Monday, January 14, 2008

Are Conservatives Fascist?

I strongly suspect that Jonah Goldberg's real motive in writing Liberal Fascism was not so much a serious belief that liberals are fascists as anger and frustration over liberals calling conservatives fascists. He hoped, by turning the tables, to give liberals a taste of their own medicine and perhaps win an apology. The opening words of the book's much-quoted jacket are a dead givaway, "'Fascists,' 'Brownshirts, 'jackbooted stormtroopers'—such are the insults typically hurled at conservatives by their liberal opponents. Calling someone a fascist is the fastest way to shut them up, defining their views as beyond the political pale. But who are the real fascists in our midst?"

Goldberg's blog about the book also shows this agenda. Consider this quote from a response to David Neiwert. "[H]is review . . . is really just a recitation of the same usual talking-points about how if you scratch an American conservative you find a Nazi underneath. And since one of the primary goals of my book is put that slander to rest, it’s no wonder he wants to protect his gravy train by attacking it so shabbily." (Emphasis added). Or this response to an academic critic:
Also, you are again condoning the slander of conservatives in this formulation because you have no condemnation for liberals who use the f-word against conservatives and, like so many other liberals, you only now suddenly think it’s unfair – and trivial!!! — when the arrow is more turned in your own (and more accurate) direction. . . . You assert that Fascism is synonymous with bigotry, murder and genocide and yet you don’t offer even the slightest concession that American conservatives aren’t fascists.
Alas, if Goldberg's real goal was to get an apology, he has not been successful. In order to see who is slandering who, this liberal will now apply what I consider the defining characteristics of fascism to American conservatives as well to see how they fit.

Extreme (even rabid) nationalism. Conservatives are clearly more nationalistic than liberals. Does it reach the extreme-to-rabid level? American conservatism is by no means monolithic. Many conservatives are merely patriotic, but some talk show hosts, xenophobes, and foreign policy super-hawks are moving into the extreme-to-rabid range.

Aggrieved populism. Many conservatives have been cultivating a populist tone, railing against the "liberal elite" for a long time. This is the pull-down-the-class-above-you form of populism traditionally seen on the Left. With the uproar over illegal immigration in recent years, there has been plenty of stomp-on-the-class-below-you populism, as well as the populism scapegoating an unpopular ethnic group. This aggrieved populism is most typical Rush Limbaugh and his talk radio imitators. This should raise and awkward question for Goldberg. If he considers populism inherently of the Left (and he even calls Sen. Joe McCarthy left-wing because of his populism), does that make Limbaugh and talk radio left-wing?

Open contempt for democracy as degenerate. Conservatism, like liberalism, has its elite wing that believes the people are too ignorant to understand their own interests. In the case of conservatives, these are mostly business and libertarian conservatives who believe the people, left to themselves, will enact populist, anti-market economic measures and kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. But, as with liberals, these conservatives who distrust democracy are not populists. And, once again, this viewpoint is not fascism so much as old-fashioned aristocratic conservatism.

At the time of the Clinton impeachment, there was another, potentially anti-democratic tendency by some social conservatives -- the belief that the American people had been corrupted, bribed by general prosperity to ignore their President's basic immorality. And social conservatives, unlike business conservatives, do have a strong populist strain. But, here too, the fear that a democratic public can be corrupted is not the same thing as the belief that democracy is inherently degenerate. Fear that the republic would be in danger if the people were corrupted is an old American tradition, going back to the founding of this country. The difference is that people who regard democracy as inherently degenerate believe that the public in a democratic country is always corrupt, that it is democracy itself that is corrupting, and that a dictatorial government can save the people from themselves. Any mainstream conservative would reject such views as un-American.

There are certain elements of the American Right who have expressed contempt for degenerate European democracies who, they claim, are about to be overrun by Muslim fanatics. But invariably they manage to blame irreligion, falling birthrates, welfare states, promiscuity, hedonism, anything but democracy for Europe's degeneracy. And, they are quick to add, it couldn't possibly happen in the United States.

Glorification of violence as regenerative. Talk radio conservatives do use a good deal of violent talk. David Neiwert keeps tabs on some of the most egregious examples. (Rush Limbaugh: "I tell people don’t kill all the liberals. Leave enough so we can have two on every campus -- living fossils -- so we will never forget what these people stood for." Anne Coulter: "Where are the skinheads when you need them? What does a girl have to do to get an angry, club- and torch-wielding mob on its feet?" And even worse). But there is a critical difference between talk radio and true fascist pronouncements. Talk radio is just talk. There is an unspoken agreement between the speaker and the audience that this is all just hot air, not to be taken literally. When fascists talked violence, they meant business.

Actual use of violence to intimidate and coerce opponents. No. All mainstream American political groups, liberal and conservative alike, reject violence (in the context of domestic politics) as illegitimate.

So are conservatives fascists? No. Talk radio conservatives can sound a bit fascist, with their nationalistic, populist rants, seeming to glorify violence. But ultimately it is just talk that only a handful of nutcases would ever take literally. Perhaps it could be called fascist theater. But it is not the real thing.

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