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The Appeal of Authority

My take on Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, at Pajamas Media.

Update: I just said something in a comment elsewhere that I wish I’d have said in the article. See, this is the argument the people on the “left” side are having trouble with: Jonah didn’t say the Progressives were Nazis. He just makes a historical case the Nazis were Progressives.

Update’: Full text now below the fold.

Web reaction to Jonah Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism has been a classic example of what James Taranto calls a kerfuffle: the book, a serious historical argument about the roots of many threads of modern political thought with an inflammatory cover, was immediately resoundingly denounced by the right-thinking, often in essays starting “I haven’t read the book and I don’t think I’m going to bother, so I don’t think I should express an opinion…” followed by thousands of words of opinion.
More conservative writers, probably relieved that for a change they weren’t being called fascists, rallied around Goldberg’s book and around Goldberg himself.

Often, it quickly became clear that those conservatives weren’t really reading the book either; had they read it, they’d have noticed that many of the points Goldberg makes could be — and were — applied to some of the common threads of conservative thought, and to things done by “conservative” politicians.

It’s a shame that people on both sides aren’t reading more carefully, because Goldberg is on the trail of a deep truth. (Contrary sort that I am, I have read the book, but I’m primarily interested in what Goldberg didn’t say.) He describes fascism, properly, as collectivist and authoritarian, and notes that these collective and authoritarian threads run through American politics. The whole thesis of Goldberg’s book is that the use of “fascist” as a pejorative applied to the “right wing” ignores, or perhaps purposely obscures, the roots of nationalist collective authoritarianism on the “left”.

Certainly we think of Hitler and Mussolini as being in some sense fascist; Goldberg shows that it’s difficult to distinguish between the “fascism” of Mussolini and the “progressive” politics of both Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. He then shows how those same threads of centralized planning, group identification, and willing obedience to some charismatic leader show up over and over again, from LaFollette to the present.

A lot of Goldberg’s book is devoted to showing how these themes are much more clearly identifiable with the “left” as we now understand the term. In fact this effort is, finally, unimportant: what we consider to be the “left” or the “right” is purely arbitrary. What Goldberg is really showing is that whether we call it left or right, authoritarianism runs through both political parties and all political movements. It’s as if authoritarianism has some seductive power that makes it nearly impossible to resist.
Why is this? Consider a person who wants to run for office in the United States, anything from part-time dogcatcher to President of the United States. The underlying urge, in general, is the desire to make things better coupled with the idea that one knows what “better” is.

But merely knowing what you think the better course is isn’t sufficient. You have to publicize your ideas, make yourself available. You must campaign.

The more significant the office, the greater effort you must make to achieve it, the greater the sacrifices needed. Fred Thompson’s campaign is the example that tests the rule, and in its failure it demonstrated that in the modern political campaign, only the truly obsessed can compete.

Someone sufficiently obsessed with the goal of making something better to run a successful national campaign is also necessarily sufficiently convinced of their own righteousness that they want to bend people to their will, first in the election, then after.

This is the appeal of authority.

The unstated lesson of Goldberg’s book is that the appeal of authority is a human failing, shared equally by those on the left, and on the right.

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