Worse is better – American Taliban vs. Liberal Fascism

Many Liberals Reject Markos Moulitsas's Anti-Conservative BookAll around the blogosphere today, progressives and fellow travelers may have managed to hit the broad side of a barn at two paces without having to resort to a re-load.  It seems they’ve figured out that Markos Moulitsas’ new book American Taliban may not be an entirely credible piece of political writing – or even any good at all.

Comparisons to Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism were probably inevitable, and American Taliban‘s unhappy-face cover illustration, in effect a response to the earlier book’s notorious Hitler-mustached smiley, may have provided further encouragement to reviewers and meta-reviewers:

The American Prospect/Bouie:  Moulitsas begins the book with the Goldbergian declaration that ‘in their tactics and on the issues, our homegrown American Taliban are almost indistinguishable from the Afghan Taliban.’ And he fills the remaining 200-plus pages with similar accusations.

The Atlantic/Appel:  I’ve no problem with pundits – liberal or conservative – coming out swinging. My problem with polemics like Liberal Fascism and American Taliban is they don’t accomplish anything besides juicing book sales and temporarily riling up like-minded folk.

The Bouie review led Kevin Drum at Mother Jones to call for a round of self-congratulation on him:

[H]ere’s what’s interesting: this review isn’t on a fringe blog site. It’s not from a reviewer for the DLC. It’s not written by some apostate liberal like Mickey Kaus. It’s written by a mainstream liberal writing in one of America’s premier mainstream liberal publications. Did Liberal Fascism get any similarly incendiary reviews from mainstream conservatives writing in any of America’s premier mainstream conservative publications?

Drum admits to not having read American Taliban, and I suspect that neither he nor his allies have read Liberal Fascism either.  My guess regarding the latter book is that they’re generally depending on leftwing conventional wisdom, and that it’s putting off their aim.

Now, I’ve been very critical of Liberal Fascism, and my disagreements with Goldberg even led to a brief public debate between us, but, as much as his ideas may perturb Drum and friends, his work offers at least some superficial intellectual credibility.  It doesn’t read like a screed.  It reads like history-for-laymen, somewhere between academic and journalistic.  More to the point, Goldberg never claims that progressives are “indistinguishable” from any set of particularly loathsome extremists.  To the contrary, he repeatedly denies making any such claim.  He’s mainly left it to others – Glenn Beck, or your average rightwing internet commenter, or your average lefty going on what some other lefty said  – to push his argument well past the breaking point.

In short, I’m no fan of Goldberg’s book, but I suspect all the same that it’s a lot better than Mr. Moulitsas’ – and that, even two years after it was published, it’s much more dangerous.  So, here’s where I think Think Progress/Matthew Yglesias just misses:

I don’t see any evidence that the particular apocalyptic ‘my enemies are totalitarian madmen’ strain of Birch/Beck/Goldberg conservatism has helped anyone win any elections. … This stuff doesn’t win votes [for] anyone because, after all, it’s a form of preaching to the choir. Which is fine–the choir needs some sermons. But there’s no real upside in lying to the choir. Political movements need to adapt to the actual situation, and that means having an accurate understanding of your foes.

If the reviews are accurate – and how couldn’t they be? – Kos has done a favor to the left, and to the country, by writing such an obviously bad book.  (A book on “Conservative Fascism,” directly answering Goldberg, might have been a lot more useful and of more lasting value – and timelier.)  Because Liberal Fascism tends to pass the laugh test, at least among those not already laughing (at the idea, not the cover), it has been a lot more likely to influence conservatives, and steer them wrong.  In that sense, to paraphrase another leftist, because it’s better, it’s probably worse.

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One comment on “Worse is better – American Taliban vs. Liberal Fascism

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  1. It appears that there was little use of Adorno, or Althizer, or Hofstadler, it seems to have been a project more fit for the likes of Richard Perlstein, who has been equally hysterical this last year, but
    has the patina of scholarship,from “After the Storm” and “Nixonland”.
    ACtually there are so many things wrong with the premise of the book,
    having trod ground, referred above, that better men have traversed.

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TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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