Is American democracy at a breaking point?

Amidst a backdrop of protests, the pandemic, and presidential politics, historian Anne Berg shares her thoughts on whether American democracy is at risk, historical parallels to the current situation, and what ordinary people can do.

Statue of Liberty in shadow in New York Harbor as the sun sets behind
Can American democracy withstand the strains of the pandemic, the summer’s protests and the current election cycle?

Some people think American democracy is under strain—from the economic and health effects of pandemic to the racial tension during this summer’s protests to President Donald Trump’s repeated claims that the Nov. 3 election will be riddled with fraud. Can one of the world’s oldest continuous constitutional democracies withstand these unprecedented times? 

Anne Berg, assistant professor of history, takes the long view on such topics. This fall, she is teaching a course called Origins of Nazism: From Democracy to Race War and Genocide. Her knowledge of the topic is both professional and personal. Trained in German and European history in the United States, Berg was born in Germany and raised in a small village near Frankfurt. Her grandparents were Nazis, sort of; her parents are perhaps best described as left-leaning ’68ers. Her interest in perpetrator history is at least in part informed by her desire to understand how people she experienced as loving and caring—her grandparents—nonetheless found entrance into a genocidal regime.

Penn Today asked Berg to take a historical look at America’s political landscape and share her thoughts on whether American democracy is at risk, historical parallels to the current situation, and what ordinary people can do.

Is American democracy at risk, and if so, why do you think it is?

I think American democracy is already under siege. In my view, the developments that we’ve seen over the last several years, and particularly over the course of this year, represent a full-on descent into what you could call quiet authoritarianism. The fact that both the president and the vice president refused to say on national television that they would accept the outcome of this election and how for months, if not years now, they’ve built a narrative that will snap into gear on Nov. 3 that the election has been stolen, that there’s been massive voter fraud.

What Trump said very clearly, was that he will only commit to a peaceful continuation of power. I think if you have a president admit that peace is contingent on him staying in power, it gives you a sense of how far he thinks he can go publicly. What is acceptable to his base gives you a sense of how the general public’s understanding of democracy has shifted. That alone is, to me, a very stark indication of the state of our democracy.

Person sits at desk in front of chalkboard with hands clasped, looking at another person speaking.
Anne Berg listens to student discussions in February 2020, before the pandemic forced classes to move online. (Image: Eric Sucar)

What are some historical parallels to what is happening now in the U.S.?

I want to preface that just because we might see parallel developments, that doesn’t mean the outcomes will be parallel. That’s really important, especially when you make analogies or make comparisons to Nazi Germany. In no way do I think that we are headed toward a holocaustal future. I don’t think that history works that way.

But I do think there are similarities between our contemporary moment and the late Weimar Republic, in terms of the ideological crisis, the economic crisis, the widespread sense that stretches across the political spectrum that democracy doesn’t work, that our institutions are either under attack, corrupted, or they don’t work for ordinary people.

Several years ago, I explained to students that part of the process to ‘kill’ democracy is the erosion of trust in democratic institutions. Once a majority feels that our institutions are corrupt or dysfunctional, there will be no need to defend them. That’s exactly what happened in Weimar Germany. I would argue something similar is afoot in the U.S. right now.

For example, if you can’t get things through the regular democratic process, there is always the bludgeon of the executive order. Admittedly, the mechanism in Weimar Germany was much more dramatic. The president would invoke Article 48, which allowed him to suspend parliament and have the chancellor, in consultation with the president, make all the decisions by granting him emergency powers, suspending civil liberties if that was deemed necessary, and rule by decree. Over the last several years in the Weimar Republic that basically became the order of the day. The electorate was fundamentally divided, the left fragmented, and, ultimately, the more moderate left was more comfortable catering to the political middle and moderate right than to make common cause with their more radical brothers and sisters. We can certainly point to some parallel developments right now.

Democrats are running precisely on this platform, as masses of people take to the streets to protest against systemic racism and policing and for Black lives. In Weimar Germany workers were demanding unemployment benefits and a reorganization of the economy. Pursing deflationary politics, the political establishment cared more about the interests of industry and the market than the lives of ordinary people. And in Weimar the moderate left had been exceedingly complicit until the betrayal was too great that the far left labeled them as social fascists. This has been the conundrum of the moderate left through the 20th century both in the U.S. and in most European countries. That’s why I say the single most important event of the 20th century was the Russian Revolution because it made it seem possible, if not likely, that a different world order might prevail, a world order premised on the to reorganize social relations and the abolition of property.

Socialism thus posed a fundamental, incompatible alternative to a capitalist social organization. Inflammatory rhetoric, racism, and nationalism were part of the Western project, and so, while this might seem extreme, inflammatory positions by the political right don’t fundamentally call into question the underlying organizing principles on which our society rests.

We tend to think that there’s a crisis and then fascism rears its ugly head, but that’s really not the case; it’s how we deal with a crisis that invites fascism onto the stage.

Why is this happening at this time in America? What laid the groundwork for this backsliding in our democracy?

The rhetoric and the escalation of rhetoric has been in place since before Trump was elected. In fact, in the second class that I’m teaching this semester, which is on white nationalism in the age of climate change, we’re tracing the resurgence of white supremacist ideology and rhetoric and how these groups grew in response to the Civil Rights Movement in the context of the Vietnam War and the decades that followed. As civil rights expanded, as Black voices demanded to be heard, there was a dramatic resurgence and an attempt by the establishment to use any means necessary to thwart the advancement of Black people in this country.

Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy’ left no doubt that in his view Black people were the problem, that ‘it’s all about law and order and the damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there.’ So ‘law and order’ became the rhetoric that was used with images of cities burning, of people rioting without showing any of their faces or their skin, it came to be a stand-in for the ‘thugs’ in big the cities. You see the exact same rhetoric being deployed in the context of the George Floyd rebellions we’ve witnessed since the beginning of the summer, and Trump’s quip that ‘bad things happen in Philadelphia.’

None of this is new, and none of this is sudden. We’ve seen a dramatic shift to the right and then a resurgence of right-wing rhetoric, from the aftermath of 9/11 to the growth of the Tea Party movement. This is not Trump’s doing alone. He is clearly enabling it, and he’s facilitating it. But, honestly, I do not think he had the political foresight to imagine, this but he amplifies and exalts white masculine grievance. He didn’t plan the pandemic, but the ways in which this crisis has been mismanaged are really striking. The disregard for human life, for human dignity, the fact that people have been out of work now for months. This is parallel to 1929, for different reasons, but in terms of the gravity of the crisis I do not think that we’ve had anything like this since.

The pandemic has been described by some as a great equalizer. We have heard that COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate, but our system does. The pandemic is as far from an equalizer as the Great Depression was. Both caused a proletarianization of the middle classes and threw millions of working class people into destitute poverty. For white men with ‘traditional’ values, the social decline many have experienced is akin to emasculation. The violent vigilantism—whether intimidating BLM protesters with bats and hammers or plotting to kidnap governors—hasn’t been condemned by the man in the highest office in the land, who instead refers to such acts as attempts to ‘restore order.’

What can ordinary citizens do? 

They can vote, they can strike, and they can take to the streets. And a lot of this might be necessary, but I want to stress the importance of peaceful resistance and not for ideological reasons but for tactical reasons. We have seen it this summer. A few smashed windows, burning police cars, and absconding sneakers mattered more to many pundits and politicians than Black lives. It was Democratic mayors who came after their own citizens with a military arsenal of tanks, teargas, and rubber bullets.

If Trump were to lose, I would hope that the Republicans would ensure that he would vacate the White House, but I’m not certain right now that will happen. 

In 1944 when the German military leadership decided. ‘Oh, maybe we need to get rid of Hitler,’ it was not because all of a sudden they developed a conscience; it was because they realized they were going to be defeated.

We know that things never turn out the way that we plan. It’s not that people in the past didn’t make plans or didn’t have great ideas. It’s just, most of the time, things don’t work out the way that we think they will. History teaches us to ask questions that we would otherwise not ask. Looking back at the past, my students wonder, ‘What they were thinking?’ They didn't see the threat coming from the political right because their eyes were fixed elsewhere. They didn’t take it seriously because they didn’t know what was coming. We, on the other hand, should know better. Yet, to some extent we still don’t. We draw false equivalences between Antifa and white nationalist hate groups and in that we are making some of those same mistakes that people made in the early 1930s.

This is not say that Trump and Hitler are in any way alike; they are not. But the depth of the political crisis we face is perhaps comparable to the depth of the crisis Weimar Germany faced. Depending on how the establishment responds, there is a real threat in my view to democracy being fundamentally lost this year.