Democracy and Reason
The following is the text of remarks delivered by Jone Johnson Lewis during the January 31, 2021, All Society Platform Meeting of the American Ethical Union.

Today in the US, a significant number of people truly believe that the now sitting president is really the previous president, wearing a skin mask.

It’s no surprise that we got here. Chris Hedges wrote this in 2007: “The split in America, rather than simply economic, is between those who embrace reason, who function in the real world of cause and effect, and those who, numbed by isolation and despair, now seek meaning in a mythical world of intuition, a world that is no longer reality-based, a world of magic.”

That’s from his book: American Fascists. He concluded that, unlike fascism of the 1920s through 40s, in the US no one had YET called for dictatorship or used physical violence to suppress opposition.

In 1944, Henry Wallace was the sitting vice president when he wrote about fascism for the Sunday New York Times magazine.  He wrote: “American fascism will not be really dangerous until there is a purposeful coalition among the cartelists, the deliberate poisoners of public information, and those who stand for the K.K.K. type of demagoguery.”

Sound familiar? Calling the press “enemies of the public.” Increasingly active white nationalism, anti-Black violence, antisemitism.

Cartelists?  Henry Wallace again: “Monopolists who fear competition and who distrust democracy because it stands for equal opportunity….”  Sound familiar?

Add in the rightwing theocrats Hedges was writing about.

Wallace also wrote in that essay: “The supreme god of a fascist, to which his ends are directed, may be money or power; may be a race or a class; may be a military, clique, or an economic group; or may be a culture, religion, or a political party.”

Now they HAVE moved to violence. Harassing a congressional candidate so he drops out, leaving unopposed someone who called for putting bullets in the heads of those she opposes. Allowing a pandemic to kill what will end up more than half a million deaths, many preventable by action based on reason, evidence, and compassion.

It’s true we’ve never had full democracy or reason-based culture in the US.  Genocide. Enslavement. Denying many the right to vote. These practices were defended with lies – the happy slave, the savage Indian, the superiority of white men.

AND it’s also true that through that history, many have worked to deconstruct those lies, worked to expand who is represented and who represents. Moving towards more democracy DEPENDS on reason and fact.

What is the opposite of democracy?  One opposite is fascism. Fascism isn’t just political bullying. It has different forms with some common factors.  Among them: Racial hierarchy backed with authoritarian rule.  Nationalism. Violence. George Orwell wrote of earlier American fascists: “one stands amazed at their diversity. What a crew! … They are all people with something to lose, or people who long for a hierarchical society and dread the prospect of a world of free and equal human beings. Behind all the ballyhoo … lies the simple intention of those with money or privileges to cling to them.” Again, sound familiar?

Fascism depends, as Hannah Arendt documented, on people believing lies that their leaders tell – lies invented to manipulate those afraid of losing their money or privileges.

Today’s magical thinkers believe that THEY are the ones using evidence and reason.  It is practically a sacred mantra: “do the research.”  JFK Jr’s assassination failed and he’ll reappear. A pizza parlor without a basement is hiding children in the basement.  Those conclusions are, for the believer, proudly based on research. They found YouTube videos, listened to podcasts, engaged with a community of self-identified skeptics, extracted meaning from cryptic revelations. It is as if, instead of feeling ears and tails of an elephant and thinking they found leaves and vines, they find leaves and vines and think they found elephants.

A priority has been to outvote these folks, enable more eligible voters to cast ballots, put government power into the hands of people who are more egalitarian, more evidence-based in their reasoning. Even if not perfect people. Narrow success by voting was met with violent attacks to prevent votes being counted.  It is magical thinking to believe the work is done with just one election.

We heard from Chris Hedges about those “numbed by isolation and despair.”  Decades earlier, Erich Fromm warned that fascism “is an economic and political problem, but the hold it has over a whole people has to be understood on psychological grounds.”

Those who get caught up in what may be today’s fascism are motivated by human needs: to belong, to find meaning, to matter, to identify with something larger than one’s self.  Even when it’s destructive of self, hurts others, and requires suspension of disbelief and a narrow circle of concern.

Our limited human minds leave us ALL open to confirmation bias, to seeing ourselves in the best light and others in the worst, to deceiving ourselves that we’re using reason and not emotion, to rigidify our beliefs when we’re confronted with evidence that contradicts them. To narrowly define our circle of compassion.

We’ve learned a lot about the psychology of those who believe the world is about to end. When predictions fail, some leave – but a core remains and their beliefs grow more rigid. Changing minds isn’t easy.

But changing minds by reasoning isn’t the only approach. Fascism thrives where there is social and economic inequality.  Democracy, and a more just society, co-create and reinforce each other. Moving away from lies and a group-based social/economic hierarchy to democracy, equity, and inclusion isn’t easy or quick. But it IS where everyone wins.

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