By Fatemeh Mohammadi

Fascism is main rival of liberal democracy: professor

January 22, 2018 - 9:33

TEHRAN - Professor Kevin Richards, chair of Liberal Arts Department at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, tells the Tehran Times that “Fascism is the main rival of liberal democracy.  Fascism uses the democratic process against its very premise, appropriating the language of populism, but not changing the material conditions of the people.”

He also adds that “Socialism and anarchism, on the other hand, while both bearing a historical specter, have shown the ability to thrive potentially within a democratic system, as has been seen in some of the Scandinavian countries most recently.” 
Following is the text of interview:

Q: Francis Fukuyama the contemporary political theorist used to be an ardent supporter of liberal capitalism. But in 2014, he wrote “Political Order and Political Decay” to modify his earlier position. In regard with the U.S.'s presidential elections and the rise of Clinton and Bush families in the political scene of the country, Fukuyama believes that the U.S. is experiencing the decay of a political system which made people feel so disappointed in American democracy. What’s your opinion about this? 

A: I would agree about the symptoms of decay within the American political system, but I would not attribute the cause to the rise of dynastic political families, such as the Clinton and Bush families.  The history of American politics, after all, is marked by familial dynasties, from the Adams family to the Kennedy family.  I would posit that a greater source of the present conditions of malaise surrounding American democracy is the role of corporate wealth, banking, and lobbyists, all wielding huge amounts of capital. 

The influence of these financial interests underpins the two major political parties, each in their own particular ways.  Thus, the political system represents the interests of corporations and big money, not the interests of everyday individuals.  While some would correctly argue that corporations are comprised of the individual investors, employees, and other people that the corporation stands for, the wealth distribution belies this ideal, as corporate wealth is the concentrated source of oligarchic power for the super-wealthy in America.

While there have been significant expression of opposition to these conditions, most notably Occupy Wall Street, little has materialized because of the grip that Wall Street has on the political system.  One can trace this in the chain of figures with backgrounds in Wall Street who have comprised presidential cabinets both past and present.  In this situation, average individuals, whether they feel it or not, are relatively powerless in comparison to large corporations and possess little influence on political matters.

I would, however, question whether the U.S. is experiencing ‘decay,’ as Fukuyama believes, as that would presume that American democracy was once an ideal.  In his vision of the Hegelian ‘end of history’ announcing itself in the triumph of neo-liberal capitalism as embodied in American democracy during the late 1980s, Fukuyama’s idealism blinds him to the material evidence of oppression and occlusion that has marked American history, especially when it comes to politics and voting rights.  While from Fukuyama’s idealist position, American democracy may once have been something to aspire to, such a position remains blind to some systemic issues that have always existed within American democracy, something that necessitates adding an asterisk to the success of the American political system.  

That is to say, the American political system has always been flawed.  For starters, the occlusion of women and African-Americans from the voting process for a century and a half clouds a large part of American history.  Even in the wake of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, there have been innumerable attempts and, at times, massive suppression of voting rights, especially in the American South.  The Republican Party has legislatively worked to dismantle the Voting Rights Act and other legislative efforts have attempted to make it more difficult for people to vote in neighborhoods that typically vote heavily for the Democratic Party. 

In particular, African-American and Latino neighborhoods are targeted for suppression by conservative interests.  Indeed, the suppression of registered voters impacted the 2016 election to a far greater extent than any fictitious claims of voter fraud made by Trump and his supporters. 

Q: The Competition between the Northeastern elites and the Sothern populists led into the rise of Trump indicating that establishment slogans from both democratic and republican parties don’t sell anymore. In regard with Fukuyama's argument, shall we think of such developments as a sign of the U.S. political decay? 

A: I think, again, that Fukuyama is right to perceive decay, but I think it is not simply about a divide between Northeastern elites and Southern populists.  While the Southern strategy is something that has orchestrated Republican presidential campaigns since the 1960s, the election of President Obama in 2008 pointed to a situation that had already started to manifest itself by the end of the twentieth-century. 

That is to say, American demographics display a dramatic shift from the 1960s, when the Southern strategy, the basis for Fukuyama’s premise, was developed, to the 1990s.
By the beginning of twenty-first century, American society was dramatically marked by several large, urban centers comprised of great diversity and a vast rural area comprised of little diversity. 

While it can seem to correspond to the Northeastern/Southern dichotomy that Fukuyama suggests, it becomes apparent that the population is growing at a more rapid rate in the cities than in the countryside. 

This is not a problem for most voting systems where the popular vote determines national elections.  America, however, uses the Electoral College, a system that was developed at a time when the demographics of America were quite different and information was difficult to share quickly.  While the Electoral College perhaps made sense in the nineteenth-century, given the demographics and technology of the late twentieth-century, the Electoral College becomes a problematic system, as a candidate does not have to win the popular vote.  This was a factor in 2000 with the election of George W. Bush who lost the popular vote to Al Gore and, of course, in 2016, as Trump won despite losing by nearly five million votes to Clinton in the popular vote. 

In addition to the problems within the Electoral College as a system in the twenty-first century, there are severe problems in how voting districts are determined.  Republicans have used techniques of gerrymandering to assure that they control as many seats within Congress and at the State level as possible, sometimes creating ridiculous looking ‘neighborhoods.’  Gerrymandering particularly weakens the political representation of minorities.  This can lead to a sense of pointlessness to voting, as your vote doesn’t matter in your district or in the national election. 

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the ‘decay’ of the American political system can be tied to systemic problems within a two-party system.  In particular, systemic issues arise in the way that the two-party system negotiates with its extreme elements.  Each party has navigated its fringe elements in different ways.  Republican candidates have used extremist rhetoric to appeal to the extreme elements in American society. 

This is something Trump did with his xenophobic, racist, sexist, hate-filled rhetoric.  In this fashion, he was able to motivate racist and sexist fringe elements in American society that normally do not vote as they feel outside the official Republican Party and the larger political system.  
On the other hand, Democrats have taken for granted the progressive left-wing elements of their party, afraid of how even the term ‘liberal’ may be used by conservatives.  Yet, Bernie Sanders demonstrated that someone could run as a self-proclaimed socialist and be highly competitive. 

It is very likely that if it were not for super delegates, Clinton may have lost the nomination to Sanders.  The Democratic Party in 1980 created super delegates, typically Party insiders, as a means of controlling who their candidate for President would be, after the unexpected nomination of Jimmy Carter in 1976.  The Republican Party does not have super delegates, allowing an outsider like Trump to win the delegates needed to become the Republican candidate for President.

The role of super delegates, or the lack there of, was a key factor in the 2016 election, allowing the Republicans to indirectly benefit from an outsider candidate that they didn’t want, like Trump, and the Democrats, by putting something in place to maintain party control over who runs for president, disenfranchised a lot of progressive voters who had been galvanized by Sanders.

For all of these reasons, I would agree that the American political system shows signs of decay, but I think it is more tied to systemic issues, ultimately, more than the fleeting passing of personalities and political families.  It is also deeply tied to unresolved issues around race and gender that have continued a systemic oppression of women and minorities.  At the same time, these systemic problems could also lead to alternative ways of approaching elections in America and even more direct forms of democracy, given the capabilities of technology today. 

Q: Is ‘not the rise of far-right parties in countries such as Austria, Germany and France a warning hint that Europe shouldn’t raise false hopes in the current popularity of liberal democracy? 

A: Yes, this was already a concerning development, but the victory of Trump has emboldened these elements further.  The xenophobic and racist statements of Trump are lauded by figures on the far right in Europe and the fact that someone like Trump could use the rhetoric that he did during his campaign and become the leader of the ‘free world’ has strengthened the ambition of these extremist groups in Europe.  We even see Golden Dawn in Greece using Trump’s anti-immigrant policies as support for their own extremist views on immigration.  

In Europe, the growth of xenophobic political groups is especially dangerous for communities at risk, such as refugees, exacerbating the current global crises.  All of this has, sadly, led to an increase in violence against refugees and people from the Middle East.  In America, it has led to violence not only against Muslims, but other non-European groups misperceived to be Muslim, such as Sikhs, Hindus, and others. Trump has also fueled a lot of animosity around other racial questions, emboldening racial hatred against African-Americans by white supremacist groups.  

It is also alarming to see how Trump has emboldened extremists not just in Europe, but also in Africa and elsewhere, such as the Philippines.  Even his political techniques, such as calling mainstream media sources ‘fake news,’ has had disastrous consequences. This has been seen in the reemergence of the slave trade in Tunisia, something that is being denied by leaders there as ‘fake news’ à la Trump’s catch phrase to discount mainstream journalism.  Trump is running one of the most influential countries on the globe in a manner befitting a third-world dictator.

Q: For the time being and even in the future, which school of thought is the main rival of liberal democracy?

A: Fascism is the main rival of liberal democracy.  Fascism uses the democratic process against its very premise, appropriating the language of populism, but not changing the material conditions of the people. 

Socialism and anarchism, on the other hand, while both bearing a historical specter, have shown the ability to thrive potentially within a democratic system, as has been seen in some of the Scandinavian countries most recently.  Of course, the growth of the far right in Scandinavia is also something that has been exacerbated by the rise of Trump.  Regardless, alternatives to capitalism, such as socialism, can work within a democratic system as they look to change the material conditions of individuals, making use of the tools of democracy to help society as a whole.  Fascism, on the other hand, makes use of the tools of democracy to move towards autocracy and dictatorship, consolidating power into the hands of a few.