It is the most potent force to drive racists and fascists from power….
This article is an excerpt from the soon to be released, The Fascism This Time: and the Global Future of Democracy.
There is much that is shameful in American history, but its legacy of democratic institution building deserves to be celebrated, and it should inspire us to create a more open and tolerant society.
Ever since Puritans sought in the early-17th century to build “a city on a hill,” on the stony coast of what would soon be christened New England, Americans have seen themselves as possessed of a mission. The mission has usually been cast in moral terms, and while it has typically been construed as secular, its earliest instantiations were more often than not religious.
Over the centuries, the exact nature of the mission has assumed numerous guises, from freedom to dignity to moral renewal. But democracy has always coursed through its veins and found a way into its thrumming heartbeat. However imperfect they may have been, America’s greatest achievement has probably always lain in its democratic institutions.
America was the first modern democracy to take root in such a vast territory, and at several historical junctures it spread its institutions to the peoples of the world. Following its war of independence, at the close of the two world wars, at the curtain call of empires, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, American leaders pressed authoritarian cultures to adopt democratic institutions. Most of its own state governments and countless town councils were democratic prior to its founding. These protected Americans from the rapacity of elites and the corruption of petty officials; and they imbued their culture with a spirit of freedom so absolute that Americans often reject even their own protection from abuse.
All of this is in marked contrast to the authoritarian nationalism and fascism extolled by Trump.
The democratic spirit meant Americans often did for themselves what no government existed to do for them. Alexis de Tocqueville suggested in the first half of the 19-century that “there is scarcely an undertaking so small that Americans do not unite for it.” Contrasting Americans with the British and French, he noted that “Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools.”
All of this enterprising activity leant to the character of the culture a bustling sense of activity. America began as a nation of pioneers, so everything had to be built from scratch. There was no ancient infrastructure of roads and canals, no hospitals, no schools, no prisons, no village councils. Far from it, wherever settlers opened new lands to cultivation, there were no laws and scarcely any semblance of order; except for that of the Native Americans, who were fought off, hemmed in, pressed back, and ultimately cleansed from the land. This leant to an otherwise democratic culture a lawless shadow of violence, which periodically exploded on the national scene, and perpetually vexed its foreign policy, whose democratic mission was all too often perverted by imperial pride.
And it is just this shadow, encoded in the culture through the slave trade and the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, that we see rearing its ugly head today.
America’s history of slavery, like an early childhood disease, crippled it from the start, and it infused into the culture a countervailing spirit of hierarchy, which periodically broke into open conflict with its better angels of democratic innocence. At their best, Americans strove to make right in one generation what they had failed to accomplish in the last, building in the process a progressive tradition of civic renewal. At their worst, they appeared like priestly pedophiles, preaching morals they could not master, and in the process perverting their own development. And it was all on display in their unique brand of capitalism.
America’s hyper-competitive business culture and its more innovative start-up culture are heavily indebted to this tangled legacy of exploitation. Entrepreneurs are prone to fetishizing technology, yet innovation plays only a small part in business success. Rather, it is in the tweaking of designs, the arrangement of distribution, the facilitation of sales, the organization of management, and the structuring of firms where business success usually lies. Americans excelled at these micro-innovations in no small part because of their institution-building legacy, but they also excelled at the teamwork needed to carry out collective enterprises.
The spirit of innovation ran deeper still. Americans invented jazz, blues, country, and rock n’ roll; baseball, football, and basketball; and for all practical purposes the quintessentially American art of film. If it is a cultural legacy consisting largely of kitsch, it is a testament to the creative genius of freedom unleashed. In many ways, America reinvented the world, which made it easier for their culture to take it over, all too at the barrel of a gun; and the ability to do so sprang from the unrestrained expression, which has lately degenerated into fascism.
At the dawn of the 21st century, the spirit of cooperation so essential to democracy was transmuted into its opposite by a reckless and individualistic capitalism, which would assemble people only to tear them apart.
Conservatives would come to worship markets as the engine of American progress, which brought economic development and, through its accoutrements, freedom of expression, and all the comforts of the good life. They would contrast this “free market innovation machine” with the dead hand of government. Yet in so doing, they would overlook the institutional origins of city councils and government bureaus, which also required real people to come together to get things done. From its inception, government arose from the ground up; and when it started to become so unwieldy that some would find in it a threat to their freedom, the source of their anxiety could be found in civic institutions, sprung from the minds of citizens.
American nationalists have been waging a war on their own most vital institutions. The same spirit of institutional innovation that built the first schools and hospitals was also applied to the passage of legislation, which embodied the will of the people and leant shape to their ideals. In this way, the array of bureaus comprising the federal government constitute the essence of the American heritage: they are the only institutions built by all Americans, both those who are living and those long gone. It was only the lawless shadow of the nation that was rearing its head when rightwing nationalists and fascists began to reject the very laws their forebears had institutionalized to protect our freedom.
Still, the bucking of traditional orders has long served as a source of creative tension, spurring citizens to recreate their nation when all seemed lost. American manners and mores emerged from a confluence of cultures, making their way on the margins of civilization. The divisions between Euro-Americans, African-Americans, and Native Americans were perhaps the starkest; but it is often forgotten that British, French, Irish, German, Italian, and Jewish immigrants seldom got along so well as we might imagine. Nor were relations easy between later Chinese, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban arrivals. In this way, America is both a land of promise and an endless series of contestations, and its national spirit is, among other things, liberal, expansive, innovative, and expressive.
The profusion of identities, each with its own language and manners, subdivided by region and class, meant that harmony would require compromise. But where some compromise through a rigid code of morals, and others authoritarian conformity, Americans compromised through the pulsing rhythms of give-and-take. The dazzling diversity, and its extemporaneous essence, was perhaps best articulated in the improvisations of jazz and the poetry of Whitman, who absorbed its burgeoning contradictions, sat with its dying soldiers, worked with its sweating laborers, inhaled its vast multitudes, and euphorically, voraciously, and always lovingly, made of his own heart an offering both humble and sublime.
It was a vision of equality, exalted for the lofty ambitions of an impossible people. But the perpetual pullulations of American social life were more prosaically mediated by democratic institutions. Without democracy, the whole cultural edifice would have fractured into a thousand irreconcilable differences, and splintered into incoherence; but with it, somehow, the center managed to hold. Democracy provided the institutional architecture needed for each generation to create itself anew. Perhaps more so than any other, American culture is the result of this artifice, which must set to work each generation, reforming the national character, while propping up its democratic institutions. In this way, the American character remains as unformed as its manners.
Yet, fascism rejects this spirit of innovation, contracting in conformity, casting out aliens, venting complaints, and evading responsibility. It is a surly rejection of the teeming multitudes and the democratic vistas extolled by the poetry of Whitman.
Cultures like minds are a terrible thing to waste, for they contain within them the wisdom of generations. American liberals and leftists are leaves on the branches of a single cultural tree, containing within themselves the moralism of Puritans, the pacifism of Quakers, the hypocrisies of Jefferson, and the lofty ideals of King. They are the same hopeful failures who made their way from Europe, the same hapless victims shipped from Africa. And it is up to progressives, who have all too often abandoned their culture, and with it, the vision needed to restore the country, to sweep the fascists from power, and create a more tolerant and inclusive culture, which might contribute to a more democratic and cooperative world.
Theo Horesh, author of The Fascism This Time: and the Global Future of Democracy.