In the past I compared the crisis we are now facing to that of the old Roman Republic in its last days. Corrupted from within, political and economic systems facing crisis, the Republic gave way to an empire, as Julius Ceasar took power, and Augustus consolidated it. Looking at the corrupt and broken Italian political landscape in the early 20th Century, Benito Mussolini looked back to Ceasar as inspiration for a new form of politics: fascism. Mussolini believed that fascism would bridge the class divide, unite the people and provide stable, effective rule.
Of course, German fascism, defined by racism and genocide, made the term off limits, the thing you call someone when the time for rational discourse is over. Yet the ideas behind fascism are persistent. And, looking at the current economic crisis, and the possibility of a dollar collapse creating intense inflation down the line, one has to wonder if the US isn’t destined for a fascist future. In many ways our Republic has, like Rome, moved towards empire already in its foreign policy. Yet the economic crisis (discussed here) is showing fundamental weaknesses in the core structure of our economy, with our prosperity and current patterns of consumption unsustainable. That suggests a looming political crisis. No party is going to openly proclaim itself fascist; if it comes, fascism will arrive in the guise of something else. So what would fascism, American style, look like?
Many believe it’s already here. Some look at the rhetoric and fear inspired by the McCain-Palin campaign and see inklings of fascist nationalism and xenophobia. Others look at the Democrats taking virtual single party rule and Obama’s intense popularity and see fascism there. Are our political parties already moving in that direction? How would we tell if they were?
Political fascism does not have to be racist and genocidal. If it hadn’t been for Hitler, we might have more thriving openly fascist parties around today. But it tends to: a) try to eliminate the relevance of class differences (though not their reality) to create a sense of societal unity; b) appeal to the emotions of the public for support; c) distrust democracy since the public tends to be uneducated about the matters of governance; d) emphasize a single ruler around whom society can unite; and e) distrust intellectuals and others who might question the kind of social unity fascism aspires to. Both of our parties do, indeed, share some of these attributes.
First, the Democrats. I noted last July that our consumer society already has attributes of fascism, and that the Obama campaign was based very much on a marketing strategy. After all, most Americans do not understand the issues before the country, that’s why the debates focused on talking points and simple, repeated messages by both candidates. That’s marketing. Democracy has already ceased to be about determining the proper policy for the country, it’s about which team we trust in power, and Americans tend to make that judgment with their gut not their head. Talk about Obama as “the one,” his ability to raise hundreds of millions of dollars through small contributions, and the celebrations around the country after his election are virtually unprecedented in American politics.
At a time of crisis with the Democrats fully in power, the Obama Administration could re-make the American system, giving more power to government bureaucracies. Moreover, while communism had the government run everything, fascism was an alliance of government with big money (business and finance). Already the Democrats are courting major American corporations, and the style President Bush used for the “bailout” is designed to give the government increased leverage in the financial markets. No one thinks that we’re going to go the socialist route; but a close business-government alliance is not hard to imagine, it’s been building for decades.
But Americans are sick of war — surely they wouldn’t buy the hyper nationalism of fascism? Probably not. The lessons of Iraq sting, and Americans have learned humility. But looking not at Hitler but back to Augustus, the Roman Empire’s holdings almost all came from before the Republic became an Empire. Britain was added later, as were a few areas on the periphery, but until Rome actually started to collapse, the cost and pain of Roman wars was less for the Empire than it had been for the Republic. If Obama’s new foreign policy team is able to recast US foreign policy in a way to sustain influence but not be so aggressive, it could maintain a powerful position globally, even without so much military spending.
But Obama? Aren’t the Republicans closer to fascism? Fascism is usually on the “right” after all. And, indeed, one sees fascist ideas and tactics within the GOP as well. Fascists usually have an “internal enemy,” some group weakening society from within. For Hitler it was the Jews (and intellectuals, pacifists, socialists, liberals, etc.), and Mussolini focused on anti-Communism. The way in which some in the GOP take an emotional anti-immigration stance (build a fence to keep ’em out!) with xenophobia hidden only by a lame “we’re talking only illegal immigration here” excuse was enough to scuttle a real immigration reform attempt in 2007. Like most emotional causes it quickly faded, but clearly there is a fear of outsiders coming in — Fox’s John Gibson even argued that whites should have more babies since ‘others’ are breeding more rapidly and making whites of European origin soon a minority in America. Fascists claim to be defending ‘traditional values’ from the hedonistic amorality of modernism — campaigns against gay marriage and some social conservative rhetoric (especially some of what Pat Robertson has said) sounds similar to fascist propaganda.
The attempts to demonize Obama, raise fears about Rev. Wright, William Ayres, or call Obama a socialist are all the kind of tactics one would expect from fascists — though such tactics have also been pretty common in American politics for some time. The hypernationalists in the Republican party, engaging in hero worship for the military, making excuses for failures, and lashing out at ‘the liberals’ and the ‘the left,’ probably don’t realize how much their rhetoric mirrors that of fascists in Germany and Italy during their rise to power. Talk radio is very Goebbelesque in its twisting of quotes and efforts to simplify issues into clear emotional themes, ignoring facts that might get in the way of their ’cause.’
After 9-11 the US was quick to focus on emotional reactions to the attacks. If one tried to analyze why they happened or what motivated the terrorists, that was derided as ‘making excuses’ for clear evil, and people found themselves under attack in ways we hadn’t seen since the McCarthy era. Some politicians said we should threaten to bomb Mecca, a popular pundit said we should conquer them (the Muslim world) and convert them to Christianity. Gen. Wesley Clark said he saw a list of up to seven countries the US was planning to invade, believing our military power could reshape the region. For awhile, people were afraid to question this new nationalism. Speakers were booed off stage when doubting the sincerity of the mission, the Dixie Chicks were boycotted for criticizing the President. Here at UMF when students and staff were reading names of victims of the Iraq war, noting both the names of Iraqis and of American soldiers, one delivery service driver got so angry he lept from his truck and started shouting at people in the group. How dare one put Iraqi lives on the same level as our soldiers! One shouldn’t think, criticize or offer alternatives, just wave the flag and unite for the country as we lash back against “them.” That faded rather quickly, but gave Americans a quick glance at what fascism feels like.
In short, on both the left and the right, there are inklings of what one would expect in a kind of fascism. It wouldn’t be the Hitlerian kind, but rather more like Julius and Augustus, replacing a dysfunctional Republic with a centralized elite rule, using media and campaigns to keep the public emotionally satisfied. Mix a bit of the idealist appeal of Obama with the fear from the right, and politicians might learn to strike a balance that gains them long term political support.
However, there are limits to how ‘fascistic’ American politics can become. First, the constitution and a democratic civil society are entrenched, and people are not going to throw away elections in order to follow a popular leader. This means that there will continue to be campaigns and shifts of power, and as power goes from one leader to another, and especially one party to another, there is a check on how out of control or corrupt the government can become. Our civil society cherishes freedom and individual rights; that creates a cultural limit on what any government can do. Events like the McCarthy era or post-9-11 fervor are short lived, our core values last. Second, Americans have strong state and local governments, all of which function closer to the ideal of democracy than our federal government. These also act on a check of centralized power, and in fact could be an alternative to increased federal power in coming years. It is unlikely that the federal government could truly control state and local actions. Third, as tattered as it is in this era of sensationalism, we do have the media. There are also blogs — even though the political blogs often sound the most fascistic in that they tend to be hyper partisan and emotion-based — and ways of communicating to other groups. This suggests a kind of grass roots resistance to and knowledge of elite activity.
Still, it’s important to recognize that the stuff of fascism is still the stuff of moden politics, even if the term has become discredited. We see signs of it in both parties, and in crisis the temptation to mix centralized power with creating an emotionally satisfied public is obvious. Rather than deny it, or simply see it as a problem the “other side” has, we have to with open eyes recognize the dangers our system faces, and work hard to try to avoid falling into the traps of apathy and a partisanship so intense that the other side is assumed simply “wrong” or “evil,” and ones’ own side “good.” That’s emotion. That’s when politicians try to fill your “void” with their own meaning, making you easier to manipulate. As long as we don’t fall for that, and hang on to our core American values, we should be able to keep our Republic despite the current crisis.