In the wake of recent protests America’s anti-fascist and anti-racist movements must unite to build a broader, more unified front, argues Eric K. Ward.
The coronavirus pandemic forever changed the landscape of the United States. It put participatory democracy squarely at risk. The global uprising against police brutality that has now eclipsed the pandemic is important and uplifting. But we can’t take our eye off the ways the underlying movement towards greater authoritarianism continues to gain strength.
The U.S. death toll from Covid-19 is now over 132,000, in just three months topping the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War. Even more alarming is how disproportionately it has claimed the lives of Blacks, Native Americans and Latinos. And now those most at risk – African Americans – are in the streets in an uprising that has inspired protests against police brutality around the globe.
The structural racism exposed by the pandemic and recent police killings of Black Americans was not created by the Trump administration. But Trump and the white nationalist movement are exploiting this moment to escalate their rapid-speed unraveling of nearly 90 years of economic, political, and social rights gains in American society, gains established through the New Deal and the civil rights movements of the mid-20th century.
We began with mismanagement of the pandemic: a continuing lapse that is costing so many more lives than the virus itself could have claimed on its own. Moving from negligence to active harm, Trump used the coronavirus to fan the flames of hate and bigotry. Doubling down on both anti-Asian and anti-Semitic tropes, he’s provided oxygen to a growing mass movement of armed authoritarian reactionaries.
His administration is also busy dismantling environmental protections, putting poor neighbourhoods – primarily Black and brown – at increased risk of chronic illness and death. The push-back from Black communities triggered by the murder of George Floyd gave Trump the excuse he’d been waiting for to militarise his response to dissent. And this has given further fuel to the organised paramilitary formations that are wreaking havoc on civic protests, putting protesters even further in harm’s way.
For authoritarians in the U.S., this is the end game to an attack on participatory democracy that started in response to civil rights victories and surfaced in earnest with the ‘Reagan Revolution’. They are seizing the moment to criminalise peaceful civil protest, politicise the military, and organise backlash into an electoral win. (Nancy McClean’s Democracy in Chains is mandatory reading for anyone wondering how we got here.) What this means for us is that it’s no longer sufficient to agitate for change. We must also manage the predictable backlash.
Given what we’re up against, how can anti-racists and anti-fascists outside the U.S. best provide support in this moment? If we hope to provide a bulwark against the triumph of authoritarianism and the complete collapse of democracy in America, we need a movement that protects democracy as a form of governance and ensures everyone has a way to participate in that governance.
For years, as anti-fascist organisers, we have relied on a fairly simple view of the world. There’s Our Side, which we consider righteous. Then there’s The Opposition, which is wrong at best, but possibly outright evil. These two sides are in an ongoing contest for The Middle.
It’s been easy to refer to one side as the Left; the other side, the Right. Liberal or Conservative. In multiparty systems, you have political organisations bearing those labels, whether or not they accurately correlate with an ideology. In the U.S., where functionally we have only two political parties, the assumption that Democrat means liberal and Republican means conservative no longer holds. And even though the partisan divide is now bigger than the Grand Canyon, these are not the poles on the spectrum that really matter.
The real contest – heightened by the economic freefall of the pandemic lockdown – is between two forms of capitalism. On one side we have what’s being called liberal meritocratic capitalism, that gives at least a nod to human and civil rights. On the other is a rising form of authoritarian or state-led capitalism that doesn’t acknowledge rights at all.
Which one becomes the dominant form is of critical importance to anti-racists and anti-fascists – even if we have serious critiques of capitalism itself. We need to face the facts: we’re not big enough to be a side on our own. That means being willing to let go of the ideological fight in order to preserve the values that are essential to people-centred governance. It means uniting folks across an ideological spectrum to strengthen a collective commitment to civil and human rights.
The pandemic may have created an environment in which non-Black-skinned people could finally hear what the Movement for Black Lives has been saying.
We need our lives to matter to those in power. We want to be heard. We want to be able to breathe. To live, love, work, and worship free from fear and bigotry.
These needs and these feelings don’t belong to one skin colour, one race, one generation – nor to one ideology or another. But for too long now, many of us have dismissed and disdained the needs and feelings of those who don’t look like us or vote like us or carry our same protest signs. This has not escaped the attention of anti-democratic forces. The rapid rise in authoritarian movements and authoritarian governance, which is only spiking further as we contend with the pandemic and dissent on the streets, is proof that we are being out-organised.
The Middle increasingly sees authoritarian forces as a better bet than what Our Side has to offer. Even in the midst of the largest anti-racist protest ever to occur in the U.S. outcry for Black lives, polling shows that public attitudes have not significantly changed.
Why isn’t public opinion shifting? One factor is racial bias, certainly. Another is that the U.S. is in the middle of the largest recession we’ve experienced since the Great Depression. There is widespread insecurity around being able to access enough to eat, health care, the next month’s rent or mortgage payment, much less seeing your children climb a rung or two up the ladder. And I’m not even talking about the poor. I’m talking about working and middle-class people.
Where you see authoritarian movements gaining strength is where you see life getting worse for the middle and working class, not the poorest or the wealthiest. Folks are looking first and foremost for stability and security.
This means that along with voicing our legitimate grievances, we must also acknowledge the emotional and economic truths that people are experiencing right now, regardless of our ideological differences with them.
Our work is not about sustaining subcultures, but about building political power. If we needed a demonstration that governance matters, we got it in this pandemic. The cultural power that Trump has built at the community level becomes political power when the armed militias he mobilises shut down state legislatures and target protesters on the streets.
Our job is to make liberal meritocratic capitalism responsive to people-centred governance. This means a guaranteed universal income, debt relief, a vigorous defence of all civil rights and constitutional liberties. We get there through community education, civic engagement, and – where needed – mass nonviolent civil disobedience.
This is what it comes down to. In order to rein in the excesses of the authoritarian right, secure basic human and constitutionally-protected rights, and provide economic security for all, we need disciplined anti-fascist and anti-racist movements that fuse cross-movement goals. Goals that centre and advance the protections in economic and political rights won over the last 80 years. The values behind these hard-won rights will be the foundation for the movement that advances equality and equitable participation in society.
Eric K. Ward is Executive Director of Western States Center and a Senior Fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center. Based in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain States region of the U.S., Western States Center works nationwide to strengthen inclusive democracy so all people can live, love, worship and work free from fear.
For more, read Eric’s essay, Authoritarian State or Inclusive Democracy? 21 Things We Can Do Right Now.