Radio Free Orcinus
Friday, November 05, 2004
I'll be interviewed this evening by Rachel Robson at KJHK-FM at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. I'll be on between 5 and 6 p.m. PST, or 7 and 8 p.m. in Kansas.
We'll be talking about the rise of pseudo fascism and related topics.
A streaming live broadcast is available at the KJHK site in the link above. I'll post a link to a replay of the broadcast when it comes available.
[Update: KJHK doesn't keep its broadcasts archived, but one of my readers recorded it and, thanks to the kind permission of the folks at KJHK, you can now download it here. Meanwhile, Mark at Norwegianity downloaded a snippet of the interview and then edited a version with music. Thanks, y'all.]
Geez. The way these conservatives talk, you'd think they won by 30 points instead of 3.
Even Bush himself has been telling the press that he has "the people at my back" (or is that backside?) -- in the process of making clear to everyone considering crossing those bridges they say they're building what the reality is: It's "my way or the highway."
But the entire press corps has bought into the myth of Bush's "mandate." Indeed, it's all any of them can seem to talk about.
Now, just as an experiment, I went back and checked, because I thought I remembered that Bill Clinton cleaned Bob Dole's clock in 1996 by a substanitally wider margin. Sure enough, the final figures were:
- Bill Clinton 47,402,357 49%
Bob Dole 39,198,755 41%
Ross Perot 8,085,402 8%
In other words, Clinton won by a margin of of 8 percent of the popular vote -- 8.2 million.
Did the "liberal media" declare that Clinton had a clear mandate from the people?
The mainstream press instead proclaimed that Clinton had been given "a message, not a mandate".
Their reasoning: Clinton still faced a Republican Congress. Of course, Democrats did win back six seats in the House that year, shrinking Newt Gingirch's power substantially. But the GOP gained two Senate seats.
In contrast, of course, the GOP gained both in the House and the Senate this year. One could argue, of course, that this makes up the difference.
But the truth is somewhere in between. If you weigh the criteria, you'll see that Clinton's 8-point win was nearly three times the size of Bush's, while he actually oversaw a net gain in Congress as well.
Bush's sweep, at the same time, was hardly so concrete. He failed to capture a single state in the Northeast or on the Pacific Coast. The outcome of the election, in fact, remained in doubt until the night's votes were counted in Ohio -- the only state in the upper Midwest that he did carry.
But he did win clearly -- even if you believe that he won fraudulently in Ohio and Florida (for which I have yet to see any concrete evidence), his 3-million-plus majority cannot be so easily explained away. I think electoral-college wins without the popular majority rest on tenuous ground, and frankly, I wouldn't have wanted to see a John Kerry presidency hampered by that kind of baggage. Factoring in the popular vote, there's no mistaking that the man a (not terribly substantial) majority of Americans wanted to see President is in the White House.
But a clear victory is not a clear mandate. Republicans like to brag that Bush received more votes for president than any Republican in history, but at the same time, John Kerry garnered more Democratic votes than any other candidate. Bush's numbers were impressive, but so were Kerry's.
It's clear that 48 percent of the nation, at least, strongly disapproves of the direction George Bush is taking the country. That was Bush's "message" in the election as well, though the press seems not to have noticed that this time around. Funny how that works.
Until Bush takes steps to genuinely include that 48 percent in the process (hey, can we get into any public Bush appearances now?), and to treat their concerns with more than smirking dismissal, then he's not going to be president of all the people.
And until he is that, he cannot claim a real mandate.
The week in hate
Thursday, November 04, 2004
The not-so-fresh scent of intolerance is wafting through the national discourse these days. You can hear it all over the radio -- the right is not only ascendant, but there's a real ugliness rising with it. Liberals, we're being told, had better get in line. Minorities too. Gays and lesbians -- there is no line for you.
Who acts out this mood? Our young people, of course.
One of the ways this ugliness manifests itself is in hate crimes. And in the past week alone, we're seeing a real burst in hate-crime incidents. The vast majority of them involve young whites still in high school or just out.
One case, in the exurban western Washington town of Monroe, has made local headlines. It involved an incident in which a white student at Monroe High School waved a noose at a black student:
- The black student told school officials that a length of rope tied into a noose was waved at him in the school's parking lot a week and a half ago, O'Neil said.
... The black student spoke to a Monroe officer last week, Monroe Police Cmdr. Jan O'Neil said. The boy told officers that he'd been harassed for several weeks, she said.
"The student did not come forward right away. He was trying to deal with this on his own, hoping it would go away. He finally got to the point he was tired of it," Jan O'Neil said.
This wasn't the first such incident at the school:
- In the last few weeks, a Mexican flag was torn down and thrown into a bathroom, two students of different ethnic minority groups got into a fight, and a black student reported that a white student taunted him with a noose, administrators reported.
Administrators say they don't know who tore down the flag, but the two students involved in he fight were suspended. Monroe police continue to investigate the third case, in which the black student reported three separate incidents, Monroe police spokeswoman Jan O'Neil said.
In addition to the noose allegation, he also reported derogatory comments at a fast food restaurant and inside the school.
As I've discussed previously, one of the most disturbing aspects of the current surge in white-supremacist recruitment activity is that it seems to actually be having an effect on young people, especially in formerly homogeneous populations that are undergoing dramatic demographic shifts.
But it's happening everywhere, really. And in the past week particularly.
In Burlington, Massachusetts, A Jewish high-school teacher had swastikas drawn on the outside of the door to her classroom.
Two young Staten Island men were arrested for attacking a Muslim man at 4 a.m. in his Stony Brook University dorm room.
A Tennessee 15-year-old was arrested for burning a cross and painting graffiti and racial slurs at the home of a black family.
An apparent skinhead (age 20) attacked a black woman in Albany, N.Y.
A freshman at Montclair State University in New Jersey was arrested for dormitory vandalism that included swastikas and racist graffiti, and subsequently charged with a bias crime.
A 21-year-old man in Warren County, Mississippi, was arrested after he drove a bulldozer through a black church, in an act police say was racially motivated.
In the Philly suburbs, racial tensions are nearing a breaking point as violence breaks out on both sides, aggravated by white students wearing Confederate flags and adopting white-supremacist symbols.
Not all of the week's spate of hate crimes were necessarily connected to young people, since the suspects haven't been caught. But the M.O. in those two cases certainly suggests young white men at work.
In San Diego, a Portuguese man was mistaken for a Muslim and was viciously assaulted by a gang of white thugs, who told him to go back to Iraq.
And in Redding, California, someone whited out a Martin Luther King mural at a popular polling place and children's center.
Judging from the anecdotal evidence alone, I will be surprised if we don't see a noteworthy, if not dramatic, spike in hate crimes when the statistics are gathered and reported by the FBI. But we won't know for sure for about another year.
Wednesday, November 03, 2004
Well, that didn't take long. I figured it was only a matter of time before the conservative façade of civility crumbled, but this time it came off faster than the pancake on a ten-dollar hooker.
Bill Bennett, that paragon of moral virtue, was the first to explain that "national healing" is just another word for "culture war":
- Having restored decency to the White House, President Bush now has a mandate to affect policy that will promote a more decent society, through both politics and law. His supporters want that, and have given him a mandate in their popular and electoral votes to see to it. Now is the time to begin our long, national cultural renewal ("The Great Relearning," as novelist Tom Wolfe calls it) -- no less in legislation than in federal court appointments. It is, after all, the main reason George W. Bush was reelected.
A little palingenesis, anyone?
Just when I got done saying that one of the important things that distinguishes movement conservatism from genuine fascism was the lack of any major push for national renewal and purification … jeez.
Well, let's face it: Republicans have a history of taking a peculiar view of bipartisanship anyway. All this talk about comity and national healing and getting along sounds great, but I'm not buying.
Not when we just got through a campaign where conservatives were openly wishing death on their opponent and arguing against allowing him to take office, even if he won the election. Not when their fellow conservatives looked on and said nothing.
It's not getting any better. Here's Adam Yoshida's idea of "building bridges":
- Let’s face a hard truth: this was the bitterest Presidential campaign in living memory. The Democrats and their allies staked everything on the defeat of this President. All of the resources they had accumulated over a generation of struggle were thrown into this battle: and they have failed. Despite all of their tricks, despite all of their lies, the people have rejected them. They mean nothing. They are worth nothing. There’s no point in trying to reach out to them because they won’t be reached out to. We’ve got their teeth clutching the sidewalk and out boot above their head. Now’s the time to curb-stomp the bastards.
Wanna bet no conservatives will even flinch at this, either?
Now, I know that everyone who read Ron Suskind's piece in the New York Times on the Bush "faith-based" style of governance was fascinated with the now-famous "reality-based community" quote (justifiably). But there was another passage in the piece that really jumped out at me:
- . . . And for those who don't get it? That was explained to me in late 2002 by Mark McKinnon, a longtime senior media adviser to Bush, who now runs his own consulting firm and helps the president. He started by challenging me. ''You think he's an idiot, don't you?'' I said, no, I didn't. ''No, you do, all of you do, up and down the West Coast, the East Coast, a few blocks in southern Manhattan called Wall Street. Let me clue you in. We don't care. You see, you're outnumbered 2 to 1 by folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don't read The New York Times or Washington Post or The L.A. Times. And you know what they like? They like the way he walks and the way he points, the way he exudes confidence. They have faith in him. And when you attack him for his malaprops, his jumbled syntax, it's good for us. Because you know what those folks don't like? They don't like you!'' In this instance, the final ''you,'' of course, meant the entire reality-based community.
That, folks, is what Election 2004 was all about.
This attitude of utter hatred and contempt for fellow citizens whose politics differ from yours obviously exists on both sides. And it's obviously harmful. It plays out in large acts and small, warping the fabric of our lives and poisoning the community well-being.
I was struck by a passage from one of the many e-mails I've gotten this past week, from a woman named Mary B. who lives in a rural Southern town:
- My 11 year old daughter in the 6th grade was the ONLY student to wear a Kerry/Edwards button to school, out of 729 students in her middle school. Her classmates ridiculed her, told her to get the hell away from them, and kicked at her desk all day to separate her from them. They even told her she was not a "Christian" because she supported Kerry. They told her that Kerry was gay because he supported gay marriage. Today was even worse. They gloated, jeered and sneered at her from the minute she stepped out of the car to the minute she was picked up from school. They did not have to kick her desk because she intentionally moved it away from them.
I think we know what we're all dealing with here. If it becomes pervasive, there won't be any point in pretending that fascism hasn't descended on us.
So I'm not terribly interested right now in all this talk of "building bridges" either, because it has a distinctly hollow ring.
Sure, I understand that liberals got nasty this year. But then, Republicans have always been eager to dish it out and unable to take it. Let's not kid around: We all know where this fight started.
But I'll tell you what, all you conservatives who want us to bow and scrape at the altar of your newfound civility. I'll maybe start thinking you're sincere about "restoring civility" and "turning down the hate" when I stop seeing and hearing the following -- not just from the bottom feeders like Adam Yoshida, but leading conservatives like Bill Bennett, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter:
- -- That liberals are the root of all evil.
-- That liberals are innately treasonous.
-- That they are internal enemies on a par with Al Qaeda.
-- That they are responsible for conservative failures.
-- That electing a liberal president would bring the end of the republic.
-- That the nation would be better off if liberals were just eliminated.
I'll start to believe you're sincere about civility when I'm no longer reading books with titles on these subjects, and seeing them reach the bestseller lists.
Most of all, I'll think there might be something to this civility thing when I see actual conservatives start standing up for basic human decency -- which at one naïve time in my life I actually believed conservativism stood for -- and publicly repudiating these people.
But when I read and hear these things, and I look around for supposedly decent conservatives to say something, what do I hear?
That speaks all the volumes that need be spoken between us. And will be, for the foreseeable future.
Back to the roots
Well, I don't know about you, but I'm now officially over it. Perhaps not the way I was expecting, but in the end, when you look at Bush's across-the-board popular support -- particularly in rural America -- you just have to tip your cap to the winner and move on. Certainly, there's really no longer any doubt about Bush's legitimacy this time around.
At first I thought perhaps there might be a silver lining in all this: Now that they are headed into a second term, Team Bush can no longer blame all the world's ills on the Clenis.
But the truth is that it doesn't matter. No matter what, when things start to go wrong -- and with this incompetent bunch, that's inevitable -- they will find liberals to scapegoat. That's what they do.
As Gene Lyons said in an e-mail he sent around this morning:
- Kevin Drum wrote a few weeks ago that it'd be better for Dems in the long run if Bush had to take responsibility for his own disasters. That whoever has to preside over his fuckups in Iraq, the terror "war," and the wonderful world of budget numbers would end up very unpopular, and it ought to be Republicans.
Then he took it all back. Me, I woke up this morning thinking you can only ignore reality for so long. Then reality bites back. Unfortunately, when that happens, people rarely look in the mirror. They usually find scapegoats.
I think it's gonna be a rough ride.
There was an important lesson in those red-shaded electoral maps Tuesday night -- one that, in fact, could point Democrats to their way out of this morass, if they're astute enough to see it.
It wasn't just the sea of red in all those rural Bush states, though that was certainly sign enough. It wasn't just the fact that they were a deep red, representing a substantive increase in Bush's vote totals in those states. The real sign was when you looked at the interior maps of the battleground states, particularly Ohio.
Ohio was a sea of red with urban islands of blue numerical strength. And all those red counties were, again, a deeper red. This tells you that, in particular, Bush gained real strength -- more than enough to offset Democratic gains in urban areas -- in all those rural Ohio counties. And it was the same way in state after state.
It's important to understand that these precincts are hurting economically and culturally, and have been for years, but particularly under Republican policy. But as Thomas Frank recently demonstrated in What's the Matter With Kansas?, Republicans have been able to consistently take these votes by making simple but sustained appeals to their values. The percentage of Bush voters for whom "moral values" (read: homosexuality) were the decisive factor was unusually high, and the bulk of these came from rural districts.
It doesn't have to be this way. If Democrats were to actually pay attention to the problems of rural America and try to address them in a serious fashion, they would begin to make inroads on this nonsensical monopoly on the rural vote. They might not immediately win those rural precincts, but they can certainly lighten their redness.
I've issued warnings about this problem a couple of times, including way back in March 2003:
- One of the reason that Democrats have succumbed to Republicans in rural states -- where they enjoyed broad support for much of the better part of the 20th century -- is that the party has become increasingly urban-centric. Much of this is the natural outgrowth of relying heavily on raw numbers for political calculation; there is a much larger voting bloc in the cities than in the country, and it's much more easily reached. Thus the Democrats have in recent years focused much of their agenda on attracting urban and suburban votes. They have done so at the cost of their own soul, I believe.
The death of rural America -- a brutal, slow, painful death by suffocation, as corporate agribusiness displaces the family farm -- should be a major issue for Democrats. The Jeffersonian ideal, recall, was an America built as a nation of "citizen farmers." It may be something of a myth, but it is one that is deeply imbedded in our national psyche, and it is not one we can just hastily dispose of like some overripe cantaloupe.
Republicans have made great headway in these states by pretending to be on their side -- mostly by wrapping themselves in red-white-and-blue rhetoric, and especially by waving the bloody shirt of hating the gummint, who by the GOP's lights has been solely responsible for the entirety of rural dwellers' miseries (this was how they managed to fleece them with the misbegotten Freedom To Farm Act of 1996, which should have been more accurately named the Giant Hogtrough For Corporate Agribusiness). Indeed, it's clear this is one of the chief purposes of the proliferation of anti-government tropes by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and his conservative cohorts: to separate working-class people from the very political presence most capable of actually protecting their long-term interests from the Enronesque predators of unfettered corporatism -- namely, the gummint.
Meanwhile, the Democrats have treated these issues as empty afterthoughts at best (Al Gore actually had a reasonably intelligent agriculture program, but you'd never have known about it from either the "invented the Internet" Washington press corps or from Al Gore himself). They have essentially ceded the field to the GOP, and are now paying the price.
John Kerry made the same mistake. He cobbled together what actually was a good, thoughtful policy for rural America -- but then let it wither on the vine. Rather than make it a centerpiece, it was an afterthought. It went unmentioned in the debates or his stump speeches. John Edwards' inclusion on the ticket was supposed to help the rural vote, but it obviously didn't, partly because there was nothing there to give the effort any bite.
John Nichols warned of this problem in The Nation a year ago too:
- After the 2000 presidential election, colored maps showed that while the East and West Coasts and inland metropolitan areas were blue for Gore, the vast majority of the country was red for Bush. In the West, you could walk a line from Mexico to Canada and not set foot in a single county--let alone a single state--carried by Gore. Bush won 59 percent of the rural vote, compared with 46 percent for Republican Bob Dole in 1996 and 40 percent for Bush's father in 1992. "It should have been a wake-up call for the Democrats," says National Farmers Union president David Frederickson. "But they went right into the 2002 campaign and made a lot of the same mistakes."
Kaptur says that's because the party has been peddling gimmicks rather than populist substance. "Most of the people who run the Democrat Party, like [Democratic National Committee chair] Terry McAuliffe, they're city people," she says. "They think it's just a matter of tinkering with the party's image." Democratic consultants have created a mini-industry that tells candidates to go "country" by sponsoring NASCAR teams, joining the NRA or fuzzing positions on abortion or gay rights to mollify social conservatives. Rural folks just laugh. "You can be ardently pro-choice and support gay rights and still win rural areas if you have an economic message," says Rhonda Perry, a family farmer who is program director with the Missouri Rural Crisis Center. "I don't think too many people in rural Missouri sit up nights worrying about gay rights. But they do sit up nights worrying about how they are going to keep the farm or how they are going to get health benefits after the meatpacking plant shuts down."
The talk outside the school where I took my daughter this morning, a bastion of Kerry/Edwards supporters, was mostly bewilderment about where people in urban areas -- who overwhelmingly supported Kerry -- can go politically now. Here in the bubble of Seattle, the outlook was voiced by one father: "It's like we're an island now, cut off from the rest of the country. And we just have to go it on our own now."
Unfortunately, I think that's the problem. Urban liberals have been writing off their rural counterparts for too long. The larger the gap grows and festers, the more isolated they're doomed to become. Outreach, not withdrawal, is what is needed.
If progressives are serious about making a real effort at rebuilding their political machinery from the ground up, they need to start by going back to their rural roots. And it can't just be lip service.
Get over it?
Monday, November 01, 2004
Remember how everyone who was dismayed and appalled at the grievous wound to democracy inflicted by George W. Bush and his Supreme Court cronies in the 2000 election was told, in short order, to "get over it"?
This was the wisdom handed down from Mount Beltway, and the paeon voters were told to move along, nothing more to see here.
But it presented a unique historical situation, one which the press truly failed to assess or even acknowledge at the time: a president took office with a substantial portion of the electorate -- nearly half, in fact -- not believing him to have been legitimately elected.
Consider, by way of evidence, a poll taken by the Washington Post on the eve of Bush's inauguration. It included the following question:
- 20. Do you consider Bush to have been legitimately elected as president, or not?
The answer, as of Jan. 15, 2001: 58 percent yes, 40 percent no.
Now, if you look at it as merely a matter of having a majority, then obviously Bush wins, right? But the problem is that legitimacy isn't a matter of having a majority of support; in America, win or lose, the public typically has accorded the actual winners of our elections the right to hold that office by overwhelming majorities. A similarly large minority of people may not have liked seeing Ronald Reagan win election, but there was never any doubt he had won legitimately.
It was anger over this theft of the election -- and the certainty that the man about to occupy the White House was there by stealing people's votes, denying the right of people to have their vote counted -- that inspired the mass protests of Bush's inauguration, the likes of which no one had seen since Nixon's day. Again, it was a phenomenon largely unacknowledged by the press at the time, but at least Michael Moore was able to make good use of portraying it in Fahrenheit 9/11. (The Onion had it right: "Our Long National Nightmare of Peace and Prosperity Is Finally Over".)
Well, get over it, we were told. Time and again. Sage heads nodded at this advice.
Guess what. We still are not over it.
In today's New York Times reportage on its latest poll was tucked away this little nugget:
- Voters' anxiety appears to be a legacy of the disputed election of 2000: Half of the respondents in this poll said they did not think Bush legitimately won, compared with 45 percent who said they considered the outcome legitimate.
This caught my attention, because it meant that the belief that Bush was not elected legitimately had actually increased substantially in the ensuing three-plus years.
But if you visit the poll results themselves you'll find that this is just another instance of sloppy NYT reporting. The question, No. 66, asked: "Regardless of what you think about George Bush now, looking back to 2000, would you say George W. Bush legitimately won the 2000 presidential election, or not?" The actual answers are the converse of those reported in the Nagourney story (see the results for 10/28-10/30): 50 percent believe he won legitimately, and 45 percent say he did not.
Again, the issue isn't the fact that a majority sides with his legitimacy. What's remarkable is that the size of the voting public that believes he is not serving legitimately remains so large.
It's remarkable, really, to have a president serving under those conditions. It's even more remarkable for the fact to have gone largely ignored by the press and the punditry for nearly four years.
Obviously, when you live on Mount Beltway, it's easy to countenance the degradation of basic democratic institutions. But fortunately, there remains a large chunk of the citizenry that isn't buying their mountainous heavings of bourgeois bullshit.
Get over it? We're about to.
Thug Watch: Election 2004
I've decided to create this post as a sort of central information clearing-house regarding right-wing thuggery against Kerry supporters in this election. It's basically a fresh update of my original post about right-wing thuggery.
Over the next few days, I'll keep it updated with fresh reports. As I add more posts, I'll create a link under the orca in the upper left of the blog for easy access to it.
I briefly considered including left-wing violence toward Busheviks. Certainly, there have been some disturbing instances of this. But I haven't seen a consistent pattern emerge, as we are seeing on the right; and besides, the right seems to be tracking their own side's cases (with admittedly mixed results), so I'll leave that chore to them.
I'm not tracking voter fraud (unless violence is involved) or sign theft (likewise). Thus the list is restricted to actual violence, threats or intimidation, or behavior that exceeds the normal bounds of partisanship. I've broken these down by categories:
- Attacks on campaign headquarters
- Sacramento, California
Boone, North Carolina
Galveston County, Texas
State College, Pennsylvania
Grand Rapids, Mich.
Bush supporters intimidate/assault Kerry supporters/war protesters
- Washington, D.C.
Salt Lake City, Utah
Vero Beach, Florida
West Boynton, Florida
San Francisco, California
Police mistreat anti-Bush protesters
- New York City
Hamilton, New Jersey
Kerry supporters' homes/cars vandalized
- Washington, D.C.
San Jose, California
Ann Arbor, Mich.
Threatening Kerry supporters' employment
- Decatur, Alabama
As always, I'm looking for reader contributions. I realize my criteria are fairly rigorous -- there are, of course, various kinds of nastiness that don't really fit these descriptions.
But I think it's important not to overstate the case, and to keep focused on actual cases of violence and intimidation that might be criminal or, in the case of threatening people's employment, just condemnation-worthy behavior.
If anyone wants to help me flesh it out, please feel free to send published incidents to my e-mail (email@example.com), or post them in the comments thread.
SIGNIFICANT UPDATE: Due to popular demand, I have decided to create a second list using similar criteria for left-wing thuggery. I'm also adding two essentially neutral categories.
With that in mind, you can have all your right-wing friends send me any cases that need adding to this list:
- Attacks on campaign headquarters
- Flagstaff, Arizona
Kerry supporters intimidate/assault Bush supporters/war supporters
- Sarasota, Florida
St. Paul, Minnesota
Bush supporters' homes/cars vandalized
- Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Threatening Bush supporters' employment
Police mistreat anti-Kerry protesters
- Minneapolis, Minnesota
Various Florida locales
Police mistreat voters/observers/journalists
- Miami, Florida
Once again, the criteria for all entries is that they report incidents of violence or intimidation that fall within the above categories. They do not include sign thefts and voting fraud reports.
The Rise of Pseudo Fascism
Sunday, October 31, 2004
Part 1: The Morphing of the Conservative Movement
Part 2: The Architecture of Fascism
Part 3: The Pseudo-Fascist Campaign
Part 4: The Apocalyptic One-Party State
Part 5: Warfare By Other Means
Part 6: Breaking Down the Barriers
Part 7 [Conclusion]: It Can Happen Here
Almost certainly, Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here, published in 1935, is his most peculiar novel. For one thing, it's the closest thing to speculative fiction he ever wrote. It describes the rise to power of an American fascist named Buzz Windrip, who arrives on the political scene to rescue America from a plague of labor unions, welfare cheats, godless atheists, and gun-grabbing Jews.
It's an intriguing enough premise -- one to which, obviously, Philip Roth owes at least a small debt in his new The Plot Against America, which follows a similar premise -- but, to be honest, Lewis fails to make it very compelling. Certainly it lacks the power of later visions of a totalitarian society like Brave New World or 1984.
In most respects, it's one of his weakest works; it lacks most of the human detail and probing realism of his greatest novels. It also was written after he had been awarded the Nobel, and actually marked the beginning of his decline as a writer.
Nonetheless, it's intriguing because Lewis was writing in a time when fascism was still a very familiar thing, and before it had mutated into the Holocaust Horror we think of when we think of fasicsm today. And the book is, of course, a denunciation of fascism and its potential in America. Lewis may have lost his writer's touch, but he still understood Main Street better than most, and some of his detail is very telling indeed, at least in a political sense. Regardless of what he had lost as a writer at this point, his insight was still intact.
The title comes from an exchange in Chapter 2:
- "... Wait till Buzz takes charge of us. A real Fascist dictatorship!”
"Nonsense! Nonsense!" snorted Tasbrough. "That couldn't happen here in America, not possibly! We’re a country of freemen."
"The answer to that," suggested Doremus Jessup, "if Mr. Falck will forgive me, is 'the hell it can't!' Why, there's no country in the world that can get more hysterical -- yes, or more obsequious! -- than America. Look how Huey Long became absolute monarch over Louisiana, and how the Right Honorable Mr. Senator Berzelius Windrip owns HIS State. Listen to Bishop Prang and Father Coughlin on the radio—divine oracles, to millions. Remember how casually most Americans have accepted Tammany grafting and Chicago gangs and the crookedness of so many of President Harding's appointees? Could Hitler's bunch, or Windrip's, be worse? Remember the Kuklux Klan? Remember our war hysteria, when we called sauerkraut 'Liberty cabbage' and somebody actually proposed calling German measles 'Liberty measles'? And wartime censorship of honest papers? Bad as Russia! Remember our kissing the -- well, the feet of Billy Sunday, the million-dollar evangelist, and of Aimée McPherson, who swam from the Pacific Ocean clear into the Arizona desert and got away with it? Remember Voliva and Mother Eddy? ... Remember our Red scares and our Catholic scares, when all well-informed people knew that the O.G.P.U. were hiding out in Oskaloosa, and the Republicans campaigning against Al Smith told the Carolina mountaineers that if Al won the Pope would illegitimatize their children? Remember Tom Heflin and Tom Dixon? Remember when the hick legislators in certain states, in obedience to William Jennings Bryan, who learned his biology from his pious old grandma, set up shop as scientific experts and made the whole world laugh itself sick by forbidding the teaching of evolution? ... Remember the Kentucky night-riders? Remember how trainloads of people have gone to enjoy lynchings? Not happen here? Prohibition -- shooting down people just because they MIGHT be transporting liquor -- no, that couldn’t happen in AMERICA! Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours! We're ready to start on a Children's Crusade -- only of adults -- right now, and the Right Reverend Abbots Windrip and Prang are all ready to lead it!"
It isn't hard to hear not just precursors but parallels to today's political milieu. Especially noteworthy: the reference to "Liberty measles" ("Freedom fries," anyone?), as well as the "wartime censorship of the papers".
But Lewis was speaking of the kinds of character traits that a nation has to have to lead it into fascism, and how despite (and in fact, largely because of) our blithe self-denials, we remain vulnerable to this peculiar brand of totalitarianism, much more so than other kinds. The names have changed, but the traits are still with us. How many doubt that Rush Limbaugh is just a fresh incarnation of Father Coughlin? That the Republican warnings about what Al Smith might do to people's religious beliefs are being recycled as RNC flyers intimating that Democrats intend to ban the Bible this year?
As it happens, most serious scholars of fascism agree with Lewis, ranging from Stanley Payne (who is more skeptical, however, than most) to Roger Griffin to Robert O. Paxton. In his The Anatomy of Fascism, Paxton writes [pp. 201-202]:
- The United States itself has never been exempt from fascism. Indeed, antidemocratic and xenophobic movements have flourished in America since the Native American party of 1845 and the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s. In the crisis-ridden 1930s, as in other democracies, derivative fascist movements were conspicuous in the United States: the Protestant evangelist Gerald B. Winrod's openly pro-Hitler Defenders of the Christian Faith with their Black Legion; William Dudley Pelley's Silver Shirts (the initials "SS" were intentional); the veteran-based Khaki Shirts (whose leader, one Art J. Smith, vanished after a heckler was killed at one of his rallies); and a hot of others. Movements with an exotic foreign look won few followers, however. George Lincoln Rockwell, flamboyant head of the American Nazi Party from 1959 until his assassination by a disgruntled follower in 1967, seemed even more "un-American" after the great anti-Nazi war.
Much more dangerous are movements that employ authentically American themes in ways that resemble fascism functionally. The Klan revived in the 1920s, took on virulent anti-Semitism, and spread to cities and the Middle West. In the 1930s, Father Charles E. Coughlin gathered a radio audience estimated at forty million around and anticommunist, anti-Wall Street, pro-soft money, and -- after 1938 -- anti-Semitic message broadcast from his church on the outskirts of Detroit. For a moment in early 1936 it looked as if his Union Party and its presidential candidate, North Dakota congressman William Lemke, might overwhelm Roosevelt. The plutocrat-baiting governor Huey Long of Louisiana had authentic political momentum until his assassination in 1935, but, though frequently labeled fascist at the time, he was more accurately a share-the-wealth demagogue. The fundamentalist preacher Gerald L.K. Smith, who had worked with both Coughlin and Long, turned the message more directly after World War II to the "Judeo-Communist conspiracy" and had a real impact. Today a "politics of resentment" rooted in authentic American piety and nativism sometimes leads to violence against some of the very same "internal enemies" once targeted by the Nazis, such as homosexuals and defenders of abortion rights.
Of course the United States would have to suffer catastrophic setback and polarization for these fringe groups to find powerful allies and enter the mainstream. I half expected to see emerge after 1968 a movement of national reunification, regeneration, and purification directed against hirsute antiwar protesters, black radicals, and "degenerate" artists. I thought that some of the Bietnam veterans might form analogs to the Freikorps of 1919 Germany or the Italian Arditi, and attack the youths whose demonstrations on the steps of the Pentagon had "stabbed them in the back." Fortunately I was wrong (so far). Since September 11, 2001, however, civil liberties have been curtailed to popular acclaim in a patriotic war upon terrorists.
Paxton, correctly I think, identifies today's far-right militia/Patriot and white-supremacist organizations -- who remain largely relegated to the fringe in the national conception of things -- as the remnants of genuine proto-fascism in America. (Proto-fascism, of course, is genuinely fascist at its core -- in contrast to pseudo-fascism, which has the outward structural appearance of fascism but is different in its underlying nature.)
Paxton's assumption is that any American fascism will arise under the same mechanism as that of fascisms of the past: as a discrete movement that moves in to take advantage of political space created by the failures of the traditional political powers. That is, under this conception, it would have to emerge as a third party that displaces the Republican and Democratic parties.
What he doesn't seem to consider, in fact, is the possibility of an alternative mechanism: namely, the transformation of an existing party into a fascist entity from within -- not necessarily by design, but by a coalescence of political forces already latent in the landscape. This possibility, actually, is raised by the fact that, as Paxton describes in detail, fascism is not so much an ideological "ism" but a constellation of traits that takes on a pathological life of its own. And these traits, as he details, are very much present, historically speaking, in American political life.
In fact, this very mechanism was raised by the one of the significant American fascist "intellectuals" who arose in the 1930s. His name was Lawrence Dennis, and in 1936 -- a year after Lewis' novel -- he wrote an ideological blueprint titled The Coming American Fascism.
Dennis predicted that, eventually, the combination of a dictatorial and bureaucratic government and big business would continue exploiting the working middle class until, in frustration, it would turn to fascism. What's especially noteworthy were the kind of conditions he foresaw for this to happen:
- Nothing could be more logical or in the best political tradition than for a type of fascism to be ushered into this country by leaders who are now vigorously denouncing fascism and repudiating all that it is understood to stand for...
And, needless to add, these principles would mean the replacement of the existing organizational pattern of public administration by that of a highly centralized government which would exercise the powers of a truly national State, and which would be manned by a personnel responsible to a political party holding a mandate from the people. This party would be the fascist party of the United States-undoubtedly called, however, by another name...
Yet how infinitely better for the in-elite of the moment to have fascism come through one of the major parties of the moment than to have it fight its way to power as the program of the most embittered leaders of the out-elite. ...
This description has an ominous ring in an era in which the dominant party in power in America is frenziedly declaring war on "Islamofascism" while itself taking on many of the traits of fascism itself. It's unlikely that Dennis' thinking guided any of the intellectuals in today's mainstream conservative movement, though it is worth noting that his work is enjoying a renaissance in the paleo-conservative movement, particularly in such places as The Occidental Review, the far-right publication sponsored by William Regnery.
Rather than being guided consciously (and there certainly is no evidence whatsoever for an ideologically fascist conspiracy), this transformation is occurring almost spontaneously, as the forces that fascism comprises gradually come together under their own gravity.
The primary impetus has been the change under which conservatism became a discrete movement intent on seizing the reins of power. In the process, the means -- that is, the obtaining of power -- became the end. And once the movement became centered around obtaining power, by any means necessary, then ideology became fungible according to the needs of its drive to acquire power, just as it was with fascism. This virtually guaranteed it would become a travesty of its original purpose. The nature of today's "conservative movement" is no more apparent than in how distinctly un-conservative its actual conduct has been: busting budgets, falling asleep at the wheel of national security, engaging wars recklessly and without adequate planning.
Two things occurred to the conservative movement in this drive for power:
-- It increasingly viewed liberals not merely as competitors but as unacceptable partners in the liberal-conservative power-sharing agreement that has been in place since at least the New Deal and the rise of modern consumer society. Ultimately, this view metastacizes into seeing liberals as objects to be eliminated.
-- It became increasingly willing to countenance ideological and practical bridges with certain factions of the extremist right. This ranged from anti-abortion and religious-right extremists to the neo-Confederates who dominate Republican politics in the South to factions of the Patriot/militia movement.
The combination of these two forces exerted a powerful rightward pull on the movement, to the point where extremist ideas and agendas have increasingly been adopted by the mainstream right, flowing into an eliminationist hatred of liberalism. In the process, their own rhetoric has come to sound like that on the far right. A lot of the dabbling in far-right memes has been gratuitous, intended to "push the envelope" for talk-radio audiences in constant need of fresh outrageousness.
Fully enabled, free of any of the traditional checks on its power, by the earth-shaking effects of Sept. 11, the movement morphed into a genuinely radical force. And in its outward shape, it has come to resemble fascism, particularly in the way it has adopted nearly all of the "mobilizing passions" of fascism to some degree, whether greater or lesser.
But at its core, it is not fascism. At least not yet. Remember Paxton's rather clear description of fascism in the context of the history of ideologies: it is, in essence, "dictatorship against the Left amidst popular enthusiasm." Well, there can be little doubt of its overt anti-leftism; increasingly the mainstream right's entire raison d'etre is, in Mussolini's phrase, "to break the bones of the Democrats of Il Mundo". But it is not yet a dictatorship, though the conservative movement's efforts to create a one-party state approach that. Neither does it enjoy true popular enthusiasm. Sure, they have a sizeable and boisterous following, and their increasing conversion of mass media to a propaganda arm of the right is a serious problem that does not bode well for stopping them from actually gaining a majority following.
Put it this way: The fact that nearly half the country is willing to endorse the manifest incompetence of a man like George W. Bush, by returning him to the Oval Office for another four years, is not a good sign in this regard. The remarkable levels of delusion and misinformation among Bush supporters is another confirmation that this is not a healthy political milieu.
At every step, rather than disconfirming the trend, the Bush White House confirms it. First we have the Bush campaign's bizarre authoritarian behavior surrounding his public appearances. Non-Bush supporters (and even those deemed insufficiently supportive) are prevented from entering, and even ostensibly neutral messages like "Protect Our Civil Liberties" are cause for being ejected and threatened with arrest.
Then, Chris Suellentrop at Slate recently uncovered the "Bush Pledge," a pledge of allegiance to Bush himself that thousands of Republicans have apparently taken:
- "I want you to stand, raise your right hands," and recite "the Bush Pledge," said Florida state Sen. Ken Pruitt. The assembled mass of about 2,000 in this Treasure Coast town about an hour north of West Palm Beach dutifully rose, arms aloft, and repeated after Pruitt: "I care about freedom and liberty. I care about my family. I care about my country. Because I care, I promise to work hard to re-elect, re-elect George W. Bush as president of the United States."
Billmon (as always) put it best:
- The truly sinister thing -- and the reason why that Slate story made the hair stand up on the back of my neck -- is that even as these people move, like sleepwalkers, towards a distinctly American version of the cult of the leader, most of them honestly appear to have no idea what they're doing, or creating. I'm not even sure the Rovians themselves entirely understand the atavistic instincts they've awakened in Bush's most loyal followers. But the current is running now, fast and strong. And we're all heading for the rapids.
Likewise, the continuing trend toward disproportionately ugly and violent behavior related to the election, especially on the part of Bush supporters, and in some cases directly related to the Republican campaigns, is even further cause for concern. Because it is the point at which violence becomes an organizational response that the conservative movement will cease to be pseudo-fascist.
Regardless of the mechanism, Paxton is clear that not only can fascism take root in America, but that it will also take a peculiarly American shape:
- The language and symbols of an authentic American fascism would, of course, have little to do with the original European models. They would have to be as familiar and reassurign to loyal Americans as the language and symbols of the original fascisms were familiar and reassuring to many Italians and Germans. No swastikas in American fascism, but Stars and Stripes (or Stars and Bars) and Christian crosses. No fascist salute, but mass recitations of the pledge of allegiance. These symbols contain no whiff of fascism in themselves, of course, but an American fascism would transform them into obligatory litmus tests for detecting the internal enemy.
Around such reassuring language and symbols in the event of some redoubtable setback to national prestige, Americans might support an enterprise of forcible national regeneration, unification, and purification. Its targets would be the First Amendment, separation of Church and State (creches on the lawns, prayers in the schools), efforts to place controls on gun ownership, desecrations of the flag, unassimilated minorities, artistic license, dissident and unusual behavior of all sorts that could be labeled antinational or decadent.
It's worth observing, of course, that nearly all of these themes have played significant roles in the campaign waged by the conservative movement in 2004 -- particularly in the monumental attacks on gays and lesbians under the pretense of stopping gay marriage, coinciding with a de facto antagonism to church-state separation, represented by the Republican National Committee's hiring of David Barton, a noted anti-separation extremist, as a campaign consultant and speaker at RNC events.
What's still lacking, however, from the basic recipe for genuine fascism is the emergence of a genuine crisis of democracy. Unfortunately, because of the extreme volatility of the political environment, the potential for such a crisis erupting exists regardless of whatever among the likely scenarios plays out in Tuesday's election:
- Bush wins legitimately and cleanly. Under this scenario, the conservative movement gains a death grip on the reins of power. Democrats will be gerrymandered and maneuvered into meaninglessness, paving the way for an essentially one-party state. And unencumbered by the need to win re-election, as well as empowered by an actual mandate, Bush's radical social and political agenda will begin to take effect. Democratic institutions across the board will suffer.
Kerry wins cleanly. In this event, there will continue to be heated opposition to any reforms he might attempt, waged often through the propaganda organs of the mainstream press. There will be continuous claims that Kerry won illegitimately. Moreover, the True Believers of the conservative movement -- many of whom have become radicalized to an unusual level over the course of the campaign -- will act out their resistance to a Kerry regime violently. Expect a sharp spike in domestic terrorism, and further divisiveness from the conservative movement, much of it centered around Kerry's supposed "treasonousness." Expect the rhetoric to become truly violent when the debate focuses on the United Nations.
Bush maintains power illegitimately. This is the most potentially troubling of the scenarios. Considering their manifest willingness to do anything to win -- even litigate their way into the White House in the face of a popular-vote loss -- the Bush campaign is nearly limitless in what it will attempt to maintain its hold on power this year. This may range from massive lawsuits contesting election results because of alleged "voter fraud" in heavily minority precincts, to resorting to Republican state legislatures overriding the outcome of their elections (if pro-Kerry) and selecting in their place a Republican slate of electors -- a decidedly possible outcome, since the Supreme Court made clear in the 2000 Florida debacle that legislatures had the right to do this. Recall, if you will, Antonin Scalia's chilling remark: "There is no right of suffrage under Article II," meaning, there is no constitutional right to vote for president.
Major terrorist attacks occur during the election. As Richard Hasen pointed out in Slate, this is "the true nightmare scenario": An attack on a major city in a battleground state could prevent thousands, even millions of voters from making it to the polls, triggering a political and legal fight over how to handle the matter afterward. It's worth noting, of course, that not only are Oklahoma City-style domestic terrorists the potential perpetrators of such acts, they are, under the current charged milieu, those most likely. But if such an attack does occur, the presumptive suspects of course will be al Qaeda.
Of course, terrorist attacks needn't occur only on Election Day to have a potentially profound impact on American society. Indeed, if they are severe or frequent enough, it is clear that they would clearly represent a continuing source of crisis for democracy. Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday's vote, the power of terrorism to spark such a crisis remains profound.
In other words, it's clear that the "crisis of democracy" necessary to create a genuinely fascist dynamic is a real potential that lies around many corners on our current path. The key, then, is to finding the path that does not take us there.
If fascism is indeed latent in our political landscape and rising to the surfact, then the critical question becomes this: How do we prevent it from doing so?
First, it's important to understand the conditions under which fascism's attempts to take root and gain power have failed. I described some of these in Part IV of "Rush, Newspeak, and Fascism," referencing Paxton's work on the failure of French fascism. Put briefly, fascism only obtained power by forming alliances with mainstream conservatives -- and there was no "political space" for that in France. The same, I explained, was true of the previous failure of American fascism:
- Fascism as a political force suffered from the same sort of bad timing in the United States when it arose in the 1920s -- conservatives were in power and had no need of an alliance with fascism, and there was no great social crisis. When it re-arose in the 1930s, the ascendance of power-sharing liberalism that was as popular in rural areas as in urban, again left fascism little breathing room.
And in the 1990s, when proto-fascism re-emerged as popular movement in the form of the Patriots, conservatives once again enjoyed a considerable power base, having control of the Congress, and little incentive to share power. Moreover, the economy was booming -- except in rural America.
What the current pseudo-fascist phenomenon represents is a different kind of mechanism, one in which the political space is created not apart from the major parties, but from within one of them -- the one that had been traditionally hospitable to the traits that constitute fascism. This tendency dates back to the days of the America First Committee.
This tendency has finally metastacized into a genuinely dangerous situation, one in which the GOP has become host to a Stalinist movement that exhibits so many of the traits of fascism that the resemblance is now unmistakable.
This means a complete reconfiguration of the calculations of any "political space" that might be created by a serious crisis of American democracy. Instead of creating an opportunity for a fascist movement to gain legitimacy through an alliance with conservatives, what such a crisis instead creates is a situation in which the latent fascist elements come to the surface and, in turn, come to dominate the nature of a party already in power.
This makes any potential for a crisis of democracy potentially more dangerous in terms of the opening it creares for fascism, because it can manifest itself much more rapidly, and without any requisite shift in the political space. This is especially the case for an entity like the conservative movement, which already in so many ways dominates the American political landscape now.
By far, of the potential scenarios for a crisis of democratic institutions outlined above, the most likely to produce a real outbreak of fascism is the third one, in which Bush again takes charge of the Oval Office through litigation or some other abrogation of the norms of democratic rule. If it happens a second time -- and particularly if Bush does so by once again disenfranchising voters -- then there will be a strong, perhaps violent reaction from the left, who will have (quite rationally) come to the conclusion that Bush and his regime not only have no respect for democratic institutions, but that they intend to undermine if not destroy them outright.
The danger lies with that reaction, which in this scenario would almost certainly produce mass protests: marches, demonstrations, anti-Bush rallies. These would almost certainly be accompanied by a nominal level of violence: arrests, police confrontations, some provocation-related violence, property damage. This violence would then become justification for violent counters -- the organizational groundwork for which has already been laid in the form of such anti-liberal provocateurs as the Freepers and Protest Warriors.
The reaction to a second Bush term under illegitimate conditions, then, would likely spark a counter-reaction that would manifest condoned, organizational violence, the lack of which is one of the distinguishing characteristics of pseudo-fascism. This is the scenario in which the danger of fascism lies closest to the surface.
The prospects under a Bush-victory scenario are not much brighter: Bush with a mandate will be Bush Unleashed, and the volatility of this election will likely release a lot of pent-up frustrations at liberals, but it's difficult to say how high the levels of violence are likely to be. On the other hand, the conservative movement's totalitarian impulses, particularly in gerrymandering the political system a la Texas, to ensure the GOP's continued political dominance, raise the chilling prospect of, at the very best, a Stalinist/PRI-style one-party state, where every person in the government is first a member of the party. This shift will be more incremental in nature, but there is also bound to be a breaking point at which a cumulative reaction arises against it.
The prospect for a Kerry win is the most promising, but also the most troubling. Certainly the likelihood of large contingent of radicalized, Patriot-style extremists bent on opposing his presidency is a daunting thought, but unfortunately, the extraordinary penetration of the "Kerry is a traitor" meme to a broad segment of the voting population is a certain recipe for producing these kinds of radicals should Kerry in fact win.
On the other hand, there are many indications that the extreme pressures under which the conservative movement has cobbled together its innately limited ruling coalition may in turn cause that coalition to crack apart. As the Washington Monthly recently observed, the gap between the religious right and the neoconservatives who rule the White House roost is growing. Even a Bush victory may not ensure the alliance will hold together, and a Bush loss is highly likely to shatter it.
Indeed, one of the dynamics likely to emerge from a Kerry win will be a split between the "theocons" of the religious right, who appear inclined to form an alliance with the "paleocons" who are agitating for immigration reform, while the neoconservative faction is likely to gravitate in the direction of traditional, non-movement Republicans.
Regardless of which of these outcomes emerges Tuesday and afterward, it is clear that the forces which the conservative movement has put in motion are going to have harmful consequences in the long term, particularly when it comes to attacks on democratic institutions like voting and privacy rights. Even more egregious is the larger harm to the health of the body politic; the divisiveness sown by conservative ideologues is not going away any time soon, regardless of how thoroughly they may be repudiated. If they are not, then it will worsen.
On the meta level, preventing fascism means averting a crisis of democracy, and dismantling the fascist architecture of the conservative movement by repudiating its tenets. If Bush wins, especially illegitimately, that will entail resisting the urge to give in to violence and anger. It will be understandable, of course, but progressives have to understand that it will only fuel a fascist nightmare by giving movement ideologues the pretext to unleash the dogs.
If Kerry wins, we have to be prepared for the backlash that will not need any time to build. Indeed, it is already in place, and it will make the attacks on Bill Clinton look like a walk in the park. It has to be confronted directly; Democrats can no longer afford to presume that their political opponents are willing to play fair by normative rules. A unified, firm and clear response -- especially to the inevitable claims of Kerry's illegitimacy -- has to become the standard of operation instead of an afterthought.
If there is going to be any healing, it will have to begin after the attack style of politics -- in which the smearing an opponent substitutes for the lack of any substance or accomplishment -- has been relegated to the ashheap of history. And that will probably never disappear until the nation's mass media are effectively reformed and the trivialization of the national discourse ceases.
But there is also the personal level at which we have to deal with this as well. As I've discussed previously, the influence of this movement has pervaded our personal lives and relationships as well. Families, longtime friends, and communities are being torn apart by the divisive politics of resentment and accusation that have become the core of the conservative movement's appeal.
One of the realities about coming to terms with fascism is that it is not an immediately demonizing force -- that is, instead, one of its long-term effects. Conservative-movement adherents are still human beings, and seeing them in terms of participating in a kind of fascism should not render them into mere discardable objects. It's much clearer if we understand that many of them are simply responding naturally to the psychological manipulation inherent in the movement's appeal.
Recognizing what we are up against -- namely, a kind of fascism -- is critical to dealing effectively with it, because even if wielding the term in discourse can be unhelpful (it remains a loaded term easily misinterpreted), this model gives us a key to understanding the thought -- or rather, emotive -- processes that are the core of the pseudo-fascist appeal. Getting our opponents to see that, for example, dissent is not treason but patriotism, requires getting them to let go of their preconceptions. It means, in the end, getting them to see us as human beings too. And when we do that, the fascist facade will crumble.
This is, of course, easier said than done. It often is simply impossible. But maintaining this approach, standing firm, and refusing to descend into eye-for-an-eye contemptuousness is, in the end, our only way out of the dark, cavernous maze into which our national politics have descended.
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