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Can It Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in…

Can It Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America (edition 2018)

by Cass R. Sunstein (Author)

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733253,611 (4.07)1
"With the election of Donald J. Trump, many people on both the left and right feared that America's 240-year-old grand experiment in democracy was coming to an end, and that Sinclair Lewis' satirical novel, It can't happen here, written during the dark days of the 1930s, could finally be coming true. Is the democratic freedom that the United States symbolizes really secure? Can authoritarianism happen in America? [The editor] queried a number of the nation's leading thinkers. In this...collection of essays, these...thinkers and theorists explore the lessons of history, how democracies crumble, how propaganda works, and the role of the media, courts, elections, and 'fake news' in the modern political landscape--and what the future of the United States may hold."--… (more)
Title:Can It Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America
Authors:Cass R. Sunstein (Author)
Info:Dey Street Books (2018), Edition: 1st Edition, 496 pages
Collections:Currently reading
Tags:Society: Current Events

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Can It Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America by Cass R. Sunstein



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Can it Happen Here? It is a good question. I remember when I was in school and I had to find different points of view for arguments. I was never in Debate Club or anything like that, but I still had to find opposing viewpoints for topics like the Death Penalty, the legalization of certain drugs, changing the legal age of drinking, or Abortion laws.

This book is in the same vein as those subjects. I will admit to one thing now; I am not a fan of President Donald J Trump. I didn’t vote for the man, I think he is a bully, and I don’t think he has adequate experience in being a politician. Trump’s presidency has a number of problems in my opinion. Listing them all would be taxing though, so I will continue with the book.

The book is a series of essays written by leading scholars. The editor is Cass R Sunstein, a man who also contributed a piece of writing to this work. Trump has done a number of things while President that has led a group of people to ask the question of whether an Authoritarian Government could take root here. The general consensus in the book is no, it can’t happen here. The American Government is far too large and unwieldy for one man to effectively manage. Also, the system of Checks and Balances in effect in the government means that Trump would have to control all three of the branches and get rid of Free Speech. A huge catastrophic event on par with the September 11th attacks would have to happen and Trump would have to be given “Emergency Powers.” Even that isn’t limitless though. Although he can certainly mobilize the military as Commander-in-Chief, eventually Congress would stop him from doing that. The same thing applies to the Judiciary. Although Trump or another President could load the Courts with his supporters it would be far too much work. As I mentioned, the Bureaucracy is far too large to control.

Some of the authors examine why Trump was elected in the first place and the rising power of Populism in the United States. They discuss the erosion of trust in our elected leaders and in our democracy in general. Others talk about how things like Authoritarianism have already happened in certain contexts. Take the forced detainment of Japanese-Americans during World War II or the “Deep State” with the Intelligence Agencies. America does not have a spotlessly clean record of Liberty. A number of marginalized groups can argue a lot of things. Then we have to remember that a number of White, Heterosexual Males might feel marginalized due to the focus on Political Correctness. All the people who feel “Triggered” by things and avoid them since it might hurt their feelings.

The book is very well done and informative. ( )
  Floyd3345 | Jun 15, 2019 |
A collection of essays written about the possibility of fascism in the US. For people tired of hearing the same talking heads on TV, this book can be a refreshing change, as a few dozen experts write about the applicability of their scholarship to fascism in the US. I picked up the book mostly because of the many impressive contributors, and I did not regret reading through the book.

A few of the pieces were not that strong, being either simply assertive polemics or just mere summaries of commonly known ideas, but there were enough gems in the book to make the admission price worth it. In particular, there were a few essays that blew my mind, because they were such novel arguments (at least to the extent I've been exposed to them).

My favorite essay was probably the one by Cowen, which makes the argument that as an empirical matter, the night watchmen state is self-defeating because small governments dominated by people used to force are likely to be easily turned into fascist states. Ironically, bureaucratic governments might be good protectors of individual rights because its very inefficiency acts as a ballast against radical change.

A close second was the empirical work by Haidt (the only empirical work in the entire work), which showed that parts of the population may have pre-existing propensity to find authoritarianism attractive and that common aspects of liberal democracies that are celebrated (such diversity, and immigration) can enhance the attractiveness of authoritarianism to those segments of the population. Haidt notes that it's with a certain irony that liberal democracies that celebrate difference, ignore at their peril the fact that some people might be different in that they don't want difference.

I also enjoyed Goldsmith's article on the deep state, in which I learned about the history of the deep state (and the grand bargain), the need for leaks but also the lack of congruence between leaker incentives and social incentives. It seems somewhat prophetic, that the article argues that the deep state has an incentive to become involved in politics, but in doing so loses it legitimacy to the American people.

The Power piece on Russian meddling in the US election was a much needed breath of fresh air on the topic, providing evidence on the scale and nature of foreign interference in social media. The essay explores the nature of the loss of gatekeepers (in national media i.e. TV and print), the use of social media to divide Americans by foreign governments, the harvesting of data on voters and the "post-truth" environment such factors create.

I found Elster's piece on the historical rise of Napoleon III surprisingly interesting. Napoleon III who started out as an adventurer, and was exiled from France because of his famous uncle, eventually rose in the country to become a new emperor. The essay argues that his rise was not inevitable, but was the result of the misguided idealism of the government's trust in democracy in allowing him to enter politics, the gap between the governing elites and the population, and the rivalries of the existing government.

Watt's essay expanding on his work on "common sense" was interesting. The essay discusses how common sense isn't that "common" because they tend to be culturally generated conclusory statements, and how common sense can fail in the face of complex systems (with more than first order effects or aggregates individual decisions in counterintuitive ways). The essay concludes that science needs to communicate better to the public how it works in order to gain the legitimacy needed for science to overcome "common sense".

Feldman, Minow, Stone and Strauss's essays focused on more traditionally "legal" topics. Feldman raises questions about how to define fascism, including what the baseline is, Minow discusses the historical example of Japanese internment during WWII, Stone discusses historical overreactions to emergencies (like internment and in the wake of WWI, the red scare) while Strauss argues that judges should respond to slow moving emergencies by choosing interpretations that reduce the chances of tyranny.

In short, the book is a collection of interesting ideas, some of the essays are better than others, but the variety and novelty of some of the essays is enough to make the book overall worth reading. ( )
  vhl219 | Jun 1, 2019 |
This is a high-quality collection of essays from about twenty different authors on the decline of democracy in America (an event which, depending on the author, is considered to be impossible / unlikely / imminent / reoccurring, etc). Almost all contributions are very interesting and they cover a sufficiently broad scope to have direct implications also for other countries. This book can be recommended to anyone who wants to understand past and future populist upheavals.
  thcson | Aug 6, 2018 |
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