Archived version of Storify post.
Which Came First, Politics or Stupidity?
Annoted twitter argument made to Andrew Sprung following his comments on Jonathan Chait’s and Ezra Klein’s implicitly anti-democratic thinking
- …referring to Ezra Klein’s “How Politics Makes Us Stupid” and Jonathan Chait’s “The Color Of His Presidency.” Sprung’s post on the relationship between the two is “‘How politics makes us stupid’: Ezra Klein’s hypothesis, Chait’s case study.”
- Chait’s paragraph reads as follows:One of the greatest triumphs of liberal politics over the past 50 years has been to completely stigmatize open racial discrimination in public life, a lesson that has been driven home over decades by everybody from Jimmy the Greek to Paula Deen. This achievement has run headlong into an increasing liberal tendency to define conservatism as a form of covert racial discrimination. If conservatism is inextricably entangled with racism, and racism must be extinguished, then the scope for legitimate opposition to Obama shrinks to an uncomfortably small space.
What Chait comes close to saying here, or says just not in so many words, is that an unshakeable and foundational commitment against the moral and intellectual tenability of ideological racism de-legitimizes or ought to de-legitimize the actual operation, including political action, by large segments of the population according to racist or racialized categories and impulses. Yet this point of view inherently contradicts foundationally liberal commitments in favor of freedom of conscience and inquiry, including the “right to be wrong” politically. If racism is in fact the operative if covertly held ideology of a sizable faction, and racism is inherently self-de-legitimizing, then liberal democracy itself appears self-de-legitimizing, as the free expression of intolerable depravity.
- The meaning of the “greatest triumph” of “stigmatiz[ation]” and “extinguish[ment]” is, among other things, that almost any statement other than unambiguous support for the foundational taboo against racism will be taken to violate it or to point toward its violation. Indeed, anyone who hopes to preserve a reputation and a political-professional future will hesitate even to begin to analyze the taboo as a taboo rather than as expression of an unquestionable truth.
Within the space of public reason, or meaningful and legitimate political discussion, there is to be no space for racism, which,
according to the dominant critique, is finally only to be understood as white racism or white supremacism, to the effect that “racism” and “white racism” are, at least in America, functionally synonymous. Racism is held to be prima facie unreasonable, and thus disqualifying for any would-be participant in public discussion. Yet, according to this same analysis, this possibility for which there is no space is in fact a pervasive reality.
It seems that the American people, through our “white” faction, are to a very large extent committed to racism in truth, if not in name – as according both to widely held belief on the liberal left and also as analytical conclusion supported by the studies and political history Chait adduces. Furthermore, this problem, of the unspeakable depravity of a major popular-political faction, is not merely an intellectual problem, but a or the central problem of American politics. Finally, though it goes under another name for the best reasons, assertion of a positive ethnically based identity – constructing a Black, or Asian, or Jewish, or Irish-American “interest” – is, where not encouraged, certainly tolerated among other factions, as well among sub-factions of the “white” faction. In short, the for us false and invidious construct is a near-universal construct among us.
- That racism is both taboo and nearly universal is a widely held left-liberal assumption. The great “triumph of liberal politics” is in this sense a linguistic triumph against democracy, a triumph primarily on the level of stigmatized or extinquished expression leaving an underlying objective reality intact.
Klein’s analysis, based on a discussion with Yale law professor Dan Kahan, reinforces a pessimistic suspicion that there is no further victory to be had: That there is no reason to expect any change in underlying sentiment, at least on the basis of discussion or conventional political activity. Indeed, Klein via Kahan stresses the insusceptibility of partisan factions to reason and evidence at all, whether on the malignity and destructiveness of operation according to the false construct “race,” or on questions of economic equality, or on issues like gun control or abortion, or on climate change, or on neo-Keynesian economic policy, or on health insurance and welfare, on likely on every other stalled item on the reasonable left-liberal agenda.
The “silver lining” for Klein is only that eventually, in some unspecified way, “[a] political movement that fools itself into crafting national policy based on bad evidence is a political movement that will, sooner or later, face a reckoning at the polls.” Even while declining to estimate the harm that such a movement would have to do in order to come to face such a reckoning, Klein himself recognizes just how thin that lining is:
At least, that’s the hope. But that’s not true on issues, like climate change, where action is needed quickly to prevent a disaster that will happen slowly. There, the reckoning will be for future generations to face. And it’s not true when American politics becomes so warped by gerrymandering, big money, and congressional dysfunction that voters can’t figure out who to blame for the state of the country. If American politics is going to improve, it will be better structures, not better arguments, that win the day.
This point is the first time in Klein’s long post that the word “structures” appears. The sentence is also the last sentence.
- …that is, after the failure of the system to perform “reasonably” has produced harms so evident, or with effects so compelling, that even congenitally deluded and irrational partisans are shaken out of their stances. At such a point they would have no choice but to take corrective action, though it is unclear why we should expect them to take correct action.
As for the hope in better “structures,” it is even less clear why or how a thoroughly dysfunctional system would acquire the ability to repair itself. How is a system of “gerrymandering, big money, and congressional dysfunction” supposed to solve gerrymandering, big money, and congressional dysfunction? The indications are that it has not been able to do so, and that it shows no signs of doing so, and we have Klein/Cahan and Chait ready to explain why it is not likely ever to do so at least on the basis of its own intrinsic character.
- Indeed, according to Chait and even more according to the standard left-liberal analysis, even 150 years of smacking with reality has not produced what left-liberalism considers unquestionably reasonable (abandonment of racism among whites in communities under a direct legacy of slavery and its abolition).
- …in other words:
- …falsification of any expectation that our democracy or version of democracy typically handles its emergencies, small and large, democratically; uncertainty that, however it manages to handle true threats to its survival as liberal democracy, that it will be able to do so dependably.
Sprung is right, in short, that Chait and Klein agree: They agree that the familiar premises of left-liberal politics, their politics, are chronically and dangerously flawed. This conclusion does not necessarily imply that the premises of a centrist or rightwing or any other politics would be superior or preferable. They do seem to leave us with no real choice but to await or prepare for the next “reckoning,” and the one after that.