Joe Conason's It Can Happen Here

Updated with an edit below

I recently finished reading Joe Conason's new book, It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril In The Age of Bush. I, like many bloggers and blog readers, read pretty much every book I can get my hands on that offers to explain our current political epoch and place daily events in the context of a larger narrative that seeks to give meaning to what we see happening around us. Just as blogs are one of the few refuges for those seeking analysis beyond the Beltway's conventional wisdom, books authored by bloggers and independent-minded journalists are a rare source for deep analysis of today's politics in non-traditional frames. One of the biggest problems that I find when reading books written to expose a political dynamic that is understood on blogs, but lacking public consideration, is that it's hard to both produce a text that is captivating to hyper-informed blog readers and pedagogical to the under-informed general public that, quite frankly, has to be appealed to if writing books is something our best thinkers can afford to do.

Conason's It Can Happen Here succeeds in reaching both the blogger and non-blogger audience in a way that I have rarely seen over the last few years. It Can Happen Here addresses the question posed by Sinclair Lewis in his 1935 dystopia It Can't Happen Here: can totalitarianism come to America? Lewis's text includes the familiar line, "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag, carrying a cross." Conason makes the case that the question Lewis asked seventy-two years ago needs to be asked again today.

The thought of the Bush administration as a creeping authoritarian presence that seeks to counter constitutionally-based checks on executive power by impeaching the patriotism and seriousness of its opponents is not new to anyone who keeps abreast of the blogs. From Glenn Greenwald's coverage of the Bush administration's illegal surveillance of the American public to Marcy Wheeler's documentation of how the administration manipulated the press to out a CIA agent and silence a critic to the work of many bloggers to chronicle the connections between color-coded threat Homeland Security threat warnings and drops in Bush's poll numbers, the notion that this administration has dramatically blurred the line between fear and politics is not new. Fear-mongering has lead to Americans losing our civil liberties, the constitutional authority of the legislature and the judiciary to check the executive being circumvented, and a disturbing privileging of the concerns of right-wing ideologues over the voices of advocates of traditional American liberalism.

Yet despite Conason writing about what to many blog readers will seem as a sensible or even already-known description of America's drift towards authoritarianism under the Bush administration, It Can Happen Here succeeds at conveying a narrative of the last six years of American history that gets past the media's whitewashing of Bush's radicalism and shows us how perilously close we are to arriving at a point where America is no longer recognizable as the liberal democracy that we have long known.

[Edit: I received an email from Conason who was critical of my contention that It Can Happen Here doesn't inform readers of many new pieces of information about the Bush administration. I think he's right; I overstated my case. The extent to which many of the major events of the last six years - NSA surveillance, torture, the suspension of habeas corpus, and the outing of Valerie Plame - play into the narrative arc Conason has constructed does not diminish the great lengths Conason goes into explaining the details of neoconservative ideology that lead Bush and his administration down the path of authoritarianism. Conason spent a great deal of time providing readers with what is likely new information about people like Leo Strauss and Michael Ledeen and the ideological genealogy of the neoconservative movement. It and many other segments like it were new. The fact that they fit so closely into the story that Conason is telling his readers about the Bush administration as to be missed in my review shows the strength Conason's description of events.]

The scale of the Bush administration's totalitarian turn has meant that we are quite regularly hit with news about the scale of newly revealed secret programs to monitor who Americans talk to, what Americans spend their money on, and even what books American are borrowing from our local libraries. News of new places around the world where the American government and its surrogates are detaining, torturing, and even murdering people that this president even suspects might be terrorists is disturbingly commonplace. Objections to these revelations are always met with complaints from the right that Bush's critics are soft on terror or emboldening the enemy, thus no oversight from either Congress or the press really takes place.

In effect the critiques that arise from each round of revelations about the Bush administration's radicalism are leveled-down to the point where they are ignored. To use another philosophical term, we've always-already known that Bush is taking America in an ostensibly authoritarian direction in the fight against terrorism. The attitude of the press and the co-equal branches of government seems to be that we don't need to delve much further into it because hey, we're at war and what else would you want Bush to do? The new levels of secrecy and militarism that Bush continues to reach are never news in the sense that it's what we have signed up for in the war on terror.

Conason's book, as a coherent narrative addressing the rise of authoritarianism under Bush, presents all of Bush's violations in clear order. There is no opportunity for Beltway elites to tell us that Conason's case is nothing new; there is no moment for Republican yes-men to come on TV to tell us we're unpatriotic to question the necessity of Bush's extremism. We are left with two hundred pages of old news as revelation. Revealed is the consistency of Bush's authoritarian inclinations in both ideology and action. The clarity of Conason's understanding of what has occurred over the last six years tells us how close America stands to the precipice of totalitarianism that Sinclair Lewis feared we might some day approach.

I doubt regular readers of blogs will learn of many facts about what the Bush administration has done over the past six years by reading It Can Happen Here. But Conason has presented a history of the Bush presidency that is not mitigated by apologism, the questioning of patriotism, and general unwillingness to place the radical actions of Bush within a context larger than that week's headline news. By taking a broader view, Conason is able to draw the much-needed conclusion that all of Bush's violations of America's trust have the common thread of authoritarianism. This is not to say that we are now living under an authoritarian government, but that America is not immune to the creep of radicalism into the executive branch.

Conason closes his book, "Yes, it can happen here. Whether it ever will depends on our determination to defend our rights, our liberties, and our democratic inheritance, not only for ourselves but for generations to come." I would add that our willingness to confront the sad, scary realities of what the actions of our government say about our current state of freedom, as Conason has done in this book, will also determine whether or not authoritarianism does happen here.

Cross posted at My Left Nutmeg.

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