To make a point about anything these days seems to require ample use of Nazis.
Recent highlights of American discourse have included debates on punching Nazis, banning Nazi websites, “normalizing” Nazis in the New York Times, and prosecuting men who teach their girlfriends’ dogs to act like Nazis.
The press is fascinated with Nazis right now because it fits their larger storyline that contemporary America is mired in some dark neo-fascist moment, a sensationalistic frame that hasn’t exactly done wonders for sane political discourse. Which isn’t to say our current Nazi-mania can’t still offer useful tests of moral clarity.
Since “Nazi” is American shorthand for “worst thing,” and legal tolerance of “worst things” testifies to the strength and scope of American constitutional freedom, the determined optimist can find silver linings amid even the most overheated allegations of Nazi tolerance.
Take, for instance, the breathless agitation over “actual Nazi” Art Jones, who in recent weeks emerged as the sole candidate for — and then won — the Republican nomination for Illinois’s third congressional district.
As “actual Nazis” go, Jones’s credentials are far less ambiguous than some. He’s the ex-führer of the American Nazi Party, and the septuagenarian’s decades of enthusiastic involvement in other explicitly neo-Nazi activities and organizations are notorious and well-documented. Displayed prominently on his campaign website, amid generic GOP boilerplate, is a sub-page entitled “Holocaust?” featuring various anti-Semitic ramblings and conspiracy theories. Asked by the Chicago Sun-Times to clarify this apparently ambiguous stance, Jones replied, “To me, the Holocaust is what I said it is: It’s an international extortion racket.”
Lurid fascination with Jones’s candidacy has been largely framed as either an omen of what Republicans will tolerate in their present dark age (“20,000 Republicans just voted for an actual Nazi” blared ThinkProgress), or at its most charitable, a sort of “news of the weird” anecdote of the broken nature of American politics in general. Yet viewed from a different angle, the episode is also a case study of the remarkable protections the American democratic system affords to the expression of any ideology or philosophy, no matter how hideous.
A fashionable gripe is that the United States has “only” two political parties — “only one more than Russia,” as Jesse Ventura liked to say — in contrast with the rest of the supposedly sophisticated world, where their Election Night graphics resemble Technicolor rainbows. It’s a sloppy comparison, however, since U.S. political parties are really nothing like the tightly structured, hierarchical things found elsewhere in the world, and instead retain a uniquely American communitarian character in which ordinary citizens hold tremendous power to determine what they think and believe.
The highest power in any American political party is simply whatever group of citizens chooses to self-identify and register as its voters and candidates. It is these people who participate in primaries and determine who will speak for their side in the general election. An American’s right to act as a Republican or Democrat or Green or neo-Prohibitionist or whatever is considered a functional manifestation of his or her broader right to free expression and free association, and cannot be censored by any existing partisan power structure. Likeminded voters can certainly create a formal organization to support, fund, and promote their political tribe, and even give it an official-sounding name like “The Illinois Republican Party,” but the power of any such entity cannot supersede or veto the wishes of the voters who comprise the party in practice.
The fact that an “actual Nazi” could wind up the GOP candidate in Illinois’s third is a byproduct of the low character and courage of Republicans in that particular corner of Chicago. The self-selected Republican elite of the state campaigned aggressively against Jones, with flyers and robocalls, yet was somehow unable, in a riding of over 700,000 people, to scrape up a single human being to run against him.
If Republicans across America were constantly nominating Nazis as candidates for local office it would certainly be cause for alarm, since it would reflect a genuine, across-the-board voter appetite. As it stands, however, the victory of a lone Nazi in a single, uncontested, low-turnout primary in a deep-blue Democratic district is less a harbinger of a grim fascist future than a reminder that in a truly free political system, ugly outcomes are inevitable when only the ugly bother to exercise their rights.
In a truly free political system, ugly outcomes are inevitable when only the ugly bother to exercise their rights.
Or, to offer a more positive spin, the fact that a man as odious and hated as Jones was able to triumph in a free and fair election serves as proof that America is truly a nation without ideological barriers to democratic participation, even within its supposedly dogmatic political parties.
The right of a Chicago fascist to wind up on a general-election ballot, after all, is little different from the right of an independent socialist to contest the Democratic presidential primary or the right of a tea-party libertarian to challenge an incumbent House majority leader — two recent scenarios of American politics that would be unfathomable in nations where parties are vastly more closed and ideologically rigid. No American has the right to win an audacious political crusade, of course — just as the right to free exercise of belief entails a corresponding risk of being loathed and condemned, so too is the right of democratic participation inseparable from the risk of crushing failure (as Herr Jones will soon discover).
No one likes to see a Nazi on the ballot, any more than one likes to see a thriving Nazi Internet forum or a smug, punchable Nazi face. But compared with the alternative, in which some clique of political gatekeepers is empowered to set the perimeters of acceptable thought and exclude from public life those who fall outside, it remains a bargain worth taking.