Tag Archives: progressives

Who Do You Debate?

In a recent column in the New York Times, Michelle Goldberg raised a thorny but important issue: should liberal publications engage in affirmative action for conservatives?

The impetus for the question was a decision by The Atlantic to hire a conservative writer whose opinions would seem to place him outside the bounds of civil discourse.

The progressive objection to Williamson lies in the demeaning ways he’s written about poor people, black people, women, and trans people. He described an African-American boy in East St. Louis sticking out his elbows in “the universal gesture of primate territorial challenge.” Defiantly using male pronouns in a piece about the trans actress Laverne Cox, Williamson wrote, “Regardless of the question of whether he has had his genitals amputated, Cox is not a woman, but an effigy of a woman.” Feminism, he wrote, is a “collection of appetites wriggling queasily together like a bag of snakes.” He tweeted that women who have abortions should be hanged, later clarifying that while he has doubts about the death penalty, “I believe that the law should treat abortion like any other homicide.”

The decision to bring a “conservative voice” in-house is understandable–even commendable. After all, progressives insist that dialogue is good, that minds must be open, that all ideas deserve to be considered. The term “liberal” once denoted open-mindedness and the willingness to engage people with whom one disagreed. But Goldberg’s question goes to the heart of our current political dilemma:

[Atlantic’s] hiring has set off the latest uproar over which conservatives belong in the opinion sections of elite mainstream publications, including, of course, The New York Times. These controversies are, naturally, of particular interest to people who write for opinion sections, and so receive disproportionate media coverage. But there’s a broader significance to these recurring fights, because they’re about how we decide which views are acceptable at a time of collapsing mainstream consensus. The intellectual implosion of the Republican Party, it turns out, creates challenges for liberals as well as conservatives, because suddenly it’s not clear which views a person who aspires to fair-mindedness needs to grapple with.

This issue isn’t limited to publications. Universities are constantly being criticized because a preponderance of faculty–especially at more rigorous institutions–lean left. The accusation is that conservative scholars are subjected to discrimination.

The reality is considerably different–academics are pathetically eager to demonstrate even-handedness, and most of us who participate in search committees would be deliriously happy to discover that a highly qualified candidate was politically conservative.  (In some schools, like business, that does happen.) But search committees look first and foremost for evidence of sound scholarship–and in many fields, the candidates with the impressive resumes tend to be liberal.

Just as the university isn’t going to hire a science professor who insists the earth is flat or evolution is a myth, a reputable opinion journal is courting disaster by failing to distinguish between a philosophical conservative and a purveyor of conspiracy theories and/or racial resentments. These days, it’s hard to find a conservative who hasn’t been co-opted by Trumpism.

As Goldberg notes, it used to be that in order to understand national politics, you had to understand certain conservative ideas.

Trump put an end to that. The field of ideas has gone from being the ground on which politics are fought to a side in politics, which is why it’s so difficult to find serious intellectual Trump defenders. Trump has resentments and interests, but not ideology; he governs more as a postmodern warlord than a traditional party leader. Few things signal the irrelevance of ideas to his presidency like the appointment of John Bolton as national security adviser. Bolton’s relentless advocacy of regime change contradicts the isolationism Trump touted during the campaign. Trump called the Iraq war a “disaster”; Bolton is one of few who continue to defend it. Yet Bolton’s appointment isn’t discordant, because he and Trump are both belligerent bullies, and in this administration stylistic similarities matter more than policy details.

Inasmuch as there are ideas bound up with Trumpism, they are considered too disreputable for most mainstream publications. An opinion section that truly captured the currents of thought shaping our politics today might include Alex Jones, the conspiracy-mad Sandy Hook truther; the white nationalist Richard Spencer; and CliffsNotes fascist Steve Bannon.

The problem is, liberals need to engage with genuine conservatism. Just as the absence of a reputable Republican Party allows Democrats to become fragmented and intellectually lazy, liberal ideas need to be sharpened (and sometimes defeated) by contrary insights.

Giving a platform to people based upon their self-identification rather than their ability to articulate and defend a genuinely conservative point of view does conservatives–not to mention Americans– no favor.

About White Populism

A few days back, I posted a blog praising George W. Bush’s recent speech decrying Trump’s bigotry. The responses were varied–some agreed that such a message coming from a former Republican President whose own tenure was unsuccessful (to put it mildly) was welcome. Others recited the multiple misdeeds of his administration as proof that nothing he could ever do should be considered praiseworthy.

There is a degree of partisanship that makes its adherents loathe to agree with any sentiment, no matter how anodyne, coming from the other “team”–a dogmatism that makes them unwilling to believe that agreement by one of “them” with a position of “ours” could possibly be authentic, let alone grounds for amicable discussion.

That’s too bad, because those partisans will miss an essay in the National Review that is well worth reading. I would be surprised if thoughtful political liberals wouldn’t approve of most of the points made.

A couple of examples:

Conservatives have a weakness for that “acting white” business because we are intellectually invested in emphasizing the self-inflicted problems of black America, for rhetorical and political reasons that are too obvious to require much elaboration…

Republicans, once the party of the upwardly mobile with a remarkable reflex for comforting the comfortable, have written off entire sections of the country — including the bits where most of the people live — as “un-American.” Silicon Valley and California at large, New York City and the hated Acela corridor, and, to some extent, large American cities categorically are sneered at and detested. There is some ordinary partisanship in that, inasmuch as the Democrats tend to dominate the big cities and the coastal metropolitan aggregations, but it isn’t just that. Conservatives are cheering for the failure of California and slightly nonplussed that New York City still refuses to regress into being an unlivable hellhole in spite of the best efforts of its batty Sandinista mayor. Not long ago, to be a conservative on Manhattan’s Upper East Side was the most ordinary thing in the world. Now that address would be a source of suspicion. God help you if you should ever attend a cocktail party in Georgetown, the favorite dumb trope of conservative talk-radio hosts.

We’ve gone from William F. Buckley Jr. to the gentlemen from Duck Dynasty. Why?

American authenticity, from the acting-even-whiter point of view, is not to be found in any of the great contemporary American business success stories, or in intellectual life, or in the great cultural institutions, but in the suburban-to-rural environs in which the white underclass largely makes its home — the world John Mellencamp sang about but understandably declined to live in.

Shake your head at rap music all you like: When’s the last time you heard a popular country song about finishing up your master’s in engineering at MIT?

There is much, much more, and I strongly encourage readers to click through and read the entire essay–not just because so many of the writer’s observations are dead-on, but because those on the political Left who identify strongly with other progressives and with the resistance to Trump and Trumpism need to remember that genuine conservatives also disdain the know-nothings and bigots who have appropriated the conservative label.

Before the GOP was taken over by conspiracy theorists, racists, religious fundamentalists and Big Money, principled Democratic and Republican political figures used to engage in civil conversation and even productive policymaking.

We will never recover the art of civil conversation, let alone policymaking intended to serve the public good, if we refuse to see any merit in anyone who doesn’t agree with us 100%. That sort of political intransigence–prominent among the GOP base and so-called “Freedom Caucus”–is what has destroyed the Republican party. Democrats shouldn’t emulate it.

Read the damn essay.

 

What Winning Looks Like

Bernie Sanders won’t be the Democratic nominee. But he’s winning something more important.

Ed Brayton has the best–and most succinct–analysis of the challenge faced by Bernie Democrats. Over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, he writes:  

It’s time for Sanders fans — and again, I’m one of them — to shift their focus from winning the presidency to building a real movement to accomplish his primary goal, which is to get the influence of big money out of our political process as much as possible. So what does that entail?

First, it means supporting Hillary Clinton in the general election. What is it that is currently preventing us from passing any meaningful legislation to limit the influence of big money? The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. If the Republicans win, any hope of adding a liberal justice to the Supreme Court that could help overturn that ruling dies for at least the next generation, maybe more. On the other hand, a Democratic president gets to replace Scalia and there would then be a liberal majority on the court and overturning that ruling becomes entirely plausible. Bernie voters who refuse to vote for Clinton, even if they have to hold their nose to do it, will be cutting off their nose to spite their face and dramatically reducing the chances of achieving Bernie’s top policy priority.

Second, it means building up an organization that can recruit, train and fund candidates who share Bernie’s vision of not only reducing the influence of big money, but also favors stronger regulation of big business — the very thing that the outsized influence of their money seeks to prevent. Overturning Citizens United is just the first step. The second step has to be electing people to Congress who will vote for serious campaign finance reform, not the weak sauce that was McCain-Feingold. This requires money, organization, and professionals who know how to run campaigns and how tothink strategically in politics.

You can rage all you want about how unfair the system is, but that rage doesn’t actually change anything if you can’t translate it into effective legislative action. So yeah, Bernie is going to lose the Democratic nomination. That doesn’t mean he’s going to lose the larger battle. Winning that battle is up to his supporters and those who share his vision, but if all you’re going to do is kick and scream and cry about dark conspiracies, you won’t achieve a damn thing. So if you want Bernie to win something more important than the White House, get your heads out of the clouds and get to work.

Bottom line: Sanders faces a challenge. He cannot win the Democratic nomination. Will he do a reprise of the disastrous Nader “If not me, no-one” ego trip–a position that gave the U.S. eight years of George W. Bush and a vastly more dangerous world, or will he be willing to spend the time and political capital to lead the Democratic party to a more progressive place?

I think he has signaled his willingness to do the latter, because I think he cares about the issues he has raised more than his own importance. At a campaign rally in Oregon, he said

“We need to plant the flag of progressive politics in every state in this country.”

Echoing Howard Dean from an earlier campaign, Sanders also insisted that the Democratic Party as a whole must forge a 50-state strategy focused on restoring civic vibrancy and fueling meaningful outcomes on the key issues people care about.

“The Democratic Party has to reach a fundamental conclusion: Are we on the side working people or big money interests? Do we stand with the elderly, the children, and the sick and the poor, or do we stand with Wall Street speculators and the drug companies and the insurance companies?”….

Now our job is not just to revitalize the Democratic Party—not only to open the doors to young people and working people—our jobs is to revitalize American democracy.”

If Sanders can set the Democratic party on the road to realizing that goal, he–and the American political system– will be the ultimate winners.