Tag Archives: Right

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A few days ago, Peggy left a profound comment about the cause of America’s currently unproductive public discourse. She wrote “The problem is actually in the labelling. Take the Democratic legislative priorities in Congress. If you just poll on the issues, urban and rural both approve of the voting rights bill, the infrastructure bill, and even the immigration (almost) reform bill. Only when you add the label Dem or GOP do they disagree.”

Let me share a recent illustration.

This week, our family is at the beach in South Carolina. We drive from Indianapolis (a long haul!!) and come in through Georgetown, SC. We typically stop on Front Street at Georgetown for lunch, and because we were meeting a cousin and we were a bit early, I shopped a bit. In one shop, I asked the owner what had happened to a similar store that was no longer there. She explained how the pandemic had hurt local retailing (which was already suffering), and we commiserated over the reluctance of people to be vaccinated.

Then she said something to the effect that “at least we aren’t Cuba–I hope Americans aren’t dumb enough to become socialists.” It was abundantly clear that she would not have been able to define “socialism” if her life had depended upon it.

And that’s our problem–right AND left. We throw labels around–often as epithets–because that relieves us of the need to actually know what we’re talking about. It explains the often-noted conundrum Peggy referenced between public opinion on particular issues and the same public’s rejection of those advocating for those issues: large majorities of Americans support Medicare, for example, but oppose “socialized” medicine.

As I have repeatedly noted, all functioning societies have mixed economies in which they “socialize” certain services and leave others to the private sector. We socialize–that is, communally provide–things like police and fire protection, public education (currently under attack), infrastructure (currently crumbling) and municipal services like garbage collection. We do so because we’ve concluded that the service is important and communal delivery is more cost-effective. National health care wouldn’t turn us into Cuba (nor, unfortunately, Denmark.)

Similarly, if you deconstruct the online diatribes I encounter against “Capitalism,” they mostly fail to distinguish between market economies and the corrupted corporatism that dominates in America these days.

As I have argued previously, labeling is not analysis. Worse, it gets in the way of thoughtful or productive discussion. The media’s default description of pretty much all public policies is “Left” or “Right.” That’s easy–and almost always misleading. In an era of tribalism and partisanship, the mere labeling of a proposal as either right or left eclipses any effort to ask the pertinent questions: does this make sense? Does this solve a real problem? Can we enforce it? Instead, the argument gets reduced to: “Who wins? Is this something those people support? If so, I don’t.”

With respect to those hysterical GOP accusations that Democrats are all “socialists,” I still quote a 2019 Paul Krugman column addressing the misuse of economic terminology:

The Democratic Party has clearly moved left in recent years, but none of the presidential candidates are anything close to being actual socialists — no, not even Bernie Sanders, whose embrace of the label is really more about branding (“I’m anti-establishment!”) than substance.

Nobody in these debates wants government ownership of the means of production, which is what socialism used to mean. Most of the candidates are, instead, what Europeans would call “social democrats”: advocates of a private-sector-driven economy, but with a stronger social safety net, enhanced bargaining power for workers and tighter regulation of corporate malfeasance. They want America to be more like Denmark, not more like Venezuela.

The foundational policy questions are: what is government for? What sorts of things do rational people believe government must–or should–do, and what sorts of things should a free country leave to the private sector? What sorts of rules should government establish to ensure that private economic activity is conducted fairly, and what sorts of regulatory activity is over-reaching? 

Labels are the refuge of the intellectually lazy. Evidently, a lot of Americans fall into that category.

Free Speech

“Cancel culture.” “Political correctness.” “Hate speech.” Americans have been arguing about free speech since passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Recently, there have even been reports of disagreement within that bastion of free-speech defense, the ACLU.

As we all know, no one is trying to shut up people with whom they agree. The First Amendment was designed, as Justice Holmes memorably put it, to “protect the idea we hate.” In an effort to explain why that insight is so important, I often shared with my students a personal experience from “back in the day”– early in my long-ago tenure as Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU.

Members of the KKK had applied to use the steps of the Indiana Statehouse for a rally. Then-Governor Evan Bayh (who surely knew better) refused to allow it. The Statehouse steps had routinely been used by other organizations, and despite Bayh’s posturing, the law clearly forbid the government from allowing or disallowing such use based on the content of the message to be delivered.

So the Klan came to the ACLU.

At the time, the people who ended up representing the rights of these odious people included the Jewish Executive Director (me), the affiliate’s one secretary, who was Black, and a co-operating attorney, who was gay.

Each of us knew that if the Klan ever achieved power, we’d be among the first to be marginalized or even eliminated–so why on earth would we protect the organization’s right to spew its bigotry? Because we also knew that– in a system where government can pick and choose who has rights– no one really has rights. The government that can muzzle the KKK today can muzzle me tomorrow–and as we have (painfully) learned, we can’t assume that good people will always be in charge of that government.

As one ACLU leader put it, poison gas is a great weapon until the wind shifts.

As with so many other misunderstood elements of the Bill of Rights, the issue isn’t what you may say or do– it is who gets to decide what you say or do? And right now, at the same time state-level Republican legislators are accusing the left of “canceling” their messages and “censoring” Dr. Seuss, they are waging a determined war on protesters’ and educators’ right to say things with which they disagree. 

As Michelle Goldberg recently reported,

In a number of states, Republicans have responded to last year’s racial justice uprising by cracking down on demonstrators. As The Times reported in April, during 2021 legislative sessions, lawmakers in 34 states have introduced 81 anti-protest bills. An Indiana bill would bar people convicted of unlawful assembly from state employment. A Minnesota proposal would prohibit people convicted of unlawful protesting from getting student loans, unemployment benefits or housing assistance. Florida passed a law protecting drivers from civil liability if they crash their cars into people protesting in the streets.

Meanwhile, the right-wing moral panic about critical race theory has led to a rash of statewide bills barring schools — including colleges and universities — from teaching what are often called “divisive concepts,” including the idea that the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist. Even where such laws haven’t been passed, the campaign has had a chilling effect; the Kansas Board of Regents recently asked state universities for a list of courses that include critical race theory.

As Goldberg says, there’s nothing new about the left growing weary of sticking up for the rights of reactionaries. Personally, I would find it really satisfying to shut down Faux News, or to tell the My Pillow Guy to go stuff a sock in it. The problem is, satisfying that urge won’t take us where we need to go. Goldberg’s last sentence is worth contemplating.

 Maybe every generation has to learn for itself that censorship isn’t a shortcut to justice.

To which I would just add: and criticism of your position by people who aren’t using the power of government to shut you up isn’t censorship.

 

 

 

The Policing Conundrum

In the late 1970’s, I served three years as Indianapolis’ Corporation Counsel–the city’s chief lawyer. Defending police against charges of wrongdoing was one of the tasks of the legal department, and one of the lasting lessons I took away was the need to hire officers carefully.

As a police chief I worked with at the time was fond of saying, “We give these guys guns to carry and authority to use them–we have an obligation to select and train them so they won’t abuse that authority.” During my tenure, the City instituted psychological tests in an effort to weed out applicants who were attracted to policing for authoritarian or other dubious reasons, and made several efforts to improve training.

During last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, I often thought back to those City experiences. I knew many truly admirable officers–but City Legal also had to defend some indefensible ones. And the police union didn’t help–for them, it was all “us versus them,” and “our guys right or wrong.”

Because I knew there was truth to both “the policeman is your friend” and accusations of brutality and worse, I may have been less shocked by a headline in the Guardian after January 6th: “US Capitol riot: police have long history of aiding neo-Nazis and extremists.”

For years, domestic terrorism researchers have warned that there are police departments in every region of America counting white supremacist extremists and neo-Nazi sympathizers among their ranks.

To these experts, and the activists who have been targeted by law enforcement officers in past years, it came as no surprise that police officers were part of the mob that stormed the US Capitol on 6 January. In fact, the acceptance of far-right beliefs among law enforcement, they say, helped lay the groundwork for the extraordinary attacks in the American capital.

Criminal justice news sites have identified at least 30 sworn members of police agencies from some 12 different states who participated in the insurrection, and several on-duty Capitol police officers have been suspended for allegedly supporting, rather than resisting, the rioters. Scholars who study extremist movements and survivors of far-right violence have warned for years that there are close ties between some police and white supremacist groups. 

As news of the participation of police in the insurrection has emerged, some officers have abandoned the traditional “wall of silence..”According to the president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the behavior of those participants was so egregious, it prompted fellow officers to alert police chiefs and others to their colleagues’ participation in the mob attack on the Capitol.

Actively helping an effort to overthrow the government might have been a step too far, but the linked article recounts several exceedingly troubling events in which police actively protected Neo-Nazis rather than those they were attacking. One example:

In June 2016 in Sacramento at least ten people were stabbed and injured at a rally of the Traditionalist Workers Party (TWP), a group that extremism experts have classified as neo-Nazis.

The subsequent investigation, led by the California Highway Patrol (CHP), focused on the anti-fascist counter-protesters injured in the stabbings, with records showing that police worked with white supremacists to identify leftist activists and pursue criminal charges against the stabbing victims.

The lead CHP investigator, Donovan Ayres, repeatedly stated in police records that he viewed the neo-Nazis as victims and the anti-fascists as suspects.

Research continues to confirm that protestors on the Left  are far more likely to be arrested than those on the Right.

York University sociologist Lesley Wood analyzed 64 U.S. protests from 2017 and 2018 where counter-protesters were present and arrests were made. She found that right-leaning protesters accounted for 8% of total arrests, while left-leaning protesters accounted for 81%. (The ideology of the remaining arrestees — 38 of them at 14 events — couldn’t be identified from news reports.) Although Wood cautioned against drawing conclusions solely from the raw numbers–more people have attended protests by the Left than the Right–there is nevertheless consistent evidence that police will move far more aggressively against those on the Left.

And it will surprise absolutely no one that–as authors of a 2012 analysis found, “events initiated by African Americans remain a positive and robust predictor of the use of force…”

Part of the problem is that we currently  call on the police to address problems that should be shifted to other forms of public safety, such as social services, youth services, housing, education, healthcare and other community resources. “Defund the police” was one of the stupidest and most counter-productive slogans produced by Democrats (and that is saying something!), but the actual shifts of responsibility being proposed under that banner were mostly sensible.

It is long past time to improve the way we recruit, train and discipline officers, and modify what we ask them to do. 

 

Left, Right, Center: Just Words

When it became apparent that Joe Biden had effectively won the Democratic nomination, it intensified the longstanding arguments between the party’s moderate and left wings about just where the American public falls on that beloved–and misleading–left/right spectrum.

A good example was this article from Washington Monthly, reprinted on Alterrnet.

This is the fourth consecutive defeat for Sanders-style revolutionary leftist politics in the Anglosphere: Sanders lost to Clinton in 2016; Sanders-style revolutionary candidates lost most of their Congressional races in 2018 while moderates were much more successful; Jeremy Corbyn’s approach to Labour politics was obliterated in Great Britain by buffoonish Boris Johnson’s Tories in a direct Sanders-Trump parallel; and now the Biden victory in the 2020 Democratic primary.

But defeatism would be the wrong lesson for leftists interested in passing social democratic policies in America and Britain. The reality is that leftist policy has never been more ascendant in the Democratic Party since at least the 1960s if not the 1930s. The Biden 2020 campaign platform is well to the left of the Clinton 2016 platform, which was itself well to the left of the Obama 2008 platform.

The article went on to point to the mountain of social science research confirming that so-called “Leftist” policies are favored by significant majorities of Americans, which is undeniably true. (The author also pointed out those insisting that economic self-interest can trump cultural divisions are just as undeniably wrong.)

This was just one article among hundreds arguing that this or that campaign success or failure was the result of mistaken political strategies and issue framing. (If Bernie hadn’t insisted on using the word “socialist”….)

To an extent, that’s true.  What all of these analyses miss, however, is the role played by our American insistence on labeling everything. It isn’t simply intellectually lazy; labels significantly distort political reality.

If I consider myself a moderate or conservative, I will recoil when told that position A is “socialist” or “communist.” If I consider myself a liberal or socialist, I will automatically oppose measure A if it is supported by people I consider conservative or reactionary.

Actually, what is “left” and what is “right” at any given time is highly contingent.

When I was a politically-active Republican, the majority of the views I held were the same views I share on this blog. (Not all, obviously, but most. My basic political philosophy has been pretty consistent.) Back then, I was labeled “very conservative.” As the GOP marched over the ideological cliff,  my positions–which hadn’t changed– became “liberal.”

Hard as it may be to believe in our culturally and politically polarized time, many of the positions that Americans label “far left” today were considered unremarkable and mainstream in former years.

That shift is best explained by a concept called the Overton Window. Basically, as public opinion shifts, so does the location of the “middle.”  That middle, at any given time, defines what is politically possible.

In a sane society (granted, that isn’t what we currently inhabit), voters would analyze political positions based upon the perceived ability of those specific proposals to solve identifiable problems–not upon the consistency of that proposal with a label ascribing it to a tribal ideology.

But that would require understanding the problem, agreeing that it is a problem, and thinking carefully about the pros and cons of the proposed solution. It’s so much easier to react not to the proposal but to its identification with the “tribe” that supports it.

I guess that’s why we can’t have nice things…..

 

Labels For The Intellectually Lazy

In a class discussion the other day, a student noted that she had taken one of those “where do you stand?” tests on the Internet, and had emerged dead-center–neither Left nor Right. She wondered what was wrong with her; evidently, her fatal flaw is that she actually thinks for herself.

These Internet “tests,” of course, are bogus; the questions lack nuance, and tend to reflect the “either/or” bipolarism of contemporary American politics.

I’m old enough to remember when the most common complaint about the parties was that there wasn’t “a dime’s worth of difference between them.” I also remember a popular libertarian illustration of the political spectrum as a circle, not a straight line–the accurate message being that, at the far left and far right, the extremes meet, with their only disagreement being whose agenda government should impose on the rest of us.

I’m also old enough to remember when issues we now consider “left” were held by many on the right: lots of limited-government Republicans used to be pro-choice and pro-gay-rights, for example, asserting that–as Barry Goldwater put it–government didn’t belong in your boardroom or your bedroom.

The tendency to apply labels that allow us to dismiss, rather than engage, positions with which we disagree is hardly new; in 2003, I wrote

This mania for labeling people so that we don’t have to engage with them on the validity of their ideas has accelerated during the past few years. Perhaps it is talk radio, with its tendency to reduce everything to name-calling sound-bites. Admittedly, it is much more efficient to call a woman a “feminazi” than to take the time and effort needed to discuss why her positions are untenable. And the tactic certainly isn’t limited to Republicans; Indiana’s very own Evan Bayh has solemnly warned the Democrats against the danger posed by “leftists” like Howard Dean. (I’m not quite sure when Dean’s support for gun rights, the death penalty and a balanced budget became “far left” positions. Perhaps when they were espoused by someone the Senator isn’t supporting.)

Intellectual honesty has not improved since 2003. Far from it.

Perhaps my memory is faulty, but when I became politically active, the major differences in political philosophy involved “how” rather than “what.” In other words, there was general recognition of the problems America faced, but different approaches to solving those problems. Today, the bulk of the Republican Party disagrees about the very existence of certain problems–think climate change.

Disputing evidence, however, is neither Left nor Right. It’s delusional.

For that matter, a number of America’s current challenges simply do not lend themselves to classic Left/Right classifications. Climate change is one. Globalization is another. The likelihood that automation will displace millions of workers, and the increasingly undemocratic structure of our electoral system are still others. Proposed solutions to these challenges may or may not fall on the familiar left/right spectrum, but any genuine debate about those solutions must be grounded in acknowledgment of their existence and complexity.

Admittedly, the resurgence of white nationalism on the one hand and calls for massive economic redistribution on the other fall on the familiar left/right spectrum–but even then, partisan labeling and name-calling are no substitute for considered analysis.

Yelling “snowflake” or “fascist” at those with whom you disagree may make you feel better, but it’s not only lazy–it’s no substitute for an evidence-based explanation of why you disagree.

Name calling is also unlikely to change anyone’s opinion  –although, given the rancor of today’s political tribalism, and the unwillingness of today’s zealots even to consider contrary positions, probably nothing is.