America is more open to an authoritarian form of government than Canada – because the American Constitution has never been as awesome as it has been made out to be

I’ve written a preliminary version of the text which follows as a comment at a previous post. I’ve posted it as a separate item in order to bring attention to it.

Vintage Ford on display at auto show, June 18, 2023, Stratford, Ontario. Jaan Pill photo

A Sept. 11, 2023 New York Times opinion article, entitled “The authors of ‘How Democracies Die’ overestimated the Republicans,” is of interest.

1929 Ford Model A Tudor. Rebuilt in Florida 1994 (new engine, etc.). Featured at car show, Stratford, Sept. 3, 2023. Jaan Pill photo

The article makes a point also made by Rob Goodman in Not Here (2023), namely that the American Constitution has some inherent flaws which makes an American-style form of constitutional government readily capable of veering toward autocratic rule.

Goodman notes that in a previous era many Latin American newly independent countries copied the American constitutional model and quickly turned into dictatorships during their early years.

Goodman argues that the Canadian parliamentary system is less amenable to a situation in which an authoritarian leader is able to use the democratic system to subvert democracy and establish authoritarian rule.

Rebuilt 1929 Ford Model A Tudor. Jaan Pill photo

Glib talk of revolution

When I was reading Not Here (2023), it occurred to me that the book was speaking rather glibly about revolution. Glibly, in the sense that some far-left academics and students were speaking about revolution at Simon Fraser University (SFU) over a half-century ago. I’m aware of that era because I was an editor of the student newspaper at SFU in the late 1960s. I was among the editors (dedicated to accurate, balanced reporting) who thwarted the attempt by a particular student faction to ‘democratize’ – that is, take over – the student newspaper, The Peak.

The history of SFU in its early years is outlined in Radical Campus (2005). I was wondering if Rob Goodman was speaking from a far-left perspective (a perspective for which I have no use for reasons outlined elsewhere at this website). However, an Aug. 11, 2023 Globe and Mail article by Goodman underlines that he is speaking from a centre-left vantage point. That is a distinction that matters hugely, in my view. The Globe article that I refer to is entitled “We aren’t as powerless over extremism as we may think.”

Rebuilt 1929 Ford Model A Tudor. Jaan Pill photo

This puts the discussion into a framework that places an observer such as myself more at ease. When we speak of “the left,” it’s good to be specific: do we speak of the far left or the centre-left?

Not Here outlines an argument which posits that Canada is less amenable to dictatorship than the United States. The book also argues that Canada’s formal autonomy was originally gained, through a process of confederation, on the tacit understanding that it was always going to be no more than a middle power in its relationship to the United States.

The Sept. 11, 2023 New York Times opinion article, to which I refer, highlights a recent book by the authors of How Democracies Die. The article notes that Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt were surprised by Jan. 6. Good to know. The book is entitled Tyranny of the Minority. In comments at the end of this post I’ve added details about this recently published study.

At the current post I have, as well, featured photos of Ford cars from a previous era. Good things and bad things are associated with the auto industry.

Detail – Rebuilt 1929 Ford Model A Tudor. Jaan Pill photo

Legacy of Henry Ford

The current post features photos of some vintage Fords. We may note that How Democracies Die outlines some of the political history associated with Henry Ford. As well, an Encyclopedia Britannica entry offers a good overview of what Ford was about in his role as a business innovator – and as a proponent of extreme right-wing political perspectives.

An excerpt reads:

Henry Ford was a complex personality. Away from the shop floor he exhibited a variety of enthusiasms and prejudices and, from time to time, startling ignorance. His dictum that “history is more or less bunk” was widely publicized, as was his deficiency in that field revealed during cross-examination in his million-dollar libel suit against the Chicago Tribune in 1919; a Tribune editorial had called him an “ignorant idealist” because of his opposition to U.S. involvement in World War I, and while the jury found for Ford it awarded him only six cents. One of Ford’s most publicized acts was his chartering of an ocean liner to conduct himself and a party of pacifists to Europe in November 1915 in an attempt to end the war by means of “continuous mediation.” The so-called Peace Ship episode was widely ridiculed. In 1918, with the support of Pres. Woodrow Wilson, Ford ran for a U.S. Senate seat from Michigan. He was narrowly defeated after a campaign of personal attacks by his opponent.

Henry Ford’s story brings to mind Chapter 5, “America First,” by Sarah Churchwell in Myth America (2022). The chapter mentions Henry Ford in passing. The story is also related to the narrative (see below) regarding the history of the oil and gas industry as outlined very capably by John Vaillant in Fire Weather (2023).

Myth America (2022) is a good resource, at this time

Rebuilt 1929 Ford Model A Tudor. Jaan Pill photo

When we speak of the distinction between far left and left, a useful resource is Myth America. In this context I refer to Chapter 8, by Michael Kazin, “American Socialism.”

We can speak, as the chapter does, of democratic socialism which is distinct from the socialism associated with the Soviet Union and similar systems of governance including North Korea and Cuba in the current era.

1938 Ford Deluxe on display at Sept. 3, 2023 auto show in Stratford. Jaan Pill photo

From Left to Right (2022) is a good resource regarding Saskatchewan and Alberta

Another book that comes to mind is From Left to Right (2022) by Dale Eisler. In this case we have a centre-right perspective regarding the political, social, and economic history of Saskatchewan. As I have noted, I find this book of value and interest. It prompts a person to think about the configuration of forces that are at play at any time in history.

1938 Ford Deluxe. Jaan Pill photo

I can add that it’s of interest to note that Eisler argues that the term ‘social democracy’ no longer has any particular meaning, as the only consideration, in his view, that matters is that which is ‘practical.’ That’s one way to look at things. Eisler also argues that the term ‘neoliberalism’ really has no pertinence or usefulness. Again, that is one way to look at things.

1938 Ford Deluxe. Jaan Pill photo

History of neoliberalism (and the related question of the utility of ‘neoliberalism’ as a label)

Regarding the latter topic – I refer to the history of neoliberalism – I am highly impressed with the overview by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway in Chapter 9 of Myth America. The chapter, entitled “The Magic of the Marketplace,” covers ground also very capably covered by John Vaillant in Fire Weather (2023).

In this regard, I am also impressed with an Aug. 29, 2023 Globe and Mail article by Vaillant. The article is entitled “As our forests burn, oil companies are doubling down on their old business models.” Good article.

I close with a comment about The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War (2023). Parts of this book make for a good read – good journalism. That said, there is a far-left aspect to the book’s conclusion that, for reasons I’ve outlined above, does not appeal to me. That’s because I have an awareness of the fact that both far left and far right point toward totalitarianism as I’ve outlined earlier.

George Orwell

To these comments I can add that my understanding of the distinction between far left and left has been appreciably advanced as a result of reading Why Orwell Matters (2002) by Christopher Hitchens.

Hitchens addresses this distinction in Chapter 2, “Orwell and the Left” – and throughout the rest of this fine study as well.

I highly recommend the essay/biography by Hitchens along with other books by and about George Orwell. Resources include:

List of books and other resources about Orwell – Stratford Public Library

List of books and other resources about Orwell at Toronto Public Library

George Orwell, 1903-1950 – Toronto Public Library (a more concise list)

George Orwell – Criticism & Interpretation – Toronto Public Library

Why Orwell Matters (2002)

Wifedom: Mrs. Orwell’s Invisible Life (2023)

Orwell’s Roses (2021)

George Orwell, 1903-1950 – Homes and haunts – Toronto Public Library

George Orwell and Russia (2023)

A Sept. 11, 2023 New Eastern Europe article is entitled: “Orwell’s warning of totalitarianism for today: A review of George Orwell and Russia. By: Masha Karp, published by Bloomsbury Academic.”

An excerpt reads:

Karp’s book, George Orwell and Russia, answers this question. It is published in the context of Vladimir Putin’s full-scale attack on Ukraine, which has made the question on Orwell brutally pertinent. The similarities between today’s Russia and Orwell’s Oceania are overwhelming. Putin’s dictatorship is killing thousands of people and razing cities in a war that cannot be called a war, as it was launched for spurious reasons. As Karp observes, the Russian state is sinister and absurd.

A leading Orwell scholar and a translator of Animal Farm into Russian, Karp points to key figures who influenced the young Eric Blair’s views. They include his mother’s eccentric sister Aunt Nellie, a communist and enthusiast for the international language Esperanto. In 1923, in her early fifties, she met Eugene Lanti, the founder of a global Esperanto association. Its aim was to overthrow the capitalist order. Lanti visited Petrograd full of radical fervour. He was disappointed by what he found: poverty, prostitution, bureaucracy and a Bolshevik ruling class. By the late 1920s he concluded that Moscow was uninterested in a progressive world revolution. It wanted to promote the “national state” interests of Stalin’s dictatorship. The USSR had become a nightmarish “prison”, he told Orwell, who at the time was inclined to believe it represented definitive socialism.

Background on Russia and Ukraine – Toronto Public Library

4 replies
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Further to the Globe and Mail article by John Vaillant, a Sept. 13, 2023 Guardian article underlines the message Vaillant has shared in a series of venues.

    The article is entitled “Earth ‘well outside safe operating space for humanity’, scientists find: First complete ‘scientific health check’ shows most global systems beyond stable range in which modern civilisation emerged.”

    An excerpt reads:

    Prof Simon Lewis, at University College London and not part of the study team, said: “This is a strikingly gloomy update on an already alarming picture. The planet is entering a new and much less stable state – it couldn’t be a more stark warning of the need for deep structural changes to how we treat the environment.”

    “The planetary boundaries concept is a heroic attempt to simplify the world, but it is probably too simplified to be of use in practically managing Earth,” he continued. “For example, the damage and suffering from limiting global heating to 1.6C using pro-development policies and major investments in adapting to climate change would be vastly less than the damage and suffering from limiting warming to 1.5C but doing this using policies that help the wealthy and disregard the poor. But the concept does work as a science-led parable of our times.”

    A related assessment published in May examined planetary boundaries combined with social justice issues and found that six of these eight “Earth system boundaries” had been passed.

  2. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    In this post I refer to Tyranny of the Minority (2023). The book underlines – as does Not Here (2023) – that the American Constitution is outmoded and inimical to the sustenance of democracy.

    A blurb for Tyranny of the Minority reads:

    A call to reform our antiquated political institutions before it’s too late—from the New York Times bestselling authors of How Democracies Die

    America is undergoing a massive experiment: It is moving, in fits and starts, toward a multiracial democracy, something few societies have ever done. But the prospect of change has sparked an authoritarian backlash that threatens the very foundations of our political system. Why is democracy under assault here, and not in other wealthy, diversifying nations? And what can we do to save it?

    With the clarity and brilliance that made their first book, How Democracies Die, a global bestseller, Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt offer a coherent framework for understanding these volatile times. They draw on a wealth of examples—from 1930s France to present-day Thailand—to explain why and how political parties turn against democracy. They then show how our Constitution makes us uniquely vulnerable to attacks from within: It is a pernicious enabler of minority rule, allowing partisan minorities to consistently thwart and even rule over popular majorities. Most modern democracies—from Germany and Sweden to Argentina and New Zealand—have eliminated outdated institutions like elite upper chambers, indirect elections, and lifetime tenure for judges. The United States lags dangerously behind.

    In this revelatory book, Levitsky and Ziblatt issue an urgent call to reform our politics. It’s a daunting task, but we have remade our country before—most notably, after the Civil War and during the Progressive Era. And now we are at a crossroads: America will either become a multiracial democracy or cease to be a democracy at all.

  3. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    A Sept. 12, 2023 Harvard Gazette article is entitled: “‘Tyranny of the Minority’ warns Constitution is dangerously outdated.”

    The subhead reads: “Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt urge institutional reforms, rejection of candidates who violate norms in ‘How Democracies Die’ follow-up.”

    An excerpt reads:

    The U.S. Constitution desperately needs updating, say Harvard government professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.

    “We have a very, very old constitution; in fact, the oldest written constitution in the world,” notes Ziblatt, the Eaton Professor of the Science of Government. “It was written in a pre-democratic era. It hasn’t been amended much compared to other democracies. As a result, we have these institutions in place that most other democracies got rid of over the course of the 20th century.”

    In their new book “Tyranny of the Minority,” the comparative political scientists argue that these antiquated institutions, including the Electoral College, have protected and enabled an increasingly extremist GOP, which keeps moving farther to the right despite losing the popular vote in all but one of the last eight presidential elections. The scholars also survey governments worldwide for examples of democratizing reforms. And they draw from history in underscoring the dangers of our constitutional stasis.

    Levitsky and Ziblatt’s 2018 bestseller, “How Democracies Die,” drew from global case studies to argue that Donald Trump represented a threat to core democratic principles, even flagging the possibility that he would refuse to cede power. Today, in light of the 2020 election — and the 147 Congressional Republicans who voted to overturn the results — the authors say it’s clear the threat is larger than Trump.

  4. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    A further note: George Orwell

    A reference to Orwell by Caroline Elkins in Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire (2022) reads:

    Some of the nation’s intelligentsia offered scathing critiques of this imperial ethos. George Orwell’s were based on his firsthand experiences. As a police officer in Burma from 1922 to 1927, he was, according to one biographer, “responsible for the kicking, flogging, torturing and hanging of men….He saw the dirty work of Empire at close quarters.”[16] When he returned home, Orwell wrote that “the landscapes of Burma… so appalled me as to assume the qualities of a nightmare, [and] afterwards stayed so hauntingly in my mind that I was obliged to write a novel about them to get rid of them.”[17] So he did with his publication of Burmese Days in 1934. Through his semiautobiographical character, James Flory, Orwell ventriloquized his own feelings of guilt as well as his belief in the degenerating capacities of imperialism.


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