JOEL ROSENTHAL: Good evening, and welcome to our Carnegie Council virtual conversation. Thanks for joining us. Our guest is Jason Stanley. Jason, thanks for Zoom-ing in. Jason is professor of philosophy at Yale University and author of the book How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them.
Our topic today is the troubled present and concerning future for American democracy. We are only three months out now from the insurrection at the Capitol, and it is unclear whether that event was the end of a populist revolt or just the beginning.
At the Carnegie Council our mission is to identify and address the ethical issues of today and tomorrow. For over a hundred years we have acted as a nonpartisan independent organization trusted to provide ideas and resources to improve public policy. Today we can think of no more pressing issue than the erosion of democratic values and norms in the United States and around the world, and there is no better person to address this issue than Jason Stanley, whose expertise is in the philosophy of language, the uses of propaganda, and the mechanics of fascism as a social, cultural, and political force. Jason's book breaks down fascism into its working parts, piece by piece, to show why and how it may be on the rise again.
One thing that is clear from the book is that fascism works when democracy isn't working, so to frame the discussion, Jason, let's start with some numbers on how Americans are feeling about democracy. Here are three quick poll numbers. In a now much-cited 2016 poll, only 30 percent of American Millennials, those under age 40, said it is "essential" to live in a democracy. In 2020 a Reuters poll reported that 68 percent of Republicans believed that the presidential election was rigged. And just weeks after the Capitol riot, an Associated Press/National Opinion Research Center poll found that only 16 percent of Americans believe that democracy is working "very well." These polls suggest that most Americans see the glass as at least half-empty.
Jason, do you agree? Half-full or half-empty? What's your assessment of what we are looking at?
JASON STANLEY: I think all those polls are misleading. In the first case, I assume you are referring to the Yascha Mounk, et. al., survey, which is flawed because it was a 1-to-10 scale, and a bunch of people ranked living in a democracy is only important 8 or 9 out of 10, and this alarmingly reported as "all these Millennials didn't rank living in a democracy as 10 out of 10." Okay, who cares? Eight or nine, I'll take it. So I don't think we have a large rolling back. There is probably a partisan divide on this question.
We are a very young democracy. The United States is one of the younger democracies in the world. We have been a democracy since the Voting Rights Act in the 1960s. We were a partial democracy before that.
The 16 percent saying that democracy is working? Well, count me as one of the 84 percent who says that there are problems. Just look at Georgia's Election Integrity Act. Look at the fact that we have structural barriers to a genuine democracy as a country with something like the Senate, where states like Wyoming get as much representation as states like California despite the huge difference in population. None of that is democratic.
The Electoral College is not democratic. We have massive gerrymandering. We have experts in gerrymandering who can figure out how to gerrymander so that we have states where 53 percent of the population vote for Democratic congresspeople, but the vast majority of the representatives—like North Carolina and Wisconsin—the state legislatures are dominated by Republicans. Maryland is considering doing that in the other direction, for Democrats.
All of those things are problems with democracy that should make us think that democracy right now, the system we have, whatever we call it, is not working in a way that benefits the people. I would put that point as saying that the system we have falls well short of a democracy.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Jason, what is your sense, though, of threat? You mentioned the 1-to-10 scale. I wasn't going to do this, but I can't resist. We just went through this election cycle. It was very close. There are elected representatives who sought to change the outcome of the election. I sit here tonight and I am genuinely unsure of how threatened we should feel about the state of democracy, and I am talking just in the United States right now.
JASON STANLEY: It was already precarious, and what we are seeing right now—generally by Republicans, because unfortunately the Republican Party of my youth has changed—is "asymmetric polarization," as they say in the lingo. Much of the Republican Party has become quite anti-democratic and openly so as they have moved into minority status.
We have seen legislature after legislature look at the weak points, at what blocked Trump's capacity to steal the election, and seal up those weak points. We are seeing election administration being taken over, being made more partisan. Next time Wayne County won’t have one Republican who votes to certify Detroit’s votes. Next time there will be two people who think that unless the Republican wins it is not going to be legitimate.
We have a situation where we have a systematic, well-thought-out attempt in advance of the 2022 and 2024 elections to circumvent democracy, where 2020 is being taken almost as a test case, like: "Hey! Great! We got to see where the weak points were. Now we're going to pass laws that enable us to deal with those weak points so that next time we can do it right" with someone more efficient perhaps than Donald Trump.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: If I am hearing you correctly, you are saying that it is not as if this moment has passed, in other words, this was the crisis moment, the institutions held, and we move forward from here. Would you see this as an ongoing threat?
JASON STANLEY: I see this as many Republican leaders looking at what happened in 2020 as a cup with holes poked in it, and they are looking to seal the cup so they can steal the election for a minority party in the future with a leader who, as it were, perhaps maybe isn't as sloppy as President Trump might have been viewed as being. We are seeing a number of Republican leaders who may not have the charisma that President Trump has—President Trump has genuine charisma—so we might not get that. We might not get someone who can put it all together. But we are seeing state by state a legalized attack, a method of making legal what was illegal in 2020.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Jason, I want to take a step back and talk a little bit deeper about democracy itself, and then we will get to some of these threats and the fascism question of your book. But I want to take a step back and go to that first question in the poll: Is it essential to live in a democracy? I get a question often, particularly from students and younger people: Why democracy as an ethical proposition or principle? Why? Don't we just want government that works? How do you respond to that question, why democracy, and why that matters?
JASON STANLEY: It's the question, why freedom? How do you live in a civil society and be free? If you don't want to be free, as Plato thought—Plato thought freedom sounds good, but most people don't want freedom.
Democracy is about freedom, and it is about equality. Those are its two great ideals. You have to first ask if those ideals are important to you. Political freedom is the capacity to play a role in determining the laws that govern you.
A perfect democratic society is one where we would all review the laws and not follow the laws of generations that died before us, but that is probably too difficult in a large polity. But to have a role in the formation of the laws that govern you is political freedom. If you are not living in a society where you have a role in the laws that govern you, in which you can have no effect at all, or organizations that you participate in can have no effect at all, then simply it is like a monarchy. You are living under someone else's laws. If you don't want to be free, then democracy isn't for you. That's one argument.
There are other arguments that democracy is more efficient. Those are epistemological arguments. They date all the way back to Aristotle. But my favorite epistemological argument for democracy is given by W. E. B. Du Bois in his famous paper, "Of the Ruling of Men." He points out: If you don't want to live in a democracy, you might think, Well, all I want is a government that cares about me. Du Bois says: "Look, nobody denies that husbands love their wives, mothers, and daughters, and brothers love their sisters. But look at the state of gender relations all across the world, where women have not been able to participate in the formation of the laws that govern them. These laws have been devised by men who think of themselves as loving women and caring for them. How has that worked out for women?"
Even if you don't care about freedom, even if you only care about being well-treated, think about the situation of people who allow themselves to be governed by those who think they are governing in their best interests. When does that work out? To my mind historically—and Du Bois' point—the case of gender relations shows that you really do not want to live in Saudi Arabia.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: The other famous example that is used is Amartya Sen, where he talks about there has never been a famine in a democracy. Is that right?
JASON STANLEY: Yes.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: I think it makes the point that you were trying to make, which is that if everybody has a voice and a stake, if you will, it leads to—I think you put it in the book, "maximum benefit through compromise," that the system itself works out better, almost in a utilitarian way.
JASON STANLEY: Again, a point made by someone who is no fan of democracy, Plato, but inequality and oppression don't work out even for the oppressors. A society in which you live where people are impoverished is not a society that makes people happy.
Also, oppression. Hortense Spillers gave a powerful talk I once went to and pointed out about the state of slavocracy. Think of what happened under slavocracy, where the enslaver would go and brutalize women. What about his wife, as she watched her husband walk off to do that? Was she happy?
First of all, people think in an unequal society they will be the ones who benefit, and secondly they think that the ones who benefit have great lives. I don't think any of that is true.
Finally, there is the set of points that you made. It is not just a famine. It's that democracies don't go to war with one another.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: I can't resist asking you one philosopher's question. Does this feed into the John Rawls view that one way to imagine a good society is to imagine that you don't know where you are in that society, that you could be well-off or you could be less well-off, you could have a disability, or you could be a certain religion or a certain minority or whatever. If you can do this thought experiment where you don't know what place you have in this society and then create institutions to follow, that is the right path. What do you think of that idea?
JASON STANLEY: That's the "veil of ignorance" argument. I am not necessarily a fan of that because I don't think it is easy to imagine yourself without disability, without gender identity, or without racial identity. There are particular pasts that people live that are relevant for their ethical and political lives.
That is why I began with the oppressor. Imagine yourself in a slavocracy, even if you enslaved others. Is that a happy life? Think of family relations, as Hortense Spillers has urged in her work, among the enslaver class. Are kings and princes really as happy as people in well-functioning democracies with a social welfare state and public goods?
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Your argument reminds me a little bit of the conversations and arguments we had over the use of so-called "enhanced interrogation" or torture, which is, you can have the rights of the victim or the prisoner and so on, but there is also the torturer. There are two roles to play here.
JASON STANLEY: You almost don't need the veil of ignorance. Massive inequality in a society—I live in massive inequality. I benefit massively from living in it. I teach at Yale. I have benefited. I am in the privileged oppressor class, as it were, but I think a world of more general equality where I didn't have to worry about—do we want our kids living in a society that Dewey envisages and Du Bois as well, where everyone goes to roughly equal schools, they are together with people of different socioeconomic classes, and everyone gets the same very good education, or do we really want this situation where we are all panicked about what schools we want to send our kids to because there is such massive educational inequality?
I think even the rich, privileged people I know are more panicked than your basic German citizen or Canadian citizen, who is like: I send my kid to the school down the road."
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Let me follow this line of questioning with a question that often follows the "why democracy?" question.
JASON STANLEY: I just want to summarize the arguments for why democracy:
(1) Freedom and equality. If you like those, then you need democracy;
(2) Even if you don't like those, there are epistemological benefits: Better policy in a democracy. You can draw on everyone's knowledge in the formation of policy;
(3) Democracy guarantees equality, and inequality is going to be bad because whether you end up as oppressor or oppressed, an unequal society is not one where you really want to live.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Let me push back on you. What is so great about democracy when you look at what is happening to the climate, when you look at the pandemic, when you look at the inequalities that you are talking about, when you look at the global financial crisis, and when you look at the quality of people in public life right now? Is it performing? What's so great? I have seen a war, I have seen financial crisis.
JASON STANLEY: I would argue those are because of undemocratic features of our society. We have given our political system over to corporate control and massive financing by the finance industry. The financial crisis was caused by deregulation of the finance industry, not placing it under the control of democratic institutions.
A democracy is not simply a bunch of people. It is also democratic institutions. Democratic institutions are walled off from political influence, so we need a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) walled off from political influence. We need economics—the "dismal science"—walled off from political influence. When economists are making huge amounts of money as consultants for finance industries, they are not walled off from political influence. So we need democratic institutions walled off.
Universities. You should be able to explore topics in universities, you should be able to debate, you should be able to critique capitalism, defend capitalism, and those should be walled off, and then you draw on the expertise that results from those institutions. This is not what has been happening in the United States. I would argue that the ills that you discuss are due to capitalism bending, twisting, and controlling democracy.
Democratic institutions knew what was happening with climate change, but the oil companies muddied the informational waters, so there was no clear—democracy requires an open public space, but that open public space where we can debate and figure out policy—we are all supposed to be deciding on policy together—is that when money can bend that informational space it is not a democratic informational space anymore.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: I can't resist asking you: What is your line on the now much-discussed "failure of expertise," or skepticism of expertise? We saw it early in the climate issue with denial of climate change. We are seeing it now in the immediate sense with the vaccine issue. Has there been a failure of expertise? How do you think about that in light of the way that you are thinking about democracy and the threats to it?
JASON STANLEY: There is a huge issue which we cannot resolve here in a short time about the role of expertise in a democracy. I think of democratic institutions, like scientific research institutions, as public goods. I think, drawing on something like a CDC, the CDC is a public good. But the worry is they can be twisted and corrupted, and you don't want them to function undemocratically, you don't want them to intervene illegitimately in the public will.
Drawing that line between what is a legitimate interference by democratic institutions, what we as a community would collectively agree upon to give as a role to democratic institutions, is tricky. We all go to doctors. We take what doctors say seriously, and the idea that we put our faith democratically in certain institutions is part of the system of a large democracy.
But what has happened is that that collective trust in each other has been completely eroded by a kind of militarized politics. So no one trusts these organizations. This was the aim of the "climate war" that the oil companies had. The tobacco companies did this as well. The oil companies created these alternative pseudoscientific organizations that would muddy the water and create doubt. They would say: "Oh, well there's no consensus. It's only 99 percent." Unfortunately, climate scientists did the wrong thing by not being alarmed.
I take that lesson in my work on fascism. I'm not going to make the mistake that the climate scientists made in the 1980s and 1990s. The mistake they made was not being alarmed. They said: "We don't want to be too alarming because what we see is so frightening that if we frighten people too much, they won't think we're reasonable." As a result, we are where we are. The change from "global warming" to "climate change" was suggested by the climate change scientists themselves, but then it was adopted by the Republicans. People criticize me for talking about fascism, saying I'm being alarmist, but I think, If only someone had been alarmist about climate change.
So we have these capitalist forces. They are bending, twisting, and creating mistrust. So the system by which we collectively agree to have a CDC, to have an Environmental Protection Agency, and to have various democratic institutions where we hand over policymaking to them because we trust them, the system of capital has raised doubts intentionally, so no one knows what to believe, and they don't believe in those institutions anymore.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: I want to skip right to that element in the book where you talk about anti-intellectualism as an element of fascism. It is a built-in feature. What is the antidote to that? I think of democracy as an enlightenment project, which is based on reason and compromise. When you come face to face with that, is it just, "That's it?" What is the appropriate response? Do you just say, "That's it," and we have to deal with it? I don't know. This is an occupational hazard I guess for those of us who are in an educational capacity in some way.
JASON STANLEY: My book is about fascist politics, and core to fascist politics is ridiculing universities, non-governmental organizations, and cosmopolitan intellectuals arguing in an agonized way about how to defend democracy, to represent that as weakness, corruption, and decadence, and to say: "In the face of the world's problems we need a strong leader who instills us with pride and dominates other nations, and this whole thing of sitting around and agonizing is just so much weakness."
In fascist politics you represent democracy as weakness. You represent compromise as weakness. Yet anyone who has little kids—I have little kids—knows that compromise is strength. If I get my six-year-old to compromise on anything—six-year-olds are little fascists. They don't compromise: "My way or the highway." To compromise requires strength, to say, "Okay, there are different fundamental views on value."
The way fascist politics works is it represents difference as a power grab. The idea is: "No, gay rights is not about just other people living as they want. It's about destroying your life." So that's what you do. You say: "Feminism isn't about just women having equality. It's about taking over your rights and privileges. Black Lives Matter is about black people taking control. It's not about equality. It's not about dealing with massive racial injustice. It's about a power grab." This is what you face.
My cousins are traditional Orthodox living in Midwood. I want them to live their life. I don't think I should intrude on their way of life. I am not a threat to them. Honest conservatives are brought into this kind of politics because they think: Oh, my god. The liberal intellectuals want to destroy our way of life. So we have to reassure people that part of the bread and butter of democracy is difference.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: So there is a real clash there, and you see it in the language of "the open society," the idea of cosmopolitanism, and then that connects to economics as well—free trade, free movement, and so on. But that is perceived by some as a threat, correct? Do they see it as a threat to their way of life in some way?
JASON STANLEY: Let's distinguish what is economic from what is cultural. There is no reason to think that capitalism and democracy are consistent, that forces of capital could bend and twist democracy, having too many oligarchical interests, and the idea that free trade could erode worker protections. That to me is an economic issue.
But that is sort of orthogonal to the question of democracy. In a culturally open society, democracy allows people freely to live their lives, it allows people to—we have a public education system, we have a public commons, and in that public commons you are going to encounter people who are different than you, and that is part of democracy. But that difference shouldn't be threatening.
The anti-democratic forces want to represent that difference as threatening. They want to say that in public school you learn about how bad slavery was, how bad convict-leasing was, and how much those repercussions are present today. With my children we were counting the number of—my children are African American, as is my wife—African Americans who live in our neighborhood of East Rock, a very small number. Four, five? Whereas there is a black neighborhood that is incredibly poor.
We live in manifest racial inequality. Learning about that is part of democracy, learning about your society and the different parts of your society. But none of learning about reality should threaten people. Truth is part of being able to make informed policy decisions. But if you represent difference as threat and you represent cosmopolitan difference and the desire to learn about multiple traditions, as a threat, then you can turn conservatives against democracy.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Right. This is anti-pluralism basically. It is a rejection of a pluralistic society. It would seem to me that this is precisely the element that connects Turkey to Hungary to India to Brazil in the personae of—and very much so the fact that we even know these names—Bolsonaro, Erdoğan, Orbán, Modi, and you could throw Trump in there perhaps. These are cultural nationalists.
JASON STANLEY: Right.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Do you see this as a global movement that is connected in some way according to this anti-plural principle, or am I projecting onto that?
JASON STANLEY: I don't make qualifications like "I see this." It is a global movement. That's what it is. And they are linked.
I think there are clear differences because of national differences. You don't have hysteria over immigration in Brazil. It's not part of this kind of cultural nationalism. Homosexuality is the enemy in Brazil. Transgender people have increasingly become the target worldwide of the far right. Feminism is the enemy, Paulo Freire, Marxism, the leftist radicals together with the sexual and gender minorities. Brazil adds the element of Social Darwinism. The mind-boggling death toll of COVID-19 in Brazil was laughed off by Bolsonaro with the most extreme social Darwinist comments about weakness: "We are a strong, young nation."
With India it's a clear anti-Muslim cultural Hindu nationalism that hearkens back to RSS, an actual fascist organization, to make a pure Hindu India. Orbán is a kind of clean, less violent than Brazil, say, version of traditional European Christian cultural nationalism.
Through this "gender ideology," as one commentator is correctly pointing out, is the frame that is used by all of these, from India to Brazil to Hungary. Orbán really started it. It's all the same. They are borrowing from each other's playbooks. Gender ideology was Orbán's target. He drove Central European University, Hungary's best university, out of Hungary because they were doing "leftist indoctrination," "gender ideology," and "cultural Marxism." This was taken over word for word by Olavo de Carvalho, one of Bolsonaro's intellectuals.
Here in the United States gender ideology is a target. Our fellow citizens who are transgender are a target. And of course in the United States you will have added onto that black liberation, black equality because in the United States it is all in the end about race. This kind of divisive politics is always going to latch onto a kind of white Christian nationalism.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Jason, I knew this was going to happen. Lots of questions and a lot of back and forth. I do want to remind the people who are watching that if they would like to ask a question or make a comment to deliver it to the chat, and we will see if we can get to some in the next few minutes.
Before we do that, I want to press you a little. You mentioned Orbán, to me a very interesting character in the sense of his being very deliberate and explicit about his idea of what he calls "illiberal" democracy. He would say: "I meet the standard of democracy. I am freely elected by the people." Yet he has used his power to then take over the influence of what I would consider the basic democratic institutions, meaning the courts, the press, and the education system. These are what I would consider the pillars of a democratic society.
How do you deal with that challenge? It is a really interesting one. He dodges the fascism question by saying it's not violent: "I have the power of the state," but he is not using it in terms of mobilizing the police or the army. He is doing it in a different way.
JASON STANLEY: That's right.
First of all, I don't think it's democratic at all because there is no free press at all in Hungary. If there is no free press, it's not democratic. If you are lied to, if you are constantly shown propaganda, then it's not a democracy. You are not freely voting. The people of North Korea would vote for their leader in an open election, but that's because they have no free press, and they have been lied to. If you are not aware of the world, if you have lots of false beliefs due to propaganda, then you are not freely voting. It's not even an illiberal democracy because you need an informed public to be voting freely, and an informed public is something that Orbán has removed from Hungary by destroying the universities, filling them with Hungarian nationalists, and destroying the press.
It is certainly not a liberal democracy for the reasons that you have said. As you said, the courts are filled with Orbán's loyalists.
Think about violence. The political theorist Elizabeth Cohen has a book where she criticizes the distinction between economic migrants and refugees and migrants from war. Her point is that if you are squeezed economically to the point where you can't eat or can't get any livelihood at all, that isn't a life at all.
It is not as extreme in Hungary. If you are targeted by the government, you will be bankrupted. They will take your house. They will remove your capacity to have a livelihood. You will be in civil court forever. So it is not as bad as the conditions that Professor Cohen considers when she is considering economic migrants from countries that, let's say, have been devastated by climate change.
But isn't that violence, if you have to go to court all the time and every dime that comes into your bank account is seized by the state? That's what is happening in Hungary right now. Yes, it's not "violent" to have your bank account removed, but it's no life that you want to live at all. That is what is happening.
Hungary is a tin-pot dictatorship. Orbán has already been in power for a decade and is going to be in power for much, much longer unless something really unforeseen changes. I wouldn't say it's a democracy because people are not making an informed vote. The propaganda that dominates the airwaves undermines people's sense of reality, the panic about things like gender ideology or about the nonexistent threat of Muslim immigrants destroying Christianity in Hungary.
Democracy is not majority vote. If democracy were majority vote, then you could say North Korea could have a vote and say: "Hey, they elected Dear Leader again." But that's because there is no free press. There has to be a free press. There have to be common public goods. There has to be a set of conditions for it even to be a democracy because even a majority vote has to be an informed majority vote.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's great. I'm going to summarize some of the questions that are coming in and deliver them up in a summary way.
This gets to addressing the issues that you just raised. I have a sense that your answer is going to be "both/and," but I am going to give you a little bit of a choice here in terms of how to respond to what we're experiencing and what we're seeing in places like Hungary and Brazil.
One answer is I suppose the Jeffersonian answer or whatever, which is that democracy depends on an informed citizenry, and it's a notion of civics, if you will, which goes down to empowering individuals to think for him or herself and to become political actors in this way. But the other side of that is more like you were saying, which is that, no, that is obviously a part of it, but the real attention needs to be institutional. We have to look at the institutions that we have and either fix them, bolster them, or change them in some really important ways to meet the 21st century.
Given those kinds of challenges, where would you put your energy and your enthusiasm now? Is the answer going to have to be a better-educated citizenry that will respond in a certain way, or is that unrealistic, and we have to think more about the institutions that we have?
JASON STANLEY: Instead of "both/and" I would say it's a false dichotomy that they are putting out. I'm teaching philosophy of education this semester, as I do every year, and one of the central institutions in a democracy is this education system, the system that gives you an informed citizenry. Every political philosopher who defends democracy from Rousseau on, centers the education system in their discussion of democracy. Rawls kind of twists this. Danielle Allen in her book on equality and education argues that the goal of a democratic education should be to give people the kind of argumentative and linguistic capacity to engage in policy debates. If the institutions are working correctly, then what the central democratic institution—the schools—does is give citizens the capacity to understand what's at stake, to have a basic grasp of history and science, to be able to evaluate the threat to the climate themselves, and to be able to discuss with fellow citizens and make points in a convincing way.
What you pose is a false dichotomy because the way to destroy democracy is to destroy the education system. When you destroy the education system you destroy citizens' capacity to engage democratically. That's why we have this systematic attack on our education system.
Also we have an undemocratic education system. I feel somewhat guilty for making this point, somewhat hypocritical because I teach at Yale, which I think is probably an undemocratic institution. You shouldn't have places like Yale in a democracy. You should have just universities that cater to the public in a general way and are not elitist and things like this. I think the institutions give you the citizens, and the citizens in turn comprise the institutions.
If you tease the institutions and the citizens apart, you are making several errors. One, you are not seeing that you only get those citizens if the institutions are working, so you only get democratic citizens from a democratic education system. Never forget that Rousseau is the author of Emile, or On Education. All these democratic theorists also included education systems that were supposed to produce democratic citizens.
Also, if you tease apart the institutions from the citizens, you forget that the citizens make up the institutions. If you don't have democratic citizens, then the institutions are not going to function democratically. If you have citizens who are motivated by avarice and making a buck, then they are not going to function democratically in the institutions, so you shouldn't set things up the way you did.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Great. Here's another question which puts the moment that we are in in a global context. If you think about threats to democracy—you talk a lot in your book about the internal threats, the inequality question and so forth, but there are other threats that are global in scope. The obvious one is climate, which is putting tremendous pressure on society. We have the pandemic, which is putting tremendous pressure on society and which is again a quintessential global problem.
If you look in the virtual world, we are increasingly connected by information and technology, and now it is going to be speeded up by 5G and artificial intelligence and so on. The other issue we have right now is the migration crisis. We have people moving.
As I look at all that, the pressure on society is more and more collective and global, and yet the politics are actually going exactly the other way, which is basically putting up walls and protection, whether it's trade or privacy. Our topic is: "Are we facing an undemocratic future?" It would seem to me that there is tremendous pressure to be, if not undemocratic, at least to pull in and become more populist, protectionist, and nationalist. How do you respond to that?
JASON STANLEY: I don't like the word "populism," so I am not going to respond by calling ultranationalists and authoritarians "populists." I think populism is good. I realize political scientists use the phrase in a different way that makes it problematic, but there are too many good resonances.
But nationalism. People are responding with nationalist responses to global problems when they are global problems. Climate change is not like: "Oh, you have a border. I'm going to stop here." That is not how climate change works. Anyone looking at the United States right now recognizes this. We are not going to be able to subsidize farmers in Iowa forever from the destruction of their farms, and Iowa is America when last I checked. We have dealt with this by giving them massive subsidies. That is not going to work forever.
Crises can work in two ways. The ultranationalist, the fascist politician creates a sense of terror and fear with crises. Hitler thought there was going to be a global food crisis, so he said: "Look, there is going to be a global food crisis. Not every nation will survive. What we're going to do is we are going to make sure the German nation survives."
So there is going to be one group—you already see it with Guillaume Faye in his 2001 book Why We Fight: Manifesto of the European Resistance. He is a French fascist. He identifies climate change as a crisis like Hitler identified a supposed food shortage crisis, and Guillaume Faye says: "Well, we need to make sure the French nation survives."
So fascist politicians will be using the climate crisis that way. That is to say, they will want to make it worse because it will keep them in power longer.
What you have to do is you have to look at this and say: "Do we really want the climate crisis to be worse?" What you do in fascist politics is you make reality worse to make your fear mongering—because it is a politics of fear—more effective. You make the immigration crisis worse so that your fear mongering about immigration is worse. They want things to get worse.
We have to face that. That is the situation. Do you want the climate crisis to get worse? If you want the climate crisis to get worse, vote for nationalist, ultranationalist politicians. Ultranationalist politicians will say, "Don't think globally; think locally." That will make the climate crisis worse. That will increase the number of migrants seeking to flee from stricken nations, and that will keep those ultranationalists in power.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: I have a question. This is from me and not from the group. I am just curious as you were speaking. This is sort of a counterfactual I guess, but why didn't—I guess we could even talk about President Trump as an example—President Trump use the pandemic crisis to consolidate power?
JASON STANLEY: It wasn't just President Trump. This is the other thing about crises. I was going to get to two points, and this is the other.
Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism says that reality doesn't have a side. It's this scary thing for authoritarians because they can't control it. Reality doesn't come with a politics. For an authoritarian who wants the only power and authority to be their own, reality is scary because you don't know where reality is going to go.
Trump did use the pandemic in a very clearly partisan way. What he did was spread doubt. He spread COVID-19 denialism among his supporters. He tried to destroy the U.S. Postal Service and raise skepticism about absentee ballots, and he tried to claim that whoever wins on election day wins the election. So he clearly did use it.
The goal was that Republicans dominate voting on election day and when absentee ballots come in to discredit the absentee ballots as not valid. But Biden won such an overwhelming national victory that Fox News announced Arizona going for Biden on election day. That meant that Trump's strategy, which not only—I watched his rallies; he told you repeatedly this was his strategy, so he did use it strategically. It just didn't work.
But that said—and here I am going to do a little bragging; apologies—I had to get the preface for the paperback of the book in on March 14, 2020. The press said, "You have to talk about COVID-19," because the book is coming out in May 2020 and everyone will be thinking about COVID-19." So I had to make a guess as to how the kind of leaders I was talking about would do, and that the time everyone was saying what you were saying: "Oh, Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi, Putin, they'll clean up. They'll use this as a way to seize power."
I said the opposite. I said, I bet those leaders will do the worst of all, and that turned out to be correct. And that is because of the anti-intellectual anti-expertise view, and the unpredictability of reality.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's great.
I have two more questions. I am going to summarize them.
JASON STANLEY: By the way, Nate is right. [In the Zoom Chat] Nate Lunceford points out exactly correctly that Trump thought COVID-19—and we know this from the Vanity Fair article about Jared Kushner that as soon as they thought it was more a Democratic problem, more a problem for Democratic voters, they backed off national planning.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: A couple more things I would like to try out with you before we end. One is this issue of religion. I am interested a little bit too in the historical perspective, about how religion and religious institutions play into the fascist scenario and how it has done that in the past and also maybe just a reflection on where we are. The United States is becoming more and more secular, but there is a strong evangelical—I'm just curious how religion bounces with you.
The other question I will put out there is, and this goes to engagement with the public: How concerned are you about the part of the public that is: "I'm tuned out. This is just too ugly. I'd rather just put my head in the sand. See you later."
Two separate questions but maybe somewhat related about engagement with the public.
JASON STANLEY: Let's go in reverse and start with disengagement. At various times the Republican strategy has been to use a kind of fascist politics to demobilize, to get people not to show up, not to participate. People always say, it's not fascism because these tactics were used to mobilize. And they were used to mobilize on January 6 and in the lead-up to that, and they will be used to mobilize again. But they were also used to demobilize, to get people to be not involved, to tune out, to say: "It's all a mess. Let us handle it."
Going to the religion question—this was asked by Ronilso Silva from Brazil, and no accident because Bolsonaro has put together a coalition based on evangelicals in Brazil that is cross-racial, so he has many black evangelical supporters. The Brazilian left made a big mistake by not having a racially representative leadership.
So we see religion taking a major role in all of these movements—Israel, India, Brazil, the United States, and Hungary. The way it does it is the way it did in the past. You say to people: "Gender ideology, homosexuality, transgender movement, and feminists are a threat to you." In the United States you add in that black people are a threat to you. That is the United States addition always.
Religion is not any threat to democracy. It is part of democracy. It is part of the tapestry of democracy. But what you say is: "You might not like our methods. We might be brutal, we might be brutish, we might not have the same traditional morals you do, but if you support us, we'll go bash the heads of those feminists, the gender minorities, the sexual minorities, and make sure you run things." That's the role it plays.
To me Christianity is a religion that is inimical to this. It is inimical to bashing the heads of those who disagree with you.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Great. Thank you.
As we wrap up, I want to give you the last word in terms of answering that question that we started out with about where we are, facing an undemocratic future. What are your parting words for us? What should we be thinking of as we are taking in current events?
JASON STANLEY: We are looking at a transformation of the things that Trump very openly tried to do into policy in many states, and we need to put pressure on corporations, which are going to go where social pressure dictates. We need to say, "This is unacceptable." We have a long history of racism. We really in the 1960s became something you could call a country that aims to democracy, and we are going to fall back on that. We are going to fall back on the bad old days. We are watching something like the bad old days come back. If you are patriotic, you won't let that happen.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Right. It's interesting. I closed the little piece that I wrote on this with the idea that this is in some ways something we have seen before. We have had struggles like this before, and if there is anything exceptional about our country or about our version of democracy, it is that it is open and that it self-corrects. I think we are waiting for that.
JASON STANLEY: Yes, exactly. And if the democratic citizens don't do it, no one is going to do it for us.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Right. Jason, thank you very much. This has been an amazing hour. It went really fast. I hope we can get you to come back again sometime to continue this conversation, and we will get you to the Council in New York when it is appropriate to do that.
As we close, I want to tell all of our viewers and listeners that this conversation will be posted on the Carnegie Council website and also on our YouTube channel, and we will also have some brief segments as well. There will also be a transcript, and you can listen to it as a podcast, so there are a lot of resources there like this. I hope people will go and visit those sites.
Jason, thank you again. Thank you everybody for watching and listening, and I hope to see you all soon.