Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
THE outstanding political phenomenon of today is the resurgence of autocracy on a world wide scale. Democracy of the militant type is everywhere in partial or total eclipse. Throughout Europe, and in America as well, one can observe a widespread reaction against liberalism in politics, -- an aversion to the extreme implications of popular sovereignty, and a conspicuous predilection for order, economy, normalcy. All of which means that the world is running true to form and demonstrating anew the essential unity of its politics. This must inevitably be so, for under the conditions of today there can be no such thing as national isolation, whether splendid or otherwise. Even as respects the form and the spirit of its own government, a nation can no longer live unto itself. World currents, when they come, sweep right over the boundaries of nationalism, carrying the political opinions of mankind into one great and common stream.
Ten years ago America set out to make the world safe for democracy by turning a great war into a still greater one. The idealists who were carried away by the enthusiasm of those hectic days are inclined to look upon the present tide in the affairs of men as a strange and perplexing thing. They have been sadly disillusioned. Yet there is nothing extraordinary about this spectacular flareback, so well synchronized over a large part of the earth's surface. Anyone familiar with the cyclic propensities of political evolution could have predicted it. For it is a truism that war has been, in all ages, a prelude to the autocrat's opportunity, and there are few occasions on which he has not managed to make full use of it. Autocracy is not merely a form of government but a state of mind, and war prepares the public temper for it in a most effective way. Autocracy embodies the attempt, not to apply a theory, but to meet emergent conditions -- and war accentuates these conditions. War, in a word, has always been autocracy's most helpful friend.
The chronicles of international and civil conflict are studded with proofs of this. After the Persian wars came Pericles, and his personal rule in Athens endured for a third of a century. He called himself a leader of his people, not a tyrant -- but so does Mussolini! And after the exhaustion of the Peloponnesian wars came Philip of Macedon. The Punic wars ushered in the age of the Gracchi, the triumvirate, and the Caesars. They served as a prologue to the collapse of the Roman Republic. The feudal autocracies of the early mediaeval period grew out of the political demoralization which followed the collapse of Roman imperialism in its long and exhausting struggle with the barbarian hordes. The despots of the Dark Ages, from Clovis to Charlemagne, drew their political power from triumphs at arms. The history of the early modern world inculcates the same lesson. It was the long Wars of the Roses that made the Tudor autocracy possible in England. On the Continent, the seventeenth century was an epoch of great wars and the eighteenth an age of despotisms, not all of them enlightened. The English Civil War begat its Cromwell, who demonstrated his reverence for the sovereignty of the people by turning the House of Commons out of doors. The French Revolution and the general European wars that accompanied it gave France a Bonapartist emperor in place of a Bourbon king, with prefects replacing intendants as the minions of autocracy. The American Revolution began with Jefferson, Otis, Sam Adams and Patrick Henry, but in the aftermath it was Washington and Hamilton who wielded the power. Indeed it would be difficult to find, in all history, any notable occasion on which democracy has achieved an immediate and secure lodgment as the outcome of a great military struggle. The disservice which war has rendered to the cause of democratic progress ought to be a commonplace, but it is not. Otherwise the American people would not have waxed so enthusiastic over the presidential rhetoric of a decade ago.
The years that have intervened since the plenipotentiaries put their signatures to the peace treaty at Versailles have merely stressed an old lesson anew. Wilson, Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Orlando, Ebert, Lenin, and Venizelos were the outstanding personalities in the world politics of that day, all of them prefiguring in various shades the radical or liberal idealism of their respective lands. Without exception they have now passed off the stage. It is a far call from this galaxy to the reactionaries and realists of the present hour -- Mussolini, Pilsudski, Rivera, Rykov, Hindenburg, Poincaré, Kemal, Kondylis, and Baldwin. Even in the White House at Washington there is snugly ensconced one who would hardly be called a radical in any sense of the term. This entire cycle, both surging tide and undertow, has run its course within the space of nine brief years. Surely an impressive overturn!
Yet it is by no means a surprising one, for the men who are best fitted to carry a country through a war era are the least fitted to perform the difficult and tedious tasks of reconstruction which become imperative after the war is done. A nation at war calls for leadership by those who can give expression to the militant idealism of the people, strengthen their will to victory and deepen their moral fervor. It calls for men who will look forward and drive along, regardless of the political and economic disorganization that they may cause. People expect to see traditions wrecked in war time, and account this a part of the inevitable sacrifice. But when the guns are silent, and the navies melt away, they speedily become alive to the fact that leadership of an altogether different sort is needed. The times and circumstances then call for less emotional statesmen -- for plain, blunt men who have patience to grapple with the details and realities involved in the framing of new constitutions and in liquidating the economic burdens imposed by the war. Such men, as it happens, are almost invariably to be found in the ranks of the conservatives.
Accordingly, there are three fundamental reasons for the resurgence of autocracy in Continental Europe during the past half-dozen years. It may be well to state these reasons in brief and then explain them, one by one, more fully. In the first place, the parliamentary system of government, coupled with the disintegration of political parties, has facilitated the exercise of dictatorial powers under the cloak of constitutionalism. Without this easy channel for its emergence, autocracy would have had much rougher sledding. The second reason is to be found in human nature; in the inevitable aversion of mankind to stay keyed up to a high pitch of moral exaltation for any longer time than is absolutely essential. To the souls of men the spiritual inflation of war time is very exhausting, and it is no marvel that they should welcome a scheme of government which makes no further call upon the national emotions. Third, and perhaps most important of the three, is the stern necessity for post-war retrenchment in governmental expenditures, for heavier and more inclusive taxation, and for the rigorous stimulation of economic production.
But no government can push such measures through, in the drastic form which the aftermath of a great conflagration demands, and still remain a popular government. No government which holds itself responsive to the whims and caprice of a disillusioned and resentful populace can jack up the public revenues, fund the debts, peg the standard of values, balance the budget, resist the pressure for war pensions of all kinds, and shake off the horde of payroll patriots who have established a short circuit between themselves and the public treasury during the war era. All such measures are highly unpopular, and politicians of the traditional stripe cannot be induced to father them; yet the whole program must somehow be carried through or disaster will ensue. And so, when democracy comes into head-on collision with the stern necessities of governmental finance and economic rehabilitation, there is only one thing to do. The democrat goes out and the autocrat comes in. Neither a government nor a people will suffer itself to be starved in the name of political idealism. Let us look a little more closely at these three reasons for the ascendant autocracies of today.
The new constitutionalism has had something to do with it. During the years immediately following the close of the war Europe entered upon an orgy of constitution-making. New organic laws, bringing the foundations of government into accordance with democratic principles, were framed and adopted during the years 1919--1922 by the German Reich, by Prussia and the other German states, by Russia, Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Jugoslavia, Finland, Latvia, Esthonia, Turkey, and Southern Ireland. Radical changes in the old governmental structure, although not involving the adoption of new constitutions, were made by Italy, Spain, Hungary, and other countries. Here was the opportunity (if ever there was one) to put democracy in the saddle, with its feet in the stirrups, so firmly that it could not be thrown. The makers of new constitutions in these various countries, it might have been thought, would have closed, bolted and barred the paddock against the return of autocracy in any of its forms. But they did nothing of the sort. On the contrary, they opened the gates for its comeback. Not intentionally, of course, but that has been the outcome of their work. Under any scheme of government, it would have been difficult to make democracy safe in the war-torn countries of the Old Continent during the past half-dozen years; but under the arrangements which these constitution-makers set up, it has scarcely been accorded a sporting chance.
Without exception all the new constitutions which have been adopted by European countries since the war are based upon the principle that the executive shall hold itself responsible to the legislature; in other words, these countries have chosen the parliamentary as distinguished from the presidential form of government. But the whole course of political history has proved beyond peradventure that the parliamentary form of government does not operate satisfactorily, even under normal conditions, when the members of the legislative body are divided into numerous political factions, no one of which can hope to muster a majority. Under conditions of grave emergency it does not operate at all. No axiom in the science of government is less open to challenge. The multiple party system as it existed in France and Italy before the war proved itself an insurmountable barrier to the pursuance of a firm, consistent, stabilized executive policy.
This being the case, it might have been taken for granted that the framers of these new constitutions, and of the new electoral laws, would have set themselves to the task of encouraging the development of the numerous political factions into two or three strong political parties, as in Great Britain, thus affording the principle of ministerial responsibility a chance to function properly. But that is not what they did. Instead of setting up constitutional and legal provisions which would encourage the unification of factional groups, they insisted upon putting into operation the surest guarantee of perpetuated factionalism that the ingenuity of man has yet been able to devise; to wit, the system of proportional representation. Under this scheme of vote-counting, as it now exists in most of the continental countries, no political party has the remotest chance of gaining a firm control of the elective chamber and thereby holding the executive to a direct and continuous responsibility. And in the absence of such control, the process of lawmaking degenerates into a melée of factional bickerings, day after day, with nothing done. Deals and dickers, with blocs forming and re-forming like the bits of glass in a kaleidoscope, with no hope of a concensus on anything constructive -- that is what the new constitutions secured for most of Continental Europe during the years which immediately followed the close of the war.
The groupements fought or fiddled while the franc, the lira, the mark, and the peseta went skidding down. Inevitably the public temper grew restless. Into such a situation it was quite natural that the executive authority should project itself, usurping powers that do not constitutionally belong to it, but giving the people what they could not get in any other way. What else was to be expected? For the eclipse of democracy and political liberalism, the countries of Continental Europe can lay a share of the responsibility upon the relative impotence of their elective legislatures, due to the disintegration of political parties; a feature which has been actively encouraged by the system of proportional voting.
In speaking of these new European constitutions and of their conspicuous failure to prevent the rise of dictatorships under the forms of law, one may digress to comment upon the inverted political hegemony of the United States, as it has been demonstrated during this era of reconstruction. Everybody recalls, of course, the seeming avidity with which the oppressed nations of Europe turned to the United States for inspiration, leadership (and financial succor), after America entered the war. One and all, they disclosed a ravenous appetite for the slogans of democratic idealism that rained from the White House like manna from on high. The Fourteen Points were gulped as a new and elongated decalogue. Not for an instant did the rank and file of Americans appear to doubt that if Poles and Czechs and Finns (not to speak of Irishmen) were vouchsafed the right of self-determination they would speedily and with one accord assure themselves the blessings of political liberty by framing constitutions on the American plan. Such action on their part, we assumed, would be nothing more than the ordinary exercise of political good sense, in view of the monumental successes achieved by the American democracy both in peace and war.
But never has an expectation been more completely unfulfilled. Not one of these countries, in the flush of its new-found independence, turned to America for light and leading. The fact that their right to self-determination was in considerable measure the outcome of American insistence counted for nothing. Not one of them, from Esthonia to Ireland, incorporated in its new constitution a single important feature drawn from the governmental practice of the United States. With amazing unanimity they brushed aside all that we believe ourselves to have contributed to the art of popular government. And most significant of all was their disinclination to accept, or even to consider seriously, the principle which Americans have always regarded as the chief cornerstone in democracy's wall of defense against autocratic power.
The whole structure of American government, as everyone knows, is founded upon the doctrine of checks and balances. Our treatises and textbooks have argued that this separation of powers is the only dependable safeguard against autocracy. Most Americans are convinced of it. What more natural, then, than that they should have expected the new democracies of Europe to seize upon this well-tested palladium of liberty and build their governments around it, to the end that power should always be a check to power, and the likelihood of executive dictatorship eternally forestalled? Yet not one of them did it. Not one of them, indeed, could be persuaded that the principle of checks and balances had rendered the slightest service in protecting the people of the United States against governmental oppression. In witness whereof, the framers of these new European constitutions pointed to the experience of the Latin-American republics. Virtually without exception, these southern republics of the New World set out to operate their governments in accordance with the dogma of Montesquieu, just as the United States had done -- but, alas, with what results? Nowhere else throughout the world has executive dictatorship found more fertile soil than in the long stretch from the Rio Grande to Cape Horn. The makers of these new European constitutions were not oblivious to the lessons of history. They were acquainted with the course of politics in North America -- and in South America too.
Most intelligent Europeans attribute the power and prosperity of the United States to the simple fact that great natural resources have been exploited by a vigorous population. The form of government, they believe, has had nothing to do with it. If anything, it has hindered rather than helped. That being their conviction, they have seen no reason for borrowing from the American plan of government either its fundamental doctrines or its distinctive features, such as the executive veto, the ratification of treaties by the Senate, the confirmation of presidential appointments, the measurably equal powers of the two Houses, the residual powers of the states, or the ironclad bill of rights. Europe may be all wrong in this attitude of irreverence towards the "great and glorious landmarks" of the American constitution; but it comes as something of a shock to our rugged complacency (so earnestly promoted by textbooks of civics and by Sentinels of the Republic) that the disparagement should be so universal among European statesmen and scholars alike. Et tu, Erin ! That the new constitution of the Irish Free State should have borrowed from England, France, Switzerland, and Canada, but nothing at all from us, is assuredly a trifle disillusionizing, or ought to be. Yes, the only thing that any of them borrowed from us was -- money.
But to return from this digression upon the inverted world-hegemony of the American constitution to the specific reasons for the swing to the Right; to conservatism, reaction, fascism, and autocracy in these European lands. Mass psychology appears to be the second contributing cause. For four long years the governments of the warring countries appealed to their people in terms of idealized nationalism and patriotic self-sacrifice. They called for a cessation of all partisan strife within their own borders and they pleaded for a complete unification of the will to victory. These appeals met with a cordial response. All that was sordid and factional in politics stood adjourned. The political ideals of the people were lifted to a new and higher plane under the inspiration of this great "war to end war."
Meanwhile, however, these same governments were preaching to their people, in even more stentorian tones, sermons of hate and violence towards all enemies, force without stint or limit, direct action, and the justification of war measures which rode roughshod over constitutional rights and personal liberties. Propaganda by the ton was loosed upon whole populations, -- circulars and official communiqués which paid no heed to the elemental distinction between truth and falsehood. The world, during these war years, saw the curious spectacle of a dozen great governments laboring for the spiritual exaltation of their people with one hand and shoving out fraud with the other. The truth and the incongruity dawned upon everyone when the smoke of Armageddon cleared away. And it is small wonder that the primal emotions which were stirred to the surface by these appeals to savagery, hate, force, violence and duplicity have not subsided overnight. On the contrary, they have merely been diverted to internal politics and have there given inspiration to a revival of the old doctrine that they should take who have the power and they should keep who can. You cannot teach the law of the jungle to millions of men for a quartette of years and expect them to forget it within a season. Man's nature being what it is, such teachings are far easier to inculcate than to erase.
Democracy rests upon tolerance. Its successful operation postulates a nation of fair winners and good losers. There can be no democracy deserving of the name in any nation where it is accounted a misdemeanor to oppose the party in power. The phrase "His Majesty's loyal opposition," as President Lowell once pointed out, embodies the psychological basis of England's democracy. Yet the war taught none of the combatants any lessons of tolerance. In none of the warring countries did the government display a spirit of patience with opposition and objectors, whether conscientious or otherwise. On the contrary, in all of them, political non-conformity was either cajoled or clubbed into submission. Intolerance was fomented in the name of patriotism. People thus became accustomed to ruthless assaults upon freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and the liberties of the individual. They grew callous to such things. Why should anyone have expected that the mere signing of a peace treaty would at once reawaken the conscience of whole peoples, restore their old faith in the natural rights of man, and permit this to serve as the secure foundation of a new democracy ? In a word, the great upheaval shattered Europe's allegiance to the political philosophy of prewar days and there has not yet been time to evolve a new one in its place. During the transition, as in all transitional periods, we must look for abnormalities in government.
Finally, there has been the task of repairing the material damages. The disintegrating effect of war upon the entire social, economic, and political structure of nations, whether combatants or neutrals, is something that requires no elucidation today. Countries do not escape the consequences by keeping out of the struggle. Their markets can be upset, their industries diverted into new channels, and their politics convulsed by a conflict three thousand miles away, as the United States discovered during the years 1914-1916. There are no neutrals, so far as abstention from any share in the ancillary consequences of a great war are concerned. Declarations of neutrality afford no protection against a general rise in prices, unemployment, profiteering, inflation, and the widespread upsetting of economic routine. The difference between combatant and neutral in such matters is only one of degree. Everywhere, in short, war shifts the normal currents of trade and industry, wastes energy and capital, unsettles international finance, and compels a readjustment of conditions in many lines of production. Among the actual combatants, these consequences of war are merely intensified. In addition, huge debts are piled up; the monetary inflation throws the whole economic machine out of gear; and there is a veritable orgy of extravagance in public expenditures which keeps on after the war has come to an end.
All this means, of course, that the job of bringing a nation back to normal conditions after it has been marching for several years towards chaos is one of herculean proportions. It involves the most drastic retrenchment in public expenditures, the separation of thousands from the public payroll, the imposition of new and highly unpopular taxes so that budgets may be balanced, the firm discouragement of strikes and other interferences with the rehabilitation of industry, the stabilization of the currency at some point which is apt to satisfy no one, and the rigorous supervision of the local authorities to the end that they also shall practice economy. Every one of these measures is bound to arouse opposition among considerable elements in the electorate. In no country do the voters relish a program which calls for more work, more taxes, less spending, less patronage. Give the people a government that is directly and genuinely responsible to them, and they will throw it out of office the moment it attempts to carry such a program into operation. Yet somehow or other these measures must be enacted and applied, every one of them. Without retrenchment and deflation there can be no return to normal conditions of life, and the people realize it.
Here is the dilemma in which Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Poland, Greece, and other European countries found themselves, one after another, a few years ago. They could hold to the principles and practice of responsible government, but only at the price of perpetuated economic disorder. As an alternative, they could bring order out of chaos by throwing away the implications of popular sovereignty, or, at least, by placing them in cold storage. They chose the latter course. The elective assemblies remain; but the substance of power has passed, for the moment at any rate, into the hands of monarchs who govern but do not reign. These autocrats are doing what neither legislatures nor ministries responsible to legislatures were able to do. Mussolini may be a dictator, but he balanced the Italian budget. Poincaré may be a usurper of power, but he pegged the franc. Baldwin may be a reactionary, but he squelched the general strike. Kemal may be a despot, but he kept Turkey on the map.
There are more pragmatists among the rank and file of the people than among philosophers. To them the whole meaning of a conception lies in its practical consequences. Democracy is not an end in itself. It is professedly a means of gaining ends which the people desire. But there are times when the people desire the end yet are quite unwilling to tolerate the only means which democracy provides. When politics become economics, the politician flounders. Then comes the autocrat's turn. That is why there has been a great revolution in the politics of Europe during the past seven years, and the system of parliamentary government has permitted it to take place with little or no disturbance.
The backward swing of the pendulum began in Italy, for the reason that the Italian politicians fell down on the job of economic reconstruction somewhat more completely than did those of the other countries. They could hardly have done otherwise, in view of the political system under which they were trying to operate. Ministerial responsibility and the multiple party system, as they were conjoined in Italy seven years ago, form the most effective guarantee of supine impotence in the face of an economic emergency that the science of misgovernment can provide. So Italy gave the old school politicians a vacation and turned her government over to Mussolini and his Ku Klux of black shirts. This pinchbeck Caesar is doing precisely what he was commissioned to do. An autocrat is merely a ward boss writ large. His business is to acquire and retain full control of the government in order that certain ends may be achieved, and he is not expected to be over scrupulous about offending the dogmas of democracy in doing it.
In Poland, Hungary, Spain, Greece, Turkey, and even in Ireland, the story is much the same, but with some variations. The man of the hour is counted upon to use whatever methods are dictated by the immediate circumstances. Pilsudski's capture of the Polish government was by a coup d'état, for that is the way in which field-marshals habitually place themselves at the head of civil governments. Horthy, as an admiral, used somewhat different methods when he sailed into power in Hungary. In Spain, Greece, and Turkey, the existing autocracies rest upon the support of the army. Indeed, one might venture the generalization that, under European conditions of today, democracy and dictatorship are both of them entitled to be called "responsible" government, -- the difference being that one is a government responsible to the legislature while the other is a government responsible to the troops. And it sometimes happens that the army, being drawn from the ranks of the people, is a better mirror of the popular will than is the legislature whom the people elect by a complicated scheme of factional nominations and proportional voting. Incidentally it may be mentioned that the government of Southern Ireland, flying in the face of all the old aspirations and professions, has virtually abolished municipal self-government; it has done what no English ministry would ever have dared to do. The Irish local commissioner is a podestà in everything but name. Rome and Milan have more municipal home-rule than Dublin or Cork.
Both Germany and France, at the last parliamentary elections, gave strong support to the more liberal elements -- the parties of the Left. The liberal groups, including Socialists of all hues, came from the polls with a degree of strength which ought to have ensured their control of the Reichstag and the Chamber of Deputies -- and with this, the control of the executive power. Nevertheless it is the Right, and not the Left, that dictates the course of governmental policy in both countries today. Even in Russia the reaction from communist policy has carried the country a long way.
So we see autocracy triumphant over half the civilized world. But has it come to stay? In all human probability it has not. Despite the pessimism of Lord Bryce in his valedictory, and the gloating of H. G. Wells over democracy's crucifixion, there is no reason for any incorrigible democrat to become disheartened. Democracy is a fair-weather craft. In monsoons and hurricanes it does well to scurry off. But in time the skies will clear. Then, with the rising barometer, the world will feel in better mood and order its affairs accordingly.