08/09/2011 02:16 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2011

What's Happening to America?

A decade ago, I read a book that made a lasting impression on me. It was a memoir called Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner, who had recently passed away at age 91 after a long career as a distinguished German historian. His son Oliver Pretzel, who made the decision to publish the book posthumously, called it "the passionate outburst of a young man whose career has been cut off and whose life has been turned inside out by his own countrymen, following a leader and an ideology he views only with contempt and disgust." Haffner had written it in 1939 in exile in England, and then laid it aside for 60 years. Its theme, wrote his son, was "the question of how it was possible for the Nazis to come to power."

"What is a revolution?" asks Haffner in the book. "Constitutional lawyers define it as a change of constitution by means not foreseen therein. By this definition the Nazi revolution of March 1933 was not a revolution. Everything went strictly 'by the book,' using means that were permitted by the constitution. At first there were 'emergency decrees' by the president of the Reich, and later a bill was passed by a two-thirds majority of the Reichstag giving the government unlimited legislative powers, perfectly in accord with the rules for changing the constitution."

Other books are also on my mind these days, such as A.J.P. Taylor's classic The Origins of the Second World War and The Great Crash, 1929 by John Kenneth Galbraith. Mark Twain famously said that history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme. What worries me, as I reflect on the history these books document, is how easily hubris and/or inattention can lead to events spinning beyond anyone's control, and how the most aggressive elements seize the political high ground when legitimate leaders are too timid or self-doubting or craven to hold it against them.

For at least two years, the elephant in the room has been that this is what is happening in the United States. Everything is being done with ostensible constitutionality, but the trend has been unmistakable ever since a partisan Supreme Court named George W. Bush the winner of the disputed 2000 presidential election and Al Gore, honorably but unhelpfully, gave up the fight. More recently, serial concessions to what President Obama fondly imagines to be "centrism" and "bipartisanship" have done nothing to placate his Republican foes. Obama suffers from what Andrew Hacker, in a trenchant article in the August 18 New York Review of Books, calls a "didactic disposition" shared by a string of Democratic presidents and candidates: "wordy discourse not connected with clear plans for action." To Republican aggression, writes Hacker, Democrats "respond in paragraphs, feeling most issues need extended analysis."

As Norman Mailer memorably put it (to V.S. Naipaul, of all people) way back in 1969 about followers of the candidate Eugene McCarthy, "They just want to make a statement and stand around being right. 'I know what is wrong, I'm noble.' This I don't buy." Mailer in his day, and -- for all their faults and failures -- the Democratic presidents Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton embodied a kind of manliness, a willingness to fight, that most other national politicians on the American left seem to consider beneath them. The result has been that those of us who would do the hard work of trying to undo the massive damage done by Bush and Cheney have been left leaderless.

The American right, by stark contrast, intends to win, by fair means or foul. Since Obama and the Democrats succumbed to the Republicans' willingness to hold hostage the economy and millions of Americans' ability to retire (and even to live in the meantime) with dignity for the sake of a cooked-up crisis over the national debt ceiling, the New York stock exchange has fallen more than 500 points in a single day; the credit rating of the United States government has been lowered for the first time ever; an ostensibly constitutional "Super-Congress" is being created to fast-track crucial budget decisions and thus allow legislators to evade their responsibilities; and I'm hearing anecdotally that individual Pakistanis are selling dollars. Maybe I should ask my editors at Dawn to start paying me for these columns in rupees.

People in countries like Pakistan -- that is, most countries worldwide -- have lived through similar events, albeit with less at stake since most countries are not global powers. Americans have long blithely considered ourselves special, somehow exempt from the tendencies and vicissitudes that afflict the rest of the human race. Now we're learning, the hard way, that we're not. Please spare some compassion for us as we continue up our steep learning curve.

The truth that's been laid bare by the U.S. debt-ceiling crisis is that no one elected by the American people is accepting responsibility, and there is currently no force effectively resisting the right-wing juggernaut. When the mystique of legitimate rule dissipates, society is left to fend for itself. This is the situation in America now.

Republished from Dawn.

ETHAN CASEY is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004) and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010). He is currently writing Bearing the Bruise: A Lifetime in Haiti. Web: and