The Human Roots of Rising Fascism

6 May 2024

Fascist movements are gaining traction and influence in the United States and across Europe. To understand this trend, we must look beyond the rhetoric and policies of individual politicians or parties and examine the deeper human needs and seismic societal shifts fueling this political movement.

At the most fundamental level, all humans crave comfort and significance. We seek predictability, status, respect, and the security of belonging within a community that shares our values. For many, particularly those in demographics that have historically held societal power, these psychological needs were long met by traditional social hierarchies and cultural norms. Yet in recent decades, economic, technological, and social change have profoundly disrupted these long-standing structures.

To address these needs, many people today are looking to facism as a solution. Fascism, authoritarian nationalism characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition, and strong regimentation of society and of the economy, often emphasizes aggressive masculinity, ethnic purity, and a belligerent foreign policy. Fascist movements share a hostility to liberal democracy, an embrace of violence and domination, and a politics of us-versus-them that paints opponents as threats to the nation. Fascism provides simple solutions to complex challenges.

Economic Disruption and the Erosion of Traditional Male Roles

Globalization and automation have undermined the value of manufacturing as a source of steady jobs that once provided economic and social status for many men. The loss of this economic stability and the social status of being the family breadwinner has left many feeling cast adrift and resentful of a system they feel has left them behind.

At the same time, the rise of the knowledge economy and the increasing returns to higher education have upended traditional class structures. Economic success is increasingly determined more by one's ability to acquire skills and credentials than by family background or social connections. Women are increasingly outperforming men in the realm of higher education, a reversal of historical norms that has disrupted traditional gender roles and social dynamics. A college-educated woman can now out-earn her male partner, but such a reversal of gendered expectations strains the relationship of marriage, the expectations for which has not evolved as quickly as our economics have changed.

The social institution of the nuclear family with the father at the head is in flux. Birth control has allowed women far more autonomy over reproduction, and evolving social mores have made a diversity of family structures more accepted. Same-sex relationships, single parenthood, blended families, and polyamory are or are becoming mainstream. For those who derive a sense of meaning and moral certainty from rigid familial gender roles and traditional sexual values, these shifts can call into question their own identities.

The Psychological Impact of Increasing Diversity

Rising levels of immigration in Europe and the US have also contributed to a potent sense of cultural and demographic change. As immigrant populations grow and become increasingly visible, many find themselves living alongside people who look, speak, and act differently than those they are accustomed to. Even when people do not exist in the same physical space, in our media and entertainment, diverse types of people and viewpoints are now much more visible. Humans are inherently tribal creatures, and we derive a sense of comfort and safety from being surrounded by those we perceive as similar to ourselves. Encounters with "otherness" in our daily lives triggers a sense of unease and disorientation.

The Legacy of Racial Hierarchies and the Challenge of Equality

The struggle for civil rights and racial equality has been one of the defining challenges of modern American history. The successes of the Civil Rights Movement in dismantling legal segregation and securing greater political and economic opportunities for Black Americans fundamentally altered the racial hierarchy that had long underpinned American society. For those non-Black Americans who had benefited from this hierarchy, whether actively or passively, this shift represented a profound disruption to their sense of identity and place in the world.

In more recent years, the rise of "woke" culture and a greater social awareness of the ongoing realities of racism and discrimination has further challenged traditional power dynamics. The overt expression of racial prejudice or discomfort with diversity, once commonplace and accepted, has become increasingly taboo. For those harboring such sentiments, this cultural shift feels like a form of censorship, a denial of their right to express their authentic feelings and fears.

However, the social unacceptability of overt racism does not magically eradicate the underlying attitudes and anxieties. Prejudice, when driven underground, does not disappear but often metastasizes in more insidious forms. The fear of demographic change, the sense of resentment towards perceived "special treatment" for minority groups, the visceral discomfort with a world that no longer centers one's own identity—these feelings simmer beneath the surface of polite society, seeking outlets and validation.

The Allure of Fascism in a Complex World

In this context of rapid change and eroding social hierarchies, the appeal of fascist ideas becomes understandable, if not excusable. For many, the complexities of navigating a world in flux feel overwhelming. Politics, like so many aspects of modern life, has become a realm of dizzying intricacy. The intricate interplay of globalized economies, transnational institutions, and shifting cultural values can seem impossible to parse, let alone influence.

Fascism, in contrast, offers a seductively simple narrative. It promises a return to an idealized past where traditional values reigned unchallenged, and the privileged position of dominant ethnic and religious groups was secure. By demonizing minorities, intellectuals, and progressive social movements as the source of all societal ills, fascism provides a clear enemy and a straightforward solution. For those who feel unmoored by the pace of change and the erosion of once-stable hierarchies, this clarity can be profoundly comforting.

Indeed, fascism's appeal operates less on the level of rational political analysis than on the plane of deep-seated emotional needs. Just as few people have the time or inclination to develop a nuanced understanding of the global financial system, even as it shapes their economic prospects, most do not engage with the intricacies of political ideology. Instead, in the face of anxiety and disempowerment, the fascist promise to restore lost greatness, protect the righteous from outside threats, and return the world to a state of comforting simplicity holds immense psychological power.

The fascist leader, invariably a charismatic father figure, becomes the embodiment of this promise. He offers himself as a vessel for the hopes and insecurities of those who feel cast adrift by a world in turmoil. By elevating traditional masculine ideals of strength, aggression and dominance as the antidote to feelings of vulnerability and emasculation, he grants his followers a sense of renewed power and purpose. The specifics of his policies and their real-world implications matter far less than his ability to tap into deep wells of existential anxiety and provide the illusion of control.

As difficult as it is to confront, the rise of fascism is not an aberration or solely the result of a few charismatic leaders exploiting public fears. It is in many ways an understandable, if deeply problematic, human response to profound societal shifts and the unraveling of long-standing sources of identity and esteem. Acknowledging this does not require accepting or validating fascist ideas, which inevitably lead to oppression and violence. But it does demand that we recognize the potent human forces at work.

As we grapple with the rise of fascism, it's crucial to recognize that its appeal lies not in a vision for a better future, but in a promise to restore a mythologized past. Slogans like "Make America Great Again" are fundamentally oriented around loss, a yearning to undo the social and cultural changes that have left many feeling displaced and devalued. Fascism does not offer a roadmap for navigating the complex challenges of the 21st century, but rather a retreat into an imagined era of simplicity and certainty.

This backward-looking orientation is deeply rooted in human psychology. Studies have consistently shown that we feel the pain of loss twice as acutely as we feel the pleasure of gain. As rapid technological advancement and globalization disrupt traditional economic and social structures, many experience a profound sense of loss—of status, of identity, of a clear place in the world. The fascist promise to restore lost greatness speaks directly to this pain, offering a balm for the psychological wounds inflicted by a world in flux.

Building a Future Free From Fascism

Yet the harsh reality is that the pace of change shows no signs of slowing. We are living through an era of exponential technological growth, with each innovation bringing further economic and social disruption. The traditional career pathways, family structures, and cultural touchstones that once provided stability and meaning are increasingly becoming relics of the past. Critically, this disruption is no longer unfolding across generations, but within the span of individual lives. A worker may now expect to change careers multiple times as entire industries rise and fall, while social norms around gender, sexuality, and identity shift seismically within a single decade.

In this context, there will be a powerful political temptation to apply the brakes, to attempt to slow the pace of change and preserve the familiar. But as appealing as such retrenchment may feel in the face of disorienting change, it is ultimately a losing strategy. The tides of technological and social transformation cannot be reversed, only adapted to. Attempting to do so would not only sacrifice the immense potential benefits of innovation, but would merely delay the inevitable reckoning.

Instead, we must find ways to embrace dynamism while mitigating its most destabilizing effects. This will require a proactive reimagining of our social contract, our systems of education, and our approach to work and purpose. Crucially, it will require moving beyond zero-sum thinking and the politics of resentment, recognizing that a society that provides dignity, meaning, and a sense of belonging to all is the only antidote to the siren song of "greatness" via dominance.

The road ahead is uncertain, and the temptation of false, fascist solutions is strong. But we must resist the urge to seek a return to an imagined past, and instead face head-on the challenge of building a society resilient to shocks and inclusive in its flourishing. Our future depends on embracing complexity, creating new forms of identity and solidarity, and having the courage to think in terms of what we might build, rather than what we have lost. Only by addressing the human needs that fascism exploits, while refusing its false promises and dark logics, can we adapt to a world of continuous change.