Saturday, June 04, 2011

Right-wingers, then and now

Yesterday a friend for whom I have a great deal of respect wrote ma an email suggesting that today's Republicans and the early Nazis have a good deal in common. The remark immediately set me thinking, because I think that at this point, it is a half truth--and it's very important for anyone with any hope for America to understand both what is true, and what is false, about that analogy. While the Tea Partiers may show many psychological parallels to early enthusiasts for National Socialism, they are, in many ways, inferior to them--and nowhere more so than among their leadership. Thus, while they may indeed have dreadful consequences for the United States, the consequences, it seems to me, will be of a very different character.
In the long scheme of history, the period from roughly the 1790s until the 1960s will be known as a great age of organization and mass human endeavor. All over the western world, and in a few nations such as Japan and China that adopted various western models, huge institutions, economic and political, sprang out of nowhere. In the late nineteenth century the largest institutions were corporate; in first two-thirds of the twentieth, they were political. Communism in Russia industrialized a backward nation and created a whole new society. In China it did something similar, before managing to mutate into something quite different. The Japanese built up an empire covering much of Asia, before their disastrous defeat by smaller powers. Germany mobilized, conquered all of Europe, and put millions of people to death. The United States rebuilt its infrastructure, put millions to work, and helped win a huge war on both sides of the globe. Britain nationalized its basic industries (although it also gave up its empire.) The defeated nations of Western Europe built the Common Market, which became the European Union.

Now this was not a smooth process. The western civilization that emerged from the 1870s was badly shaken by the First World War, especially among the losers such as Germany, and then given another huge shock by the depression. Meanwhile, by 1930, the Prophet generation born in the 1870s and 1880s was, in some areas at least, passing the peak of its influence. The Nomad generation that followed them was largely a generation of bitter cynics. All over Europe, they had made huge sacrifices in the First World War for which they received no reward. They had no commitment whatever to the achievements of their parents and grandparents, and they became the troops of the Fascist parties, first in Italy and then in Germany. A similar emotional dynamic is at work today.

Generation X, born 1961-81, did not have to lose millions of its members in the trenches, but millions of its members suffered a different kind of trauma in their childhoods--the break-up of their families. While Boomers remember watching Alan Shephard and John Glenn blast off in their classrooms, Gen X watched the Challenger explosion. Ronald Reagan seduced a good many of them with his optimistic rhetoric, but they are too young ever to have seen government accomplish great things. Their lives have taught them to look after themselves and their families--within which they tend to be actually over-protective--and to expect others to do the same. And in the last two elections they have made a dramatic debut on the highest levels of the political stage, and the consequences are now evident for all to see.

In 2008 two Xers made it on to the national ticket for the first time: Barack Obama and Sarah Palin. Although President Obama is from the very leading edge of his generation, his childhood completely fit its pattern, and he is very proud not only of not being a Boomer but of believing that Boomer concerns are not his own. (He reportedly chafed when Richard Holbrooke told him during the Afghanistan strategy review that the discussions reminded him of discussions in the LBJ White House about Vietnam.) The President however is not my main focus today.

Thanks largely to last fall's elections there are now 119 Generation Xers in the Congress. 83 of them are Republicans and 36 are Democrats. The Democrats are the party claiming to stand for the achievements of the last eighty years of American life, and they are correspondingly much older. Indeed, most of the leadership of the Democrats in Congress, including Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank, and their committee chairmen in the Senate are from the Slent generation, whose youngest members will turn 69 this year. John Boehner is a Boomer, but most important lieutenants, Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor, are Xers. We can't understand them if do not keep in mind that they feel no commitment or any allegiance to anything this country did before 1980 or so. Their attitude was summed up by one of their number after a Thursday meeting with Treasure Secretary Tim Geithner: "We didn't start this mess."

In fact, the techniques that have given the House Republicans their majority have a good deal in common with the ones that gave the Nazis a third (far fewer, let it be noted) of the Reichstag deputies between 1930 and 1932. They include the endless repetition of many slogans bearing no relation to the facts; the exploitation of resentment towards certain groups, now defined by class, education and ideology more than by religion or race; constant assertions of moral superiority; and a hatred of the political establishment. Conspiracy theories have fueled the Tea Party's rise, just as they did the Nazis. And the Tea Party, which now rules the lower house of our legislature, has gone much further much faster than the Nazis did, partly, of course, because Limbaugh and the rest have been preparing the way for decades.

But what is it that they want to do? This is where the comparison breaks down completely.

Although Hitler used more or less mindless resentment to get into power, he had no intention of returning to some imaginary paradise modeled on the distant past. The Tea Partiers revere 1890s America but he did not revere 1890s Germany. He saw himself in the forefront of modernity, he and his collaborators had great plans, and they wasted no time putting them into effect. The built superhighways and new public buildings, just as the New Deal was doing in the West. They controlled the economy and foreign currency purchases, borrowed billions, and but millions back to work. And they built a new military machine with the goal of conquering eastern Europe and emerging as a world power capable of competing with the British Empire and the United States. Fortunately for the world, Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States beat them at their own game.

The Tea Party leadership have no such ambitions. They oppose new infrastructure projects. They want to dismantle a welfare state, not create one. They want Americans (in theory at least) to provide their own retirement income, their own health insurance in old age, and their own protection by carrying firearms around in public. It is not impossible that certain states, within a few years, will begin talking about doing away with public education. (Some southern states have in effect been moving that way ever since integration back in the early 1970s.)

Only a party, and a generation, with no commitment to existing institutions can blithely talk about unleashing a worldwide financial crisis by defaulting on the obligations of the United States because "we didn't start this mess." Such a party poses a great danger to the Republic and the world. Modern civilization depends on well-organized, functioning institutions. But the threat they pose is not authoritarianism, but anarchy. The Xer in Chief in the White House has to make a forthright stand for effective authority. So far he has not--but that is a subject for another day.


PJ Cats said...

I can imagine just standing outside with one of these right-wingers, looking at the world.
'Look, it's all god's work', he'd say.
'No', I'd say, 'it's physics and evolution, that's all.'
He'd frown and be angry.
'But look at the scenery', I'd say. 'The roads, the public buildings, the way it is organised. That is all the work of the government.'
'No', he'd say. 'It's all private companies and people living their private lives. Adam Smith and the invisible hand.'
We'd part at that moment, with unbridgeable views. People can and will never have any commitment to things they don't perceive (I think commitment is a key word in your excellent essay). And they don't, these people. They just don't see the role of government. They ignore the most basic facts, like it's often cheaper and more efficient to simply do things collectively (which they will then do anyway, only outsourced, so it's more expensive - yes, it's more expensive to pay a company which then has to make profits and pay shareholders than it is to pay government to do certain things for groups).
Anyhow, it's impossible to make people see things they actively try to ignore. Who benefits? Well, of course they think they do themselves. This instinct is enhanced by feelings of fear, of missing out on whatever is in fashion, or necessary. The image comes to mind of a mob that wrestles to the last ferry across the gulf to the promised land. In this scheme, there simply isn't room for all. Funny how they all seem to think their passage is secured. That's the benefit.
The future is still in the numbers. As long as it's a democracy, numbers count. Get the committed voters to the booth and we might still have a chance. Oh, but all the anger out there... go read Charles Bukowski's 'the genius of the crowd' and you get a good feeling of where we're at.

Gerald Meaders said...


Many thanks for this candid and synoptic essay.

My views as well, on many points.

Americans are mad and fed up, but they really don't know the why of it all, have been deluded by powerful forces gaining strength and using the prejudices of the average American against him, especially those not looking back way beyond 1980.

Unfortunately, we are 'walking in the wind' here, so to speak.

It is hard to imagine that either war or diplomacy could help the condition of the average American under the coming regimes.

Transnational trade and commerce, traditionally considered perhaps as adjuncts, or third 'alternatives', to diplomacy, or war, have been disastrous, the way we have administered them after WW II as well.

Not much room left for man-oeuvre really in any direction, even with a regime with a clear resolve.

All the best,

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited. We have been warned for a long time but we do nothing. Thanks so much for your writing. K

rbrowning said...

While I find your article very interesting I feel you have missed several points. The first is that it appears that anyone wanting an honest reform is immediately associated with the "Tea Party" and condemned to not having good ideas. I believe this is far from the truth. You speak of the "government" being the only reasonable way for economic progress. History shows that this is obviously not true. Government waste (as in the recently exposed billion dollar waste on government limousines - do the research), the government getting us into two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq I, Afghanistan, Iraq II and who knows what else, the total failure of government controlled education (there can be no doubt that the quality of education in the United States has deteriorated in the last 50 years, thanks in large part to the NEA and government mandates).
Or, you state that the Soviet Union was part of the downfall of Hitler. The truth is Hitler was a novice when it came to killing people. Stalin killed over twice as many people as Hitler. If Wilson and our government had stayed out of the First World War, neither Hitler nor Stalin would have ever come to power and we would not have had the Second World War. But governments, along with bankers and the military/industrial complex thrive on war and profit greatly. I contend that history is replete with governments being corrupt (look at the assassination of JFK as one example or 9/11 as another). The quest for power and greed appears to be a force stronger than justice. The hubris of the United States Government to be the policeman of the world is perhaps the biggest example of the danger of big government.

Richard E. Browning, P.E.

Anonymous said...

When one compares the Patriot Act with Germany's Enabling Act of 1933 there is not too much difference . Also as Gestapo was from GEheim STAdt POlezi which neatly translates into Homeland Security it is easy to see what you are talking about in this essay.Alohamac, Bluff, NZ

Anonymous said...

It appears personal political views have gotten in the way of honest appraisal about past political movements and current ones (in this case the Tea Party).

First, we all know the danger of equating anyone to a Nazi on the internet, so we must tread lightly when comparing the loosely organized Tea Party with Nazis.

I can't for the life of me understand the comment "The Tea Partiers revere 1890s America but he did not revere 1890s Germany."

Of course Hitler wasn't looking to a 1890s Germany, as he was born in 1889 and was a little too soon to be a golden age to look back on. The selling point of looking back at a wondrous time, of a united German speaking people untainted was further back, the "First Reich", when all German speaking peoples were united and in charge. This was the appeal and the period to aspire to recreate.

A second point, that is usually forgotten/ignored when talk of these subjects goes on in academic circles is the role of university faculty and students in a totalitarian regime's ascension to power. Typically university culture is described as a bastion of rational thought, surrounded by a sea of chaos and evil intent. Unfortunately reality is nothing like that.

The Nazi movement (and the famous book burnings) had a strong , perhaps even dominant, contingent of university student/teacher support and participation.

A more recent example would be the Iranian revolution of 1979 was dominated by university students who put into power an oppressive Islamist regime.

It is in America, England, and France that universities were a place of leftist thought and revolutionaries. This local perspective clouds western historians and thinkers view.

As often as not, fascist revolutions come out of universities as well.

The only thing that doesn't typically come out of universities is a defense of free markets and libertarian thought. That is reserved for the lower classes of thinkers, usually the common man, who has a common job. Any movement that attempts to reduce the size of government is the real threat. As anyone who owes their livelihood to the government directly or indirectly might lose their job.

The world the Tea Party misses is the world prior to the massive power of the federal government, a nation in which the states and local governments had more influence. That can be prior to the civil war (when federal supremacy was established once and for all) or prior to WWI (imposition of the income tax, final end of the frontier) and obvious assertion of federal power.

It is a shame most "smart" people let their emotions get in the way of rationally looking at the current things going on and fall back to a point of view that works well in the dinner parties within one's social/work group, but doesn't look at things from an outside perspective.

David Kaiser said...

That last comment is anonymous and abusive and thus met the criteria, normally, for deletion, but I decided to post it because it's either completely wrong, or it confirms what I said.

The Nazis had no serious following on the faculty of German universities although they developed one after taking power.

Today's university economics departments are totally dedicated to the Free Market.

And lastly, the post confirms what I said, that Tea Partiers want to go back to the 1890s, following that up with the non sequitur that Hitler couldn't have wanted to go back to the 1890s because he was only barely born. In fact, as I said, the Tea Partiers are backward looking, Hitler was forward looking.

The whole point of the post was to illustrate both similarities and key differences between Nazis and Tea Partiers.

Incidentally pre-election Nazi rhetoric was capitalist. After coming into power the Nazis wiped out the labor movement (we haven't needed Nazis to do that) and got along very well with capitalists.

That will be the last piece of
Glenn Beck "thought" to appear here for a while.

Jude Hammerle said...

Dear Dr. Kaiser,

Since I can’t ever know what others really believe or why, I ignore all ideology and focus only on the observable strategies of competitors.

If you look solely at strategy, a simple pattern repeats through history. In a High, both old and young conform. In an Awakening, the old conform and the young rebel. In an Unravelling, both old and young rebel. At the climax of a Crisis, the old rebel and the young conform to a new normal. Seen this way, history is simply an iterated prisoner's dilemma with frighteningly little learning.

Most disturbing of all, it appears Prophet generations learn the least. While history requires every other generation to deviate from its natural strategic rhythms, Prophets never do. They naturally play Normal in childhood; this entitles them to participate in the High. They naturally play Fun as young adults; this triggers the Awakening. They naturally play Affluent as parents; this triggers the Unraveling. They naturally play Strong as elders; this triggers the climax of the Crisis.

So, fellow Prophet, I think we need to worry much less about competing ideologies and much more about our own generation's play at this crucial juncture of our great and hopefully endless game.

With affection and respect,
Jude Hammerle

Gerald Meaders said...


Many thanks for comment 7. It is helpful in some ways re that comment 6.

I agree it is completely wrong, and it confirms what you had said.

(Yet, while I can see how one might find comment 6 'abusive', it does not strike me as particularly abusive, except in a mild version of abuse; although it does seem to me misguided in different ways, historically and otherwise.)

Nevertheless, you are the boss of your blog.

That is the beauty, is it not, of this not-so-free press.

All the best,

Anonymous said...

The dismal science is bereft of good ideas

Anonymous said...

Won’t You Be My (Hyper-Partisan) Neighbor?
: Peter Orszag

Gerald Meaders said...

I thought you and readers might possibly appreciate this:

See also my topics on the suggestibility of experts.

All the best,

Anonymous said...

I truly appreciate the perspective that you provide on this blog. I am a gen Xer and can basically concur with your statements about my generation and how we are generally anti-institution. However, I believe that this is mostly due to poor leadership. As you said, many in this generation were disappointed by their parents selfishness and are, therefore, intolerant of anyone who violates a sacred trust. Boomers have in many instances been able to overlook these shortcomings if the person in question was valuable in some other way. We have had legions of political and business leaders who have displayed a serious lack of ethics or at the least bad judgment. Usually the punishment for these "leaders" is a slap on the wrist. Some may lose their job but, not to worry, will get a multimillion dollar book deal or their own talk show on one of the "unbiased" news channels. We would trust the rest of the leadership enough to follow them if they would nip these violators in the bud. The mismanagement of our national affairs feels like treason to me. If it were treated as such, maybe legislators would bend to the peoples business instead of their own self interest. Office holders who represent millions of people are held to lesser standards than junior military officers who lead a few dozen.

Anonymous said...

Part 2

Tea Party:
I found the part about both conspiracy theories fueling the rise of Nazis and Tea Partiers unsupported by a simple memory of Democrat campaigns of 6 years ago. The antiwar left had no shortage of conspiracies during the Bush years and someone could make the same case for the rise of the Democrats under Pelosi. This comment surprises me coming from a history professor.

It is simplistic that you state the Tea Party look backwards, while Hitler and the Nazi’s looked forward. Beyond supporting continued industrialization (a process that was already started previously) the rest of Nazi rhetoric was almost purely backward looking. To save you from questioning the backward looking parts of the Nazi movement I’ll list some for you: a pure people free of the corrupting influence of Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals; a united nation of German speaking people; book burnings that reference Martin Luther’s theses, and purity of German language. Purity is how things were in the past, not now.

The Tea Party wants a lot of things. But it isn’t a centralized movement. Mostly they want a more locally controlled, less centralized, fiscally sound America. That is only defined as looking backwards in your eyes because you view a strong centralized federal government and welfare state (recent development) as a desirable thing. You seem to think any attempt at reducing the size and scope of the federal government is “looking backwards”.

Changing any trend that you happen to believe in, no matter how harmful, is “looking backwards”. Would that mean reducing the deficit is a backwards look? To have some fun, what about repealing prohibition? Was FDR looking backwards or forwards? You mock the Tea Party for questioning infrastructure spending (because obviously spending capital on unnecessary infrastructure spending is good, it makes jobs). You mock the second amendment (because who needs it, it’s a backwards relic), but I’m sure you support the first amendment (because that’s different, you like that one).

The main difference between the Nazis and the Tea Party is the Tea Party doesn’t advocate intimidation or violence. That’s the difference. If they did they would resemble the Nazis (or labor movements) a bit more.

Gerald Meaders said...


Comments 13 and 14. Poignant, well meaning, and for me, rather sad, really.

I will make some reference to them on my blog shortly.

All the best,

Bob in NC said...

Dear Professor,
I am usually stimulated and enlightened by your posts, and as one frightened by Life Magazine photos of Nazi death camps as a child, have always worried that the ultra-right could spawn a similar movement here. But the Tea Party is not it, or at least hasn't yet been so manipulated.
Perhaps a more useful comparison of this "grass-roos" organization would be to the "New Left" of the '60's and '70's... no for the similarities but for the failures of the latter and the probable failure or cooptation of the Tea Party.
We working class people have been betrayed by the Democrats, who are now no less beholden to the money elite than the GOP. Liberals deliberately ignored/sabotaged the potential back then for a new coalition of labor and the disenfrachised, and a burgeoning w.c. movement was subverted by a mix of COINTELPRO from the CIA, and libertarianism (drugs, sex & Rock&roll)from Lyndon LaRouche to Rennie Davis to Jerry Garcia. Labor was subverted by sweetheart deals between capital (GM et al) the entrenched mafia in the unions.
What we need to worry about now is who will follow Obama? Absent a miracle, he will not be re-elected. His first big mistake was not holding GOP accountable for both the "Bush Wars" and Wall Street's financial shenannigans, which are 90% of this "Great Recession". We will not see 6% unemployment again in my (and your) lifetime. Millions of working poor are now the unemployed desperate. Millions of "middle class" are now plummeting into poverty. Meanwhile, the right and the GOP go laughingly forward with austerity agendas, knowing they got a pass from a wimpy Obama administration.
Where do we go from here?
Please return to you sage strategic thinking.