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When we had fascism in the United States

I was reading this horrifying and hilarious story by Colson Whitehead, along with an excellent article by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker (I posted a nitpick on it a couple days ago) on the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction era in the United States, and I was suddenly reminded of something.

In one of the political science classes I took in college, we were told that one of the big questions about U.S. politics, compared to Europe, is why we’ve had no socialism and no fascism. Sure, there have been a few pockets of socialism where they’ve won a few elections, and there was Huey Long in 1930s Louisiana, but nothing like Europe where the Left and the Right have ruled entire countries. and where, at least for a time, socialist and fascism were the ideologies of major parties.

That’s what we were taught. But, as Whitehead and Gopnik (and Henry Louis Gates, the author of the book that Gopnik was reviewing) remind us, that’s wrong. We have had fascism here for a long time—in the post-reconstruction South.

What’s fascism all about? Right-wing, repressive government, political power obtained and maintained through violence and the threat of violence, a racist and nationalist ideology, and a charismatic leader.

The post-reconstruction South didn’t have a charismatic leader, but the other parts of the description fit, so on the whole I’d call it a fascist regime.

In the 1930s, Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here about a hypothetical fascist Americanism, and there was that late book by Philip Roth with a similar theme. I guess other people have had this thought so I googled *it has happened here* and came across this post talking about fascism in the United States, pointing to Red scares, the internment of Japanese Americans in WW2, and FBI infiltration of the civil rights movement. All these topics are worth writing about, but none of them seem to me to be even nearly as close to fascism as what happened for close to a century in the post-reconstruction South.

Louis Hartz wrote The Liberal Tradition in America back in the 1950s. The funny thing is, back in the 1950s there was still a lot of fascism down there.

But nobody made that connection to us when we were students.

Maybe the U.S. South just seemed unique, and the legacy of slavery distracted historians and political scientists so much they didn’t see the connection to fascism, a political movement with a nationalistic racist ideology that used violence to take and maintain power in a democratic system. It’s stunning in retrospect that Huey Long was discussed as a proto-fascist without any recognition that the entire South had a fascist system of government.

P.S. A commenter points to this article by Ezekiel Kweku and Jane Coaston from a couple years ago making the same point:

Fascism has happened before in America.

For generations of black Americans, the United States between the end of Reconstruction, around 1876, and the triumphs of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s was a fascist state.

Good to know that others have seen this connection before. It’s still notable, I think, that we weren’t aware of this all along.


  1. Stew Denslow says:

    I remember my mother, from Virginia, telling me that the way the South was run was “Feudal”. I imagined that by “Feudal” she meant (something like) living in a political unit with a non-charismatic leader, who has been given control by the ruling elite, and that leader used violence and racial animus to maintain autocratic power. Your post jolted me into seeing that this rough definition is mighty close to Fascism. No need to go back hundreds of years to find a parallel. As some of my older neighbors might say “If it was a snake, it would have bit me.”

    • zbicyclist says:

      I grew up in border states (KY, MO) rather than the South. But to me, feudalism makes more sense than fascism as a descriptor.

      There was no dictator, but a definite aristocracy.
      Serfs and sharecroppers seem somewhat of a piece.
      There was a rigid hierarchy, enforced by informal violence and the corruption of the nominal legal system (e.g. voting rights)

  2. D Kane says:

    We are more likely to make progress if we can agree on the definitions of the words we use. According to Wikipedia:

    Fascism is a form of radical, right-wing, authoritarian ultranationalism, characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition, and strong regimentation of society and of the economy, which came to prominence in early 20th-century Europe.

    Other definitions are similar, e.g., :

    a political philosophy, movement, or regime (such as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition

    There was no “dictatorial leader” in the South, nor was there “centralized autocratic government.” There was also as much economic freedom (for non-blacks) in the South as there was in any part of the US at the time. There was no more “regimentation” of the economy than in other parts of the world.

    Just because the post Civil War South was BAD and the Fascist WW II governments of Germany and Italy were BAD does not mean that the former were much like the latter.

    • Andrew says:


      I agree that the post-reconstruction South lacked a dictatorial or charismatic leader and lacked the cult of personality that is associated with fascism. But it had the rest: right-wing, nationalist, racism (not mentioned in your definitions above but I do think this is key part of fascism), violence used to obtain and maintain power, and, yes, severe economic and social regimentation. There were lots of restrictions on what black people could do and how they could operate: that’s economic and social regimentation.

      My statement that the post-reconstruction South was fascist is not simply a statement that both things are bad. It’s a particular kind of thing: right-wing, repressive government, political power obtained and maintained through violence and the threat of violence, a racist and nationalist ideology, and a charismatic leader. In this case, not the charismatic leader but everything else.

      • D Kane says:

        Fascism is a highly charged term. I doubt that using a different definition than everyone else uses will make for much progress.

        You note (correctly!) that “There were lots of restrictions on what black people could do and how they could operate: that’s economic and social regimentation.” The same was true in New York City of 1800. Was NYC fascist during that time? In fact, on some dimensions the NYC of 1800 was much worse than the Alabama of 1920. White women could vote in the latter but not in the former.

        Also, in what why was the South of this era “nationalist?” My sense is that the South, especially in the period directly after the Civil Was was less “nationalist” than any other part of the US, indeed, less nationalist than countries like UK, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and so on.

        • Andrew says:


          I don’t think I’m using a different definition than everyone else uses. I think there are many definitions—“fascism” is not an exact category, indeed elsewhere in this thread there’s a commentator who doesn’t think the Nazis are fascist—and my point is that the post-reconstruction South shares a lot of attributes with fascist systems.

          Regarding your point about most of the U.S. having racist policies for most of its history: Sure, that’s one aspect of fascism. It just seems to me that the post-reconstruction South had a lot of these things.

          Regarding nationalism, I’d consider the South to be the relevant national unit here. And, again, sure, lots of countries have had nationalist ideologies. It’s when a bunch of the different features of fascism go together, including the racism, the political violence, the ideology, etc., that I see the “fascism” label making sense. And of course the UK, France, Germany, and Italy have all had fascist movements, with varying degrees of success. It’s not at all a controversial statement to say that fascism has had political appeal in many different countries during the past century. What struck me was that we had it, or something like it, in the U.S., but the political scientists didn’t characterize it as such.

      • TGGP says:

        Was the south particularly “nationalist”? They seemed to more strongly identify with/have loyalty to their region rather than the country as a whole. Fascists crush regional separatists (as happened during the Spanish Civil War). This is why Hitler admired Lincoln. I think the problem here is the one Orwell pointed to where “fascism” comes to mean “politics I dislike”. Personally, I view fascism as a phenomena specific to the interwar period and strongest in places without a strong tradition of democracy. The legitimacy of the national government may have been somewhat weak in the south since they’d recently fought a war against it, but they didn’t march on D.C to replace it with a “trenchocracy” of veterans.

        • Connor says:

          If we take a definition of fascism as a type of regime and apply it then D is probably correct. And I think D and TGGP are right to say we should be careful in how we use our language. I also think that the title of Andrew’s post is less insightful (or promising) than the spirit of the post.

          But instead of a ‘type’ of regime, its important to see that fascism was and is a political movement and fascists in America draw great inspiration from that past. People draw on this legacy of white supremacy to inspire a sense of white nationalist pride.

          Its accurate to say that the post-Reconstruction South, and the Confederacy, have been incorporated into the ideology and lineage of modern fascism. Its also accurate to say that white supremacy in the US informed European fascism somewhat through the eugenics movement and ‘scientific racism’. Notice the mix of Confederate flags and Nazi flags when they march here? There are linkages between these histories and ideologies, and the take away for me is that fascism isn’t a completely foreign thing nor a thing of the past. There’s no sense in trying to expect or impose strict internal logic (or some kind of litmus test, like symbolic regionalism vs. ‘real’ nationalism) onto movements driven by irrational men. Nor must fascists today follow the same road map as the past to ‘earn’ that designation.

          I wouldn’t say “the South was fascist”, though these certainly were single party states propped up by terror; I would say that white supremacy in the US belongs to the same political family as fascism and they certainly seem to have merged into a single movement today.

          Sorry for the double post below

          • TGGP says:

            Eugenics wasn’t invented in the U.S and originally had nothing to do with differences between (rather than within) races. Hitler didn’t need any southerners to tell him to euthanize the disabled. Within the U.S, most of the notable advocates for eugenics (as far as I can tell) were northeners, and it was even embraced by African American leaders.

            How can you dub regionalism “symbolic” if actual wars were fought over it? I can acknowledge that separatists are often nationalists themselves, who want their ethnic minority to have its own state, but the U.S had been settled too recently by similar (mostly English) people for the north & south to be ethnically different.

            The people marching today with Nazi & Confederate flags are idiots who have presumably never read what Hitler wrote about confederations (German & American) in Mein Kampf. I don’t care what such cosplayers think compared to the actual fascists who ran countries and dominated most of Europe.

      • Steve says:

        You keep saying that the post-Reconstruction South lacked a charismatic leader and that is the one difference between it a fascism. I think they had many charismatic leaders. I rather think the problem is with that definition of fascism. The fascism of Germany and Italy started with charismatic leaders, but because it was destroyed so quickly it never became stable. The South had a stable fascist regime. So, leaders were replaced, but the attitude toward leadership was the same. Leaders were exalted, worshiped, had devoted followers, given a level of loyalty well above that accorded leadership in the North. I think that we should define fascism not by the existence of a single charismatic leader, but by the attitude toward leadership. Otherwise, our definition tend to exclude stable fascist regimes where there are changes in leadership.

  3. Connor says:

    Yes, I very much agree with the general direction of this post. The ideological parallels are arguably stronger than you suggest. Today we see in public how Nazis in the US glorify the Confederacy. Fascists today do make a direct connection between that terrible heritage and their international visions for a how to make the world more horrible. Also, eugenics was very popular in the United States and the Nazis drew from that. I just completed a research project on Florida’s convict leasing program (1877-1919), to be published in Florida Historical Quarterly this year. The program was in fact influenced by scientific racism and was run with those values and goals primarily in mind. The argument was that African Americans were a “dying race” unfit for freedom, and it was a shallow cover for men who sought to advance policies that enslaved, beat and killed many young black men, mostly. Officials were not shy in articulating how this program could promote the submission of blacks to whites (particularly as an industrial labor force), through terror.

    • TGGP says:

      As far as I know, real German Nazis were not fans of the Confederacy. There’s was even mocking propaganda of the U.S during WW2 depicting it as a monstrous creature wearing a Klansman’s hood. Eugenics was popular in the U.S, and a number of other places we don’t consider fascist.

  4. I think your definition of “fascism” is overly broad. Using a similarly broad definition one could make the case that we’ve had socialism on a large scale here in the U.S. See this article for a discussion of what fascism really is, and how it differs from other forms of authoritarianism:

    Spotting the Wild Fascist

    • Andrew says:


      I followed your link and this does not seem at all inconsistent with what I wrote in the post above, which is that the post-reconstruction U.S. South had just about everything in fascism except for the charismatic leader.

      Regarding socialism in the U.S.: I think the consensus here is that we have a mixed economy, and we’ve had that for a long time.

      • Which of these elements listed in the essay do you see in post-reconstruction South? And, I suppose one could follow that up with, which do you see in post-reconstruction South but not in the North?

        * A centralizing theory of political power and legitimacy.

        * State-socialist political economics.

        * Anti-semitism, with the Jews identified as bloodsucking capitalists.

        * Propaganda and programs aiming to fundamentally transform society into an idealized future state.

        * Equivalents of the SA and SS, organs of coercion answering to the leader and the Party, not the law.

        * Systematic suppression of competing political speech.

        * Registration, suppression, and confiscation of civilian firearms.

        • Z says:

          To take 3:

          * Systematic suppression of competing political speech.
          >Black people were prevented from voting or participating in politics

          * Equivalents of the SA and SS, organs of coercion answering to the leader and the Party, not the law.
          >The KKK did not answer to the law. Sure, it wasn’t controlled by the leader, but counting this against the south being fascist seems like double counting the absence of a single dictator (which has already been ceded)

          * A centralizing theory of political power and legitimacy.
          > White supremacy? Sure, not all encompassing, lots of ways for white supremacists to disagree about things other than white supremacy. But still partially satisfied.

          I don’t see why the rest should be considered fundamental to fascism as opposed to just things that often co-occur.

          • TGGP says:

            The KKK was a terrorist/insurgent group that existed during a military occupation, which actually would bear some resemblance to German rebellion against the occupation of the Ruhr & Rhineland. But the KKK was put down (with even its founder disowning it) prior to the end of Reconstruction, and after that point the relevant comparison would be the “Redeemer” governments & fascist ones. In case you bring up the second Klan, it was not restricted to the south (I believe it was actually biggest in Indiana), and Ronald Fryer has no found no association between its presence and actual violence, and thin evidence of any political effect. See “Hatred and Profits: Getting Under the Hood of the Ku Klux Klan”.

            “A centralizing theory of political power and legitimacy.
            > White supremacy? Sure, not all encompassing, lots of ways for white supremacists to disagree about things other than white supremacy. But still partially satisfied.”
            You don’t seem to understand that bit at all. White supremacy is a policy (or set of policies), it does not suffice to legitimize a particular body as the one to implement said policy. So, no, not satisfied at all.

            • Steve says:

              This is completely false. The KKK was not a resistance group. They were not put down prior to the end of Reconstruction. They were in fact a powerful group and even a mainstream political group up into the 20th Century. They lost their political power after they participated in a kidnapping in Indiana. The KKK terrorized African Americans after Reconstruction to reassert White Supremacy.

              • Andrew says:


                The KKK was put down during Reconstruction, but then other violent groups were established to enforce white supremacy in the South.

              • Steve says:

                There was a second KKK, and it was powerful well into the 20th century.

              • TGGP says:

                I explicitly distinguished between the first and second Klans above, and cited Fryer on how the second differed from the first.

            • Z says:

              Ok, if not the KKK then various small town police departments as SS analogs?

              > it does not suffice to legitimize a particular body as the one to implement said policy.
              That’s true, it provides necessary but not sufficient conditions, which is why I acknowledged that it’s not all-encompassing and only partially satisfied the requirement.

        • Corey says:

          Anti-semitism, with the Jews identified as bloodsucking capitalists.

          Nah. Under this standard Il Duce’s OG fascism wouldn’t count. It had little to do with anti-semitism until 1938 when Italy took up pro-forma anti-semitism to placate its German ally. Official sanctions against Jews in Italy exempted (among others) former members of the Fascist Party and their parents, grandparents, wives, children, and grandchildren. This would have covered a large proportion of Jews because they’d been joining the Fascist Party for twenty years in order to enter the Civil Service (which was only open to Party members). Italy also stonewalled handing over Italian Jews for extermination; in diplomatic meetings they would promise to do it but then make excuses and never deliver.

        • TGGP says:

          Fascist Italy wasn’t especially anti-semitic. Even when the alliance with Germany caused them to adopt many anti-semitic law, they had no interest in enforcing said laws. Mussolini actually saved more Jews than Oskar Schindler. Nationalism became popular when newspapers & literacy enabled people to mobilize based on shared language, prioritizing that over the (seemingly) arbitrary political boundaries determined by royal holdings. So it’s not that odd that Italian Fascism was focused on (the relatively recently united) Italians as a culture rather than being that hung up on race. The U.S is/was an English settler colony with a (predominately English speaking & Christian) subordinate racial population descended from imported slaves, which is very hard to compare to the situation in Europe.

        • Andrew says:


          These particular items are pretty idiosyncratic, not the usual definitions of fascism, so I wasn’t really going with these details so much as the general flow, as I noted above, a right-wing, repressive government, political power obtained and maintained through violence and the threat of violence, a racist and nationalist ideology, and a charismatic leader (but without the charismatic leader in the case of the South). The racism was anti-black rather than anti-Jewish but in both cases it wasn’t just individual racists, it was a racist ideology entwined with a nationalistic ideology, which seems very fascist to me. As for some of the others, such as suppression of speech and other freedoms, and coercive paramilitary organizations with legal protection: those were key parts of the post-reconstruction regime in the South.

          Ultimately, these are just words. No two political regimes are identical. It strikes me that there are several important similarities between fascist regimes in interwar Europe of the 20th century, and the post-reconstruction South in the U.S., and it also interests me that this strong connection did not used to be brought up in discussions of U.S. politics. As I wrote in my above post, I suspect that people focused on the details and missed this big picture.

        • > * Registration, suppression, and confiscation of civilian firearms.

          I believe there’s historical evidence in the debates about the reconstruction amendments that suggest one of the important reasons for the 14th amendment was specifically to incorporate 2nd amendment protections on firearms ownership to the states so that southern states couldn’t confiscate freed slaves personal firearms.

          Strangely the question of the incorporation of the 2nd amendment restrictions to the states wasn’t actually decided until McDonald v City of Chicago in 2010

    • Adede says:

      ESR is one of the last places I’d go for information about politics.

  5. Connor says:

    I quite agree with Andrew’s post. Fascists today consider the Confederacy and the post-Reconstruction governments as part of their political heritage. There is a strong ideological and real historical connection there, a shared history and shared values of movements that arose in distinct places and periods of history. Scientific racism and eugenics were hugely influential here in the United States, including in the formation of public policy, and the Nazis picked up on that stuff. Some of my own research, coming out in the next issue of Florida Historical Quarterly, is on Florida’s convict leasing program (1877-1919). Prison administrators were not shy about their aims with the program. They sought to use violence in the prison system to terrorize blacks towards submission, particularly as an industrial labor force. I very much take issue with the notion that there was “economic freedom” in the South for non-blacks; freedom to exploit viciously is hardly my idea of “freedom” economic or otherwise.

  6. Speed says:

    From, of all places, MTV …

    Fascism Has Already Come To America
    For generations of black Americans, the United States between the end of Reconstruction and the civil rights movement was a dystopian state

    “For generations of black Americans, the United States between the end of Reconstruction, around 1876, and the triumphs of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s was a fascist state.”

  7. Demosthenes says:

    In what sense was the post-Reconstruction South “right wing”?

    • Andrew says:


      The usual. Extremely conservative, supporting existing institutions. The same way that the Soviet Union was left-wing. As you move away from the center, these concepts get warped, but I think there’s still a distinction between left and right. The Nazis, for that matter, were revolutionary in many ways but they’re still considered right-wing, and I think this has to do with various ideological positions and economic policies they had.

      • Xysname says:

        I feel most conservatives disagree that fascist is right-wing. How do most conservative political scientists think, do they agree fascist is right-wing?

        On the other hand, there is almost no disagreement regarding Soviet Union was left-wing.

        • Jan says:

          “On the other hand, there is almost no disagreement regarding Soviet Union was left-wing.”

          Which is kind of interesting, given the nearly complete reversal of almost all initial progressive policies under Stalin. Under Lenin, SU was officially very pro-feminist, supporting all sorts of sexual freedoms, lot of experimenting in arts, in general policies that we usually find on the left. Under Stalin, woman’s place was strictly a mother, who supports her husband and sons in their revolutionary struggle. Lots of emphasis on core family, strict “socialist morality” rules, complete reversal in support for art movements to realism and art rooted in traditional nationalist values.

          When I came to US in early 90’s, to my great surprise, the party that I found most reminiscent of the communists, in rhetoric, diction, the causes they championed and things they fought against, was the republicans.

  8. Gene Callahan says:

    “What’s fascism all about? Right-wing, repressive government, political power obtained and maintained through violence and the threat of violence, a racist and nationalist ideology, and a charismatic leader.”

    “Right-wing”? Much more accurate to say the left-right axis is nonsense, as evidenced by fascism (and Nazism).

    “repressive government” Like most governments on most of the planet at most times? So they were all “fascist”?

    “a racist and nationalist ideology” The Nazis were racists, but were not fascists. (See, e.g., Hannah Arendt on the distinction.) The fascists were not particularly racist, except, say, in Italy under pressure from the Nazis.

    And it is hard to see how the South was “nationalist,” when they were working against the federal government!

    So, no, “fascist” should not be used as a synonym for “politics I don’t like.” There’s plenty not to like about the post-bellum South without creating a terminological muddle.

    • Andrew says:


      If you want to say the Nazis were not fascists, then, yeah, you’re using a much more limited definition of fascism than I am. When the political scientists of the 1950s and onward told us that the U.S. had not had socialism or fascism, it was my impression that they were talking about these two extremes of the political spectrum in a pretty general way. “Fascism” did not just refer to 1930s Italy.

      And, yes, I think it’s meaningful to speak of Soviet Russia as left-wing and Nazi Germany as right-wing. Both were murderous, repressive, corrupt regimes, but they had different characteristics, and they had different relationships with business, labor, and other institutions.

  9. yyw says:

    On the flip side, does this mean that fascism could work reasonably well and was not a big deal? Slippery slope application/argument could go both ways.

    • Andrew says:


      I don’t know what you mean by “work reasonably well and was not a big deal.” The Axis powers conquered a lot of countries and stole lots of things, so you could say they worked reasonably well for awhile, on their terms.

      The original point of all this was to better understand American politics from a comparative perspective. When I was a student, I was taught that the U.S. had never had socialism or fascism in any serious way. But it recently struck me that, no, the U.S. did have fascism, and for a long time. I think I understand U.S. politics better, having recognized this point, and I think the political science I learned, in which explanations where given for why the U.S. never experienced these extremes, was missing something important.

      • D Kane says:

        > The original point of all this was to better understand American politics from a comparative perspective.

        You really think that the word “fascism” increases understanding?

        Let me phrase this in a potential outcome framework:

        You (and I!) are teaching a political science seminar about comparative politics (or US political history or whatever topic you like). We have only X hours of class discussion, can only assign Y readings.

        Your claim is that if we replace some of that discussion and some of those readings with material related to drawing a parallel between the post-war South and fascism that we will increase understanding for our students. In other words, a class with such material is better than a class without that materials.

        Is that a fair summary of your view?

        • Andrew says:


          Remember, the background here is what we were told, that the U.S. had no socialism and no fascism. I think that statement was misleading, and I think it’s a helpful corrective to consider that the U.S. did have fascism.

          I learned the “no socialism, no fascism” thing in a political science class in American politics. The puzzle was why the U.S. did not have these movements. If I were teaching a class in American politics, I would not state the “no socialism, no fascism” puzzle; rather, I think I’d take a few minutes to first state that “no socialism, no fascism” was considered a puzzle, but that I think this was mistaken because the U.S. has had fascism. I think that parallel is valuable and adds useful context, both in thinking about U.S. politics and in thinking about political science.

      • yyw says:

        I don’t think anyone would reasonably argue that axis powers were successful even in their own stated objectives given how quickly the system collapsed.

        On the other hand, if one argues that the south was ruled by fascism for almost a century, then yes, it has worked reasonably well. You have to look into a detailed comparison of north versus south in terms of productivity growth, standard of living, migration pattern (overall and by racial/ethnic groups), etc. to see how much of an advantage the democratic north had over the “fascist” south. Unless the gap was humongous, then you have an example of a “fascist” regime that was stable under which a region became highly prosperous.

        • Andrew says:


          Sure. Repressive governments have had lots of successes over the years.

          • yyw says:

            It may be inconceivable to people born in a developed country, but billions of people living in the third world would trade their current situation for a life under a repressive regime that delivers prosperity. I don’t think we want to say that fascism could be such a system (which by the way I strongly disagree.)

      • NickMatzke says:

        This: “Just because the post Civil War South was BAD and the Fascist WW II governments of Germany and Italy were BAD does not mean that the former were much like the latter.“

        I think if we are going to use comparative politics to improve understanding, it is useful to make lots of comparisons. I think a much closer analogy to the Jim Crow South is apartheid South Africa. These share a number of similarities not found with fascism, eg the combination of democracy (for whites) with some “separate but equal” fig-leaf to try to justify the system internally and externally. They both made use of a very Calvinist theology, with the whites as the chosen people, to justify the system.

        Sadly, a fair amount of this system already existed in the pre-Civil War USA and colonialist British empire-a great many whites just assumed they were superior. The attempt to maintain the system after opposition mounted produced the extreme systems we are talking about. But, as they were partially democratic, they did have some capacity to limit the damage – no unwinnable existential wars, no systematic genocide, and eventually had the capacity to respond to pressure and change without being violently overthrown. Seems rather different than fascism.

        Another analogy might be the direction Israel seems to be heading – a democracy trying to both stay a democracy while ruling a large group without a voice or stake in the system. I agree this tends towards right-wing impulses but it’s still a long ways from fascism where democracy is explicitly abandoned wholesale in favor of a charismatic leader who scapegoats political/ethnic minorities.

        • TGGP says:

          Both apartheid South Africa & the Jim Crow south were characterized by the dominance of one party, but as far as I know in neither case did those dominant parties reject democratic politics as their ideal. And there could still be political competition with a party: Huey Long was a Democrat like most southern politicians, but he was actually OPPOSED to the white supremacist faction within that party (whose support FDR relied on), which is why Huey Newton was named after him. Economically speaking he was also on the far left wing of the party, and thus might be more accurately thought of as a proto-socialist though he denied the socialist label (which could still fit Andrew’s discussion of him being an exception).

          • Andrew says:


            You write, “in neither case [apartheid South Africa & the Jim Crow south] did those dominant parties reject democratic politics as their ideal.” Huh? Both these regimes absolutely rejected democratic politics. Not letting half the people (or, in the case of South Africa) most of the people vote: that’s clearly anti-democratic, and it was a core part of their ideology. I agree that there were some democratic aspects of these systems, but I do think it’s a rejection of democratic politics if a large group or even a majority is excluded from the system.

            • NickMatzke says:

              “You write, “in neither case [apartheid South Africa & the Jim Crow south] did those dominant parties reject democratic politics as their ideal.” Huh? Both these regimes absolutely rejected democratic politics. Not letting half the people (or, in the case of South Africa) most of the people vote: that’s clearly anti-democratic, and it was a core part of their ideology. I agree that there were some democratic aspects of these systems, but I do think it’s a rejection of democratic politics if a large group or even a majority is excluded from the system.”

              Yes, obviously not letting a large number of people vote is “anti-democratic”, and wrong. But if we are talking about the *political system*, i.e. how the leaders are chosen, how the laws are made, etc., I think you’d have to classify the political systems of the Jim Crow South states, apartheid South Africa, etc., as democracies — in that they had reasonably meaningful votes to elect their leaders, who were changed at regular intervals, they had a meaningful system of checks and balances (executive, legislative, courts), etc. And they expressed some adherence to the ideals of democracy — although of course they were quite flawed in the inconsistency of which votes were privileged. (I believe both the South and South Africa did allow black people to vote in some sense, and used this semi-truth to help defend the system, although of course greatly obstructed their actual political power through all sorts of shenaningans.)

              Similar things could be said about the limitations of democracy in the USA before the Civil War or in many countries before women’s suffrage — many people were excluded, but the political system was still, structurally, a democracy of some sort — we don’t call historical limited-suffrage democracies “facist”. Even a discriminatory democracy is a long ways from facism’s explicit anti-democratic commitments and explicit endorsement of dictatorship in service of the Volk/people/nation over the rights of individual voting citizens.

              I found this page helpful:


              • Andrew says:


                You write, “we don’t call historical limited-suffrage democracies ‘fascist.'”

                I don’t label the post-reconstruction South as fascist, or fascist-like, only because of its lack of democracy. There’s also the right-wing, repressive government, political power obtained and maintained through violence and the threat of violence, a racist and nationalist ideology. Again, I’m not using “fascist” as a shorthand for “politics I don’t like”; rather, it refers to a particular cluster of features involving repression, violence, and a racist ideology.

              • Jan says:

                Also, I think, from my limited knowledge of the southern culture, that there was a fair amount of “Blot und Boden” sentiment there as well.

              • Nick Matzke says:

                Hi Andrew-perhaps a way to say it that would gain wider agreement would be to say that both fascism and Jim Crow governments drew on some common themes, eg white supremacy, conservatism in the sense of anti-communism, etc., and some overlapping tactics like disenfranchising certain populations.

              • Andrew says:


                Yes, and you can add political violence to that list.

                In any case, again, this post was in response to being told “no socialism no fascism in the U.S.” The post-reconstruction South is not an exact match to German or Italian or French-style fascism, but I do think it odd that, when the topic of “fascism in the U.S.” came up, political scientists (or, for that matter, students such as myself) didn’t immediately think of what it was like in the South. I think we just accepted the historical South for what it was, and we didn’t put it in that larger context.

            • TGGP says:

              Someone above used the term “herrenvolk democracy”, and I think that’s the more accurate term. Every “democratic” government disenfranchises some, like children or prisoners. That doesn’t mean they reject democracy! Fascists actually had an argument that parliamentary competition led to narrow interests fighting each other to the greater detriment of the nation.

        • Phil says:

          Nick, I think you and D Kane (elsewhere in this thread) are thinking of the definition of ‘fascism’ as a yes/no thing: if you can’t check every single box, then it’s not fascism. Many other people on this thread, including me, think in more of a ‘fuzzy logic’ kind of way. The U.S. isn’t either ‘socialist’ or ‘not at all socialist’, it’s somewhat socialist. The American South wasn’t ‘fascist’ or ‘not at all fascist’, it was ‘quite a bit fascist.’ It did lack a ‘charismatic leader’ and the region as a whole didn’t have a single dictator in charge, and in that way it was not at all fascist. But, as Andrew points out, it did have just about every other characteristic of fascism, including scapegoating of political/ethnic minorities.

          For what it’s worth, I’d also say Israel is slouching towards fascism.

          • TGGP says:

            I think the scapegoating differed. Southerners blamed Yankees for the war & reconstruction, but Yankees aren’t really an ethnic minority. African Americans were regarded as having a place in southern society: as a servile class. They even instituted laws to prevent northerners from trying to recruit them to work elsewhere. The Nazis regarded Jews as a threat to be exterminated, which is quite different from a resource to be exploited. During the Civil War, it was actually Grant who banned Jews from his military district (though Lincoln countermanded his order).

            • Phil says:

              TGGP, every thing is what it is, and not some other thing. The scapegoating of Jews in Germany and blacks in the Southern US differed, sure. Everything is different from everything else. But if you want to claim blacks weren’t seen as a threat you’ll have a hard time explaining all those lynchings, and occurrences including the Tulsa race riots Certainly blacks (collectively and individually) got blamed for a lot of things they didn’t do.

  10. Dzhaughn says:

    While I admit they are responsible for the regressive governments of the South, for relegating an unfavored ethnic minorities to concentration camps after appropriating their property, for developming and using of nuclear weapons on civilian populations, and staring and escalating the Vietnam War, I think it is harsh, and at the very least unhelpful, to label the Democrats as “fascist.”

    Not saying that I’d want them running my hospital, of course.

  11. Peter Dorman says:

    Whenever there’s a dispute over labels it’s worth thinking about why it matters. In this case, the fascist label is interesting because fascism denotes an interconnected set of political characteristics, each buttressed to some extent by the others. Or to put it differently, in a coherent political regime the drawbacks of particular elements are somewhat offset by the strengths of others. For instance, the fascist imposition, by force, of traditional hierarchies, which might otherwise increase social instability, is offset by intense communal identification (the Volk). A charismatic leader is historically important to fascism because of the symbolic role he plays in this identification, and also to contain the rivalrous potential of rule by paramilitary thugs.

    So was the post-Reconstruction South fascist in this sense? The lack of charismatic leadership is not just the loss of a menu item; we would have to trace its effect on the forces that European leaders unleashed or constrained. I don’t know enough to do that. The nationalist differentiation may not matter as much, since regional loyalty could well be a functional equivalent.

    The main alternative label we might want to place on the South is herrenvolk democracy. Which works best may hinge on the degree of political freedom granted to white opposition. If the fascist aspects apply only to blacks, HD is what it is. If racism also leverages suppression of dissent among whites, then it moves toward the fascist column.

    These are spur of the moment thoughts.

    • Carlos Ungil says:

      > For instance, the fascist imposition, by force, of traditional hierarchies,

      Maybe that’s what you mean, but fascist movements had an anti-conservatism ingredient and seeked to create a new hierarchy.

      • Peter Dorman says:

        That’s a good point. In Germany (which I know much better than other fascisms), the Third Reich sponsored more class mobility than the country (or its monarchical forbears) had ever seen before. But other hierarchies — not only racial/ethnic but gender and disability-related — were brutally reinforced, and this in a country that had just undergone Wiemar-era loosening. If the Nazis had been as disruptive of other hierarchies as much as class ones they would have been a lot closer to the Stalinist model.

  12. Stew Denslow says:

    I must admit that there was no charismatic central leader for the South as a whole during reconstruction. However, many such leaders did exist on a state-by-state basis, as might be expected due to the loose confederation ideology of the South. Here in South Carolina, leaders such as Ben Tillman and Wade Hampton fit the model of Fascist charismatic leaders very well. One only has to skim the history from 1877 to 1962 to find many strongmen across the Southland.

  13. TGGP says:

    A “loose confederation ideology” is rather contrary to fascism, whose very name refers to the strength achieved through tight unity.

  14. Terry says:

    Obligatory Orwell quote:

    “It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. … All one can do for the moment is to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword.”

  15. szopen says:

    Erm… So one thing does not fit (no strong charismatic leader), but all other fit, so it was fascism. What about Soviet Russia then?

    “Right-wing, repressive government, political power obtained and maintained through violence and the threat of violence, a racist and nationalist ideology, and a charismatic leader”

    Right-wing… no. Repressive? Check. Obtained and maintained through violence and threat of violence? Check. Racist/nationalist ideology? No. Charismatic leader? Check.

    OK, two things do not fit, but otherwise, basically then Soviet Russia was a fascist or almost a fascist country?!

    • Andrew says:


      There are no firm boundaries here. Sometimes the term “totalitarian” is used as a category including both fascism and communism as different variants.

      • szopen says:

        Thanks for the answer. However, if there are no “firm boundaries” and communist Russia could be called fascist (as exemplified by Jan’s answer below) then in my opinion the fascism stops to be a name for set of ideologies, but is just a word for brutal, military dictatorship. If that is the case, then it dilutes the meaning of the word, then, and it serves no purpose in explaining the world. The “totalitarian” label, in contrast, is way better, because it allows to distinguish between the different ideologies.

        • Jan says:

          No, that is not what I was saying at all. There are certainly plenty of brutal military dictatorships that do not fit the label of fascism. For example, the early Soviet communist regime, before Stalin came to power, was certainly far from fascist. I think there was one big difference between stalinism and fascism: while both fascism and national socialism were largely rural and agrarian, stalinism was much more urban and industrial. What I am skeptical of, though, is the possibility to reduce the definition of fascism to some sort of checklist: only if all the items are checked, it is fascism. Among other reasons, you will have hard time to come up with a list that is satisfied by both nazi Germany and fascist Italy (not even including Spain, Hungary, . . .), but not something like Stalin’s SU, and that will not be really contrived and artificial.

    • Jan says:

      Actually, SU under both Stalin and Brezhnev was very socially conservative, and there was pretty strong antisemitism, so I think the answer can very well be yes.

  16. Steve says:

    I think people our over-fitting. You have a couple of paradigm cases of fascism, i.e., Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. If we are going to have a useful definition of fascism, it has to be more general and apply to other cases or why have the concept at all. I think Andrew’s point is a good one. I remember hearing the standard “fascism never happened in America” line. I actually think that the right way to think about it, is that during the Civil War the South became a fascist state — the first fascist state. Sherman described it as essentially a military encampment. All resources were directed toward the war. There was no meaningful dissent unlike in the North. That fascist element reasserted itself during and after Reconstruction and essentially won. It was a kind of decentralized fascism, where each state had it’s own levels of fascist control over the population. It also ebbed and flowed. The level of brutal control was greater at some moments than others. So, you can always find examples that don’t fit the definition, but there is also always a family resemblance: use of forced or exploited labor, use of terror, vilified out group that is being terrorized, scapegoating the North to unify the population around leaders who only served a very narrow elite, a powerful romantic ideology about the antebellum South, authoritarianism, infringement of free speech, etc. There are plenty of parallels. I think it helps to notice the resemblance in order to understand American history but also to understand fascism and to note that many of its elements can arise even in societies where central planning is no significant.

  17. Malcolm says:

    So in reading this post and this thread and using the same indicators mentioned (and I dunno if I want to bring this up), how do we classify the US government’s stance toward the Native American? Sure, we can argue semantics (that Native Americans weren’t “citizens” comes to mind) but is the only difference that the US was a unified front against the Native American? Infringement of rights (property), no rule of law, use of terror, and forget free speech… Hell, Sherman himself advocated a policy of genocide toward the Native American.

    • Andrew says:


      Indeed, you could say this about so many colonial regimes: the British in India, French in the Caribbean, Spanish in Latin America, etc., in each case political violence backed up by a racist ideology. I guess this gives us even more reasons to think that those old-time political scientists were missing the point when they said the U.S. had no fascism.

      • Steve says:

        Again, I think it is interesting to think how the US is unique as long as we aren’t romantic about it. Much of the horrible treatment of Native Americans, though not all, was not done by the central government and often it was the U.S. military that was mitigating the oppression of Native Americans just like the Federal Government was mitigating against the worst impulses towards African Americans in the South. We should be thinking about how American created a unique somewhat decentralizing fascism and colonialism. It was almost a formula. Let the mob rampage for awhile and then bring in the rule of law, but the only thing left to rule is a white dominated order. It is a common pattern in American history. On the other hand, because it was largely decentralized, various individuals could have felt totally innocent and separated from taking part in a scheme to deprive Native Americans of their rights or African Americans of theirs even while they made that objective inevitable. Many U.S. military commanders expressed regret for how settlers treated Native Americans. But, Stalin and Mao also expressed fear of the political terrors and killing sprees that they clearly instigated. I think that we are too quick to dismiss those expressions as insincere and too ready to accept the expressions of regret that American leaders had for the treatment of blacks and Native Americans as sincere. The truth is that we all can, for self serving reasons, create realities for ourselves in which we make ourselves feel constrained from opposing what we know is immoral.

        • yyw says:

          Communism is evil not because communists are evil. Many communists that fought to bring communism to China were idealistic people with noble intention that were willing to go through extreme hardship and danger to bring justice and prosperity to a people. They just made the wrong assumption on human nature and its malleability.

  18. Tom says:

    It doesn’t appear anyone brought up Woodrow Wilson. Espionage Act, overt racism, American Protective League (basically Brown Shirts), etc.

  19. Tom says:

    Woodrow Wilson was not mentioned. His free speech restrictions and official violence to enforce it (American Protective League, basically Brown Shirts), overt racism, etc. seem relevant.

  20. Luke says:

    Having moved to the South in the last couple of years and recently read both “It Can’t Happen Here” and DuBois “Black Reconstruction”, I’m just posting to nod along with Andrew’s realization that we still are educated (whether in the North or South, it appears) that such things do not apply to America, and the worthwhile comparisons come to me as they do for Andrew. This whole thread is incredibly unsurprising for the rancor of disagreement these fire-hot labels bring out in insisting on the usefulness of this blindspot.

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