What Does Fascism Really Mean?

Over the last several years, many western countries have noticed a voting trend. Political parties considered populist are gaining more power in European elections—particularly in France, Hungary, Italy, and Sweden. Many also see the election of Donald Trump in 2016 as a victory for these populist movements. 

Populism refers to a set of ideas that typically pits the people of a country against its ruling establishment. Populist leaders use this division to unite supporters. This technique has a long political history, and in Europe it has a very dark political history. Populism’s link to movements like the Nazi party has inspired increasing talk of a different trend in modern politics. This trend doesn’t just represent a rise in populism, but also in something else—fascism. 

The term fascism has been thrown around quite a bit recently, mostly as a quick tag for intrusive legislation. COVID guidelines are fascist. Environmental policies are fascist. American police are fascists. Most notably, it’s been used to describe current political movements, parties, and elected officials. 

Usage matters. Fascism has a distinct history, rooted mostly in 20th century politics. Today, experts are using a different term to describe populist movements and the threat many pose to democratic values. That term is “democratic backsliding.”

In this learning journey, you will read about several historical fascist movements, movements that defined the term. You will then explore democratic backsliding and determine just how history informs this new phenomena.  

Steps of the Journey

This learning journey will be broken into two readings, representing the past and present of fascism.

In the first reading, you will learn about the origins of fascism, including the process (or playbook) by which a government turns from liberal democracy into a nationalist and authoritarian force. 

In the second reading, you will survey world governments today, asking whether these same playbooks are in use by current political parties.