A reader writes:
Reading your post about polarization as a death-path for democracy, I was reminded of the great French historian Marc Bloch's book Strange Defeat. Written in the immediate aftermath of the fall of France in 1940, it is an attempt to make sense of the how and why of the French defeat by Nazi Germany in the late Spring of 1940.
I find Bloch's perspective particularly interesting: not only was he a WWI veteran, but he was also a reservist who was called up during the Second World War, this time as a colonel doing staff work -- thus giving him a sense of the war from a wider perspective than that of the common poilu (i.e., grunt). So although Bloch was an eminent academic (founder of the Annales school of historical inquiry), he was not bound to the ivory tower; indeed, quite the opposite. The book is given a doubly tragic flavor because it was published post-humously, Bloch having been executed by the Nazis for his membership in the Resistance late in 1940.
Bloch's main argument is that the extreme polarization of the 1930s fatally weakened the Third Republic, sowing disunity when the Hitlerite threat demanded precisely its opposite.
The examples he provides of polarization are really quite extreme: fighting in the street between Communists and Leftists on the one hand, and various French fascist groups like the Croix de Feu and other extreme rightists. He quotes a common witticism that was circulating through the French gentry and upper-class in the mid-30s: "Better Hitler than Blum." (Blum was the Socialist leader). Combine this with the structural instability of the Third Republic, and you have the perfect recipe for democratic paralysis in the face of aggressive tyranny.
Now, I don't mean by this that Bin Laden or Ahmedinejad are comparable with Hitler, as all the Michael Ledeens of the world would have it; the NRO crowd is seemingly incapable of understanding the inherent subtlety of historical comparison, the necessary lack of a 1:1 correspondence between any two epochs -- this is why it's always 1938 for them. However, we would be remiss if we ignored the cautionary example of another great democracy undone by political polarization.
On the other hand, maybe choosing France as my example proves that I am just a frog-loving Defeatocrat who hates Real Americans (TM) from the Heartland.
Or maybe we really are pretty screwed, and Obama gets this. I feel like his motto comes close to one I have adopted from Cicero:
"Dum spiro, spero."
While I breathe, I hope.