Writing in the March 2nd Boston Globe, Stephen Kinzer, a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, notes in “A warning from the Middle East, ” that a once promising democracy in Turkey has been relentlessly pulled into autocracy by its leader. He writes in part, “Turkey’s leader pulled down his country’s democracy by taking a series of radical steps. He pitted citizens against each other based on their group identities. Then he recklessly intervened in foreign conflicts. He disrupted longstanding alliance patterns, rejecting the path of diplomatic compromise in favor of me-first chauvinism. At home, he demonized the press, refused to allow examination of his private fortune, and denounced critics as unpatriotic. It reads like an eerie foreshadowing of today’s Washington.”
Kinser bends over backwards not to appear alarmist. Our American institutions, he opines, are more robust, our democratic traditions more deeply entrenched. Still, he notes, “It would be foolish to dismiss the possibility that Americans could lose the blessings of democratic rule. Would-be autocrats understand that the most powerful of all human emotions is fear….. The United States might be just a few terror attacks away from … a power grab.” Moreover , “The great danger to American democracy, ….. is the continued existence of democratic forms that are drained of their democratic essence. We continue to elect a Congress, for example, but in many states voter suppression and gerrymandering rob people of true choice. Our courts are arenas for waging ideological battles. The power of money in our politics is overwhelming. Earth-shaking decisions to wage foreign wars are made in private by a handful of people. Lady Liberty still symbolizes American freedom, but this is how you lose her.”
Kinser’s warning is clearly apt, but is, if anything, too considered. American scholars and commentators seem always constrained to acknowledge American “exceptionalism”. Somehow, we are always different, unique, a bit better, a bit stronger, a bit less fragile than everyone else. The rest of the world, correctly, knows better. American foibles often exceed those of other similar countries. Our democracy is not “more democratic” – the recent election placed a candidate with less votes than his rival on the seat of power. Our press is not more robust – earlier this week CNN fell over itself declaring Trump presidential because he successfully read from a teleprompter. Our justice system is not more fair. We incarcerate a higher percentage of our population than any other industrialized state. Our health system is not better. Our education system is not better. Our culture, by world standards, dates back only hundreds of years, rather than thousands. And with due respect to Mr. Kinser, it is not at all clear that the United States can not be taken directly to autocracy by Mr. Trump. We already have a Congress that willfully ignores his violations of the Constitutional requirements regarding emoluments and conflicts of interest, that refuses to investigate violations of our sovereignty by Russia during the elections, and that has approved Cabinet nominees intent on the destruction of existing governmental institutions. As I write, Trump aides are calculating how best to manipulate public opinion and cow the press. Billionaire American oligarchs are forming plans to buy upcoming Congressional elections. I give thanks to Mr. Kinser for the warning, but the dangers are closer than he suspects.