A personal reflection on the fascist danger

Until recently, I took our country’s liberal democracy and constitutional government for granted. I assumed that they were inextricably and permanently embedded in our way of life. Even if I allowed that things could get bad, I never thought so bad that my children and grandchildren might live in a country that didn’t resemble in broad strokes the one in which I grew up.

Now, I wasn’t so naive as to believe that democratic and constitutional government wouldn’t face challenges in a society in which power and profit were so instrumental to its functioning. Nor was I unmindful that racism, unless resisted by a multi-racial movement, could throw the country on a deep downward trajectory. I was also aware of the anti-democratic politics of an ascendant right wing, now a half century in the making. But on some level I believed that, whatever the challenges to democratic rule, come day’s end, democratic guardrails would hold, a democratic majority would assert itself, and democracy would prevail. Meanwhile, fascist retrogression wouldn’t even be a point on the continuum of struggle.

That was, I now know, a dangerous illusion. Shattering it was the combination of a right-wing movement that morphed into a surging neo-fascist bloc, a far-flung right-wing media, shamelessly promoting lies and conspiracy theories, a party in the grip of white nationalist ideology and politics, and, above all, a narcissistic, racist, fascistic minded president who upon losing his re-election bid did what no other president has ever done – organize a mob to storm the nation’s capital.

If I believed that “it – fascism – could never happen here,” Trump and Trumpian rule over the past four years, culminating in his attempted power grab, unceremoniously smashed that illusion to smithereens.

But I have to ask, why did it take the election of an authoritarian president, the presence of an anti-democratic, anti-socialist mass constituency, a systematic campaign against truth, the embrace of vile ideologies of hate and division by millions, and a violent attempt to steal an election shatter my illusion of the durability and constancy of democratic rule? Why didn’t I dispense with that illusion years, if not decades, ago? Were there not telltale signs in the distant and not so distant past that should have warned me about the fascist threat to our democracy?

The simple answer is: there were. Fascist-like terror against Black and Brown people was as American as apple pie. Slavery was defined by brutal violence, super-exploitation, and fierce repression as was Jim Crow that followed and endured until the landmark victories of the civil rights movement six decades into the 20th century. Native peoples were stripped of their land, subjected to forced marches, sometimes over long distances, devastated by contagious pathogens carried by European colonizers, and relocated on narrowly circumscribed reservations, sometimes far from their ancestral homelands. If you entered the country across the Southwest border (which was constantly expanding southward and westward) or crossed the Pacific in search of opportunity, you were met, not by an open hand, but by a club. If you were a wage worker in the 19th and early 20th century, your demands for wages, safety, and unionization were likely to be met with bloody violence. If you were a woman, you couldn’t cast a vote until the second decade of the 20th century. If you were an immigrant, you were victimized. If you were Jewish, you were subject to quotas and discrimination. If you were a communist or socialist, you faced persecution. And if you were gay, trans, or bisexual, you hid in the shadows in the face of violence and exclusion.

In short, the formation and development of U.S. democracy included at its core a violent, racialized, and anti-democratic underbelly, super-charged by super-exploitation, land dispossession, territorial expansion, and fear of the other. In this social arrangement, the expansion of rights for some combined with the suppression of rights and, in many instances, outright terror for others – people of color, women, immigrants, Jews, LBGT people, radicals, and workers.

I was aware of these dynamics, but until the rise of Trump I didn’t draw the proper conclusions. I was perhaps handicapped by the fog of white, male, privilege and thus thought on some level that mainly white, male, straight ruling elites, even under severe stress, wouldn’t suspend democracy and rain hell and fury across society as a whole, including millions of people who shared their skin color, but not their politics, and instead, were of a democratic state of mind. Maybe I underestimated the anti-democratic nature of capitalism, especially in periods when the dominant section of the capitalist class finds it difficult to accumulate capital and govern in the old way. I was surely a captive to some degree of American exceptionalism, that is, the belief that U.S. democracy, while flawed, incomplete, and subject to reversals, would make corrections over time and resume its long march to a “more perfect union.” Finally, I didn’t fully reckon with the special role of racism and white supremacy in particular in disfiguring, limiting, and, in some instances, erasing democratic rights and governance altogether.

Luckily (and I choose the word carefully), as a country, we dodged a bullet, and not only metaphorically speaking, on election day last year and then on January 6. But this momentous victory in the battle for democracy is no reason for complacency. After all, our democracy is more fragile than we thought, the power of racism and other backward ideologies to mobilize millions more alluring and intractable than we believed, the resilience of Trump and his mass base more durable than we expected, and the fascist threat far more immediate than we ever imagined. I wish this were not the case, but nothing is to be gained by minimizing the fascist danger either now or in the future.

Indeed at this turn in our country’s life, it should be understood as a clear and present danger. But while formidable, it isn’t, as the election demonstrated, invincible. Moreover, it is in a weaker position now than it was only a few months ago when Trump had at his fingertips the enormous power of the presidency, including the bully pulpit.

Thanks to the election, the wind is at the back of the Biden administration, the Democratic Party, and the larger democratic coalition. It isn’t at gale force, but it is strong enough to enable the administration to quickly move to enact the president’s bold political and legislative agenda, not least the protection and expansion of voting rights, in the first 100 days. The resistance, no doubt, will be fierce. Trump, McConnell, and others of like mind in Congress and elsewhere understand that if Biden and the Democrats successfully address and materially mitigate, if not fully resolve, the interlocking crises gripping the country, it would be a heavy blow to their political ambitions and the fascist threat.

Small circle politics, obviously, have no place in these circumstances and deserve to be immediately retired. Too much is at stake to do otherwise.

Carpe diem! Seize the day!

Biden and the Democratic Party

I wrote this assessment of Biden and the Democratic Party in September of last year; it was an attempt to counter the facile categorization and dismissal of Joe Biden and the Democratic Party as simply capitalist and neoliberal, possessing no independent agency and incapable of constructing a progressive reform agenda around which millions could gather and support. Roughly a month into the Biden Presidency, it holds up pretty well:

What’s behind the new profile, new dynamics, and new politics of the Democratic Party (and the democratic coalition) is a profound shift in thinking and feeling across significant sections of the American people.
Its material roots lie in the rise of neoliberalism, financialization, and globalization and the accompanying spike in income inequality, growing social and geographic divides, cross border migration, a surge in monopoly power and political predation, and lopsided and unsustainable growth. It is also a product of the prosecution of unwinnable wars of conquest in distant lands, the Great Recession of 2008, and the racist backlash that followed the election of President Obama.

The new dynamics are closely connected as well to the persistence of police and vigilante violence against people of color, a narrowing of job opportunities and precariousness of life for young people, and accelerating climate disruption.
And, not least, it springs from the new conjuncture that we are living through that lays bare the deep class and racial inequalities (including mortality and morbidity rates) embedded in the political economy of U.S. society and the insufficiencies of the public sector and public goods.

Out of this material substratum comes not only a surge of struggles stretching back a decade, the rise of new political actors, such as Black Lives Matter, the greatly expanded footprint of women in politics, the revival of mass climate politics, and the two presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders, but also a Democratic Party loosened from its past moorings and trending in a progressive direction.

That Biden won the nomination may seem on its face to go against the grain of these changing dynamics. But on closer inspection it isn’t so inexplicable. First of all, the progressive/insurgent wing of the party, while growing, isn’t the singular voice nor is it yet hegemonic. Second, Biden had the support of President Obama and no other voice in the Democratic Party has remotely the same influence as he does. Finally, Joe Biden was the first choice of African American voters, which, once the primaries moved from Iowa and New Hampshire, gave him a leg up over the other contenders for the nomination. If South Carolina changed the dynamics of the presidential primary in Biden’s favor, the vote in Michigan and across the Midwest a week or so later sealed the deal.

Biden wasn’t my first choice. Elizabeth Warren was, but she, like Bernie, didn’t enjoy the support of the party’s most powerful and loyal constituencies. And it was these constituencies that crowned Joe Biden the party’s nominee. They believed Biden was best suited to beat Trump and, if elected, to enact a robust reform agenda. Voters don’t want a “political revolution,” but they don’t want to stand still either. And in their calculus Joe Biden is best equipped to negotiate this tension.

I know many young people and social activists aren’t excited by Biden. I understand their sentiments, even if I don’t agree with them. I didn’t like Hubert Humphrey, the party’s presidential nominee in 1968, and I, along with many other young radicals at the time, didn’t vote for him. But what we got was Nixon and the intensification of the bombing in Vietnam and Cambodia, the prolongation of an unjust and cruel war, and criminal behavior in the White House.
In November, I would argue, not voting for Biden, Harris, and other Democrats down-ticket would be even more shortsighted and infinitely more disastrous than our decision not to vote for Humphrey in 1968.

I would add that Biden has shown that he isn’t the Biden of 25 years ago, or even 12 years ago when he partnered with our first African American president. Like most of us, he’s changed and evolved. And in a good way. And a wise movement will allow space for people to change.

Since he won the nomination, he has reached out to the entire party, worked closely with Bernie, and, as mentioned earlier, signed on to the most progressive platform in the party’s history. Whether he is capable of a new dance like Lincoln, or Roosevelt, or Lyndon Johnson were when they and the country faced profound challenges, whether he has the wherewithal to evolve into a transformative president, can’t be answered at this juncture. But there are, nevertheless, grounds to think he can.

If elected, Biden would walk into the White House at a moment unprecedented in our history. He would find himself governing in a conjunctural crisis whose templates are a deadly pandemic, a crisis-ridden national and global economy, a racial reckoning, and a worldwide climate emergency that cry out for solution. Standing still isn’t an option. Nor is a return to the pre-Trump normal, whatever that was. And I believe he, Kamala Harris, and most Democrats realize this.
Moreover, like Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Johnson, he would feel the pulls, pressures, and desires of an electorate as well as a coalition that carried him over the finish line on Election Day. No doubt, both voters and activists would expect an agenda that includes immediate relief, a science-driven plan to attack the coronavirus, the enactment of progressive reforms in line with the crises gripping the country, a reckoning with policing and systemic racism, and, not least, the democratization of voting laws and the political system.

Such an agenda would not only resonate with tens of millions feeling the crushing weight of the present times, but it might well register with some of Trump’s base too. It’s progressive policies and legislation not discourse that will begin to fracture that retrograde coalition.

The Warmth of Other Suns

While many people are reading, Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste: The Origins of our Discontent, I’m a ways behind the reading curve. I just finished reading this morning her earlier book “The Warmth of Other Suns.” As I read the final paragraph of her epilogue, I felt like I had been given a beautiful gift from the author in the form of her accounting of the Great Migration of African Americans from the Jim Crow South to the North. The story is told through the lives of 3 of those millions who, not knowing what the future would bring, chose to make the journey. Each of her subjects is from a different state in the South and each travels to a different city in the North where they recast their lives in different ways. Wilkerson writes unflinchingly of their journeys, but with obvious sympathy for her 3 protagonists and the millions of others who made a similar decision to migrate to the “Warmth of Other Suns” and in doing so collectively transformed the North and the South. Obviously, if you haven’t read this book, I recommend it. It won’t disappoint.


An epitaph for Rush Limbaugh: He trafficked in hate

Natural experiment

The catastrophe now playing out in Texas is a natural experiment in what happens when a state is in the tight grip of right wing plutocratic politicians who cast themselves as populists and energy and other predatory corporations.

Cruz, Abbot, and Perry are creatures of this destructive and anti-popular alliance.

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