When somebody on the political left wants to insult a conservative, they often pull out the old "fascist" label, attempting to shut down any argument that person might have (because all fascists are evil, right?). What many on the left seem to miss is that true fascism isn't really a right-wing phenomenon but a product of the Left, the final destination to which many leftist ideas can lead. Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg, columnist and editor-at-large with National Review magazine (and its web site, National Review Online), examines the history of both liberalism and classical fascism to demonstrate that both have the same roots.
That isn't to say that Goldberg is calling liberals "fascists". He takes great pains to make that disclaimer often (sometimes too often) throughout the book. Instead, he tries to demonstrate how calling conservatives "fascist" is not only a misnomer but insultingly wrong. Fascism had nothing to do with right-wing policies; in fact, the rise of Fascism coincided with Woodrow Wilson and FDR, and their policies looked remarkably similar. In fact, at times, they seemed to have a mutual admiration society. Goldberg gives an excellent history of Italian Fascism, the Nazis, then moves on to the United States and the policies of Wilson and FDR.
The first point to remember in reading all this, and something that Goldberg goes back to often in his historical chapters, is that there is a difference between the Nazis and typical Fascism. All Nazis were fascistic, but Fascists were not necessarily Nazis. Hitler and the Nazi party added a racial component to their policies that typical Fascism did not contain. Many casual observers of history think that Italian and German Fascism were pretty much the same, but Goldberg emphasizes how wrong this thinking is. To name one example, he shows that Jews were not typically rounded up in Italy until the Germans took over following the Italian surrender.
Once Goldberg has given German and Italian fascistic history, he moves on to how fascism has grown historically in the United States. Some of the most repressive laws ever passed by the United States government, even more oppressive than the ones liberals criticize today, were passed by Woodrow Wilsonís government. Wilson was a great believer in the power of the State, and he worked actively to make the government as strong as possible. FDR was the same way, as Goldberg shows in his chapter on the New Deal fascistic tendencies. Finally, there was the '60s and Johnson's "Great Society," which taken to its extreme could have been extremely fascistic, even if it wasn't going to be dictatorial.
Especially frightening is Goldberg's chapter on eugenics and its growth among the progressives throughout the 20th century. Some of the vilest racial statements were made by heroes of the left in the '30s, '40s, and beyond. Goldberg says, about George Bernard Shaw:
"According to Shaw, the state should be firm in its policy toward criminal and genetically undesirable elements. '[W]ith many apologies and expressions of sympathy, and some generosity in complying with their last wishes' he wrote with ghoulish glee, we 'should place them in the lethal chamber and get rid of them.'" (pg 250)
Many of the leading Progressives of the time had similar theories, and Goldberg clearly traces the roots of modern liberalism to fascistic policies such as this.
"Contemporary liberals, who may be the kindest and most racially tolerant people in the world, nonetheless choose to live in a house of distinctly fascist architecture. Liberal ignorance of this fact renders this fascist foundation neither intangible nor irrelevant." (Pg 262)
The howls of outrage from the Left would be deafening if Goldberg didn't constantly make clear that he is not comparing the two belief systems but instead showing how ludicrous it is to name-call conservatives with an epithet that is largely a left-wing ideology. Liberals today don't have these same racial or political feelings, but the basis of many of their beliefs has a foundation in these beliefs of the past. They just grew into a different, more benign branch of the same tree.
Goldberg completes the book with a look at Hilary Clinton, the "politics of meaning," and how misguided some of the current liberal thinking is. They would like nothing more than to have the state take over as much as possible, for "the greater good" of society; the essence of Fascism is that the state should control as much as it can. The difference between the historical and modern day is where Goldberg makes the distinction from the past. I've also heard it called "Fuzzy Fascism," the fascism of the Nanny State, which is markedly different than the brutal, militaristic Fascism of the '20s and '30s.
Goldberg ends the book by being sure not to excuse some aspects of conservatism either, at least in the modern sense. He talks about how "Compassionate Conservatism" was just Bush's (and other prominent Republicans') attempt to co-opt Bill Clinton's "Third Way" of politics, ensuring that even under a Republican administration the government would "take care of you." He also speaks of the dangers if conservatives don't get back to the core principles of the movement, because many are beginning to be co-opted into the movement themselves, even if they think that they are bringing something different to the table.
Liberal Fascism is an excellent read, full of fascinating history, political and social analysis, and numerous notes that illustrate Goldberg's arguments. The only minor nuisances in the book are understandable and partially outside the author's control. First, the cover, while effective, tends to cheapen the true arguments in the book. A yellow smiley-face with a Hitler moustache, while a perfect symbol of George Carlin's statement that opens the book, makes it a lot easier to dismiss the book without reading it. While I was immersed in the book, I kept going back to the cover and alternately loving and hating it. I think I've come down on the "could have done something better" side of the question.
Secondly, the book is largely missing Goldberg's trademark wit, which is what brought me to his National Review and syndicated columns to begin with. I understand this is a serious subject, but I've seen Goldberg skewer some liberal sacred cows with a witty, beautifully-written sentence or two. I would have loved to have seen more of that here.
Liberal Fascism may reinforce what you already know or believe, or it may open your eyes. Even if you disagree with the whole point of the book, you should still find some interesting stuff in here.