Last month we celebrated the 99th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth. Barack Obama claims to admire the Gipper, citing him as a transformative president—an appellation that Obama aspires to. Woe is us if he succeeds! Whereas Reagan inspired the American people and pointed us toward prosperity and national strength, Obama scares the hell out of us and is leading us to penury and mediocrity. But these two presidents differ in a fundamental way that transcends just their leadership capabilities. They represent vastly different points on the political spectrum. Yet Obama’s ability to cast himself as somehow analogous to Reagan is symptomatic of our confusion about the actual components of the political spectrum. It is my purpose to clear up that confusion here.
One should think of the political spectrum like we do the optical spectrum, that is, as a line, but instead of running from Red to Violet, the political spectrum runs linearly from Left to Right. The confusion comes about in deciding what the entries are and where to place them on the line. Terms like liberal, conservative, progressive, reactionary, communist, fascist, monarchist, democrat, theocrat, republican, anarchist and others are candidates for inclusion. That’s complicated enough. But where they are in relation to one another is the real source of the confusion.
For example, it is nearly universally accepted that Soviet Communism was on the extreme left of the political spectrum while German Nazism was situated on the extreme right. But the latter categorization is wrong. How so? This is simple to explain if we think of the political spectrum as measuring the role of government in society. The left end of the spectrum represents total government control of society. How the control is exercised is far less important than the extent of the control. When the politics, economic system, social contracts and virtually every other aspect of a society is controlled by the government, it doesn’t matter much whether the government is a Soviet-style dictatorship, a monarchy, an oligarchy, a theocracy—or a fascist dictatorship. Any such government lies on the extreme left. The correct label for it is totalitarian.
But if fascism is on the left, what is on the right? That too is simple—anarchy! The complete absence of government control is clearly the logical opposite of total government control. Most of the anarchical examples today are found in Africa, but Yemen is coming closer and Haiti is a legitimate candidate. Now there are all means of gradations between the two extremes, but let’s keep it simple and limit ourselves to five: totalitarian societies on the far left, anarchical societies on the far right and three in between. What are they?
To the right of totalitarian but to the left of center are authoritarian regimes—those that control many aspects of society, but do not aspire to total control. The most obvious examples are various military dictatorships that sprout up all over the world. Other authoritarian regimes are found among the monarchies that dot the third world. I might mention that the distinction between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, and the consequences for their subjects, as well as the differing possibilities for change in both, was explored in depth by Jeane Kirkpatrick in the 1970s.
What is the analog on the right; that is, right of center but left of anarchy? Clearly such a society must be characterized by very loose government control; the people themselves control the society. Power to the people! Sounds like democracy to me. Usually we characterize democracy as a society in which leaders are chosen by fair elections with the outcome reflecting majority rule. I think that confuses process with philosophy. For me, democracy is a society in which the people determine their fate far more than any remote government. The ancient Greek city-states are the classic model. But pre-revolutionary New England villages with their town meetings are another good example. In a democracy in this sense, how the people rule (via elections, town meetings, mobs, gangs or warlords) is not nearly as important as the fact that the central government is weak and the people are strong. France after the Revolution comes to mind. Current examples are again found in some African countries; and Afghanistan is another candidate.
What’s in the middle? We are! Ours is a Constitutional Republic where power resides with the people, but—following guidelines specified in the Constitution—the people empower a limited government to rule with their consent. The people of such a society enjoy the freedoms of those in a democracy, but avoid the chaos and disorderliness that is inevitable in a pure democracy. Orderliness is also found in authoritarian regimes, but the people of a Constitutional Republic don’t have to put up with the ruthlessness and constraints on freedom characteristic of authoritarian regimes. Unfortunately, the term Constitutional Republic does not uniquely specify all the societies in the center of the spectrum. Constitutional Monarchies, like those of many of the countries in Europe, have forms of government very reminiscent of ours wherein the rights and freedom of the people are preserved by limiting the powers of a representative parliament and a (constitutionally) restrained monarch.
What we recognize as the West is made up largely of Constitutional Republics and Constitutional Monarchies firmly in the center of the political spectrum. But what has been happening in the West in the last 125 years? Virtually all its societies have been marching steadily to the left. Europe has been in the lead, but Obama and the Democrats are pressing hard for us to catch up. Every one of Obama’s policy objectives involves greater government control over the people. Obama and the Democratic Party are moving America inexorably to the left—toward authoritarianism and away from democracy. Thus, the Democrats are not democrats.
Finally, what is the proper label for Obama? I think he aspires to be an authoritarian, but the usual pejorative bestowed on him by conservatives is ‘socialist.’ However, according to the specifications of Jonah Goldberg, author of Liberal Fascism, Obama should be classified as a fascist, not a socialist. What is the difference? Both believe in robust government control of society—sometimes authoritarian, sometimes totalitarian. In order to achieve that, a socialist advocates government ownership of the means of production and all property. A fascist is willing to permit—even prefers—private ownership of property and business, but structures society, through crony capitalism and other means, to ensure government control of at least the country’s political and economic systems. According to Obama’s professed disdain for government ownership of the means of production, he is not a socialist but a fascist. However, the word fascist is so incredibly loaded that it is unusable. For the vast majority of people, it conjures up jack-booted thugs arriving in the middle of the night. To call someone a fascist is to label him a maniacal, genocidal, Hitler wannabe—which Obama manifestly is not. So let us hearken back to the origin of the term, the Italian word fasci—which means bundle or sheaf. Bundlist doesn’t work so well, therefore I think the best term to describe the political philosophy of our president is Sheafist. Let’s see whether it sticks.
This piece also appeared in the Intellectual Conservative at