There are two great myths of World War II. The first says that there was something intrinsic to the national characters of Germany and Italy, a flaw that made them uniquely susceptible to the destructive id of fascism. The second myth evangelizes the existence of a unified, democratic resistance to fascism even amongst the nations occupied by the Nazis.
Marcel Ophüls’ 1969 documentary, The Sorrow and the Pity, demolishes both myths and, in the process, serves as a harrowing reminder of the ease with which liberty and human prosperity can fall when they aren’t safeguarded through constant vigilance. Few historical documents of the 20th century offer as intimate a peek into the constant struggle to identify, combat, organize against, and educate others about political oppression.
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
There’s nothing magical that holds American democracy together.
I think that’s something that we take for granted. American democracy works — in the flawed, half-broken sense that it’s ever worked — because competing functions of our civil society implicitly agree to respect the constitutionally described powers of the other branches of our government while also respecting the enumerated limitations of their own branch.
This is basic civics. We have a government with three branches. The executive, legislative, and judicial. Each branch has certain powers that can be reduced (perhaps perilously) simply: the legislative branch decides what the laws are, the executive branch is tasked with enforcing/enacting these laws, and the judicial branch is tasked with interpreting these laws. Each branch has ways of keeping the other branches in check. It was one of the most carefully deliberated design elements of the Constitution. The legislative branch can impeach the executive branch and judicial branch. They have confirmation powers for many of the people appointed to either of those branches. The executive can veto legislative decisions. They appoint the judiciary. The judiciary can decide if the laws or actions of the other two branches are unconstitutional. And if these laws are unconstitutional, it’s the purview of the judiciary to tell the other branches of the government that they have to change their behavior.