How Democracy Dies: Austria 1933, USA 2017

In case you were asleep that day in high school when you covered events leading up to World War II, pay attention now. In 1933, hit hard by the worldwide depression, the young republic in Austria suffered a fatal blow through the carelessness of its legislative leaders.   The main parties in Parliament were very evenly divided that year. In fact, the voting on certain bills was so close that the Speaker (who by law could not vote) stepped down from that position, so he could vote with his party and tip the balance on an important issue of the day. This prompted the two deputy speakers to resign their posts as well, so they could also vote and tip the balance in turn. That left Parliament without anyone to lead the sessions, and no rules on what was supposed to happen in a case like this.  Consequently the session couldn’t close, and the parties were in such a snit they couldn’t agree on what to do next.

That left room for a guy named Dollfuss, the Chancellor of Austria, to announce that the Parliament had, in effect, shut itself down. His word for it was die Ausschaltung—the “self-deactivation.” He said “They pushed the off button, but I’m here, so don’t worry.”  He got the police to block the doors of Parliament when the members tried to reconvene, and it was as simple as that: the end of democracy in Austria until 1945. Dollfuss became a Mussolini-style dictator, and was assassinated by a group of Nazis a year later, paving the way for Hitler to annex the the whole country a few years after that.

Our country is also evenly divided in Congress, reflecting the divisions in the nation at large.  We’ve got the Democrats walking out of committee meetings, Republicans refusing to consider Supreme Court nominees, a tie vote on a nomination to the Cabinet, talk of secession in California, accusations, recriminations, and prognostications all served up with  huge helping of mediocrity and mendacity.   It doesn’t get much worse.

But it could.   It sometimes seems as though the old idea of give-and-take is a forgotten art, and yet it’s central to what politics is all about.   I’m talking to both parties here.   Could we have more cooperation, please!     There are always Dollfusses waiting in the wings, waiting for any excuse to grab more power.

Watch out.

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