Monday, January 14, 2008

So, Are Liberals Fascist?

I know it's a dumb question, but Goldberg accuses liberals of being fascist, so we might as well address how well the defining characterists of fascism apply.

Extreme (even rabid) nationalism. Nope. Liberals these days are not notably nationalistic. That's why conservatives so often denounce liberals as unpatriotic.

Aggrieved populism. Sometimes. Certainly populism, aggrieved and otherwise, has a longstanding history on the American Left, at least as far back as Andrew Jackson. William Jennings Bryan was a populist (as well as a Populist), as were Franklin Delano Roosevelt and (to some extent) John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Tom Harkin was a recent populist, and John Edwards is the most notable example at present. (I would also add that some of these figures, most notably FDR, were populists of a more positive sort, offering hope as well as anger and constructive actions as well as scapegoats. It makes a difference). Kicking the guy below you is not altogether absent from the populism of what is generally considered the Left. Andrew Jackson was a notorious Indian hater and white supremacist. Many 19th century labor unions were notably racist, nativist, and anti-immigration. But that trait is generally absent from present-day liberalism. And many liberals these days are not populist (see next category).

Open contempt for democracy as inherently degenerate. This is a common complaint among people who complain about liberal "elitism." Goldberg himself complains that liberals respect democracy only when it serves their interest, and seek to transfer power from elective bodies to non-elective judges and bureaucrats. There is some justification to this charge, although the liberals who are skeptical of democracy are generally not the populist ones. Nor does such skepticism prove that liberals are fascists. Many people are undemocratic but not fascist. After all, undemocratic government long antedates fascism. Fascists are not merely undemocratic, but contemptuous of democracy as degenerate.

Why do some liberals wish to limits democracy in favor of judges and bureaucrats? For two main reasons. Once is the belief that the people have been brainwashed by talk radio and other right-wing propoganda into acting against their own interests. A patronizing belief that the people are too ignorant to understand their true interests is not the same as a belieft that democracy is inherently degenerate. It resembles fascism less than old-fashioned aristocratic conservatism.

The other reason liberals often want to limit popular democracy is fear that the majority will trample on the rights of the minority. The question of how to balance the will of the majority with the rights of the minority has been one of the central conundrums of democracy from the very start. Aristocratic critics have long complained about democracy's lack of respect for minority rights (meaning the rights of the aristocratic minority). Advocates of democracy struggle with where to draw the balance. Alexis de Tocqueville famously saw "the tryranny of the majority" as the greatest fault with democracy. A wish to restrict majority rule in order to protect the rights of the minority is not at all the same as a belief that democracy is degenerate. When fascists denounced democracy, it should go without saying that they were not criticizing it for lacking respect minority rights.

Glorification of violence as regenerative. No. Goldberg himself concedes that "liberalism today is, strictly speaking, pretty pacifistic," but he argues that oppression can also take the form of unwanted "hugs and kisses and taking care of boo-boos." But no matter how oppressive an unwanted hug may be, it has nothing in common with the fascist glorification of violence.

Actual use of violence to intimidate and coerce opponents. No. This, of course, is not unique to liberals. The success of American democracy rests of the repudiation of violence by all parties across the political spectrum.

In short, the (unsurprising) answer is that, although moderal American liberalism has its populist and elitist wings, it has none of the nationalism, violence, or true contempt for democracy characteristic of fascism.

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