Reading Jonah Goldberg’s "Liberal Fascism’

It is my argument that American liberalism is a totalitarian political religion, but not necessarily an Orwellian one. It is nice, not brutal. Nannying, not bullying. But it is definitely totalitarian–or ‘holistic,’ if you prefer–in that liberalism today sees no realm of human life that is beyond political significance, from what you eat to what you smoke to what you say. Sex is political. Food is political. Sports, entertainment, your inner motives and outer appearance, all have political salience for liberal fascists. Liberals place their faith in priestly experts who know better, who plan, exhort, badger, and scold. They try to use science to discredit traditional notions of religion and faith, but they speak the language of pluralism and spirituality to defend ‘nontraditional’ beliefs. Just as with classical fascism, liberal fascists speak of a ‘Third Way’ between right and left where all good things go together and all hard choices are ‘false choices.’

The idea that there are no hard choices–that is, choices between competing goods–is religious and totalitarian because it assumes that all good things are fundamentally compatible. The conservative or classical liberal vision understands that life is unfair, that man is flawed, and that the only perfect society, the only real Utopia, waits for us in the next life. [p. 14]

* * *

“Fascism is a religion of the state. It assumes the organic unity of the body politic and longs for a national leader attuned to the will of the people. It is totalitarian in that it views everything as politial and holds that any action by the state is justified to achieve the common good. It takes responsibility for all aspects of life, including our health and well being, and seeks to impose uniformity of thought and action, whether by force or through regulation and social pressure. Everything, including the economy and religion, must be aligned to its objectives. Any rival identity is part of the “problem” and therefore defined as the enemy. I will argue that contemporary liberalism embodies all of these aspects of fascism.” [p. 23]

If not for the subtitle, readers unfamiliar with the author might be tempted to dismiss this as yet another piece of superfluous “conservative” fluff churned out by Ann Coulter. Don’t be fooled. In Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, National Review Jonah Goldberg embarks on a 400+ page political and intellectual history of American liberalism — contending that what we know as modern “liberalism” is the direct offspring of twentieth century progressivism, which in turn shares intellectual roots with European fascism. That what we typically consider fascism or Nazism — “nationalist, racist, militaristic, expansionist” — took the form of American Progressivism (or “Christian socialism”) in the United States: “a softer form of totalitarianism that, while still nationalistic, and militarist in its crusading forms and outlook, was more in keeping with American culture.”

According to Goldberg, “liberalism is operationally uninterested in its own intellectual history.” Liberal Fascism‘s chief merit, I’ve found, is in its specific attention to these oft-neglected periods (and lessons) of history. He starts with an examination of Mussollini and National Socialism (making a compelling case that they are distinctly ideologically leftist in nature), and revealing how their social programs were greatly admired by liberal intellectuals across the ocean, and later influenced the militarization of America under the administration of Woodrow Wilson (which in turn later inspired Roosevelt’s “New Deal”).

Along the way, the reader is introduced to a number of lively figures from American history: the science fiction author H.G. Wells (anticipating Golberg’s title in his sincere appeal for “a Liberal Fascisti, for Enlightened Nazis”); Herbert Croly, founder of The New Republic; the populist radio priest Fr. Charles Coughlin and Senator Huey “The Kingfish” Long of Lousiana; Hugh “Iron Pants” Johnson, head of FDR’s National Recovery Administration, waging war against the Great Depression with militaristic fervor and compelling every family to “buy now under the Blue Eagle” and Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, who “hitched the racist-eugenic campaign to sexual pleasure and female liberation” in her objective to better the race by “weeding out the unfit, of preventing the birth of defectives or of those who will become defectives.” (Goldberg’s chapter “Liberal Racism: The Eugenic Ghost in the Fascist Machine” is a welcome corrective to the liberal whitewash of history).

In the latter part of the book, Goldberg takes on the myth of the “right wing corporation” (examining the charge that “big business” is joined to the right); the liberal (mis)appropriation of John F. Kennedy; the radical egalitarism of Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village, the social activism of Saul Alinsky and Rabbi Michael Lerner’s “politics of meaning.” Not surprisingly, he devotes a final chapter to discussing how conservatives can fall prey to the totalitarian temptation (citing as examples the “compassionate conservatism” of George W. Bush and the paleoconservative popularism of Pat Buchanan).

Goldberg resists the charge that he is equating “liberal fascism” with Nazism, that being the former necessarily leads to the other, or that liberals are sympathetic to the genocidal crimes of Stalin or the Jewish holocaust. Nonetheless, “it is no less accurate to assume that fascism simply the ideology of Jewish genocide.” He does not dispute that liberals have “the best of intentions” in their push for a modern Europanized welfare state — but is legitimately concerned that “a Europanized America will not only stop being America; there’s no reason to believe it would stop at merely being Europanized.”

“Perhaps the gravest threat is that we are losing sight of where politics begins and ends,” says Goldberg. “In a society where government is supposed to do everything “good” that makes “pragmatic” sense, in a society where the refusal to validate someone’s self-esteem borders on a hate-crime, in a society where the personal is political, there is a constant danger that one cult or another will be imbued with political power.”

Meditating on the third temptation of Jesus, our own Pope Benedict cautioned against the marriage of Christian faith to the exercise of temporal political power:

… The Kingdom of Christ was not expected to take the form of a political kingdom and its splendour. The powerlessness of faith, the early powerlessness of Jesus Christ, was to be given the helping hand of political and military might. The temptation to use power to secure the faith has arisen again and again in varied forms throughout the centuries, and again and again faith has risked being suffocated in the embrace of power. The struggle for the freedom of the Church, the struggle to avoid identifying Jesus’ Kingdom with any political structure, is one that has to be fought century after century. For the fusion of faith and political power comes at a price: faith becomes the servant of power and must bend to its criteria. [Jesus of Nazareth, p. 41]

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