Abdication in a time of crisis

Daniel Little
Dec 30, 2019 · 7 min read

Historical sociologist Ivan Ermakoff’s 2008 book Ruling Oneself Out: A Theory of Collective Abdications is an important contribution to the theory of democracy and authoritarianism. It is a careful analysis of the political circumstances in 1933 and 1940 when pro-constitutional parties in Weimar Germany and republican France supported constitutional legislation that created the dictatorial powers of Chancellor Hitler and Marshal Pétain and extinguished democracy in their own countries. Ermakoff wants to discover the reasons and motivations that led individual and collective political actors to support these abdications, and endorse the seizure of dictatorial power by Hitler and Pétain.

Here is Ermakoff’s description of the scene of the crucial act of abdication that brought the Weimar Republic democracy to an end:

The time and the setting: 23 March 1933, the Reichstag building, Berlin. The building had been partially destroyed by arson three weeks earlier, on the night of 27 February. It still bore the marks of the fire, and the persistent smell of charred rubble lingered in the corridors. Clara Siebert and her colleagues of the Center party parliamentary delegation had convened in the room in which they usually held their meetings. It was a little before 6 p.m. The delegates were now leaving the building. Because of the damage caused by the arson, the parliamentary session was temporarily taking place in another building, the Kroll Opera House, situated a few blocks away. The session was about to resume after a three-hour intermission. Though the place was familiar, the circumstances were not.

The representatives of the Center party were about to vote on an enabling bill (the “Law for the Relief of the People and of the Reich”) that allowed Hitler’s cabinet to issue, independently of the parliament, decrees deviating from the Constitution. In effect, the bill was a constitutional mandate. Hitler had enjoyed executive and legislative powers since his appointment as premier (chancellor) by the president of the Republic, Hindenburg, on 30 January 1933. The enabling bill granted Hitler the right to legally discard the constitutional framework of the Weimar Republic. In light of the Nazis’ explicit political agenda, there was no doubt that this was the goal intended by the bill. The new regime would clearly be authoritarian in nature. Nothing guaranteed that basic individual rights would be protected.

The session began. The first speaker to take the rostrum at the Opera was the chairman of the Social Democratic party, Otto Wels. The Social Democrats, Wels explained, had suffered considerable persecution since Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, and after having experienced such persecution the Social Democratic Party could not be expected by anyone to vote for the bill. The Social Democrats held fast to the basic principles of a government based on law. Hitler responded to Wels’s speech with immediate violence aimed at the representatives of the democratic camp. “Springing like a beast thriving to tear apart its prey” (Wirth), Hitler castigated the Social Democrats for coming too late. The fate of the Social Democratic party, Hitler explained, was sealed. The party would be cast into the dustbin of history. Then came the turn of Ludwig Kaas, the Center party chairman, to explain his party’s vote. Both the tone and content of his speech were different; Kaas spoke of the work of national salvation that had to be accomplished. The Center party consented to vote for the enabling bill, provided that the government would base its policies on the three principles outlined by the chancellor (Hitler) during the first reading of the law: the reconstruction of the state; the recognition of the Catholic and the Protestant confessions as the pillars of the state; and the preservation of the Länder. Kaas’s explanation was followed by similar statements from the leading representatives of the other parties that had opposed the Nazis in the past. At 7:30 p.m. the vote took place and the die was cast. Hitler’s enabling bill was passed by a majority of 444 to 94. The two-thirds majority required for any constitutional change was met, and this although the Nazi party and its allies in the government represented only 53 percent of the votes in parliament. The 94 “no” votes were cast exclusively by the Social Democratic representatives.

(Ermakoff, Ivan. Ruling Oneself Out (Politics, History, and Culture). Duke University Press, 2008 : xi-xii)

The book makes for alarming reading for ordinary US citizens who have experienced three years of a shockingly anti-democratic and anti-constitutional presidency. The current president has virulently attacked the press, the opposition party, the House of Representatives, the judicial system, the intelligence services, and the Department of Justice — always for his own political gain, and always with measurable harm to those institutions. He has treated all opponents as enemies, not only of himself but of the country. He officially presents himself as being above the law and immune from investigation on all fronts, and he dismisses the legitimate authority of the House of Representatives to engage in impeachment proceedings against him. He uses Twitter to ceaselessly attack his opponents. He seeks to arouse and activate his followers with a divisive message of ethnic nationalism and racism. What is next for this president and the enabling political party that he represents?

Taking the long view, it is difficult to avoid the interpretation that the current president is specifically intending to undermine existing democratic values and institutions. Seen in this light, he seems to have a lot in common with other authoritarian anti-democrats in recent history.

Ermakoff’s description of the enabling bill passed by the German Reichstag in the Kroll Opera House in March 1933 (“Law for the Relief of the People and of the Reich”) is chilling; this is indeed how democracies die.

For this [legislation of March 23, 1933] was a revolution. The Nazi leadership reshaped state institutions by destroying the federal structure and by making executive power independent of any political supervision. By the same token, the Nazis excluded or gradually marginalized political actors who until then had been involved in managing governmental affairs. State power became the exclusive domain of the chancellor and his affiliates. The change in state structure went along with a process of élite displacement. The peculiarity of this political revolution is that it implied no breach of constitutional legality. From a formal standpoint, the statutes were fulfilled.(22)

Ermakoff, Ivan. Ruling Oneself Out (Politics, History, and Culture). Duke University Press, 2008

We seem to have our own problem of political abdication in these troubled times. Why have such a small number of Republicans openly opposed or criticized the president? This is a question very analogous to that raised by Ermakoff; it is a question of moral abdication. There is of course the fact of vilification, threat, and punishment by the president and his followers; the president is a bully, and many members of Congress plainly care more about their chances of re-election than their integrity or the values that we might hope brought them into elected politics in the first case. So coercion and fear play a role in the quiescence offered to this president’s outrageous behavior by members of Congress. But the desire to remain “aligned” with the president and his party — the central thesis of Ermakoff’s theory — seems to be a dominant motivation.

Next consider the seriousness of the fact that this president has co-opted the Department of Justice (through appointment of AG William Barr) and the Supreme Court (through the appointments of Gorsuch and Cavanaugh). Can the public now have serious confidence in the bulwark of the Supreme Court against extra-constitutional acts committed by the president? Here is Ermakoff’s description of the dilemma created in Germany and France by constitutional abdication in 1933 and 1940:

Groups that abdicate their constitutional authority abdicate their capacity to determine their own fate. They consent to abandoning their right to setting regulating principles for themselves. Once this constitutional authority has been transferred without institutional guarantee the challenger cannot, properly speaking, abuse his power. Any constitutional act falls within the scope of the delegation. Therefore the challenger cannot credibly commit himself not to abuse his power. His verbal promises, whatever they may be, have no binding quality. (38)

There is a deeply worrisome parallel between current events and the situation in 1933 in the Weimar Republic. The current president has rejected and vilified the legitimacy of the impeachment process, specified in the Constitution. He has referred to the possibility that he might not leave office if failing re-election. (Here is a Politico piece that references some of these comments; link.) And he has asserted a number of rights (e.g. immunity from subpoena for himself and his staff) which are not constitutionally specified; but if the Supreme Court confirms these rights, they become binding, and the office of the president is that much further from check by constitutional or legislative limitation. The Supreme Court appears to be in a position to “unfetter” an essentially unconstrained and often unhinged president.

This is one reason why it is so important that the House of Representatives chose to go forward with impeachment proceedings. If the House had simply turned a blind eye to the president’s attempted manipulation with Ukraine for his own political purposes, it would indeed have abdicated its constitutional and moral authority — even if there is little likelihood that impeachment will be followed by removal from office by the Senate. A vote against removal in the Senate will be a clear case of abdication; but at least one house of the Congress has fulfilled its constitutional duty.

(Levitsky and Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die provides a stark companion piece for Ermakoff’s historical treatment of the ascendancy of authoritarianism.)

Daniel Little

Written by

Philosophy of social science; social and racial justice in the United States; China; higher education. Blogs at www.understandingsociety.blogspot.com

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