Polarization Isn’t the Problem
What can responsible citizens do in a nation heading toward despotism? How much do systems of government, versus social and psychological issues in a given society at a given time, determine whether a nation falls prey to totalitarianism? At what point does authoritarianism become inevitable? When a real and present danger of fascism exists in a country, it’s foolishness to speak about ‘polarization’ as the problem. The issue isn’t a division between two political camps, but the will to power by right-wing authoritarians and the haters that support them. After all, if the problem is polarization between two sides, there is equivalence between both sides of the political spectrum. It’s thus possible to bridge the divide through listening and dialogue. But when the threat is a groundswell of fascism, which is essentially a naked power grab from right-wing extremists and their followers, every decent person, wherever they fall on the political spectrum, must oppose it with all means short of violence. When we think of authoritarian countries, we associate them with strongmen. When we think of republics, we associate them with peoples. At present the world is being overtaken by tyrants, men like Orban in Hungary, Erdogan in Turkey, Modi in India, Xi in China, Putin in Russia, and Trump, the dictator-in-waiting in the United States. Fascism, as a term, ideology and practice of systemic violence and threat of violence to seize and retain power, began with Mussolini before World War II. Authoritarianism is a much older propensity of course, probably as old as human civilization itself. But it isn’t a given. Even ancient Rome, a totally militaristic and conquest-oriented empire, had a workable Senate with distributed power before the rise of the emperors that ushered in its long decline. There are many conventional explanations for the rise of authoritarianism. Most have a strongly economic component. Some refer to a widespread feeling of humiliation and grievance in a people. Economic and psychological factors are certainly important, but there is a deeper, neglected level — the spiritual dimension. It has to be addressed in responding to the threat of fascism, which always begins and ends with violence. With regard to the country of my birth, you can be sure the United States lost its soul a long time ago when its president gives another speech entitled, “The Fight For the Soul of the Nation.” The question is not whether America has lost its soul; the question is whether we can recover it. Clearly some systems of government are not just more prone to authoritarianism; they are based on it. After the 1917 revolution in Russia, the nascent Soviet Union quickly turned to repression and terror as a means to solidify power. Repression then became institutionalized until the calcified system collapsed under its own weight. But how do democracies turn into dictatorships? To my mind, two underlying currents, besides the usual suspects of economic hardship and psychosocial humiliation, come into play. There must be a pervasive cynicism and despair born of decades of political lies and dashed hopes. And a sizable portion of the population has to congeal around an ideology that projects immense hatred on others inside and outside the country. It’s no coincidence that Trump followed Obama, anymore than it’s a coincidence that despair follows hope. A sizable number of Americans who voted for Obama emotionally flipped out and went for Trump. Obviously the threat of fascism didn’t begin with Donald Trump, but has been decades in the making. Trump just exploited, with a big boost from “The Apprentice,” the latent grievance, dashed hopes and consumer-fed ignorance of millions of Americans. For Republicans to wail about Biden being “divisive” in speaking out about “MAGA semi-fascists” is feral and fecal. Most Republicans now believe Democrats are a cabal of Satan-worshipping cannibals operating child sex trafficking rings. Because his greatest fear is that he’ll be a two-time loser, the monumental loser Trump will only run if he’s sure he can steal the election. That’s why this November’s election is more important than the presidential election in 2024. For if even a small number of the 2020 election deniers and liars get into high and pivotal office (people like Mastriano as governor of Pennsylvania, or Kari Lake as governor of Arizona), it won’t matter who the people elect for president; the fascists will do everything in their considerable power to make sure the mad self-appointed king returns to his throne in the White House. That’s why the usual political niceties and norms don’t apply. That’s why the malignancy of Trumpism must be irradiated now. That’s why if the Department of Justice waits until after the midterms in November to charge Trump, it may well be too late. Even in political life, there are times when calculations must take a back seat to principle. When the zeitgeist turns toward fascism, clever calculations backfire, as they did with FBI Director James Comey, who tipped the scales for Trump in 2016 just before the election by trying to appear even-handed in speaking about Hillary’s misuse of government emails. President Biden sounds a disingenuous note when he rouses himself from his age-related torpor to shout the old nostrum: “This isn’t us; we are the United States of America.” That’s false. Things hang in the balance in America, and in the world. As Adam Serwer has written in the Atlantic: “If the law itself must bend to threats of political violence, then the democracy you are trying to preserve is effectively already lost.” When a democracy is threatened, and the crimes are essentially of a political nature, the legal system cannot operate and should not be expected to operate with impartiality. The justice system must stand against authoritarianism, and not just for the rule of law. You cannot right the ship by acting as though it isn’t sinking.
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Martin LeFevre, a contemplative, philosopher and writer in northern California, serves as a contributing writer for The Seoul Times. His "Meditations" explore and offer insights on spiritual, philosophical and political questions in the global society. LeFevre's philosophical thesis proposes a new theory of human nature. He welcomes dialogue. firstname.lastname@example.org
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