Thursday, March 15, 2018

Can It Happen Here? by Cass Sunstein - Book Review

The essays in Can it Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America (Dey Street Books, March 2018, 496 pages, $11.99/12.18) vary widely in accessibility, readability, and sense of audience. They represent a set of, largely academic papers that may raise more issues than they settle. Nevertheless, I came away, despite the pessimism of some of the essays, with the sense that if Americans act with courage and fortitude, our institutions will survive the Trump assault on them. Most of the writers, drawn from top, mostly American, universities suggest that, while there seems to be world-wide skepticism toward liberal democracy, we can weather the storm by relying on the checks and balances established in the Constitution, maintaining a free press, and the engagement of the electorate in the political process.

The title of the book is drawn from Sinclair Lewis’s satirical novel, It Can’t Happen Here, written in 1936, which followed the career of a fictional governor, much like Huey Long, the populist governor of Louisiana, who took a run against Franklin Delano Roosevelt before his assassination in 1936. Lewis’ autocratic, totalitarian character, perhaps modeled on Adolf Hitler is elected president on a platform of populism and traditional values. Sound familiar? The title of Lewis’ book is turned into a question, which each of the writers examine in their own fashion.

The writers aredrawn almost entirely from Academia and selected from elite institutions dominated by the Ivy League and the University of Chicago. Including editor Cass Sunstein, there were nineteen writers distributed thus: Harvard – 5, Chicago – 5, Yale – 2, NYU – 2, Columbia – 1, Princeton – 1, Cornell – 1, Duke – 1, George Mason – 1. In terms of specialties, they were distributed this way: Law – 11, Economics – 2, Diplomacy – 1, varied social sciences – 5. Several were described as being multi-disciplinary. Given these distributions of institutions and specialties, it’s little wonder that many of the entries were jargon-filled and somewhat repetitive. One of the contributors, Samantha Powers, also happens to be married to editor Sunstein, although I can see no reason why she doesn’t belong in this distinguished group.

Can It Happen Here? considers whether the inclinations and indications from the Trump administration can or will lead to the loss of our democracy and the imposition/acceptance of an authoritarian form of government in the United States. While, in his preface, Sunstein suggests that this dark vision of what America might become isn’t yet happening, those who can imagine such outcomes are writing and speaking about it. They belong to a long history of those who’ve written about an apocalyptic view of democracy and freedom.

The essays range from thoughtful and insightful analyses of Donald Trump’s mind and approach to stunningly difficult to read and interpret research studies written for an academic audience. They often are much in need of interpretation for even the intelligent lay reader. As such, it seems to be a book in search of an audience who can find enough sustenance to make it worth purchasing. It contains too much jargon and too many statistics to be useful to the general reader, and too little for the specialist.

The general tenor of this collection is to suggest that while Trump, his authoritarian vision and the alignment of his appointees towards the very forces he campaigned against, while deeply upsetting and destructive, is likely to fail as other efforts to exert control over the government and people of America have failed in the past. But the ride isn’t going to be pleasant and the destruction may take years to heal. Since there are few examples of authoritarian or anti-constitutional governance in this country, several of the writers depend on authoritarian influences in Hungary and Poland, which have pulled back from democracy. They also rely on the rise to power of historical figures like Louis Bonaparte in France, Hitler, and Mussolini, all of whom overthrew representative governments to install autocratic rule before failing.

Most of the essays strike a center-left middle ground, as one might expect from a group of writers dominated by men (only two women contributed chapters) trained in law who also teach it in elite settings. There’s a strong presumption that the principles enshrined in the Constitution and embodied in the checks and balances and the Bill of Rights, with special emphasis on the role of the press, whose voice is guaranteed by the First Amendment will prevail. Meanwhile, the concerns of the unruly extremes of both parties is under-emphasized as the writers place their faith in the good sense of the center.

Cass Sunstein

According to Amazon, “Cass R. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School, where he is the founder and director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy. He is by far the most cited law professor in the United States. From 2009 to 2012 he served in the Obama administration as Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. He has testified before congressional committees, appeared on national television and radio shows, been involved in constitution-making and law reform activities in a number of nations, and written many articles and books, including Simpler: The Future of Government and Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter.”

Canit Happen Here?: Authoritarianismin America (DeyStreet Boois, March 2018, 496 pages, $11.99/12.18) edited by Cass Sunstein consists of seventeen essays edited and curated by Cass Sunstein examining the rise of Donald J. Trump to the Presidency of the United States and its possible outcomes. Relying on the history of several authoritarian rises and failures in world history as well as a social psychological approach to American predictions, the book speculates about the possible continued world-wide rise of authoritarian rule and its possibilities. With regard to the U.S., the essays hold out some optimism, assuming that Americans and our institutions stand tall and act bravely. The essays are uneven, but many deserve careful, thoughtful study. They are marred by their tone and the denseness of the prose in some. The book was provided to me by the publisher as a digital download through Edelweiss, and I read it on my Amazon Fire.