Monday, March 30, 2009

washington and weimar

One of the consequences of writing about fascism is that you tend to see it, or its antecedents, everywhere. This can be especially uncomfortable if you belong to a conservative political party, since the accusation of incipient fascism is more frequently made against the right than the left, although many contemporary scholars see fascism as an essentially left-wing movement. But a decline in political civility, of the type that characterized Weimar Germany and other pre-fascist political cultures, is visible across the board.

At a meeting which I attended last week, a highly respected Republican official referred to President Obama, without evident irony, as a "communist." Another referred to the stimulus bill as the Larceny Bill or words to that effect. But this sort of dismissive putdown is not limited to one side. Whether it's Al Franken (a likely senator) writing a book entitled "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot," or liberal columnists laughing at Sarah Palin or Bobby Jindal, each side seems more interested in lampooning the other--or worse--than seriously considering its arguments.

There is admittedly a difference in partisan styles. Republicans tend to impugn the patriotism of their opponents while Democrats tend to impugn their intelligence. This too has precedents in Wilhelmian and Weimar Germany: everyone remembers the agitation that gave rise to the Nazis, but few remember the condescension that issued from magazines like Simplicissimus, or the intellectuals' arrogant assumption that a coarse, populist movement could not possible affect them. Then as now, the argument that I am smarter or better educated than you are, and can therefore safely dismiss your positions, is a poor basis for political stability.

Particularly dangerous is the combination of progressive values and economic elitism that pervades so much of the governing class. Both Democrats and Republicans have offered a number of clever arguments as to why it was "unfair" to tax the AIG bonuses, noting the sanctity of contract, that the bonuses amounted to less than 1 percent of AIG's overall value, and so forth. But are these arguments likely to be convincing to people who have lost their jobs or their homes, and see the executives responsible for the mess walk off essentially unscathed? Is it really illegitimate to consider the symbolic as well as substantive component of such decisions, or their implications for political stability?

When I was younger I used to be amused by the Israeli Parliament, where it's pretty common for members to scream at each other, in a variety of languages. It's a small country, I thought, with a pressured existence: maybe they're just letting off steam. What's our excuse?


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