FASCISM: Are We There Yet?

John Peeler

It has become a staple of antagonistic political discourse in this country to accuse one’s opponents of fascism. Bush and his right wing allies talked about “Islamofascism” as a diagnosis of the Islamic fundamentalism that they sought to defeat. Hardly a day goes by the President Obama is not accused of being simultaneously fascist and socialist (just like Hitler’s National Socialism!). On the other hand, many on the American left have been concerned since the reaction to the 9/11 attacks about the emergence of a fascist mind-set on the American right.

Has this wildly divergent use of the term made it impossible to think clearly about it? Have we so debauched the label as to render it useless?

Let’s begin with the historical record. The only cases of full-blown fascism were in Germany & Italy, where avowedly fascist movements actually held power for years in the 1920s and 1930s. Fascism came to power in Italy in the early 1920s as a result of a mass movement that overwhelmed that country’s new and fragile democratic institutions, and forced the installation of Benito Mussolini in power. Nazism came to power in Germany in the early 1930s as a result of a mass movement that enabled Adolf Hitler to surge to electoral victory in 1933, when the National Socialists (Nazis) became the largest single party, and Hitler became Chancellor.

What do Italian Fascism and German Nazism have in common? First, they were mass movements supported by a large part of their respective societies. Second, they arose in modern, industrial societies rather than more traditional ones. Third, they took advantage of democratic institutions that were novel, weak, and subject to challenge. Fourth, they arose in a context of political and economic crisis. Fifth, they articulated the anxieties of the precarious middle class, people who had achieved a minimal level of security and comfort, and who feared losing it. Sixth, they were radically nationalistic, portraying themselves as defending the true Nation from internal and external enemies (e.g., Jews, the Great Powers) that sought to destroy it. Seventh, seeing their movements as embodying the Nation, they were unconstrained by democratic institutions and laws, and prone to violence against all who opposed them. Finally, both movements crystallized around a charismatic leader who could channel the anxieties and fears of the masses.

Other countries, including the United States, have had avowedly Fascist or Nazi movements (e.g., the Neo-Nazis in the US), but in no other case have those movements gained control of the state. Indeed, they have almost universally remained as fringe movements. Mature democracies up to now have not fallen prey to a Fascist takeover, because they can address crises without breaking their democratic institutions, and can thereby marginalize the Fascists.

Now the question is whether we can see the same characteristics in contemporary political movements that do not see themselves as Fascists, and may indeed portray themselves as anti-Fascists. Are we at risk for a takeover by Fascism by another name?

Let’s start with the Left. There are certainly elements of the American Left that would proudly accept the supposedly pejorative label “Socialist” and many that are severely critical of our existing democratic institutions, but there is no significant part of the Left that fits the criteria for Fascism. The Democratic Party and Barack Obama aren’t even leftist, much less Socialist. Only in the fevered minds of the hard-core Right could Obama be seen as a Fascist.

How about the hard-core Right? Do they meet the criteria? The American Right certainly has mass support (even if they lost the 2006 and 2008 elections), but it may be going too far to call it a mass movement. But within the broad current of the Right, there are elements that have the cohesion and energy to qualify as movements, such as the religious Right and the new “Tea Party” movement that has lately been at the center of raucous and disruptive congressional “town meetings.”

We are of course the quintessential modern industrial society, similar to those in which Fascism came to power. And while American democratic institutions have long been characterized by a high degree of stability and legitimacy (they are scarcely “novel and weak,” as I characterized the democratic institutions of Italy and Germany in the interwar years), popular support for such democratic institutions as Congress and parties is low and has been declining. This lack of confidence in democratic institutions is particularly marked on the Far Right.

We certainly find ourselves in a political and economic crisis. In this crisis, the Far Right is particularly strong among the lower middle and working classes, especially whites, especially Southerners, whose fears and grievances seem to be well articulated by the Far Right. It is in this sector that we find particularly strong antagonism to racial and ethnic minorities, gays, and feminists, who are often seen as threatening the American Way of Life. Most of these people are deeply distressed at their own troubles and what they see as the decline of their country. They are not themselves Fascists, but can be fertile ground for Fascist leaders.

Radical, aggressive nationalism is a salient feature of the Far Right in America, seeing the US as a uniquely virtuous society, and justifying foreign interventions to defend our security, exclusion of immigrants from undesirable countries, and rejection of foreign models for such problems as health care.

While the Far Right is militant about the constitutional right to bear arms, and while there have been isolated incidents of political violence by sympathizers of the Far Right, it cannot be said thus far that this movement has resorted to violence. There is a great deal of rhetoric about being prepared to defend themselves, and the country, against its enemies. The potential for large-scale violence is there if they see themselves as under attack.

Finally, the American Far Right has not yet found a galvanizing, charismatic leader who could both mobilize them and attract more adherents. Sarah Palin shows some of the spark that would be needed for this role, but her recent pouting display in resigning as governor cannot be helpful.

In short, we confront a movement that is still a minority (even in the Deep South), but which displays most of the characteristics of the classic Fascist movements. It does not define itself as Fascist, but it is in the same genus. It is very far indeed from true conservatism. It is also very far from taking power, but so was Adolf Hitler, in 1929.

It is up to us to defend and improve our democracy more effectively than the Germans of eighty years ago. This implies not only vigilance and willingness to do political battle, but as important, a willingness to acknowledge and respond to the real concerns of honest conservatives who might otherwise be seduced by Rush Limbaugh and his colleagues.


No More Mease Please

submitted by Chris Schell

Ken Mease begins his letter to the Daily Item (2/22/09) by recalling that he read the National Recovery Act of 1933 was two cover sheets filled with newspapers. Not true. This “socialist” legislation was a 9300 word bill that enabled Roosevelt to enact codes for business and labor to help end the depression. Businessmen wrote the codes to their own advantage. The Act mostly failed, became unpopular and was declared unconstitutional just as it was due to expire. Darn socialists.

Mr. Mease ends his letter with a quote from John Adams about democracies committing (economic) suicide. However the word “economic” was a Mease addition. In context Adams’ quote is about his fear that democracies tend to give too much direct power to the people resulting in the people forcing their wise leaders into unwise, vengeful, empire-building and eventually self-destructive wars. Our recent history seems to reverse this result: Our leaders are the ones urging self-destructive wars.

Thus this latest piece of Meas-itry begins with a memory of reading an inaccurate history and ends with an altered quote taken out of context. In between we learn that Roosevelt, Johnson, the Clintons and Obama are conspiring, lying stealth Marxist-socialists. I’m sure glad they are no longer communists.

Mr. Mease closes his letter with the plea “save our constitution”. I never heard from Mr. Mease when our previous president was making the Justice Department into a Republican re-election organization, using the vice-president’s office to avoid accountability, secretly editing congressional laws to his whims, and attributing to the President powers that were unrevealed but absolute . Adams believed fervently in the rule of law and in checks and balances between the branches of government. Save our constitution? Help save it from those with the views of Mr. Mease. Please.

Winning with the Left, Governing from the Center

As President-Elect Obama goes about naming more and more of his cabinet and senior advisers, many of his left-of-center supporters are expressing increasing unease at the absence of certified progressives in the mix, and the prevalence of centrist Clintonites, including Hillary herself.  This is very much in contrast with what happened eight years ago, when movement conservatives were very prominent in the initial appointments of the Bush administration.

This is a difference of long standing between the parties.  While the Republican Party has come increasingly under the sway of extreme social conservatives, the Democrats have pretty much stuck with the conventional wisdom of staying close to the center where the majority of voters are to be found.  Although Reagan-era Republicans successfully demonized liberalism, with the sole exception of George McGovern in 1972, the left wing of the party has not controlled the presidential nomination since the Populist William Jennings Bryan ran in 1900.  By contrast, the right wing of the Republican Party has determined the nominee in at least four of the elections since 1980 (1980 1984, 2000, 2004), and has held veto power over the others (including this year, when John McCain never escaped the need to play to the party’s right wing base.

Public opinion polls show consistently that there are about twice as many people who declare themselves conservatives, as those who call themselves liberals.  Thus it is easier for a right winger to get enough centrist voters to win: the bar is lower for conservatives.  That’s exactly what happened under Reagan and George W. Bush.  Obama’s achievement was to be sufficiently inspirational for the liberal/left base of his party, while eschewing real liberalism (much less socialism or social democracy!).  He thus had a highly mobilized liberal base and a majority of centrist (self-described moderate) voters.

It should thus be no surprise that Obama’s first personnel decisions should be decidedly centrist.  There will surely be “movement progressives’ in the administration, but they are not going to occupy the top posts.  We don’t know yet what policies the new administration will adopt; we may hope that the policies will be more liberal than the personnel.  But fundamentally, progressives should reorganize themselves to articulate and promote such policies.  We should not wait for the administration to produce them.

In foreign policy, for example, it appears likely that Obama will move away from the unilateralist militarism of the Bush administration, but how far he moves toward antimilitarism will depend on how vigorous and thoughtful his progressive supporters are.  Similarly, policy toward rectifying a generation’s slide toward obscene levels of inequality will reflect progressive priorities only to the extent that progressives can generate pressure in that direction.

Obama could not have won without our activism, and we should not let him forget that.  He also could not have won without all those moderates, and we should not let ourselves forget that.