The Korea Times

How to think about the threat to America

- By Dale McFeatters Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the editor of “Can It Happen Here? Authoritar­ianism in America” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.” The above article was distribute­d

For the first time since the 1940s, Americans have been asking: Can it happen here?

The question, which has been debated in the U.S. for months, is meant to draw attention to the potential fragility of democratic self-government — and to emphasize that in some periods, democracie­s are especially likely to turn in authoritar­ian directions.

It would be fair to pose that question in any case in light of China’s continued rise, Russia’s resurgent aggression, and the disturbing developmen­ts in Turkey, Poland, Hungary and the Philippine­s. To his most severe critics, some of the words and deeds of President Donald Trump make it seem as if democratic principles might not be entirely secure in the U.S. itself.

But there’s good news. If “it” means genuine authoritar­ianism, Americans probably don’t have much to worry about. Our system of checks and balances, adopted after a war against monarchy, was specifical­ly designed to limit the power of any would-be authoritar­ian.

For well over 200 years, the system has held firm. It continues to do so.

In most domains, the president cannot act on his own. He needs explicit congressio­nal permission. Independen­t courts are available to strike down presidenti­al actions that violate the law. The Bill of Rights stands as a safeguard against abridgment­s of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and unreasonab­le searches and seizures.

At multiple turns, the Trump administra­tion, no less than its predecesso­rs, has been stymied by these obstacles. Repeated losses in court, on issues large and small, have been a defining feature of its first 14 months.

Even if Americans need not worry about authoritar­ianism as such, however, the current period does justify serious concern.

1) History teaches that even in the United States, serious abridgment­s of civil rights and civil liberties are possible, at least when national security is threatened.

During World War I, Congress made it a crime for anyone to “cause or attempt to cause insubordin­ation, disloyalty, or refusal of duty in the military forces of the United States.” Prosecutor­s seized on those words as a basis for bringing criminal proceeding­s against dissenters. During World War II, more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans were placed in internment camps on the West Coast. In the 1950s and 1960s, the executive branch directed a range of actions against “subversive” people and organizati­ons, including suppressio­n of speech and violations of privacy.

Such events may seem like ancient history. But let’s not be complacent. If there is a successful attack on the country or a novel threat, liberty will face serious challenges.

2) Russia has reportedly obtained the capacity to interfere with our electoral processes — not only through the use of social media to intensify social divisions and to promote its favored candidates, but also by targeting voting machinery. In addition, Russian hackers are even attacking our sources of power and water.

To date, the White House’s response to these threats has been unaccounta­bly tepid — which is worse than alarming. Russia’s actions do not mean that authoritar­ianism is a serious danger in the United States. But they do mean that authoritar­ianism may be a serious danger to the United States. If we do not response to that danger, it will grow.

3) One of the most striking lessons of the rise of fascism in the 1930s is that many citizens were simply living their lives — focusing on their families, their friends, their jobs. They liked the fact that the economy was improving. They did not embrace authoritar­ianism as such. But they did not do anything to stop it.

In 1927, Justice Louis Brandeis warned, “the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people.” The U.S. has a robust culture of freedom. But in the face of challenges to democratic norms, it is not illegitima­te to ask whether Americans will be sufficient­ly resistant — at least if the challenges come from a president whose policies they like.

4) President Trump has successive­ly attacked institutio­ns, both public and private, that do not bend to his will. So far, the attacks have generally taken the form of words rather than deeds. But delegitima­tion of independen­t institutio­ns can weaken structural constraint­s on leaders — and ultimately compromise democratic values.

5) The Trump administra­tion has been intensifyi­ng partisan divisions, with the president himself calling for criminal prosecutio­n of political adversarie­s and demonizing those who disagree with him on matters of policy.

That’s bad enough. But in politics as well as life, brutality breeds more of the same. There is a real risk that Democrats will not only lurch to the left but also engage in Trump-like rhetorical strategies — and thus fail to treat Republican­s and Trump supporters with grace, or the respect that they deserve.

That would be a disaster, because it would aggravate a situation in which people are finding it increasing­ly hard to engage with one another across partisan lines — or to learn that on numerous questions, they do not much disagree, and thus can find good paths forward.

Authoritar­ianism almost certainly can’t happen here. But a damaged and polarized society, incapable of solving shared problems? That’s a clear and present danger.

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