Chronicle of Higher Education
From the issue dated May 14, 2004
The Shadow of Fascist Philosophy on Today's Conservative Politics
To the Editor:
This is a mean season in American politics. It is a disquieting sign of
just how polarized public debate has become that Alan Wolfe, one of our
most balanced, informed, and illuminating public intellectuals, has lost
his cool and has taken to vulgarizing ideas and to demonizing one set of
partisans and sanctifying another.
In "A Fascist Philosopher Helps Us Understand Contemporary Politics"
(The Chronicle Review, April 2), Wolfe argues that Bush-administration
critics have been barking up the wrong tree in identifying Leo Strauss
as "the intellectual guru of the Bush administration." The real culprit
is Carl Schmitt, a prominent German political theorist who joined the
Nazi Party in 1933 and to whom, Wolfe is at pains to point out, Strauss
was "once close professionally."
According to Wolfe, even if conservatives have never heard of Schmitt,
they have embraced his concept that politics is based on the distinction
between friend and enemy, which means that "you treat your opposition as
antagonistic to everything in which you believe." Wolfe finds his proof
that conservatives view politics as war in the polemics of Ann H.
Coulter, in the aggressive style of talk-show host Bill O'Reilly, and in
the hardball politics of Tom DeLay and Karl Rove.
In contrast, Wolfe contends, liberals such as himself are self-critical
and conciliatory, are devoted to "human welfare or the greatest good for
the greatest number," and believe in human rights.
In standing against contemporary liberals, concludes Wolfe,
conservatives in America stand against "America's historic liberal
Where to begin? First, there is Wolfe's gratuitous insinuation that
Strauss somehow shared Schmitt's fascist politics. In fact, in 1932
Strauss wrote a still unsurpassed critique of Schmitt's The Concept of
the Political, and Strauss devoted much of his career to fortifying the
foundations of liberal democracy.
Second, Wolfe promulgates a basic misunderstanding of Schmitt. The
distinction between friend and enemy does not apply to individuals,
party politics, or domestic affairs. It pertains to peoples, or nations
in relation to other nations, and it revolves around a threat to one's
way of life. From Schmitt's point of view, Rush Limbaugh is as much a
liberal individualist as Al Franken.
Third, Wolfe's choice of conservative standard-bearers is, to say the
least, tendentious. What of public intellectuals such as Charles
Krauthammer, George Will, and William Kristol, and of office holders
such as Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice?
Fourth, Wolfe's contention that American liberals are characterized by
moderation, compromise, and reason betrays an odd inattention to today's
left, which prominently features Michael Moore, Howard Dean, and the
embrace of Bush hatred. ...
Fifth, by suggesting that one party in America is in its essence
un-American while the other embodies the true spirit of the nation,
Wolfe encourages the deplorable tendency, of which he claims himself
incapable and that he purports to oppose, to view tens of millions of
his fellow citizens as the enemy.
Peter Berkowitz
Associate Professor of Law
George Mason University
Arlington, Va.
Research Fellow
Hoover Institution
Stanford University
Stanford, Calif.