Joe Biden will be sworn in as president next month. He first officially declared his candidacy by citing horror at the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville in 2017. As a Charlottesvillian I had mixed feelings. For all the national condemnation of the ‘Alt-Right’ and international sympathy for Charlottesville, which I believe was all real, neither Biden nor any commentator seems able to express any political principles other than, This shouldn’t happen, or This isn’t America. Which are both fancy ways of saying, I didn’t like that. They criticize ‘extremism’ but few politicians, pundits, activists, or judges of any stripe seem to be able to say what in political or policy terms they would do about ‘extremism.’ I’ll help them out right here:
It’s the business of the people of Charlottesville what statues we take down or put up, and nobody else’s. There is no way to maintain a continent-spanning nation-state with everyone meddling in each other’s local politics. If a community wants to pull down a statue of George Washington or raise up a statue of Attila the Hun drinking from a skull, that’s no one’s business but theirs. If you don’t understand that, (1) you don’t really believe in democracy, and (2) you’re sadly not alone. Our national pastime seems to be looking for outrages from places far away. Sometimes there is the justification that if it happens over there, it could happen here, but mostly it’s an excuse for gossip, contempt, and disgust.
In any case the August Unite the Right Rally began back in May 2017 when groups forming the ‘Nationalist Front’ (The League of the South, Traditionalist Workers Party, Vanguard America, and the National Socialist Movement) came to protest in Charlottesville. They gathered during the day at one local park, and appeared again that night at another local park carrying tiki torches. Inspired by their success a North Carolina chapter of the KKK came to tell us what statues we should or shouldn’t have. In August the Nationalist Front returned for Unite the Right, joined by other groups, including Identity Evropa and chapters of the Klan. Unite the Right took place on August 11th and 12th, and culminated in James Field, one of the Identity Evropa protestors, driving his car into an intersection full of counter-protestors killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. Many of these groups called themselves the ‘Alt-Right’ and were called that by the media, or sometimes called the ‘Far Right’ so what does Right and Left even mean?
Politics on the Spectrum
The concept of a political Right and Left comes from the French Revolution. In the late 18th century a French king went bankrupt and called for a new National Assembly to bail him out. This National Assembly turned out to be a raucous place where speeches were routinely cheered or jeered. Delegates began to self-segregate in their seating, so they wouldn’t have to sit with people they hated. Soon critics of the monarchy, church, and aristocracy ended up sitting on the left. Supporters of the monarchy, church, and aristocracy ended up sitting on the right. They weren’t tested or assigned these seats based on loyalties or ideologies, they just didn’t want to sit with people that drove them nuts. That self-selection is the origin of our political left and right.
Politics has changed a lot since the French Revolution (largely because of the French Revolution). The version I learned in high school was a spectrum of ideologies strung along a line with Communists on the far left and Fascists on the far right and other stuff in between: Communists, Socialists, Liberals, Moderates, Conservatives, Nationalists, and Fascists.
Is this how people really are? Nope. The categories are inconsistent. Communism and Socialism refer to domestic economic policy, but Nationalism refers to a view of one’s country in respect to other countries. Plus, a lot of ideologies are missing? Is a libertarian a moderate or a conservative or a liberal? Is an anarchist farther to the left than a communist? What about monarchists? Most importantly, researchers know that real people, especially real people who don’t follow politics closely, fall on different places on the spectrum depending on what the issue is, or even how the question is asked. Real people can be on the far left on one issue and the far right on another, or at different places on the same issue on different days.
But the spectrum does work fairly well for people who follow politics closely because their opinions tend to converge with those among whom they metaphorically sit. People become Republicans or Democrats because of particular issues, but over time they tolerate and then gradually embrace the opinions of their fellow party members. That is, people develop loyalties first, and in that process end up absorbing the opinions of those they’re loyal to. But where do the loyalties come from?
The are basic temperamental differences in those whom I’ll call ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ (Those words have their own complex history, which I might take up in a future post, but for this post we’ll call everyone on the left side ‘liberal,’ and the right side ‘conservative.’). Both liberals and conservatives love freedom (especially their own). Both liberals and conservatives have powerful instincts to defend freedom (especially their own). Both liberals and conservatives accuse opponents of wanting to take away freedom (especially their own).
But liberals and conservatives differ on how they think of equality and how it relate to freedom. Liberals tend to focus on the ways equality reinforces and protects freedom. To a liberal you can’t have freedom without equality. Conservatives tend to focus on the ways equality and freedom are in conflict. To a conservative you need hierarchies to protect freedom. (Different conservatives defend different hierarchies.)
Which side is correct? Well, I’m on the left side of the spectrum, so you know my answer. In my opinion humans are successful because we are egalitarian. But that’s for another time, and if you’re conservative, I won’t convince you anyway. The same world that I’m seeing will be seen very differently because different evidence will be paid attention to, and different patterns will be considered the rules versus the exceptions. Conservatism and liberalism can seem monstrous when we imagine our opponents hating freedom, but conservatism and liberalism can be easy to understand when we think about equality. Most of us are conservative in some areas of our lives and liberal in others, whether it be consumer tastes, artistic interests, educational attainments, or career benchmarks. I can think of areas of existence where I do believe in hierarchies. For example I teach improv classes, and want my students to accept my authority.
People on the right and left see the same world differently. They aren’t pretending. That includes the denizens of the far right whom we call fascists. Fascists are conservatives, who like other conservatives believe in hierarchies and believe that ordered social life is necessary for freedom and not opposed to it, but whose doubts about equality extend to democracy itself. They see democracy as enervating and corrupting the society and culture in which true freedom and meaning is rooted. Democracy is destroying Western Civilization, or White People, or White Culture. Thus, for example, they see towns as having no right to pick their own statues, heroes, language, or customs. I don’t want to go into details about all of this, because for being such a tiny percentage of the population fascists get far too much attention, but the point is they are serious, committed, and they think what they think. They believe invariably that there is a thing (‘White People’ or ‘Western Civilization’ or such) which is collapsing due to enemies, internal and external, that thrive in democracy.
Since the fall of Nazi Germany there have been mountains of discourse on why people join such groups. Especially popular are speculations on the alienation of young men. Why is Johnny racist? Why is Johnny anti-Semitic? Why does Johnny hate women? It’s interesting stuff to read, and some is insightful, but the speculations go astray when they assume that the reasons individuals join fascist groups when fascist groups are obscure, fringe activities are the same reasons those fascist groups grow to become national political force. If young men join fascist groups because they are alienated then the increase in power of the fascist groups must be due to more alienation. In fact, what gets a group going originally, what grows it from small to medium-sized, and what grows it from medium-sized to a national force can be very different. To get a group going takes alienation or bigotry, but to grow it larger just takes money. That’s basically it.
The Alt-Right are fascists. If you doubt me, google the names on the Unite the Right poster and read their stuff. Their ideas aren’t particularly different from the Neo-Nazi and skinheads of my youth, but where the Alt-Right do differ is that Richard Spencer (the first name on the poster) who popularized the term ‘Alt-Right’ came from a rich family so he brought money. Spencer knew how to carry himself so as to look legit in the eyes of the media. The media couldn’t imagine a sharp-dressed prepster as a fascist, partly because they no more had considered what a real fascist is or what democracy is than Joe Biden has. So Spencer got attention which got him more money.
Fascist groups come into existence because of alienation or hatred (or whatever you call dysfunction) and since there will always be alienation or hatred (or whatever you call dysfunction) there will always be fascist groups. However, fascist movements rise to prominence when fascist groups get enough money. To get enough money they have to be somewhat organized, but donations to political groups–even extremist ones–are not any sort of marketplace of ideas. Wherever rich people have bankrolled fascism it has risen to prominence. It doesn’t always win, but where it’s funded it becomes a player. In the U.S. had the Koch brothers supported fascists rather than the Tea Party (which was not fascist) the fascists would have been as big as the Tea Party became. Or if the Koch brothers had supported militias (also not fascist) those would have likely become even bigger than the Tea Party, since militias in the U.S. are already much more numerous. In Italy and Spain rural landowners gave Mussolini and Franco the support to take over. In Germany industrialists gave Hitler his funding. The proto-fascist movements of the late 19th century South rose because of their own funding streams. Getting money doesn’t guarantee success, but it is a prerequisite. Of course, right-wing rich people will only give money if they hope for some payoff. Had Spencer not been better organized than his skinhead predecessors the Alt-Right wouldn’t have come as far as they did. Had the Alt-Right controlled their people well-enough to keep them from driving a car into a counter-protest, they might still be growing today.