Alan Wolfe has penned a little article about an obscure German thinker of the fascist variety named Carl Schmitt. In his article, Wolfe reports that when he was the dean of the graduate faculty at the New School for Social Research the “decidedly left-wing” faculty implored him to allow the school to host a major conference on Schmitt. He also reports that the Western academic Left is deeply enamored of the man’s work and thought. The book Empire, which Wolfe concedes is the “manifesto of the anti-globalization movement,” is “pervaded” by the spirit of Schmitt. Indeed, many leading leftist academics around the world are smitten with him. The journal Telos undertook a huge effort to revive Schmitt’s legacy–understandable, considering Telos’s ongoing “fascination” with “neofascist” thinkers.
”Such prominent European thinkers as Slavoj Ziûek, Chantal Mouffe, and Jacques Derrida have also been preoccupied with Schmitt’s ideas,” Wolfe reports. And, as we all know, as Slavoj Ziûek goes, so goes the world.
Meanwhile, Wolfe can find no connection between Schmitt and American conservative intellectuals–save one fellow on the self-proclaimed “paleocon” right. Wolfe doubts if a single Republican has any idea who Schmitt was, and he clearly thinks conservative journalists are in the dark about the guy.
And yet, Wolfe declares: “Conservatives have absorbed Schmitt’s conception of politics much more thoroughly than liberals.” And: “…Schmitt’s way of thinking about politics pervades the contemporary zeitgeist in which Republican conservatism has flourished, often in ways so prescient as to be eerie. In particular, his analysis helps explain the ways in which conservatives attack liberals and liberals, often reluctantly, defend themselves.” (Oh, the poor liberals, forced to defend themselves against those mean conservatives!)
Wolfe–whose writing I’ve long admired, though not in this instance–builds his case on the fact that Schmitt believed that politics, like life, is based on Manichean dualities. Every sphere of life is divided between enemy and friend. Politics in particular requires its practitioners to oppose their adversaries with heart and soul. In this tradition, Wolfe writes:
“The political is the most intense and extreme antagonism,” Schmitt wrote. War is the most violent form that politics takes, but, even short of war, politics still requires that you treat your opposition as antagonistic to everything in which you believe. It’s not personal; you don’t have to hate your enemy. But you do have to be prepared to vanquish him if necessary.
And, Wolfe contends, conservatives these days are more inclined to use the rhetoric of “the enemy” than liberals are. His evidence: Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly. Without getting into a long discussion about either of these folks, no matter what you think of them, it’s certainly easy for conservatives to respond to liberals who complain about them by saying, “I’ll see that and raise you.”
Michael Moore, Al Franken, and all those jabbering academics who prayed America suffered a million Mogadishus certainly qualify as liberals who use the rhetoric of the-other-as-enemy. As someone who grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan it’s certainly my experience that liberals are no better on this score than the conservatives Wolfe is denouncing. Indeed, I once had a professor in college who simply asserted that conservatives were, for all intents and purposes, “genetically different” than “normal” people.
Indeed, spend half an hour trolling for websites fully loyal to the Democratic party, and you will find a moral absolutism and dualism of the Schmittian variety oozing out of every page view. There are those who cheered when John Ashcroft was hospitalized and who firmly believe George W. Bush is a Nazi. In fact, while researching my book, I have compiled a file as thick as Michael Moore’s head full of quotes going back decades from prominent liberals comparing conservatives and Republicans to Nazis. Does Wolfe have any idea how many people actually compared the “Contract with America” to the Holocaust? Charlie Rangel declared, “Hitler wasn’t even talking about doing these things.” (These things being term limits for government officials etc). If that doesn’t constitute treating your opponents as an existential enemy, I don’t know what does.
As for O’Reilly and Coulter, Wolfe might consider that not only does O’Reilly eschew the conservative label, but any number of conservatives eschew O’Reilly for the pompous angry cab driver with a microphone that he is. And if Ann Coulter’s “violent” rhetoric sometimes offends or bothers Wolfe, it’s fair to say he’s not alone. But he might reflect on whether Coulter’s rhetoric seems so much more “violent” because it is, in fact, so much better written then the ham-fisted nastiness from liberals like, oh, I don’t know, Al Gore–who has suggested his opponents are Nazis, racists, and retarded in the last few years.
Regardless, a social scientist of Wolfe’s standing would surely give an “F” to a student who claimed to deduce a sweeping philosophical weltanschauung among millions of Americans based upon the statements of one woman, successful as she may be.
So here’s my theory about Wolfe (for more on my views about him, click here): He’s an old, crotchety, and brilliant liberal who has to walk among academics and journalists who call themselves liberals but really aren’t. Much like Clinton Rossiter was in his day, Alan Wolfe is a real liberal–the good kind–but he’s been left behind by the times. He should have switched to neoconservatism along with the Huntingtons, Thernstroms, Kristols, and Lipsets, years ago. Instead he decided to stick around his old haunts. Perhaps it is because he loathes the label “conservative” so much he just couldn’t put it on. Maybe it’s because he wants to fight the good fight for the word “liberal” from behind enemy lines. Whatever. The fact remains that he hangs with the insane-clown posse of the academic Left every day. He writes for partisan-liberal journals (though his book reviews in The New Republic are still among my favorite things to read). So, every now and then he needs to wallop the “other side”–i.e., conservatives–to maintain his bona fides.
You can even find evidence of this in Wolfe’s essay. Many of the views he ascribes to “liberals” actually count as fairly conservative these days. “Liberals insist that there exists something called Society independent of the state,” writes Wolfe. Okay, but I fail to see how that makes the Democratic party any more of a natural home for the (classical) liberals he’s describing than the Republican party.
Wolfe then writes:
Liberals think of politics as a means; conservatives as an end. Politics, for liberals, stops at the water’s edge; for conservatives, politics never stops. Liberals think of conservatives as potential future allies; conservatives treat liberals as unworthy of recognition. Liberals believe that policies ought to be judged against an independent ideal such as human welfare or the greatest good for the greatest number; conservatives evaluate policies by whether they advance their conservative causes. Liberals instinctively want to dampen passions; conservatives are bent on inflaming them. Liberals think there is a third way between liberalism and conservatism; conservatives believe that anyone who is not a conservative is a liberal. Liberals want to put boundaries on the political by claiming that individuals have certain rights that no government can take away; conservatives argue that in cases of emergency–conservatives always find cases of emergency–the reach and capacity of the state cannot be challenged.
There’s simply no way Wolfe can write the above if by liberal he means the rank-and-file of the Democratic party or the broader Moveon.org crowd who have not only a totalistic view of politics but who have done more to desecrate the doctrine of politics ending at the waters edge than any group in modern memory. And that’s the point. He’s referring, in his words, to “liberals, properly speaking.” This is–I hope–code for the sort of classical liberals of the 19th century who believed in a limited state and in something called “Society.”
Indeed, at the end he concedes that there “are, of course, no party lines when it comes to conservatives and liberals in the United States.” The charitable reading of all of this is that Wolfe is being a tad Straussian, hiding his real attack on the academic Left–which actually likes Schmitt–by feinting an attack on Coulter & Co. Indeed, maybe this is even a wink-and-a-nod to Friedrich Hayek’s allusion to “lovers of liberty in all parties.” If that’s the case, I salute Wolfe, even if I fear that he’s being too clever by half.
And then there’s the uncharitable reading: namely, that Wolfe is being deliberately sloppy, or intellectually dishonest, by mounting a sweeping guilt-by-association attack on conservatives who have no actual association with a “Nazi philosopher,” while breezily forgiving the Left for having a deep, lasting, and revealing association with not just one–but many.