Saturday, December 29, 2007

Our America: Neoconservatism and Ur-Fascism

Observing our presidential election cycle, vulgarly (yet aptly) known as the "horse race", one is struck by the preference, in the general public and in media, for the so-called populist candidates, along with a concomitant distaste for those candidates who are perceived as "professional politicians". These preferences are exploited in different ways by all the candidates, and (perhaps unconsciously) affect commentators on both the left and the right: a recent article in The Nation responded to Mike Huckabee's rising popularity by portraying him as a cynical political player, and one can almost taste the bile rising in Glenn Beck's throat whenever he is forced to pronounce Hillary Clinton's name. This proclivity for the "people's candidate" seems to be confirmed (however unreliably) by recent polls in Iowa that show a "surge" in Edwards's and Huckabee's respective campaigns. Ron Paul's unconventional campaign also seems to be gathering momentum, having achieved remarkable fundraising feats backed by so-called "net-roots" supporters. Reinforcing and perhaps confirming our penchant for populist rhetoric, less homey candidates like Clinton, Obama, Romney, et al. pour on the charm with belly laughs (Clinton), Oprah appearances and self-portrayals as a politico-cultural everyman (Obama), and hunting stories (Romney). Part of all this populism is natural enough and reflects the public's deep-rooted desire for genuine democracy, but when viewed in a broader context (beyond immediate concerns of "electability") it begins to acquire more sinister overtones.

Italian novelist and scholar Umberto Eco once wrote a short article outlining the basic features of Fascism. While we in the United States may not yet have descended into autocratic nationalism, many of its necessary conditions seem to exist in this country. It may be instructive to draw a few parallels between Fascist politics and the current American political climate, focusing on that pool of illustrious statesmen (and woman) who are vying for the presidency. Bracketing, for the moment, the Democratic candidates' intellectual hamartia, it is among the Republicans where one finds the most overt gestures toward what we might, with Eco, term Ur-Fascism. Let us take, in the first instance, Ron Paul. He has perhaps the broadest appeal among conservative voters dissatisfied with the Republican party, an appeal that also reaches into the more liberal, Libertarian portion of the electorate. Paul identifies himself as a "constitutionalist", fetishizing a two-centuries-old piece of parchment as the unassailable foundation of our democracy, created by our now completely mythologized Founding Fathers, who descended from the Sinai-like heights of the Philadelphia Convention to emplace a sacred and eternal "balance of powers" in the halls of government. This hypostasized consensus, the Constitution, serves much the same purpose for constitutionalists and "paleoconservatives" as the Koran does for fundamentalist Islamic sects –dubbed Islamofascist by the George W. Bush administration– like Salafism and Wahhabism: the basis for all law. This constitutional idolatry has the effect of positing a historical consensus as an unchanging model for the present, a situation that evokes Walter Benjamin's image of the Angel of History, propelled inexorably into the future while gazing fixedly on the past. The political ramifications of constitutionalism belie its promise. Since reliance on an idealized historical document necessitates a specialized sort of reader, the Judicial Branch of government has jettisoned its former reliance on English Common Law (that living body of precedent) in favor of a constitutional exegesis which increasingly and inevitably serves the Executive who appoints its Nine practitioners. What this all means is that the Constitution, initially created in an attempt to create public political consensus (whether all sectors of society were ever part of this consensus is another matter), has become the bridle by which the public is led by political elites in the Executive Branch. Hence the recent rollback of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education desegregation cases by a Court led by George W. Bush's appointee John Roberts, a decision that reflects the de facto class warfare of this President's economic policies. Returning to Ron Paul, it could be said that his "constitutionalism" meets Eco's first criterion of Ur-Fascism: the "cult of tradition", of universal truth and its interpretation, a cult that plays into the hands of elites, facilitating their concentration of political power.

Eco also points to irrationalism and the cult of "action for action's sake" as hallmarks of the Fascist zeitgeist. One needn't look far for signs of these. John Kerry's failure to unseat Bush in the 2004 election is partly attributable to Kerry's apparent indecisiveness on issues the media presented as weighty (e.g. the Iraq War; Homeland Security). While Kerry didn't do himself any favors, the "Swift Boat" propagandists successfully created dualing images –the Decider vs. the Waverer– out of public personae that could just as easily have been construed as the War Hero and the Draft Dodger. In all this, the idea that Kerry, with his more nuanced views on world politics, might make a better President was lost. A similar preference for "macho", decisive leaders was seen in the 2003 California recall election, which witnessed the meteoric political ascent of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who easily won despite alleged ties to Nazism and accusations of sexual abuse and misogyny. Presumably, to the public, an action hero appeared more capable of governing the Golden State than a pasty-white bureaucrat who received the lion's share of blame (deserved or not) for the California energy crisis. (This crisis was in fact caused in the main by the machinations of the Enron boys, themselves associates of both Bush and Schwarzenegger.) The flip-side to the kind of hero worship that benefited the "Governator" is an anti-intellectual tendency that has been a well-documented characteristic of the Bush II presidency. This anti-intellectualism goes hand-in-hand with populist appeal, in which intellectuals are portrayed as elitist and out-of-touch, and has the pernicious effect of limiting debate to well-defined channels and clichéd catchphrases, distributed ad nauseum by the media and consequently becoming part of "public" jargon. Hence, anyone who challenges the outlines of this "debate" is depicted as either mad or dangerous, or both. David Horowitz writes a book about the menace of radical academics, pundits remind us that "the time for debate has ended", and Bush II constantly excoriates Congress for delaying votes, that is to say, extending deliberations. The point is not to think but to do, "disagreement is treason". The spectre of Hitler is summoned to justify pre-emptive war, and William Kristol patiently explains that doing too little is more dangerous than doing too much. This all sounds rather Nietzschean; indeed, Nazism's overt appropriation of Nietzsche mirrors Facism's hidden debt to the philosopher, and an intellectual genealogy can be traced from Nietzsche to leading neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz.

Ron Paul's recent comments about Huckabee's "floating cross" campaign ad are appropriate, but should be taken with a grain of salt from a candidate who himself exhibits so many proto-fascist tendencies. In addition to his traditionalism, Paul's anti-immigrant stance places him squarely in the xenophobic tradition of Fascism. To be fair, nearly all the Republican candidates have embraced this stance, spearheaded by Tom Tancredo, the erstwhile candidate from my home state of Colorado. Tancredo's rhetoric has been particularly virulent, characterizing Miami as a third-world city, presumably because of its high percentage of Latinos. Perhaps Tancredo has forgotten that his own 6th Congressional District is adjacent to Colfax Avenue, Colorado's most notorious street. It is revealing that Eco's seventh feature of Fascism is a nationalism fomented by fears of international conspiracy. Lou Dobbs reports on Mexicans' desire to reconquer the Southwest, and Al Qaeda's ability to be simultaneously ubiquitous and intangible reminds one of the fantastic qualities attributed to International Jewry prior to the Holocaust.

So, we have our "clash of civilizations", our "culture wars", our demonic Muslim Other to trouble our democratic slumber, and our conservative candidates who are quite willing to echo these ideas in order to mobilize an equally phantasmagorical evangelical Christian constituency. Appeals to the public, viz. George W. Bush's constant evocation of the American people, are really just appeals to an abstract citizenry, one represented by a particular group, certainly not a majority, in what Eco terms "selective populism". The Republicans are outdoing themselves to pander to that "base", which purportedly stands in opposition to that other Base: Al Qaeda. Ron Paul disavows evolution, Mitt Romney cloaks his Mormonism in the language of evangelical Christianity, and Mike Huckabee brandishes his theological credentials, acquired at the reknowned Quachita Baptist University. Meanwhile, the Democrats have their own populist problems, positioning themselves to represent the "average American", whose supposed concerns are corruption in government, jobs, the Iraq War, health care reform, the environment, or education, depending on whose version of the average American is being peddled. These issues, which all appeal in one way or another to the fading "American Dream", also tend toward Fascism, which relies on its attractiveness to what Eco calls the "frustrated middle class".

None of this is to say that our next President will be a Fascist. That is still an unlikely scenario. After all, George W. Bush's bungling makes a Republican victory unlikely. We will be spared the corruption and militarism of a Guiliani regime, the corporate cronyism of a Thompson presidency, the oppressive social policies of a Romney/Huckabee cabal, and the upheavals of Paulite tax reforms. For now. Post election, we will of course be in a self-congratulatory mood, having assuaged our collective guilt vis-à-vis segregation and sexism by designating either the woman or the slave (as an acquaintance of mine crudely puts it) as our next President. Meanwhile, beneath the progressive veneer of a Clinton (or Clintonesque) centrist coalition, more of the same, as we slouch towards an increasingly authoritative executive, broader global military ventures, and greater corporate influence in government (one should remember that the Bill Clinton presidency, despite its populist self-presentation, brought us NAFTA, and prosecuted the Iraq War by the less obvious method of punitive economic sanctions). These are of course symptoms of deeper problems, perhaps inherent in our particular republican (n.b. lower case) formation, perhaps endemic to modernity itself. A search for deeper causes, however, is always inhibited by image-driven campaigns, our culture of instant gratification, our (post)modern superficiality, in sum, what Guy Debord called the Society of the Spectacle. Fascism is not inevitable, but (alluding to those deeper problems I mentioned) it lurks outside our consciousness like the proverbial barbarian at the gates. And I suspect it may have already entered the city under the guise of a protector.