Democracy and fascism: Empty words on the edge of the abyss

Admittedly, some of the "fascists" may actually be fascists. But the "democracy" we're defending: Where is it?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published January 29, 2023 1:01PM (EST)

Kevin McCarthy, Elon Musk and Volodymyr Zelensky (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Kevin McCarthy, Elon Musk and Volodymyr Zelensky (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

We are not, in fact, in the middle of a decisive or apocalyptic battle between democracy and fascism. I mean it — we're not. Let's start there. 

Those words are at best rough approximations or terms of art, used to describe amorphous sets of phenomena that cannot easily be crammed into two opposing buckets. At worst — and given the political and cultural tendencies of the 21st century to this point, we should always go with "at worst" — they are dangerous oversimplifications, desperate attempts to make a murky situation where no one and nothing is what it seems to be fit into some borrowed or invented template from World War II or the Cold War or the American Revolution or God knows what else.

I've made a version of this argument before, on the basis that those words give both sides too much credit for internal coherence — "in both cases, what it says on the box is not exactly what's inside" — and also that their definitions have been stretched to the point of meaninglessness. 

When we try to describe the intensely polarized partisan conflict in the United States and the renaissance of the authoritarian far right in Europe and the war in Ukraine as all being aspects of a global "democracy versus fascism" smackdown, I'm afraid we reveal that we don't know what the words mean, and that in fact they may not mean anything. 

Consider, for instance, that almost everyone presents themselves as standing up for "democracy," as they claim to perceive it. Republicans who want to rig elections, nullify the popular vote or limit the franchise to people like them certainly do, and if we look at the troubled history of so-called democracy in America, we may be compelled to admit that they have a point. 

In the recent midterm elections, it was rhetorically useful (and somewhat surprisingly so) for Democrats to define themselves as defending democracy against the kinda-sorta-fascists who seek to destroy it. To be clear, I'm at least partly sympathetic to this argument, but as is customary with the Democratic Party, it's an entirely negative case: Vote for us because we're not the mean, crazy Nazi bigots! We promise we will do something about worsening inequality and widespread corruption sometime very soon! But right now we need to hand-wave you on to the next election and the one after that, which will decide the future of our country!

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have sometimes used the word "democracy" to describe their semi-shared agenda, for heaven's sake, while making clear that what they mean by that is something quite different from the decadent, corrupt and declining "liberal democracy" of the West. If that sounds categorically preposterous to right-thinking people like you and me, it's nonetheless a highly effective troll, aimed directly at the uncomfortable fact that we don't know what the word means and have never been able to fulfill its hypothetical promises. The truth of the matter is painful: Our "system" unquestionably has more of the external markings of democracy than theirs does, but its internal functions are severely compromised.

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On the other side of the ledger, pretty much no one wants to be called a fascist these days, with the possible exception of internet edgelords like Nick Fuentes, whose apparent function in the political economy is to make extreme-right Republicans like Paul Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Greene seem almost normal by comparison. I'm not suggesting that Fuentes and his ilk aren't potentially or actually dangerous — Gosar and Greene certainly are — only that in the current global and American context overt neo-Nazis serve as chaos agents who cloud our perceptions, not as points of illumination.

Consider, for instance, that Putin has repeatedly justified the Russian invasion as a campaign to "denazify" Ukraine, a patently insincere claim that contains just enough granules of deep-down plausibility to be a little bit troubling. Of course the government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish by ancestry, is not a "Nazi" regime, and the role played by far-right paramilitary groups in Ukraine's defense is relatively minor. But Ukraine is also a hilariously dreadful example of "democracy," plagued by profound institutional corruption and moving decisively backward on political freedoms, civil liberties and all the indicators of social democracy.

My own sense is that while there may be good reasons for people and governments in the West to support Ukraine against Russia — the conception of a nation-state, and the right of its people to autonomy and self-determination, are modern inventions, but ones for which most of us feel instinctive sympathy — it's distinctly unhelpful to call it a grand conflict between democracy and fascism, or to pretend that clarifies anything.

In a fascinating essay for New Left Review, Ukrainian sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko unpacks the "decolonization" of his country in the aftermath of a "deficient revolution" that overthrew the previous pro-Putin authoritarian regime but could "neither achieve the consolidation of liberal democracy nor eradicate corruption," while worsening "crime rates, social inequality and ethnic tensions."

"Paradoxically, despite the objective imperatives of the war," he writes, Zelenskyy's government has pushed through a wide range of neoliberal reforms, "proceeding with privatizations, lowering taxes, scrapping protective labour legislation and favouring 'transparent' international corporations over 'corrupt' domestic firms." The plans for "post-war reconstruction" offered at a conference in Switzerland last summer, Ishchenko continues, "did not read like a programme for building a stronger sovereign state but like a pitch to foreign investors for a start-up." 

That article, it seems to me, offers crucial guidance in understanding the true nature of the increasingly perilous U.S. proxy war in Ukraine, which may, unhappily, be more about defending a particular set of global economic interests than about anything as grand and vague as "democracy." It also may lead us toward a recognition that the left-wing and right-wing critics of that war — an unwieldy "Halloween coalition" of peace advocates and America First isolationists — make a number of important points that should not be ignored, even as that lures too many of them (as I see it) into an unacceptable moral compromise with tyranny.

But that might be too much to chew on this weekend. I'll return for now to the premise I began with: The overloaded blimps labeled as "democracy" and "fascism," which float above our flattened cultural landscape unmoored to anything real, are meant to be reassuring (at least to those of us who say we're in favor of the former) but in fact are precisely the opposite. We project our hopes, dreams, fears and fantasies onto them, but more than anything our anxieties. We don't know what they mean, we don't know which one is "winning" and, somewhere deep down, we're not quite sure which one we really want.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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Commentary Democracy Fascism Republicans Russia Ukraine War