Saturday, January 06, 2018

How the Myth of American Exceptionalism Threatens Democracy

A variant of the Star and Stripes used by a neo-Nazi party headquartered in Westland, Michigan, 13 August 2015.
As a history major and one who has traveled overseas much more than many in Donald Trump's base of support, one of the things that I have always found maddening is the myth of American exceptionalism that has become an article of faith in America's civil religion, if you will. This myth entails the belief that America is different from any other country on earth, that it doesn't need to learn from  the experience of others, and that problems and fates that have befallen other nations simply cannot happen here because this is America.  Not only is the hubris of this myth  - which sadly even those who should know better, like Barack Obama - off the charts, but this mindset ignores aspects of America's history which many would prefer to forget or pretend never happened. As a piece in Newsweek by a historian points out, there is nothing in America's history that proves it is immune to sliding into authoritarianism or even autocracy.  And, if one knows history, examples abound where autocrats have maintained the trappings of a democracy - the Roman emperor Augustus created the template in 27 BC  when he became the first Roman emperor yet kept the Senate and trappings of the Roman Republic - while democracy has died.  With an occupant of the White House who views himself as an autocrat and a Congress controlled by Republicans only too happy to aid in the subversion of the United States Constitution, we have a great deal to fear.  Here are article excerpts:
For too long, progressive intellectuals have mocked conservatives as “know-nothings” for their insistence that the U.S. is immune to history and can’t be compared to other countries because it is simply superior.
I suspect, however, that historians, even radical ones, suffer just as much from American exceptionalism.
Our version of this mindset is evoked by the title of Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here. No military coups, no dictatorships, no violent revolutions, no breaks in the constitutional order—what do we really have to worry about?
The United States will persevere somehow, and if you need reassurance, recall Watergate’s bipartisan removal of a president via constitutional processes.
And then along came Trump.
It’s pretty obvious that the certainty “it could never happen here” was foolish in hindsight. More than just admitting error, we need to face up to what history tells us is possible. . . . . . There is no fundamental reason to insist the U.S. is immune from authoritarian government, whether outright fascism or a regime maintaining the technical forms of democracy (a legislature; formal elections; courts that issue sentences) while actively subverting democracy’s real content. 
Turkey and much of central and eastern Europe, including Czechia, Hungary, and Poland, are trending towards authoritarian democracy, an oxymoron if there ever was one, and Putin’s Russia shows them how to do it.
We have to stop treating the deep anti-democratic currents in modern U.S. history as exceptions—mistakes that will never happen again. We should know better.
In the past century, there are any number of existing legislative and judicial precedents for large-scale repression and direct attacks on democratic rights, none formerly overturned by Supreme Court action or constitutional amendment.
The Espionage Act of 1918 criminalized peaceful dissent in wartime. Approximately two thousand people were jailed for speaking or writing against U.S. entry into World War One, often for long sentences.
World War II was worse. In February 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the Army to deport anyone it saw fit from the West Coast.
This order targeted Japanese immigrants (Issei) and native-born citizens of Japanese descent (Nisei), 120,000 of whom were deported to desert concentration camps for the rest of the war, unless released to do manual labor or serve in the armed forces. It was validated by the Supreme Court’s 1944 Korematsu decision, which has never been overturned.
Moving past 1945, the “McCarthyite” Red Scare is remembered, but in ways that soften its impact and mask the responsibility of liberals and the larger civil society. Large-scale purges of employment and blacklists began well before Senator Joseph McCarthy became a household figure in 1950 and lasted long after the Senate censured him in 1954.
In 1947, President Truman ordered a Loyalty Security Program to assess the political sympathies of federal employees. The criteria for “loyalty” were entirely ideological. Thousands of government workers were fired and many more quit, a process repeated in every state and by all employers with government contracts.
Constitutional protections of due process were abrogated; the FBI interviewed neighbors and associates and presented evidence in cameraas to what books people read or opinions they had voiced.
 
It is na├»ve to think these precedents are not on the minds of the President [Trump] and the people around him. Trump justified his attempted ban on Muslims entering the U.S. by evoking FDR’s executive order authorizing internment; he has pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who used his shield to cover explicitly racial violence against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.
Most frightening, of course, is the presidential tolerance extended to neo-Nazi “alt-right” groups, equating them with civil rights protesters.
In sum, it has, repeatedly, happened here. And it may again, with lasting consequences.

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