This piece by Rebecca Solnit serves as the best example, but there are countless others as well. In short, many self-proclaimed liberals can’t stand that (1) their guy might be just as morally dubious as the other, or that (2) their deepest partisan urges might conflict with their penchant for moralistic hand-wringing.
Liberal pundits and partisan operatives like to talk about how inclusive their philosophy is. Look at us on the left, we actually tolerate dissent and discussion—unlike those unquestioning group thinkers on the right!
Except that, as has been pointed out time and again, breaking ranks at the wrong moment (and it is almost never the right one) is severely discouraged. Techniques for silencing minority views are many, but a few of the most often used include the use of distractions, ad hominem attacks, and unsubstantiated dismissals.
You can see all three of these at work in Solnit’s article. She call’s this small group of critical liberals that “rancid sector” of the left. What she’s confronting is not a strategy or argument, but an attitude; one which she tells us is utterly toxic, and damaging to her larger, more radical leftist goals.
This is how she describes the group she is seemingly trying to persuade. If so, we’re not off to an inspiring start.
Next, she describes a person who, being so blinded by their discontent and desire for ideological purity, would not allow that Schwarzenegger might have had a good position on the environment, or that California’s current attorney general, Kamala Harris, might be doing some beneficial things for the state, even if not all of her policies are defensible. Instead, responses would resemble the following kind, “A snarky Berkeley professor’s immediate response began, ‘Excuse me, she’s anti-death penalty, but let the record show that her office condoned the illegal purchase of lethal injection drugs.’”
Now here comes the strange part. Solnit laments that, “Apparently, we are not allowed to celebrate the fact that the attorney general for 12% of all Americans is pretty cool in a few key ways or figure out where that could take us.” This strikes me as unserious. It is one thing to give praise where praise is due, and another to “celebrate” because a politician is “pretty cool” on an issue or two.
I agree with Obama on, and support his advocacy of, various policies in response to various problems. This does not lead me to want to celebrate him. I am not in the business of fetishizing those in power. The policies a President can implement are serious business. There is a difference between activism on behalf of a President on issues with which one agrees with him, and activism on behalf of a President, or a governor, or any other elected politician. I care about issues, about policies, and about facts. It is a shame that Solnit is unwilling to acknowledge that one can support an elected official when they try to do X, and not when they try to do Y. But for her, it appears that you’re either with them, or against them.
This makes her further claim that these responses have “an air of punishing or condemning those who are less radical, and it is exactly the opposite of movement- or alliance-building,” confusing. Issue based advocacy is exactly about movement and alliance building. Accept that it is based around the issues, the death penalty, health care, etc., and not the people who propose them. On issues where I feel someone is too moderate, I will condemn their position. That does not mean we cannot work together on an issue where our goals are more aligned, but the idea that either of us should compromise in the interest of “the movement” is unfounded.
After all, I am not a legislator (and neither, it should be pointed out, is Barak Obama), so it is not my job to cut deals and forge compromises. At least the way the system is currently set up, it is my job as a member of the electorate, and as an individual with convictions and beliefs, to advocate for the ideal on any given issue. It is the job of representative lawmakers to then act accordingly and respond to competing public pressure.
Solnit finishes by letting out a battle cry and calling for those who would stand with her to do so, and for the rest to get lost.
“We are facing a radical right that has abandoned all interest in truth and fact. We face not only their specific policies, but a kind of cultural decay that comes from not valuing truth, not trying to understand the complexities and nuances of our situation, and not making empathy a force with which to act. To oppose them requires us to be different from them, and that begins with both empathy and intelligence, which are not as separate as we have often been told.
Being different means celebrating what you have in common with potential allies, not punishing them for often-minor differences. It means developing a more complex understanding of the matters under consideration than the cartoonish black and white that both left and the right tend to fall back on.”
Of course, the “more complex understanding” we must abide by is the one that Solnit is putting forth. She writes of “dismissiveness,” but it is she who does the dismissing. She urges against cartoonish simplifications, but those are the kinds of caricatures she’s foisting on her leftist critics. Rather than argue why the issues she cares about are the most important, and why political dissenters should thus be willing to put down their critiques and line up to support her primary political goals instead, she simply tells us that’s what we should do.
Her rebuttal is thus of the following construction: more radical leftists aren’t ever satisfied and are never willing to celebrate the incremental victories (distraction), as a result they are complainers and malcontents who are bitter and more concerned with moralizing for the sake of their egos than actually accomplishing anything (ad hominem), and therefore their criticism should be ignored because to engage with it will only threaten the movement, and hinder further coalition building (dismissal).
Many have taken issue with Conor Friedersdorf’s declaration that he will not vote for Obama this election despite having done so four years ago.
His argument was, in short, that one must have deal breakers when it comes to the political process. Furthermore, he claims that the deal breaker for him is imperial executive power which not only refuses scrutiny, but which is employed for the unlawful killing of innocents in other parts of the world, including American citizens. Finally, like a good libertarian, he accepts that others employing a utilitarian calculus will not have “deal breakers” of the sort that he has, but adds that if this calculus leads them to support the President, they must do so while “mournfully” acknowledging him as the lesser of two evils.
“The lesser of two evils” is, for Solnit, a cliché, and it is one she rejects on that very basis. Not because she believes it is untrue in this case, but because for her it is not an ontological possibility. It is simply the tired catchphrase of those who resign themselves to despair, rather than proactively forging ahead for the greater good.
And yet not Solnit, nor any other critic I have so far come across, has been willing to challenge Conor’s choice on the moral grounds he sets out. Instead, like Solnit, they are content to distract, vilify, and dismiss.
At Salon, Jamelle Bouie claims that Conor’s emphasis on the President is misplaced. “Presidential elections,” he writes, “are not the place where meaningful change occurs.” What makes this assertion ridiculous is that, on the one hand, Bouie claims that as the executive Obama does not act with complete autonomy. While this is surely true to an extent, the most egregious transgressions of the current administration are not of this sort. The “Kill List” after all, requires one man’s signature, and his alone.
On the other hand however, Bouie is content to claim a few paragraphs later that, “A world where Johnson could be elected president—which, Conor says, would be a good outcome—is a world where these things are possible. His domestic policies would throw millions into hardship, and his hugely contractionary economic policies would plunge the country—and the globe—into a recession.”
For Bouie then, Obama’s hands are tied because the American people want the drone war, AND also a Gary Johnson presidency would lead to international ruin because, well, he would institute austerity unopposed because, well, the people want austerity? The ridiculousness of this chain of assertions is so self-evident that I will not waste any more time on it.
Instead, I’ll turn to this post from Tom Levenson which does a better job of elucidating Bouie’s troubled point. “Ahh,” sighs Levenson, “the eternal righteousness of the resolutely disengaged.” Yes, Levenson considers Conor and his vote to be of a piece with being “resolutely disengaged.” In Levenson’s resolutely disingenuous summation then, one is only being engaged if they vote for a candidate whom Levenson believes is legitimate. Johnson, and the handful of other fringe candidates are not, though whether this is because they have so little popular support, or because people like Levenson consider them to be a priori illegitimate, is unclear.
See, Levenson’s and many other people’s thinking suffers from a contradiction of sorts. He and they accuse people like Conor of being babies for effectively taking their vote home and quitting the game. That is because they don’t think Johnson has any chance of winning. But that is only the case if a majority of people don’t agree with Johnson, and thus don’t support him. If people like Levenson think that Johnson can’t win because, despite having a silent majority of support, that silent majority is not enlightened enough as to his existence to vote for him, then there is nothing at all disengaging about Conor’s vote. Especially not his talking about his vote. What other means could there be for shaking all of the would-be Johnson supporters into action?
So Levenson & Co. don’t think Johnson can win because really, they don’t think a majority of people would vote for him not matter how much public knew about him. He is a fringe candidate because of his views, not because of some nefarious monopoly on the electoral “system.” So Levenson & Co. are in effect saying that Conor shouldn’t support Johnson because it’s a fool’s errand. Yet surely this is absurd on its face.
After all, one must deal with the political process that is, at least until it becomes what they wish it would be. If no one should ever support a politician that has little existing support, no new politician would ever be supported! This makes the most sense in the primary season. If the logic of Levenson and others would hold, people who supported Obama back in 2007 were effectively throwing their votes away. Except that they weren’t, because he ended up winning Iowa, and eventually the nomination.
Now Johnson is not a primary candidate; he won his party’s nomination. And he is on the ballot in forty seven states. To say that Conor’s vote is disengagement is to rule a priori that anyone who doesn’t support someone who already has a majority of the public’s support is throwing their vote away. If this rule were followed elections would never lead to change, since no one would ever vote against the current consensus, or seek to organize against it politically. In the end then, what Levenson and others are arguing is antithetical to the very basis of democracy. The logic that governs their criticism is undemocratic; it’s authoritarian; it’s of a piece with Solnit’s and so many others’s: you are in the minority, so give up and go home, before the game is even over.
You can see why this reasoning goes nowhere; why it’s a conceptual dead-end. It’s a conversation stopper. Rather than engage with Conor, or disaffected liberals, and argue according to shared principles and on the basis of mutually agreed upon facts, the argument that Solnit, Bouie, and Levenson would make, which is no argument at all, but rather a speech-act—a command, is this: no one else agrees with you, so give up.
Again, the backlash against Conor, Greenwald, etc. derive from the familiar playbook of distract, smear, and then dismiss. Most will pay lip service and say that they wish Obama didn’t have a drone program, and didn’t spy on his fellow citizens, and wasn’t so secret, or so hostile toward whistle-blowers, but claim that in the end he is all that we have, or in the case of Solnit, actually “pretty cool in a few key ways,” and so we must not only tolerate him, but actively support him, even on issues we virulently disagree with him!
Because the witch-hunt goes beyond just voting; it includes what we on the left are allowed to even vocalize. Criticism of the President’s drone program, and a call for others to more urgently protest and criticize it along with us, cannot be tolerated because this is an election season, and he needs our support, and do you really want to be responsible for the election of Mitt Romey?
Such moves to silence internal opposition are as internally confused as Bouie’s argument. First we are told that blaming the President for the drone program is useless because a majority of Americans support it. Then we are told that criticizing it is bad because it could lead to the election of his opponent, who is even worse. But if the majority of American’s truly support the program, then clearly our “complaining” and “whining” about it won’t matter. It won’t jeopardize Obama’s chances, no matter how many other people who supposedly “hate” the drone program call him out on it.
So if that’s the case, where is all the outrage? Why aren’t more people talking about the “lethal presidency” instead of wasting precious energy and time bashing Romney over election time trivialities? And let’s not kid ourselves, there was no more outrage prior to the election, and certainly not when there was the opportunity to offer a primary challenge to Obama’s re-election. The answer then is that most people just don’t give a fuck if the President blasts people half way across the world into oblivion. Not as long as they get to keep subsidizing insurance companies in return for more affordable coverage. Not as long as they get to have their “middle class” tax cuts and keep Social Security and Medicare too. Not so long as the President continues to look thoughtful and sound conflicted, while he does it.