Lessons from the Weimar Republic

I decided to become a political scientist in the spring of 1976, while I was attending the Stanford-in-Berlin overseas study program. I had already declared an International Relations major, but was trying to decide between going to law school (the supposedly safe option) or pursuing a Ph.D. in Political Science (looked risky). While in Berlin, I took Professor Gordon Craig’s course on German history, and one lecture — on the role of intellectuals in the Weimar Republic — finally tipped the balance for me.

In that particular class, Craig argued that one of the many forces that doomed the Weimar Republic was the irresponsible behavior of both left-wing and right-wing intellectuals. The German left was contemptuous of the liberal aspirations of the Weimar Constitution and other bourgeois features of Weimar society, while right-wing “thinkers” like Ernst Junger glorified violence and disparaged the application of reason to political issues. So-called “liberal” intellectuals saw politics as a grubby business unworthy of their refined sensibilities, and so many just disengaged from politics entirely. This left the field to rabble-rousers and extremists of various sorts and helped prepare the ground for Nazism. (You can read Craig’s account of this process in his book Germany 1866-1945, chapter 13, on “Weimar Culture”).

The lesson I took from Craig’s lecture was that when intellectuals abandon liberal principles, disengage from politics, and generally abdicate their role as “truth-tellers” for society at large, it is easy for demagogues to play upon human fears and lead a society over the brink to disaster.  So I decided to forego a legal career and get a Ph.D. instead, hoping in some way to contribute to more reasonable discourse about issues of war, peace, and politics.

Whether I succeeded in that aspiration I leave for others to decide, but I’ve been thinking about that episode as I contemplate the current state of American political discourse. There’s plenty of reasoned debate out there, of course, and one could argue that the rise of the Internet and the blogosphere may even have increased the amount of serious discussion by smart people across the political spectrum. But when I watch videos like this one, and I read the xenophobic bile spewed by hate-mongers like Islamophobe Pam Geller, then I can’t help but hear echoes of the Weimar experience. The left has never been very influential in American politics, but disappointment with Obama is already reinforcing its disregard for existing U.S. institutions and may render it even less relevant going forward.  Meanwhile, the supposedly “conservative” American right is getting nuttier by the minute. Instead of serious policy debate, it indulges in bizarre theories about Obama’s religious beliefs, and his supposedly “socialist” (or “Muslim”) agenda and takes its marching orders from entertainers like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck (who once admitted he’s only in it for the money). When the Party of Lincoln’s leading lights include unprincipled opportunists like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, you know you’re a long way from the days of Dwight Eisenhower or Brent Scowcroft.

Meanwhile, where are the tough-minded and courageous defenders of the liberal values of tolerance, freedom of expression, and reasoned discourse? There are a few — New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg comes to mind — but how many prominent politicians have shown any genuine political courage or been willing to take a tough position and stick to it in the face of the mob? Extremists start to look admirable because at least they appear to stand for something (even if it is dangerous and fear-mongering bombast), while many traditional liberals seem all too willing to compromise whenever there is PAC money on the line or the poll winds shift.

Yes, I understand that politics is the art of the possible and some degree of compromise is inevitable, but wouldn’t you like to see a few liberals really dig down deep and fight for something they believe in? Like the Constitution?

Apologies for the rant, but I really do think there’s reason to worry. The U.S. economy is still in very bad shape, the Iraq War isn’t over despite what you’re being told, the war in Afghanistan still looks like a lost cause, and we’ve made zero progress on long-term issues like climate change.  And don’t even get me started about the Middle East peace process. And yet we are burning up bandwidth on manufactured controversies like the Park 51 issue, mostly because a bunch of out-of-town and out-of-power politicos decided they could exploit the issue for their own selfish agendas.

I guess this means that if I became a political scientist to help preserve intelligent discourse about important political topics, then I haven’t done a very good job.

UPDATE: Over at Salon, Glenn Greenwald lists several other politicians who are standing up for traditional American values of religious tolerance and civil discourse, including: Russ Feingold, Joe Sestak, Grover Norquist, Ron Paul, Jeff Merkley, and a few others.  One doesn’t have to agree with everything that each of these individuals believes to admire their position on this issue.   Kudos to them.


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