The Unraveling of the United States of America

DAME sits down with U.S. historian Thomas Zimmer about the current state of American democracy—and where we can find hope. 

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Being a resident of the United States today means having to live through a time when we are confronted daily with  new attempts by extremists to roll back civil and human rights and undo any semblance of a multicultural, democratic society. Armed right-wing groups are openly attacking schools, libraries, and public events. Republican State legislatures continue to introduce and pass laws that support only their white, cis-patriarchal ideology, and destroy the lives of anyone outside of it. At the national level, the GOP-led House is working overtime to undermine our democratic institutions and systems of accountability and bring us to the brink of disaster.

So it’s little surprise that many of us wonder, “What is the future of American democracy?” We turned to historian Thomas Zimmer, a DAAD Professor at Georgetown University, whose work focuses on anti-democratic tendencies and impulses on the American Right since the 1950s. You can find more of his work in his newsletter, Democracy Americana, and on the podcast he co-hosts, Is This Democracy.

DAME: Is America still on the precipice of authoritarianism or fascism? Or have we already passed the rubicon?  

Thomas Zimmer: The situation is undoubtedly serious, and the continuing radicalization of the Right, its increasingly open embrace of authoritarian minority rule, constitutes an acute threat to democracy. But fatalism and cynicism are not helpful. We need to accept the political conflict for what it is: a struggle over whether the U.S. should finally realize the promise of egalitarian multiracial, pluralistic democracy, or forever remain a country in which traditional hierarchies of race, gender, religion, and wealth determine an individual’s status. This conflict will dominate American politics for decades to come. And the only way forward is through it.

DAME: What can history teach us about our nation’s future?

TZ: I am actually skeptical about the idea of “learning from history”—at least if that is supposed to mean we can draw clear-cut lessons from the past. This idea is based on an understanding of history as a set of recurring constellations or situations. But that’s not how “history” works. History is not repetitive, it is accumulative. I certainly believe history has something important to offer. But probably not in the form of ready-made lessons. Studying history can help us in our analysis of the present, make us ask better questions, put things into perspective. In that sense, it can help us understand the dynamics that are shaping the present: How moments of racial and social progress—or even just perceived progress—have always been conflictual, have always led to a reactionary counter-mobilization that threatened to abolish democracy altogether rather than accepting multiracial pluralism. From there, we might be better able to navigate the political conflict.

DAME: People 30 and younger have only experienced this current iteration of American democracy. How do you imagine their experiences have shaped their worldview? Do they share the sense of urgency as older generations?

TZ: We should remember that the lives and perceptions of anyone under the age of 30 have been shaped by a series of crises: 9/11, the War on Terror both internationally as well as domestically, the global depression after 2008, far-right extremism and Trumpism taking over the Republican Party, COVID—all while it’s become widely accepted that we are dealing with a global climate emergency … These crises, and the way they have been (mis-)handled politically, have shaken the belief of a younger generation in the willingness and/or ability of the system to come up with answers that are commensurate with the challenges the country faces, have undermined their faith in the institutions. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. Preserving the status quo will not be good enough, and the younger generation understands this better than any other. Take the problem of gun violence, for instance: If we let only young people vote, we would be getting this under control. I know it’s cliché to say at this point, but I really believe it: The kids are quite alright.

DAME: This country has become so polarized and so angry. How do we put the toothpaste back in the tube?

TZ: I think those are not the right categories to think about the situation, “polarized” and “angry.” We need to be a lot more critical toward the pervasive polarization narrative and all this talk about “division” and a lack of “unity.” In most cases, it obscures more than it illuminates, and quite often, it does so deliberately. Crucially, it obscures what the actual key challenge is: the anti-democratic radicalization of the Right. The polarization narrative has become so pervasive that it completely overshadows the fact that we find relatively broad consensus across large parts of the political spectrum in key political, social, and cultural questions. Still, it is true that in an internationally comparative perspective, the gap between “Left” and “Right” is very wide, and has been widening, on many issues. But where that’s the case, it has often been almost entirely a function of conservatives moving sharply to the Right, and the Right being more extreme than in other countries. Most importantly, the “polarization” narrative completely obscures the fact that on the central issue that is at the core of the political conflict, the two parties, Left and Right more generally, are very much not the same – that issue is democracy. On the normative level, the “polarization” paradigm privileges unity, stability, and social cohesion over social justice and equal participation. It doesn’t adequately grapple with the fact that the former stifles the latter, that calls for racial and social justice are inherently destabilizing to a system that is built on traditional hierarchies of race, gender, and religion—that they are indeed polarizing as criticism of those who have traditionally been in power, but as such, from a small-d democratic perspective, are necessary and good. Let’s remember that in U.S. history, political “consensus” was usually based on a cross-partisan agreement to leave a discriminatory social order intact and deny marginalized groups equal representation and civil rights. In many ways, “polarization” is the price U.S. society has had to pay for real progress towards multiracial pluralism.

 DAME: When we talk about the extreme agenda of the American Right, it’s hard not to draw comparisons to Nazi Germany. Do you think these comparisons are correct, or is there a more apt historical analogy?

TZ: I generally try to stay away from references to the rise of the Nazis and the demise of democracy in Europe’s interwar period as analogies for the current moment in American politics. My default position is that the most instructive analogies, the most important traditions and continuities, are not to be found in Europe’s past, but in U.S. history. Specifically, instead of reaching for the 1930s in Germany right away, I believe we should pay more attention to how moments of social and racial progress in the United States were met with violent counter-mobilizations—against the country’s first attempt at interracial democracy after the Civil War for instance, or against the civil rights revolution in the 1950s and ’60s.

And yet, I do think it’s becoming harder to shake the Weimar Republic vibes. The Weimar analogy is quite apt because it sharpens our attention for a constellation in which vigilantism and political violence were widely seen as justified and necessary among Germany’s radical Right, but also among its more mainstream conservative enablers—all because of a perceived threat from the extreme Left that seemed to override everything else. Think about Kyle Rittenhouse becoming a star on the Right for killing protesters in the summer of 2020, and right-wingers now glorifying the killing of Jordan Neely on the NYC subway. All strands of the Right—Republican elected officials, the media machine, the reactionary intellectual sphere, the conservative base—are openly and aggressively embracing right-wing vigilante violence if it is directed against anyone perceived to be “left wing” or associated with “the Left.” There are some terrifying historical echoes here.

DAME: What dots do you think need better connecting so that people better understand the long-term project of Oligarchy?

TZ: One of the least productive, least helpful ways of thinking about the political conflict in the U.S. is to imagine the Right’s assault on democracy as driven EITHER by the desire of the oligarchy to amass wealth OR by ideological factors like racism and white nationalism. It’s the same political project. Modern conservatism as a political project arose in the middle decades of the 20th century as an alliance between traditionalists who were unwilling to accept America as anything but a society defined by white Christian patriarchy and market-fundamentalist libertarians who rejected any attempt to regulate the economy and “free enterprise”—with a lot of personal and ideological overlap between those two camps. What they all agreed on was that democracy was the enemy: They staunchly opposed any leveling of traditional hierarchies of race, gender, religion, and wealth, which they saw as the natural and/or divine order. Race, gender, religion, and wealth. It’s all of those dimensions. Yes, depending on what part of that reactionary alliance we look at, we find some who may emphasize one of these elements over others, and there has always been some amount of conflict and friction within the rightwing alliance because of that. But ultimately, what has kept the Right together, the oligarchic elites and the far-right “populists,” is that they all understand to be pursuing the same political project, against the same supposedly “un-American” enemy.

DAME: What can we do to counter the constant assault on our basic civil and human rights?

TZ: I firmly believe that any attempt to solve the problem has to start from a precise, unflinching diagnosis. Specifically, I try to emphasize the big picture, by reflecting on how not to miss the forest for the trees, on where to direct our attention, how to make sure we don’t just perceive as disparate events what is one underlying political conflict—and by situating the current struggle over how much democracy, and for whom, there should be in America in the longer-term context of U.S. history. How valuable is that as a public intervention? That is not for me to decide.

DAME: Between the GOP assault on democracy and COVID, so many of us are experiencing an unprecedented level of overwhelm and exhaustion—which is exactly what the Right is counting on.  At a time when so much horror has become normalized, and some folks are becoming numb to it all, how can we sound the alarm so others can heed it?

TZ: One of the key challenges since the start of the Trump era has been how to communicate effectively to the American public that something other than “politics as usual” is going on. There are many reasons why that’s such a difficult task, and one key challenge is indeed how to overcome the intense normalcy bias that keeps too many people in the (small-d) democratic camp from accepting what’s at stake.

In a lot of ways, things really are “normal,” in the sense that most of us continue the routines that dominate our daily lives, even in the midst of a political crisis around us. We have to function, we compartmentalize, we experience a strange mixture of normalcy and emergency that can sometimes feel almost disorienting. We can complain about how too many people are complacent. But let’s not assume that everyone who isn’t already grasping the acute danger, and hasn’t developed the same sense of alarm that I think is fully warranted, just doesn’t care. People need to live their own lives, deal with their own struggles, take care of themselves and their families. We all grind through our normal routines, we have to—unless something disrupts “normalcy.” That, to me, is the crucial question: How do we pierce that sense of “normalcy”? How do we create moments of meaningful disruption? Elite signaling plays an enormously important role here. The signal that it’s time to break through the routines has to come from the top.

DAME: What’s something that the media gets wrong when covering American politics and politicians?

TZ: Much of mainstream journalism is animated by the eternal quest for “balanced” coverage, its overwhelming desire to signal “nonpartisanship.” Journalists are trained to follow an ethos of “neutrality,” which is defined as keeping equidistant from both sides, incentivized to constantly signal “neutrality” unless they want to risk losing credibility and access. But the “neutrality” dogma severely hampers the ability of most civic institutions, including the mainstream media, to recognize, acknowledge, and react adequately to the biggest political challenge of our era: the Republican Party’s anti-democratic radicalization and the subversion of democracy in favor of reactionary minority rule. Being “nonpartisan” and “neutral” may sound like a good idea in a vacuum. But the fundamental reality of American politics is that truth, democracy, and the rule of law have become partisan issues. Under these circumstances, “neutrality” often equals complicity. The job should be to cover, describe, assess, and interpret American politics as objectively, accurately, and adequately as possible. Under current circumstances, that task is very much in conflict with established ideas of “neutrality” and “nonpartisanship.” If your professional “values” keep you from acknowledging that there is one party that is broadly committed to the idea of multiracial, pluralistic democracy and another that is determined to prevent America from ever becoming such a democracy, it’s time to ditch those values.

A closely related problem is that too many journalists are approaching politics as if it were a fun competition between Team Red and Team Blue with nothing much at stake. It is sometimes assumed that journalists actively root for either team. But that’s not really the main issue. Politics-as-horse-race coverage is biased, but not towards a specific horse, but towards a close contest, entertaining drama, or a good comeback story (whenever someone is behind in the polls in the run-up to an election). But in a very fundamental way, politics is not sports, is not just about what team is winning. The focus has to be: Here are the actual policy / political stakes, here are the real-life consequences for American life.

DAME: What’s something that gives you hope?

TZ: Here is my glass-half-full reading of recent U.S. history and our current moment: The reactionary counter-mobilization from the Right is not coming from a place of strength: Conservatives are radicalizing because they understand they are in the minority and feel their backs against the wall, leading to a veritable siege mentality. The Right is radicalizing out of a sense of weakness, and they are reacting to something real: Due to political, social, cultural, and demographic developments, the country has indeed moved closer than ever before to becoming an egalitarian multiracial, pluralistic democracy. America has the chance to demonstrate that such a true democracy, one in which the individual’s status is not significantly determined by race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or wealth is actually feasible under conditions of multiracial, multi-religious pluralism. It’s a chance of world-historic significance, as such a democracy has basically never existed anywhere. But we need to acknowledge that as of right now, it is, at best, an open question whether or not this vision of true democracy can overcome the radicalizing forces of reaction.

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