When What We Know Just Ain’t So

A recent research report from Journalists’ Resources examined whether regulations intended to protect the environment cost jobs. The belief that such regulatory activity has a negative effect on employment has been an article of faith among conservative Republicans, yet research on the issue fails to confirm that faith– there is little evidence that environmental regulations substantially impact overall employment figures.

I thought of that report, and a number of other areas where reality fails to confirm our firm expectations, when I read a post to an academic listserv in which I participate. The article of faith that Kim Lane Scheppele–an eminent comparative constitutionalist– called into question in that post is a critically important one: the belief that American democracy cannot be subverted.

Scheppele cited the work of a Columbia professor who had watched Turkey fall under the control of a populist autocrat who won democratic elections–and who sees dangerous parallels to Trump and the U.S.

Confidence in the exceptional resilience of American democracy is particularly misplaced in the face of today’s illiberal populist movements, whose leaders are constantly learning from each other. Trump has a wide variety of tried and tested techniques on which to draw; already, he has vowed to take pages out of Putin’s playbook.

Scheppele had just come back from Chile, where she had lectured on the advance of illiberal constitutionalism around the world.

People there asked me how Trump could have been elected in the US, and I showed them this data: Nearly one quarter of young Americans no longer believe in democracy and since 9/11, faith in the way America is governed has plunged to all-time lows (raised slightly in election years when Obama was elected, but then plunging back again).

These are danger signals that should have alerted us earlier to the possibilities of Trump. I might add that very similar danger signals appeared before the election of other populist autocrats of both left and right: Putin, Erdogan, Orbán, Kaczynski, Correa, Chavez.

There’s a clear pattern here. First people lose faith in the system. Then they vote to break it. And when the new leader decides to trash constitutional institutions, he is cheered on by those who want change at any price. When people wake up to the damage done, it is too late because their constitutional system has been captured.

Scheppele is particularly concerned because in our interconnected world, these autocrats learn from each other.

I am admittedly among the number of Americans who have always had a false sense of security: it can’t happen here. But as we have seen, that article of faith–that particular element of our belief in American exceptionalism– has proved to be fragile in other countries that had seemingly stable democratic institutions.

Just last weekend, the New York Times ran an article about the “alt-right” (our homegrown Nazis) and its ideal of leadership.

As the founder of the Traditionalist Worker Party, an American group that aims to preserve the privileged place of whiteness in Western civilization and fight “anti-Christian degeneracy,” Matthew Heimbach knows whom he envisions as the ideal ruler: the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin.

Russia is our biggest inspiration,” Mr. Heimbach said. “I see President Putin as the leader of the free world.”

Despite our belief that America is somehow different, we are not exempt from the white nationalist fervor that is sweeping large sections of the globe. If we want to emerge from this very dangerous period of time with something resembling an actual constitutional democracy and the rule of law, we will need a determined and informed resistance.


  1. I am never going to use the term “alt-right.” They are white supremacists and nothing less.

  2. Let us consider an unmentioned cause of our impending failure — the exact form of government we have always been so proud of: the republican form.
    Many governments set up with no monarchy have failed, but fewer, many fewer, parliamentary governments have.
    And, as I’ve mentioned many times, England has the longest lasting and most flexible form of government in the world because it ‘evolved’ :: it was not planned and then written down.
    (See events beginning in 1688 ff.)|
    As we are witnessing now, our republic is in danger of falling. The seeds of this were set in motion on the evening of January 20, 2009 in a restaurant in Washington, D.C. hosted by the Republican leadership. Governments with separation of powers and three branches of government can too often teeter, and we are all of a sudden past the teetering — and are now finding ourselves tottering.

  3. The republicans in congress have spent the last 8 years demonstrating that the system is broken. The fact that they broke it seems to be forgotten. I think visible resistance and loud voices speaking truth are the only ways to reverse this near coup.

  4. It’s a revival of the Nazi playbook and there are many opportunists that believe they can benefit from the divide and conquer strategy – including one we know all too well.

    We can’t let it happen.

  5. The infamous Alt-Right personage from the 1960’s, Charles Manson, was correct in one of his personal philosophies. He often stated, “Man is raping the earth.”; this issue has escalated since the 1960’s when the Flower Children tried to spread this word but got sidetracked by drugs and sex. We are now facing the distinct probability of Trump being inaugurated and taking the lack of environmental protection to the outer limits of acceptance. Trump and Manson share one belief and desire; they both want to see a race war in this country and may get their wish with Trump’s strong desires in that direction as the environment continues to be destroyed by greed and laziness.

    “Despite our belief that America is somehow different, we are not exempt from the white nationalist fervor that is sweeping large sections of the globe. If we want to emerge from this very dangerous period of time with something resembling an actual constitutional democracy and the rule of law, we will need a determined and informed resistance.”

    I can’t remember if I made this comment on Sheila’s blog or another site I follow but, that “determined and informed resistance” she refers to consists of our weakened Democratic party and supporters who must seek the support of the weakened Republican elected officials in Congress in hopes they will stand up to be counted when Trump’s appointees come up for acceptance of denial and vote them DOWN. So far, they have only been concerned with maintaining their personal positions and the support of the GOP. This undeniable fact leaves us with little hope for maintaining/regaining “an actual constitutional democracy and the rule of law” in OUR country.

    Picture those three monkeys, “Hear no evil” with ears covered, “See no evil” with eyes covered and “Speak no evil” with Trump’s mouth never stopping his spread of hatred, racism and bigotry with full support of the GOP and the Koch brothers.

  6. “And when the new leader decides to trash constitutional institutions, he is cheered on by those who want change at any price. When people wake up to the damage done, it is too late because their constitutional system has been captured.”

    This has already taken place with the election of Trump. Now it is just a matter of how long it will take for those who elected him to recognize what they have done. Power has been completely turned over to an autocrat.

  7. This blog and the previous one remind me of a memorable line from one of the Star Wars films, when the Senate of the Republic votes enthusiastically to install Senator Palpatine as the Emperor (I may not have the line exactly correct, but the meaning is clear): Padme says “So this is how freedom dies–to thunderous applause”.

  8. Nancy,

    “Now it is just a matter of how long it will take for those who elected him to recognize what they have done”

    The challenge is for US to do that before January 20th. THEY are unable to see it.

  9. “First the people lose faith in the system”. No, first those elected to positions of power decide to immorally use that power to get and keep more power. Gerrymandering, bribery through campaign fundraising and lobbying, corruption, abandonment of ethics… it is all normalized. The meek see this, feel the sting of economic repression, the loss of their power to self govern, and after years of attempts at voting for better, they just give up… but seethe with resentment against all who they are led to believe are responsible. Vola! Trump!

  10. It’s a political game, very much like football. One side has a playbook, the so-called leaders of the other side has been thinking that they can play with out one. Can you imagine a football team with that kind of a phlosophy.

    Back in 1980, my best friend and I, formed Victory Sports Management. In a few months, the greatest defender in NFL history asked if he could be the third partner. The reason he joined was that he knew I had the winning PLAYBOOK and because of that he confided, “one day you will beat the owners.”

    I miscalculated, I didn’t realize the game would last for over 35 years.

  11. “So this is how freedom dies–to thunderous applause”.

    David; this quote is on target! For some reason it reminded me of the final line in “Soylent Green”; “It’s people, Soylent Green is people!”. Trump & Co. will certainly feed on the American people once he is inaugurated; his denial of Climate Change and Global Warming and support of anti-environmental protection will put us on the road to conditions in the “Soylent Green” world. Jules Verne and H.G. Welles were science fiction writers during their time and many of their fictions are now facts. And we are definitely moving into a”Back To The Future” world of the past century in too many ways. Better we watch and learn from the movie, “Inherit The Wind” to be reminded of what we are losing and what we could gain by admitting, “When What We Know Just Ain’t So”.

  12. Seems to me like a “vast right-winged conspiracy.” What do we do? We steal their playbook. Start local and spread from there.

  13. “First people lose faith in the system. Then they vote to break it. And when the new leader decides to trash constitutional institutions, he is cheered on by those who want change at any price. When people wake up to the damage done, it is too late because their constitutional system has been captured.”
    When you’ve hit retirement years, but can’t retire, and you read words like this… you have nothing tangible left to lose, and you’re only choice is to fight.
    To paraphrase Ms Sheila Heisenberg: I am the “determined and informed resistance”.

  14. Peggy,

    You don’t steal their playbook. They are using a NAZI PLAYBOOK. That won’t do us any good. We have to use an ANTI-NAZI PLAYBOOK. Fortunately, it’s all there in German history from the Nazi era.

  15. Marv,

    I hope you have better luck than I have had. The people I am surrounded by have been drinking the GOP koolaid for so many years that they refuse to see what is happening and get VERY angry at anyone with a different point of view. And yes, I am surrounded by uneducated white supremacists.

  16. Athenian democracy only lasted 169 years before the fights among the Greek city-states made them easy prey for advancing Roman legions, but not all such “legions” from without are necessary for the downfall of governments, whatever their form. Most fall from within, and we are no exception to the rule. All the great civilizations have fallen either from within or without or by their combination over time, and with our 240-year old democracy and given our present political environment it is indeed possible (with a little “without” help from Putin combined with the help of some “within” people such as Trump) that our time is either up or fast approaching. To greedhogs such as Trump and the Kochs and Wall Street everything is for sale, including our democracy. Nothing is sacred in their world no matter how much blood was shed by patriots to achieve and defend democracy. We are mere ATM machines and they are our bankers.

    Given such a take, it may surprise readers to find that I do not blame the Republican Party for initiating this political race to the bottom and perhaps oblivion, though I do blame the party’s political leaders for allowing it to happen. I instead blame the libertarian nihilist element that has taken over such a party of (at one time) ordinary conservatives, nihilists such as the Kochs, the Trumps, the Midases of Wall Street, and others who value profits over country, democracy or any other positive indicia of a free people who enjoy the blessings of self-government.

    The idea that “It can’t happen here” is an illusion; history tells us that it will happen here and that the only question is when. Those of us who value democracy over the myopic gathering of those who worship money and power for its own sake have some serious work to do if we are to retain at least some semblance of a system of democratic values, starting with a sturdy resistance to Trump and his appointments of oligarchs and ideologues to govern us. We are not ATM machines; we are citizens and are not without means to insure that democracy will prevail in our day and time, starting with the obvious – the impeachment of Trump, the self-appointed libertarian bully who is oblivious to the wants and needs of America in pursuit of his own, and then go from there in asserting our rights as a free people in a democratic society. Nothing is more important to our lives and those who follow us, so let’s get on with it.

  17. Marv,

    I’m not suggesting we adopt their philosopies, only that we adopt their methodologies. They took over local and state governments first, putting themselves in the perfect position, through gerrymandering, to take over the Congress. Taking over Congress gave them leave to “investigate” everything, keeping Hillary’s negatives high. If progressives can take state houses in 2018 and 2020, we can begin the reversal of thirty years of right-winged dominance of our political landscape.

  18. Marv,

    You’ve been comparing what has been going on in this country for years to what happened with Hitler and many of us on this blog recognize your knowledge to be able to see the comparison. My question for you is – how long did it take the Germans and Austrians to come back to reality? I know that the wall between East and West Germany was not destroyed until 1992, but what was the process to come back to reality and how long did it take? The WWII era was before my time and as I have stated before, I did not have adequate history teachers in school. Or maybe what happened during WWII just hadn’t really made it into the history books yet.

  19. Nancy,

    “Marv, I hope you have better luck than I have had. And yes, I am surrounded by uneducated white supremacists.”

    Not surprisingly, many of those in the opposition are educated and have the ability to do more than read and write. Those folks have to be our focus. I believe there are enough of them to make a significant difference. They have the ability to understand that this problem is much DEEPER than just partisan politics. It’s ALSO their future that is at stake.

    Rhetoric is not enough. They must see it with their own eyes.

  20. Gerald,

    The problem with Trump being impeached is that Pence then moves up and I don’t believe he would be any better for this country. Just look at what he did to Indiana. He was not going to be re-elected here and he knew it. He had nothing to lose by joining Trump. It is still unbelievable to me that he managed to move into even more power. The entire country would have been better off if he would have had a chance for re-election in Indiana. We could have continued to take the “hits” without endangering the rest of the country, but who knew that this could ever happen?

  21. Nancy – After Pence comes Ryan, and all are admittedly bad in the line of succession, but bad as he is, I don’t think anyone could be as bad as Trump. Furthermore, Pence would not be able to control the media like Trump does and would thus be more vulnerable to attack. Ryan for President! (Temporarily).

  22. Nancy,

    “My question for you is – how long did it take the Germans and Austrians to come back to reality?”

    Only after they lost everything.

    “Or maybe what happened during WWII just hadn’t really made it into the history books yet.”

    Many Europeans know the history of RESISTANCE during WWII. It’s been systematically kept under cover here in the U.S.

    This is from Noam Chomsky the author of “The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism” pp. xvi-xvii:

    “The history of the suppressed monograph is an authentic instance of private censorship of ideas per se. The uniqueness of the episode [the problem of finding an editor for his book] lies only in the manner of suppression. Usually private intervention in the book market is anticipatory, with regrets that the manuscript is unacceptable, perhaps “unmarketable”. Sometimes the latter contention is only an excuse for unwillingness to market, although it may sometimes reflect an accurate assessment of how the media and journals will receive books that are STRONGLY CRITICAL OF THE ESTABLISHED ORDER. With rare exceptions (e.g. C. Wright Mills’ “Power Elite” or Seymour Hersh’s books on the My Lai massacre and cover up), such works are ignored and allowed to fall still-born from the press, or if reviewed, are dismissed with contempt. In the case of the first edition of this work, events showed that there was an international market, even if the parent corporation was able to prevent a test of the domestic market. But the details of the publication history shows that the suppression was strictly a function of the CONTENTS OF THE MONOGRAPH, not of potential profitability.”

    Chomsky’s book was finally published by a small publisher for progressive authors, South End Press in Boston.

    This took place in the late 70’s. Things have probaby improved somewhat, but on the other hand, things are much worse.

  23. In late 1992, we self-published “Democracide: The Far Right’s Path to Power.” http://www.Democracide.info. Within months, the author John Grisham, a personal friend of the Bush family, was preparing a response through his new book, [the 7th largest selling book world-wide of the 90’s] whose main character was Marvin Kramer who has his law offices bombed by the Klan, and in addition the book includes coded messages letting me know that if I went any further I would receive the same treatment as the character in the book. See http://www.KillingtheMessenger. info where I decode the messages.

    By the way, I’ve gone a lot further.

  24. Marv; I have saved both documents to my Favorite Places, need to get a new ink cartridge to print them out. I do want to read them in full and study the content.

    I am reading literature from SPLC with different eyes due to your repeated references to them; am now seeing the LACK of action against anti-Semitism…other than naming neo-Nazi organizations and those who are openly anti-Semitic in comments and action. Thank you

  25. Found this tidbit today:

    My wife (of the author) told me I messed a great program yesterday, where the German press blasted the American press for doing not only a lousy job of reporting during the General Election season, but actually what seemed like deliberately letting the Republicans lead them around like they were obedient dogs on a leash.

    She was in the States for a while earlier this year, and saw it for herself, but never thought they’d be SO complicit in favoring one party over the either during the general election. The German program said the American press neglected facts, repeated innuendo without verification, and generally ignored substance in favor of sensation, whether backed up by facts or not–in short, they all became either greater or lesser versions of Fox “News.”

    Not that the current American parody that passes for journalism will care, but outside of the USA, they are fooling nobody, and the Germans definitely have them pegged.

  26. ‘When what we know just ain’t so’, consider that we’re innately comforted by a self-segregation of viewpoints, mindsets, and observations, and even more so, we’re comforted by belonging to a group that tells us ‘what we know is, in fact, so.’ A group reinforces our viewpoints so well that an impenetrable firewall effectively blocks all conflicting thoughts and opinions. Thus, we become the owners of the happy truth.

    But, Sun Tzu (or so he’s attributed) offered some wise words, “Keep your friends close and keep your enemies closer.”

    In thinking of the happy truth, the unhappy truth, and enemies, I checked Pravda this morning for its version of the truth as expressed in an opinion piece.

  27. The problem isn’t just control at the top. The GOP controls 68 of 99 state legislative chambers and 33 governorships. State Democratic Party organizations have to give their local voters a reason to change sides. Since, for the time being, the voters who supported the petty tyrant, or who at least didn’t support Clinton, don’t appear to understand or believe that GOP behavior over the past 16 years is the source of their discouragement and anger, they’ll have to be convinced with more than a negative (even if truthful) campaign. We’ll need to operate as if every district is competitive, no matter how grotesquely gerrymandered it may be (and that cuts in both directions; we have to retain the seats we hold). We’ll also need to find new people willing to run for office; the last 4 elections have seen rising Democratic leadership cut off at the knees. We have no one moving up through the state ranks, and the usual candidates have been rejected as “part of the problem” even if they were orders of magnitude more competent than their GOP opponents (Evan, I’m looking at you). We also have to start now. Yesterday even.

    But yes, we’re already in the grip of an authoritarian government-elect, and this makes things much more difficult at every level. You can already see the tools of authoritarian control at work, especially the weaponization of cognitive dissonance by the petty tyrant and his spokespersons. Before we can recover enough to organize and take action on one thing he’s done, we’re reeling in disbelief from the next outrageous decision.

  28. While cleaning bookshelves recently I found softbound copies of three booklets published by the government; no idea where or why I got them except for a stamp on the back of “The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America”. The stamp states, “RESPECTFULLY, ANDY JACOBS, M.C.”

    There are also books titled “How Our Laws Are Made” and “OUR AMERICAN GOVERNMENT, What is it? How does It Function? 150 Questions and Answers” The upper right corner of the cover states “House Document No. 96-351”. On a cover page is stated “Concurrent Resolution” Resolved by the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring) That there be printed as a House document a revised edition of “Our American Government”, revised under the direction of the Committee on House Administration.”

    “Sec. 2. In addition to the usual number of copies, there shall be printed five hundred and fifty-six thousand additional copies, of which four hundred and fifty-three thousand copies shall be for the House of Representatives, and one hundred and three thousand copies shall be for the use of the Senate. (1981 Edition)”

    The term “revised” peaked my curiosity; is “Our American Government” a booklet printed regularly/periodically by the House? I know this is a lot of extraneous information but..Sheila, what would this booklet be used for and who would the “usual number of copies” be distributed to? Would this be used or useful in Civics classes in schools or is this to be distributed possibly by candidates for House and Senate offices, or for some other use? Why would the House and Senate need a book of 150 questions regarding government functions? As this is a “revised edition” is there any way to find earlier and/or possibly later versions? Does this fit into today’s topic, “When What We Know Just Ain’t So” and what changes have been wrought since 1980? The questions appear to be very basic but some answers are quite involved and possibly legal knowledge would be needed or at least helpful. Answers regarding the Electoral College seem confusing and contradictory…probably my lack of understanding. I was hoping for answers and clarification but didn’t find it – or didn’t understand it.

    Sorry to take up so much space but I decided to skim through this one booklet due to the title of today’s blog but what I thought I knew “just ain’t so”.

  29. I researched the booklet “Our American Government”; got some answers from the most recent on Google, 2000. Same format, different wording, refers to the Parliamentarian of the House of Representatives issues “Our American Government” and every two years issues “House Rules and Manual” and “How Our Laws Are Made”. Parliamentarian is named by Speaker of the House, supposedly without regard to party affiliation. It appears these publications are for use by Senate and House members, not to inform the public. Answered my own question, partially, difficult language to understand. Would still like to see recent versions to know what changes have been made within government. Need a “Civics For Dummies” book.

  30. “Alt-right” is the “politically correct” term for the anti-political-correct advocates fka white supremacists. Irony is lost on them.

  31. “Alt-right” is a ludicrous euphemism for white supremacy…and they are no longer an alternative, they are now the ruling edge of the right wing. Instead, letʻs call them what they actually represent…the “WHITE-Right.”

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