To remain a viable form of government, democracy must eschew censorship in any form. The underlying theory is that open debate will, more often than not, reveal the best ideas from among those competing for control over the levers of political power. Then the voting public will, again more often than not, recognize these ideas and elect people capable of putting them into force. I would carry the theory further and argue that ideas coming from both sides are invigorated by the competition. As a result, whichever side emerges in control of government will be more capable of doing so effectively than it would have with nothing more than its own preconceptions upon which to base policy.
It’s my own opinion that this vital dynamic largely explains the staying power of liberal democracies, most prominently the United States, in the face the authoritarian systems. Such governments, right and left, have over the years assumed seemly insurmountable power in various countries, only to reveal themselves as in fact too fragile to survive crisis.
I don’t know whether Keith would express himself in quite these terms or not, but I’m pretty sure he agrees with my basic thinking here. It is, more or less, the meeting of the minds we had several years ago when we agreed to start this blog.
High-Tech TribalismUnfortunately, I fear that both of us may be whistling in the wind in the current political environment here in the United States. Or to employ a more ominous metaphor, maybe we’re whistling past the graveyard. The problem is that effective governing ideas no longer appear to be the objective of our national dialogue. In the article to which Keith was responding in his letter, Thomas Friedman observes that in America today we seem to be descending into a kind of latter-day tribalism in which tribal identity counts for more than ideology. In primitive tribal societies, people don't much care what members of another tribe "think" about anything, only their intrinsic status as friend or foe. While our developing modern tribalism keys off shared biases rather than kinship ties, a lack of interest in what the other side thinks remains as the common denominator. Ideas matter only in so far as they reveal the more visceral underlying attitudes that identify him or her as one of "us" or of "them".
This binary world view harkens back to orthodox Marxism, which used "class conflict" as the universal lens by which believers could reduce their world to its simple and mutually exclusive elements. Marxists divided the entire late nineteenth and early twentieth-century society around them down into Bourgeoisie and Proletariat, with a person's class identity counting for everything and determining what he or she thought on any subject. Since the two classes were considered inherently at war to the death, this mental construct was a spiritual cul-de-sac from which violence was the only possible escape. Debating the enemy served no purpose because there was no alternative ground on which accommodation could be reached. Orthodox Marxists believed in violent revolution and dedicated their lives to accelerating the process. This is how the Russian revolution came about and all the dark history that followed from it.In twenty-first century America, we seem to be drifting back towards something akin to this form of political interaction, albeit without the outmoded Marxian pedantry. Where is it leading us?
PortentsSigns of an answer are starting to appear. On May 30, comedienne and anti-Trump provocateur Kathy Griffin posted an on-line picture of herself holding up in effigy the President's bloody severed head. Her stunt was roundly denounced by almost everyone, including people on the Left, but she initially tried to defend herself by explaining that it was the job of comedians to move lines and then boldly to cross them. Two weeks later, as if on cue, the line she violated was moved and crossed again when James Hodgkinson, a former campaign volunteer for Bernie Sanders, opened fire on a contingent of the Republican Congressional leadership who were gathered to practice for the annual Congressional baseball game. This event has been a friendly bi-partisan tradition in Washington since early in the last century. Mr. Hodgkinson was apparently initially unsure of who was on the field at the time, and he unleashed his attempted massacre only after receiving assurance the ballplayers were indeed Republicans.
Bernie Sanders immediately and, I believe, sincerely condemned the attack. But doesn't he understand his own movement well enough to know that his incessant casual use of the term "revolution", however benignly he himself might imagine it, promises bloody red meat to certain of his followers? It was Chairman Mao in revolutionary China who once, poking fun at some of his own bourgeois supporters, drolly pointed out to them that revolution isn't a dinner party.
De-Humanization Of The EnemyIn the background to all this is the so-called "antifa" (for anti-fascist) agitation that has been gaining momentum since Trump's election. This is the movement driven by the guys is the ISIS-style black coats and full face masks who keep popping up in various places to shout down conservative speakers or intimidate Trump supporters. Fascism was actually a discrete political movement among radical Italian nationalists prior to World War II. The Communists of the day, however, generalized the word and eagerly took it up as a catch-all epithet with which to tar anyone perceived as standing in the way of their road to power. Even moderate Social Democrats, more-or-less equivalent to our modern-day American liberals, found themselves labeled, incomprehensibly, as "Social Fascists". The enemy could never be seen as human.
In twenty-first century America, the hard left has modernized in many respects, having mustered a glitzy social media presence for example, but its adherents have retained the old-fashioned heavy-handed tactical style of their political forebears, as well as their odd love for the indiscriminant word "Fascist". Trump is, of course, a "Fascist".It's not being lost on too many people, certainly no Republicans, that for all the talk about Trump's supposedly incendiary style, most of the true incendiary behavior during the past year has been coming from the Left. During the Presidential campaign, it was Trump rallies, not those of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, who were repeatedly disrupted by abrasive outsiders. The media tried to blame Trump himself for most of this, but people could see what was happening and quietly stored away their thoughts.
Is The Liberal Media Inadvertently Destroying The Democratic Party?Democrats still can't quite seem to understand why they're losing elections. The same pollsters who stroked them with promises of Hillary Clinton's impending landslide in 2016 have ever since been reassuring them with data about Trump's deepening unpopularity. And as during the campaign, the liberal media keeps dropping these data points into its echo chamber and magnifying the sound into a roar. Yet Democrats continue to come up short whenever actual votes are tallied.
Most recently, Republican Karen Handel won the special election held for the Georgia Congressional seat vacated when Tom Price stepped forward to join Trump's cabinet. This election had been widely heralded as a referendum on Trump's presidency, and Democrats were breathless in anticipation of good news, especially after pouring in enough big money from outside the state to turn the contest into the most expensive congressional election in the nation's history. However, the costly hot thrust was all for naught. Furthermore, this was only the latest in five special elections that have occurred since the onset of Trump's reign, and the Democrats have managed to lose every one.
What's going on? Trump's weird and disordered Presidency should be a golden opportunity for Democrats emerge as the adults in the room and bring back some balanced dignity to American politics. It should be easier than ever for them to start winning elections again. Instead, they seem to be pandering to their Hollywood faction and tolerating if not encouraging fringe elements like BLM and radical LGBT activists, the antifa people, and the monomaniacal Trump-haters.Liberal dominance of the mainstream media, that should be an asset for them, has instead become a liability because it's making them look like bullies. CNN sounds like Pravda in its 24/7 blaring of the anti-Trump party line. The impeachment process started before Trump had even assumed office, like a show trial getting underway ahead of any crime. Amazingly, the media is allowing Trump actually to bring credibility to the ludicrous victim's posture he often affected during the Presidential campaign.
Well-heeled voters in places like Georgia's sixth district, by no means the heart of "Deplorables" country, had to have been appalled by all this. Traditional Republicans, independents, and even moderate Democrats must be wondering what the two parties are even about anymore. Only the Trumpites and Bernie's people seem to think they know. People are getting caught up in the tribal passions and voting, increasingly it seems against Democrats, without even understanding why. Politicians on both sides are no longer addressing our minds. They are speaking to our ids, and the appeal is subconscious.
It's A Matter Of TimeMeanwhile, people like Keith and myself sound increasingly quaint trying to engage one another in rational debate, as though policy still mattered. We'll keep at it, however, even if no one much cares. If, as I suggested above, a vigorous democratic process is key to national survival in the face of crisis, then our politicians had better break out of their dysfunction and pick up the ball. There are enough existential threats lurking in the world right now that advent of serious crisis of one sort or another is only a matter of time. If our nation then is still locked in its present state of paralysis, the world's oldest continuous constitutional democracy will at last be consigning itself to the history books.