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Second Thoughts… And The Nature Of Fascism

Thinkin' Out Loud On Independence Day



Writing a post called “Second Thoughts” came to me yesterday after I published a typically anti-Biden piece, along the lines of "second-worst president ever." The whole day went by and I had avoided writing about it. But there it was again when I woke up this morning! Several friends living in other countries sent me “Happy 4th of July” e-mails. “Happy?” Hardly. My country is careening rapidly towards fascism with a woefully inadequate political class at the helm, much of which is along for the ride and as many of which are wondering what’s in it for them.


In 1970 I was in Delhi, pretty broke when I received payment for a brick of hash I had sent back to the States months earlier. I had been scrounging for food and gas for my van and now… I would have money to continue my journey. Eventually I used the money to rent a house in Goa and a few months later used whatever was left to put my van on a ferry from Rameswaram in southern India across the Palk Strait to Talaimannar in Ceylon, which is what Sri Lanka was still called then. But before leaving Delhi, I decided to indulge myself in a great Indian meal. I love Indian food— always have— and I wanted the best. So, I ate at Moti Mahal, supposedly the place where black dal makhani was invented. It was the most expensive restaurant I ate in in the 2 years I spent on the subcontinent. Decades later I was still craving dal makhani when I was in Delhi on company business and on the company dime. I heard the best dal makhani in town/the world was served at the Bukhara restaurant in the Maurya hotel in Chanakyapuri. Very expensive-- at least five times Moti Mahal-- but I never forgot it— one of the greatest dishes I’ve ever eaten, and one of the richest. Today, I’m going to try to make it from scratch. Last night I soaked black dal (whole urad dal) and red kidney beans (rajma). Now, instead of writing “Second Thoughts,” I’m going to go to the kitchen and start the preparations for the dish that will take all day to prepare. While I’m in the kitchen, please read a couple of excerpts from Noah Smith’s A Time of Troubles. And then I'll come back and try "Second Thoughts."


Smith began by reminding his readers that we retain “a remarkable array of fundamental strengths— a large and well-educated populace, a huge amount of land and natural resources, favorable geographic location, a civic culture that is far more robust than people give it credit for, a multiracial and multicultural population that is very cohesive at the local level, a welfare state that’s far more robust than people realize, top scientific and technical institutions, world-class industries, and so on. But despite these strengths, the U.S. is in trouble, because of politics. It would be foolish not to acknowledge this. The recent string of Supreme Court decisions that is upending the political-economic status quo is not (yet) a major cause of the dysfunction, but it is a bellwether of instability, and it has served as a wake-up call for many of those who thought the political conflicts of the last 8 years were just social media hype.” He then gets into the real danger hanging over out heads this 4th of July: internecine conflict.


How will internal divisions hurt the country? One threat— though perhaps not the most dire— is that increasingly extreme political polarization will lead Republicans and/or Democrats to pursue extreme policies just to “own” the other side or to signal solidarity with their own activist bases.
…[A]s serious as the danger from oppressive laws may be, a far bigger danger is the erosion of democracy. 2020 already featured a sitting President denying the result of a free and fair election and attempting to abet a (doomed, incompetent) coup attempt against Congress. (In the interest of fairness, I should mention that Democrats contributed to the trend toward election-denial when Stacey Abrams refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election.) Now, hoping to double down on Trump’s approach, some Republicans are trying to change state laws so that state legislatures, rather than a state’s voters, choose which candidate the state supports in a presidential election. The Supreme Court may soon give its blessing to this sort of abrogation of voters’ will.
Whether a country is a democracy or an autocracy, or a free or unfree country, is not a binary, yes-or-no thing. Organizations such as Freedom House that track countries’ level of freedom recognize this. But it’s clear that taking away tens of millions of Americans’ right to cast their vote for President would shift the U.S. from the category of full democracies into a middle tier of flawed partial democracies.
Some on the political Right are preparing to endorse this anti-democratic shift, using the line “we’re a republic, not a democracy”. But this offers zero reassurance— North Korea and Iran call themselves “republics.” If the U.S. loses its democracy, it will matter not a bit whether we are a “republic” or not; we will be an authoritarian country. Taking away people’s ability to vote for President would be a huge step in that direction.
If the U.S. were no longer generally recognized as a democracy, it would put the lie to the country’s international claim to be the defender of democratic values. This would presumably not trouble Trump’s supporters, who are loudly stating their intention to withdraw from NATO and support Vladimir Putin’s wars of conquest.
But even more worryingly, the degradation of the U.S. into the non-democratic sort of republic would invite endemic violence and chaos here at home. People do not like having their vote taken away, as a general rule. Already there has been somewhat of a rise in political violence in the U.S., with scattered right-wing terrorism, some rioting in the summer of 2020, and Right-Left street battles that uncomfortably recall the Weimar Republic. So far, assassinations haven’t figured prominently as in the 1960s and 70s, but there was recently one plot to assassinate a Supreme Court justice. If the vote is taken away, it’s not unrealistic to think that the U.S. would suffer an equivalent of Ireland’s Troubles, Italy’s Years of Lead, or worse.
The worst-case scenario, of course, would be a full-scale civil war. The most likely trigger for this would be a disputed Presidential election, in which opposing factions of the U.S. Military backed two rival claimants to the presidency. So far, the military has resolutely avoided even the slightest appearance of dissension in the ranks, but in the case of a disputed election in which both sides had a somewhat plausible legal claim to victory, this might change. This might seem like a tail risk, but a plurality of Americans did tell a Zogby poll in 2021 that they thought a civil war is likely. And essentially ever major media outlet has envisioned a scenario of the type I just described. So this is far from idle or irresponsible speculation.
One thing I don’t think is really possible, however, is a “national divorce”, in which red and blue states go their separate ways.
Why there won’t be a “national divorce”
Suggestions for a breakup of the union have come mostly from the political Right, but some progressives have started tiptoeing up to the idea as well. But it’s extremely unlikely to happen. First of all, the U.S. political divide isn’t really regional, as it was in the 1860s when we had our first civil war. It’s blue cities against a red countryside. Here’s the New York Times’ precinct-level election map from 2018:
You can see that except in a few areas, it’s a sea of red with dots of deep blue. That is not the kind of country that can easily split into regions. Any durable regional split would likely require a mass campaign of ideological cleansing— an analogue to the Partition of India, which killed up to 2 million people.
The U.S. economy could not sustain such a split. Supply chains have become so distributed throughout the country that every region of the country is dependent on a large number of other regions.
…America is now an incredibly integrated economy in regional terms; any regional separation would cause absolute economic chaos. Additionally, red states would certainly covet the strategic ports of California and the North Atlantic states, while blue states would hunger (literally) after the farmland of the Midwest and Plains states.
All this means you shouldn’t pay too much heed to the people who talk about blue-state GDP vs. red-state GDP, as if this implies the blue side would triumph in a civil war. Yes, blue states, and especially blue cities, produce more of the nation’s output and are home to the nation’s most high-value industries and educated, highly capable workforces. But those industries would be far less lucrative in a “national divorce” scenario; who needs fancy financial products or search ads or the latest brand phone when there’s no food on the table or materials to fix roads? This is not like the 1860s, when the largely self-sufficient North could use its prowess in manufacturing and staple crops to overmatch the agrarian, backward South. The economic supremacy of today’s blue states is based on marginal thinking that would not hold in the case of a large disruption such as a civil war.
Thus, any major civil war is less likely to resemble the war of 1861-65 than the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. Both sides will try to conquer the whole territory of the United States, and one side will succeed. That would be an incredibly bloody, costly, and savage affair.
The U.S. is not a chaotic, impoverished nation like pre-civil war Spain, Russia, China, etc.— or even like the U.S. of 1861. It’s a rich nation— one of the richest in the world, even after taking inequality into account. And while most Americans are dissatisfied with the state of the nation, most are satisfied with their own lives.
…In terms of actual policy steps, I’m not sure what should be done to avert the threats of ideological dystopia, democratic breakdown, and intercommunal violence; that mostly depends on who’s making policy. Reforming the Electoral Count Act is an important step, as are pro-democracy efforts at the state level. But beyond that I don’t have a concrete game plan here.
What I do have are a set of values and ideas that I think will be helpful in holding the nation together.
The first of these is democracy. I’ve long argued that we should see democracy not in terms of narrow electoralism, but as an ideology of political and social inclusion writ large. That doesn’t mean we should equate democracy with “whatever policies my side wants” (though some will inevitably try to do this). Instead, it means that we should adhere to the ideological principle that everyone’s voice deserves to be heard in American politics, and that every American has partial ownership over their country. That means fighting tooth and nail against anti-democratic moves like state legislatures choosing electors. It means working to reduce corrosive but chronic problems like gerrymandering and lack of voter access to polls. But it also means valuing the will of the broad public over the narrow interests of activists; a commitment to democracy necessarily involves some element of “popularism.”
Second, we should commit to defending the integrity of our institutions. This doesn’t mean mindlessly defending things like the filibuster; indeed, the filibuster makes Congress largely incapable of governing, and provides legislators with an excuse to vote in much more partisan ways than they would if their votes really counted. Eliminating the filibuster would strengthen the institution of Congress.
Similarly, progressive rhetoric about blowing up the Supreme Court, in the wake of the Dobbs decision, is extremely unhelpful. In extremis, if there is overwhelming popular support, Congress and the President can “pack” the Court by adding more justices (this is one of the checks and balances in the Constitution), but histrionic demands to strip SCOTUS of its power simply because it made decisions people don’t like simply foment chaos. Similarly, the standard progressive rhetoric about abolishing the Senate is utterly unrealistic and simply makes progressives look like they’re advocating for tearing down the nation.
Finally, we need to embrace patriotism— not hollow flag-waving jingoism, but the kind of substantive, constructive patriotism described by former Obama speechwriter Ben Rhodes:
Every nation is a story…We must tell a captivating story— one concerned primarily with an American identity that is broad and resilient enough to succeed…The greatness of a nation’s story is not invalidated by its flaws…[Obama] was able to succeed politically because he framed the effort to address those flaws not as a repudiation of what it means to be American, but rather as a validation of it.
America, Obama pronounced again and again, was a great country precisely because it gave us the capacity to try to fix what was wrong with us. The failure to try to do so was a betrayal of a civic religion. The flag stands for that; so do protest anthems. The military fights for this very ideal; so do activists who bleed in the streets…
To defeat [the Trumpists’ ethnonationalist] story, we will have to convince enough Americans who do not think of themselves as progressive, or even center-left, that there is an American democracy that needs to be saved.
That’s really the key idea— that there is a country worth saving here. What needs to happen is that the majority who wants to save this country needs to become louder and more confident than the ideologically driven people who want to destroy it and create something else in its place. If we can safely make it through this time of political chaos, America has a bright future ahead of us.

OK, I’m back. The beans are going to slow cook with some spices— but not most of the spices that go into this dish— for a few hours before I get to the nitty gritty of the dish. I see that while I was gone, BuzzFlash published an essay by David Jay Morris, Fascism Is Coming to America ‘Wrapped in a Flag and Carrying a Cross’— and an AR-15, asking the pertinent question, “What does it mean for a country to fall into fascism? Is it always the overt authoritarianism of Hitler’s Germany or Putin’s Russia? Or is there a broader continuum, stretching from their all-encompassing control to the softer versions practiced by Orban’s Hungary or Erdoğan’s Turkey? And, where does the U.S. now stand on that scale?”


And Robert Kuttner asked Will America Be a Democracy Next July 4th? “This Independence Day,” he wrote, “marks a pivotal, enough-is-enough moment— in the popular reaction against the blend of Supreme Court excess, state government overreach assaulting privacy, and revulsion at the latest January 6th revelations about Donald Trump. The result has been a startling shift in public opinion about Trump. About half of all Americans now think Trump should be charged with a crime. Most Republicans don’t want Trump to run in 2024. The Supreme Court has also overreached one time too many. The full power of the backlash against the Dobbs ruling will take weeks and months, as all of the secondary effects become evident— states in the role of Orwellian inquisitors; ob/gyn doctors having to put their anti-abortion snooping ahead of the health of their patients; restrictions on the right to travel. An American fundamentalist version of the Taliban is now in charge of more than 20 state governments. Most ordinary people don’t want to live under an American Taliban.”


And George Soros published an OpEd, US Democracy Under Concerted Attack. His point is that our “s survival as a democracy is now gravely endangered” due to domestic enemies— the Supreme Court and Donald Trump’s Republican Party.

So what am I thinking about on this July 4— aside from if I need both green cardamom— which I have— and black cardamom— which I forgot to pick up yesterday at India’s Sweet and Spices? Well, I’m wondering if— 5 decades later— I could handle living abroad again. I’m wondering where? I’m wondering when? Will it be too late at some point, like it was for Germany’s Jews. And how will the encroachment of fascism impact my investments? [Note to self: ask Lisa if Raymond James has gamed out what happens to markets when the fascists take over.] And home prices? If I decide to sell the house I’ve lived in for 30 years and planned to die in, is it better to do it now or “see what happens?” But, most of all, I’m having second thoughts.


I don’t want to run away. I also don’t want to buy a bunch of guns, which I have been considering doing. I do want to fight to prevent the fascist takeover that many say is a foregone conclusion. This morning Punchbowl News reported they had interviewed their panel of longtime DC lobbyists. “Republicans,” they wrote, “are seen as virtually guaranteed to take over the House… Democrats have many challenges ahead of the midterm elections– historic levels of inflation, crime and an unpopular President Joe Biden are just a few of the challenges. K Street leaders don’t believe a GOP takeover will translate to an effective Congress, however. The majority of senior K Street leaders [60% to 16%] believe that the next Congress will be less effective at passing meaningful legislation than the current one… The overwhelming majority of K Street leaders believe Republicans will win control of the House in November. 99% of respondents said Republicans will take over the House after the midterms. Respondents were split on who they thought would control the Senate after the midterms. 52% of K Street leaders said Republicans would take over the Senate, while 48% believe Democrats will hold their majority. So basically a jump ball there.”


Before I go any further here, let me just say that flipping two red Senate seats blue— replacing Ron Johnson with Tom Nelson and Roy Blunt, who’s retiring, with Lucas Kunce— would go a long way towards holding back the fascist tide... and towards making Congress and America better places. Want to contribute to that? You can help them both on one page. And I just added John Fetterman (D-PA) too. And Raphael Warnock (D-GA).



So… second thoughts: maybe I need to suspend my abhorrence for conservatives now— not just anti-Trump Republicans but also corrupt conservative Democraps like Hakeem Jeffries, Josh Gottheimer, Kyrsten Sinema, even Joe Manchin… the whole circus. (Isn't Doug Schoen a Republican now? I wonder why he was pushing Hillary yesterday.) Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) voted with the Republicans against raising the minimum wage and I’ve wanted to see her lose reelection ever since. She doesn’t have a serious primary challenge and chances are if she doesn’t win in November, deranged Trumpist sociopath Don Bolduc, an absolute fascist, will.


Schumer has a bunch of relatively worthless establishment candidates running for Senate: Tim Ryan (OH), Cheri Beasley (NC), Val Demings (FL)… I was going to say “worthless garbage,” but I held back. That’s part of second thoughts. I’m never going to ask you to contribute to any conservatives— and I never will myself— but… maybe we’re in enough of an emergency situation, an existential situation, to hold back now on the negativity and concentrate on defeating out-right fascists and leaving the corrupt conservatives alone for a minute without harping on lesser evil candidates still being evil. I haven’t finished this thought process yet. I’m going to go for a swim and to pray on it now. Have as good a 4th of July as you can.

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