alien & sedition.
Friday, April 27, 2007
  A Plea from the Society for Better Metaphors

I read Naomi Wolf's "Fascist America, In 10 Easy Steps" with great interest. Wolf lucidly recounts a number of the Bush administration's sins against American democracy -- from Gitmo to the politicization of the bureaucracy to the equation of dissent with treason -- arguing that "we need ... to look at the lessons of European and other kinds of fascism to understand the potential seriousness of the events we see unfolding in the US." I certainly don't want to discount the seriousness of those events, but I do want to take issue with the use of "fascism" as descriptive term for their cumulative significance.

Norman Geras identifies the flaw in Wolf's argument:
[D]espite her talk of dictatorship and her several allusions to fascism, Wolf has a couple of qualifying sentences registering a different awareness. Thus:
Of course, the United States is not vulnerable to the violent, total closing-down of the system that followed Mussolini's march on Rome or Hitler's roundup of political prisoners. Our democratic habits are too resilient, and our military and judiciary too independent, for any kind of scenario like that.
These sentences might be taken as showing that Wolf doesn't fully believe her own case.
What Geras means, of course, is that you shouldn't call something fascism if you don't believe that it really is fascism. The term has a particular historical and political meaning, and while Wolf correctly identifies a list of outrageous anti-democratic administration practices, she herself seems to recognize that what they add up to is something rather different than what Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler were all about.

Given the gravity of the Bush administration's offenses, this may seem like a pendantic point. It isn't. I recognize that hyperbolic rhetoric may be our first line of defense against the erosion of Constitutional freedoms, and if that is therefore the rhetoric we have to employ in certain situations, so be it. But can we at least whisper among ourselves about what might be a more precise analysis? Foreign readers can interpret our politics however they want; American progressives have a responsibility to hold to a more clear-headed understanding of what our conservative foes are actually doing. If conservatives are not actually on the road to fascism, but to something else, shouldn't we figure that out -- the better to head them off at the right pass?

Fascism, a 20th century European political practice sometimes imitated by tyrants in the developing world, is not the only alternative to constitutional democracy. And it's not what the Bush administration is trying to construct. Frankly, fascism is too collectivist, even just too organized for these people. The thing is, you can look around the world right now and see examples of states that are neither fascist nor particularly democratic. The two most powerful nations in the world after the U.S. are cases in point. And while certain social conservatives would no doubt be perfectly comfortable with a Christian version of Iran's Islamic Republic, Putin's Russia might represent a more accurate nightmare scenario for what the Bush administration would let America become: an authoritarian quasi-democracy ruled by gangster capitalism and just enough political intimidation to keep the right people in power without necessitating stormtroopers in the streets. Of course, Russia doesn't have the tradition of democratic institutions that Wolf cites as America's own insurance policy.

That does not, of course, mean we shouldn't guard against the erosion of those institutions. But to what purpose are they being eroded? Bush and Rove have constructed a political machine meant, like every other political machine in American history, to keep their faction in power as long as possible. They've abandoned the traditional Republican hostility to a strong executive and sought to push the boundaries of the politicization of bureacracy, society, and media. Like most administrations -- only moreso -- they have pushed to keep the Constitution from standing in the way of their political aims. In all of this they have been unusually vigorous and effective, which is cause for a great deal of concern. But they are not the vanguard of a fascist movement -- they're not even particularly well-liked in the conservative movement. Their project is not to create a fascist state, but to loosen the various restrictions imposed by custom, discourse, and the Constitution on their political freedom of movement.

The conservative movement undergirding the modern Republican party has varying and often conflicting goals. Parts of it are primarily concerned with eliminating regulatory regimes that various industry lobbyists, in their perpetual shortsightedness, think of as limiting American capitalism. Parts of it want to legislate morality, to greater or lesser extents. Parts of it advocate vigorous intervention abroad; parts of it denounce American imperialism.

As with the Bush administration, big-picture thinking is far less important to the conservative movement than appearances might suggest. The primary political imperative is to move immediate obstacles out of the way, to advance whatever might be the mission of the day. Unfortunately, those obstacles often tend to be rather important features of American democracy.

The effect of all this, if left unchecked, will be to degrade that democracy and gradually sink the United States from the ranks of advanced, liberal Western nations. It could make the U.S. more vulnerable to charismatic authoritarians; it would undoubtedly weaken our public infrastructure and erode our quality of life. While it could lead to more aggressive militarism abroad, it would be just as likely to undermine America's capacity for adventurism (or, on the other side of the coin, our capacity for international leadership).

Fascism is a sort of constructive nihilism. It builds; it wants more. What the Bush administration and the conservative movement would leave to us is America, but less so.

Before we had fascism as a metaphor to call upon, America went through similar periods of degradation. The Alien and Sedition Acts. The vicious anti-Constitutional crackdowns during the First World War. The Red Scare. Internment. We didn't become a totalitarian state; we continued to be America -- but less so. It fell to progressives in subsequent eras to set the country back on a better course; the tool they used to accomplish this was American democracy. That's why I disagree with Tristero of Digby's blog on this. Says Tristero:
Call America's national government and dominant media whatever you will; it's pointless to quibble over labels. Except in one instance. This is no longer a democracy.
It's not a pointless quibble to demand precise analysis of our political situation. And it's simply absurd to claim that "this is no longer a democracy." This is a democracy -- only less so, for the moment. The way to rectify the conservative degradation of America is to remember that we are a democracy, and to act accordingly.

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I'll believe this is a democracy when I see the Bush administration out of office and a sane government, representative of the people, in place. Note: it's not really a a matter of which party, although at the moment the Republican party has few "democrats" in the small d sense of the word and a lot of autocrats, theocrats, and fascists. When those latter three are far removed from the center of American power, then I will happily agree with you that we are again a democracy. But now? Please.

Bush has made it quite clear that all laws in this country - all laws - remain in effect at his pleasure. That is what the signing statements are about, the Terri Schiavo scandal, the firing of the prosecutors, and the veto of the timetable for Iraq. That is not my definition of a democracy.
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