The terms liberal democracy and fascism are used to mean different things in different parts of the world, depending on who is using the terms and in what context they are being used. In the U.S., fascism usually has negative connotations that are associated with the genocidal policies of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. Liberal democracy, on the other hand, invokes images of freedom, individuality and a government system that takes a hands-off approach to its rule.

Etymological Differences

The word fascism comes from the Latin word fasces, which means a bundle of rods with a projecting axe blade, often carried by a functionary in ancient Rome as a symbol of a magistrate’s power. The term liberalism is also Latin in origin and comes from the word liber, which means free or generous. The term democracy comes from the Greek words demo, which means the people, and kratia, which means power or rule.

Structural and Ideological Differences

The Statue of Liberty symbolizes freedom, a major theme of liberal democracy.
The Statue of Liberty symbolizes freedom, a major theme of liberal democracy.

Fascism is considered a political philosophy characterized by the belief that government should use coercion and force to rule the people, usually by means of a mass-based, militant ultra-nationalist political party. Throughout history, fascist governments have killed or imprisoned large populations of specific races, nationalities and people of different religions, and have used violent means to increase their power both internally and externally. Liberal democracy can be considered a form of government that encourages all people within a country’s borders to participate in government activities through the expression of their own beliefs and opinions, even when those beliefs are in opposition to those of the ruling party. Liberalism can mean either the belief in freedom from government control or the belief in a less conservative, or more progressive, government system.

U.S. Business Interests

Prior to World War II, some American companies supported fascist elements overseas, and although their rhetoric was generally anti-capitalist, fascists usually served U.S. business interests better than their Communist counterparts. During the war, American companies cut their ties with the fascist elements and began providing supplies and armaments to the Communist-controlled Soviet Union. Since the end of the war, Americans have worked to create capitalist, free-market systems in former fascist and communist countries alike. This is in alignment with traditional liberal democracy, which takes a laissez-faire approach to economic policy and offers private businesses a great deal of autonomy and protection.

Political Perspectives and Labels

Books like Jonah Goldberg’s "Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left" provide skewed interpretations of liberalism and fascism, associating two otherwise incompatible approaches to government as though they were one and the same. Websites like politicalcompass.org, which separates economics from social ideology, attempts to make these labels clearer, but the ever changing nature of politics prevents the definitions of these terms from being permanently set in stone. Despite the difficulties and double talk of politics and political labeling, the memories and records of wartime fascist policies will continue to be a reminder to Americans that fascism is a form of government that seeks to control the masses, while liberal democracy offers individuality and freedom from government control, as well as the right of the people to participate in the political process.