that. It was well-argued, but I fear that both sides would misuse the comparison; [some] pro-war people would just say "we're nothing like Imperial Japan because we haven't committed the Rape of Shanghai" and [some] anti-war people would say "exactly, Bush is as bad as Tojo".

I'd be tempted to be boring and just use comparisons to (say) the Phillipines, Korea, Vietnam or the British campaigns in Iraq. I think that those are (a little) less likely to provoke quite so much disagreement.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/26/2004

Actually, the comparison was more to the early oligarchic form of the Meiji constitutional system, from which something democratic emerged, though I'm one who thinks that Iraq bears a striking resemblance to early '30s Manchuria (

Lloyd Kilford - 8/26/2004

I think that the analogy to Napoleon III is an interesting one (it's much more sane than comparisons to Hitler, at least in my mind), and with your extra qualification I can see that it could actually be useful (with the caveat that I'm not sure how comparable the then French aristocracy is to any current American aristocracy).

I'm still less than convinced that comparing Bush to the Japanese government that conquered first Manchuria and then a lot of the Pacific is helpful; it seems to me to generate more heat than light. I agree that we shouldn't be too sensitive, but that Japanese government is famous for its atrocities in Shanghai, Burma and other places rather than for its early campaigns in Manchuria. I can't believe that any conservative is going to give you that as a comparison.

(by the way, I'm a liberal, but I have been known to discuss things with conservatives).

Jonathan Dresner - 8/26/2004

You're right. But part of our job as historians is finding the best historical analogies possible, and then seeing to what extent the differences are meaningful.

And part of our job is also being clear about what we mean; for example, my reference to the "Prince President" was qualified to suggest that it was an interesting comparison (some of us are, in fact, concerned about the integrity of the democratic process under continued Republican rule; the President's success in building on family connections also makes references to aristocratic rule, well, not entirely unfair), but not yet fully justified or warranted by the evidence.

As an historian, there are times when I have to get past people's sensitivities and appeal to their intelligence.

Lloyd Kilford - 8/26/2004

I think that there is a built-in problem with a lot of these comparisons; if one says (for example) "Eisenhower is like Hitler because they both built lots of roads" then people who like Eisenhower are going to react badly, because although the comparison to Hitler is made in a narrow way, it still seems to allow the future use of wider comparisons (Eisenhower was a tyrant etc).

A specific example would be you calling Bush the "Prince President". This was Napoleon III's title back when he was just President of the Second Republic. Now most people don't really know much about Napoleon III, but they do know that he overthrew the Second Republic and made himself emperor.

So if I allow your comparison of Bush to Napoleon III, then I feel that you may use this to say that Bush is planning to overthrow the Republic and install himself as emperor. As I have no evidence that he wants to do this, I will object to your comparison because I think it allows a conclusion to be drawn that I feel is unreasonable.

This isn't all one way, of course. I could imagine that a leftist would get annoyed if (say) Fox of Mexico or Lula of Brazil or Chavez of Venezuela was compared to Castro, because Castro has not allowed free elections, whereas both Fox and Chavez have allowed elections to take place. The comparison to Castro would be intended as a means to smear Fox, Lula, etc and not as a reasonable debating tool.

Julie A Hofmann - 8/24/2004

I hate when I forget about time. Damn! Wasn't playing with a full deck yesterday. BTW, thanks for clans -- my head bops between 'leading families', 'gens', and 'clans' so much that I tend to thing of them semi-interchangeably. I wrote 'families' without the 'leading' because I couldn't come up with the technical term re Japan, and 'leading families' would not have looked right!

In terms of how it worked, though, I suppose that you'd have to say that the constitution was great for keeping Japan reasonably isolated (or at least mostly dealing with the rest of the world on its terms), but pretty weak in terms of developing into what Amaericans often assume is the basis or point of democratic government.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/23/2004

Well, the reason it was based on the Prussian constitution was precisely to limit democratic participation in an Emperor-dominated system. Depending on your interpretation of the 1910s, 20s and 30s, it worked stupendously, or just barely. There was some continuity in leadership over those years, but only if you buy the Bix "Emperor as Active Ruler" thesis is it a strong strain.

As far as the comments about shifting power between 'families' ('clans' is much more accurate) that's more a discussion of the Meiji Restoration (1868) itself; by the time of the Meiji Constitution (1889), the oligarchic class had gone through a whole generational shift, and was on the verge of installing its third-generation leaders (and, by the way, not actual descendants in most cases, but proteges); they're the ones who had to contend with (and eventually absorbed) the political party system.

Julie A Hofmann - 8/23/2004

Just a couple of thoughts on the Meiji Constitution. First, isn't it important to remember that, IIRC, it wasn't based on the US constitution, but more on the German one -- so it's not surprising that it limited access to democracy more than we expect? Also, I'm not sure it really preserved the existing oligarchy as much as it preserved the existence of AN oligarchy. I seem to recall that there were definite shifts in the balance of power so that, although some of the old families never lost out, others who had prospered most under the shogunate were moved aside for those who backed the Emperor. I could be wrong, though -- E. Asia is only a secondary field for me.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/23/2004

I don't think it'll get that bad in this country in the space of a single election cycle, but the tenor of judges being appointed by this administration makes all kinds of things possible.

And I don't think the war on Islamism is going to be won by someone who claims he gets instructions from God. Someone who talks to our allies, perhaps, and who protects our civil liberties, and who knows the difference between an authoritarian oil regime and a real moderate ally..... yeah.

And, for what it's worth, subtlety and complexity -- what you call 'being more sensitive' -- is not a vice: it's a way to keep our solutions from creating more problems down the road.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/23/2004

I was looking for examples of leadership that was removed with a minimum of violence, and so Lincoln's death does not fit the model. Some of us on the left are not tied to the errors of the past: we want to make new and different mistakes.

If we really thought this administration was 'rudderless', we wouldn't be worried. But the technology exists to turn democracy into a total sham, and the will exists to turn secular and moderate government into a total sham, and the combination of the two is a bit unnerving.

We're simply wondering about examples of extreme political shifts (which seem likely if Bush is reelected) that were corrected, and what it takes to correct them.

Grant W Jones - 8/22/2004

We shouldn't estimate the magnitude of the evil that the West faces:

Does any sane person think that "evangelical Repulican" rule will descent to this level? If the Dems really want to win in November they should turn off the "Bush=Stalin, Peron, Ortega, Franco... meme and present a reasonable alternative. The same silly rhetoric was directed at Reagan. Look where it got the Dems in 1984.

The War on Islamism is necessary. How will Kerry win it, by being more "sensitive?"

Grant W Jones - 8/22/2004

The list fails to mention Lincoln.

Do these people really mean to imply that if Bush is re-elected he should be "Ceaucescu'd?" That sounds like paronoid dementia. And I get criticized for hyperboly directed at Carter.

I though the loony left liked the Sandinistas and Peron.

Just expect more of the same: a rudderless administration which most resembles LBJ's.

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