Philip Green
11 min readMar 22, 2024


Extremism and Democracy

1. What’s Going On?

That’s easy to say. Polls here, polls there, these states, those states, nothing changes. But let’s look for a starter at where it all began:

“Germany Looks to Stop the Far Right From Assuming Power”

“Mainstream parties are changing laws to protect government institutions. Critics say the changes risk undermining democracy.”

Wow! To grasp the full import of this Times headline and story, one has to be familiar with the German understanding of Naziiism, that tore apart a nation and attempted to destroy an entire people. It is–now–a nation in which it is a crime–a felony, I believe–to express any anti-Semitic sentiment or slogan. The German police regularly infiltrate Right-wing parties or groupings, and make arrests, even warrantless arrests, that would be thrown out of any American courtroom.

So now what? Even in Germany, twice conquered by the worst totalitarianisms, a reckoning is coming. To be sure, Anti-Semitism is a crime, for example; all kinds of organized hatred are banned or smothered, the German equivalent of the FBI infiltrates not only the neo-Nazi AFD (Alternative for Germany), but any similar organization that might get under way. And yet, and yet: with all that, as we began:

“As German Anxieties About Future Rise, Far Right Party Profits”

“With Germans facing an era of political and economic turbulence, the Alternative for Germany is resurgent. Mainstream politicians are struggling to respond.” Indeed, AFD (D for Deutschland) is now the third largest party in parliament, getting 20% of the seats, running strongly in provincial elections.

II. A Look Back

As the far Right–that is the parties of autocracy –rise all over the world, a look back might give us pause.

“Undermining democracy?” Really? The other night on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow gave her listening audience a little quiz, that went roughly as follows (I’ve changed the wording a little due only to faulty memory.):

Q: If it was 1932, and you wanted to be in the world City where Art, Dance, Music, Theater, Comedy, were at their height, most avant-garde and enjoyed by visitors from all over the world, where would you be?

A: Berlin — Germany!

Yes, none of your stodgy 3-Act West End dramas for you; no, you could see , just for starters, The Beggars Opera, music by Kurt Weill, libretto by Bert Brecht…soon, they’ll both be (respectively) in New York City or Hollywood. And what has intervened? Just one election, just one. And what followed?

National Socialists became the largest Party, at 42% in a 1932 election. Given the dubiously democratic Charter of the Weimar Republic, which gave a President (in this case von Hindenburg) with a 7-year term–who was carried to election by a Right-wing coalition the power to appoint the Chancellor (Prime Minister). With the support of industry and business in his hip pocket, Hitler convinced Hindenburg, who had doubts–think Mike Pence–to choose him.

Following the Reichstag Fire and Hitler’s 1933Reichstag Fire Decree, as Wikipedia puts it, “Hitler began eliminating his political opponents. Following its passage, Hitler began arguing for more drastic means to curtail political opposition and proposed the Enabling Act of 1933. Once enacted this law gave the German government the power to override individual rights prescribed by the constitution, and vested the Chancellor (Hitler) with emergency powers to pass and enforce laws without parliamentary oversight. The law came into force in March and by April Hitler held de facto dictatorial powers and used them to order the construction of the first Nazi concentration camp at Dachau for communists…”

Avoiding a second iteration of Hitler is the foundation of German politics ever since the end of the War. 42%–that’s all it took. Concentration camps, the Final Solution: 42%.

Yes: infiltrating the Right Wing becomes a lot harder: what will happen when the infiltrated become the infiltrators, when the “weaponized” DOJ, falsely accused of actions we might wish it had taken, becomes the real thing of weaponization.

The issue raised here is inescapable. What is or should be the legal status of anti-democratic behavior that threatens a repeat of–in this case–Naziism or Fascism?

It is absolutely no use here raising the banner of “free elections”: “let the voters decide.” There are ways of derailing free elections that make it impossible for them to be “free” or “fair.” What then? Anyone who heard Lara Trump’s nation-wide speech about what the Republican Party under her father-in-law would do to make elections “free” and “fair” had to be, I must say, terrified. There has never been a speech like that in American history: I don’t need to be Michael Beschloss to know that.

Put simply, the definitive “institutions” under constant threat of constraint or outlawry are almost always those that engage in dissent, or promote dissent; which just happens to be dissent from “democracy,” including armed dissent. But what does all this mean, practically speaking?-Remembering that we’re not just talking 42%, but more–win or lose? Well…

III. The American Case

In a strange way we’ve been here before. In 1951, at the height of the Cold War, eleven officials of the Communist Part of the USA, led by General Secretary Eugene Dennis (Dennis v. U.S.) were convicted, in a 6–2 decision, of “ conspiring and organizing for the overthrow and destruction of the United States government by force and violence under provisions of the Smith Act of 1940, that made it unlawful “to teach or advocate the violent overthrow of the United States government.”

The two dissenters (Douglas and Black) pointed out that none of the 11 had been convicted of any overt act, of which the Act had not described a single one, but only proscribed mere advocacy; six years later, their argument prevailed and the decision was overturned.

But how had they been convicted in the first place? The decision (written by Chief Justice Vinson) had overturned thirty years of jurisprudence, inspired by Justice Oliver Wendell Homes, that used the “clear and present danger” test (shouting “fire” in a crowded theater) in free speech and advocacy cases.

Instead, the majority turned to an opinion from the Court of Appeals, written by the influential judge, Learned Hand (most of the majority six Supremes were intellectual hacks), who substituted for Holmes’s test the wording, “whether the gravity of the “evil”, discounted by its improbability, justifies such invasion of free speech as necessary to avoid the danger.” In effect, Hand had argued that the CPUSA was so “dangerous,” that is, the threat of “communism” so terrible, that it scored 100 on a danger scale; the probability on the other hand, could never, no matter how low the judges estimated it to be, be low enough to discount the Party’s threat. Bingo!

Cooler heads however, finally prevailed; the Soviet Union had tested the H-Bomb (with the help of nuclear physicists and spy Klaus Fuchs, who had no overt CP membership); and Mutual Deterrence had begun (and still operates). At Smith College, e.g., the Introductory course, with lectures by a relatively conservative Professor, included writings of Karl Marx, particularly but not solely the Manifesto, in every year that it was (and I’m sure still is) taught. As a one-time founding member of the First International, he was guilty of a lot more than “advocacy.” As for the Court, under Earl Warren’s leadership it had begun, especially in Brown v. Board of Education, several decades worth of liberal jurisprudence, never again to be equaled.

As we look back, though, where has this left us? A good place to begin is with the state of civil liberties after “Communism.” What’s most relevant here is what became of the threat to democratic institutions, namely, “insurrection.”that is, the act or an instance of revolting especially violently against civil or political authority or against an established government. Also: the crime of inciting or engaging in such revolt.”

Simply put, by the time that a rewritten version of “Insurrection,”so carefully modified, was put into action in the wake of January 6th, it could apparently be applied only to the real thing. Violence yes, not say sitting peacefully in your dining room, throwing dishes at the wall, and “rooting those babies home,” to quote a famous sports-writers with a fondness for race horses. No, for the most part only the foot soldiers are going to pay–somewhat. The various prosecutions of Donald Trump, who never picked up a weapon, have not managed to overcome the very strict protections that the “Insurrection” Act created in the wake of the indefensible Smith Act. Jack Smith very carefully did not charge him with “Insurrection,” though that is precisely what he led.

We know, after all, who the insurrectionists were: 8 Senators, may they rot in hell, and 139 Representatives, all Republicans all insurrectionists and traitors to their oath of office; all supporting a violent overthrow of the government: which could only be violent if its supporters tried to make it happen, as they did on and before (in their planning) January 6th.

Now, though, we have the spectacle of a law originally used to ensnare Communists- –who now, posing zero threat to the polity, are replaced by a Right-wing mob, which consists of “ordinary Americans” led by politicians who’ve been voted into office (maybe), not glasses-wearing readers of Marx operating out of a room on 17th Street in New York, writing pamphlets that no one reads.

As it happens, I have in my possession several published copies of the U.S. Constitution, together with the Declaration of Independence. One of them, published as such in 1937 has a very careful and even fond introduction by one Earl Browder — — Who? General Secretary of the CPUSA, that’s Who; Eugene Dennis’s predecessor, shortly to be removed from his position by Stalin himself, for being too sympathetic to the wartime Popular Front–and thus in principle to American capitalism — after both sides had renounced the Front.

Moreover, What then are we make of a political leader, a candidate for President, who uses the language of Hitler (“vermin,” “poisoning the blood”) to describe his would-be victims; who threatens a “bloodbath” if he is not recognized as having “won” the next election; who regularly describes enemies of the democratic state as “good people.” (I use that language, “democratic,” to encompass generally the political ideology that centers on accepting the loss of an election rather than trying to overthrow the result.)

Second, the whole notion of “let the people decide,” of “the wisdom of the common man, is beside the point: world-wide, the politics of the “strong man” is based not on the wisdom of the common man, but on his susceptibility to a certain kind of appeal that has been honed to perfection over the centuries: an appeal that highlights that susceptibility and the kind of community is intended to produce. The Maga hat, to look at the United States, is precisely a token of outlawry; of what we might call aggressive alienation.

All this is perfectly familiar in Germany; it is why the equivalent of the FBI infiltrates neo-Nazi parties or gatherings; why anti-Semitism is treated as a crime (and, I believe, other varieties of racism as well), with no 1st Amendment to get in the way. An American such as myself is in no position to lecture Germans as they attempt to reckon with their history.

IV. But what to do?

On its face, repression engenders what it has always been charged with engendering: more repression, of more varieties of people. Thus, “New U.K. Extremism Policy Raises Concerns Over Free Speech”

The government said it would use a new legal definition of extremism to blacklist certain groups from public funding or engagement. But it added that “the government will undertake a robust process to assess groups for extremism against the definition, which will then inform decisions around government engagement and funding.”

Why the author of the story felt it helpful to add the word “but” to a story in which its positioning was totally designed to downplay the content of the story we can only guess–though a good guess would be that it’s the same reasoning that attributes the threat to civil liberties in Britain as a possibility noted by “critics.”

“Critics said it was that element — the idea that whichever government is in power could blacklist groups it considers extremist and bar them from meeting with any government bodies or officials or receiving taxpayer funding — that could threaten free speech and civil liberties.”

Really. Or might not? Yes; I’m nit-picking. But what can’t be avoided is that more to the point, just as in the U.S. of the Cold War era: the legislation identified as “threatening” is being proposed by a Right-wing government, and the expected targets of its “robust process” will be found on the Left, or among non-White groups, as it once was among Irish rebels. The German experience does not repeat itself everywhere, and neither then does the German model of cracking down on Neo-Naziism. When a leader whose model of rabble-rousing is Hitler (John Kelly, Trump’s first Secretary of Homeland Security, had to give him a lecture on “not quoting Hitler), “cracking down” might seem the lesser of dubious policies: especially if that leader is backed by half the polity.

This is not a matter of winning or losing; we are now in a crisis way beyond that. I said I wouldn’t comment on the election any more, but I can’t help it. The crisis is indefinable; we have passed the point where there’s an analysis to be given and a solution to propose: except to get the vote out; but so far, if anyone knows how to do that in Wisconsin or Arizona, they would have to be the same people who know how to do it in, let’s say, Tel Aviv, and they don’t. I would like to think it’s a structural crisis, as the Left to which I belong is prone to assert.

I’m not going to deny that; not in full: Yes, there was (and still is) a pandemic. Yes, the American system of party democracy is designed in every way to depress rather than expand the suffrage. Yes, globalization and neo-liberalism have had a destructive effect on the prospects of democratic equality. Yes, capitalism multiplies the wealth of the wealthy and impoverishes the lives of the poor. Anyone who doesn’t know this is a moron.

Except: I don’t notice any faint connection between what I just wrote and an explanation of how the Party of the wealthy and powerful works to treat the poor and unequal–in a nation where the economy still works better and more productively than almost any other. Paul Krugman can’t explain it; I can’t either. This entire analysis of what’s happening clearly demands a further and deeper consideration of what has happened, and is continuing to happen, to the means of communication. As yet, again, no one seems to have a persuasive discussion of that: intend to try to say as the entire system of means of communication recedes entirely out of any rational control.

As the red-hatted crowd behind him goes wild, Trump announces that he will abolish electric cars and use protective tariffs to make the importation of “foreign” autos impossible. Any normal ten-year old, on hearing a description of how that process will work, would just mutter, “Are you totally nuts?” 45%? How; why? For God’s sake, Hitler had an infinitely greater understanding of economics than Trump does. I’m longing to hear an explanation. How is it that we have come to a point where Republicans plan to do to women as close as they can come to an equivalent of what Hitler did to Communists. 45 %….Hitler only needed one decree; how many could Trump need?