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Ask the Expert: Fascism and the Fragility of Democracy

By Brian Hiro

Kimber Quinney has a deep and abiding interest in democracy.  

For years, the Cal State San Marcos history professor served as the campus coordinator of the American Democracy Project, a national initiative focused on public higher education’s role in preparing the next generation of informed, engaged citizens for our country.  

Quinney was the first faculty adviser of CSUSM’s Civic Learning Initiative, which was launched in 2015 and included such programs as the Speaking of Democracy series and Democracy in Action, in which students and faculty partner on projects with local city governments. 

Earlier this month, she was one of three panelists for an Arts & Lectures event titled “Disinformation and Democracy” about the intersection of social media and elections around the world.  

One of the foremost reasons why Quinney thinks so much about democracy is that she has a strong historical foundation in its antithesis. Her scholarly research has focused on Italian Fascism, with her doctoral thesis examining the lackluster U.S. and British efforts to purge fascists from high-ranking positions in postwar Italy. 

In this edition of Ask the Expert, Quinney talks about the historical underpinnings of fascism and what warnings can be gleaned about the strength of American democracy. 


Question: Let’s start with something really basic. What exactly is fascism? Where does the word and concept come from? 

Kimber Quinney: The word fascism comes from the Italian word “fascisti,” which describes a bundle of twigs that was a symbol of the Roman empire. The seeds of Italian Fascism were laid during World War I, and shortly after, in 1922, Benito Mussolini marched into Rome to claim power in Italy on behalf of the Italian Fascist Party. Mussolini and a government minister named Giovanni Gentile developed a “philosophy of fascism” that laid the groundwork for the ideology that would reign in Italy for the next 21 years.  

The major tenets of fascism have been long debated by historians, political scientists and philosophers. And I cannot pretend to know exactly what defines fascism because it is contextual. German Nazism, for example, looked very different from Italian Fascism, yet we use the word “fascism” to describe both regimes. The way I would explain it is that we need to distinguish the original version of Italian Fascism (with a capital “F”) from more generic or broader tendencies that existed — and still exists — in various nations around the world.  

We can see essential characteristics of a political phenomenon called “fascism” in the same way that we might identify similar elements in “socialism” or “liberalism.” Some of these characteristics are generally agreed upon; others are disputed. For example, most scholars agree that fascism emerges after a major political, social or economic upheaval, such as World War I or the Great Depression. Because of the dire circumstances in which fascism arises, the political ideology is often accompanied by a sense of cultural pessimism. This pessimism inspires a claim to renew or remake the nation, with an extraordinary emphasis on ultra-patriotic or nationalist aims. While the fascist ideology looks forward to a renewal or restoration of the nation, it also looks to the golden years of a past era. Tradition is a prominent theme. Veneration of an authoritarian leader who is seen as a savior who can rescue the country from its decline is another characteristic. But fascism cannot exist without a tide of popular — or populist — support that usually begins with the lower middle classes. Concerted campaigns of propaganda and disinformation, full of bold imagery and symbols, are necessary tools to carry out fascist agendas. Manipulation of the media is important. Finally, fascist movements use intimidation and violence to achieve political ends. They intentionally creating a climate of unrest in which only the fascists seem capable of securing the nation from “unpatriotic” or “radical” forces.  


Q: Why are you so interested in the rise and fall of fascism in Italy? 

KQ: I have a personal interest; I am Italian American. My grandmother’s parents emigrated from Italy at the turn of the 20th century. I traveled on many occasions to Italy as a teenager to visit my Italian relatives in Savona (outside of Genoa). I have a personal affinity for Italy, Italian places, people and culture — and Italian food! 

When I decided to pursue my Ph.D., I knew that I wanted to study the history of American foreign relations. I wanted to explore the ways in which the United States relates to the rest of the world. My particular interest was the history of the American mission to “democratize” globally, and the effects that that global mission has on other nations — but also on democracy at home in America.  

And Italy is a perfect historical case study. The United States intervened in July 1943 to fight fascism in Italy and to replace Mussolini’s regime with a democratic regime. But then the United States found itself waging another war, this time against Italian communism. The impact of all of this on Italian democracy, and on American democracy, is where I have focused my research. 


Q: You’ve written about how refugees from Mussolini’s Italy issued warnings to Americans about the vulnerability of our democracy. What was the nature of their warnings? 

KQ: When I started to examine the ways in which U.S. policy toward Italy was tied to domestic politics, I realized how important the Italian-American population was to President Franklin Roosevelt’s calculations during World War II and, later, to President Harry Truman’s Cold War strategy.  

I started to learn more about the direct impact of U.S. foreign policy on shaping American national identity. What I mean by that is that I started to examine the ways in which Italian Americans — whether they were recent immigrants to the United States or were born in the United States — had a vested interest in U.S. policy toward Italy. They attempted to shape that policy, either by serving in government or teaching about Italy or preaching about Italy or forming community and neighborhood groups. Their relatives were still living in Italy, of course, and they watched to see how U.S. policies would affect the Italian people — their families. 

The refugee scholars who came to the United States were very outspoken about the dangers of fascism and anti-Semitism. They identified how vulnerable Italy had been and then pointed out how any nation — even the United States— could also be threatened. 

Two refugees — Max Ascoli and Gaetano Salvemini —stand out. They wrote for newspapers, they gave lectures, they traveled the country to warn about fascism, and they established an Italian-American organization called the Mazzini Society, the mission of which was to educate Italians in America about fascism, and about democracy.  

They warned that fascism was not imposed in Italy by a coup or a revolution. Instead, it creeped into the Italian system legally. When Mussolini issued orders to censor the press or to decree what could or could not be taught in the school system or to declare who was able to travel where in the nation, he did so legally. He used the Italian democratic system to dismantle liberal democracy — step by step.  


Q: There’s been a lot of talk in America over the past few years about the potential threat of authoritarianism and the fragility of our democracy. As a historian, are you seeing that, and in what ways? 

KQ: Equating Italian Fascism with any other version of authoritarianism is dangerous and can be misleading. But I think it’s really important to study the conditions that gave rise to fascism in Italy and to understand how that happened because those conditions keep recurring. And there’s no question that we’re living in an international system that is giving rise to authoritarian regimes around the world, from Belarus to Brazil.  

Indeed, one vital observation that Max Ascoli made again and again to Americans in the late 1920s and 1930s was that fascism did not exist in an international vacuum. Systemic political, economic and social conditions gave rise to the phenomenon. Ascoli reminded Americans that fascism was born amid conditions of deep unrest and insecurity. Mussolini worked to deepen that unrest, to exacerbate that insecurity to such an extent that Italians “accepted” what Ascoli called the “fascist peace.” That was a fascist strategy: to wear Italian citizens down, exhausted from the chaos, such that they could no longer bear the cost of politics. In Ascoli’s words, they “could no longer pay the price of democratic political life.” 

So, I would simply say that when leaders strive to divide the nation, rather than unite it, we need to be vigilant. That is a fascist tactic, and we need to pay attention.  


Q: What do you see as the best ways to safeguard our democracy, in both the short and long term? 

KQ: The most important lesson that the Italian refugees brought to the United States was to remind Americans that the best protection against fascism is to safeguard democracy. When all is said and done, what Americans could and should do (according to Ascoli) was to learn about democracy, participate in democracy, do democracy. The nonchalant assumption that democracy was here to stay forever without citizen participation was dangerous, in their view. Democracy demands effort.  

Ascoli described himself as a “liberal.” That label meant something different in the mid-20th century than it does today. He was a “middle of the road” kind of guy — he was anti-fascist, but he did not identify as a socialist, and he was ardently anti-communist. I think if Ascoli were here, he would argue that deliberative democracy, the process that brings us consensus – even if we disagree on this or that – is powerful in a healthy democracy. And in our politically polarized moment, we lose sight of the value of this process. 


Q: What is the importance of education, and particularly college education, in the effort to protect democracy? 

KQ: In my view, education is indeed a guardian of democracy. And I do mean K-12, but of course I especially value the role of higher education. The college campus provides us a context in which to debate ideas and differences of opinion — and to see that as a goal of learning. It is an education in democracy because our goal is to learn from, and share opinions with, each other.  


Q: How big of a threat to democracy is disinformation and social media manipulation? What can be done to combat that? 

KQ: Disinformation is a form of manipulation, and usually employed for political ends. Historically, it has been used by democracies as well as by dictatorships. The United States, for instance, has used disinformation as a covert tactic to destabilize opposing regimes.  

But when disinformation is used by a government to divide and destabilize the nation itself, that poses a direct threat to democracy. The aim is to cause chaos and uncertainty. Conspiracy theories are a prime example.  

Authoritarian governments have always liked conspiracy theories. In the 1920s and 1930s, for instance, Mussolini’s fascists came to power and stayed there in large part by claiming that communists or Jews were conspiring to undermine the stability of the country and to spread fear of this fabricated threat. 

Racial laws were not introduced in Italy until 1938, but anti-Semitism was present at the birth of Italian Fascism. In fact, Giovanni Preziosi, who participated in Mussolini’s March on Rome in 1922, was the first to translate “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in Italian in 1921. This fabricated document fueled conspiracy theories about Jewish people all over the world — including, of course, in Fascist Italy. 


Q: In a recent article that quoted you, you mentioned the phrase “historical thinking.” What is that and why is it important? 

KQ: Historians want evidence. Every claim we make when we interpret the past must be informed by documents, by sources, by evidence that is cross-checked against other pieces of evidence. We are trained to check the authenticity of sources; we ask who wrote that document, when, and we do our best to interpret why. We also corroborate the sources — we cannot simply rely on a single document to tell the story.  

We call this kind of critical thinking “historical thinking.” Another important aspect of historical thinking is that we do our best to acknowledge our own biases, first, but also try to set those biases aside so that the documents — the historical voices of the past — are prioritized.  

One of the dangers in our current moment — especially in the jungle of social media — is “confirmation bias.” We want our prejudices or beliefs to be confirmed. Historians are very wary of this skewed pursuit of information. Indeed, we approach information with a healthy skepticism. Because historians seek to check not merely the content but also the source of information, historical thinking can serve as a guard against disinformation and can be used to debunk conspiracy theories. 

Historians seek to avoid what is known as “motivated reasoning” — that’s the phenomenon wherein we have an emotional attachment to a particular outcome or conclusion and so we seek evidence to support that outcome.  


Q: What else are you thinking about with the election just days away? 

KQ: Civic learning is not just about memorizing the preamble of the Declaration of Independence or learning more about the electoral college. Democracy is about participating, becoming informed, and making your own decisions. One of the core lessons of history is that people make choices and choices make history. I am borrowing this phrase from an educational program called “Facing History and Ourselves,” and I think it works really well to remind us of human agency in history.  

History empowers. Every single one of us, no matter our social status or our race or our gender, makes history. Each of us has an opportunity — individually and collectively — to participate in democracy.  

I am not for one moment suggesting that it’s an equal playing field, or that we do so without individual and collective struggle. To the contrary, the democratic value of history is that it provides evidence to reveal that historical wrongs can only be righted by doing something about it. History teaches us that democracy needs cultivating, through civil disobedience and resistance, but also through casting a ballot. 

Media Contact

Brian Hiro, Communications Specialist

bhiro@csusm.edu | Office: 760-750-7306