Vigilant But Cautiously Optimistic: Interview One - Dr. Steve Snow
by Daniel Smith, Class of 2018
On February 1st, 2017 the Holocaust Center for Education and Programming had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Steve Snow. Dr. Snow is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Government and Politics Department at Wagner College. His most recent article, "Demons, Prophets and Witch Hunts: American Spiritual Warfare as Scapegoat Ideology" was published in the 2016 edition of The Journal of Religion and Society.
Date of Interview: 02/01/17
What do you believe separates our Democratic Republic from other countries? If I may give an example: comparing our own country to Germany’s Weimar Republic (1919-33).
The Weimar Republic was doomed for numerous reasons. There were no powerful groups who strongly supported it. There were socialists and communists on the left who were looking for revolution, and a retrograde right wing that didn’t want anything to do with democratic republics. The Weimar Republic had a modern constitution. It was very fair and established civil liberties, but there was no political investment in it. So that’s the biggest difference.
The United States has the most successful Constitution in history. Its sheer longevity is proof that it works well. So I don’t think the two are comparable because we have a stronger tradition of democratic institutions and the rule of law. I understand the concerns that people have these days, but I don’t think that it’s comparable to Weimar.
What separates our own country from other emerging countries that have attempted to have democratic republics? What is so strong about our Constitution?
Constitutions are a dime a dozen. Most promise rights and social benefits that no one intends to deliver. The key to the U.S. Constitution’s success is that there has been a gradual increase in democracy. Ours has become a more democratic society over time. But it's important to understand that the framers of the constitution never had democracy in mind. It’s something that has developed within the framework of the Constitution.
Are you implying that the success of our Constitution lies in the executive branch?
As President Guarasci often says, constitutions are not self-executing. The Constitution has no value unless respect is paid it. For the most part, there has been a tradition of respecting it. This has not always been the case, of course, as there have been times when our elected representatives have contravened the spirit and even the letter of the Bill of Rights, for example. But ultimately there has always been a veneration of the Constitution, and especially recently, there has been an effort to maintain and enforce the Constitution as law of the land.
What is the closest that our country has come to fascism?
It’s funny you say that, because I just read a really good book called The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. The idea is that it’s an alternative history where Charles Lindbergh wins the Presidency in 1932 instead of F.D.R., and forms an alliance with Hitler’s Germany and begins the persecution of American Jews. The wonderful thing about Philip Roth is that he is able to make it seem perfectly reasonable, that due to our history of anti-semitism, it would be make sense for these fictitious events to occur. And it wasn't just Lindbergh himself, who was clearly sympathetic to Nazi Germany. There was a tremendous amount of support for a demagogue who was a vicious anti-Semite, Charles Coughlin, for example. So yeah, most would agree that the 1930s were the closest.
Regarding a constitutional crisis more generally, an example would be the 1970s, because there was the question of whether Nixon would willingly leave power if he were impeached, as there was fear that he was losing his mental composure.
Often times a transition of power can lead to a period of uncertainty and turmoil, but thankfully that has rarely been the case for the U.S.. Many are saying that the Trump administration’s transition has been less than smooth, would you agree?
In a sense, this transition was the norm. The success was that they did have a smooth transition, despite there being contention, and some considerable bitterness. One thing about democracy that typically goes unappreciated is that you need to have losers lose gracefully, and that’s something that we take for granted in the United States. This was true even though Hillary Clinton won about 3 million more votes than did Donald Trump. Even with this transition that was so difficult in many ways, it was never in doubt. And I don’t think it will be in doubt in the near future.
You have the right that says that former President Obama overstepped his executive reach with excessive executive orders, and you have the left that says the exact opposite. What are your thoughts? Do you believe that President Obama’s executive actions might have posed a threat to our Democratic Republic?
The key point is not the executive orders. Yes, the Republicans say that President Obama was unlawful and wanted to be a dictator, but now President Trump is issuing even more executive orders, and so that's completely hypocritical. It’s laughable, really. It’s not the executive orders. The threat to democratic institutions now lies elsewhere. It’s the tendency of people working for customs, immigration, and naturalization to ignore the courts, for example. The courts are demanding that the immigration order be put to a halt until Constitutional questions can be adjudicated. This is the problem. Either the Trump administration is telling them to ignore the Courts, or they’re ignoring the Courts on their own. And if that’s the case, than it’s a genuine constitutional crisis.
If you could predict the next four years of the Trump administration, what would you say is most likely to occur?
(Laughs). I've been talking about the Trump campaign first, and then the Trump presidency, for more than a year. And I have been wrong in my predictions all along the way. I’ve constantly been surprised at what has happened. Predictions: Clearly he is going to try and do what he set out to do on the campaign trail. In terms of the comparisons that we were making earlier, the most alarming would be if he provoked an international military scare. That would be a classic authoritarian move.
Stay tuned for our next installment, where we interview Dr. Felicia Ruff of the Wagner College Theatre and Speech Department.