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Why The Real Test of American Exceptionalism is Now

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America Was a Perfect Petri Dish for Fascism. Can it Be Uniquely Swift, Strong, and Smart Enough to Beat It, Anyways?

These strange, unmoored days, the economist in me says something that the human in me — laughing at him like he’s a simpleton — challenges. I’ve come to call it the test of American exceptionalism. It’s a little hypothesis, if you like, or just a series of thoughts, which goes like this.

If you were to imagine a society which was the ideal, the perfect breeding ground — something like a Petri dish, packed with tasty nutrients — for fascism and authoritarianism, then that society, sadly, ironically, would be America. Why? The two things that we should expect to predict fascism and authoritarianism most are: a) prolonge, severe economic stagnation for the average person, and b) a long history of institutionalized supremacy (like racism.)

Let’s take those one by one.

Stagnation predicts fascism for a reason so simple it often hides in plain sight. As their incomes, savings, and assets flatline, and then dwindle — because a stagnant economy means that prices rise, but earnings don’t, so inequality spikes, and the middle collapses back into poverty, things coming undone — people come to live in a world which they feel is unsafe, hostile, and threatening. Just keeping that job, feeing and educating your kids, paying off that mortgage, going to the doctor— all the basics — become exercises fraught with dread, anxiety, and fear. The result? People lose faith in their systems and institutions and norms and values. Such societies are easy meat for demagogues — who promise desperate, broke, and frustrated people what they are seeking most again: a sense of safety, security, belonging, mattering, counting.

Now, all of that is precisely where America is — or, better said, the point that America’s fatally mismanaged has been allowed to reach, by a class of staggeringly incompetent elites. 80% of Americans now live paycheck to paycheck. 70% can’t raise $1000 in emergency savings. A full third struggle to afford food, shelter, and medicine. These are shocking statistics — but they barely begin to tell the story. The old don’t retire, and the young don’t move out of their parents’ homes, the ill crowdfund insulin, kids wear bulletproof backpacks, and so on — what the statistics don’t tell us is more frightening still. Life became just the kind of exercise in fear and anxiety which predicted that people will flee to safety in strongmens’ arms. Hence, trust in every single kind of institution except violence fell catastrophically — and on the flipside, as a natural consequence, people don’t expect life to get better anytime soon, or maybe ever again. That vacuum of power, optimism, and cohesion is the dark seed of authoritarianism and fascism. Do you see how these things are related?

But you are correct to think, “well, that only takes us so far. I can understand why people would be frustrated, even angry — and why they’d turn to demagogues and strongmen. But I don’t understand why they’d go full on fascist.”

That brings me to the second element in my little mental model — a history of institutionalized supremacy. When a society has a long history of racial strife — not just “tension”, as we often say, but real exclusion, like slavery and segregation — that also means it will have been unable to build true public goods. Working systems of healthcare, education, transport, media, finance, and so on. Those are the hidden price of bigotry, which bigots don’t often see — because these things must belong to everyone or no one, constitutionally, legally, formally, and so on. A society predicated on exclusion thus cannot ever really develop them.

Hence, during the 50s, 60s, and 70s, while Europeans and Canadians were building exactly all these systems of public goods, for everyone, America wasn’t. It couldn’t — it was a segregated society until 1971, which meant that it was institutionally impossible to build, for example, a public healthcare system, or any of the many public goods Europeans and Canadians take for granted today.

But these systems are the very things which shield and protect societies from sudden, dramatic descents into fascism and authoritarianism, too (in fact, that is precisely why Europe built them after the war.) Remember the fear, anxiety, and dread which pushes people into the arms of strongmen, as they seek safety and protection and strength, when economies begin to sputter out? If you have working social systems, which can buttress that fall in living standards, you live in a great deal less fear. You might worry about your job — but not about dying without healthcare, and leaving your kids without a mom or dad. Hence, ideally, or at least theoretically, social systems and public goods serve a double purpose — they raise living standards, but at the same time, they’re something like an insurance policy against the death of democracy.

So there’s a hidden benefit of public goods —insurance for democracy — but there’s a hidden cost of not having them, either. And that is the final element in the fascist meltdown. Societies with histories of genuine institutional racism are also, we’d probably imagine, much more prone to believe in dehumanization, scapegoating, and demonization — which is exactly what demagogues and tyrants use to rise to power. They are likely to fall into line much more quickly and easily.

Societies with histories of institutional racism are more likely to believe demagogues and tyrants when they conjure up imaginary enemies, to fill their believers’ fear-addled heads with — because they’ve already long believed in such enemies, anyways. Only the target is different now. But the psychology is already present.

The fascist mind imagines that the refugee, Jew, Muslim, whomever — the weak one, basically — really has the power to exterminate and destroy them: the fascist is a kind of paranoid delusional, in this regard.

But that is exactly what a society like America believed, not so long ago, about blacks, too. Americans brush it under the rug, a little, or perhaps a lot — but the beliefs underlying institutional racism were not pretty ones. They went like this: if we give blacks freedom, they will take our women, start race wars, and eliminate us. They are animals who wish to destroy and kill us. Therefore, we must subjugate them, and prevent such a thing from ever taking place. Do you see how eerily similar all that is to what the fascist believes about the Jew, Muslim, immigrant, or refugee?

In reality, blacks never had the power to even come close to harming the white population in any serious way, even if they were set free. Just as Muslims and Jews and immigrants and little Mexican children don’t have the power to, say, invade Kansas, and set it alight — nor do they wish to. And yet that is precisely the psychology in both cases. Do you see the link? How a history of racism, by creating a psychology of malignant paranoid delusion, makes a society deeply vulnerable to fascism?

(If you want to know “why? Why would anyone believe such a twisted and obviously false delusion?”, the answer goes like this. The fascist believes that the other is out to persecute and victimize him because it is a much easier target on which to place his fears and anxieties — he’s living in a hostile, unsafe world, where the economy is stagnant, remember — than the capitalists, the rich, and the demagogues: he’d have to trace back the causal chain I’ve just discussed. And that’s not easy, is it? And yet for precisely the same reason, the racist once believed that it was blacks who were out to take his women and home and start a war against him — it was an easier target than believing that in a hyper-individualistic, ultra-capitalist society where anything went, it wasn’t the poor powerless black, but the rich white boss who was exploiting him triply, first for his labour, then for his mind, and finally, for his hate, too.)

So. The perfect Petri dish for fascism would be a society in which the economy had been stagnant for decades — and had a long, bitter history of institutional racism, which created a paranoid, delusional psychology, ever ready to attack a hated and despised enemy. Together, when these forces collided, something like a political tsunami would result — a tidal wave, which would be impossible to withstand. It would sweep over a society like that in a matter of years, and — wham!! — submerge it completely, drown it, finish it off as a democracy, probably for good.

That society, my friends, isn’t imaginary anymore — it’s America, in the 2010s.

Hence, the economist in me says: America has a pretty slender chance of making it. It’s up against forces that are far, far larger than the present moment. Forces of history, made of centuries of suffering, spite, pain, and rage, which are exploding now, and drowning it’s democracy, shattering it violently, once and for all. Do you see the idea I’m trying to express? This isn’t really about Trump or Trumpists, scandals and intrigue — it is the culmination of a set of socio-economic forces which have been building, growing, and rising for decades and centuries. Bang! They finally met — and the result is one of history’s greatest and most epic imperial collapses.

And yet. The human in me says: “Dude! LOL. Hold on a second. It’s all well and good to reason as thoroughly as you can. But there are people who can beat the averages, too, you know. Imagine an Olympic champion swimmer. Wouldn’t he have a far better chance of surviving the tsunami you’ve talked about than a chubby slob like, well…that chubby middle-aged guy you’ve become?”

He has a point, the human in me. And not just about my shortcomings. Americans have one weird, special gift that just might save them. They tend to rise to the occasion. We have seen it before. During the Civil War, the Second World War, after 9/11. This is a uniquely American trait — that during times of profound and historic crisis, Americans seem to suddenly dust off their hands, throw their hats into the ring, and grit their teeth. Then everything becomes a battle that must be won. Not just a game anymore. But a true moral contest — which proves the fibre of a people.

Now, you’re welcome to disagree with me about that if you like — that just brings us to the paragraph above. But if you agree with me — or at least what the human in me sees — then, well, you’ve understood that what the next few months are really testing is even bigger, by far, than the “the most important midterms of your life”, or all the usual catchphrases of pundits.

What the next few months are really testing is nothing less than whether American exceptionalism exists, ever existed, can exist — or whether it was always just a fairy tale to lull us asleep. America was something like history’s perfect Petri dish for fascism. Can it rise above it, despite being that? What kind of immune system would that take? That would take something special, indeed, wouldn’t it? Or maybe America will prove something different to us — that nobody, no matter how strong or swift or smart, can rise above the mighty and terrible tides of history. That is something worth learning, too — although it will not be such a pretty finding for Americans. We will find out soon enough, I suppose.

So now you see why I wrote this little essay. It would take an exceptional nation indeed, at this point, to swim through the lashing, furious, bitter tides of history which are arrayed against it. One that did have some kind of unique strength, courage, and stubbornness It’s true that those very tides were loosed by it’s own folly, ignorance, and hubris. But that much is only laughably predictable. It is just a failing, which is to say, the mark left on all mortal frames by the fates and furies. We will all err, and find ourselves far, far out to shore. The real test is: when the flood is rising — and you don’t have an ark — can you make it to the mountain?

 September 2018

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