I continue this mini-series on Jonah Goldberg’s 2007
book Liberal Fascism.* (In these
Posts, Jonah Goldberg will be shortened to ‘JG’.)
Having given an overview of JG’s thoughts, in this
Post I’d like to select some particular points of interest. In several
subsequent Posts I’ll deal with some of the numerous and eye-opening quotations
from historical figures in American and/or socialist and Progressive history,
from the young Woodrow Wilson up through LBJ.
JG observes that “war socialism under Wilson was an
entirely progressive project and long after the war it remained the liberal
ideal”. (p.119) Indeed, as has been said, the ‘crisis’ and ‘emergency’ of that
war provided the lubricating ‘justification’ for such a stunning expansion of
federal power.** And with the exception of Harding and Coolidge and possibly
Herbert Hoover, every President since Wilson has been committed to the Progressive
Stance – which is to say: not only its good intentions but also its methods and its presumptions about the
incapacity of The People to govern themselves well and the consequent necessity
for giving power to the elites who do indeed know what to do and ‘get it’.
Progressivism and war, therefore, are joined at the
hip; you can’t have the former without some form of the latter (whether actual
shooting war or ‘cold war’ or some version of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, multiple variants of which were unleashed upon the
country during the past few decades since 1970 or so).
Indeed, JG observes that since militarization of
government and citizens and the official valorization of martial values under
the pretexts of nationalism and patriotism are considered marquis indicators of
“classic fascism”, “it is very difficult to understand how the Progressive Era
was not also the Fascist Era”.
Which is a proposition that is sure to function as a
broom-stick in the bicycle spokes of conventional – and especially American –
received wisdom. But this is so to a great extent because of the 1940s wartime
success of the Progressive/liberals in dissociating themselves from the
European variants of totalizing-government by emphasizing the Hitlerian military
aggression and the Holocaust.***
After all, JG notes, Progressivism shares so many
characteristics generally attributed to totalizing fascism by historians of the
phenomenon: “largely a middle-class movement equally opposed to runaway
capitalism above and radical-Marxism below … [by seeking] what the fascists
called ‘the Third Way’, or what Richard Ely, mentor to both Wilson and [Teddy]
Roosevelt, called ‘the golden mean’ between laissez-faire individualism and
Marxist socialism … [with the] chief desire being to impose a unifying, totalitarian
moral order that regulated the
individual inside his home and out”. (p.119) [italics mine]
And surely the radical and revolutionary Marxist element
was consciously and deliberately introduced in third-wave Progressive/’liberal’
political agendas after 1972 here, although spun vigorously as ‘liberation’ and
After World War 1, “the country slowly regained its
sanity … but many liberals remained enamored of war socialism, believing that a
peacetime militarization of society was still necessary”. (p.127) With the
Progressives having discovered how The People might be turned into a herd whose
brute and lumpish power might be harnessed by the government and its elites, then
We have to wonder if at that point – and so very ominously – the toothpaste was
out of the tube in terms of American political development. Josephus Daniels,
religious evangelical and dedicated Progressive, “wondered if the country might
need to ‘become a super-Prussia’” in
order to effectively achieve a new world-wide moral Order. (p.127) [italics
And in the Year of Grace Two Thousand and Twelve,
and of the Independence of the United States the Two-Hundred-and-Thirty-Sixth, might
it be asked Is that working for Us?
Consequently, the administration plumped for a
peacetime draft and a new peacetime Sedition law – but was rebuffed.
But almost immediately a “Red Scare” was suddenly
unleashed upon the nation, as the government ‘discovered’ the threat of
Communist infiltrators and agents migrating from newly-established Soviet Russia to work
lethal mischief here. (And J. Edgar Hoover was quick to avail himself of the
bureaucratic and career opportunities thus afforded, taking over government
efforts to root out not only Communists but ‘sympathizers’ – even among the
Citizens. ‘Sympathizers’ was widely defined, to include labor organizers and
many who simply didn’t want to see the country go down the militarized and
aggressive route of a “super-Prussia”.)
No wonder, then, JG observes, “Harding’s campaign
slogan had been ‘A Return to Normalcy’”. (p.127) The country had been, in the
Progressive Wilson years, subjected to a steady drumbeat of abnormality,
derangements, and deformities – and all of them imposed by the government
(As a child I had always been unimpressed by
Harding’s choice of campaign slogan: it seemed so bland and unimaginative. But
the more you look at the record of the Progressive Wilson years, the more you
realize just what the country had been put through.**** But even a half-century
and more ago, when the Great War was ‘only’ a half-century back in the nation’s
past, it was conventionally accepted as a glorious if secondary chapter in
America’s march to Greatness, the first revelation of her power that would be
so vividly deployed in the Second World War and the Cold War that was so eloquently
limned by JFK in his Inaugural Address and so masterfully implemented by LBJ
with his Great Society and the – at that point – impressive demonstration of
the country’s abiding military prowess in Vietnam.)
When FDR came to office, he was temperamentally unsuited
for deep and sustained thought, and (like JFK would do with his youthful inexperience
compared to Ike and Nixon) made a virtue of necessity by insisting that the
government needed not to ‘think’ but to ‘act’. And, building on that theme, he
insisted that the government would ‘try’ this and that, and what worked it
would keep doing and what didn’t work it would discard and try something else.
He was not committed enough to any ideology for the
radical reform/revolution-minded Progressives, and he wasn’t securely anchored
enough in any principles for the conservatives.
But – marvelously – he made a virtue of that too: he
was ‘flexible’ and ‘open’ to ‘innovation’ and he was not chained to ‘dogmas’
and ‘old thoughts and ways’.
Terrified by their economic situation and by Herbert
Hoover’s solid and somewhat staid equanimity and sober engineer’s balance in
the face of so shocking an emergency, and enamored of FDR’s marvelous presence
(amplified by radio and his willingness to occasionally take a new-fangled
aeroplane rather than the ‘old-fashioned’ train), folks were happy to cut him
some slack. Maybe at such a lethal and critical juncture, you needed a
President willing to try new approaches – since the old ones clearly didn’t
seem to be working. Go with the flow and try not to overthink things … that might do the trick.
But as JG puts it nicely: FDR “planted his flag atop
a buoy at sea, permanently bobbing with the currents … unfortunately the
currents tended to push him in only one direction: statism.” (p.129)
But contrary to those even today who point dramatically
back to “the Roosevelt legacy”, JG asserts that even at the time and among his
own advisers there was no Plan. He quotes Raymond Moley, a significant adviser
to FDR: “To look upon these programs as the result of a unified plan was to
believe that the accumulation of stuffed snakes, baseball pictures, school
flags, old tennis shoes, carpenter’s tools, geometry books, and chemistry sets
in a boy’s bedroom could have been put there by an interior decorator”.
A remarkably imaginative yet acutely apt way of
saying that the country had slipped and slid along the Progressive path like a
speeding car driven by an average driver that has suddenly hit a large and
extended patch of ice.
Said another New Deal adviser in 1940, in response
to a question as to “whether the basic principle of the New Deal was
economically sound”: “I really do not know what the basic principle of the New
Deal is”. (p.130) Of course, in 1940 things were already looking up – finally –
with the approach of what would become World War Two. In typical American
fashion, you could treat even the immediate past as ‘past’ and therefore as of
no further relevance; there were Good Times dawning and why look back?
When his own Presidency arrived, former New Dealer and
FDR-protégé LBJ, referring to a piece of Great Society legislation, insisted:
“Just pass the damned thing – we can always amend it later”.
Not the wisest or most prudent or sober governing
policy, but as long as you have a productive and victorious war to ‘demonstrate
the success’ of your plans, then who cares really?
As JG points out, neither Mussolini nor Hitler
really let themselves get distracted by “economic theory”. As Mussolini liked
to put it: “Our program is to govern” – and beyond that, well, trust us. (p.130)
(You get the impression that Mussolini was in some
ways the source of conceptual inspiration for both FDR and Hitler.)
But JG then acutely reflects that while ‘the middle
way’ sounded innocuous and moderate, “un-ideological and free-thinking”, yet
“philosophically the Third Way is not mere difference-splitting; it is utopian
and authoritarian”, inalterably antagonistic to the quintessential political
requirement for trade-offs. (p.130) You can make a very good case that there
really is no such thing as a totalitarian “politics” since there is no
difference between putative ‘equals’, no dissent is tolerated, and – of course
– since the elites have already concluded that in Great Matters they so
profoundly and totally ‘get it’ and everybody else so profoundly and totally ‘just
doesn’t get it’ – then compromise would be nothing short of treason to (their
version of) ‘truth’ and ‘reality’.
Worse, JG continues, such Third-Way types insist
that “there are no false choices”: there is, rather, the One Way (their Way)
and they will not accept that there are alternatives that need to be considered
or obstructions to be respected or – oy! – any possible downsides to the
consequences of their agendas and plans and visions. Rather, they can have it
all: nationalism and socialism, capitalism and Marxism, individual liberty and an
imposed total communal unity.
Thus, JG continues, there is a stunning similarity
between totalitarian utopians and “heretical Christian movements” in that they
all “assume that with just the right arrangement of policies, all
contradictions can be rectified” (or ‘aligned’). (p.130)
But history is imperfect because life is imperfect
because human beings are imperfect. And that imperfection manifests itself in
unpredictable ways. To give individuals ‘liberty’ is to sign-on for a
roller-coaster ride combined with a labyrinth trek. That, as the Framers
realized – and not without some serious trepidation – goes with the territory
if you are going to allow The People to be the governors of their own
And it is a circle that can never fully be squared
in this life.
And if you are going to insist – as the Progressives
and the other totalizers do – that your elites know what they’re doing and do
what’s best, then you are going to get authoritarianism
because those elites are going to ‘logically’ feel authorized and commissioned
to use government power to impose their visions.
And thus – I would say – Progressivism, like the
other total-isms, is inherently imperialistic
as well. Because once you have imposed your vision of perfection on your own
country, then you are going to want to and you are going to need to go out and
impose that New Order on other countries and peoples as well. Wouldn’t it be
treason to your vision not to? Wouldn’t
it be failing in your duty to humanity not to impose your vision on everybody?
Why be selfish and keep your light under the bushel-basket of abstractions like
the putative ‘sovereignty’ of other nations and governments if you have the Key
that will make the life of all peoples so very much better?
FDR ran into objections from Progressives who felt
he wasn’t being radical enough, and ‘conservatives’ who were merely
Progressives who thought he was heading toward “the wrong kind of socialism”;
in other words, objections from what JG calls “utopians” and “non-utopians”.
But the key similarity between what JG calls “both
the German and American New Deals” was “that the state should be allowed to get away with anything, so long as it is for
good reasons”. (p.131) [italics his]
Nor should there be any “dogmatic” boundaries – or
first-principles of any sort – that can be allowed to obstruct whatever the
state and its Correct elites (who, of course, ‘get it’) see as necessary. And
years before 9/11 this ‘political philosophy’ had been put forth as a Plan by
radical-feminism here, and the Beltway had bought it all, since it neatly
erased any boundaries that would interfere with their ‘flexibility’ in giving
the various cadres of the various Identities of the various Revolutions and the
various lobbyists of the various special-interests of finance capitalism
whatever they demanded. You can’t violate principles if there are no
principles. (And you can’t commit crimes if no laws apply.) Neat.
And then JG goes a bit philosophical – and not
wrongly so – himself. “The leader and his [or her] anointed cadres are decision
makers above and beyond political or democratic imperatives. They invoke with
divine reverence ‘science’ and the laws of economics the way temple priests
once read the entrails of goats, but because they have blinded themselves to
their own leaps of faith, they cannot see that morals and values cannot be
derived from science”. (p.131)
Science can only offer the principles of the
Scientific Method, which is a process for logically and rationally determining
the truth of some scientific hypothesis.
But you can’t use science to get at the principles
of morality because those principles don’t stem from the material realm, from
Matter, but rather from some non-material realm of the human spirit (perhaps in
touch with an even Higher realm of Spirit) where the laws of gravity and
thermodynamics and geology don’t apply. Nor can you use the sort-of ‘sciences’
such as psychology or even advanced neurobiology, since there is some
life-principle in humans that is not accessible to scientific study, no matter
how carefully and honestly conducted. A human being is simultaneously both
apple and orange, and ‘science’ can only work on the apple.
*Goldberg, Jonah. Liberal Fascism. Doubleday: New York, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-385-51184-1
(hard cover). It’s also out in paperback.
**I would note here too that there is a profound
difference between, say, Jefferson’s Executive acquisition of the territories
included in the Louisiana Purchase on the one hand, and Progressive expansions
of government and Executive power on the other.
To be sure, Jefferson went beyond the law: he bought
first and asked Congress later (both to ratify and to pay-for his Purchase).
Further, Jefferson defended himself with an iffy analogy: he considered
himself, in the matter of the Purchase, to be acting as a “guardian” for the
citizens, who as his “wards” might not yet see the wisdom of his expenditure of
‘their’ money; but at some point, Jefferson was confident, he could face the
public squarely and say that he had done it “for your own good” – much as a
conscientious legal guardian might say to a ward who becomes old enough to now
manage his own affairs.
That’s easily a candidate for the ‘slippery slope’
attitude which less than a century later would fuel the cocksure Progressive
eagerness to do for the public what the public was clearly (to the Progressive
eye) incapable of doing for itself.
But Jefferson merely provided huge tracts of land –
which became an opportunity for States and Citizens to exercise their rights
and freedoms. He did not seek to expand the ordinary-power of the government or
This must be contrasted to the agenda of the
Progressives a century later: whereas Teddy Roosevelt supported both commercial
expansion (enabled by military action) and the substantial increase of
government regulatory power over corporations in order to provide for the
safety of the products manufactured and marketed to the Citizenry by the
corporations, Wilson was the first of the Progressive Executives to take
matters to a whole new level: following a host of prewar changes (the direct
election of Senators, the constitutionally-questionable creation of the Federal
Reserve, the even more constitutionally questionable extension of the legal
authority to prosecute the entire civil criminal code to the military justice
system), Wilson’s objectives during World War 1 comprised the control of the
Citizenry through surveillance, criminal prosecution and expanded government
investigation (J. Edgar Hoover got his start right here); the manipulation of
public opinion by what had to be the planet’s first dedicated Propaganda
Office/Ministry; and by numerous other initiatives the mobilization of the
emotions and resources and capacities of the Citizenry in the service of the
government and its elite-Progressive illuminations, excitements, schemes and
***Might it here be asked if the post-1972 Gender
element of the Culture War (Kulturkampf)
is not classifiable as a variant version of the Hitlerian campaign against the
Jewish people, with ‘men’ and their ‘macho patriarchy’ now classified as the
targeted evil presence from which the Volk
and the Kultur must now be cleansed?
A campaign – it might be said – to make American culture and society ‘Mannerrein’ (translated as ‘cleansed of
As “the Jews” somehow infected culture and society
by their mere presence, ‘men’ constitute a similar infection through their
hegemonic, dominant, sexually-violent marginalizing of the culture and the
people. Which – Correctly – must be eliminated, and in the service of that
objective no ‘fetishization’ of ‘abstractions’ such as law or the rule of law
or the Constitution must be allowed to stand in the way as an ‘obstruction’.
****And, of course, one might consider the extent to
which Wilson’s new-fangled Federal Reserve – whereby Congress yielded effective
control of the national currency and money supply and financial strategies to a
private congeries of bankers and other ‘experts’ – helped bring on the Great
Depression through the stock-market crash of 1929, the awful social
consequences of which gave Hitler the opening he needed to mount his final (and
successful) push to political power in Germany.
But even if so, Progressivism proved itself a mightily
resourceful weed, and in the effort to crush Hitler, it further engorged and
embedded itself in America’s politics and political thought.
Labels: American political development since the Sixties, American political history, contemporary liberalism, fascism, Marxism, Progressivism, socialism, the New Deal