It Could Happen Here

Democracy is facing setbacks around the world, but there hasn't been reason to doubt America's resilience—until now.

Residents vote early in their presidential primary at the Madison Township fire station in Hobbs, Indiana.
Residents vote early in their presidential primary at the Madison Township fire station in Hobbs, Indiana. (Reuters)

For at least half a century, the bedrock of confidence in democracy’s future has been its unquestioned stability in Europe and North America. The United States and Britain survived the near-total obliteration of democracy by the fascist powers in World War II. Then the re-establishment and rapid consolidation of liberal democracies across Western Europe—and especially in Germany and Japan—laid the foundations for the global expansion of democracy that followed.

After World War II, there was only one other serious challenge to America’s democratic way of life. That was the dark period in the 1950s when Senator Joseph McCarthy and his political allies launched a witch-hunt against alleged and imagined communist sympathizers that stifled civil liberties and ruined the lives of many innocent people. The McCarthy era was an ugly one, but the threat was ultimately confronted and defeated by the forthright actions of courageous Americans in the media (such as Edward R. Murrow), in politics (such as Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith), in the law (such as chief counsel for the Army Joseph Welch), and in the judiciary (led by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren). Many of these Americans, like Smith and Warren, were from McCarthy’s own Republican party.

Since the reactionary fever of McCarthyism broke in America, the story of democracy in the United States has been largely one of progress, particularly the extension of rights to African Americans, Latinos, lesbians and gays, and other excluded minorities. Progress has been uneven and incomplete. It has had to confront setbacks—Watergate, post-9/11 flashes of anti-Muslim prejudice, ongoing racism in policing and the justice system, and the floodtide of dark money in politics, to name a few. But the power and example of the United States inspired and supported an unprecedented expansion of democracy globally from the mid-1970s through the early 2000s. During this period the proportion of democracies among the world’s states more than doubled, and democracy became the predominant form of government in the world, with virtually all the rest of Europe, most of Latin America, half of Asia, and more than a third of African states becoming democratic. In the past decade, and especially in the past two years, freedom and democracy have been receding with the implosion of the Arab Spring and the reversals of democracy in countries like Thailand, Turkey, Bangladesh, and Nicaragua. But a majority of states in the world have remained democratic. And few have doubted the stability of democracy in the United States—until this year.

Over the decades, many scholars and writers have wondered what would happen if a demagogue like Joe McCarthy ever captured the nomination of a major political party. The scar that McCarthy left on American democracy was so deep that his name is now synonymous with the unscrupulous mobilization of fear and intolerance for extremist political ends. McCarthyism is the practice of making inflammatory, reckless, and unsubstantiated allegations about the character and patriotism of others in order to achieve political advantage. But it is not just character assassination. Neither is it ideological extremism—McCarthy had no coherent ideology. Most fundamentally, it is what Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab called, half a century ago in their now once-again vital book The Politics of Unreason, procedural extremism. This is the antithesis of pluralism: intolerance of difference and dissent, and unwillingness to be bound by “the limits of the normative procedures which define the democratic political process.” This kind of extremism treats “cleavage and ambivalence as illegitimate” and seeks to close down “the market place of ideas.” It is what we witness when aspiring strongmen like Vladimir Putin in Russia, the late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, or—we should now deeply worry—Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines win elections and then begin to intimidate and suffocate pluralism in the media, intellectual life, civil society, and even the business community, on the way toward one-party or one-man rule.

No political impulse could be more contrary to the founding American spirit than anti-pluralism. At its core, the American democratic experiment has been about the free contest of ideas, interests, and groups, along with tolerance for opponents and respect for their legitimacy. But throughout American history, that core principle has been challenged under social and political stress by a succession of extremist movements and politicians—the Know-Nothings, the American Protective Association, the Ku Klux Klan, Father Charles Coughlin, George Wallace, the John Birch Society.* A striking common thread in these eruptions has been the interplay of ethnic, racial, and religious bigotry with jingoistic nationalism, nativist fear of foreign subversion—hence fanatical opposition to immigration—and populist animus toward educated elites, portrayed through wild conspiracy theories as plotting to betray “the people.”  Periodically, these have given vent to anti-Semitism by putting Jews and alleged Jewish control of banks at the heart of these imagined diabolical plots.

In his desperate bid to win the presidency, Donald Trump has increasingly embraced the rhetoric and logic of the extremist far right in American history. The elements were there for all to see from the beginning of Trump’s campaign—the fanning of fears about illegal immigration, about Mexicans bringing drugs and crime, about Muslims bringing terrorism; fears of outsiders, of globalization, of difference. Trumpism is modern-day McCarthyism—stoking hysteria about treason and betrayal, fomenting ever-more outlandish theories of an establishment out to get the ordinary people that he “alone” can save, and denying the legitimacy or even decent intentions of opposing politicians. But prior to Trump no extremist movement or politician ever captured the nomination of a major political party. And none ever had the masterful command of communication media that Trump has had of television and the internet.

As a result, we now enter the final three weeks of this distressing presidential election campaign with Trump relentlessly warning that the election will be rigged, with his most vociferous surrogate, Rudy Giuliani, asserting that this will mainly happen in the “inner cities” (meaning by racial minorities), and with 41 percent of all voters (and nearly three-quarters of Republicans) agreeing that the election could be stolen from Trump. All of this is planting the seeds for a potentially traumatic and unprecedented challenge to the legitimacy of the election outcome and the new president if Trump does not win. And that is not to mention his promise to, if elected, prosecute Hillary Clinton and “lock her up,” and his repeated allusions to (gun) violence as the only way that the people—betrayed by the elites—might have left to deal with Clinton as president. As the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman noted in August, it was this kind of inflammatory incitement and denial of legitimacy that fed the extremist atmosphere in which Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995.

The history of democracy globally is strewn with examples of extremists and demagogues manipulating prejudice, insecurity, and fear in a bid for power. In this sense, Trump is nothing new. And from the Poland to the Philippines, the virus of political extremism and intolerance—of anti-pluralism—is once again spreading, placing the survival of democracy in jeopardy. Democracy has failed several times before in the Philippines, most notably in 1972, when Ferdinand Marcos, nearing the end of his second elected term as president in the midst of an armed communist insurgency, declared martial law and became a dictator. It failed once before in Poland in 1926, when Marshal Jozef Pilsudski staged a coup d’etat against a fragmented and poorly functioning party system. It was widely assumed that the rebirth of democracy after the Cold War, and its maturation in a modern and now economically successful Poland that is part of the EU, would give it immunity from reversal, but now a right-wing, anti-pluralist government is gutting constitutional constraints on its power and stifling opposition in politics as well as the media. Democratic failure could happen again in Poland—and certainly the Philippines. But could it happen here?

Among the most dangerous sins of democrats in times of trouble are arrogance and apathy. The severe polarization of American politics—to the point where Trump’s support base appears to be sticking with him despite his increasingly anti-democratic statements and the mounting allegations of his sexual abuse of women—is one sign of the trouble Americans are in. Fanaticism is another. Recall Trump’s statement in Nevada in February about the intensity of his support: “Sixty-eight percent would not leave [me] under any circumstance. I think that means murder. I think it means anything.” Perhaps most disturbing of all are the signs that several years before the rise of Trump, support for democracy had begun to decline significantly, especially among young people, and not only in the U.S. but in Europe as well.

Democracies fail when people lose faith in them and elites abandon their norms for pure political advantage. In The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, the late Yale political scientist Juan Linz stressed two factors in the failure of democracy. One is the growth of “disloyal opposition”—politicians, parties, and movements that deny the legitimacy of the democratic system (and its outcomes), that are willing to use force and fraud to achieve their aims, and that are willing to curtail the constitutional rights of their political adversaries, often by depicting them as “instruments of outside secret and conspiratorial groups.” But at least as great a danger, Linz warned, was “semiloyal behavior” by parties and politicians willing “to encourage, tolerate, cover up, treat leniently, excuse or justify the actions of other participants that go beyond the limits of peaceful, legitimate … politics in a democracy.” It is now not only fair but necessary to ask whether those in Donald Trump’s party who fail to denounce his democratic disloyalty are not themselves doing great damage to American democracy.

In 1935, as Hitler was consolidating totalitarian rule in Germany and the demagogic Senator Huey Long was preparing to run for president in the U.S., Sinclair Lewis published a novel about a charismatic populist senator who is elected president by promising to restore the country to prosperity and greatness and then turns into a dictator. The title of Lewis’s book was It Can’t Happen Here.  For more than half a century, Americans have blithely assumed that democracy is so rooted in their norms and institutions that nothing like that could happen here. If Americans do not renew their commitment to democracy above all partisan differences, it can.

* This article originally misstated Father Charles Coughlin’s first name as Thomas. We regret the error.