The Left Must Defend Secular Liberalism from Fascism of All Stripes

With news of Donald Trump’s continued dominance of the Republican Party presidential primary and the disturbing victory of France’s far-right party in today’s local elections, it’s time to admit that fascism has been rising in a slow crescendo both here and overseas among a significant and growing minority of the population.

It’s no surprise. Combine fear of demographic and cultural winter among conservative whites with an increase in Islamist terrorism that infuriates both secularists and cultural conservatives, and mix it into a stew of economic uncertainty caused by globalization, mechanization and the predation of wealthy elites, and you have an easy recipe for a xenophobic, reactionary populist response.

The typical reaction of the modern left to all of this is to tut tut over the unseemliness of it all, and to mock the ignorance of those who do not understand where the true threats to their personal and economic security actually lie. The left is also highly concerned over differential power dynamics and the protection of minority groups from prejudice. Where liberals take the greatest heat over so-called “political correctness” is in setting a double-standard in which members of traditionally disadvantaged and powerless groups are given a pass for behavior that would not be forgiven among members of more traditionally powerful classes. For instance, a Tea Party protest in which white men carrying Gadsden flags attempted to assault and silence a journalist would be met with the appropriate thorough condemnation, whereas a minority group doing likewise is often defended as in need of a safe space. This impulse, while understandable and academically defensible on many levels, is ultimately counterproductive to the liberal project of secular social equality and level playing field for all.

But the “safe space” debate is a tempest in a teapot compared to the problem of how to react to Islamist fundamentalist violence and the far right’s reaction to it. A familiar pattern emerges: an Islamist commits an act of terror, the right moves to blame all of Islam, and the left feels trapped into a position of needing to counter growing Islamophobia to prevent violence against peaceful mosques and moderate muslims.

Understandable and necessary, but a problem emerges in that much of the left seems less willing to condemn Islamist terror than homegrown conservative terror as in the case of the Planned Parenthood shooter, when in truth they are both an outgrowth of violent medieval patriarchal religious fundamentalism that has no place in modern society. The left is trapped into a conversation about the supposed clash of civilizations and of Christianity versus Islam, when in truth the conflict is between modernity and pre-modernity, and between the values of liberal secularism and conservative barbarism.

In moving immediately to a defensive crouch designed to protect to the interests of the less powerful and underprivileged, the left suborns its own commitment to the principles of liberal secularism. That in turn opens up the field for the Trumps and LePens of the world to bring not only far right white nationalists into their field but disaffected secular moderates as well, who would rather make common cause with unsavory rightwing populists than defend the encroachment of alien medieval values into a free, open society.

The left would do well to make a stand for modernity against both ISIS and Trump alike as two sides of the same ugly, antiquated coin. Defending the interests of traditionally underprivileged groups is important, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of affirming the primacy of a modern, secular society.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.