Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Wolfe on Schmittian Conservatism and American Liberalism

Via A&L Daily, I ran across this article by Alan Wolfe on how the writings of Carl Schmitt, the notorious fascist (or at least quasi-fascist) philosopher of "the political," can provide insight into the mindset of contemporary conservatives. There are some interesting tidbits in the essay (I knew, for example, that Schmitt has attracted the attention of the anti-liberal left over the last few decades--Tracy B. Strong's introductory essay to this edition of The Concept of the Political is a good guide to the Schmittian revival--but Wolfe places it in a helpful Foucauldian context), but much of it is simply facile. Basically, Wolfe takes up Schmitt's claim that politics can never truly be "liberal" in order to explain why conservatives generally get so nasty, and moreover, generally win political fights:

"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....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....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....[I]f Schmitt is right, conservatives win nearly all of their political battles with liberals because they are the only force in America that is truly political. From the 2000 presidential election to Congressional redistricting in Texas to the methods used to pass Medicare reform, conservatives like Tom DeLay and Karl Rove have indeed triumphed because they have left the impression that nothing will stop them. Liberals cannot do that."

I'm neither a Schmittian nor a conservative (at least not in the partisan sense that Wolfe uses the term), but I think this is more than a little tendentious. Why it sounds that way comes through later in the article, when he's talking about American liberalism:

"John Locke, not Thomas Hobbes, was the reigning social-contract theorist of the American experience. Our tradition owes more to Montesquieu than to Machiavelli....Liberal to its very core, the United States has never been as attracted to the realpolitik tradition in political thought as the Germans....To the degree that conservatives bring to this country something like Schmitt's friend-enemy distinction, they stand against not only liberals but America's historic liberal heritage. That may help them in the short run; conservative slash-and-burn rhetoric and no-holds-barred partisanship are so unusual in our moderately consensual political system that they have recently gotten far out of the sheer element of surprise, leaving the news media without a vocabulary for describing their ruthlessness and liberals without a strategy for stopping their designs. But the same extremist approach to politics could also harm them if a traditional American concern with checks and balances and limits on political power comes back into fashion."

Wolfe may be right, but if so, it isn't because this essay presents any real coherent engagement with Schmitt. Think about it: is Wolfe saying that Schmitt is wrong? If so, then the Schmittian explanation for why conservatives have been successful is flawed; while there might be something to the idea that contemporary conservative partisanship is relatively new under the sun (though I doubt it; if anything, it's a throwback to the elections of the pre-Progressive era), it can't be a matter of the GOP having realized and exploited the inner failings of the liberal ideology. Then again, is Wolfe saying that Schmitt may be right about the nature of the political realm? If so, then the conservative factions he condemns may not be in violation of American liberalism, but merely have shown up its weaknesses. Wolfe should not simply assume that America's "liberal character" can so obviously provide a counter-example to Schmittian analysis; after all, Schmitt could point to "liberal" America's crushing of this continent's indigenous population, its enslavement of African slaves, its wars with Mexico and Spain, the bloody contests on the frontier and the even bloodier struggles between labor and business well into the 20th century, to support his thesis: that is, Schmitt could claim that America's liberal "constitutional faith," with all its checks and balances and concerns with civil society, seemed triumphant only because it wasn't, actually, all that plural or all that liberal. In fact, one could employ Schmittian analysis to explain the rise of the contemporary right by showing how it was a reaction to the apotheosis of the "liberal consensus" following WWII and, especially, the civil rights movement--the moment when, Schmitt might say, all enemies seemed vanquished, and new ones were needed.

Anyway, I don't think Schmitt is a good guide to political thinking, period. Which means, as interesting as Wolfe's essay may be, he doesn't provide a particularly coherent polemical stick to bash one's opponents with either.