By María Isabel Puerta Riera
What is Fascism
Over the past decade we have become more accustomed to hearing the label fascist when describing political adversaries, especially in struggling democracies. Although the displacement of liberal democracies has been on the rise, according to the Varieties of Democracy project, the use of this particular term remains subject to a broad debate. The challenges democracies have faced, both past and present, have opened the door to extreme political ventures with vast consequences.
As in the past, the current existential crisis of democracy is rooted in its perceived weakness. During the interwar period, fascists used the threat of communism as a justification to undermine democracy. Indeed, today’s neo-fascists direct their ire against some of the same groups such as Socialists, Communists, immigrants, Black and Brown people, and Jews. But they do not limit their aggression only against those who they believe threaten their ideals.
In the past, fascism was conceived as a defense against socialism, according to Benito Mussolini. Today’s neo-fascists fear the LGBTQ community, but they also replicate the same arguments that brought people comfort from the fascist movement. As Jason Stanley points out, a shift in the dominance of ‘patriarchal manhood‘ threatens the ideological foundations of fascism. In this light, women’s reproductive rights become an existential threat. Moreover, they portray themselves as staunch defenders of traditional values whenever their notion of the family comes into question.
An Alternative Reality
It’s not that so much that democracy is weak. The problem the democratic model faces is it allows the existence of social actors that challenge the beliefs of the status quo. While we can always find an economic crisis to blame, this recurrence is really more about the “us and them” conflict. The threat of ethnic minority groups displacing ethnic majorities is a global issue from Western Europe to North and South America. The displacement of millions of Syrian, Ukrainian, and Venezuelan refugees causes demographic anxiety that goes far beyond traditional explanations like economic crisis or globalization. Demographic anxiety has fueled the rise of fascism worldwide.
The political landscape is changing. Moreover, democracy is an obstacle for fascist ideology, principles, and even values. This is not just a political clash of conflicting views. This is a war against the social agreement that succeeded WWII. In the past fascists said Mussolini had “made Italy great again.” Today, we hear a similar tune when the American right chants Make America Great Again. They repeat the refrain even amidst Trump’s self-inflicted American carnage. Moreover, the repeated use of falsehoods to blame immigrants, Blacks, Latinos, and Jews for social and economic problems such as crime and inflation echoes the longstanding accusations against them for others’ problems.
The worldview based on an alternative reality is the foundation of a movement that strives to provoke fear and rage. This is critical to provide cover for the narrative of them (immigrants, Black, Latinos, or Jews) coming after their supposed victims. A recurring headline is the annual caravan of migrants coming into the country to grab the jobs no other people want. The rise in crime is typically associated with cities with liberal governments and a significant minority population.
The Fascist Reaction
A dangerous trend that has not raised enough concern is the growing antisemitism among public opinion in the United States. We have gone from isolated neo-nazi rallies in Florida to the open embrace of antisemitism expressed by politicians and celebrities. The threats are explicit. We should not shrug them off as a coincidence. The normalization of hate is becoming mainstream. The criminalization of migrants, especially those arriving from Central and South America, finds support even from Latino communities. Ironically, communist fearmongering does not help migrants fleeing Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela who are pawns in their country’s political crisis. State governments find broad public support from their constituents to use law enforcement to expel migrants from their communities.
The influence of religious beliefs promoting traditional family values exploits what Stanley refers to as sexual anxiety. The wave of laws banning access to reproductive and transgender healthcare is part of a reaction to advancements of individual and collective rights. Interestingly, candidates for public office have had to backtrack their previous statements, especially after the Kansas referendum on abortion rights results. Nonetheless, the possibility of a federal law banning access to abortion is on the table for the next Congress.
Democracy in the United States faces a severe challenge coming from political forces that have dangerously embraced the values and principles we have historically associated with the roots of fascism. This is not a theoretical debate. It is a concrete assessment of the political factions and policies competing through democratic institutions that anti-democratic sectors are trying to bring down. This is the current state of the political game and democracy is literally on the ballot.
María Isabel Puerta Riera is a Political Scientist teaching U. S. Government in Florida. Interested in U. S. and Latin American Politics.
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