Friday, August 21, 2009

Anti-Healthcare Protests: Why They Are Nonetheless Alarming

Although I emphatically do not consider the Republican Party fascist, I do consider its behavior since the 1990's both disturbing and dangerous to the future of democracy. Sarah Robinson's mistake was her exclusive focus on fascism. One of her top readers makes the same mistake, saying that the fascist analogy is flawed and we are really more like the Roman Republic.

The problem here is that all historical events are individual and unique. Exact parallels do not exist. Many popular governments have failed throughout history. Only two have become full-fledged classical fascist regimes (although fascist movements may have played a role in the downfall of others). To recognize when there is danger, it is better to move from the narrow issues of classical fascism (a unique event unlikely to repeat) to the broader issue of how democracies fail in general, to see what overall patterns recur.

Occasionally a foreign power is to blame. The Thirty Tyrants in Athens were installed by the Spartans. The French Third Republic fell to the German Army. Nascent democracies in Eastern Europe after WWII were undone by the Red Army.

But in the absence of an overwhelming foreign power, for all the individual variations, there is almost always the same underlying pattern. Rival factions become increasingly polarized. At least some factions come to value their own power over any sort of procedural fairplay. Indeed, such factions may be openly contemptuous of procedural fair play. Strife between factions escalates. Political violence becomes increasingly common, and grows. Democratic institutions are unable to contain the ever escalating factional strife and eventually break down.

The outcome is not always the same. Sometimes one faction comes to power through semi-legal channels and uses the state to suppress its opponents. That was the pattern for the classical fascists in Germany and Italy, as well as in Portugal. But democracies can fail in other ways as well. Sometimes the collapse into civil war and anarchy (Lebanon, the United States). Sometimes the military takes over to end the factional strife by force (Chile). Sometimes there is a complex combination of these outcomes (ancient Rome, modern Spain). But the basic pattern of escalating polarization, factional strife, and political violence recurs every time, whether in ancient Rome, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Chile, Lebanon, or even the United States. (Let's face it, when democratic institutions fail to resolve the leading issue of the day and a civil war ensues with 600,000 dead, that has to count as a serious failure of democracy, even if both sides in the war maintained their committment to democracy throughout).

To date we are still far from being a failed democracy. A strong democratic heritage and consciousness, and a tendancy across the political spectrum to equate democracy with national identity make it just about impossible for anyone to reject at least the outward forms of democracy. But polarization is reaching a fever pitch. Republicans are refusing the recognize Democrats as real Americans or legitimate political players. Willingness by prominent, respectable Republican leaders to liken Obama to Hitler and spout flagrant lies about his policies, anti-health care demostrators shouting down speakers and seeking to shut down debate are all signs that our traditional notions of fairplay are being abandoned. No political violence so far, but people are bringing guns to political demonstrations. Militias are returning. Death threats against Obama are four times the volume of death threats against Bush.

Overall prognosis: It looks bad, but could be a lot worse.

So what do I recommend?

First, don't be intimidated. Pass a healthcare reform. It may escalate polarization in the short run, but Republicans made a mistake in telling so concrete and easily falsifiable lie as death panels killing granny. If healthcare reform passes and death panels do not, in fact, kill anyone's grandmother, it is going to be difficult to convince people that they did.

Second, when Republicans fight dirty, don't adopt the same techniques. That will just escalate the polarization further. Call them on it. Every time a Republican of any prominence equates Obama to Hitler, introduce a resolution in Congress condemning the characterization. Point out that our side honorably voted for a resolution condemning for a similar offense. When militia types bring guns to a demonstration, point out, as E.J. Dionne has that "[A]n armed citizenry is not the basis for our freedoms. Our freedoms rest on a moral consensus, enshrined in law, that in a democratic republic we work out our differences through reasoned, and sometimes raucous, argument. Free elections and open debate are not rooted in violence or the threat of violence. They are precisely the alternative to violence." Shame is the appropriate remedy for shamelessness. Let's start using it.

Third, expect this to happen next time and prepare in advance. Keeping in mind that (1) Republicans will try to shut down any significant Democratic initiative and to make Democratic success impossible, and (2) whoever speaks first and most aggressively controls the media narrative, what is the obvious conclusion? That every time the Democrats launch an initiative, it must be introduced with huge media blitz, explaining over and over, in terms understandable to an ordinary, low-information voter, WHAT THE HELL WE ARE PROPOSING. I am not suggesting lying or blatant propaganda, though over simplification is inevitable. My point is simply the earlier and more often voters get hit over the head with WHATEVER THE HELL WE ARE PROPOSING, the more difficult it will be to distort later on. Consider the following polling statistics. When asked simply whether they favors or opposed the proposed healthcare bill, respondents opposed it 42% to 36%. When the pollster explained WHAT THE HELL WAS IN IT in accessable terms, the results shifted to 53% in favor to 43% against.

Finally, in addition to the depressing study of democratic governments that failed, we should also study ones that became dangerously polarized, but ultimately pulled back from the abyss. The French Third Republic during the Dreyfus Affair and the transition between Fourth and Fifth French Republics immediately come to mind. No doubt there are many others as well. Not being xenophobes, we are not afraid to learn from other countries, even the French. Let's see what they can teach us about how democracies avoid failure.

I cannot recommend highly enough this post by Glenn Greenwald. He encapsulates perfectly everything I want to say about Republicans. In particular, the attacks on Obama are not, in the end about race. They are about Republicans being unwilling to recognize any Democratic President as legitimate.

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Blogger Alice AN said...

I have to admit the health care debacle is a train wreck too painful to watch. That said, as Americans we can only deserve what we fight for, and the left has dropped the ball on fighting for universal healthcare.

Obama has no easy task, but then nothing he has ever done has been easy and he has managed to be successful against greater odds in the past. That is my only consolation. I am past caring either way anymore. At least niether Bush nor Sarah Palin are anywhere near the Oval office.

7:54 AM  

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