The book Political Hysteria in America: the Democratic Capacity for Repression was recently left lying around library that employs me. It’s a 1971 book by Murray B. Levin, a radical-left political scientist at Boston University, one of Howard Zinn’s buddies. I flipped through it and found this bit at the beginning of the conclusion interesting:
Many years ago, that extraordinary American political figure, Huey Long, predicted that if something like fascism came to America it would not at all look like fascism. The external trappings—concentration camps, elite troops, orgies of violence, emergency legislation, secret police, special judges, etc.—would not be necessary. Sophisticated but relentless propaganda, “public relations,” and monopolistic control of communications, Long predicted, would be the critical apparatus of an American fascism. Our study of political hysteria suggests that Huey Long may well be correct, because political hysteria in America engenders a democratic repression—pluralist, fundamentally legal, and, with rare exception, nonviolent. He may even be correct because America is capable of producing so many subtle forms of repression and ways of managing tension and dissent that crude repression and fascism have become archaic.
For a democratic repression to occur in contemporary—pluralist, legal, nonviolent—America, all that would be necessary would be motivated elites, a weakened party opposition that does not oppose the repression, or what is much more likely, a joint two party combination, in which the minority party sees potential political payoffs in competing for the patriotic constituency. For a significant repression to occur in America neither a large police state nor concentration camps would be necessary. Numerous, decentralized and highly focused local police terrorisms—like the killing of the Panthers—would probably be sufficient to frighten most of the potential liberal opposition. A Goebbels-like propaganda agency would not be necessary. Promotional material would be supplied, as it was during the Red scare [of 1919-20], by the mass media.
The repression would unfold while the “democratic process” is maintained and “representative government” flourished. Elections would be held as usual. No truly sophisticated proponent of repression would be stupid enough to shatter the facade of democratic institutions. The repression would unfold via Congressional legislation—“no knock,” “conspiracy to incite riot,” “crossing state lines,” “preventive detention,” “legal wiretapping”—and it would be enforced by judges and juries.
The stresses that might motivate elites to provoke a political hysteria need not be solely domestic, nor severe, nor imminently threatening. Neither economic recession nor a widespread depression are necessary conditions.
A combination of moderate dislocation and deviant behavior in America coupled with a dramatic extension of communist power abroad can nudge elites to conclude that their hegemony is threatened or that their self interest can be better served by exploiting the public’s susceptibility to a democratic repression than by more traditional pluralist combinations. [etc]
I don’t quote this at length in order to endorse the analysis, congratulate his prescience, or even intimate that Mr. Levin was correct. I think there are parts of his analysis that are pretty good, and frankly his fundamental antipathy to capitalism appeals to me, but I also think that he is quite muddled in his understanding of the relationship of the political elite to the rest of the country. Unlike many other Marxists, he doesn’t underestimate the ability of capitalism to adapt to threats; like many other Marxists, he underestimates the proletariat’s actual preference for adaptions over radical change. It’s an interesting analysis, but scarcely unarguable.
No, the reason I quote it at length is that it is nearly fifty years old. I think it’s helpful, particularly for those of us on the left, to remember that America is always on the point of tipping over into widespread repression. The dangers of today’s politics are real and terrifying, but so were the dangers of 1970 and 1919 and 1954. We have a remarkable ability to pull back, again and again, from those dangers. Which doesn’t help those people who were imprisoned or beaten or killed at the time, mind you. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we can complacently await Divine assistance. Every time we have pulled back from democratic repression (partially and temporarily) it has been through fighting and sacrificing, demonstrating and negotiating, and most of all organizing.
I guess the point is this: I am terrified that we are once again on the verge of a more widespread democratic repression; I am elated that we are once again on the verge of a mass movement that opposes that repression and enhances liberty and equality and opportunity; I am despondent that even if that opposition is successful in the short term it will not hold back the tide for long nor can it obviate the eternal danger; I am optimistic that future mass movements will be organized to oppose future repressions. I am comforted that today’s hysteria is not unlike other waves of hysteria that were eventually beaten back; I am disconsolate that battles won must be refought and refought again. And I hope and expect to be feeling all of those things for a long time to come.
That was the last time I spoke with President Trump,,