In the Feb. 3 issue of The New Yorker, Jill Lepore’s “The Last Time Democracy Almost Died” eloquently addresses the fragility of our system not just in Trump’s America but in past Americas too, like FDR’s New Deal America. It is essential reading for a clear perspective on the rise and fall and rise of fascism around the world.
She writes that the upswing in totalitarian leanings in the years between World War I and II was not limited to Europe, Asia and other locales: “American democracy, too, staggered, weakened by corruption, monopoly, apathy, inequality, political violence, hucksterism, racial injustice, unemployment, even starvation. ‘We do not distrust the future of essential democracy,’ F.D.R. said in his first Inaugural Address, telling Americans that the only thing they had to fear was fear itself. But there was more to be afraid of, including Americans’ own declining faith in self-government.”
Democracy is an “experiment,” we are told. But since 1776 America’s experiment has been threatened from inside and out (underscore inside). Recently, I stumbled on this curious editorial in Bernarr Macfadden’s Liberty magazine (August 1940). A pulp magazine mogul and pioneer, wellness enthusiast and publisher, Mcfadden is just one of the many critics who had the power of his own press. But he had a point: “The trouble with democracy as we maintain it here in this country is the lack of intelligence in the selection of officials,” he wrote. He somewhat predicts the flaws in the electoral college and questions its wisdom. People who “reached a certain status in mental attainments … would be entitled to two votes.” More attainments, more votes. There are other debatable points of interest too. Liberty used to publish the reading lengths of its articles; this one will take you 6.5 minutes. Read it. Not so ironically, the lead story in this issue was a Nazi invasion of America. There have been at least a score of such prophesies in magazines from this time and afterward. Fortunately, it has never happened from the outside, but fifth columns are always at work.
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