One of my least popular views is that any “third way” beyond the traditional distinctions of left and right, other than just plain old liberalism, is going to be another variation on fascism. Another unpopular view of mine is that Catholic Social Teaching is, at the end of the day, an incoherent grab bag of ideas intended to give as many people as possible a point of identification with the Catholic Church — rather than, as some (almost invariably conservative) Catholic thinkers believe, a brilliantly insightful “third way” beyond our present political impasses.
People resist both views for a readily understandable reason: it doesn’t seem right that our political choices are left-wing revolution, right-wing reaction, or the stale, boring status quo. Given that genuinely left-wing views and organizations have become so diminished in the West, my scheme seems like a recipe for hopelessness as well. Change is so urgent, and it seems unacceptable that we’d need to rebuild left-wing political infrastructure first — can’t we see if we can convince evangelicals, for instance, that they should care about economic justice or the environment, as a kind of shortcut? We’ve got tons of Scripture references!
Such an approach is naive for a wide variety of reasons — and not just because it fundamentally misconstrues the way that Christians use Scripture, taking them at their word that they’re deriving their beliefs and practices “directly” from a sprawling, mutually contradictory collection of ancient texts. More importantly, it assumes that one can build alliances more or less at will, picking an assortment of left- and right-wing ideas. In reality, though, there’s every reason to assume that the historical sorting process that has put certain priorities on the “left” and others on the “right” of the political spectrum has been basically successful in assigning things that fit together to each side, at least over the long haul — because that process has taken place “on the ground,” where people actually need to work together. If their goals weren’t broadly compatible, they would re-sort. There are ambiguous points at any given historical moment, but it’s hard to imagine that things as well-established as women’s reproductive rights or environmentalism are currently on the wrong “side.”
Further: the sorting principle is ultimately based on a qualitative distinction between the left and the right. Speaking broadly, the left is in favor of equality and solidarity, while the right is in favor of authority and stable order. One can pick nits and cite proof texts all day long, but the fact remains that, for instance, the authoritarianism that leads evangelicals to embrace the “traditional family” and oppose sexual and reproductive freedom fits brilliantly with the view that capitalism is a fundamentally moral order that picks winners and losers based primarily on the merits. Attempts to pry that connection loose are bound to be superficial “gotcha” critiques — “but there’s this passage in the Bible!”
This brings me to the true purpose of “grab bag” politics, which is to change things enough that things don’t have to change fundamentally. A centrist Democrat can opportunistically take ideas from both sides of the spectrum because the goal of a centrist Democrat isn’t to produce any genuine change but to somehow “muddle through” with the existing setup. A more militant “third way” (i.e., fascist) movement is going to be facing a more fundamental challenge to the legitimacy of the system and so will be open to more radical change, but the goal remains the same — to preserve the existing hierarchy. The left-wing ideas they accept will be oriented toward making the existing hierarchy more tolerable, but the same people will ultimately be in charge. A model here is the company that treats its workers more generously so that they won’t feel the need to unionize — they’re willing to give a lot of ground so as not to have to deal with a challenge to their authority.
So I repeat: the “third way” is going to be either plain old liberalism (in the broad sense, not the narrow American sense) and thus try to maintain the status quo or else it’s going to be a more militant reactionary movement that’s responding to a fundamental challenge to the status quo and is thus willing to make all kinds of opportunistic consessions in order to maintain the underlying structure of authority in society. In short, any “third way” that’s not just liberalism is fascism. (Sorry, Catholic Social Teaching fans! And localists…. And the few remaining people who think that Radical Orthodoxy is a genuinely progressive or left-wing movement….)
Left-wing movements can also be opportunistic, of course, but I don’t think you have the same claim to have found a brilliant, stable synthesis between left and right — instead, any “right-wing” measure is a kind of state of emergency, as exemplified in the authoritarianism of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” It’s at this point, though, that I haven’t thought things through as clearly, so maybe we could discuss.