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The 2022 Midterms Are a Referendum on the Future of Democracy in the US

The coming election will show whether the mass of voters in the U.S. support democracy or fascism.

A "Make America Great Again" hat engulfed in flames burns on the ground at Copley Square in Boston, Massachusetts, on October 18, 2020.

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In the current political landscape fascism is on the rise, and the threat to democracy is imperiled both as an ideal and promise. A number of politicians running for a variety of political offices believe in conspiracy theories, embrace elements of white supremacy, espouse antisemitic ideology, are election deniers, and argue for white Christian nationalism and policies that endorse voter suppression and the banning of books, among other repressive measures. All of these positions should be understood as toxic elements of a rhetoric fueling the neo-fascism embraced by most of the Republican Party — a rhetoric of historical erasure, hate, bigotry and a politics of disposability. Fascism in the United States is no longer a spiraling improbability. While President Biden claimed in a recent speech that the coming election puts democracy on the block, he vastly underestimates the degree to which the resurgent right wing could soon usher in a fascist politics in the United States.

What must not be forgotten is that the politicians advocating these anti-democratic, authoritarian positions are not rogue deviants; rather, they are symptoms of a much wider culture of fascism that condones and normalizes their bigotry and encouragement of violence. They are the new face of a fascist politics haunting the U.S. Fascist rhetoric is no longer underground in the U.S., it has been awakened and is embraced without apology with the emergence of a new form of brutality. This is a brutality that basks in the language of demagogues, encourages those who trade in lies and ignorance, and manipulate public opinion in the service of tyrants and violence. This rebranded form of fascist politics and its advocates in the coming election share the collapse of conscience reinforced by a form of historical erasure that forgets that their language echoes a history that led to genocide, massive deaths and assaults on human dignity.

This rhetoric exceeds and targets more than any one specific group. It goes far beyond the rising displays of antisemitism among celebrities such as Kanye West and beyond the white Christian nationalism of Doug Mastriano. This rhetoric is now part of a broader language of disposability aimed at migrants, people of color, refugees, and others. What should be condemned here is not only their actions but also a society that has allowed this fascism to become once again normalized. What should be understood and interrogated in the age of rebranded fascism is the broad-based attack by anti-democratic forces in the Republican Party and their allies on those critical political, cultural and social institutions that attempt to create informative and critically engaged citizens.

As critical democratic agencies come under attack, modes of critical agency disappear in the fog of political infantilism, paving the way for the public’s belief in the rhetoric of racial purity, religious fundamentalism, an ecosystem of lies, a withdrawal from the language of social responsibility, an obsession with crime and punishment, and the identification of adversaries as enemies of the state. We now live in a system of manipulation, staged fear and manufactured ignorance that dissolves any vestige of residual disbelief, skepticism and critique itself. A crisis of ideas, criticism and ideals has led to a crisis of conscience and the near collapse of democratic politics. The winds of fascism now reach deeply into the lungs of the social fabric, infecting its ability to breathe, converting it and the public it serves to the status of the walking dead.

In his essay, “The Atomization of Man,” first published in Commentary on January 1, 1946, Leo Lowenthal writes about the atomization of human beings under a state of fear that approximates a kind of updated fascist terror. Atomization for Lowenthal refers to individuals who live in a social order in which they are cut off from communal spaces, reduced to disembodied agents who suffer from bouts of isolation and self-worth. Trapped in a culture of harsh competition and a regressive notion of individualism, they feel powerless and are prone to bouts of cynicism and despair. For those who lack any sense of interconnection, the space of the social dissolves, leaving nothing but the emptiness of self-interest and self survival. Central to their condition is a sense of homelessness, a kind of spiritual rootlessness. What Lowenthal gets, even in 1946, is that democracy cannot exist without the educational, political and formative cultures and institutions that make it possible. And he understands that atomized individuals — divorced from community — are not only prone to the forces of depoliticization but also to the false swindle and spirit of demagogues, discourses of hate and demonization of the Other.

We live in an age of death-dealing loneliness, isolation and militarized atomization. If you believe the popular press, loneliness is reaching epidemic proportions in wired advanced industrial societies. The usual suspect is the internet, which sequesters people in the warm glow of the computer screen while reinforcing their own isolation and sense of loneliness. The notions of “friends” and “likes” become disembodied categories in which human beings disappear into the black hole of abstractions and empty signifiers. But blaming the internet is too easy when one lives in a society in which notions of dependence, compassion, mutuality, care for the other and sociality are undermined by a neoliberal ethic in which self-interest becomes the organizing principle of one’s life. This survival-of-the-fittest ethic breeds a culture that at best promotes an indifference to the plight of others and at worse promotes a widespread culture of cruelty and disdain for the less fortunate. Power is now in the hands of a financial elite who control the means of knowledge production, culture and all of the major financial institutions.

At the same time, violence has become normalized as part of the rhetoric of politics, sometimes with dangerous if not deadly results. Fueled by a former president, the growing militia movement in the U.S., and politicians at the highest levels of government, threats of violence or intimidation are now aimed at teachers, politicians, school board members, librarians, election officials, and almost anyone else who defies the orchestrated lies and far right ideologies promoted by a diverse group of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, nativists, rabid evangelicals, and other extremists.

It is no surprise that the greatest threats of violence in the U.S. according to the FBI and a host of other government agencies, now come from far right extremists. For instance, as Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan note: “Political violence is on a bloody and disturbing rise in the United States.… Since Trump’s 2020 loss, threats against election officials have intensified. The Brennan Center for Justice issued a report in 2021 that detailed reports from states across the country, of numerous confrontations and threats against election workers – many laced with racism and anti-semitism.”

The lust for power by corrupt politicians, major corporations and the financial elite draws directly from the playbook of fascist politics. Umberto Eco in his 1995 essay “Ur-Fascism,” published in the New York Review of Books, was right in claiming that fascist politics takes many forms, reminding us that the following elements often come draped in the symbols and traditions of the societies that embrace them. His list is worth paraphrasing and elaborating on: 1) the cult tradition and the nostalgia for those days when white powerful men ruled society; 2) the rejection of the modern world and the turn toward irrationalism; 3) a deep-seated anti-intellectualism; 4) the belief that any disagreement with established power amounts to treason; 5) the fear of difference; 6) the appeal to fear, anxiety and uncertainty 7) a notion of who is worthy of citizenship based on a besieged sense of agency and identity; 8) an ultra-nationalism that can provide the nation with a racial identity; 9) contempt for the weak; 10) an embrace of hyper-masculinity modeled after a contempt and disdain for women; 11) a selective populism in which the notion of citizenship is restricted to a select few — those who hold a sense of racial, religious and political entitlement; 12) use of an impoverished vocabulary, a hatred of the truth and an open embrace of the lie; and 13) the destruction of historical memory and moral witnessing.

All of these attributes are at work in the updated fascist politics driving the modern Republican Party. They not only present an ongoing threat to social justice, democracy, equality and freedom, but also provide an image of a fascist past — whether inspired by the genocide of Indigenous peoples and slavery in the United States or the legacy of Nazi Germany — that makes clear what the end of humanity looks like. The spectacle of Nazi rallies hold an eerie resemblance to those Republican rallies being held in the lead up to the current 2022 elections. Politicians from Doug Mastriano and Kari Lake to Blake Masters and J. D. Vance among others spew out lies, deny election results, deny the perils of climate change, adulate the power of the financial elite and demonize women’s rights all to the sound of cheering crowds. Their language is laced with falsehoods, racial dog whistles, the demonization of those they disagree with, an embrace of the rhetoric of fear and an often not-too-subtle call to violence, all in the service of spectacularized fascism.

Isolated individuals do not make up a healthy democratic society. In Marx’s more theoretical language, alienation is a separation from the fruits of one’s labor. While that is certainly truer than ever, the separation and isolation is now more extensive — governing the entirety of social life in a consumer-based society run by the demands of commerce and the financialization of everything. Isolation, privatization and the cold logic of rationality based on a market-driven notion of efficiency, worth and commercial exchange have created a new social formation and social order in which it becomes difficult to form communal bonds, deep connections, a sense of intimacy and long-term commitments. The first casualty of authoritarianism is those who would oppose it. In an age in which education on multiple fronts has turned toxic and repressive, thereby serving to depoliticize large groups of people, politics has turned deadly and right-wing formations threaten to destroy civic culture and politics itself in the United States.

Neoliberalism has created a society of monsters for whom pain and suffering are now viewed as entertainment, warfare is seen as a permanent state of existence, racism is accepted as an organizing principle of society and militarism is centered as the most powerful force shaping masculinity. Politics has taken an exit from ethics and thus the issue of social costs is divorced from any form of intervention in the world. These are the ideological metrics of political zombies. The key word here is atomization, and it is the curse of both neoliberal societies and democracy itself. Neoliberal capitalism now preys on the fears of the alienated, fearful, isolated and uninformed to pour gasoline on the fires of racism, hate and bigotry.

At the heart of any type of politics wishing to challenge this flight into fascist politics is not merely the recognition of economic structures of domination, but also something more profound. That is there is a need to take seriously those ideological and educational forces that contribute to the construction of particular identities, values, social relations, or more broadly, agency itself. Central to such a recognition is that fact that politics cannot exist without people investing something of themselves in the discourses, images and representations that come at them daily. Rather than suffering alone, lured into the frenzy of hateful emotion, individuals need to be able to identify — see themselves and their daily lives — within progressive critiques of existing forms of domination, and see how they might address such issues not individually but collectively. This is a particularly difficult challenge today because the scourge of atomization is reinforced daily not only by a coordinated neoliberal assault against any viable notion of the social, but also by an authoritarian and finance-based culture that couples a rigid notion of privatization with a flight from any sense of social and moral responsibility.

The culture apparatuses controlled by the 1 percent are the most powerful educational forces in society and they have become disimagination machines — apparatuses of misrecognition, stupidity and cruelty. Collective agency is now atomized, devoid of any viable embrace of the social. Under such circumstances, domination does not merely repress through its apparatuses of terror and violence, but also as Pierre Bourdieu argues through those intellectual and pedagogical practices, “which lie on the side of belief and persuasion.” Too many progressives and others on the left have defaulted on the enormous responsibility of recognizing the educative nature of politics and challenging this form of domination — working to change consciousness and make education central to politics itself.

Trump and his current political allies, including Elon Musk, rely on the media as disimagination machines and engines of misinformation because they get all of this; they understand that with an education that promotes critical analysis, thinking and informed judgment comes the possibility of an active citizenry willing to hold power accountable while fighting to strengthen democracy itself. Critical education is the enemy of demagogues. They don’t want to change consciousness but freeze it within a flood of shocks, sensations and simplisms that demand no thinking while erasing memory, thoughtfulness and critical dialogue. For Trump and his current crop of political misfits running for office, miseducation is the key to getting elected.

Leaders of the modern Republican Party now make a claim to mythic innocence, as James Baldwin once put it, by barricading themselves “inside their history.” Instead of breaking free of the smothering grip of the legacies of white supremacy, too many of them and their followers have embraced a form of historical forgetting and erasure that represses and rewrites history to both suit its feral politics and mimic, without apology, the genocidal legacies of a fascist past. Innocence has now turned deadly as mythic representations of history only make a space for white people who view themselves within the discourse of white nationalism, xenophobia and a brutalizing nativism, all of which traps them in the grips of a fascist politics.

Progressives and the left have failed to take the current crisis seriously by working hard to address the symbolic and pedagogical dimensions of struggle. All of this is necessary in order at the very least to get people to be able to translate private troubles into wider social issues. The latter may be the biggest political and educational challenge facing those who refuse to acknowledge that the current 2022 election is not only about those who believe in democracy and those who don’t, but also about the possibility of the United States turning into a fascist state. If the election does not become a referendum on democracy, the American people will have to bear the burden of living in a number of GOP-run states that often punish anyone who is not a white Christian nationalist, white supremacist or a supporter of fascist politics.

The sinister nightmare of a fascist takeover no longer resides in the works of dystopian fiction — it is here in the present, functioning as a lethal fairy tale defined by a contempt for democracy and heralding political doom. The threat of fascism is no longer a matter of speculation. It is about to be put to a vote in an election that could transport the unthinkable from being a provocative fiction to a cruelly excruciating reality.