Last Updated on March 3, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1127
Concerned about potential loopholes in the democratic template they were building, the founders of the United States turned to ancient Greek and Roman philosophy as they devised checks and balances. According to Snyder, the makers of the United States Constitution shared with Plato and Aristotle a fear that democracy might be subverted by oligarchy—that is, the rule of the few—and tyranny, and fortified the Constitution against such misuse.
However, contemporary times require caution inspired from more contemporary events. To resist tyranny in the United States and the world, citizens need to draw lessons from the rise and fall of the fascist and communist regimes of the twentieth century rather than ancient Greece and Rome. Just as at the turn of the twenty-first century, the turn of the twentieth century in Europe and Russia saw globalization leading to growing unemployment and discontent about “real and perceived inequalities.” Leaders and parties that claimed to directly represent the hidden will of the people rose to occupy the void created by this discontent. According to Snyder, because these parties claimed the mandate of the people, they assumed impunity for their actions. It was not long before ordinary men stood over “death-pits with guns in their hands.”
Terrible as history was, the greater terror, says Snyder, is the false belief that a nation’s democratic heritage is enough to protect it from collapsing into tyranny. If people are cognizant that this belief is misguided, they can fight against the subversion of democracy by heeding twenty lessons drawn from the events in Europe and Russia in the twentieth century.
Snyder’s first lesson is about the role anticipatory obedience plays in the rise of tyranny. Exhorting the reader not to “obey in advance,” Snyder notes that when people begin to capitulate to tyrants bloodlessly, like when German citizens eagerly supported Adolf Hitler’s newly elected government, “political tragedy” strikes. Snyder highlights the 1938 occupation of Austria as the key tragic moment when the obedience of Austrian citizens gave the Nazis free reign to intensify their pogrom against European Jews. Once the Austrian chancellor conceded to Hitler, many locals began to loot and attack their own Jewish neighbors in obedience to Nazi mandate. Once the Nazi Government learnt from Austria “what was possible,” they went on to organize the 1938 terror pogrom called Kristallnacht, or the night of broken glass.
Snyder goes on to ask whether the unique circumstances of the 1930s and 1940s produced such obedient citizens, or whether such obedience is possible even today. As an answer, he describes the famous electroshock experiments conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram in Yale University in 1961. Milgram’s team instructed regular subjects to shock a stranger behind a pane of glass until the stranger appeared to die of a heart attack. While the strangers were actors and not actually being shocked, the experiment shows that people are more willing than they think to commit violence when so ordered by authority figures. Thus, any society is vulnerable to anticipatory obedience and needs to safeguard against it.
According to Snyder, people must fight to defend what they call “our institutions.” Assuming that democratic institutions, such as courts, newspapers, and labor unions will automatically act as vanguards against fascism is a fatal mistake, as the example of Germany shows. As late as 1933, German newspapers were publishing editorials that displayed a naïve belief that Hitler was not a cause for concern, because institutional checks would prevent him from openly persecuting Jewish citizens.
However, what such views underestimated—and continue to underestimate—is the power of authoritarianism to subvert these very institutions to its own ends. The Nazis euphemistically termed this subversion Gleichschaltung, or coordination. By the end of 1933, the Nazis had been unanimously elected to power. Before 1934 ended, they had banned all other political parties in Germany and eroded the country’s major institutions. What the editorial predicted would never come to pass had already been set into motion.
Snyder’s third lesson for fighting tyranny is to support a multi-party system. Parties that try to consolidate power and demolish all opposition should be viewed with suspicion. To support his viewpoint, Snyder quotes the famous saying “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” erroneously attributed to Thomas Jefferson. While most Americans assume the saying exhorts them to guard their institution from foreign influences, its actual generator, the abolitionist activist Wendell Phillips, meant to highlight how Americans must be vigilant against power-hungry fellow Americans looking to overturn democracy. Phillips also stated that “the manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten.” Snyder notes that the history of modern European democracy supports Phillips’s words. The democracies of Europe that rose to power in the twentieth century collapsed when a power-hungry single party, like the Nazis, established totalitarian rule and eliminated opposition. Yet, at the time the public elected these popular governments, such as in Germany in 1932 or even Russia in 1990, they had no idea their vote would have such a catastrophic effect.
Considering whether the United states, with its two-party system, is similarly susceptible, Snyder observes that since the nation is governed in 2016 by a party of the rich which is less popular, American democracy, too, may crumble. Further, citizens must push to fix the gerrymandered electoral system to secure free and fair elections and ensure that the party with the lower vote share does not come into power.
One of the striking themes of Snyder’s first few rules on fighting tyranny is the central role of the individual citizen. Snyder demolishes the assumption that passive support of democratic institutions and reasonable values is enough to prevent the subversion of democracy. People cannot assume that their leaders and institutions will defend democracy; instead, the individual must practice “eternal vigil” and directly fight for liberty. Thus, Snyder sets up democracy not as a once-in-four-years voting exercise but as a constant, critical, and active engagement.
Instead of framing the fascist regimes that rose and fell in Europe between 1930 and 1960 as alien and impossible, Snyder often highlights the fact that the Germans and Russians of the mid-twentieth century were no different from people close to home. Professor Milgram had initially meant to carry out his electroshock experiment in Germany, but he had to make do with New Haven. However, after the results of the experiment became clear, Milgram said that he found “so much obedience” in America, there was hardly any reason left to take the experiment to Germany. Thus, the Germans of the 1930s and 1940s cannot be dismissed as anomalies. In fact, they behaved in ways which were both possible and predictable. When the enemy consists of everyday people, the fight for democracy must be fought all the more assiduously.
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