Alan Wolfe: The Nazi Thinker Who Is a Source for Ideas on Both the Left and the Right

Roundup: Talking About History

Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life and professor of political science at Boston College, in an article about the pro-Nazi German thinker Carl Schmitt, a source of ideas for both the left and the right in America today. In the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscribers only) (April 1, 2004):

... [T]here are, I venture to say, no seminars on [Carl] Schmitt taking place anywhere in the Republican Party and, even if any important conservative political activists have heard of Schmitt, which is unlikely, they would surely distance themselves from his totalitarian sympathies. Still, Schmitt's way of thinking about politics pervades the contemporary zeitgeist in which Republican conservatism has flourished, often in ways so prescient as to be eerie. In particular, his analysis helps explain the ways in which conservatives attack liberals and liberals, often reluctantly, defend themselves.

In The Concept of the Political, Schmitt wrote that every realm of human endeavor is structured by an irreducible duality. Morality is concerned with good and evil, aesthetics with the beautiful and ugly, and economics with the profitable and unprofitable. In politics, the core distinction is between friend and enemy. That is what makes politics different from everything else. Jesus's call to love your enemy is perfectly appropriate for religion, but it is incompatible with the life-or-death stakes politics always involves. Moral philosophers are preoccupied with justice, but politics has nothing to do with making the world fairer. Economic exchange requires only competition; it does not demand annihilation. Not so politics.

"The political is the most intense and extreme antagonism," Schmitt wrote. War is the most violent form that politics takes, but, even short of war, politics still requires that you treat your opposition as antagonistic to everything in which you believe. It's not personal; you don't have to hate your enemy. But you do have to be prepared to vanquish him if necessary.

Conservatives have absorbed Schmitt's conception of politics much more thoroughly than liberals. Ann H. Coulter, author of books with titles such as Treason: Liberal Treachery From the Cold War to the War on Terrorism and Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right, regularly drops hints about how nice it would be if liberals were removed from the earth, like her 2003 speculation about a Democratic ticket that might include Al Gore and then-California Gov. Gray Davis. "Both were veterans, after a fashion, of Vietnam," she wrote, "which would make a Gore-Davis ticket the only compelling argument yet in favor of friendly fire." (Coulter recently displayed her vituperative talents by calling former Sen. Max Cleland, a triple amputee, politically "lucky" for having dropped a grenade on his foot while serving in Vietnam.) Liberals, by contrast, even in their newly discovered aggressively anti-Bush frame of mind, stop well short of Coulter's violent language. Interestingly enough, Schmitt had an explanation for why conservative talk-show hosts like Bill O'Reilly fight for their ideas with much more aggressive self-certainty than, say, a hopeless liberal like Alan Wolfe.

Schmitt argued that liberals, properly speaking, can never be political. Liberals tend to be optimistic about human nature, whereas "all genuine political theories presuppose man to be evil." Liberals believe in the possibility of neutral rules that can mediate between conflicting positions, but to Schmitt there is no such neutrality, since any rule -- even an ostensibly fair one -- merely represents the victory of one political faction over another. (If that formulation sounds like Stanley Fish when he persistently argues that there is no such thing as principle, that only testifies to the ways in which Schmitt's ideas pervade the contemporary intellectual zeitgeist.) Liberals insist that there exists something called society independent of the state, but Schmitt believed that pluralism is an illusion because no real state would ever allow other forces, like the family or the church, to contest its power. Liberals, in a word, are uncomfortable around power, and, because they are, they criticize politics more than they engage in it....

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