NewsBusters Interview: Jonah Goldberg (Part II)

The future of conservatism is something which has become something of a hot topic. It's become evident to many that the historical moment that made the so-called Reagan coalition possible has passed, raising the inevitable question: where do we go from here? Has the right lost its way? Should conservatism be dependent upon the Republican party? What sorts of ideas should 21st century conservatism project?

These are just a few of the topics I asked Jonah Goldberg in Part II of our NewsBusters Interview with the author of "Liberal Fascism." See the partial transcript below or download an audio copy. Here's Part I in case you missed it.


MATTHEW SHEFFIELD (Editor, How would you prefer that fascism be defined? It seems to me from reading your book that you think that it is completely-power utilitarianism would be a good description for it.

JONAH GOLDBERG (Author, "Liberal Fascism"): Well, I'm not sure. I would actually be incredibly happy if the word fascism simply wasn't used--

SHEFFIELD: --And became more--

GOLDBERG: --because there other words that are disposable to describe the left and it's just simply inaccurate to simply describe the right, at least properly understood, as fascists. So if we just want to get the word fascist out of the political discourse, that would be delightful. And it would kind of bum me out pretty quickly if we just started calling liberals fascists, I think that's problematic as a political reality. So I would love to see this book help put the stake in the heart of the word fascist generally speaking.

But beyond that, I think I've become more and more convinced since writing the book and while writing the book that the really important thing is to understand that what I'm calling fascism is not so much an ideology that people learn from books or intellectual framework that is imposed by universities or anything like that.

The better way to look at these political religions or these totalitarian -isms of the left: socialism, fabianism, Bolshevism, fascism, whatever you want to call these things--I think the better way to look at these things is less as a set of abstract ideas imposed on the human mind than what happens to people when their faith in classical liberalism is removed. You know classical liberalism is the abstraction. Classical liberalism is the alien construct that is imposed on society. I really believe that people want to live in tribes, they want to subscribe to this idea that the collective is this sacred and holy thing that the group which includes politics and culture and everything else is where we all get our meaning from. That's where we get the politics of meaning from, you know, we get who we are from the collective. This was written into the philosophy of the early progressives, John Dewey, all of these guys.

And all of these political totalitarianisms are reactionary in that sense. They all want to revert back to tribalism. The Nazi-ists [sic] wanted to elevate, it was basically socialism for one race. For the fascists in Italy, it was the tribe of one nation, the tribe of the Italians. And for the communists, it was the tribe of one class, the proletariat were the one class that mattered and everyone else if their false consciousness couldn't be cured. All of these things were reactionary desire to reimpose the sort of tribal understanding of politics that is both spiritual, religious, and political.

And it was the Lockean revolution that said we have to see ourselves not in the sort of Rousseauian sense of a collective role, or morality comes from the collective, and the general will and all that nonsense, and a vision where we're born good but made bad by civilization. The Lockean vision reversed that; we're born bad, we're born in sin, our rights come from God. We're individuals first and members of a group second. And so I think that the important point is to look at why do these fascistic themes keep popping up?

I don't think a lot of these idiot kids in the 1960s were deeply influenced by George and Mussolini or anything like that, but at the same time they were objectively fascistic in their politics. And I think it's because the sort of default wiring that we come with. The manufacturer preset on human nature is to want to live in this sort of tribal way and that the real agenda for the conservatives in the Anglo-American tradition is to be in the civilization business and to be in the business of teaching the sort of classically liberal understanding of the political order. Hannah Arendt liked to say that with every generation, Western civilization is invaded by barbarians; we call them children.

The job of the conservative in our culture is to preserve our liberal institutions in the classical sense and to preserve our traditions. And so whatever name you want to put on these forms of tribal politics, these political religions-you want to call it fascist, or progressive, or socialist, or whatever-I think the important point is to understand that anatomy of the left because that is and remains the way the left approaches politics and whatever name you want to put on it, that's what they are. And by calling it fascist, I hope I sort of hope I've advanced the cause a little bit in understanding that, but I'm not wedded to the word fascist-if we want to call them something else, if we want to call them progressives, that's fine with me too. Just so long as we understand that progressivism as it's defined today is a relative of fascism. Because it is a political religion, it is sort of in the Rousseauian vision and taken to its extremes, leads to all sorts of things that very few people are prepared to anticipate.

SHEFFIELD: True. I'm not sure I would agree, though, with the point that everyone wants to go and live in a tribe. I think what we have here is that every person has kind of two natures to them, that the one side craves safety and community and then the other side of them craves freedom to do what they want--


SHEFFIELD: --freedom of action. And that's kind of when you look at politics, that's how it's sort of the core narrative of the left and the right. That whenever the right strays from freedom as a narrative, that's when it loses and then when the left starts to be more realistic about economies and trying to remake society, they seem not to do as well for them.

GOLDBERG: Yeah, I think I would probably agree with that almost entirely. I think that this distinction that I make between the Rousseauian and the Lockean vision is a distinction that helps us understand political orientations, that is if you're more Lockean, you're more conservative and if you're more Rousseauian, you're more left-wing.

But the reality is that these distinctions run straight to the human heart and we're all a little Lockean and we're all a little Rousseauian. And the thing is that I think the thing that gets confused is that the left has basically defined all those areas where concerns for security and group effort are legitimate, they've defined all those areas as fascist. So belief in a strong military and a police power to maintain a public order or the national security state--whatever legitimate criticisms there surely are of the national security state-the national security state is still in the business of preserving the safety of the American people which in the Lockean vision is a perfectly legitimate function of government. Forget legitimate, necessary, the first function of government is that the state protect us from violent enemies at home and abroad. And yet, that is almost precisely the function that the left equates with fascism. I mean since the 1960s, the left has told us that anyone who is in a uniform is a fascist. It's an absolute slander and nonsense.

And meanwhile, sort of every other realm of life, the left has this very sort of aggressive role for government in mind that the government should be in the business of social engineering and all of the rest and it is merely in those areas of national security and traditional morality that are evil, according to the left, that are fascistic. And everything else, it's perfectly fine for the government to get in the business of dealing with. And I think conservatives need be able to defend the role of tradition and traditional culture and the role of the government as a protector against violence at home and abroad as legitimate areas that are not even remotely fascistic. And instead, we've sort of ceded that ground. We kind of just-a lot of conservatives don't understand what fascism was very well either. But if fascism was defined by militarism then basically every military regime for the last 6,000 years, every invasion of another country would be called fascist. And that's nonsense. West Point's not a fascist institution. I think conservatives need to be proud and forthright in defending those institutions that legitimately protect us from danger and say, ‘Look, that's not fascist, that's just the right role of government.' And say that that right role of government does not extend into these sweeping powers that the left wants in all these other realms of government. That's where we need freedom.

SHEFFIELD: [59.59 to 1:45] The left pays a lot of attention to ‘How can we remake society.' But in order to understand that question, they have to understand how it presently works, in terms of politics. Whereas on the right, I don't think the average conservative bothers to think ‘How can I make society more conservative?' They just automatically think, well society's conservative whereas the left realizes in the sense that you need a revolutionary vanguard to persuade the masses. The right doesn't seem to understand that.

GOLDBERG: I think there's probably some truth to that. I mean I'm always wary of getting too deep into political psychology because you can get into trouble there but--and that's one of the favorite things of the left to do, to sort of define conservatism as a mental defect, and they've been doing it for more than 60 years now. But I think you're generally right and that's sort of as it should be. I mean there's a reason why liberals flock towards academia more than conservatives do. And it's not just because liberals in academia and the media have been so good at keeping conservatives out because otherwise that's a variable. It's because I think if you are the kind of person who wants to change the world, that believes if you can just get the truth out to the ignorant masses, and all these kinds of things-and if you see yourself merely as a reformer or a cause-joiner, you're more likely to be a liberal and you're more likely to be attracted to fields like teaching and journalism.

People who define their lot in lives in more normal--and I don't mean normal in a superior or pejorative sense, I just mean it in a descriptive sense-you're the kind of person who just wants to have a good life and you want to provide wealth to your family and to have some success in a rewarding career, and leave your kids with more than your parents left you, and do good in your community in your church or your synagogue, and you define your charitable ambitions by those things that are around you rather than abstractions elsewhere, you're more likely to be a conservative and you're much less likely to go into fields like academia and journalism. And I think that's sort of what divides, one of the major divides of people in this sort of thing. So you have conservatives who want to go into business or want to go into a profession because that's how they see life. They don't see themselves as crusaders.

The crusading spirit is of necessity is going to disproportionately benefit liberalism because conservatives by definition are to a certain extent, more comfortable with the status quo and the way things are. And that certainly applies to government as well. The crusading vision is about crusading, it's about using power. I remember the thing in the book about Hillary Clinton from one of her old mentors or one of her old pastors saying, I think it was maybe Don Jones was like one of her most important influences on her life, but someone was saying about her that the one thing that describes Hillary Clinton's vision of politics was her absolute comfort with the use of power to make the world a better place. And the idea that we can use the government to fix the world is just much more accepted among liberals than it is among conservatives.

And I disagree with you to a certain extent that social engineering never works. I think, you know, that conservatives are in the business of social engineering too, we are just profoundly more humble about its success rate. And we are profoundly more concerned with the fragility of the successes we've had so far. I mean, that's what neo-conservatism originally was. Was a reminder that simply because a bunch of bureaucrats set out to do something, didn't mean that it would accomplish it. And that often the laws of unintended consequences result. But, you know, conservatives still believe to some extent in morals legislation. I don't know anybody, including liberals, who truly doesn't believe in the benefits of censorship. We just don't call the censorship we like censorship. The last time I checked, no one thinks, or very few people think it should be legal to have hard-core pornography on broadcast television through the Saturday morning cartoon hour. And that's part of social engineering.

I've been amazed at how younger people now reflexively just put on their seatbelts. That's an example of social engineering, because when I was a kid, it was just like the dorkiest thing in the world to put on a seatbelt. And yet, now it is sort of commonplace. I've been amazed at how successful the 21 drinking age has been in making some kids reluctant to drink beer simply because it's illegal, a concept that never occurred to me, you know, when I started drinking. So I think social engineering is possible, but utopianism is impossible. You know, the idea that we can make this a perfect world, or that there will be no negative consequences to our social engineering is impossible. The impossibility and the fundamental distinction between the crusading left and the conservative right is simply this, which is that conservatives and libertarians understand that there are no policy solutions, there are only policy tradeoffs.

If we're going to spend the money on this hospital, that means we're not going to spend it on this school. If we're going to spend the money on preserving this forest, that means we're not going to spend the money on something else. No matter what, good comes with bad, that is the nature of the universe. The Left, including, you know, moderates like Bill Clinton who had championed this Third way nonsense, they reject the concept of the tradeoff. They believe that all good things can go together. That is a fundamentally utopian vision that we can make the world a perfect place. We can't.

SHEFFIELD: Now do you think, back to Hannah Arendt's point, is it problematic for the future of conservatism, being defensive and trying to protect society from government is, to use Emerson's phrase, is a much meaner, if even more, superior idea. It's a lot tougher for people to understand and grasp that and want to be involved with that.

GOLDBERG: I think that's right. I mean, I think George Bush did incredible at least rhetorical violence to conservatism with compassionate conservatism. Because basically what he did with that was concede the fundamental argument for a long time, certainly since the New Deal and the Great Society that the measure of your compassion, the measure of your decency in political terms is defined by your willingness to spend grotesque amounts of other people's money on really ill-conceived and ineffective federal government programs. And that is something that we have been fighting against for a really long time, and when he goes up and says, I'm a different kind of conservative, I'm a compassionate conservative, and then say look how much money I'm willing to spend at the federal level on education, that proves I'm compassionate. That is not helpful. And since then, he's never backed down from that basic assumption. He's interviewed with Fred Barnes and others, he's a big government conservative, he's a strong government conservative, he rejects William F. Buckley's idea of standing athwart history, yelling stop. Which means he doesn't really understand William F. Buckley's idea of standing athwart history history yelling "Stop!" And I think that we've gotten ourselves in a weird place. If you look at these Pew type policy reports about what some of the most important members of the conservative coalition actually believe about the role of government, if you look at how young people are really starting to embrace more activist government, if you look at how the country's moving to the Left and the support of the Democratic Party, conservatism has to sort of dust itself off and get back into having these arguments. And we may not have any real success until we have a whole other generation of really bad public policies that turn sour, then we can say, "See, we told you." And that's, you know, that's kind of a depressing prospect, but it may be the reality of it.

[End Excerpt 22:10 into interview]

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