Imagine this situation: Your country has had a military setback in a war that was supposed to be over after a few months of "shock and awe." Because of that war, it has lost the goodwill and prestige of much of the international community.
The national debt has grown to staggering size. Citizens complain bitterly about the government, especially the legislative branch, for being a bunch of do-nothings working solely for themselves or for special interest groups. In fact, the political scene has pretty much lost its center -- moderates are attacked by all sides as the political discourse becomes a clamor of increasingly extreme positions.
It seems there are election campaigns going on all the time, and they are increasingly vicious. The politicians just want to argue about moral issues -- sexuality, decadent art, the crumbling family and the like -- while pragmatic matters of governance seem neglected.
Sound familiar? That society was Germany of the 1920s -- the ill-fated Weimar Republic. But it also describes more and more the political climate in America today.
Germans were worried about the future of their country. They suffered from all sorts of terror, as assassinations, coup attempts and crime pulled their society apart. The left blamed the right; the right blamed the left, and the political center simply dried up.
To get themselves out of the mess, Germans might have demanded government that carefully mended fences with its allies and enemies; one that judiciously hammered out compromises among the various political parties and sought the middle path.
But we know that didn't happen. In Germany of the 1920s, as now in 21st-century America, appeals to reason and prudence were no way to get votes in times of crisis. Much more effective were appeals to the anger and fear of the German people. A politician could attract more votes by criticizing the government than by praising it, and a vicious negative campaign was usually more effective than a clean one. One of the problems of democracy is that voters aren't always rational, and appeals like these could be very effective.
As usually happens in times of distress, the Germans became a people for whom resolve was valued more highly than prudence, daring more than caution, and righteousness more than discretion. In many ways, they were a people not so different from today's Americans.
What was needed, the Germans thought, was a strong leader -- someone who would put an end to politics as usual; most of all, someone who could unite all the divisions in Germany and dispel the clamor. They found that leader in Adolf Hitler, and for a time, most Germans were glad they did.
Of course, America is not 1920s Germany, and we are certainly not on the verge of a fascist state. But neither have we experienced the deep crises the Germans faced. The setbacks of the Iraq/Afghan war are a far cry from the devastating loss of the First World War; we are not considered the scourge of the international community, and we don't need wheelbarrows full of money to buy a loaf of bread. But even in these relatively secure times, we have shown an alarming willingness to choose headstrong leadership over thoughtful leadership, to value security over liberty; to accept compromises to constitutional principles, and to defy the opinion of the rest of the world.
How would we react if things got worse? If we were to lose the war in Iraq, leaving a fundamentalist regime in place; if we endured several more major terrorist attacks; if the economy collapsed; if fuel prices reached $7 per gallon -- would we cling even more fiercely to our democratic ideals? Or would we instead demand greater surveillance, more secret prisons, more arrests for "conspiracies" that amount to little more than daydreams, and more quashing of dissent?
Our history suggests the latter. We Americans have had our flights from democracy -- the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, the Red Scare and the McCarthy era, Watergate -- but we have always pulled back from the brink and returned to normal.
The time is coming for us to pull back from the brink again. This must happen before the government gets so strong that it can completely demonize opposition, gain complete control of the media, and develop dossiers on all its citizens. By then it will be too late, and we'll have ourselves to blame.
Brian E. Fogarty, a sociology professor at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, is the author of "War, Peace, and the Social Order."
© 2006 Star Tribune