Scott Payne has a sharp post up on the misappropriation of the word “fascism” in American political discourse. I agree wholeheartedly that accusing political opponents of totalitarian sympathies is a good way to alienate potential supporters, and I think recent history eloquently proves his point. How many otherwise sympathetic voters were put off by the antiwar movement’s over-the-top accusations of creeping Nazism? We’ll never know, but I’ve always suspected that the aesthetics of the antiwar/anti-torture crowd did more to push people away than the merits of their actual positions.
On a broader level, however, I feel pretty strongly that the comparison implicit in most accusations of fascism is incredibly demeaning and almost always uncalled for. When Mark Steyn refers to Europeans as “once free peoples,” I can’t help but contrast my (admittedly limited) experience abroad to, say, Gulag Archipelago, and conclude that Steyn is either incredibly daft or intentionally callous. There are empirical metrics that convincingly show that the United States is not demonstrably freer than many of the so-called social democracies, but even if Steyn is too lazy to do a Google search, he ought to know that no one in Denmark is being carted off to labor camps.
So yes, throwing around words like “fascism” is likely to alienate potential supporters, and we should certainly avoid the more off-putting extremes of political rhetoric. But resorting to cheap accusations also demeans the memory of people who have actually encountered totalitarian politics. We ought to keep that in mind when we’re hurling political epithets as well.