Back when “political correctness” began to be a plague upon our land, I often complained1 about the ridiculous extremes to which it was often carried. When parents received Official Lists of Halloween costumes their kids shouldn’t wear because they might offend somebody, when everybody was inundated with lists of words to avoid for the same reason, and logic was often stretched to the breaking point to justify accusations of sexism or racism, I feared that soon everybody would become afraid to say or do anything. If you try to avoid ever offending anybody, serious discussion becomes impossible, because just about anything you say or do is likely to offend somebody. And if problems (excuse me, issues) are to be resolved, sometimes serious discussion of them is necessary.
That was my immediate concern. But looking beyond that, I had another: What would the backlash be like when people grew tired of constantly bending over backward to avoid offending anybody? I need wonder no more. We’re seeing that backlash now, in our extraordinarily uncivil presidential campaign, not only in the rants of the candidates, but in the blatantly rude posts of their followers and detractors in online fora and letters to editors. More and more of them are openly and flagrantly saying things that most people would have considered unacceptable in polite society even before the era of political correctness run amok. I’m not just talking about rude language and bad manners, but about (for example) overt slandering of whole ethnic groups and serious advocacy of sweeping wholesale actions against them.
All of that is disturbing enough, but far more so is the prospect of where this might lead, if we extrapolate it into the future. The backlash itself is as predictable as anything in the so-called social sciences. Long ago2 I gave a physical analogy for why institutions routinely swing between extremes. Simply summarized, if a society drifts away from a moderate “equilibrium” position, there will be reaction to the drift in the form of social pressure back toward the middle—much as a physical oscillator such as a pendulum or a mass on a spring experiences a “restoring force” toward the middle. The farther either oscillator (physical or social) is from equilibrium, the stronger the restoring force. By the time the system gets back to the “midpoint,” the restoring force is down to zero—but momentum toward the opposite extreme is at its peak. It won’t begin to reverse until it’s moved far enough toward that extreme to build up enough restoring force (or social reaction) to stop and reverse the trend.
And so on.
If my theory holds water, one might take solace from the expectation that if we’re now seeing a swing in one direction, it too will eventually go as far as it can and then start back the other way.
Except sometimes it doesn’t. Pursuing the oscillator analogy, I also mentioned that sometimes the oscillator can be stretched beyond its breaking point and not come back at all. This, too, has happened in human history, in such cases as Hitler and Mussolini. In both cases a country had a large segment of its population seriously disgruntled about the way things were, and therefore susceptible to the wiles of a charismatic demagogue who said things they liked to hear about how he was going to make things better. In each case they gave said demagogue some power, which he used to do things that normally would have raised eyebrows, but they said, “Well, it’s just one little thing, and times are hard . . .” So they let him get away with that, and then another little thing . . .
And in a few years we had Fascist Germany and Italy, which by then were scary enough to draw a lot of other countries into a concerted effort to stop them. We now call it World War II.
Eventually even those countries came back to a sort of normality (indeed, I have greatly enjoyed visits to both in recent years) but the process was hard, decades long, and painful—certainly not just a normal swing of the pendulum. Most people now agree that it would have been better to avoid letting it happen in the first place.
You may object that “it can’t happen here,” but that would be naïve. Sinclair Lewis used that very title for a 1935 novel, because people then were saying the same thing about fears that the “Nazi plague” could spread here. Some, including Lewis, thought it could; supposedly the book was most directly inspired by fears about Huey Long, a Louisiana Senator with presidential aspirations. In Lewis’s story, a populist senator named Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip gets himself elected president by promising radical reforms to restore America’s former glory and good old-fashioned patriotism. What he does, step by insidious step, is frighteningly different but all too believable.
Lewis’s novel (which I read in my student days) is now a chilling thing to read for a couple of reasons. First, if its title was really meant literally and not ironically, to show that “it can’t happen here,” somewhere in its plot—which shows it happening—there ought to be some implausible link in the chain of events. I couldn’t find it.
Second, the story now sounds chillingly similar to current news. Early parts read eerily like descriptions of this year’s presidential campaigns, and Lewis’s “Buzz Windrip” sounds suspiciously like at least one of the candidates.
What people forget when they shrug and say, “It can’t happen here” is that it seldom happens in one fell swoop. Few would have tolerated Hitler or Mussolini if they’d tried to instantly overthrow the status quo at the beginning of their rises to power and do all at once everything they eventually did. They got where they did because they were smart enough to do it in small steps, first making one relatively small change that people decided they could live with, and then another—until all those small steps added up to a frighteningly radical transformation.
We know that sort of thing can happen here. I described several examples in “Acid Raindrops” (Analog, February 1985). I could easily describe several more based on recent events in my own state, such as blatant bigotry against some people being given legislative blessing under the guise of “religious freedom” for others. Many of you probably remember the series of “emergency security” measures that were hastily enacted after 9/11, some of which are still with us, have come to be widely accepted as “normal,” and could, if we’re not careful, serve as stepping stones to still more stringent ones.
I’m not saying that “it” is already happening here, or that it ever will. I don’t even know for sure who the nominees will be (though at this writing, in April, some look almost inevitable), much less what any of them would actually do in office. Even if the one I find scariest is elected, there is no reason to assume that his future actions will continue to parallel scary parts of history or an old novel as closely as those to date. Any curve can be extrapolated in more than one way.
But if you know a trend has already led to bad ends at least twice, is it better to try it again and hope for a different outcome, or to try something else?
I respectfully submit that this would be a good time for any voter to reread some “ancient history,” like the parts of German and Italian history for a decade or so before they gained worldwide notoriety. Even though “past performance does not guarantee future results,” and a given past can lead to widely varying futures, it seems prudent to consider how such things have worked in the past in deciding what you want to encourage in the future. I don’t know what the future will be, but I do know that the parallels are there and a good many of us find them sobering, to say the least.
While you’re reading, I also recommend that anybody contemplating voting in this election reread Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. If you’ve never read it before, read it now. If you don’t want to commit that much time right away, just read Wikipedia’s summary of the plot and see if anything sounds familiar. If you do, and it does, you just might want to go to the original source and actually read It Can’t Happen Here—and recommend it to everybody you know.
It’s always a good idea to go into any political process with a good idea of what danger signs might look like and a keen eye for whether any of them are evident. Even if the candidate who inspired this doesn’t gain the power he’d like, that doesn’t mean that my writing this, and your reading it, was a waste of time. We could all use a periodic reminder that, as many people3 have said, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”
So in this election, at least as much as in any other and arguably more than most, it’s essential that we all keep a close eye on what’s happening, keep in mind what has happened in the past, and watch out for what can happen in the future. If you read this and think about what it says before the election, you have a chance of recognizing and avoiding the riskiest possible paths. If the election is already over, regardless of who won, keep watching. Remember that our leaders are supposed to be working for us, and none of them (or us) is immune to corruption. If we see them leading us down a dangerous path, it’s up to us to do what we can to keep them on track.
After all, the more of us who believe that “it can’t happen here,” the greater the danger that it will.
1. See, for example, “The Age of the Pussyfoot,” Analog, July 1994.
2. “Pendulums,” Analog, September 1985.
3. Arguments over exactly who said it first can provide hours of entertainment, but its original source matters less than the truth of its content.