The party of Godwin
Hurling no fewer than three accusations of Nazism at their political opponents this week, the Democratic Party has ventured into the rhetorical heights of an Internet comment thread. Unable to defend its failed record and bill of broken promises, President Obama’s Democratic Party has resorted to the last argument at its disposal: reductio ad Hitlerum, the grandest validation yet for Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies.
Godwin’s “law” holds that as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1. Thanks to the blathering vitriol of three Democratic Party leaders, the law seems to have exceeded its virtual bounds and come to define the oratorical prowess of a party without a clue.
The sad phenomenon began last Sunday, when South Carolina Democratic Chairman Dick Harpootlian likened Republican Governor Nikki Haley to Hitler’s longtime mistress, Eva Braun. Kansas Democratic Labor Committee President Pat Lehman evidently disapproved of Harpootlian’s restraint and chose to up the ante last Tuesday. Responding to Republican claims that voter-identification laws are designed to curb voter fraud, Lehman observed, “It’s like Hitler said, if you’re going to tell a lie, tell a big lie, and if you tell it often enough and say it in a loud enough voice, some people are going to believe you.” And just this Monday, California Democratic Committee Chairman John Burton completed the trifecta by using this same line to compare Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.
The liberal invocation of Hitler is not an entirely new phenomenon. These three instances recall the famous televised 1968 exchange between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal, in which the former responded to the latter’s charge of Nazism with the now-iconic on-air threat, “Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in your goddam face.” Forty-four years later, Democrats seem only to have stepped up the frequency of their charge. And the insults aren’t coming from the fringes: they’re emanating from the intellectual and political leaders of the left and its Democratic Party.
So why do they keep calling us Nazis?
The answer lies in the intellectual heterogeneity, or lack thereof, within the two major parties. Since the Reagan Revolution, the Republican Party has counted in its ranks at least four distinct political groups: traditionalists, neoconservatives, libertarians, and the religious right. In his excellent piece “Four Heads and One Heart,” political scientist James Ceaser observes that these four major factions of the Republican Party often approach politics from fundamentally different points of view. In order for libertarians to share a “big tent” with the religious right, they must force themselves to consider an opposing point of view, understand the merits of its arguments, make ideological concessions, and compromise.
The Democratic Party has no such philosophical disagreements and therefore no such reason to compromise, at least in the years since Howard Dean, Nancy Pelosi, and Barack Obama brought the party back from the brink of practicality. Conservative “Blue Dog Democrats” and Clintonian “New Democrats” have almost entirely abandoned ship: all that remain are ideologically pure progressives. Devoid of any internal challenges to their ideas, the so-called progressives are left in a Democratic echo chamber, finally free to, well, progress.
And herein lie the roots of their radical rhetoric. This name itself — “progressive” — explains what separates the present Democratic Party from the traditionalists, libertarians, religious right, neoconservatives, and other groups that count themselves within the Republican fold.
Conservatives tend to hold a fallen view of humanity. The world in their eyes is imperfect and imperfectable. We have been ejected from the garden, and we’re not going back. The most recent round of conservative converts — Christopher Hitchens most famous among them — predictably came about following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the stark reminder that evil exists eternally on earth.
Progressives typically take the opposite view. Man is not forever fallen. Indeed, the world stands ready for steady improvement, given the presence of progressive policy. The only logical conclusion of the progressive premise is earthly utopia, the promise that we can rebuild Eden if only we let them lead the way. With goals so noble, how could anyone question or, Godwin forbid, challenge such progress? There need be no debate when the road ahead is clear, and there are but two reasons to oppose the path forward: enormous, awe-inspiring stupidity, or else malevolence.
Democrats can call Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan many things, but “stupid” doesn’t make the list. And so the progressive party must malign our intentions. They insist we can hold no legitimate disagreements over policy or political philosophy: to them, we harbor only wars on women, bigotry, and ill will. While Governor Romney’s campaign has highlighted President Obama’s failed economic record, Obama’s team has accused Romney of somehow giving a woman cancer. While the right caricatures a political opponent with disinterested data, the left vilifies a sworn enemy with ad hominem attacks.
In politics, the first rule is to know your opponent; in war, it’s to know your enemy. The Democratic Party has shown that it doesn’t, that it can’t even tell the difference. Godwin help them come November.
Michael Knowles is an actor and political spokesman.