The title of John Judis’ highly speculative column on the government shutdown and impending debt limit decision informs us that “The Shutdown Standoff” is “One of the Worst Crises in American History,” but the subhead goes even further, suggesting that we are crossing or have crossed the threshold to “Weimar America.” Since “Weimar” tends to stand in political history for a prologue as much as for a particular place or condition, mentioning the word counts as an implicit or indirect violation of Godwin’s famous law, according to which, of course, the first person to bring up Adolf Hitler or the Third Reich is immediately declared the loser of any political argument.1
Purely as a matter of pundit practice, Judis may therefore have been ill-advised to bring up a virtually non-discussable historical moment, or merely to have invoked the name rather than to have described a credible scenario for the disintegration of American society and politics. We can note on Judis’ behalf, however, that his column overall is much more sober than its headings: He specifically disclaims any notion that events as “momentous” as, for example, the Civil War are in the offing, and he mentions Weimar only twice in the body of his article, and only in passing, both times treating it as a last, most extreme example of a dysfunctional or fractured mass polity. Moreover, he is clearly trying to trace the outlines of things possibly to come for America, over time, not offering a description of things as they already are.
Yet in another sense Judis’ position, Weimar references included, is perfectly defensible, since a serious discussion of an actual or potential crisis of governance in the leading liberal democratic nation-state, and on the system level – the level of basic responsibilities and assumptions of government – cannot help but take into account prior crises of the same general type, even if particular circumstances initially appear vastly different. As Ross Douthat’s (widely praised) post on the current crisis emphasized, the seeming implacability of reactionary or Tea Party conservatism originates in a fundamental system critique. As a matter of history, the administrative state, the FDR state, that the Tea Partiers are glad to shut down temporarily, and that some would like to shut down permanently, is the same state that arose contemporaneously with the fall of the Weimar Republic, in relation to common and overlapping challenges, and that was consolidated in political competition and eventually at war with its immediate successor (which still functioned, as a technical matter, under the Weimar constitution).
Judis’s argument and historical perspective must therefore already comprehend Weimar implicitly, and would have done so whether or not he had used a particular term streng verboten under the laws of the political internet. This underlying necessity becomes clear when he parts ways with the preferred liberal narrative and points to World War II rather than to the New Deal as the key moment for the American state as we know it:
World War II unified Americans. In modern wars, the national government has to call upon all its citizens to do their part and to submerge their differences. Business made peace with labor; blacks served alongside whites. And that spirit of national unification lasted for 15 years after the war. It helped to give rise—although not without conflict—to a social compact between business and labor, an end to racial segregation and the preservation and expansion of New Deal programs like social security.
We can demur on some secondary matters: The American state that arose and organized itself to to fight and win the war, to exploit the victory, and to protect its fruits obviously maintained some “spirit of national unification” beyond 1960, just as Americans must have already possessed something of the same spirit before the war and aftermath forced its fuller realization. I suspect Judis would readily concede that the story is more complex than can be easily conveyed in such terms, and also that the alternative history he briefly sketches, of a mid-century anti-statist conservative restoration in the absence of the war effort, is not to be taken as much more than illustrative. As for the “social compact,” however, its gradual dissolution and the current crisis can be seen as intimately related, or even as two different ways of describing the same phenomenon: What Nazis, Japanese Imperialists, and, at length, Soviet Socialists could not overcome, time may have inexorably eroded. Put differently, no crisis of the system could be anything other than a crisis of this compact and of the American regime form and culture-state that it maintains and that maintain it.
These are topics suitable for as open and unprejudiced discussion as we can manage. That certain Tea Partiers, forerunners, and fellow travelers habitually refer to the same history as part of their own indictment of the American state, or of statism or progressivism in general, might give us pause, but it need not prevent us from continuing forward with requisite care. We can for that matter acknowledge certain inescapable elements of truth in their critique without granting all of their presumptions and conclusions. In such a discussion Weimar would stand for one way, among others, to envision the failure of liberal democratic order, specifically under pressure from “spoilers” or “negative parties” content with undermining the system even when their immediate objectives are denied them. The structural question would remain relevant for us even if getting from “here” to some future that would look to us “like Weimar” requires some imagination – or perhaps a wider scope encompassing the supra-national character of the contemporary neo-imperial system.2
Judis for his part only hints at a global view or visions of a truly Weimarized America. He conjures further “dysfunction in Washington which, if it continues over a decade or so, will threaten economic growth and America’s standing in the world, undermine social programs like the Affordable Care Act, and probably encourage more radical movements on the right and the left,” but he devotes substantially more attention to a different topic: The requirements for a re-consolidation of the social compact under successful marginalization of the far right, but within familiar historical as well as analytical limits. Whether such a project, if achievable at all, could be brought to fruition merely through conventional political means, or would not at some point have to put the state or system it intended to save in jeopardy, is another question. It is also a central Weimar question.
- The sarcastically dismissive reactions Judis received should therefore have been predictable. Dan Trombly opted for counter-hyperbole: “So somebody wrote a piece using the term ‘Weimar America,’ and I want to slam my head through my laptop now.” Ross Douthat opted for understatement: “John Judis’s piece on “Weimar America” is, um, not at all convincing.” [↩]
- One element in such an analysis would be incipient or ongoing de-stabilization of that global system as summarized in articles like this one: “Analysis: US reliability questioned overseas.” [↩]