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Carl Schmitt And The American Right

Over at NRO's The Corner, Jonah "Liberals Were Fascists Before They Were Socialists" Goldberg joins with the conservative movement's house comedian Mark Steyn in ridiculing a book he hasn't read -- Alan Wolfe's The Future of Liberalism

Mark - James Piereson reviews Wolfe's book in the latest issue of Commentary (which, readers may like to know, has a fantastic essay by none other than Mark Steyn in it). I can't get behind the firewall, even though I'm a print subscriber, but Piereson's review is sober and contemptuous at the same time. Wolfe apparently thinks contemporary conservatives are disciples of Rousseau as much as, if not more, than they are followers of Burke. Moreover, neoconservatives are intellectual descendants of the romantic poets. Also, I learned from Piereson's review that Wolfe is still peddling his absurd claim that conservatives are followers of the Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt (I scoffed at this a good while ago). The idea that the Bush adminsitration was comprised of closet Schmittians is most commonly touted by followers of Lyndon LaRouche.

Wolfe's arguments about Rousseau, Burke, and the romantic side of neoconservatism are all powerful and compelling (and I may have something more to say about them in a future post). But for now, let's take a moment to reflect on this business about Schmitt. I can certainly see why the right would want to ridicule and dismiss Wolfe's argument, since no one wants to be likened to Hitler's crown jurist. Yet the facts are these: Schmitt's primary contribution to political theory is the idea that in emergency situations, the rule of law can and must be suspended in favor of an executive act of decision about how to defend the political community against its existential enemies. This act, for Schmitt, is the supremely political act, and as such it transcends the standards of right and wrong, legal and illegal, that prevail under "normal" political conditions. It is thus incoherent to condemn such actions, since by definition they take place beyond categories that empower us to make moral and legal judgments. 

Gee, sound familiar? For those who haven't been paying attention, this is precisely what our last Republican president, his vice president, and their enablers (such as David Addington and John Yoo) asserted for themselves in the years following 9/11 -- namely, that (in Andrew Sullivan's words) the president has "the inherent power to suspend both the First and the Fourth amendments," as well as "the power to seize anyone in the US or [the] world, [and] disappear and torture them" as he sees fit. Moreover, in none of these cases -- indeed, in no conceivable circumstance -- can the president be accused of breaking the law because the president's war powers automatically place him above the law. His sovereign decision -- whatever it is -- simply is the law of the land.

That is Schmittian decisionism, pure and simple. (Whether Yoo and Addington formulated their views on their own, by radicalizing the doctrine of the "unitary executive," or through reading Schmitt by flashlight in a White House broom closet is irrelevant. The ideas are nearly identical, whatever their origins.) But Schmittian assumptions were hardly limited to the executive branch of the Bush administration during the past seven years. They were so widespread among conservative intellectuals, in fact, that most of them responded to the president's decisions with enthusiasm, putting their minds to work justifying and defending his extra-constitutional actions at nearly every turn, while also impugning the motives and patriotism of those who dared challenge the president's sovereign authority.

So I'd say that Alan Wolfe has a point.