For a guy with a bad head cold, a bloodstream full of antihistamines, and a powerful thirst, Jonah Goldberg gave a tour de force talk on Wednesday evening at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. The night before I had finished reading Liberal Fascism, and earlier on Wednesday afternoon I delivered something like the following remarks under the title “Liberal Fascism, Great Parties, and the Constitution”:
Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism is a marvellous book, of remarkable breadth, considerable historical sweep, and sharp insights into our present condidtion.
Deftly turning the tables on liberals who yell “fascist” every time they encounter conservative positions, Jonah shows that fascism has always been an essentially left-wing program–and that there are strong affinities among Progressives like Herbert Croly and Woodrow Wilson, fascists and Nazis like Mussolini and Hitler, communists like Lenin and Che Guevara, and modern-day liberals like Robert Reich and Hillary Clinton.
Jonah does not foolishly imagine that if Hillary Clinton is elected president we will witness some sort of American Fourth Reich complete with extermination camps for enemies of the state. And his argument would hit a stumbling block if we define fascism as a political order that invariably blows up democratic institutions in some violent way and governs through dictatorship.
But that isn’t how Jonah defines fascism. For him it is a politics that amounts to a “religion of the state,” gathering all human actions within the ambit of state power, on the totalitarian impulse that makes us (in the words of Huxley’s Brave New World) “cells in a social body” and no longer individuals. If Jonah is right–and though not flawless his case is very strong–then we may have to rethink our standard views of political parties in America.
In Democracy in America, Tocqueville distinguished between great parties and small parties–the difference being, not the size of the parties, but the magnitude of the issues between them. If “total change in their political constitution” is the issue facing a people, then they’re confronting a great-party issue. If contending forces merely “agitate” society rather than threaten to “overturn” it, then we’re watching small parties at work.
Tocqueville says that at the American founding, great-party struggle gave birth to our constitutional order, which thereafter fostered tamer, small-party competition. Surely a case can be made that years after Tocqueville’s visit, we had another great-party moment, in which first-order regime questions were at stake, in the Civil War. But the usual interpretation of our politics since then has been along Tocqueville’s small-party lines, with our parties contending for political victory, for power, and for policy change within the boundaries of a common “settlement” of the truly big questions.
If Jonah Goldberg is right, we have instead been going through a Hundred Years’ War between great parties ever since the Progressive era–a struggle between conservatives or classical liberals on one side and progressives or modern liberals on the other.
And the struggle is truly constitutional in its dimensions. On the conservative side one finds originalism, a commitment to the doctrine of natural rights, and an insistence on limited government. On the left one finds the “living Constitution.” a belief in “evolving standards” rather than fixed principles grounded in natural law, and a warping of our institutions, including the judiciary, into agents of increasingly unlimited political power.
The sharpness of these differences, and the depth of the dispute between these two great parties, raise some acute questions.
First, how long can regime questions of this magnitude remain in dispute, without the sort of settlement that “normalizes” partisan division on a less desperate level? Or is the last century proof positive that a “new normal” in which such issues stay essentially contested can go on indefinitely?
Edmund Burke in 1775, in what seems to be the first defense of partisanship in Western political thinking, argued that party loyalty and striving for victory over one’s opponents is a good thing, so long as loyalty to one’s own did not lead each party to attempt the “proscription” of the other. My second and last question prompted by Jonah’s Liberal Fascism is, how real is the prospect that one of our parties may try to proscribe the other. And which is more likely to try it?
It is a standard charge of left-wingers who claim to see “fascists” on the right that conservatives want to crack down on dissent and stifle freedom of political speech. But if, as Jonah powerfully argues, our fascists are liberals and many of our liberals are fascists–while fascism is much more weakly present (if at all) on the right–then it should not be surprising that we find the left to be the maker of speech codes, hate crimes laws, political correctness, indoctrination programs in all levels of education, campaign finance “reform,” and so on. Can anyone recall any similar campaigns by conservatives for the repression of dissent in the last several generations? (And no, efforts to revive now-lost prohibitions on obscenity and pornography don’t count.) Proscription of its opponents’ views–a classic great-party gambit by those who wish to unmake and remake regime-question settlements–seems to be the agenda of the American left, not of the right.