A message to my conservative, Tea Party-loving, Fox News-watching friends: If you see Obamacare as oppressive socialist tyranny but celebrated two weeks ago when John Pike pepper-sprayed the protesters out in California, then you are not a freedom-loving patriot. You’re likely a loud, red-faced hypocrite—and maybe, maybe even a little bit of a fascist to boot.
Now that’s not a very nice thing to say. And I actually have conservative, Tea Party-loving, Fox News-watching friends. So maybe I should explain myself.
It’s long been a tenant of conservative thought that progressivism amounts to creeping tyranny under the guise of do-gooderism. Part of that is a belief that big government tends to tromp on liberties, which is actually an insight that liberals would be wise to heed. But part of it is a belief that progressives are actually plotting to take power from democratically elected officials and hand it over to unelected bureaucrats, in the arrogant belief that self-government is impossible. In this worldview, every effort by government to make living a little less hard for the rest of us—whether through environmental regulations or social welfare programs—is a boot stomping on the face of humanity forever. Where most liberals see nothing more pernicious than a safety net, many conservatives see conspiracy, or something like it.
This is a line of thought that got a new coat of paint a few years back when writer Jonah Goldberg released his book, Liberal Fascism, which postulated that—despite everything you thought you knew about Mussolini and Hitler—fascism is actually a left-wing phenomenon. And the meme really caught on as it became apparent that Barack Obama would win the presidency in 2008: Suddenly volunteer programs favored by liberals were recast as incipient Nazism in mainstream conservative outlets.
Once Obama was elected, hoo boy! Suddenly there was a Tea Party, and signs everywhere accusing the president of being a socialist dictator. Why? Well, he wanted universal health care. And slightly higher marginal tax rates. And he favored regulating banks so they couldn’t destroy the world economy again. This, apparently, was the stuff of genocidal authoritarianism. Every night on Fox News, the message rang out: Conservatives were for liberty, liberty, liberty—and liberals … weren’t.
This seemed odd. We’d just been through eight years of an administration that suggested the president had the right to crush a child’s testicles in the name of fighting terrorism—an administration that asserted the right to ignore laws against warrantless wiretapping and torture, and which tried to deprive American citizens of their due process rights. (We won’t even discuss gay marriage.) Returning to 1990s-era tax rates seemed like small potatoes, by comparison—and the Tea Party brigade had been pretty silent during the Bush years—but still, there was hope: If conservatives were re-pledging themselves to liberty, maybe they really meant it.
Then John Pike pepper-sprayed a group of nonviolent, liberal protesters at UC-Davis. And hope was lost. Conservatives stumbled over themselves defending the police officer against the dirty, wrong-minded hippies.
“Hilarious!” chortled Glenn Beck.
“Take your leftie-indoctrinated butts back to class,” groused conservative blogger Jim Hoft.
“I don’t think we have the right to Monday-morning quarterback the police,” offered Bill O’Reilly.
So it went. While there were some exceptions, conservatives generally either minimized the abusive policing, or they defended it—some, gleefully: “Trust fund brat refuses to move, trust fund brat gets spray tanned,” Scott Spiegel wrote at Conservative Outpost. Others, like Jonah Goldberg—who never met an EPA regulation that didn’t signify some tyrannical impulse—were damned by their silence.
Which leaves us with two likely choices. A) That while conservatives have tried to corner the market on “liberty” in recent years, the truth is that many of them don’t much care if riot-gear-clad cops smack around a lefty protester or two. Which is short-sighted. “Liberty for me, but not for thee” is going to have ugly consequences. Or B) That many conservatives see liberty in almost exclusively economic terms. (Which wouldn’t be surprising: How many conservatives were big fans of the market-oriented-but-brutally-repressive Pinochet regime in Chilé during the 1970s and ’80s?) That’s blinkered and wrong, to say the least.
Conservatives who make sincere liberty-based arguments have my respect, if not always my agreement. But other conservatives, the ones who shout about their fear of government-sponsored death panels while mindlessly applauding anybody with a badge and a billy club, deserve our scorn. There’s a reason that fascist, authoritarian governments are called “police states”—so beware the Fox News brigade that cheers such developments while singing songs of liberty.