Let me close out 2021 with one of those perky looks into the future in two areas: democracy and fascism. In each, our vision of what’s coming down the track gets distorted by our tendency to visualize via the U.S.
Most of us grew up thinking of democracy not in terms of ancient Athens or the Iroquois Confederacy, but of America. They get far too much credit — the word doesn’t appear in their Constitution or Declaration of Independence. The country’s founders didn’t embrace democracy, they feared it. Even Lincoln was a reluctant booster (“Of the people, by the people…”) and look what he got for his troubles.
Current U.S. initiatives and laws undermine democracy through voting restrictions, circumventing elections and denying reality (“Stop the Steal”) don’t contradict its traditions. They are its tradition.
So brace yourself. The U.S. could turn undemocratic. Two hundred-plus years isn’t long, historically — ask the Chinese.
Whew. I feel like this calls for a breather with some optimism. Well, the U.S. isn’t the only model. Take Chile: in 1970 it acquired Latin America’s first elected socialist government. A U.S.-backed military coup overthrew it in 1973. Last month, they elected Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old socialist who said Chile was the cradle of neo-liberalism and will be its grave. Many things come to those who are patient and hang onto hope.
So democracy will survive its demise in the U.S., if it comes to that. But there’s another point. The democracy we know tends to exhaust itself in elections. Euphoria peaks with a Boric, Obama or Trudeau (take your pick). The transformations people voted for rarely happen. They get the victory, but not the renewal — it’s a classic switch, like the shell game. Post-election victories would require something else: deeper, more pervasive democracy.
As for fascism’s chances, and sticking with our U.S. preoccupations, I confess I was too focused on Trump, who seemed to lack the prerequisites. He had no ideology, organization or organized violence. He was in it entirely to aggrandize and enrich himself. Ergo, no foundation for (neo)fascism.
But the foundations were already there, long-term: primordial racism and the demonization of others; militarism; endless expansion of empire; violence, lynching and militias. Trump came along and simply slotted in as current leader. It once seemed only he — as he said — could do it. It’s now clear he could opt out and be replaced, or even rejected. Historian Jason Stanley makes that case persuasively in the Guardian, IMO. It’s about American fascism, not Trump.
So it could happen there. Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here in the 1930s, and he was a novelist of insight. He also wrote Elmer Gantry, on the deep American appeal of religious zealotry. It would require a big shift in the U.S., which still sees itself as the bastion of democratic values. I’m not prejudging the outcome — it didn’t happen there, after all, at least not then.
But if it did? It mightn’t rattle much of the rest of the world. Surveys often show the U.S. being viewed as the greatest threat to world peace and democracy — not just in developing countries, but also in Europe. The U.S. hasn’t always been a beacon. Latin Americans see it as the perpetual hemispheric thug. Of course they have the benefit of direct experience. They all could readily adjust to the U.S. as the Hungary of North America.
But what about Canada? I think such a shift would be a special challenge here. We’ve been so close for so long and they seem so much like us, especially on TV. How would we deal with an overtly undemocratic, fascist America?
I don’t think for a moment we’d go the same route. We’re too underlyingly different, and we might finally realize that. Of course it could happen here — it could happen anywhere — but not for the same reasons and not just because it happened there. It would, however, be a strenuous exercise in adaptation.
And a cheery 2022 2U.
This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star on Dec. 30.