Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America
Edited by Cass Sunstein
496 pp.; Dey Street Books, 2018
Can it happen here?" ask 19 different contributors, most of them law professors, in this interesting book edited by Cass Sunstein. "It" is tyranny or, as they say more discretely, "dictatorship" or "autocracy," which is further laundered as "authoritarianism." This is a crucial question that must be answered squarely. The book gives many good but incomplete-and sometimes question-begging--answers.
Sunstein is a well-known law professor, now at Harvard University, who headed the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs during Barack Obama's first term as president. A prolific author, he has also written in the field of behavioral economics, sometimes trying--and failing, according to some--to reconcile regulation with the idea of consumer sovereignty and economic efficiency. (See "Paternalism and Psychology," Summer 2006.) With economist Richard Thaler, he helped to originate the idea of government "nudging" individuals toward the presumed best choices without actually forcing them to choose. (See "A Less Oppressive Paternalism," Summer 2008.)
Prudent optimism / Some of the book's contributors are optimistic that the United States can avoid authoritarianism. University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner as well as Sunstein himself argue that fascism and dictatorship are very unlikely to happen here because of the United States' diversity, decentralized power, and legal and constitutional protections. But Sunstein includes a caveat: "If the American project is to be seriously jeopardized, it will almost certainly be because of a very serious security threat."
What quickly becomes apparent as one reads the book is that the authors are specifically concerned about rightwing fascism. None of the contributors defines fascism, but we understand that it is something like Mussolini's Italy. The danger of Donald Trump is frequently mentioned, but left-wing authoritarianism is not discussed.
Psychologist Karen Stenner and New York University business professor Jonathan Haidt argue that authoritarianism "is no momentary madness. It is a perpetual feature of human societies." In their estimate, one-third of individuals have an authoritarian personality. (Many will question the measure they use to determine this, related to a survey question about preferred child education.) They develop a model in which both "authoritarian personality" and "threats to social oneness" explain populism (of the right) and provide some empirical verification for this model in Trump's America, Marine LePen's France, and the United Kingdom's Brexit vote. They venture that some adjustments may be required to liberal democracy in order to avoid authoritarianism, such as avoiding too much diversity from immigration.
Their model doesn't consider whether a policy of "live and let live" would be better than more regulation. Perhaps authoritarians would be tamer if they were left alone?
"No, it can't happen here," writes George Mason University economist Tyler Cohen. "Not anytime soon." This would make him an optimist if it were not for the reason he gives. A takeover of the American government by fascists or any other radical group is impossible, he argues, because government "is so large and unwieldy": "Big government is useful precisely for (among other reasons) helping to keep government relatively...