The supposed fascism of today's conservatives, argues Wolfe, helps us understand their electoral successes: "Conservatives win nearly all of their political battles with liberals because they are the only force in America that is truly political." For conservatives, he contends, "politics never stops" and is driven by rank partisanship indifferent to the public interest; liberals are "unworthy of recognition"; rights must be trampled upon and the power of the state to deal with emergencies must be relentlessly expanded because "conservatives always find cases of emergency." By contrast, claims Wolfe, liberals such as himself seek consensus, believe in pluralism, honor toleration, question their own convictions, and respect individual rights. Thus does their vastly superior morality doom liberals in their battle with today's ruthless neofascist conservatives. Except when it doesn't, for example a few months ago, in the 2006 midterm elections.
Wolfe's incendiary accusation, however, goes beyond this election or that, and is not affected by the existence of some on the left who may support Bush administration foreign policy and some on the right who may oppose it. What is critical, according to Wolfe, is to recognize that conservatives in America "stand against not only liberals but America's historic liberal heritage."
The threat posed by America's conservative enemy at home, in Wolfe's view, can hardly be exaggerated. By importing to America's shores a style of thought that is un-American, Wolfe explained in his response to his critics, conservatives have disfigured American politics:
Conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court broke with principle to decide the 2000 election on naked partisan grounds; the president so chosen has pursued the most partisan course of any president since Reconstruction; and he has used an attack on all Americans to pursue an agenda that benefits only some of them. Our politics are ugly because conservatives have disproportionately contributed to making them ugly.
Wolfe seems incapable of entertaining the possibility that Bush v. Gore was a hard case, one of whose reasonable resolutions was the path chosen by the Supreme Court; that in domestic politics Bush has rather consistently pursued the policies he has publicly defended, has done little to stir the pot on abortion and affirmative action, has formally but not aggressively opposed same-sex marriage (as did Senator John Kerry in the 2004 campaign), and has made his peace with the welfare state; and that driven by partisan rage, Bush's opponents have often shamelessly misrepresented the administration's arguments and actions on national security. Yet given the available evidence in support of these propositions, shouldn't entertaining them, in our angry times, be one distinguishing mark of a liberal mind?
Wolfe's contention that conservatives are animated by the spirit of a Nazi political theorist is scarcely less incendiary or more defensible than D'Souza's claim that the cultural left forms a de facto alliance with al Qaeda. Yet whereas numerous prominent conservatives have been quick to publish their disagreements with D'Souza, who on the left rose to challenge Wolfe's excesses?
By Alan Wolfe's standards, a decent and honorable left would have cleanly excommunicated the Boston College professor long before he used the pages of the New York Times Book Review to demand the excommunication of a conservative for speech unbecoming a public intellectual. Happily, Wolfe's standards don't govern. And in a liberal democracy that cherishes open and vigorous public debate, they shouldn't.
Peter Berkowitz teaches at George Mason University School of Law and is the Tad and Dianne Taube senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.