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Sunday, December 10, 2017


Wars and rumors of wars

by Tom Sullivan

Foreboding signs of what the next period of American history have in store are still sinking in.

Last week brought a 20-year conviction for ex-cop Michael Slager for shooting unarmed Walter Scott as he ran after a traffic stop in North Charleston, SC. But in Mesa, AZ, a jury acquitted ex-cop Philip Brailsford of murder in the shooting a sobbing unarmed suspect, Daniel Shaver, in a hotel hallway. The body-cam video released after the ruling looked to untrained eyes more like summary execution than a justified response to a threat. All the threats were coming from Brailsford. Scott was black. Shaver was white.

The same day as the ruling in Mesa, former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio, 85, announced he was considering a run for U.S. Senate to fill the seat vacated by retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, a fellow Republican. President Trump pardoned Arpaio after his conviction for criminal contempt for refusing to stop detaining and imprisoning suspected undocumented immigrants.

"And he will win, too," wrote Dave Neiwert of the Southern Poverty Law Center in a personal Facebook post. "Authoritarianism is upon us, and we are in denial."

Even with the burst of new progressive energy of the kind that helped Democrats win big in Virginia last month, the left is still trying to find its footing in Trump's America. A diatribe against the FBI last night by Fox News' Judge Jeanine Pirro was breathtaking. During the 2006 campaign, I caught two minutes of Glenn Beck and knew CNN had given a professional propagandist his own show. Pirro makes Beck look like Captain Kangaroo.

Dahlia Lithwick wrote last week she worried that in pushing Sen. Al Franken out of the Senate, Democrats were "self-neutering in the face of unprecedented threats, in part to do the right thing and in part to take ammunition away from the right—a maneuver that never seems to work out these days." But in a podcast, she added that Democrats doing the honorable thing and believing the other side would meet them halfway results in them getting "pantsed every single time." Process matters, she argues.

It's hard if you are not a nihilist and you believe in systems and you believe in institutions when they don't do what they are meant to do ... I think we have to figure out how to fix institutions and how to create systems that redound to our benefit. And here's why. If you don't, if you go for the full on nihilist, let's just throw everybody who may or may not be a predator out, it doesn't ever help women and minorities. It doesn't ever help people that have no power when you break a system.
Democrats, she argues, should be defending systems in the face of a movement that's reducing them to Potemkin villages.

Thomas Edsall backs up Lithwick's analysis in the New York Times on Thursday, writing:
Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, observes that “believers in liberal democracy have unilaterally disarmed in the defense of the institution” by agreeing in many cases with the premise of the Trump campaign: “that the country is a hopeless swamp.” This left Democrats “defenseless when he proposed to drain it.”
Pinker asks, bolstering Michael Tomasky's defense of the liberal project:
... are the liberals who are willing to say that liberal democracy has worked? That environmental regulations have slashed air pollutants while allowing Americans to drive more miles and burn more fuel? That social transfers have reduced poverty rates fivefold? That globalization has allowed Americans to afford more food, clothing, TVs, cars, and air-conditioners? That international organizations have prevented nuclear war, and reduced the rate of death in warfare by 90 percent? That environmental treaties are healing the hole in the ozone layer?
But Democrats have not come to terms with their own role in the backlash that is Trump, writes Edsall. Karen Stenner, author of "The Authoritarian Dynamic" tells Edsall features of liberal democracy such as "absolutely unfettered freedom and diversity; acceptance and promotion of multiculturalism; allowing retention of separate identities; maintenance of separate communities, lifestyles and values;" etc. are sharply contested in many parts of the country.

Stenner adds, "liberal democracy’s allowance of these things inevitably creates conditions of 'normative threat,' arousing the classic authoritarian fears about threats to oneness and sameness, which activate those predispositions — about a third of most western populations lean toward authoritarianism — and cause the increased manifestation of racial, moral and political intolerance."

In essence, liberalizing forces, not just cultural opening, but globalization, arouse the very hostility we now see, whether or not the changes in the culture will eventually become more widely adopted. As America saw with marriage equality, much of the country turned on a proverbial dime to accepting it. But even as Michael Tomasky argues that, contrary to the right's narrative, it is red America that is out of touch with the dynamism of blue states, red states feel their way of life threatened by that change and others beyond their control. Some of that is economic, but it goes deeper than that.

Writer and political consultant Eric Schnurer tells Edsall that Trumpist anger is part economic, part demographic, and part cultural. But the modern economy that has prospered much of blue America has had a deleterious effect in red-states:
This is a classic political problem of general benefit at the cost of specific individual harm. At a minimum, “we” — as a country but also as a self-styled progressive subset of that country — have given inadequate thought to those harms and how to ameliorate them; but I think you can also make the argument that we have exacerbated them.
Perhaps red-state voters hear the economic equivalent of "get over it" from areas promoting greater diversity and prospering from shifts in the economy. But given the structure of our system of federalism, red state legislatures and red-state governors dominate. Their voters' concerns cannot be brushed aside without consequence.

Edsall writes, "The problem is that even if Pinker is right, his analysis does not preclude a sustained period in which the anti-democratic right dominates American politics. There is no telling how long it will be before the movement Trump has mobilized will have run its course."

Or how much damage it might do before then, he adds.

But there are genies and there are bottles. Some of the changes to which red-state America object are made possible not by haughty liberals, but by technological advances that cannot be uninvented. The Internet makes global business possible, not just unfavorable trade rules. The technology allowed shunned minority groups to find each other and organize for full recognition. As I've argued, if conservatives want to return to the halycon days they imagine of women staying at home with the kids while dad goes to work, they are better off not getting angry at the left or at blacks or immigrants, but at cars and televisions. But as humans, we identify enemies with faces. And we like our cars and our televisions.

In 1989, as the Chinese government tried to suppress the Tiananmen Square protests, its ability to keep a lid on its crackdown was, if I recall, undermined by the now nearly obsolete fax machine. Efforts afoot to restrict the Internet may similarly fail. The changes people fear may be unstoppable, but efforts to ameliorate the harm have been weak, as well as our defense of the basic structures that have held this country together. Conservative politicians have used the anger their own policies have generated to further their careers. The left needs to do more to recognize the sources of the backlash and work more at defusing it.

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Request a copy of For The Win, my county-level election mechanics primer, at tom.bluecentury at gmail.