Radical Centrism Papers: It’s War. No Less – Part 2
See my Fierce Patriotism post from last week for the introduction this three part blog series. The concluding post in the series is scheduled for the end of this week and is called We Have Met The Enemy, and He Is Us. It will be a reflection on how each of us — and the stories we tell ourselves — may be implicated in the weakening of the U.S. institutions that has led us to this dangerous moment.
My first post in this series actually generated a long chain of comment and argument on Facebook, which I will soon try to publish as a post of its own (But go HERE to catch that thread if you are interested). I was pleased that commenters of all stripes did comment (Thank you, Thank you). But at times the back and forth descended into a typical modern political argument with some name calling, repetition of conservative and liberal talking points, cherry picking facts, diversionary reasoning. If we hold the conversation in this space (my wordpress blog site accessible through the “Leave a Comment” button below) I have a better ability to be a moderator of these automatic-seeming behaviors that interrupt and prohibit respectful discussion. I consider humility, manners and respect an important principle to defend a center space for talking about our politics.
OK, it sounds silly — to have to fiercely defend the normal, the ordinary, the regular order, good manners, the ho hum daily as passionately as we once fought Hitler. …But there it is.
When people succumb to the siren call of partisan bickering and name-calling, our ability as a united nation to confront the threat to our multi-partisan future will be constrained. To cite an example from recent history, the Nazis were an energized minority who achieved total domination in German politics. Significantly, political factions in Germany were divided, unable to unite against, or perhaps even recognize, the existential threat of Adolph Hitler. Hitler’s madman extremism was certainly not hidden from general view. Did mainstream Germans (many of whom agreed with a least a few of Hitler’s programs) believe that their government institutions would protect them from his most radical ideas? Instead, their institutions proved to be extremely fragile — held together more by common agreement than by unbreakable bonds — especially in the face of a determined dictator and his growing horde of extremists? There’s a lesson here and perhaps a paradigm of how all authoritarian dictatorships seize power.
In the US, the equivalent of Hitler’s “brown shirts” which carried out his most extreme biddings in the Reich, are comprised of the fringes of American thought: John Birchers, Tea Party leftovers, conspiracy theorists, overt racists, the Ayn Rand entitled rich, and certainly the justly angry “fellow travelers” they inspired. This is the energized “base,” upon which Trump based his campaign, and now, his Presidency. The xenophobic, anti-government, isolationist tendencies of these actors did nothing to bring about the American Century or the American Dream or the US-led global post-WWII consensus that has held strong for decades. That accomplishment was produced by those who operated within our system of government: people who believe in the capacity of government to do good, who tolerate others, respect differences, seek consensus, and are willing to accommodate different views in order to act as “One Nation.” Now we are facing a threat that wants to take all of it away in the name of “America First,” Those fine centrists are fooling themselves if they don’t understand how easily the American “consensus” can be broken; how little our institutions may protect us if we neglect to prioritize action against the real threat. The choice to align with the forces of moderation is each citizen’s — yours — personal choice. Your weapons are patience, humility, good manners, speaking truth. Use them. You — we — are all soldiers in this army. Here are just a few of the key battlefields of this war.
Mindless “Talking Points.” Control of language by a few political party consultants with carefully polled “talking points” is rampant. Why? Because it is very successful. Low information voters the world around have always been an easy target for slogans and symbols. And in their defense, can we ask who actually has the time to be a high-information voter? In acknowledgement of that fact, our political parties, in the age of “consensus” took it upon themselves to conduct their campaigns with a modicum of truth, and a background of consensus — struggling to make policy differences clear by slogans and symbols aimed at conveying some essential truth. But being tied to truth is no longer the political “gold” standard. In fact the current standard is frequently to confuse the entire idea of truth, by representing the “talking point” as the exact opposite of what it is! And its effect is to warp our politics, obscure truth, and destroy our common language.
So what to do? Well, a starting point would be to resist the temptation to simply repeat those talking points in conversation or social media — I would add that passing along clearly professionally produced memes and gifs meant to ridicule the other side is a way of letting untruth win the day. Additionally, we could ask our elected representatives and media spokesmen to defy those who manipulate language this way. Interviewers should develop better tools for challenging the “talking points” strategy: no one is fooled on either side, and those who know better but continue to mindlessly repeat them should be reviled and ridiculed. All of us must ask ourselves: what injury are we willing to inflict or permit on our democracy and institutions in order to win our political points? The political parties’ focus on winning the war of words has imprisoned the truth.
Politicization of Judicial System. One of our nation’s most important traditions is an independent, admittedly imperfect judiciary. It’s crazy to assume that the world-views of judges won’t impact how they make legal decisions. Yet, we have agreed as a matter of principle to let a review of the law — by very imperfect individuals who we’ve agreed to trust to do their best to be objective — be the arbiter of our political and legal differences. The alternative to this gentle(wo)men’s agreement is what we are sliding into now: partisan chaos and loss of trust in our institutions.
The danger of this era has to do with overly politicizing the nomination and appointment process. The Neil Gorsuch supreme court pick — often cited as a huge victory for Trump — should instead be seen as a huge victory for the forces of dissolution and one-party rule of our republic. It was the culmination of a slow institutional dismantling of consensus that was initiated by Harry Reid as an bad reaction to the even-more-unfortunate Republican strategy of universal obstruction. That dismantling was destructively finished by Mitch McConnell and those same Senate Republicans by denying the sitting President his constitutional right to pick Supreme Court judges. Why? Because he was from the wrong party (oh yeah, and he was black, too! The decade-long Republican tantrum since 2008 has to be looked at through that lens, as well).
Another concern, of course, lies with a President who seems to know little and care less about our constitution and its carefully constructed “separation of powers.” His apparent assumption is that judges and officers of the court that he appoints will be “loyal” to him and their fitness for appointment will be that litmus test. This, of course, is extremely dangerous. In other countries, this politicization of the courts, and lack of public confidence in their integrity has had appalling impact on governance. Hard to reconcile Republican claims to support “strict constitutionalism” with their support of this President.
On the other hand, it is the President’s constitutional right to nominate, and we must not damage our constitution trying to deny or obstruct that right. But we have every right to ask Republicans in the Senate to restore consensual process and more vigorous oversight of appointments. In general this is a template for Radical Centrist Patriots: we must defend our constitutional form of government and its specific separation of powers. But we must be vigorous in trying to activate those institutions and representatives that are to serve as checks and balances on each arm of the power triad of US governance.
I think both Democrats and a large segment of Republicans can agree to pledge to accept and support the nomination of judges with political leanings as long as they are qualified and pledge to objectively apply the rule of law. Any political response from the Democrats should be focused on highlighting, handwringing, and getting your party out to vote for change. Appointment of judges has been a perk for the winners, for years on both sides. Both sides get their turn based on their success in elections. Radical Patriots should demand that both parties pledge to restore regular workings of the nomination and confirmation process and stop holding our democracy hostage in order to “win.”
Politicization of Institutions Here’s a corollary with the above paragraph. Centrist representatives on both sides of the aisle need to join together to create a safe environment for time-honored U.S. institutions to do their work — and hyper-partisans need to back off!
As we have witnessed investigations of public figures over the last 50 years, we have learned that our institutions can be flawed — they can be inhabited by leaders that can be highly politicized, defensive of past mistakes, and full of agents with their own agendas. But, we are faced as always with a question of what is the alternative? In the past, we have largely agreed to defend our institutions’ abilities, raised our expectation for them to act professionally and objectively, counted on a multiplicity of voices within those organizations to help achieve objectivity, and, when found wanting, tried to gradually bring them back into the political consensus, instead of dismantling them wholesale. So should those institutions be defended now, by patriots of all denominations, without giving up the right of congressional oversight and information-gathering.
Congressional Republicans may disagree with the reach and effectiveness of the Mueller investigation, and may wish not to pursue impeachment: I support their right to make that political choice. But trying to discredit the FBI and undermine Mueller’s Investigation (who just a few months ago was lauded by those same Republicans as the straightest of straight arrows) must be seen on both sides of the aisle, as a near-treasonous undermining of the rule of law.
And in the media, the Law and Order King FOX News is leading the charge of the hyenas that would tear the rule of law and the very concept of law and order apart. Dismayingly, oligarch-owned news media and certain Republicans’ cynical loyalty to the President is paving the way for total politicization of our institutions — another descent into authoritarianism.
On their side, Democrats — who were not above politicizing Ken Starr’s investigation in the 90’s (and in retrospect, I note that semen on a dress is rather dwarfed by the possibility that we handed our government over to our arch-enemy, Putin’s Russia) — must pledge that, when the time comes, they will respect the rule of law and institutions no matter what the ultimate finding of the Mueller investigation.
Defense of Regular Order in the Senate. Reasonable Republicans and Democrats in the Senate must not allow further breakdown of cross-party political comity and negotiation, even if the Senate flips in 2018. Democrat and Republican senators must model how the American public should deal with the dangerous divisions in our present politics: they must put aside policy differences and join together forcefully over fair process, rather than caving in to party ideologues. The filibuster, the blue slip tradition, the budget reconciliation process are now being re-purposed because of hyper partisan politics over the last several years. This has happened at the hands of both democratic and republican majorities. As a corollary, we have also seen the danger (and, sigh, electoral success) when one political party simply becomes the party of NO, as the Republicans became during the entire two terms of Obama’s presidency, and as the Democrats are threatening to become now. The danger is inability to govern at all, much less for the good of your constituents.
It is important to note that Republicans and Libertarians have Democrats at a disadvantage here. They appear to be much more permissive of institutional destruction, partly because they may believe they don’t CARE if our government is effective, or even functions. I would ask those who hold this as a core belief follow the logic of their position to its conclusion. It is hard for me to imagine that this path ends in the blissful death of government and rise of the free individual. It seems much more likely to contribute to chaos, disunion, and ultimately the rise of authoritarianism, fascism and/or other kind of dictatorship. Numerous historical examples attest — not to the mention the prima facie evidence that sits now in the White House.
Combatting Fake News. Social media is a perfect place for a patriot army to take personal action. Seek out fake news. Accept it from friends. Share it with yours — but share it to expose it to the light of day. Is it unreasonable to expect that we could recruit a tech funder to maintain and update daily an easily-accessible website database that lists known troll/fake news factories; exposes the latest “viral” trends, outlines the ways they prey on the weaknesses of the targeted citizen, and issues alarms when a coordinated attack appears on the horizon? If so, every citizen could be armed to pass along any fake news with its name tag — its source, the history of its source, a fact check from a reputable source, a break down of its appeal, and who is interested in spreading the falsehood. Left or right, fake news must be targeted more effectively, exposed and, if possible, destroyed before it enters the bloodstream of our politics.
Likewise, advocacy news media from Breitbart to FOX to MSNBC to DailyKos should be monitored and exposed because of how important those outlets have become to our political life. What I define as advocacy news is editorial opinion of the “host” compiling stories that play into their viewers’ existing belief systems. Where true, it may be good reporting or analysis, but when single-sourced, as if often is, it confuses the truth and breaks down common language. In our homes, in front of our TV sets, every citizen should see it as their personal responsibility to step back and take this kind of opinion/news with a ton of salt. Where possible, false coverage or conclusions should be highlighted and challenged by regular citizens (on the internet?). Coverage of advocacy media sources in mainstream investigative media should be more frequent, more thorough and more incisive.
Mostly, however, citizens on all sides need to stop being suckers: realize the so-called “opinion leaders” are putting together a narrative to support an argument, and only rarely reporting news. Happy-talk for ratings…. Stop confusing this with “news.”
This may be the hardest one to wean Republicans away from. Fox began as an important new voice in our media mix, one that questioned the objectivity of mainstream reporters (whose bias — often liberal — does frequently creep into news reports, in spite of their best efforts at objectivity). But increasingly FOX has isolated its coverage and its viewers from any fact that does not support FOX’s politics — turning its “Fair and Balanced” tagline into a joke. It has been stalwart at reenforcing not only Trump, becoming the “state-sponsored” news we laugh at when it occurs in other countries. FOX also continues to hawk the most extreme of the Republican policy positions with cherry-picked “facts” run out for their viewers without challenge. While vestiges of straight reporting do still exist on FOX, It’s highest ratings and largest audience are tuned in to his advocacy media. It’s now being mimicked on the left and right (in a slightly different forms). But it is weakening the common language of democracy on all sides of the political spectrum.
OK, I’m done (for now!). Have I concentrated too much on the Republicans? Possibly — but that focus is actually a tip of the hat to their wild success in employing these methods to win votes. Their strategies are now being picked up more and more by Democrats, but I think to the detriment of the country. Political parties may have to admit that “winning at all costs” may at last impose the unsupportable cost of death to our democracy.
Radical Patriots’ role is to urge politics across the spectrum to step back from the abyss we are contemplating and put some bi-partisan energy into restoring order, respectful conversation about issues, manners, consensus and the entire range of accommodations that have helped create and sustain the “greatest democracy in the world.” Yes, it almost sounds silly — to have to fiercely defend what was once the normal, the ordinary, the regular order, good manners, the ho hum daily as passionately as we once fought Hitler. But there it is.
I’ve worked much longer on this post that practically any other, but much is still missing… Can you help fill in? Or am I just wrong?
Would you set aside a portion of your own party/policy differences to defend democratic norms and advance the notion a common understanding of reality is achievable? Please use the “Leave a Comment” box below.