The manifestation of certain passé authoritarian concepts in the policy proposals of the New Left—and what Professor Ronald Radosh aptly terms “the Leftover Left”— is a subject which has been widely expounded upon by conservative commentators and thinkers in the last decade. Perhaps the sharpest and most well researched exposé of this phenomenon is found in Jonah Goldberg’s New York Times Bestseller, Liberal Fascism.
Mr. Goldberg’s thesis is essentially this: many leftist ideological precepts and policies are watered down or repackaged ideas which have their intellectual origin in the authoritarian regimes of yesteryear (Mr. Goldberg focuses on Fascist influences, specifically). Key to Mr. Goldberg’s thesis is the concept that the history of these ideas is rather secretive. After all, the subtitle of Mr. Goldberg’s book is, “The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning.” More strikingly, the cover of his book depicts a smiling face, reminiscent of the old Wal-Mart logo, with a Hitler mustache. Theirs, Mr. Goldberg seems to imply, is a sort of soft authoritarianism; one hidden behind rhetorical flourish and claims of furthering a modern Roussean general will. Yet, I think this thesis is in need of further development given a now visible trend in the tactics and style of Democratic presidential campaigns. I contend that the American left is beginning to drop the façade and embrace authoritarian aestheticism.
By authoritarian aestheticism, I mean the style and rhetoric of authoritarian regimes. I acknowledge that I may not be tracing this trend back far enough, but my superficial insight into this recent spectacle leads me to believe that it began with the 2004 presidential campaign of John Kerry. Kerry, you will recall, is a far left United State senator from Massachusetts who ran for the American presidency masquerading as a blue dog Democrat. This, only four short years after another “moderate” Democrat, former Vice President Al Gore, lost the American presidency by a slim margin. His supporters claimed that many of his far left votes were “stolen” by Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader. Senator Kerry—who knew he would have to appease the far left while hoodwinking the American heartland—opted for a campaign slogan which would serve as an aside to his leftist supporters. His choice: the first line of a Langston Hughes poem, “Let America Be America Again.”
Langston Hughes, oft called the Shakespeare of the Harlem Renaissance was before the so-called McCarthy era, an openly committed communist and an admirer of Stalin. One famous piece of prose reads:
Put one more S in the U.S.A..
To make it Soviet.
One more S in the U.S.A..
Oh, we’ll live to see it yet.
Another enchanting ode to Soviet communism goes:
Christ Jesus Lord God Jehovah,
Beat it on away from here now.
Make way for a new guy with no religion at all —
A real guy named
Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME.
Actually, while doing some research for this piece, I was delighted to stumble upon a beautifully crafted column by William F. Buckley on this matter dated 2 June 2004. Buckley opines that:
“Langston Hughes was asking America to ‘be America again,’ meaning, not an America that history had known and chronicled, but an America realizable in a new and different vision. The land of Marx and Lenin and Stalin. Mr. Kerry’s campaign team is going to have serious homework to do before introducing Langston Hughes as the poet laureate of the Democratic Party in 2004.”
And yet, I disagree with my preeminent literary influence. I don’t think it was a lack of homework that led Senator Kerry to choose the first line of a poem by an unapologetic communist who admired Stalin. Nor, however, do I think Senator Kerry a Stalinist. I believe that Senator Kerry finds something romantic about Marxist authoritarianism and was well aware that his far left supporters do too. One might say that this was the beginning of the Democratic Party’s open embrace of the far left’s impulse toward the aesthetics associated with authoritarian regimes.
This brings me to Senator Kerry’s electoral successor– the President. A Tea Party joke goes that only two men in history have been represented by a symbol. One is President Obama, while the other man that I am referring is not the artist formerly known as Prince. While I in no way believe the Obama logo can be fairly compared to the swastika, I do think that symbols play an important role in authoritarian aesthetics. Consider Mussolini’s fasces, Lenin’s hammer and sickle, and Mao’s red star. One has to wonder if part of President Obama’s appeal to the far left is his ability to play the role of unquestioned leader, symbol and all.
Late last month, the Obama campaign revealed their 2012 campaign slogan, “Forward!” This was done in an unapologetically propagandist YouTube video. If Dreams From My Father is, as Ann Coulter puts it, “Dime Store Mein Kampf,” then this video is something along the lines of a D-list Triumph Des Willens. But I digress; far more troubling than the video is the choice of the slogan itself.
I am not the first to write about the political history of this phrase; Drudge covered it satirically, Victor Morton of The Washington Times blogged about it, and Gateway Pundit noted the slogan’s National Socialist history. To summarize briefly, the slogan “Forward!” has been used by European Marxists since the late 19th century. It was the name of a German socialist newspaper which published the works of Trotsky and Engels. It was the name of a Soviet publication founded by Lenin (Vpered) and a Soviet propaganda film directed by Dziga Vertov. Most infamously, it was the title of a Hitler Youth marching tune, “Vorwärts! Vorwärts!”
Is the choice of a slogan with so much authoritarian baggage just a coincidence? Is it just another case of a campaign staffer forgetting to do his homework? Not, I would contend, given the recent trend toward authoritarian aestheticism on the American left. Such a choice was likely deliberate, if not subconscious, and only serves to reinforce President Obama’s image as a strong man who can make good on a manifesto of New Left policies.