From a long-time reader:
I’m about half way through Liberal Fascism and, as one of your dogged liberal readers, I find it a fascinating, thoughtful, even-handed read. One thing that keeps occurring to me though is that I’m not sure I buy that people could be simultaneously ignorant of the intellectual history of their ideas and wedded to them at the same time. I mean, you yourself have written that liberalism’s philosophically pragmatist impulses make it prone to ignoring its history. That said, isn’t it possible that the average person supports something like a single-payer health care system (or socialized medicine, if you prefer) without having any tangibly fascistic strain in their thinking. And, I have to admit, it sometimes seems that your applications of the fascism meme have become a bit fevered. Obama the fascist? Obama the windbag, surely, but fascist? I think you’ve made a great contribution to political history, but I find this much less convincing when trying to tar contemporary liberal with whatever massively diluted, tangential connections they might have to Nazis and Fascists.
Me: Since I’m so pleased to have a liberal read the book with an open mind (heck, I’m delighted to have a liberal read the book at all), I think the least I can do is respond in good faith.
The first question is a very good one (and a better one than the ones posed by 90% of my liberal reviewers). I have several, probably too long-winded answers to it. But here are a few short(er) ones.
Let’s start metaphysically or poetically. The Big Picture point I tried to convey in my book – and one I think I should have been more explicit about – is that many of these fascist tendencies are in fact human tendencies. We desperately want to recreate the feeling of the of spiritually resonant tribe. We have an inborn “quest for community” as Robert Nisbet put it. This desire can be healthy, productive and, indeed, vital if acted upon in a healthy manner – for want of a better word. But it can also be twisted, distorted and corrupted when left unconstrained by law, philosophy and dogma. I believe – and argue – that all of the totalitarian “isms” of the 20th century were perversions of this quest for community (a point Nisbet makes more forcefully than I do). So, in a sense, a political movement which does not concern itself with intellectual history but instead relies on emotion, passion and political instinct is in effect doomed to fall back on its preset programming (though not according to Michael Tomasky who insists liberals can never, ever, go to far toward totalitarianism because liberals are always a force for good, truth and decency). So, in one sense, an intellectually deracinated progressivism is bound to fall into the trap of becoming a political religion (hard or soft).
In other words, I would argue that liberalism (i.e. progressivism) becomes fascistic simply by ignoring the classical liberal safeguards that keep us from wrong-headedly indulging our passions for unity, meaning, tribalistic leadership (by “great men” or priests etc), cults of “action” and the like.
Second, I think this is more of a superficial contradiction than an actual one. Liberalism is not entirely blind to its past. It’s merely passive about it. Certain ideas can simply be in the water. This is, after all, exactly the sort of argument various critical legal, critical race and other lefty types use all of the time. They say, for example, that even though your “typical white American” — to use Barack Obama’s formulation — doesn’t think he’s racist or sexist, he is still the inheritor of all sorts of assumptions and prejudices inherent to our language, our culture and our institutions. While I think the Critical Legal types usually take these arguments way, way, too far I don’t think they are completely without merit either.
Indeed, I think American liberalism suffers from just such a dynamic. The way liberals formulate arguments on a host of fronts, particularly in the realm of economics, remains fundamentally unchanged since the Progressive Era. This is largely because – with the exception of eugenics and hard racism – progressives never did a particularly rigorous self-inventory of their intellectual baggage precisely because they don’t have much interest in such enterprises. They cherry pick slogans, heroes, morality tales and the like from their past without asking hard and serious questions about the broader context of that these self-serving vignettes emerged from. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton explicitly invoke the Progressives as their lodestars. But I have seen not an iota of evidence that they’ve pondered what that means.
It seems to me that if you believe that the original progressives were fascistic (as opposed to full-blown fascists) it hardly seems absurd to suggest that some of that intellectual or psychological DNA will be carried forward to today. And it strikes me as grotesquely hypocritical for liberals to reject this sort of argument when they use a much more unforgiving form of this argument against conservatives every day.
Last, I think among serious leftwing intellectuals there is an open sympathy with fascistic ideas (remember these guys ?) , though few dare say so outright (one exception would be among certain radical environmentalists who do in fact believe in “eco-fascism.” ). Peter Singer, Richard Rorty, Michael Lerner, Robert Reich and numerous other leading liberal and leftwing intellectuals discussed in my book have embraced ideas that can quite easily be placed within the fascist orbit. These people help frame the agenda, spoken and unspoken, of mainstream liberals and I’ve seen no thoughtful and sustained rebuttal to my argument on this score.
Which brings us to the second complaint, that it’s just icky to talk about modern liberals like Barack Obama as somehow fascistic. I sympathize (really). But I think this has a lot to do with how we’ve (understandably) demonized the word fascist to simply mean “evil.” I think I’ve gone to enormous lengths to insist that is not how I’m using the word. And so if it makes you feel better to use some other word or phrase – totalitarian, socialistic, collectivist, “political religion” or even “progressive” – that’s fine. But I actually think that if people can get beyond the superficial and emotional connotation of the word “fascist” there’s a very strong case to make that it’s more appropriate than most of the others.
Whenever I hear the criticism as offered above I often want to ask: “Okay, if you agree with me that Progressivism, Wilsonian war socialism, and New Deal corporatism were all to one extent or another fascistic, when do you think liberalism went about the hard work of shedding itself of this baggage?”
Because when I look around, I see a lot of liberals lionizing the New Deal and celebrating their own profound indebtedness to the very same progressives you admit were disturbingly fascistic.