By Chet Yarbrough
By: Sinclair Lewis
Narrated by: Christopher Hurt
It Can’t Happen Here is a satire; not a great fictional story. This Sinclair Lewis’ book does not reach fiction’s gold standard of suspension of disbelief; OR DOES IT? This is not to suggest Sinclair Lewis is not a good writer. (Lewis is the first American to receive the Nobel Prize for literature.)
Lewis’s story comes from imagination, more than precise observation; i.e. Lewis focuses on American’ political and social tendencies with a story about the destructive potential of populism. (Populism is belief in the power of the general public to govern better than elected representatives and appointed professionals.)
Lewis questions American government when it impinges on human freedom. It Can’t Happen Here infers there is a middle road, between autocracy and unbridled populist democracy called representative government. However, Lewis suggests even representative government is festooned with potholes. Lewis explains unbridled populist’ democracy is a sure road to tyranny, equivalent to Nazism or Stalin-ism. But, Lewis suggests there is also potential for representative government to be as corrupt and punitive as any tyrannical’ government.
Lewis’s book is published in 1935. Roosevelt is the President of the United States. It is a time of great social upheaval. The rich are fine, but the middle class and poor are standing in soup kitchen lines. America is just beginning to recover from the Great Depression.
Roosevelt is considered by some to be a union sympathizer with communist tendencies because of the New Deal. He is up for re-election. Huey Long is stalking the office of President with a “Share our Wealth” platform to appeal to millions of under-employed and unemployed workers.
Capitalism is being vilified as a boondoggle by government for the rich. Germany and Italy are becoming world powers with fascist policies that nationalize industry. Stalin is using communist propaganda to subvert worker movements throughout the world.
It Can’t Happen Here suggests it can happen here. Lewis is arguing that a Stalin, a Hitler, a Mussolini, a corporate mogul, or clever politician can take power by being popularly elected. Lewis’s fictionally created president appeals to the masses with a program to redistribute wealth. This President is elected and takes control of government with enough populist persuasion to enlist a cadre of uneducated soldiers to dominate America by destroying the “balance of power” written into the Constitution.
Lewis’s imagined American’ President dissolves Congress and creates a new judicial system by declaring a state of emergency. This judicial system acts as judge, jury, and executioner for transgressions against the state.
The attraction of Lewis’s book is that all of the tendencies shown in his 1930s view of American’ democracy still exist. Demagogues gather their constituents by offering everything to anyone that will follow them. Some demagogues appeal to the wealthy that can support their election; others appeal to the poor or soon to be poor by offering infinite financial security. The American government is fractured and unable to agree on a course of action to reverse diminution of the middle class. Some suggest government grows with the primary intent of redistributing wealth; others suggest government exclusively supports capitalism to serve the rich and disenfranchise the poor. Both extremes infer a revolution is needed; a revolution that could, in Lewis’s view, come from the election of a President that lies to get into office and acts like a tyrant when elected.
Nearly a century has passed since Lewis’s satire was completed. Americans continue to search for a middle road, a government of moderation that represents the best of capitalist democratic values; i.e. values of liberty, equality, and fraternity. In the meantime, it seems fair to say that no demagogic tyrants have been elected to the highest office of the land. No Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin has ruled America’s citizens; American’ Presidents have made mistakes, but balance of power has always righted government’s listing ship of state. Media continues to promote the news as independent owners’ see, hear, and understand their different audiences; i.e. freedom of the press remains a critical component of American’ society.
Balance of power still exists in American’ government; however–caution, frustration, and discontent make it prudent to believe It Can’t Happen Here, can happen here.