A Historical Perspective on the 2008 Election

I was recently reading the Harvard Independent (a mistake, I know), and one of the writers had a piece discussing two widely-read articles over the summer trashing students from Harvard and other Ivy League universities. I skimmed through most of it, and what really struck me was a passage mentioning Harvard students’ homogenized, unfailingly reasoned and moderate political positions. It made an impact, as I thought about just how heavily I often self-censor when talking about politics here. We all do. After all, being controversial can hurt your chances to network. And that’s no way to live.

 

So here’s my real opinion: history will view the post-Nixon Republican Party as the second coming of American fascism. The first came during the thirties, and was quite popular, what with radio hosts like the crypto-fascist Charles Coughlin. Another prominent one was the odious racist authoritarian Westbrook Pegler, notably quoted by Sarah Palin in her speech to the Republican Convention. You should read that; it’s worth remembering that people like that once didn’t have to dress up their opinions in nice language.

When one takes the historical long view on it, it’s pretty clear that the agenda of the Republican Party has far more in common with mid-century radical reactionaries than with anything that could be labeled “conservatism”. It’s all there in that same speech of Sarah Palin’s: disdain for the modern age and for changing values, delineation between “the people” and “the internal enemies of the people,” a call for reducing the power of government to ensure that economic growth and prosperity are broadly shared, and a concurrent advance into the private lives of the citizens.

Every American should read Umberto Eco’s famous dissection, drawn from his experience in Italy, of what makes a fascist a fascist, with fourteen basic strains of rhetoric usually shared in all or part. He points out that because of fascism’s inherent anti-intellectualism, rhetoric is usually a truer guide than stated ideology, since fascists don’t really believe in ideology. Those fourteen points are: a cult of tradition, a rejection of modernism, the ideal of action for action’s sake, a belief that dissent is treason, a fear of differences/change, appeal to a frustrated middle class, targeting of internal enemies (often the press), view of politics (and life) as eternal warfare, popular elitism (degradation of current elite and glorification of the volk), cult of heroism, glorification of machismo, selective populism, and a focus on oversimplification and manipulative terminology. Except for the last, each of those fourteen points was boldly visible in Sarah Palin’s speech.

Sarah Palin’s speech was the culmination—or, at least, the latest and most prominent example—of the forces underlying the modern Republican Party. It’s no coincidence that McCain’s campaign was faltering for the properties that once made him appealing to independent voters: reasonableness, honesty, and willingness to negotiate across party lines. This was repulsive to a large portion of the Republican Party, and for good reason: When you believe that God is on your side, bipartisan compromise is blasphemy. When Sarah Palin claims that God wants her to build a gas pipeline, let’s hop over the thorny theological questions of that statement and consider its consequence: if it’s God’s will, how could she compromise?

It’s an ugly fact that we have to face: a large portion of the American electorate is down with basic agenda of fascism. If McCain wins this election by following the culture war program that has kept Republicans in control of the agenda since Nixon, how are democrats (with a small d) to look at this? It will be a victory of the forces of reaction against the forces of progress; for despite all the issues one might have with Barack Obama, he is clearly a serious candidate trying seriously to address the very serious problems facing our country. His opponent is an old man backed up by a far more popular and dynamic young fascist. Interestingly, that’s how the decrepitude and death of President Hindenburg brought Chancellor Hitler to power in Germany.

Even a casual reading of the rise to power of fascism in the thirties gives one chills when looking at the current election season. “History,” Karl Marx once wrote, “repeats itself: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” While the media is content to chatter about lipstick on pigs, no one dares to speak the truth that the parallels between the mid-twentieth-century authoritarians and modern Republicans are uncomfortably clear. It may seem melodramatic to claim the republic is in peril, but take a clear-eyed look at the world. We have a severe energy crisis, enemies without and within, the shredding of the Bill of Rights, an increasingly dangerous and unstable international situation, imminent economic collapse, and climate change pending on the horizon. Rome had to deal with less. It can’t be surprising that even the best political system in the world might be undergoing just a wee bit of stress.

 

-Alex Copulsky, Books & Arts Editor

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