Telling the political story of the creeping unitary executive has been a challenge for both observant traditionalists and progressives. Resorting to Hitler comparisons when discussing the nation’s constitutional plight with the underinformed brings easy dismissal on the grounds of exaggeration. Drawing parallels between the rise of European fascism invites discussions of minute and often unimportant distinctions about whether uniforms are worn or trains run on time. Delving back further to comparisons with the Roman Empire rely heavily on a knowledge base that is often lacking in modern discussions.
But Joe Conason has hit upon an elegant solution on which to hang a very American narrative by reviving interest in Sinclair Lewis’ disturbingly prescient It Can’t Happen Here, written in 1935 as a response to Lewis’ concern about the rise of Italian fascism.
Most Daily Kos readers are most likely familiar with this Lewis novel; it’s been an underground and widely quoted favorite on progressive blogs since the beginning of the nightmare of the Bush administration. One of the most widely cited quotations of late comes from this author: When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag, carrying a cross.
Lewis’ novel, centers on the rise of Buzz Windrip to the presidency, a man who, in Conason’s words, is "a charismatic politician with little intellectual curiosity but great capacity to appeal to the regular guy." Guided by a former advertising maven, Lee Sarason, Windrip campaigns – and wins – through a platform of a "syrupy compassion for the white, Christian, middle-class family while proclaiming a staunch moral and patriotic conservatism." Soon after taking office, he proclaims a permanent state of emergency based on an economic downturn and relegates Congress to an advisory body, stacks the courts with pliant hacks and dismantles constitutional protections as a "dangerous barrier to executive action," according to Conason.
From this fictional plot line, a comparison to the authoritarian tactics and mindset of the current administration is starkly drawn by the author. This structure allows Conason to explore the complex inter-relationships between different areas of civil liberty encroachment. Make no mistake: One of the most difficult tasks facing those who want to sound the alarm about this administration to the apolitical and previously apathetic is a way to shape the narrative in a coherent fashion, to tie together the countless strands of domestic spying, legalized torture, use of propaganda and signing statements, lying about motives to go to war, imposition of religious dictates into the public square and all the other horrors the Bush administration has perpetuated. Conason, aside from being a masterfully rational and lucid writer who resists lapsing into overstatement and false alarmism, seems to have hit upon the most straightforward strategy of explaining the tangled mass of authoritarian strictures America has suffered under Bush’s rule. This is no small feat, and one many political observers have failed to accomplish.
Conason, after introducing a bare-bones synopsis of It Can’t Happen Here, breaks his own book into digestible sections, beginning with "The ‘Post-9/11 Worldview’ of Karl Rove," which explores the rise of the notion that this nation is at permanent war, that civil liberties must be surrendered for our own protection and that anyone who questions this philosophy is a traitor. The second section, "Lawlessness and Order," outlines the often under-the-radar rise of restrictions and controls more closely associated with a police state than a functioning democracy. The third section, "State Secrets and Unofficial Propaganda," examines the manipulation of the compliant media in advancing – and rarely questioning – an authoritarian national agenda. The fourth section, "The Corporate State of Grace," reviews the history of the coupling of corporate America and the religious right – and what both parties are getting out of the partnership that superficially appears to share disparate aims. The final section, "The Revenge of Nixon’s Heirs," traces the careers of those responsible for strengthening the idea of the unitary executive, from the reign of the man who asserted there were no limits on the president in wartime to the current officeholder who has adopted the same attitude – with the alarming advancement of more sophisticated and proven techniques over his predecessor.
Most of the material chosen to be covered in this book will be familiar to blog readers who have been following developments in the administration closely over the years. What’s new is the superb organization and presentation of the mass of violations of democratic principles, which I can’t praise enough. It can serve, if used properly, as an outline of how to approach the subject with indifferent listeners in order to awaken them to the liberties citizens are losing each day as we slide toward authoritarianism. The work also manages to do this in a reasonably compact form; the danger when beginning to explore the ramifications of Bush edicts is to include all and sundry violations instead of cutting to the chase succinctly and staying focused on the best selection of details that speak to larger issues. Conason’s exercise in judgment on what not to include – as well as what is included – is pitch perfect, and allows the book to come in at a reasonable 237 pages, including index and bibliography. (I was able to read the whole thing in one long afternoon.)
It Can Happen Here is also a book with a lot of promise for direct crossover appeal. While some works -- Farenheit 911 comes to mind – seem designed to directly preach more to the choir than to engage in conversion because of some arguably heavy-handed sarcasm, Conason’s judicious use of journalistic tone and analysis holds the promise of appealing more to previously unconvinced readers. It’s not just a playbook for progressives to work from but withhold because of inflammatory rhetoric; it can serve safely as a persuasive, direct piece of work given to a friend with less risk of alienating a fence-sitter with fervent partisanship.
If we don’t want "it" to happen here, this is a book that should be purchased, read and passed on. It’s a serious, focused and well-reasoned call to awakening for American citizens, and the Lord only knows how many more of these kinds of works we will need to rally our nation back to democracy. Conason’s book is one of the best places I can envision a start on that work.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.