Fascism in a nutshell: Is America ready to trade democracy for cheap gas?
This recent New York Times headline offers a perfect prospective epitaph for America's ailing democracy and its potential imminent demise: "Voters See Democracy in Peril, but Saving It Isn't a Priority."
The details are grim. Voters "overwhelmingly believe American democracy is under threat, but seem remarkably apathetic about that danger," with relatively few calling it "the nation's most pressing problem," according to a new poll conducted for the Times by Siena College. More than one-third of independent voters in the poll "said they were open to supporting candidates who reject the legitimacy of the 2020 election," because economic concerns were more urgent. While 71 percent of voters agreed that "democracy was at risk," only 7 percent said that was the country's most important problem.
The Times' analysis conformed to a depressing current of conventional wisdom, concluding that "for many Americans, this year's midterm elections will be largely defined by rising inflation and other economic woes," reflecting a deeply rooted "cynicism" about government. This particular portrait reinforces what political scientists and other experts have long known about voting and other political behavior in this country.
Most Americans are relatively unsophisticated in their understanding of politics and public policy, and tend to be disengaged on issues beyond the few that appear to be of immediate concern to them, their families or their communities, barring a national emergency or crisis that demands collective attention. But even that kind of increased salience does not necessarily translate into an accurate or factual understanding of the policies in question. For example, the COVID pandemic certainly became a major national issue, but also fueled widespread disinformation about vaccines and public health measures. The 2020 election transfixed the nation for weeks, but Donald Trump's Big Lie narrative about that election has not faded away.
There are exceptions. Because of their experience navigating the color line, the contradictions of American democracy and the country's long history of white supremacy and racism, Black Americans, as a group, often tend to be more sophisticated than white Americans in terms of political decision-making.
Most Americans are not ideological, meaning that they do not possess a coherent and consistent worldview that drives voting and other political behavior. In the aggregate, the American people tend to take their cues from trusted elites about how they should think about politics and what they should do about it. Partisanship and voting are proxies for other social identities, not independent of them.
It is often said that the American people are increasingly polarized on politics. That's true enough, but it fundamentally reflects how the political elites, opinion leaders, and a small percentage of highly politically engaged individuals drive mass behavior.
As the New York Times/Siena College poll and accompanying analysis reinforces, immediate financial concerns and judgments about the economy (aka "pocketbook issues") appear to influence political behavior for many Americans. But even this commonplace observation is more complicated than it appears. "The economy," as a political decision tool, is fraught with pitfalls and inconsistencies. In the aggregate, it may not even matter nearly as much in determining political decision-making as many experts and other observers have long assumed. Political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels make this intervention in their book "Democracy for Realists":
[I]t is by no means obvious that voters can ascertain how incumbents have performed simply by assessing changes in their own welfare. If jobs have been lost in a recession, something is wrong, but is that the president's fault? If it is not, then voting on the basis of good or bad economic conditions may be no more efficacious than killing the pharaoh when the Nile fails to flood or voting against Woodrow Wilson when sharks attack the Jersey shore…. Or, as Theodore Roosevelt put it while he coped with the Panic of 1907, "When the average man loses his money he is simply like a wounded snake and strikes right or left at anything, innocent or the reverse, that presents itself as conspicuous in his mind."
An even more fundamental problem is that voters may have great difficulty accurately assessing changes in their welfare — even with respect to national economic conditions, which are highly salient and carefully monitored by professional economists in and out of government.
Many Americans do not think systematically about politics, society or the economy and are not likely to make connections between an apparently abstract concept like "democracy" and the specific issues they care about. But it's also true that political elites, media commentators and other opinion leaders who claim to believe in democracy have failed to explain to a broad public audience how and why democracy has a substantive impact on the average person's daily life.
There is an even more cynical explanation: As a group, America's elites do not particularly want a well-informed and highly engaged public. Such a public might pose an effective challenge to the outsized power of those elites, and by doing so expose how far they have imposed their narrow set of interests on public policy. Here is Chris Hedges, in a recent essay republished at Salon:
The step from dysfunctional democracy to full-blown fascism was, and will again be, a small one. The hatred for the ruling class, embodied by the establishment Republican and Democratic parties, which have merged into one ruling party, is nearly universal. The public, battling inflation that is at a 40-year high and cost the average U.S. household an additional $717 a month in July alone, will increasingly see any political figure or political party willing to attack the traditional ruling elites as an ally. The more crude, irrational or vulgar the attack, the more the disenfranchised rejoice. These sentiments are true here and in Europe, where energy costs are expected to rise by as much as 80 percent this winter and an inflation rate of 10 percent is eating away at incomes.
The reconfiguration of society under neoliberalism to exclusively benefit the billionaire class, the slashing and privatization of public services, including schools, hospitals and utilities, along with deindustrialization, the profligate pouring of state funds and resources into the war industry, at the expense of the nation's infrastructure and social services, and the building of the world's largest prison system and militarization of police, have predictable results.
At the heart of the problem is a loss of faith in traditional forms of government and democratic solutions.
In a recent interview with me for Salon, social psychologist Shawn Rosenberg offered similar observations, saying that "the Achilles heel of democracy is that the people, meaning the citizenry, do not understand the larger political and governmental system and its values," and are therefore "susceptible to a populist message." He mainly attributes this to America's dysfunctional educational system, which has "failed to educate the public to understand complex questions of society and politics":
It's not that large parts of the American public are inherently evil or bad. It's just that when they look around at the world, they don't understand what's going on. They don't understand why it's so hard to solve some of these problems we're facing, why it's so hard to govern and why they're supposed to respect people who they believe are obviously wrong. ... Right-wing populism offers simple answers and simple solutions and simple characterizations of what the world is like. Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis and other such Republican leaders are offering that vision and those answers.
Meanwhile, members of the media and political classes often make the error of generalizing from their own experience and knowledge to the public as a whole, leading to a whole range of incorrect assumptions, misguided conclusions and overall misunderstandings. Thus we get the perpetual of real or feigned shock and surprise from pundits, commentators and mainstream political leaders when faced with the Republican Party's fascist campaign against American democracy. Political scientist Jonathan Renshon addressed this in an interview with Politico last June:
Absolutely nothing is stopping elites from using the same public opinion data that academics or the public has access to, and yet we still see compelling evidence that elites misread public opinion, either because of stereotypes they hold about the public, over-weighting their own preferences, or unequal exposure to particular constituencies or special interests. As we saw in the 2020 presidential election campaign, it's also not unusual for politicians to discount or dismiss public opinion polls when they don't like the results. In a larger sense, this is not surprising: There are many domains in which access to more or more accurate information doesn't necessarily reduce the tendency for bias to creep into our judgments.
In total, the recent New York Times poll just offers further evidence that the American people may claim to be concerned about "democracy," but are fundamentally unclear as to the cause of the crisis and have no idea what to do about it. It's actually worse than that, in that many Americans don't even pretend to care about democracy and are more concerned about lower prices for gas and groceries — and have no problem trading away their rights and freedoms for the promise of ending inflation.
In a similarly dark vein, a new CBS News poll finds that 63 percent of likely Democratic voters believe that a functioning democracy is more important than a strong economy, but that those numbers are more than reversed among Republicans, 70 percent of whom rank a "strong economy" (whatever that means) above a functioning democracy.
It's not hyperbolic or metaphorical to describe those numbers as a textbook example of how democracy gradually, and then more swiftly, rots away and succumbs to fascism. The naive faith that "it can't happen here" is severely misplaced: It's happening here right now.