Twilight of American Democracy

democracy autocracy

Introduction: Framing the Debate

The 1920s were the formative years for Fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany, largely a reaction to a combination of factors from the devastation of the Great War to the fear of the Bolshevik Revolution by European capitalists. One hundred years later, the historical antecedents in the US are not the same as in interwar Europe. However, massive capital concentration and downward social mobility resulting in political polarization, as characterized interwar Europe, are present and will only become more evident as the decade unfolds.

US political polarization and prospect of democracy in the 21st century has been the subject of analysis and debate. Analysts from the pluralist neoliberal mainstream have argued that the two-party system is resilient and will survive the assault from the far right struggling to find its identity. Right wing populist apologists maintain that the struggle for a monolithic society and rejection of pluralism and globalism will continue. Some liberal pluralism/globalism apologists insist that a right wing orientation is inevitable given the deep historic, cultural, and institutional roots of white supremacy, a culture of violence and police/state militarism.

In the 1990s, apologists of the neoliberal political economy were celebrating The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama’s book about the triumph of Western liberalism and neoliberalism amid the collapse of the Soviet bloc that would somehow entail paradise on earth for all humanity led by the US as the beacon of democracy. Two decades later, the unfolding of events have proved the hollowness of “the End of History” thesis. In a 2005 article entitled “Power and liberal order: America’s postwar world order in transition”, G. John Ikenberry wrote that: “American global power – military, economic, technological, cultural, political – is one of the great realities of our age. Never before has one country been so powerful or unrivaled. The United States emerged from the Cold War as the world’s only superpower and grew faster than Europe and Japan in the decade that followed. American bases and naval forces encircle the globe. Russia and China remain only regional powers and have ceased to offer ideological challenges to the West.”

Disregarding not only the rise of China as the new hegemonic economic power, but also the underlying common thread of the class struggle in the US, many analysts hoped that Soviet bloc and Chinese integration into the Western capitalist orbit would somehow translate into permanent US global hegemony, which in turn would entail upward social mobility for Americans. None of these assumptions (predictions) have come true for they were never based on sound analysis of how the neoliberal political economy impacts the working class and middle class. The continued downward spiral of socioeconomic mobility has contributed to the legitimacy of Fascist tendencies within the Republican Party, as it has the political arena in other countries, from India, Brazil, Hungary, to name a few.

Focused on “culture wars” (conflict between identity politics groups – racial, ethnic, gender, religious, environmental, lifestyle, etc., and the struggle for dominance of values, beliefs, and practices), liberal analysts, as apologists for the status quo, deemphasize the class struggle manifesting itself in the erosion of working class and middle class living standards, while focusing on identity politics as a framework of sociopolitical analysis. The reformist school of thought argues that nothing is inevitable, assuming the government is able to contain the pro-Fascist movement by a combination of law enforcement and policies that address the root causes of cultural/political polarization with some modest social welfare reform policies. For their part, skeptics question the degree to which the US was ever a democracy or merely confusing democracy with the consumer society. Considering its apartheid past and low priority when it comes to social justice, this groups doubts a progressive path modeled after FDR’s New Deal is sustainable, thus Fascism becomes more likely in the future. A catalyst to political socialization, inequality and absence of social justice necessarily gives rise to popular resistance. As part of a populist movement to support some form of authoritarianism, with characteristics of interwar Fascism, the extreme right wing political and socioeconomic elites have successful in mobilizing a segment of the popular resistance under the umbrella of the Republican Party.

In this essay I maintain that the rise of far right extremism in the US is the inevitable outgrowth of the contradictions of the neoliberal political economy promising prosperity for all and delivering wealth concentration to the richest 1%, thus forcing the capitalist class to support authoritarian political solutions to maintain the growing socioeconomic polarized society. Considering there is no threat of Communism in the 2020s as there was in the 1920s, the Fascists’ only target of attack as a catalyst to mobilize popular support is the liberal bourgeois social contract. This right wing attack on the social contract will intensify, providing greater impetus to pro-Fascist elements amid greater rising wealth inequality and economic decline given the “financialism” focus of the US economy and fierce global competition for capital accumulation.

American Traits of Fascism

Many Trump critics, academics and former high-level government officials have no problem labeling Trump’s movement “Fascist”, while others insist on reserving the term exclusively for Mussolini’s Italy, and Nazism for Hitler’s Germany. Unprecedented for a former president, on 10 December 2017 Barak Obama warned Americans not to follow a Nazi path. A clear reference to president Trump and the Republican Party leading America in that direction with rhetoric and policies that encourage ‘culture war’ (kulturkampf – struggle between varieties of right wingers from evangelicals to neo-Nazis against secular liberals), Obama emphasized socioeconomic polarization as the root of political polarization.

Fascism is an eclectic ideology, while the movement evolving into political party and the latter to a regime was unique to interwar Europe. However, movements, political parties, and regimes with Fascist aspects have existed in many parts of the world even after WWII. Emerging from its class structure based on slavery before 1860 and hegemonic culture that marginalized racial, ethnic and religious minorities, Native Americans, and women, the prevalent traits of American Fascism were enmeshed with conservative values of nationalism, anti-intellectualism, disdain for secularism, and values based on egalitarianism and communitarianism. In its evolving phase of glaring contradictions during the last four decades, neoliberalism has precipitated Fascist traits that Republicans legitimized and glorified.

Rejecting the claim of any similarities between neoliberalism and Fascism, neoliberal apologists take pride that their apparent goal is to weaken the state, by which they mean transfer assets from the corporate welfare state to corporate welfare. By contrast, Fascists advocated a powerful state – everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state. American neoliberals, pluralists and rightwing populists, have created a societal model not just in one nation like Mussolini and Hitler but globally with the result of: “everything within neoliberalism, nothing against neoliberalism, nothing outside neoliberalism.” The corporate welfare state has been an instrument of more rapid income redistribution from the working class and middle class to the richest Americans. Ironically, Trump who legitimized Fascist aspects of the GOP used the same populist rhetoric and some tactics against the liberal bourgeois parliamentary state as Fascists in the interwar era. Just as Hitler and Mussolini claimed to represent workers but enriched capitalists, so did Trump. Nevertheless, Trump’s followers who attacked the Capitol were attacking the liberal bourgeois state as an instrument of corruption and oppression that must be replaced with an authoritarian state.

Trump-Inspired Right Wing Insurrection

Never has the US experienced a popular attack on Congress, or inspired by a sitting president refusing to accept the election result while using popular agitation as pressure to undermine the institutions he was sworn to uphold. In the course of the last two centuries, individual acts of violence against Congress by outsiders and elected officials intended to highlight specific causes cannot be compared to what took place on 6 January 2021. With the complicity of Trump’s political operatives, and financed by some of Republican wealthy donors, the well-organized violent demonstration against Congress marked a turning point. Allied with the president and Republican senators and congressmen, the right wing populists were willing to violate constitutional boundaries and use a violence that left seven people dead and a number wounded.

Right wing populist apologists of the events argue that it was not an attack on democracy, but on liberal political and financial elites whose interests Congress serves. Even after the insurrection, the vast majority in the Republican Party refused to renounce the Fascist nature of what took place. Some even blamed progressive groups like Antifa, the anti-Fascist protest organization and Democrats for engaging in a conspiracy to persecute the disparate right wing elements wrapped around the Confederate flag. Others, contended that the Democrats tried to deprive insurrectionists of their constitutional freedom of political expression. A few Republicans denounced the insurrection and blamed the fringe elements and/or Trump lone rather than the Republican Party. In a recent interview, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell excuses his role by stating that: “Trump Tricked Me Into Backing His Coup”.

The storming of the Capitol compelled the Democratic Party and a few Republicans to demand loyalty to institutionalism, so that America will be restored as the beacon of “democracy” in the eyes of its own citizens and the world. Three days after the Trump-inspired insurrection, Foreign Policy magazine published an article arguing that “Trump’s movement is uniquely American fascism, built on a century of American imperialism.” Indeed, there is a convergence between domestic and foreign policy. From the Polk administration’s Manifest Destiny to Trump’s “Make America Great Again”, the US has a consistent history of interventionism as a means of seizing what belongs to other nations.

Besides the convergence of imperialism and nationalism, which the US has practiced under both Republic and Democratic administrations for two centuries, there are many domestic political, economic and cultural forces that help to explain America’s descent into the embrace of aspects of Fascism. In the presidential election of 1964, Barry Goldwater lost by a landslide, launched a war against moderate Republicans and legitimized the right wing that some critics labeled as Nazi. In 1980, Reagan picked up where Goldwater left off, creating a right wing party while he institutionalized neoliberalism and strengthened “Military Keynesianism”. During the Obama presidency, the Tea Party movement took the Republican Party farther to the extreme right, laying the foundation for Trump to openly embrace strategies and policies that even some Republicans argue border on Fascism.

In the absence of relying heavily on the populist base that pre-dates Trump, and which the socioeconomic elites, media, religious and political leaders cultivated, while Trump and the Republicans at all levels of government legitimized, the GOP realized it cannot win presidential elections, or maintain control of the Senate and House of Representatives. Hence, to survive, it moved farther to the extreme right.  Rooted in the suppressed class struggle camouflaged by culture wars and identity politics, political polarization was inevitable amid the weakening of the institutionalist bipartisan center.

In the absence of grassroots support from the marginalized and vilified progressive wing, the Democratic Party cannot win national elections. Unlike the populist right wing the GOP, which took over the party, the progressives remain a marginalized minority in the Democratic Party. However, they remain in the party for they have no other means to stop the Republicans from institutionalizing authoritarianism. Considering the Republican Party is operating under the thin veil of representative democracy, while incorporating aspects of Fascist ideology, tactics and policies, the Democratic Party evolved into the new conservative Party even before Trump’s election. The Democrats’ goal has always been to co-opt the left wing without making concessions, other than minor ones on wages, health care, and symbolic gestures on identity politics to satisfy the disparate interest groups from women to minorities.

The neo-Fascist movement that Trump legitimized is simultaneously hastening a full-fledged police/militarist state that would entail the continued erosion of “liberal-bourgeois democracy”. While many in the anti-Trump camp demand the police/militarized state to defend the status quo after 6 January 2021, it is difficult for them to envision a future Republican administration will be tilting heavily toward Fascism, or that it will not hesitate to use the same police-state measures to crush any movement demanding social justice.

As difficult and painful as this may be to accept for some liberals and progressives alike, fighting Fascism with police/militarist methods, instead of undertaking systemic reforms to a political solution, entails hastening authoritarianism. Some countries have banned extreme right wing political parties and/or use the judicial system to punish violators. This is impossible in the US because the extreme right wing is the Republican Party. Hence, the almost certain inevitability of an even more formalized police-surveillance-state.

The ample empirical evidence of the polarized political system reflecting the socioeconomic structure point to the inevitability of more formalized authoritarianism in some form, especially after the next deep economic recession. This will not be necessarily what existed under the Third Reich or in Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, both emerging out of the misery of economic depressions. More likely, it will be a regime combining elements of historical American conservative traditions and culture rooted in marginalization of minorities; fear of the working class demanding social justice; paranoia that religious rights and gun rights will be abolished and that American traditions rooted in racism, xenophobia, sexism, religious bigotry, and the preservation of a hierarchical society will end.

Structural Causes of Fascism in Ascendancy

Morphed by the neoliberal political economy, under Trump’s right wing populism, and pluralist administrations under Clinton and Obama, American Fascism will grow and become institutionalized as contradictions of the political system undercut the almost non-existent bipartisan consensus. In 1943, FDR’s Vice President Henry Wallace argued that it was hypocritical to condone race riots while condemning Nazi Germany. He added: “Some people call these powerful groups ‘isolationists,’ others call them ‘reactionaries,’ and still others call them ‘American Fascists.’” What Henry Wallace described characterizes the current Republican Party.

Many journalists, politicians and scholars refuse to accept the reality of the GOP as a party with Fascist traits, arguing instead that it is only a matter of “purging” it from the fringe elements. In an essay entitled “The long New Right”, political scientists Daniel Schlozman and Sam Rosenfeld decry the manner that the Republican leadership is permitting pro-QAnon Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene to stigmatize the party. A long-standing fifty-year practice of allowing extreme right wingers, the Republicans permitted Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade in the early 1950s; Goldwater’s right wing crusade in 1964; the Tea Party more recently, and now the Trump loyalists with links to various neo-Nazi organizations among other extremists.

Contrary to the thesis of Schlozman and Rosenfeld claiming that the GOP has failed to police the far right fringe elements in the post-WWII era, evidence shows that those “fringe elements” are mainstream and the former mainstream are now the fringe. Nor is the GOP a cult, as many liberal and conservative critics have characterized it in an attempt to understand how it fits into a historical context and as part of the political culture. The same Republican Party from McCarthy and Goldwater, to Reagan and Trump has evolved into a Fascist phase because it enjoys the support of a segment of the corporate elites, media, police, military, and religious institutions, all interested in mobilizing popular support for an authoritarian regime.

At the root of “Trumpism” whose legacy is intertwined with the Republican Party are deep structural problems not only with the two-party system but all institutions and the hegemonic culture – value system, mores, and worldview that becomes generally accepted as the norm by society. At the top of this growing of authoritarianism iceberg, Wall Street is manipulating the entire economy under the “Financialism” model (from 1980s to present, rising debt-to-equity ratios and financial services, in part rooted in speculation, are equated with the wealth of the nation, while the productive sectors of the economy are minimized). The goal is to maximize profits for the richest 1%, while capital concentration comes at the expense of rising income inequality. This is made possible by pro-Wall Street monetary, fiscal and regulatory policies of both political parties. The result has been downward social mobility polarizing society; driving some from the lower middle class and working class into embrace authoritarianism in the name of “saving America” from socialists, secularists, and liberals diluting the purity of the culture.

In today’s America, the top 0.1% of the population has as much wealth as the bottom 90%, representing the sort of inequality typical of Third World countries. Considering that the election of 2020 cost $14 billion provided by far by billionaires and multi-millionaires, everyone except those who choose not to be informed about the American political system believe that the social contract is anything other than oligarchy that funds political campaigns and uses lobbyists to prevail on policy benefiting its interests against the general welfare. If oligarchy is “democracy”, the US is a democracy; something not lost either on those in the Republican Party populist base or the Democrats’ progressive base. Not only has it not disappeared from securing policy benefiting wealthy donors, but their money has become more influential than at any time in history, even when compared with the 1880s, 1920s and 1980s.

Besides a Wall Street-based rigged (financialism) economy responsible for socioeconomic inequality, educational institutions, even religious and charity organizations, also mired in scandals and corruption, are contributing to the indoctrination of the right wing populist mass base. Using social media, they inculcate into the minds of the populist right that downward pressure of the middle class and workers stems from liberal anti-religious policies and cultural/lifestyle issues such as gay rights.

Symptomatic of structural problems in the neoliberal political economy that make it appear more like a Third World country, downward social mobility has accelerated since the deep recession of 2008. This even by the admission of many Trump loyalists in the last four years who agreed about the need to “Make America Great Again” by building a wall on the border of Mexico; keep out Muslims, give $2 trillion in tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans; and deregulate the economy for higher concentration of profits. Meanwhile, the government provided more corporate subsidies for everything from high tech to biotech companies, even amid the COVID-19 pandemic that raised poverty and unemployment.

Cynicism and conspiracy theories are widespread with the help of the corporate-owned social media and mainstream media. Based on citizen’s trust in government and institutions, the US is resembling a combination of a banana republic or a non-Western nation where crony capitalism is formalized under some form of authoritarian regime. Given the mass psychology of fear and distraction from the oligarchic enemy operating behind governments and politicians shielding them from their responsibility of eroding bourgeois democracy and social justice, authoritarianism is the last resort to maintain the status quo of social injustice.

America’s Decline and “Third-Worldism”

In March 2014, Rolling Stone magazine published an article entitled “Six Ways America is Like  a Third World Country”, listing criminal justice, gun violence, health care, education, inequality, and infrastructure. In Global Rift: The Third World Comes of Age, (1981) L. S. Stavrianos argued that structurally the US had manifestations of “Third Worldism” evolving slowly in the course of the Vietnam War. Difficult to accept that a country in the core of the capitalist world system is showing signs of Third World authoritarian nations, many defenders of neoliberalism dismiss it as absurd, others are cynical about it, and still others admit something must be done to reverse course.

While still in the core of the world economy in terms of nominal GDP value and the dollar’s leverage as the preeminent reserve currency, the US is rapidly losing ground to China. While China was rapidly integrating as many countries as possible into its economy during the last three decades, the US was pursuing a parallel course of parasitic financialism and militarism. At the same time, the nature of capitalism chasing the lowest production cost and highest return on investment at the expense of workers and the middle class has also contributed to structural problems that have shaped the polarized nature of the political arena.

The US was at the zenith of its political, military, and economic power during the Truman administration. While many countries were re-industrializing in the second half of the 20th century, the US was spending liberally on the defense/intelligence/foreign policy network (military Keynesianism) amid various wars, Vietnam among the most costly. Military Keynesianism entailed pouring disproportionate resources to defense as a means of stimulating economic growth in the civilian sector, while using its superior defense as a deterrent against the USSR and China.  The result was to weaken the civilian economy at the same time of continuing to support capital concentration at the expense of a vibrant middle class and working class. The false sense of euphoria that the US would become even stronger economically after the collapse of the Soviet bloc never materialized, as it coincided with the rise of neoliberalism entailing even greater capital concentration and inequality at a time that China was rising to global prominence.

China’s rapid economic rise, based not on nominal value of GDP, but purchasing power parity (PPP) and its future prospect in comparison to the US, coincided with a commensurate decline of the US as the core country of the capitalist world system; this despite the fall of the Soviet bloc and its thorough integration into the world economy. On the surface, it appears that US gradual economic decline in comparison to China is divorced from a broader internal institutional degradation. The corrupt Trump administration was symptomatic of institutional corrosion stemming from contradictions in the political economy. To mobilize popular support, Trump demonized the pluralist/diversity political leaders and institutions, promising the American Dream for all, but catering to the wealthiest in society.

Trump’s populist neoliberal model that encouraged and legitimized existing Fascist tendencies in the Republican Party delivered what Wall Street wanted amid immense competition from China already surpassing the US in integrating much of the world into its economic orbit. A manifestation of a much deeper crisis than it appears at the political level on which the media and most analysts focus, rather than viewing it as a symptom of internal structural decay, the legitimacy of Fascism using the Republican Party as a vehicle was an inevitable consequence of a hastened polarized socioeconomic structure amid the simultaneous rise of economic rival China.

For ideological, political or nationalist considerations, many analysts see ‘Trumpism’ as a temporary political anomaly; a unique case of a personality cult whose movement eventually disappears with the cult leader; at best, the Republican Party temporarily split between institutionalists who need the mask to conceal Fascist tendencies, and Trumpists proud to show their face as a means of mobilizing support from billionaires and among lower middle class and working class voters.

While it is valid to draw comparisons between Trumpism and Fascism, the comparison also explains how the political system operating within a larger institutional context is lapsing toward “Third Worldism”; a process that has been taking place slowly in the past four decades and at the root of the problem. People cannot agree on what has gone wrong in US democracy, just as they cannot agree on a solution to satisfy both the masses and the entrenched elites financing the political parties.

In March 2018, Tyler Cowen wrote in Politico “Fascism Can’t Happen Here”, ‘because the American government is so large and unwieldy’. The same argument was made about Italy in the early 1920s and Germany in the early 1930s. The author insists that fascists cannot control the bureaucracy, an assertion based on the assumption that the police and military as well as other civil service professionals would support the status quo against Fascism. Department of Homeland Security and FBI investigations show that former and active police and military personnel were in fact among those who stormed the capitol building, and that right wing “terrorism” attracts from the ranks that the Politico article insisted are beyond reproach.

Disagreeing on modalities and scale, progressives and establishment Democrats are convinced that reversing the path to more formalized aspects of Fascism and rising “Third Worldism” rests with a stronger centrist and/or center-left political system with only modest policy changes to the status quo. In short, while preserving the weakened social welfare safety net, the goal is to strengthen bourgeois democracy under the neoliberal model of “Financialism” where all focus is on accommodative monetary, fiscal, and regulatory policy to keep a strong stock market. Along with Military Keynesianism, financialism under the neoliberal economy has contributed to ‘Third Worldism’ and brought Trump to the political arena as society’s self-proclaimed savior only too anxious to carry out neoliberal policies to their extreme by commoditizing everything, including foreign and defense policy.

Suggestions that a systemic problem can be fixed with superficial reforms within a corrosive institutional structure precipitates the inevitable path toward ‘Third Worldism’ inexorably intertwined with authoritarianism. In a recent book entitled Donald Trump and the Prospect for American Democracy, Arthur Paulson argues that America is not as democratic as it projects its image at home and abroad. Furthermore, economic inequality makes it even less so, given that social justice is not a priority. If we use social justice and economic equality criteria of Scandinavian countries, Western Europe, New Zealand or even Canada, the US, where consumerism is equated with democracy, is not democratic. Complicating its complex downward path toward ‘Third Worldism’ and authoritarianism, the US is still in the core of the world economy and the preeminent military power using such power as economic leverage rather than addressing domestic structural social and economic problems.

There is almost a universal recognition among Americans that the US has the potential for economic success shared more equitably across all socioeconomic groups (the American Dream), but the regime catering to the privileged elite is driving the country toward ‘Third Worldism’ and polarization. Whether Republican or Democrat, most people support status quo, not realizing that its dysfunction is at the root of the slide toward “Third Worldism” and Fascism. No matter the erosion of ‘bourgeois democracy’, rising inequality and declining social justice, many academics, the media, politicians from both parties, and community leaders will continue to praise the status quo to keep the masses coopted behind the two parties. As divided as they are about policy differences and governing modalities within the larger tents of the two-party system, entrenched socioeconomic elites behind the political establishment agree on the goal of maintaining the status quo. Therein are the seeds of continued institutional decline that opens the door for the consolidation of Fascism.

America’s decline as a pluralistic bourgeois society with a modest social safety net will continue in the post-Trump era, especially if Republicans take control of congress in 2022 and the presidency in 2024. Where is the US headed politically depends a great deal on the degree that socioeconomic elites will continue to perpetuate conditions that exacerbate inequality manifesting itself in political polarization, but expressed as “culture wars”. From the Truman administration to Obama, the US presented itself as an open pluralist society that valued freedom of opportunity in the marketplace equated with democracy, thus a commoditized definition of freedom and a capitalist definition of democracy.

Regardless of political party, many people know that absence of social justice drives people to conclude that the institutional structure exists to serve the very few, while marginalizing most. This widespread belief among Americans weakens any political party’s claim to legitimacy, especially amid political polarization that clearly illustrates the dispute about what ought to replace a dysfunctional social contract. This public perception is reflected in the latest edition of the Edelman Trust Barometer which has the US dropping 37% in trust across all institutions and trust in government 33% vs. 84 for China; statistics reflecting the nadir in public confidence in the entire institutional structure and social contract.

After four years of the Trump presidency, the Biden team presents the image of the US as a model “democracy” which other countries must emulate. Toward that goal, Biden plans an international democracy conference; ironic considering that most Republicans have stripped off the mask from their party tor the world to see its Fascist essence. Meanwhile, not just political observers and many scholars, but ordinary people in the US and around the world are wondering if the US will remain a wounded bourgeois democracy or eventually move to some sort of a Fascist state. Under a leader more competent than Trump and one less focused on using the office to enrich himself and his family; under a politically ambitious president who enjoys wider support among police and military and has broader support from corporate media, religious and select academics, but above all the financial backing of big business, Fascism in America is far more likely than democracy.

Jon V. Kofas, Ph.D. – Retired university professor of history – author of ten academic books and two dozens scholarly articles. Specializing in International Political economy, Kofas has taught courses and written on US diplomatic history, and the roles of the World Bank and IMF in the world.




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