"To compare the president to Hitler is not free speech. It is inciting violence." This is a very common talking point these days on the left. Google the terms and you will see the theme repeatedly.
It is considered a hate crime to compare Obama to the Nazi leader, or even to describe more generally his agenda as fascist. Although I recall every president I’ve lived under being characterized in this manner, suddenly it is a danger to American democracy for the comparison to be uttered. When Bush was compared to Hitler, of course the establishment right was hysterical, too, but the left seems even more willing than the neocons to propose outright prohibiting such political speech.
Toward the end of the Bush years, conservative Jonah Goldberg came out with Liberal Fascism, a book attacking the left for their authoritarian leanings, which was only ironic given that we were living under his favored Republican administration, a government that Lew Rockwell astutely criticized for being a real-life example of red-state fascism. Could it be that both sides have a point, even if they miss the irony?
In fact, the differences between modern liberalism and conservatism are usually overstated. There are ways in which each side is more fascist than the other — the right’s seemingly greater devotion to aggressive war and certain police-state measures, the left’s greater attachment to the economics of extreme interventionism.
So when Rush Limbaugh lists off the ways in which the left is fascist — nationalization of banks and industry, mandatory health care, severe regulation and welfare statism, top-down control of the economy, petty crusades against smoking and unbalanced diets, the general elevation of the president to god-like status — he is not far off the mark, even if he ignores the other elements of fascism, such as executive detention, torture and war, which he himself embraces.
The truth is, we’ve had something resembling fascism under both parties going back to at least the Second World War. Those who voted for whoever happens to be in the White House do not like to hear this, but interestingly become more receptive to the critique when someone they despise is in office, even if the policies haven’t much changed.
But the ideological apparatus constructed by the modern American state relies on a false dichotomy of left and right, and so have the fascist impulses of the American people been channeled into both parties, with different rationales underlying each statist program. Now that the red-state fascists have been out of power for a while, we must work to understand the dynamics and nuances of a resurgent blue-state fascism.
First, of course, is the managerial "liberalism" that came to dominate America in the last century. Charlotte Twight has called this system "participatory fascism" — corporate statism with a democratic veneer. Egalitarian with a façade of universalism, "participatory fascism" is favored by both Republicans and Democrats, but the left seems to cherish it more fully.
Liberals love and take pride in the 20th century, and tend to despise the 19th century. There is much to love and regret in most eras, but the left takes ownership in what they see as the great advancements in political and national affairs that unfolded since the Progressive Era.
The early Progressives managed to hijack both parties, starting with the Republicans, but today they are more vigorously championed by the left. The 20th century is seen as the stage of American progress, from a laissez-faire, backwards republic, to the world’s greatest and ever improving democracy. First America adopted controls on industry, food and drugs, telecommunications, communications and transportation. Then the country advanced by adopting a fledgling welfare state and nationalizing employment, civil rights and education. With Reagan, so goes the narrative, the process was reversed, and American society as well as American dependence on federal power — remember, these are one and the same for some people — began a decline that was only reversed with the election of Barack Obama.
Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and LBJ, while unfortunately popular for much of what they did on the right as well, are the true heroes of the modern fascist left. Consider how many on the left hated George W. Bush but admired the far worse Harry Truman. By treating Bush as a unique evil other than a very bad but somewhat predictable figure in an uninterrupted series of despotic presidents, the left made the same error committed by much of the anti-Clinton and anti-Obama right.
This relates to the question of whether Obama represents a dramatic shift toward radical socialism or a further consolidation and solidification of America’s fascist tendencies. The latter is clearly closer to the truth. Obama does not seek to abolish private property entirely, nor is he a consistent egalitarian. He is a Goldman-Sachs socialist, not a Marxist one. While ACORN is part of the Obama repertoire, so too is the military-industrial complex, and a much more important one at that.
Although some conservatives say this is the first time they’ve worried for their country, the left in America is actually quite attached to the traditions of an earlier time, the 20th century, which they want to restore in fuller force today. Their trajectory is much sharper than that of the conservatives, who seem to always want government to be as small as it was about three years ago, but most on the left cannot be faulted for wanting to throw out our nationalist traditions: they want to embrace the worst of the ones that were well in place by the time of the "Greatest Generation": technocracy, materialist ethics, utilitarianism, managerial corporate statism, central administration, presidency worship, welfare and all the rest.
The major difference between the left and right in this regard is the right sees such horrible traditions as tolerable even if somewhat regretful, while the left absolutely adores them and takes them to their logical extreme. Leftists also have much more curiosity and interest in every sector of everyone’s life. If the right has a saving grace, it is that although it embraces collectivism, it lacks the intellectual ambition to be consistent about seeking a government solution to every conceivable human problem. The right wants to keep illegal drugs banned; the left wants the state to keep tabs on every legal drug you’re using.
A major complication to finding fascism on the left comes in analyzing their view of war. At least in a superficial sense, leftists are still not quite as bloodthirsty as rightists. The polls show that most Republicans favor Obama’s wars while most Democrats are skeptical or opposed. There are even some areas of policy where Obama is not quite as bad as Bush.
But the leftist position is hardly reliably anti-war. There are exceptions, of course. The far left radicals and genuine classical-liberal leaning types like Glenn Greenwald stay principled and will question a war regardless of the president. But in general, at best, most left-liberals look the other way while innocent foreigners are slaughtered by U.S. bombs, so long as the president is advancing domestic socialism on schedule. Healthcare is their issue right now, not mass murder. It is more a change in emphasis than a full embrace of warmongering that characterizes the left during Democratic wars. They might not wear flag pins and spend every day screaming for blood; they simply ignore the issue. This is documented: the "netroots" progressives, for example, have almost entirely abandoned the war issue in order to pursue issues where they can side with the state and their beloved president.
Under Democratic rule, the left-liberal seems to make a calculation: how much socialism makes it worth living under a lawless state? How many free government goodies does it take for me to shut up about the Pakistanis and Afghans being blown to bits? Aggressive war, for most of the left, is at best one of many issues, and generally not one regarded as nearly as important as health care or education financing. Their reasoning seems to go: "Killed ten thousand people? That’s bad. Paid our UN dues? That’s good. Tortured and spied? That’s bad. Toughened EPA emission standards? That’s good. A trillion dollar bailout? That might be bad. But Obama also signed the tobacco legislation. I guess it balances out."
Even under Republicans, leftists rarely go far enough on the war issue. They believe in big government, the nation-state and its military, they believe in collective security, the UN, and the founding myths of the post-WWII American empire, and they believe that there is a stark moral difference between a president killing in the name of government and private citizens committing murder. Even under Republicans, most of the left is more opposed to the war contractors and unilateralism than the war itself, more opposed to the businesses involved in surveillance than the government ordering the spying, more opposed to the partisan leader than the institutions he leads. If they truly ever embraced the full antiwar position, they would see the state for what it is, an engine of mass murder and totalitarian subjugation of foreign peoples and the domestic population, and would thus not find it so distasteful to imply that such an institution would ever have something called "death panels."
To the contrary, they find it heretical to believe America is not a free country, at least when its ruled by their own party, and repeat the same "love-it-or-leave-it" claptrap that could be heard from the neocons in 2004. They think it irresponsible, even un-American, to use the word "tyranny" in describing the U.S. government, insensitive to call it a "police state" much less a "fascist system illegitimately run by a would-be dictator," even though they were somewhat sympathetic to the exact same dissent under Bush. Like most Good Germans of the 1930s, it is not so much that they endorse naked state aggression, it is just that it’s not on their radar.
But that’s at best. During wartime, left-liberals can be much worse than that with their guy in power. With the color of international approval or political correctness, they become energetic supporters of the warfare state. They will smear those who criticize "humanitarian" wars for being soft on genocide. They back interventions such as Bill Clinton’s Kosovo killing spree, cheer on U.S. fighter pilots, and parrot the establishment line on Iran or whatever the latest boogeyman is.
It is perhaps on the questions of free speech and civil liberties that the left flip-flops the most when power shifts. Some puritanical and authoritarian leftist impulses are constant, but they become much worse under Democratic rule, since dissent from the state itself is added to the list of verboten activities. Consider the new Brown Scare they are trying to bring to life. They flirt with banning "hate speech" — even speech like this very article, for daring to make comparisons between fascism and the American state. They smear all criticism of Obama’s domestic policy as "racist." They regard any talk of secession to be sacrilege, demonstrating their devotion to the immortal nation-state as a first principle. They find contrived connections between unrelated violent incidents, such as the murder of abortionist George Tiller and the murder of the Holocaust museum security guard, as fodder for their paranoid delusions that the greatest danger to America are the people on the fringe and least close to power.
So fearful they are of the out-of-power right that they ignore the actual regime in power, the one with a stockpile of nuclear weapons, a gulag of millions of prisoners and a printing press to funnel money from the poor to the rich. Suddenly, the surveillance state is benign and those protesting the census or stocking ammo in Montana are the real threat.
It is impossible to have a fascist nationalist regime without demonizing "the other." For Democrats, "the other" can be anyone with working-class cultural values, a middle-class lifestyle or an upper-class income. It can be gunowners, homeschoolers, devout Christians or cultural conservatives. It can be practically anyone who deviates from the bizarre elitist model for left-liberal living. While the right vilifies anyone who is not "normal," the left vilifies anyone who is.
On matters like detention and warrantless wiretaps, the mainstream left becomes silent or supportive as the Democratic administration does everything bad that the Republicans did. When the Democrats suggest using the Republican No-Fly list to disarm a million Americans, the left cheers. Few leftists oppose conscription on principle, meaning that on the fundamental issue of slavery, they are weak. Meanwhile, personal choices like cigarette smoking fall under attack. Now we are seeing internet freedom under threat as never before, as the left-liberal mindset does not inherently distrust the government in such matters.
Thus, blue-state fascism is a tried-and-true strain of American politics, but it is worse in its newest incarnation and the more libertarian instincts on the left, which were nurtured in the Vietnam era, are beginning to wither away. And 21st-century blue-state fascism is still in its infancy. Hopefully the left will fracture and those with some old-time liberal leanings will break off from the statists and join those of us who champion liberty. Defections from the left were key, after all, in forming the Old Right. But if the trend continues, I fear we will see most of the left, faced with the choice of power or liberty, choose as they have for most the last century.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a research analyst at the Independent Institute and editor-in-chief of the Campaign for Liberty. He lives in Oakland, California. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.