September 27, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
From American sectionalism grows American fascism
All fascisms are native-born.
Monday’s post was about two definitions of “politics.” The first was war by other means. That’s what the Republicans do. The other was solving our collective problems. That’s what the Democrats do.
Contrary to popular belief, politics isn’t bad. Politics is how normal people change the world. The Republicans know this. That’s why they simplify all politics – using propaganda and lies – to matters of white racial identity. In this way, politics as problem-solving looks like war.
And war is the end of politics.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis illustrated this last week. He dispatched state agents to Texas to reroute migrants to Martha’s Vineyard. Critics said that he politicized the immigration issue. He did the opposite.
He reduced a complexity like immigration policy to a question of “us” (good white people) against “them” (bad nonwhite people). Debate is impossible within that framing. Debate in always impossible inside a “culture of demagoguery.” DeSantis disempowered normal people by making it dangerous to act politically without appearing violent.
I want to add another layer. That layer is geographical.
Florida’s DeSantis, a Republican governor, exploited – perhaps even criminally extorted – vulnerable migrants for selfish reasons without moral consideration for the injury he might cause them. That’s politics as war by other means. It boxes out democratic politics.
From Texas, the migrants were sent to Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts. There, the migrants were met with sympathy and democratic politics. Residents scrambled to provide food, clothing, shelter and medicine – politics as problem-solving.
Politics as war, politics as problem-solving, Florida, Massachusetts – you get the idea. Our discourse presumes the dividing line between Americans is solely partisan. Over here are Republicans. Over there are Democrats. But a focus on partisanship overlooks geographical differences, particularly the south’s unique historical role in the US.
Where is the highest concentration of politics as war by other means? The south. Where is the highest concentration of politics as problem-solving? The northeast. “American politics is the South’s revenge for the Civil War,” wrote Garry Wills. The south dominates the nation. If it can’t, it goes to war, putting an end to democratic politics. Yet we act as if sectionalism died two centuries ago.
I suspect that sectionalism is major contributor to why most Americans don’t recognize the fascism that’s powering “polarization.” To be sure, most of us imagine fascists as jack-booted goosestepping thugs. If they don’t look like that, we think, they can’t be fascists.
But fascism is always homegrown. Ours won’t look like Italy’s. Italy’s won’t look like Hungary’s. And so on. Fascisms may resemble each other, but they aren’t copycats. If it seemed imported, it wouldn’t work, wrote Sarah Churchwell: “Fascism’s ultra-nationalism means that it works by normalizing itself, drawing on familiar national customs to insist it is merely conducting political business as usual.”
Fascism isn’t nationalist in the way normal people understand that term. The nationalism of Abraham Lincoln, founder of the Republican Party, asked for the willingness of differing regions of the country to put the national interest above their own. This was the consensus perspective throughout the Second World War and the Cold War.
That’s not how the fascists see it.
It’s “nationalist” as in “the nation” comprises good white people who are by right of blood worthy of inclusion. In the US, that “nation” has been, since the end of the Civil War, a confederacy of the mind and spirit in which God’s chosen rule the unworthy by the grace of God. “In America, Negroes do not have to be told what fascism is,” poet Langston Hughes told an audience in the 1930s. “We know.”
So when fascists talk about “the nation” or claim to be “nationalists” – or when they invoke the name of “the people” or claim that “it’s a republic, not a democracy” – they don’t mean what they say. What they mean is the south shall reign supreme, the nation be damned.
Sectionalism is the soil from which grows native-born fascism.
Which brings me to one final reason why most Americans don’t recognize the fascism that’s powering today’s “polarization.” That reason is that fascism, American style, has been with us since the beginning. It’s so normal as to be invisible. It’s in the air we breathe.
That’s unsettling, but those believing that democratic politics is “the mediation of our differences,” as Joe Biden put it, had better accept it. Unless we concede the problem, we can’t properly solve it.
To that end, we’d better understand its source.
Like the Republican Party, it’s concentrated in the south, where politics is war by other means for the purpose of ruling over the country’s unworthy. From there, it radiates across the country, forging alliances in Nebraska and sympathizers in Staten Island.
And it’s been this way for a long time.
Indeed, democratic politics has been radicalizing white people, especially in the southern states, since the end of the Civil War, wrote historian Jeremi Suri in his new book, Civil War By Other Means: America’s Long and Unfinished Fight for Democracy.
Democratic politics, free to solve the nation’s collective problems, was “precisely what offended the white citizens of privilege, who had lost control of Southern politics. A wider, multiracial democracy diminished their power,” he said. “They described the transformation of former slaves into voters as the end of the republic” (my italics).
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.