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About Schmitt

by Jacob T. Levy

The Weekly StandardOUNote: I drafted this after "Wolfe vs. Berkowitz Round 2" was posted on the main page, then decided not to stir those waters any further. Now that two more rounds have been exchanged, it seems that I'm at no risk of bearing sole responsibility for keeping this argument going. I barely amended it in light of rounds 3 and 4, but those have basically been restatements of the original positions.a piece on the main websiteOUresponse review of Dinesh D'Souzapiece from the Chronicle of Higher Education
Do conservatives and liberals fight the war of ideas in different ways? More specifically, are liberals more likely to treat their opponents according to, well, liberal rules of fair play and tolerance, while conservatives are more likely to engage in no-holds-barred campaigns to win at any cost? Merely to ask such questions is to engage in generalization--there are liberals these days who hate George W. Bush and Dick Cheney with a passion, just as there are conservatives, influenced by philosophers such as Michael Oakeshott, who resist extremism and insist on tentativeness and restraint. Still, or so I argued in an essay published in The Chronicle of Higher Education a few years back, there are a disproportionate number of vitriolic firebrands on the right compared with the left; I cited the usual suspects, such as Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly. Calling for shooting people like Al Gore, which Coulter famously did in one of her columns, is not the stuff of ordinary political debate.

My essay was an effort to bring to people who might be unfamiliar with them the ideas of the twentieth century German jurist and Nazi sympathizer Carl Schmitt. I was careful not to call contemporary Republicans Schmittian; there are, I wrote, "no seminars on Schmitt taking place anywhere in the Republican Party and, even if any important conservative political activists have heard of Schmitt, which is unlikely, they would surely distance themselves from his totalitarian sympathies." I also pointed out the powerful attraction Schmitt has for thinkers on the left. And I specifically reserved any association between Schmitt and the contemporary right to explicit paleo-conservative intellectuals who have written favorably about the man, such as German new-right thinkers associated with the journal Junge Freiheit.
Liberals think of politics as a means; conservatives as an end. Politics, for liberals, stops at the water's edge; for conservatives, politics never stops. Liberals think of conservatives as potential future allies; conservatives treat liberals as unworthy of recognition. Liberals believe that policies ought to be judged against an independent ideal such as human welfare or the greatest good for the greatest number; conservatives evaluate policies by whether they advance their conservative causes. Liberals instinctively want to dampen passions; conservatives are bent on inflaming them. Liberals think there is a third way between liberalism and conservatism; conservatives believe that anyone who is not a conservative is a liberal. Liberals want to put boundaries on the political by claiming that individuals have certain rights that no government can take away; conservatives argue that in cases of emergency -- conservatives always find cases of emergency -- the reach and capacity of the state cannot be challenged.
Still, if Schmitt is right, conservatives win nearly all of their political battles with liberals because they are the only force in America that is truly political. From the 2000 presidential election to Congressional redistricting in Texas to the methods used to pass Medicare reform, conservatives like Tom DeLay and Karl Rove have indeed triumphed because they have left the impression that nothing will stop them. Liberals cannot do that. There is, for liberals, always something as important, if not more important, than victory, whether it be procedural integrity, historical precedent, or consequences for future generations.
wrote at the timeintellectualsOU