It Can't Happen Here: Editorial Makes Historical Case Against Slide into Dictatorship

In a July 3 editoral for the Wall Street Journal entitled "What the Snowden Acolytes Won't Tell You," authorMax Boot counters fears of the National Security Agency by making the historical argument that a dictatorship that emerges slowly "would be an event without historical precedent."

Boot's piece is a response to an article by Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, who wrote a piece in June for The Guardian entitled "Edward Snowden: saving us from the United Stasi of America." Ellsberg said:

Obviously, the United States is not now a police state. But given the extent of this invasion of people's privacy, we do have the full electronic and legislative infrastructure of such a state. If, for instance, there was now a war that led to a large-scale anti-war movement – like the one we had against the war in Vietnam – or, more likely, if we suffered one more attack on the scale of 9/11, I fear for our democracy. These powers are extremely dangerous.

Boot rejects the idea that the United States would drift into Ellsberg's nightmare scenario on historical grounds. Boot writes:

The assumption behind arguments like Mr. Ellsberg's is that a liberal democracy can slowly turn, as freedom is gradually infringed, into a fascist or communist dictatorship. But while there are a few examples of democracy giving way to dictatorship, it seldom happens gradually—and it never happens in a democracy as stable and secure as that of the United States.

Boot goes on to give a long list of dictators from from Lenin to Mao to Tito to Assad who all seized power from weak regimes, not long-standing democracies like the United States.

Not one of them became the lawful head of a democratically elected government and then proceeded by degrees over years to establish an autocracy. All of them seized power in revolutions or coups and immediately began abridging civil liberties and repressing rivals and critics to establish their rule. Their intelligence services, it should be noted, did not limit their activities to conducting surveillance of the population—they also imprisoned or killed dissidents.

Boot goes on to point out the history of the handful of dictators who began their rise to power throough elections--men like Hilter, Mussolini and Robert Mugabe--before concluding their countries were "susceptible to subversion from the top because the country had no history of liberal democratic institutions" and stating:

The same might be said of such countries as Russia and Venezuela, which in the past decade have seen the rise of authoritarian rulers who took power via the ballot box. They also have little experience of democracy in action, in Russia's case amounting to less than a decade of its entire history. Ironically Mr. Snowden at last report was still in Russia—and Venezuela is reportedly among the few countries seriously considering granting him asylum.

Perhaps it is possible, as Mr. Snowden and his supporters allege, that a dictatorship could emerge by degrees in one of the oldest and best-established democracies in the world. But if such a thing were to happen in the U.S., it would be an event without historical precedent.

Bonus for conspirocy theorists: Boot is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.


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