My area of expertise is German politics, particularly German foreign policy. No one can study Germany without learning about the impact of the past, particularly the Nazi era, and how the Weimar Republic turned to National Socialism. In fact, this fall I’m teaching a first year seminar which looks indepth at the Weimar Republic, its cultural vibrance, economic instability, and finally its political collapse. When I look at the state of American political discourse these days, I worry that we are getting veering away from the kind of political debate that should define democracy towards something that looks more like Germany in the early thirties. Roger Simon at Politico had a column that reinforced those concerns (the link will take you to his most recent column, the one I’m referring to is August 11’s “Over the Top and Beneath Contempt.)” And the most trusted man in America (according to polls), Jon Stewart, similarly mocked this turn in our political discourse in his show yesterday. (That’s a link to the show’s website, go to the two bits on “reform madness” on August 11).
I tell myself that I’m too sensitive to this due to my knowledge of German history. That the tactics may be the same as those put forth by Goebbels and the Nazis, but such tactics worked in Germany in the early thirties because the democracy had been instable from the start, and the depression combined with the loss of WWI put the country in a uniquely vulnerable position. The people yearned for a strong leader to fix a system in complete collapse. The US, on the other hand, has had a stable democracy for over 200 years, surviving a civil war, the civil rights movement, McCarthyism, and other threats to our values.
Still, when I read usually cogent bloggers or analysts talking about “enslavement” by the government, or health care reform bringing about “death squads” who will refuse care for the elderly, the utter insanity of the rhetoric, combined with the intense anger that it can inspire, gives me pause. If the economic collapse continues, if the current hopes that recovery is coming are wrong, where might this go?
On health care we need to do something — the current system is falling apart, and given demographic changes in coming years simply cannot be sustained. If we wait until it is in complete collapse to fix it, it will be even more difficult. I’m not sure which of the current proposals are best, but to fear monger about this is simply irrational. Throughout the industrialized world every country but the US has some kind of health care system guaranteeing coverage. Some have single payer systems, others have government safety nets, insurance, and cooperation with private insurance. In none of those countries do “death committees” determine who lives or dies, and more importantly in none of these countries do the people want to do away with their health care system. In fact, even conservatives in Europe think the US system is barbaric and misguided.
That doesn’t mean we should go the route they did with health care, but it does mean that it isn’t as scary as the Palins, Becks, Limbaughs and Hannitys (and squadrons of political partisan right wing bloggers) want us to believe. It works fine elsewhere. Germany does much better than Great Britain, we can learn by comparing systems, but it works.
So why the paranoia and “over the top and beneath contempt” rhetoric? In part, I think, there is a sense by many on the right that the country is moving to a different place. Demographically we’re shifting to a point where whites will soon be under 50%, and the traditional “red meat conservative” voter that made up Nixon’s “silent majority” will be an important but less powerful interest group.
This was the fear that Goebbels and the National Socialists pounced upon as they fought to bring Hitler to power. It wasn’t about policy, it was a culture war. Could German values be maintained, or were they to give way to internationalist, socialist, pacifist ideas that were “ungerman” and often imposed by outsiders — Jews who wanted to dominate Germany. Even then, this message had limited resonance. In 1928 the Nazis only got 3% of the vote, and Hitler was a laughing stock. Yet as the economy collapsed, they grew in power as Germans yearned for the good old days of tradition, honor and German strength. Instead they saw the sex and drug cabaret scene, political infighting that showed democracy to be ineffective, and the countries of Europe trying to punish Germany for WWI. Hitler’s “culture war” was to push aside the hedonism and amorality of modernism and re-establish traditional German values. Many religious folk followed him for that reason.
Hitler was never elected by a majority in a fair election. He was handed power after he struck a deal with conservative parties and business leaders who thought they could control him. They feared Bolshevism more than a radical right winger. Then he consolidated power with ruthless efficiency (helped by a terrorist attack on the Reichstag a month after he came to power), using propaganda and short term economic success to win public support. He was able to do this in part because the opposition was divided, and a violent Communist movement caused many Germans to believe the ruthlessness was necessary. Then foreign policy and domestic successes from 1933 to 1939 convinced the Germans (and Americans like Charles Lindbergh) that National Socialism might be the movement of the future. Of course, we know where that went!
Can it happen here? The rabid rhetoric may have shades of Goebbels, but the American public doesn’t distrust democracy, and a few rowdy town hall meetings are nowhere near the level of violence and partisan war that Germany had in the early thirties. Moreover, we have a functioning government that can act; Germany from 1929 to Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933 had a government that was divided, with President Hindenberg ruling by emergency decree. Finally, while the talk radio jocks and shock bloggers can arouse emotion, most Americans are rather sophisticated in recognizing propaganda and questioning claims made by pundits. Germans in the 30s were used to trusting authority, and the media tactics that Goebbels used (claiming he learned it all from Madison Avenue) were new and effective.
Some might say that comparing the right wing to Goebbels that I’m engaged in the same kind of demonization, comparing them to “Nazis.” That’s because the Nazis have falsely developed a reputation as being so evil that any comparison to them is to accuse the others of wanting a holocaust. As I noted in “Humanizing Hitler,” that is an error. We need to learn from that era in history, and recognize that what looks horrid in hindsight seemed normal and even benevolent while it happened. Last year I even compared Obama’s campaign tactics to those of the National Socialists; but I’d never say that his political views are the same.
And, finally, my concerns are real. I see this and as I prepare for my class realize that if the economy gets worse, such demogogues might be able to arouse fear and paranoia, and hope that the US is strong enough to avoid giving in to the dark side (note: conservatives do not represent the dark side, the dark side is made up of demogogues on BOTH the left and right). I think we are, but the current state of political discourse in the country troubles me.