A Better Analogy Than Weimar Germany...
I’ve written about the similarities I see between late Weimar Germany and contemporary America before, which definitely got a rise out of Cliopatria’s readers. I see this week that Brian Leiter and many others are starting to make the analogy more strongly and confidently as well. Given speeches like Zell Miller’s, which I think really did have many of the cadences and tropes of 20th Century fascism and militarism, it’s a hard analogy to pass up.
But there’s another analogy out there that in some ways bothers me even more, and seems even more to the point, and that’s to the 1948 elections in South Africa.
Doubtless this seems like an equally inflammatory comparison, given that the victory of the mostly Afrikaner National Party in 1948 was the beginning of the imposition of the racist policy of apartheid as the official doctrine of the South African state. Apartheid and racism is largely immaterial to my analysis, however.
The important analogy is that the National Party that won in 1948 arose out of the collision of four decades of nationalist organizing with the social history of Afrikaners following the Anglo-Boer War. The interests behind the National Party went through various internal conflicts and struggles before 1948, and in fact, the party that won in 1948 had been in the 1930s an extremist splinter faction of an earlier Afrikaner political party. In whatever form, however, Afrikaner parties and nationalists after 1913 consistently opposed bland, centrist parties that drew primarily on more socially and politically liberal English-speaking white support on one hand and organized white labor for the bulk of their political strength. (In the aftermath of the Anglo-Boer War, the few non-whites who still had the franchise had been systematically stripped of it, long before apartheid came into being.)
By 1948, the National Party drew on a highly energized base of support whose cultural and social identity was strongly aligned not just towards the imposition of harsh racial segregation but towards cultural and social conservatism across the board. The National Party won power in 1948 on a minority of the white votes due to splits in the opposition and a generally complacent attitude from those in power.
It the aftermath of this election that I think provides a very disturbing and relevant lesson for us. It’s well known that the National Party proceeded to institute apartheid, but less well known by people who do not study South African history that apartheid was hardly a sharp or revolutionary break with government policy from 1910 to 1948. Legally mandated segregation was already a central doctrine of the state; apartheid simply took that to new extremes of both ideology and structure.
What is more relevant is that the National Party used its control of the state to very rapidly advance the idea that white society in South Africa faced a dire emergency that required an urgent response which included changes to the structure of the government and significant increases in the power of the central apparatus of the state to respond to what it deemed imminent threats. The National Party quickly rammed through a dizzying array of legislation that gave the government sweeping new powers. These changes had another secondary and in my reading entirely planned effect: they essentially transformed white-ruled South Africa into a one-party state by placing structural and ideological obstacles in the path of white political opponents.
The consequence of these changes, which happened with startling speed, was that the white South African electorate found itself by the mid-1960s locked into either supporting apartheid—an essentially endless war against the non-white majority—or pursuing opposition outside of electoral politics. There were a few who kept on opposing the National Party from within the political system, but their opposition was symbolic at best. I think even as early as 1961, and certainly by 1976, many white South Africans knew full well, even if they couldn’t admit it to themselves, that apartheid was utterly unsustainable, not to mention deeply immoral. But now they were trapped inside of it: a fervent, substantial minority of the white community had seized the state and rebuilt into a squalid fortress, locking everyone, white and black, into a deadly, destructive prison. A short-term “emergency” had been allowed to turn into a long-term one-party authoritarian dead-end. The difference between Nazism and apartheid is that Nazism was so haphazard, so slapdash, so improvised that its long-term stability was always going to be in doubt. Apartheid was doomed, too, but the National Party hegemony over the South African state lasted for four decades.
The current leadership of the Republican Party strikes me as being equally capable of sustaining a long-term authoritarian "emergency" whose ultimate fate is certain but whose misery could be horribly prolonged. The speeches at the Republican Convention, most especially those by Giulani, Miller and Cheney, made it clear that the current leadership of the Republican Party is rolling the dice and going for broke. They’re not going to compromise here and bend there, acknowledge dissent on some points or soften their policies where prudent. They’re pushing a total, rigid program of social and political transformation that serves the needs and desires of a sizeable minority of Americans and imposes their authority over the will of the majority. Like the National Party in South Africa, they may be able to accomplish this by taking advantage of the peculiarities of American electoral politics—and like the National Party, they may have both the will and the methods to permanently alter the structure of American constitutional democracy so as to lock their control of the government for as long a perpetuity as they can manage.
Every society has moments where there is a chance that the pendulum of political change will stop swinging from side to side, where forces and circumstances align that threaten to break the pendulum altogether, where the rules of the political game get so thoroughly violated and discarded that the game comes to an end. When that happens, a lot more than the pendulum of change tends to get broken, and people decades hence will find themselves shackled to a future that they did not choose, do not want, but cannot escape.
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Alastair Mackay - 9/8/2004
Prof. Burke wrote in #41185 above (sorry, I'm still trying to figure out how to nest comments correctly; and a preview function would help too...):
I am definitely finding myself deviating more and more from my own commitment to try and understand how people whose views differ radically from my own see and understand the world from the inside-out of their perspective.
As a lurking reader, I was grateful both for Rose Nunez' delicately phrased questions and Profs. Burke's and Luker's thoughtful responses. Still...
There's a precious quality to the original post and the comment quoted above that's hard to ignore, if one doesn't start out with the self-evidence of the correctness of the Weimar and South African analogies.
"My own commitment to try and understand how people whose views differ radically from my own see and understand the world" by...
...comparing another's political viewpoint to that held by the people who enabled Hitler's rise to power?
...comparing another's politics to those of the accomplices of the designers of the apartheid regime?
Excellent openers at a Kerry-for-President cocktail party. But somewhere on the spectrum of silly to disingenuous to presentation such analogies as demonstrations of commitment to respectful exploration of alternative viewpoints.
I won't take much time to explain why I'm voting for the first time for the candidate of the Hitler-lovin' and Botha-emulating party. The starting place for the discussion of why certain lifelong Democrats are crossing over has been laid out by writers who are more prolific and talented than me. Try Christopher Hitchens, Michael Totten, Roger Simon, and 'Armed Liberal.' Even Norm Geras and 'Wretchard', in their ways. Easily googleable all. Many openings for exploring the questions that The Others find more important than do most (all?) of the bloggers here.
Analogies are analogies, always limited in their application. It's fine to focus on offensive ones that come to mind--after all, it's your printing press. Alas, with bait like this, you may find that your comments threads don't all come up Roses. When you discover that the inside-outers you hook aren't altogether fit for that finely-set table: please don't act too surprised.
Grant W Jones - 9/7/2004
Indeed, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty and all citizens should be concerned about encroachments from all sides. McCain-Feingold is one of the most dangerous threats to liberty in some time. Both parties supported it and the Supreme Court upheld it. If tyranny comes to America, it will be oh so bipartisan.
It is unhealthy for either party to drift too far left or right. It is also not good for both parties to become homogeneous or indistinguishable from each other.
Not being murdered by terrorists (or common criminals) is also a basic civil right. Honest people can disagree on how far the government should go in protecting us from such threats to liberty.
Timothy James Burke - 9/6/2004
Actually, I wouldn't want to hold the Administration accountable for failing to prevent 9/11, though I do think it's fair to say that terrorism was low on their priority list in relative terms. But so too Bill Clinton.
Nor do I want to make this analogy for reasons of easy invective. I want to suggest that people who are worried for very good reason may be willing to vote for political interests which promise to do *something* effectively about those worries, and that everyone--perhaps *even* the leadership--can wake up a few years down the road from that and wonder how they backed themselves into such a corner. After all, in the end, the apartheid state built in 1948, which was not just about racial segregation but also about security, was undone in significant measure by the leadership of the same party that constructed it in the first place.
That the Republicans might capture voters who want something done, whatever the cost, is at least partially an indictment of the weakness of the Kerry campaign so far. Now I do think that the current leadership of the Republican party is without honor and has little respect for democratic norms--I don't want to soft-pedal my critique. But the reason I have that critique is that I think the failure to be scrupulous about democratic practice at home and to put aside the "culture wars" is actually impeding the struggle abroad, and I think that struggle is paramount. The Kerry campaign is going to have to demonstrate that it thinks the same thing, and that it has an equally strong if differing sense of how to prosecute that struggle. So far they've just settled for trying to prove that Kerry was more manly that Bush back with regard to Vietnam. Fine, great, but that says nothing about now.
And this is another part of the analogy. At a moment of historical conjuncture in 1948, the opposition to the National Party just settled for saying, "We're not as extremist as those guys". They didn't really offer a different direction or vision. For white voters who were unnerved about the future *and* the present, who couldn't see the roadmap ahead, that was not a comfort.
Ralph E. Luker - 9/6/2004
Point well taken, but I don't think that anyone over here has said that George Bush is Adolph Hitler. What you might want to consider is the risk we run should the administration take advantage of rule by perpetual crisis. In an ordinary plebescite, I should think that this administration would be held accountable for its abject failure to prevent 9/11. Instead of that, 9/11 has become the pretext for arbitrary actions which do little to protect real domestic security. Short of regime change at home, I see no end to this charade.
Grant W Jones - 9/6/2004
A Hugh Pearson at Newsday has stated that the Republican National Convention brought to his mind a Nazi rally. He also compares Old Glory with Swastikas. No joke.
This insanity is not going to win over undecideds. When allegedly respectable papers can print this sort of stuff, Bush/Republican hatred has reached pathological proportions.
If the long link doesn't work, just go to Newsday and search for Pearson's latest rant. It is really bad.
Stephen Marsh - 9/6/2004
Rose, I think a lot of people feel that way, much like much of the electorate would have been happy to keep Bill Clinton and the Republican congress on into infinity. Had the Republicans gotten their "Ronald R" amendment to let presidents keep running until they dropped, Clinton would have been the beneficiary of that.
But, are contrarian votes always right? Who knows, complexity is.
Rose M Nunez - 9/6/2004
If single-party domination is a real fear, then wouldn't the simple prescription be to counsel voting against whichever party is in power at the moment? So, for example, after eight years of Clinton in office, a vote for George Bush would have not only been advisable, but almost mandatory. And doubly so for FDR.
Just trying to see the practical side of things.
Stephen Marsh - 9/5/2004
is another discussion, that draws close to this one.
The interesting concept I've gotten from visiting here is the self centering political step. Apart-living in South Africa, a continual foriegn war in the United States, both seem to fit as initiators. Assuming that the Republican party remains the one that people trust in war, a perpetual series of wars, security or imperial, real or not, would create a self-centering pressure to return things to a Republican government.
Do I buy into conspiracy or intent or malice by those in high places?
But do I see a dynamic that has severe potential for causing problems?
Appreciate the perspectives. I've got more thinking to do.
Timothy James Burke - 9/4/2004
One of the reasons I point to South Africa in 1948 is precisely because it's an interesting illustration of some of the questions you raise.
The National Party did not turn South Africa into a one-party state structurally. Other parties were still allowed to compete freely at the polls. However, it did do several things quickly and some other things more slowly that made post-1948 politics into a kind of path-dependent system that would inevitably return the National Party to power.
First, in the short-term, the National Party government, as I've mentioned, passed a series of legislative acts designed to give the government far more extensive emergency authorities to deal with political unrest. More subtly, these new laws increasingly defined terrorism as opposition to the state as personified by the ruling party. I am not the only person who understood Zell Miller's speech to be saying that the mere fact of opposition to the president in a time of war constituted a de facto act of terrorism or subversion--a logic very similar to that enshrined in law by the National Party.
Second, the National Party moved quickly to subordinate sources of independent political power to the control of the central government, particularly the judiciary. We've seen that from time to time in this country as well--FDR's effort to "pack the court", which I think was one of the more dangerous moments in 20th Century political history. I think it's reasonable to suggest the current Republican leadership may have similar ambitions. However, they do not appear to be doing (may not have the capacity or desire to) one important thing that the National Party did, and that's pack the bureaucracy with loyalists. One of the major sources of loyalty to the National Party was that they were the masters of a gigantic system of patronage. There's an important difference. If there's any party in the US that functions off of this sort of patronage, it's the Democrats, largely in the Northeast.
Third, the National Party moved to redirect white cultural life into a kind of nationalist cult which conflated the National Party with the state. There were a tremendous variety of cultural initiatives funded by the government after 1948 that were by any standard propagandistic. This was coupled with major initiatives towards cultural conservatism--the National Party instituted very aggressive practices of censorship that were more often cultural than political. (Notoriously, for example, South African government censors spent considerable time airbrushing nipples off of pictures of nude women.) All of this activity could be described as a significant program of major intrusion of centralized government authority into areas where the government had previously had fairly weak presence.
Finally, and this is the most complicated but possibly most important point, the new National Party government instituted apartheid, a program of racial segregation that grew more and more extreme during the 1950s. How did this contribute to informal one-partyism? Essentially, apartheid was a kind of irrevocable regime: once the state went far enough down that path, the state became simultaneous with the policy. It was impossible for any opposition party to suggest a "kinder, gentler" apartheid, or mild modifications of it--by the 1960s, I think most white voters understood it to be a kind of suicide pact that could only be ended in toto or not at all. Since many of them were quite (understandably) terrified at the prospect of ending it--expecting retribution or worse--they got stuck. The more radical and totalizing the project of a particular political party, the more path-dependent subsequent politics is upon that project. I would suggest that the New Deal is something rather like that. Whether you like it or not, it fundamentally changed the relationship between citizens and government in the United States; no subsequent party has really been able to undo its effects or even seriously try to do so. There may be a value to governments which try a little of this, and a little of that, which are heterogenous in their policy approach. For me, any party that essentially wants to put their eggs all in one basket--particularly a very small and confined basket--poses the possibility of remaking the entirety of the political system in their image and making it effectively impossible to undo the consequences of bad decisions should we later judge them to be bad.
Lloyd Kilford - 9/4/2004
I think I made this point on an earlier post - that using inflammatory analogies to [insert nasty regime here] is unlikely to convince the unconvinced.
But Kerry need never (and will never) make such an accusation. An ``independent'' group of some sort would make it, if the Democrats wanted to make it.
(And of course if the Republicans wanted to do the same thing then they'd have their own independent friends do the same thing).
Gabriel Rossman - 9/4/2004
I'm completely willing to put aside the nature of the regime being locked in because I'm more interested in the idea of how exactly one would lock something in under American policy.
First off reversible changes changes don't count. For instance, if we switched from a progressive income tax to a flat consumption tax, this would be a radical change, but an easily reversible one. If people don't like it, all they have to do is vote in the Democrats and it's gone. Things like starting a war may be a little harder to reverse, but it's hard to imagine a war that the United States couldn't withdraw from within a few years -- albeit with great human, financial, and reputation costs.
What's more interesting is the idea of permanent rule. How exactly this happened in other contexts or could happen here is pretty vague in both the comments and the post itself. However there seem to be two strains, cultural and structural. A cultural change would basically involve suasion to make certain positions illegitimate. While this is somewhat close-minded, there doesn't seem to be anything un-democratic about it since by definition it involves changing people's will rather than ignoring their will. For instance, there's nothing in the Constitution or even case law that demands social security, but eliminating (as compared to tweaking) it would be basically unthinkable so I don't think this is undemocratic.
The other broad class of mechanisms is structural. I don't think there is or in the forseeable future will be, a single mainstream politician in America who would cancel elections or refuse to abdicate on losing an election. Structural change is a serious issue, but I would raise two qualifications. First, in America these kinds of structural changes can only affect marginal outcomes, if the opposition gets, say 60% support there's basically nothing you can do to stop it. For instance take gerrymandering -- first it requires you to have the state legislatures and second it works pretty well in the House but won't accomplish anything in the Senate. Second, I think political sketchiness is more bipartisan than many on this thread claim. For instance, the Colorado electoral college reform initiative is basically a Democratic prank (sure the electoral college is a bad idea, but why reform it in Colorado instead of California?). Likewise, most 527s (and 527 dollars) favor Kerry, and these 527s are as closely tied to the Kerry campaign as the Swifties are to Bush's. (In fact according to the NYT magazine that was the original idea -- an attempt by the left to create it's own version of the vast right-wing conspiracy except bankrolled by Soros instead of Scaife). And these are just structural changes regarding elections. Let's not forget that conservative amendment proposals are all reactions to court decisions, not a one is meant to reverse legislation.
A previous poster said about Gitmo, there's some terrorists in jail, big deal. Even if this does in fact strike you as a big deal, it's ridiculous to posit a slippery slope from this to, say sometime around 2013 President McCain or Rice declaring the Democratic Party or the ACLU illegal. One can imagine plausible scenarios where smaller, less mainstream groups, such as CAIR or the National Lawyers Guild are persecuted if they fail to scrupulously keep a distance from terrorist organizations, but this is hardly the same thing as cancelling elections.
Basically, I'm still waiting to hear what kinds of structural changes are in play to turn America into a one-party state.
Timothy James Burke - 9/4/2004
It's a good point, Oscar.
I am definitely finding myself deviating more and more from my own commitment to try and understand how people whose views differ radically from my own see and understand the world from the inside-out of their perspective.
In part, that's because strongly pro-Bush sentiment is becoming more and more mysterious to me. When Grant says in anger that the implications of my views are that a thin majority of Americans may be stupid or fascist, I worry that this is indeed an accurate rip on where I'm starting to go. Because I don't think anything is that simple. I don't even think that's a fair description necessarily of most of the mindset of people inside the Administration.
But it may also be that the lines of possible mutual understanding are being systematically cut, and all possibility of reasoned debate subsiding. And I don't think it's unfair for me to say, either in this little tempest in a teapot or in the larger national stage, that it's not I who is doing that. And this is all very much the source of my fear that we may be heading towards a point where everyone's going to have to choose sides, where there is going to be no discernible "middle"--much as I think 1948 in South Africa was a moment that recast the political spectrum into something wholly new and much less nuanced. I don't think that's at all a good development, and I think I am right to fear it.
Oscar Chamberlain - 9/4/2004
There's something to be learned from Grant's comments. It is one thing to see potentially dangerous trends; it is another thing to communicate that sense of danger.
Now the likelihood of convincing Grant to vote for Kerry is about the same as conveincing me to vote for Bush. However, in the context of communicating with undecided or wavering voters, expressing such fears can be counter-productive. A swing voter, pretty much by definition, doesn't see tne Republican agenda as endangering the nation, nor do they see Bush as a dictator in disguise.
They may become convinced that he is wrong, but they are unlikely to conclude that he is evil, and comments to that effect may rebound upon Kerry. (If the Democrats can make hay with Zell Miller's comments, that would tend to confirm what I'm suggesting here.)
Grant W Jones - 9/4/2004
I didn't say the Party's "moderates" were in control. I'm well aware of the membership of the Big Tent. I'm also aware that socially conservative Christians are a large part of it. What I'm not aware of is how this on going, for at least 24 years, situation protends to an Amerikkkan Police State. You'll have to do better than Gitmo (Horrors, terrorists locked up without an ACLU lawyer) or the Patriot Act. For Burke to demostrate his analogy, he is going to have to show how it (Patriot Act) is so different from other, past wartime security measures, that we are just one step away from dictatorship.
Are the numerous business leaders who have supported Democrats in the past "libertarians?" "Republican machines," I'm not thrilled myself with electronic voting, but I don't buy that it is some conspricy to destroy democracy. Your cartoon version of the Republican Party is a hoot. I'll mention it at the next meeting.
As to your concerns, look back at the superheated rhetoric that was directed at Ronald Reagan, a real conservative. Remember "The Day After?" The world did not end on January 30, 1981. As for creeping socialism and creeping fascism, neither major party has much to recommend it.
I'm voting Republican because the Mahdis must be stopped. Kerry will pander to the French, while REAL religious fanatics commit mass-murder throughout the world. A nuclear Iran is something to worry about. Have no doubt, their goal is to kill every Jew in Israel. And after the Saturday people... Nobody is safe from these barbarians, not even school children. On this issue, Bush seems to have a clue. Kerry will fiddle while the barbarians gut civilization. To me it is that simple. How is that for "alarmist?!"
Ralph, you are right, I read the numbers wrong. My bad. It is a damn good thing the Republican controlled Congress for that two year period, out of what 62 years 1933 to 1995? Truman didn't want to remove wartime price controls. The Congress passed the legislation anyways. How does Constitutional Amendments without a snowball's chance mean "theocracy?" "Intrusions into research" if by that you mean Stem Cell research, sucks. I agree. But a theocracy this makes not. Was American an theocracy prior to Roe v. Wade?
Jonathan Dresner - 9/4/2004
First, thanks for speaking up: nothing keeps a good conversation going like a good question.
The long answer is below: both Tim and I feel that the Republican party is under the control of vocal, mobilized minorities with transformative agendas. I've identified three clear directions: Christianism, Free-Trade-ism (or Corporatism; sometimes I call it libertarianism, but smart libertarians aren't fooled, either), and 'neo-conservative' Imperialism. There are a few places where these conflict, but for the most part they are entirely capable of coexisting, as long as their partisans don't talk to each other much.
Tim's analogy is not to racial segregation, but to the political, social, legal process that turned a radical racial policy into a non-negotiable norm. What concerns us, if I may speak for Tim a bit, is that the radical Republican factions could use the 'national emergency' to establish their own orthodoxies as non-negotiable political limits.
Jonathan Dresner - 9/4/2004
The Republican Party Platform speaks for itself pretty loudly as evidence of the theological and ideological constituencies ascendant in the party. Tim Burke's citation of the PATRIOT ACT, and Guantanamo and a few other things, is pretty good evidence as well.
You haven't cited any evidence in favor of the Republican party moderates being in control, because they aren't. And poll after poll and election after election shows that, given a real choice, most American voters prefer moderates to radicals, prefer policy to politics, and prefer flash over substance. OK, that last one isn't as positive as the others, but it explains part of our problem, doesn't it? The stage-managed glimmers of moderation presented in the convention were just that: glimmers. Every reasonably non-partisan analysis suggests that Bush is strongly tied to his Christian base for votes, his libertarian ('pro-business') base for money, and his neo-con sidekicks for smoke and mirrors to hide the other two. If you put up a Christian Right candidate, he'd lose. They've put up a Libertarian candidate, and even the libertarians think he won't even be an annoyance. But Bush 'hit the trifecta' on Sept. 11, 2001 (his words, not mine), with a perfect excuse to impose new law, spend our money on his allies, and entrench Republican machines (touchscreens, mostly) into the political process, all the while waving the bloody flag.
Give me good reason to doubt this. I so much want to believe that you're right, that we're being alarmist. But every word out of their mouths, every legislative twist and diplomatic turn confirms my view. Give me good reason to doubt, so I can just be an annoyed partisan, not afraid.
Ralph E. Luker - 9/4/2004
Grant, It's hard to know where to begin on the inaccuracy and wrong-headedness of what you've said here. Begin with the P.S. Assuming the Times' poll is accurate, it doesn't reflect a Bush "bounce" of 11% -- that is its measure of the disparity between Kerry's and Bush's percentage of the voters polled. "Bounce" is how much a candidate's percentage increased since the last poll. So, there's maybe a "bounce" of 4 or 5%.
Just as you haven't read the Times' poll carefully, you still haven't read Professor Burke's post carefully nor have you read the reasonable exchange between Burke and Rose M. Nunez. That puts the lie to your claim about Burke being interested only in monologue.
Let's see, Harry Truman faced a Republican Congress from 1947 to 1949, so your suggestion that Burke might have accused the Truman regime of the same sort of thing he queries the Bush administration about is simply nonsense.
You want evidence from Burke about theocracies? Well, there are constitutional amendments on the table about matters we've never troubled the constitution with before. There are intrusions into scientific research that are deeply troubling. Others here would add to that list.
It really isn't that Burke doesn't offer evidence. The problem is that you aren't willing to look at what he offers.
Grant W Jones - 9/3/2004
Are you discribing the Truman administration? It sure sounds like it.
That's right, the Democrats have lost the White House, Supreme Court and Congress because the American people want a dictatorship. Or they are too stupid to see through the evil Bush agenda, unlike you. I remember all this type of hysteria being directed at Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, all of it also untrue.
Bringing up the Swift Vets in the context of "reasoned debate" is too funny. Who, exactly, has tried to silence them? You seem to have a problem with citizens voicing their opinions, unless they're Michael Moore or George Soros. Debate to you is a monologue.
Jonathan, who do you think you are kidding? Burke's analogy is political. All he has done is spew out generalities. He has yet to provide some concrete evidence that Bush is trying to establish a theocracy. Nor has he demonstrated how Bush's wartime security measures are, in anyway, unprecedented. Bush has shown far more restraint than Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman or Johnson. Bush is fighting the most namby-pamby PC war in human history. Sadr's Mosque should be given the Mt. Cassino treatment.
P.S. New Times' poll shows Bush has received a 11 point "bounce." It is Bush 52%, Senator Notbush 41%. I guess this makes most Americans either stupid or fascists.
Timothy James Burke - 9/3/2004
Yes. Absolutely, equally alarming.
If the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the Presidency, and the Democratic Party was at that time fairly ideological and closely identified with some tightly organized social constituency, and it began to systematically gerrymander districts all across the country, or propose loyalty tests for federal employees or frequently proposed constitutional amendments to implement favored social policies, etc., I would be equally horrified and alarmed.
What are the things in this case that I think represent the danger of a 1948 style transformation of the American political system?
1) Persistent attempts by the Bush Administration to claim extra-Constitutional authority for itself, backed by the passage of sweeping emergency-powers legislation like the Patriot Act. This is almost *exactly* the recipe pursued by the National Party in 1948, security legislation that granted the executive major new authorities and discretions. Why does this become even more alarming in a second Bush Administration? Because of the status of the Supreme Court. And here too the South Africa analogy is unnerving, because one of the things the National Party did quite assertively was assault the independence of the judiciary through a combination of statutory changes in judicial power and the appointment of highly ideological party loyalists.
2) Persistent attempts to implement strong religious and cultural conservativism both legislatively and through executive decree (e.g., through the FCC). At the least, this is not something that a "war president" trying to unify the country should be trying to do, given how divisive it is. But more to the point, the Bush Administration is essentially serving as an exclusive conduit for the concerted social agenda of a large and very well organized plurality of Americans. I would find that alarming even if it were "my" people.
3) Consistent contempt for processes of information collecting and sharing, and for processes of reasoned debate. There are so many examples here of a kind of instrumentalism that I believe is unprecedented in the last 25 years of American politics that it is hard to know where to start. The persistent interference in scientific work funded by the federal government, the trashing of information that doesn't confirm a fixed ideological bias (often information that was expensive and difficult to collect), the no-holds-barred stab-in-the-back attitude towards politics that has brought us the Valerie Plame affair or the Swift Boat veterans. There's so much evidence of a bluntly instrumental and completely unprincipled attitude towards politics, which again I think is very reminiscent of political parties or factions that intend to "capture the state"--they no longer care about mechanisms for power sharing and consensus-building. When you're rolling all the dice and going for all the marbles, you throw all customary constraints overboard.
Rose M Nunez - 9/3/2004
Perhaps I should read more carefully--I take back the apartheid part of my question, but after reading Timothy's second response, I'm still left wondering what the "rigid" social program is that he sees looming? Is it unfairly finagled single-party dominance, regardless of that party's agenda? In other words, would a Democratic or Green Party (okay, so that's science fiction) "coup" be equally alarming?
Rose M Nunez - 9/3/2004
I'm someone who *has* been reading this blog for many months now, although I believe this is the first time I've posted. I usually admire the level-headedness of you historical types, but I'm lost here. Are you implying, Timothy and Jonathan, that the GOP platform grants government sweeping new powers and supports something like racial segregation? Or is it just the anti-gay-marriage and faith-based organization stuff that reminds you of South Africa, maybe because of the social conservatism? Or is it the flag-burning amendment proposal (which I do find unhinged, but seems unlikely to pass congress, much less any judicial test)?
I don't want to put words in your mouth, but I'm stretching to see what you find analogous, especially since I'm not familiar with South Africa's journey into apartheid. Here's language from the GOP platform itself: "We believe rights inhere in individuals, not in groups. We will attain our nation’s goal of equal opportunity without quotas or other forms of preferential treatment. It is as simple as this: No one should be denied a job, promotion, contract, or chance at higher education because of their race or gender. Equal access, energetically offered, should guarantee every person a fair shot based on their potential and merit."
I can see how this would worry someone who thinks affirmative action is the remedy for centuries of racism, but I don't see how it can be reasonably likened laying the foundations of apartheid (I'm not saying you said that; I'm just wondering if you mean that). Likewise, the platform contains language about limiting the scope of government, supporting local control of schools, and several paragraphs (in several different sections) about welcoming divergent views in the party. It just doesn't seem "rigid" to me; conservative, yes, but hardly terrifying.
In short, I can see why a left-leaning liberal would find much to oppose in the platform, but I find it hard to discern the outlines of looming totalitarianism or extremism. In particular, Timothy's frightening statement that "They’re pushing a total, rigid program of social and political transformation that serves the needs and desires of a sizeable minority of Americans and imposes their authority over the will of the majority" seems to me to need some specifics to back it up. Would you mind making the points of analogy more explicit?
Timothy James Burke - 9/3/2004
Look, let me try again more charitably this time, to see if there's anything to actually discuss here.
Let's forget whether this case actually applies to the current US election. Would you say that in a constitutional democracy, one ever needs to fear a "tyranny of the minority"? Did Toqueville have a point?
Is it possible for a party that controls the government in a particular time period to make changes that subtly (or unsubtly) bias the political system to constantly return them to power? Something as simple as redistricting, for example, or as in the South African case, more spectacular and far-reaching restrictions on political opposition?
Is politics ever path-dependent? Meaning, do decisions made at one moment effectively rule out all future possibilities of flexibility? Is it possible for one party in a particular time period to do something that is essentially irreversible that will commit all future political leaderships to supporting what they've done, even if later elections repudiate the earlier course of action?
It seems to me that 1948 in South Africa is a good demonstration of all these things. One might reply that South Africa is a poor analogy in that in 1948, it was not really a democracy--the majority population of non-whites lacked the franchise. But within the white population, it was--elections from 1910 to 1948 were closely fought, there were multiple parties, there was a constitution with safeguards, there was an independent judiciary, and so on. The National Party after 1948 moved very aggressively to foreclose even this narrowly democratic system.
So if you don't even think these are things that can happen, or that they did not happen in South Africa in 1948, then that's about the end of the possible discussions, unless you want to go beyond one-liners and explain why you think they're impossible.
Once we concede that they are possible, then I would like you to tell me predictively what the signs would be in the United States that might warn us that the possibility is relatively imminent of such things happening. If you say there can be no such signs, that's also fine, except that I think that is an argument that history, sociology and political science have nothing to offer us, and we're in the hands of fate. In such case, I wonder why you bother hanging around here--doesn't Atrios need one more person to pester him or something? If history might serve as a guide to warn us of the danger, then what would be the warning signs?
Ralph E. Luker - 9/3/2004
I think that Tim's absolutely right, Grant. It's awfully tiresome of you to sweep in, notice a topic, post your one or two line dismissal and disappear. Why not try for an intelligent conversation about why or how the analogy works, instead of the mere partisan snipe?
Jonathan Dresner - 9/3/2004
You are mistaking an historical discussion for a political one. If you disagree about the path of South African history, you've got a tough road ahead. If you disagree with Dr. Burke's assessment of the Republican program (and you should read your own party platform, first), make your case. Otherwise, you're just frothing.
There are other places for you to discuss campaign strategy, even other posts on this blog.
Timothy James Burke - 9/3/2004
Well, you certainly don't read it, Grant, so that's one non-reader we know we have.
Grant W Jones - 9/3/2004
Your boy Kerry (aka Senator Notbush) is in total meltdown. He has spent the last month in a pissing match with a veterans' group. Anything to avoid his Senate voting record. Then he leans on radio stations and a book publisher to silence his opponents. Now he is whining to the FEC. The FEC ignored similiar whining from the Bush camp. I hope Kerry's campaign genius keeps this said pissing contest going for the next two months.
Replacing the "Bush is Hitler" mantra with a "Bush is Botha" mantra is only going to hurt Kerry. Assuming any undecideds read this blog.
Manan Ahmed - 9/3/2004
Thank you for scaring the bejesus out of me. And here I was laughing out loud, that the Austrian historians were denying The Governator's claims of having seen Soviet tanks in Styria.
Timothy James Burke - 9/3/2004
Fair enough. What I mean by this is that there is a sizeable plurality of Americans who very strongly support the totalizing, uncompromising agenda of the current Republican leadership, their bid for total power. Not because they're being gulled or fooled, but because they really, really believe in it. This I think is analogous to the core Afrikaner support for the National Party in 1948: apartheid was what they wanted, isolationism was what they wanted, a strong state was what they wanted, cultural and social conservatism was what they wanted. The 61% of the white electorate that voted otherwise wasn't sure what they wanted, but I don't think they wanted any of that in particular. It's just that by the time they might have thought otherwise, the National Party had cemented a permanent structural hold on power. Similarly here I don't think that the majority of either voting Americans or Americans in toto want the total Republican package, but a swing constituency in the middle may not want any single thing or have any single view, and some of them may go along for the ride with Bush without recognizing what they're getting into, or thinking they can vote for Bush on security issues without getting all the rest. This is what I think 1948 should warn people about: when you allow a party with a seriously disjunctive agenda access to power because of one issue you care about, they may surprise you and foreclose all future choices you might have.
This being said, there is of course also the point that Bush did not win a voting majority in the last election, so in that narrow sense, the statement is also accurate. And at least some of the scenarios in the coming election repeat that event--if there is reason to think Bush is going to win, one of the major reasons is the math of the Electoral College, which I think is analagous in this instance to the ability of the National Party to seize the state through a parliamentary minority in the absence of a unity coalition by the other parties.
Oscar Chamberlain - 9/3/2004
Tim, I don't like these folks either, and like you, Jon, and many others I find their stated goals ugly in the extreme and frightening in their implications.
However, I think you push the argument too far when you say that they are imposing "their authority over the will of the majority." After all, part of the problem that we are facing is that something close to an adult majority is not voting at all. In the 2000 election over 51% of the voting age public actually voted. Statistics here.
And that was pretty good.
Now some of that non-voter percentage probably includes the inform, some ex-convicts, and people who talk to aliens. Others, more sinisterly, are people who get shunted from the polls by states and localities that make it hard for them to vote.
But no matter how you cut it, there's a bare minimum 30% out there--and probably a lot more--who apparently don't care if the US becomes Stalag America or a gay liberation wet dream or anything in between.
This does not absolve anyone from the responsibility of stating the truth as he or she sees it, loudly, powerfully, insistantly. And that includes pointing out the dangers of an agenda that is not simply right wing but antithetical to freedom.
But if we are going to be honest--and so distinguish ourselves from our opponents--we have to recognize that part of the problem is that there is no American majority. Therefore this whole election comes down to just a small group of swing voters, who may not entirely like or trust Bush, but who clearly do not see him as the danger that we do.
Jonathan Dresner - 9/3/2004
Even more than the speeches, in which supposed moderates kept their dissents and personal views out of sight, the GOP Platform makes the transformative agenda very clear.
- Historian Fernando Prado on quest to find remains of Cervantes
- Historian shines a light on the dark heart of Australia's nationhood
- Female historian says human rights museum censored her
- Japanese historians slam sex-slave apology review
- Stephanie Coontz: "Marriages require much more maturity than they once did."