I hate having conversations about fascism. Tommy Douglas, a former Premier of Saskatchewan, once said, “Fascism begins the moment a ruling class, fearing the people may use their political democracy to gain economic democracy, begins to destroy political democracy in order to retain its power of exploitation and special privilege.”
That’s the best explanation of fascism I’ve heard and it’s also the reason I hate conversations about fascism. They frequently require confronting the vast amount of bullshit in our political beliefs and the history of this country, generally. If you’ve read anything I’ve written in Mainer for the last couple of months, or listened to my podcast 99 Years (Season 1, in its entirety, available now wherever you find them!), then you probably know where I’m going here.
If not, here’s a little catch-up:
Ninety-nine years ago, in Portland, Maine, the Ku Klux Klan helped usher in the city manager form of government. Even at that early stage, this municipal design — created by the very same extremist white supremacists who helped to revive the KKK — had already segregated and subjugated Black populations in cities and towns across the country. This includes Portland, where the plan has worked for nearly a century. Right now, not only are Black Portlanders largely segregated into District 2 (the West End and Parkside), but poverty rates are disproportionately higher for Black people in the city as a whole than they are in the rest of the state, and the country, on average.
So, on Nov. 8, 2022, in the very liberal city of Portland, more than 30,000 voters went to the polls to make a decision. Voting yes on city ballot Question 2 would’ve meant a return to a mayoral form of government and actual democracy in the city. Voting no on 2 meant retaining the white supremacist form of government.
There was a lot pushing for no. There was an organization called (ironically) Protect Portland’s Future, led by retired so-called mayor Tom Allen, the grandson of a KKK-endorsed Portland city councilor from 99 years ago. There was also the Enough is Enough campaign. Although it appropriated its name from civil rights campaigns dating from the 1960s through the George Floyd uprisings, Enough is Enough didn’t exactly share the same interests. With over a million and a half dollars in donations, largely from multinational corporations and out-of-state property developers, Enough is Enough ran a racist campaign of fear and misinformation, with warnings of Black people seizing private property and visions of a helpless Portland gasping for breath, strangled by an unstoppable strongman mayor.
The “Yes on 2” side, on the other hand, was promoted mostly by a handful of city charter commissioners.
Now, I would love nothing more than to tell you that the city came together to correct the errors of its past, that it understood the ways in which its government has barred Black participation and halted the growth of a community for nearly a century, and so it collectively rose up and in one voice declared, “Yes on 2!”
But that is not what happened.
And it wasn’t close. Sixty-five percent of Portland voters voted no on Question 2. Certainly, some of those voters were racists. In the same election, a local Nazi ran for a seat on the City Council. While he did lose, he got more than 2,000 votes city-wide. But for most Portlanders, living in a segregated city where the winners have written or omitted history, a racist campaign of fear and misinformation with a bottomless war chest is just so much louder than a handful of door-knocking commissioners.
For most Portlanders. Out of the five districts in the city, Question 2 failed in four of them. But one district did actually vote in favor of Question 2, and you should not be surprised in the slightest to learn that it was District 2 that voted in favor of a change in government.
Question 2 was not the only place where the agency of Black people showed up on the ballot. Question 5 would’ve given the school board autonomy over its budget and Black parents more agency in their children’s education. It also failed, also not in District 2.
Over in District 3 (Deering Center, Stroudwater), school board incumbent Adam Burk lost their reelection bid to Julianne Opperman. Burk has a consistent record of promoting racial equity in schools, and Opperman, a conservative, was endorsed by a former police chief.
We like to think fascism always shows up in uniforms with guns and tanks parading through the streets. But that’s not really how it goes. Fascism gets voted in. Then it gets normalized. And then it gets defended by seemingly reasonable people, and that’s why I hate talking about fascism.
Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller. He is also a contributor to the bestselling How to Tell a Story: The Essential Guide to Memorable Storytelling, from The Moth. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.