I’d planned to introduce today’s post with a rundown of what we’ve narrowly escaped OR what comes next after a disappointing midterm. I still don’t know where the results will land us, but it is obviously neither a rout nor the Blue Wave I’d hoped to see.
The good news, as Heather Cox Richardson reminded us yesterday, is that many more Americans today are concerned about our democracy, and determined to reclaim it, than were even paying attention to it in 2016. As she pointed out, we see new organizations, new connections, new voters, and new efforts to remake the country better than it has ever been.
And new efforts to prevent a rightwing populist takeover.
In last Sunday’s New York Times book review, two recent books exploring the decline of democracy investigated “the F word”–fascism
As the review noted, the use of that epithet used to be reserved for extremist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society. No longer. Even mild-mannered Joe Biden has admitted what virtually any person familiar with politics and political history can see: the Republican “MAGA philosophy” is–if not full-on–at least “semi-fascism.”
If we look at the 1920sand ’30s versions of fascism, some things are different but other elements are frighteningly similar. As the reviewer noted, anti-democratic ultranationalism — one definition of fascism — looks different today, but overall, MAGA Republicanism “employs many of the rhetorical tropes of traditional fascist politics.” Those tropes include a focus on racial purity, a proud anti-intellectualism, and especially the invocation of “a mythic past and appeals to blood and soil.”
The two books focused specifically upon fascism that were reviewed by the Times were “How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them” by Jason Stanley, and “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present” by Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Both authors emphasized the importance of “alternative facts”–invocation of a mythical past, and the absence of a shared factual reality.
The invocation of the past is politically strategic. “It is never the actual past that is fetishized,” Stanley writes. He notes that monuments to the Confederacy were erected long after the Civil War ended in part as propaganda to whitewash the horrors of slavery. Fascists, both authors suggest, want to destabilize the shared sense of reality that is necessary for democratic dialogue. They seek to create what one might call an air of QAnon-like unreality, in which elected officials and government institutions are targets of bizarre claims — including, for instance, that they are covers for child sex-trafficking rings.
And of course–as we have seen in the most recent electoral cycle–there is a constant drumbeat of “othering”–an insistence of the dramatic differences between “us” and “them.”
The classic debate between liberty and equality is distorted by fascists, who see equality as a denial of a natural law whereby some people are inherently more deserving of power than others. For fascists, democracy makes unequal people equal, and tries to equate “them” with “us.” Fascist rhetoric is designed to divide citizens into two distinct classes: the sons and daughters of the soil, who are the true citizens of the nation, and the “other” — the foreign, the rabble, the lawless.
I know my constant insistence on the importance of civic literacy can seem tiresome–the carping of an academic convinced of the supreme importance of her area of “expertise.” But a citizenry unfamiliar with the history of their country and unacquainted with the most basic premises of its system of government is uniquely vulnerable to the distortions that turn one American against another.
Just one example: Voters who don’t understand why the Founders separated Church from State are easy targets for revisionists who deny both the history that impelled that separation and the fact that the language of the First Amendment was intended to erect it. They are receptive to the fascist claim that their God has made them the rightful custodians of the country.
The philosopher Santayana warned that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”