January 31, 2022 | Reading Time: 6 minutes
Federalism is the source of fascism, American-style
The tyranny of the minority is baked into the system.
Anyone who’s taken a class on US history knows the framers feared the concentration of power. They believed Lord Acton’s aphorism, that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
So the United States Constitution separates powers three ways at the federal level (legislative, executive and judicial branches) and another way with each state added to the union. This is called federalism.
Federalism as it has been practiced in the US has never been what we were taught. It does not prevent tyranny. It creates it. It does not create freedom. It prevents it. Federalism is not a device for the political minority to check and balance rule by the political majority.
Another thing you know from your history class – federalism prevents tyranny and hence creates freedom. The thinking was that with the federal government constitutionally restrained, states and localities were free to create governments and public spaces as they saw fit.
But federalism as it has been practiced in the US has never been what we were taught. It does not prevent tyranny. It creates it. It does not create freedom. It prevents it. Federalism is not a device for the political minority to check and balance rule by the political majority.
On the contrary, as William H. Riker once wrote, “it is impossible to interpret federalism as other than a device for minority tyranny.” In his classic 1964 study, Federalism: Origin, Operation, Significance, he said:
If one approves of the goals and values of the privileged minority, one should approve of federalism. Thus, if in the United States one approves of Southern white racists, then one should approve of American federalism. If, on the other hand, one disapproves of the values of the privileged minority, one should disapprove of federalism. Thus, if in the United States one disapproves of racism, one should disapprove of federalism.
Riker said he doesn’t think we need to take “very seriously” the traditional argument in favor of federalism. It’s “at best folk wisdom.”
But Lisa Corrigan thinks it’s more.
A professor of communication and Director of the Gender Studies Program at the University of Arkansas, she said “conflict between the federal government and the states is the central problem of the United States.” Indeed, she said during an interview, the Republican Party exploits federalism to encumber or even dismantle democracy, together making them the principal source of fascism, American-style.
Why do you say the GOP is fascist?
Because they are manufacturing a political ecosystem in which there’s no need for debate, the popular will, or free and fair elections. They are framing democracy itself as a threat to the people and undermining voting rights and public participation in the formal political process. These are all hallmark signs of fascism.
Fascism is a structure that withholds public goods and services or that steers them into the hands of the ultra-wealthy. Supporting public goods and expanding public welfare is what creates the support for elected officials who want to defend and expand democracy.
They say they are “conserving,” but that’s a framework for the distribution of resources from the bottom to the top through regressive tax policy that doesn’t deliver public goods to the people.
Are you suggesting that when conservatives said government is the problem, not the solution, that that’s a kind of fascism.
Yes. The rhetorical source for contemporary fascism is the Barry Goldwater-Ronald Reagan line of argument in which the government is the source of the nation’s problems. But without centralized power, there is no equal distribution of resources or civil rights.
To undermine federal power is to push authority to the states, which is where the incoherence of policy becomes grievance (Trumpism).
The country hasn’t had an orientation toward abundance or shared resources in your lifetime. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
The answer can be found in expanding social goods. Reagan demonized social welfare. But I went to public schools and happily used my public library. I utilize highways. I can access emergency rooms. I live in a state that benefits from huge agricultural subsidies.
“Fascism is a structure that withholds public goods and services or that steers them into the hands of the ultra-wealthy. Supporting public goods and connecting with people to expand public welfare is what creates the support for elected officials who want to defend and expand democracy.”
We all benefit from social welfare and expanding the social goods subsidized by our tax dollars. It creates an incentive to participate in democracy. When we pay taxes and benefit from them, we are more invested in the democratic process. As privatization of public services expands, people have less incentive to participate in the public.
When people are not collaborating to manage public goods and services, they wield power against one another. Scarcity creates resource wars over everything from food to electricity to education.
You mention how decentralized power prevents the equal distribution of resources and creates conditions for scarcity. Does that mean federalism as practiced in the US is conducive to fascism?
I do mean this. My rights in this country are indexed by my zip code. I can drive an hour north or west and have a totally different set of rights and different access to resources. This is further complicated by redlining and segregation, which index geographical rights on race.
This is why you are seeing state legislatures like Texas’ returning to vigilantism and writing versions of the Fugitive Slave Laws into their legislation with respect to reproductive health care and abortion.
Our political moment is the culmination of Richard Nixon’s southern strategy. The animation of racism combined with austerity is predictable and destructive. Watching southern states withhold covid relief or take credit for and benefit from federal infrastructure funding that they said they opposed is a symptom of that culmination.
There are no minority rights when the minority rules. Restrictions on voting rights and erosion of freedom of speech are essential to state rule. Nixon’s “silent majority” was really a silent minority. The political minority is where the authoritarian impulses find expression.
If a major party bucks all of the politically popular issues of the day and pushes ahead towards disenfranchisement, they are the new fascism.
Let’s bring the Supreme Court into this. Three justices are beneficiaries of a president who colluded with a foreign enemy to sabotage a rival to “win” the election. Now that court is prepared to reverse rights interpreted through the 14th Amendment. Thoughts?
The goal is to return the country to pre-Brown days (1954) prior to the civil rights movement, desegregation, the women’s movement, the advent of birth control, the birth of the modern labor movement and the student movement. This is the southern strategy in a nutshell.
I think the Supreme Court poses a problem for the Democrats and they know it. They ignored the judiciary as a branch of government, despite the clarion call of the Reagan Administration to move the judiciary and SCOTUS to the right and they had no counter.
SCOTUS will be a huge conversation after the midterms, I suspect.
“They say they are ‘conserving,’ but that’s a framework for the distribution of resources from the bottom to the top through regressive tax policy that doesn’t deliver public goods to the people.”
I also think people need to understand that investigations of sitting members of all three branches of government will also draw massive blowback when the GOP regains power in its current form. They will weaponize investigative power against members of the Democratic Party just for being members, not necessarily for malfeasance.
The Democrats should expect it. But the public should understand that fascists weaponize investigative power to imprison enemies. Not for malfeasance but to control the landscape. That will be the pivot for a resurgent GOP controlling all three branches of government.
You once said this flourishing of fascism is rooted in “sex panic.” What does that mean? How does it apply to our experience?
Soft fascism (fascism that isn’t yet public violence) starts with calls against obscenity (in books, television and public culture). It focuses obscenity crusades on women and LGBTQ people and on prohibitions of sexual content, sexuality, nudity and sexual permissiveness, particularly when racial violence is unpopular or illegal.
In a nation with strong anti-discrimination laws, racial violence still exists but is displaced onto women and LGBTQ people. Likewise, the anti-abortion, anti-reproductive care stance of the modern GOP serves fascist goals and leads to expanded racial violence.
Likewise, the anti-abortion, anti-reproductive care stance of the modern GOP serves fascist goals and leads to expanded racial violence. If the goal is to move the country back to all-white rule, that means reversing say Loving v. Virginia (interracial marriage) along with Planned Parenthood v. Casey and Roe v. Wade (both re abortion).
Is it fair to say fascism starts at home?
Yes, fascism starts at home.
Which is why the debates in the 1960s focused on privacy. This political moment, where race panic and sex panic co-constitute one another, is nearly identical in form and function to the same kinds of obscenity debates in the 1930s, 1950s and 1980s. The nuclear family is central to harnessing the power of austerity and control.
How do we defeat fascism?
People need to run for office on pro-public platforms.
People need to support public schools, libraries, parks, and essential workers, particularly in health care workers.
People need to talk about the positive contributions of social goods like infrastructure and talk about how they are benefitting from them, like the childcare tax credit.
They need to connect with like-minded people online and offline to build community support for democratic practices.
Start book clubs. Go to political meetings. Volunteer. Connect.
The fragmentation of social groups as a result of long work days and unsupported childcare undermines democracy, so people should support initiatives that support working parents and families.
“Basically, George Wallace is the figurehead of modern American fascism. This is the end result of the Southern strategy. It’s law and order as the guise for authoritarianism.”
Support civic groups that advocate for the expansion of voting rights, privacy rights and freedom of speech.
Financially support groups that are legally challenging the basis for exclusionary politics.
Donate banned books to Little Free Libraries.
Learn how to lobby at your state capitol.
And know that attacks on LGBTQ people and people of color are a precursor to other forms of widespread social violence.
More than anything, people need to support democratic norms and loudly and persistently advocate for social goods.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.