One of my pet peeves–okay, one of the aspects of American political debate that absolutely drives me up the wall–is the substitution of labels for adult argumentation. We see the use of labels to dismiss factual disputes from all parts of the political spectrum, with right-wingers accusing Democrats–and even moderate Republicans– of being “socialists” and”Marxists” and left-wingers calling everyone to the right of Bernie Sanders “fascists.”
In fact, I just did that too–I labeled by using the terms “left” and “right”–terms that aren’t remotely accurate. What passes for the far left in the U.S. is middle-of-the-road in Europe and elsewhere, and while we have definitely seen a growing number of American fascists, most of the screamers on what we think of as the political right are just our usual, garden-variety racists and White Nationalists.
These right and left labels are especially misleading, because what constitutes left and right in American politics has shifted. Dramatically.
I’m an excellent example. When I ran for Congress in 1980, as a (pro-choice, pro-gay-rights) Republican, I was routinely labeled “too conservative.” Today, I’m just as routinely accused of being a lefty/ socialist, although I haven’t changed my political philosophy. (I have changed my positions on a couple of issues, as a result of learning more about them, but I haven’t changed my underlying approach to issues of liberty and the role of government.)
In other words, while I stood philosophically still, the popular definitions of “left” and “right” changed. The Overton Window shifted.
As anyone with a living braincell has observed, today’s GOP bears little to no resemblance to the party I once belonged to, and its transformation from a respectable center-right political party to the irrational and frightening cult it has become is a vivid illustration of how misleading those labels really are.
Krugman reminds us that the change occurred over many years; Trump was just the most recent manifestation. He rquoted congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, who warned us in 2016 that the GOP had become “an insurgent outlier” that rejected “facts, evidence and science” and didn’t accept the legitimacy of political opposition. And he noted a 2019 survey of international political parties intended to determine their commitment to basic democratic principles and minority rights. The G.O.P., the survey found, “looks nothing like center-right parties in other Western countries. What it resembles, instead, are authoritarian parties like Hungary’s Fidesz or Turkey’s A.K.P.”
Such analyses have frequently been dismissed as over the top and alarmist. Even now, with Republicans expressing open admiration for Viktor Orban’s one-party rule, I encounter people insisting that the G.O.P. isn’t comparable to Fidesz. (Why not? Republicans have been gerrymandering state legislatures to lock in control no matter how badly they lose the popular vote, which is right out of Orban’s playbook.) Yet as Edward Luce of The Financial Times recently pointed out, “at every juncture over last 20 years the America ‘alarmists’ have been right.”
Why has this happened?
Krugman compared the GOP transformation to populist emergences in Europe, and found those comparisons unhelpful. His ultimate conclusion was persuasive.
It’s a puzzle. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately looking for historical precursors — cases in which right-wing extremism rose even in the face of peace and prosperity. And I think I’ve found one: the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.
It’s important to realize that while this organization took the name of the post-Civil War group, it was actually a new movement — a white nationalist movement to be sure, but far more widely accepted, and less of a pure terrorist organization. And it reached the height of its power — it effectively controlled several states — amid peace and an economic boom.
What was this new K.K.K. about? I’ve been reading Linda Gordon’s “The Second Coming of the K.K.K.: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition,” which portrays a “politics of resentment” driven by the backlash of white, rural and small-town Americans against a changing nation. The K.K.K. hated immigrants and “urban elites”; it was characterized by “suspicion of science” and “a larger anti-intellectualism.” Sound familiar?
OK, the modern G.O.P. isn’t as bad as the second K.K.K. But Republican extremism clearly draws much of its energy from the same sources.
And because G.O.P. extremism is fed by resentment against the very things that, as I see it, truly make America great — our diversity, our tolerance for difference — it cannot be appeased or compromised with. It can only be defeated.
It’s hard to argue with Krugman’s diagnosis. It’s even harder to see just how the rest of us can recapture our governing institutions. If we don’t, however, in short order that “fascist” label will become horrifyingly accurate.