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Trump and the History of "Militant Democracy" in the US


At the n+1 website, Udi Greenberg details the largely unacknowledged history of “militant democracy” in the US. This phrase, first used by political theorist Karl Loewenstein in 1935, describes a governance philosophy in which democratic norms—such as freedom of speech and due process of law—are suspended in order to save democracy. As Greenberg explains, this approach was influential within the US government during WWII, when Japanese Americans—and, less famously, thousands of Latin American citizens—were held in “preventative detention” camps in the US. Militant democracy is seeing a revival under Trump, in his appalling treatment of immigrant families and his penchant for detention camps. Here’s an excerpt from Greenberg’s piece:

This logic had a lineage and a name: “militant democracy,” a term first coined in 1935 by the political theorist Karl Loewenstein. A German-Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Loewenstein arrived in the United States convinced that totalitarian and democratic regimes could not coexist. It was the nature of fascists and communists, he wrote in widely read academic essays, to infiltrate democratic regimes, exploit their freedoms of the press and speech, and destroy them from within. Long before the first shots of World War II were fired, Loewenstein claimed that an existential struggle between democracy and its enemies was already engulfing the entire globe. To win, democracies had to reform themselves. They had to become “militant.”

The heart of militant democracy was the suspension of laws and rights. Because totalitarianism operated especially through subversion, Loewenstein wrote, democrats had to get over their “legalistic blindness” and recognize that “the mechanism of democracy is the Trojan horse by which the enemy enters the city.” Governments had to move aggressively to limit rights—preemptively—to those deemed dangerous. Freedom of movement, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion would all be suspended, and the crackdown enforced through the creation of new, anti-totalitarian secret police forces. For Loewenstein, loyalty to the state preceded any discussion of rights. Anyone who questioned political norms found themselves outside the sphere of the law. “Fire should be fought with fire,” he wrote in 1935.

Image: A sign from a recent rally in Los Angeles. Via The Guardian.