An Open Letter of Concern by Scholars of Authoritarianism

Over the past few weeks, I along with the other members of the Editorial Board for the New Fascism Syllabus co-authored an open letter of concern regarding the threats posed by right-wing populism, authoritarianism, and neo-fascism to democracies around the world, including in the United States. Our primary motivation was to warn members of our general publics (both within and beyond the United States) of the dangers of democratic backsliding and creeping authoritarianism.

“We study the conditions that have historically accompanied the rise of authoritarian and fascistic regimes,” the letter explains, continuing:

In nearly every case, we have observed how profound social, political, and economic disruptions, including the ravages of military conflicts, depressions, and the enormous pressures caused by globalization, deeply shook people’s confidence in democracy’s ability to adequately respond to their plights, or even provide basic forms of long-term security.

With these historical patterns and parallels in mind, we contend, it is possible to “recognize the signs of a crisis of democracy in today’s world as well.” As a result of the 2008 global economic crisis, the election of Donald J. Trump to the American presidency, and now the significant social and economic strains being caused by the global Covid-19 pandemic, our letter ominously warns, “the temptation to take refuge in a figure of arrogant strength is now greater than ever.”

In addition to signaling these anxious parallels, the letter spells out a number of things that can, and really must, be done in order to “turn the tide” against creeping authoritarianism in our democracies, including safeguarding and promoting “critical thinking based on evidence,” pushing for “tangible commitments from corporate media organizations and governments to tackle the dangers of misinformation and media concentration,” forging (inter)national coalitions “across differences of race, class, gender, religion and caste,” denouncing any and all connections between “those in power and those vigilante and militia forces using political violence to destabilize our democracies,” and, if necessary, being willing to “defend pluralism and democracy … through non-violent protest in the streets.”

Although beginning with just 18 signatories, our letter eventually attracted the attention of many other scholars of right-wing populism, authoritarianism, and fascism. As of this moment, we have well over 200 co-signatories, including many of the most well-known scholars of these topics and themes, such as Robert O. Paxton (Columbia), Christopher R. Browning (UNC-Chappell Hill), Ruth Ben-Ghiat (New York University), Federico Finchelstein (The New School), Marla Stone (Occidental College), Jennifer Evans (Carleton University), and many others. Equally as significant, the letter was co-signed by scholars in Brazil, Canada, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States, and so on.

The letter also received some attention in the international news cycle, including one widely-shared article in The GuardianCommon Dreams, and a short daily news update in The Washington Post. Our statement was also translated into Turkish and published in Gazete Duvar.

Our hope is that this letter, and the attention that it received around the world, will not only help raise awareness about these critical issues within and between our societies, it will inject a measure of much-needed hope and solidarity in our collective fight to defend democracy from its numerous authoritarian challengers. “We need to turn away from the rule by entrenched elites and return to the rule of law” and “replace the politics of ‘internal enemies’ with a politics of adversaries in a healthy, democratic marketplace of ideas,” the letter darkly but aptly concludes, because if we don’t, “we will indeed face dark days ahead.”

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