On normalizing Nazis


I often find myself telling people that we demonize Hitler and his followers, and therefore we can’t learn from their example. But even I am unhappy about the NYTimes article about a neo-Nazi because it doesn’t make a Nazi more understandable—it actually makes him less understandable while making him more empathetic.

What’s clear from scholars of the Holocaust is that Nazism was normalized, largely through identification with Hitler (people saw him as the person they would be if the leader), and also through normalizing him and other Nazis. Hitler at Home does a thorough job of showing just how that normalizing worked—careful control of his public image, including the design of his private spaces. And Hitlerland shows how many people were suckered by Hitler and Nazis, to think that their concerns were legitimate (when outside of in audience spaces, Hitler didn’t talk much about Jews, and talked mostly about the Versailles Treaty and reparations), that Nazis were persuaded to become Nazis because of desperation about their economic situation, and that the antisemitism was just rhetoric, so to speak.

That isn’t how it actually worked then, nor is it how it works now. Nazis were anti-Semitic, and the antisemitism was central to their identity—more important, they were deeply committed to doing anything necessary to destroy democracy. Neo-Nazis and KKK and alt-righters aren’t people moved to that position because of some single action or a single book or concerns about their economic situation—they are racist, and they are deeply and violently committed to ending democracy. They were generally racist from the beginning (although they will often insist they aren’t racist, and then cite “science” that they say shows non-white races are inferior). They aren’t very bright, as is demonstrated by how often they respond to argumentation with violence or threats of violence—they can’t put forward a logically persuasive argument to save their lives.

And they don’t care about argument, just as they don’t like democracy. They want an authoritarian government.

I think it’s important to understand that people like that don’t necessarily walk around with swastikas on their foreheads, and they aren’t always screaming, and they can be the people next door, or someone at work. They can be very normal in appearance, but their politics are not normal. And emphasizing one and not the other raises the spectre of just what happened in the Weimar, when Hitler and Nazis persuaded people to support them on the grounds that, despite their politics, they seemed like good people.

The NYTimes article didn’t mention any of that. It didn’t ask the Nazi about democracy, or race.  It just made him seem like a normal person, which he sort of is.

And that’s dangerous in a world in which people believe that they can make all political decisions on the basis of whether advocates/critics seem to be in their in-group.

The underlying assumption is that good people support good policies and bad people support bad policies, and that bad and good are in a binary relationship—something/someone is either entirely good or entirely bad. Thus, if you show that, say, a Nazi is a good person in some way (someone with whom you identify) then some number of people are likely to conclude that Nazism isn’t all that bad.

For instance, notice that it’s common for someone accused of saying or doing something racist to be defended by other people saying “They aren’t a bad person.” As Kenneth Burke said (an author of probably the single most apt analysis of Hitler’s Mein Kampf in its era), Hitler’s rhetoric depended on readers identifying with him. If his readers accepted that there is an us/them dichotomy, then the more he looked like “us” the more they would accept his “us” as normal and his “them” as dangerous.

Nazis want to end democracy. They might be nice, they might claim to be worried about the same things we are, but they blame democracy on the Jews, and they want to exterminate the Jews (and lots of other groups). And any mention of Nazis should keep front and center that they respond to any criticism with violence, they want a violent response, and they want genocide.

And the NYTimes article didn’t do that.  It didn’t explain what a Nazi believed; it just made him seem like a nice guy.



Magical thinking and not admitting wrong-doing

I’m a scholar of train wrecks in public deliberation—when communities take a lot of time, and a lot of talk, to come to a decision they later regret. There are certain characteristics those train wrecks have, and one of them is that large numbers of people believe that speech creates reality.

I have found this topic almost impossibly entangled to explain, so bear with me.

People who committed to disastrous decisions (so disastrous they often claimed they’d never made the decisions, and tried to claim they were victims of the decisions they had made themselves) simultaneously claimed (and believed?) that their claims about reality were unmediated—what they said absolutely and obviously perfectly correlated with Reality. Yet they prohibited, punished, or dismissed any disconfirming evidence or claims—if you’re certain that you’re obviously right, then you don’t need to silence dissent. You only need to silence dissent if you either think the truth is not obvious, or if you think you aren’t really speaking the truth.

That seems really abstract, so I’ll give a straightforward example.

Slavers raped slaves. Everyone knew that. Harriet Beecher Stowe said that was a fact and made it part of her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Mary Chesnut in her diary condemned Stowe for her including slave rape in her novel, not on the grounds that rape never happened, but on the grounds that she didn’t appreciate how much naming such rapes hurt women like her, and how painful it was for Chesnut to have to think about the fact Stowe was bringing to her attention. Chesnut wasn’t saying Stowe was wrong—what made Stowe’s claim so painful was that it was true.

So, while Chesnut knew her father and brothers raped slaves, she was only uncomfortable when their actions were brought to her attention by being named as rape. As long as the actions could avoid the name, she could manage the cognitive dissonance.

In Chesnut’s world, an act (that she had siblings among slaves) wasn’t a fact to be managed until it was named by Stowe as a crime.

I could give lots of other examples, but they’re all pretty much the same. James Henry Hammond, notorious for his abuse of slaves, was the most ardent advocate of silencing criticism of slavery, and the whole premise of the dueling culture wasn’t that it mattered whether something was true, but whether it was said.

One of the characteristics of a deliberative train wreck is that people define reality in terms of what is admitted by the in-group to be true—as long as the in-group can keep the claim from being admitted, the claim is untrue, and they can get kind of bizarre in their verbal contortions to keep something out of the realm of a public claim. There’s a kind of magical thinking involved—as long as you can keep slave rape out of the realm of the spoken, you can feel you aren’t obligated to do something about it.

Trump bragged that he sexually assaulted women. That’s a fact.

But, he and his supporters say, he hasn’t admitted it was wrong. Sarah Huckabee is Mary Chesnut.

Teaching about racism from a position of privilege

I’ve taught a course on rhetoric and racism multiple times (I think this is the third, but maybe fourth). It came out of a couple of other courses—one on the rhetoric of free speech, and the other on demagoguery, but also from my complete inability to get smart and well-intentioned people to engage in productive discussions about racism.

I never wanted to teach a class on racism because I thought that there wasn’t really a need for a person who almost always has all the privileges of whiteness to tell people about racism. But I had a few experiences that changed my mind. And so I decided to do it, but it is the most emotionally difficult class I teach, and it is really a set of minefields, and there is no way to teach it that doesn’t offend someone. And yet I think it’s important, and I think other white people should teach about racism, but with a few caveats.

Like many people, I was trained to create the seminar classroom, in which students are supposed to “learn to think for themselves” by arguing with other students. The teacher was supposed to act as referee if things got too out of hand, but, on the whole, to treat all opinions as equally valid. I was teaching a class on the rhetoric of free speech—with the chairs in a circle, like a good teacher–when a white student said, “Why can black people tell jokes about white people, but white people can’t tell jokes about black people?”

And all the African-American students in the class shoved their chairs out of the circle, and one of them looked directly at me.

That’s when I realized how outrageously the “good teaching” method—in which every opinion expressed by a student should be treated as just as valid as the opinion of every other student—was institutionalized privilege.

What I hadn’t realized till that moment was that the apparently “neutral” classroom I had been taught to create wasn’t neutral at all. I was trained at a university and a department at which nonwhites and women were in the minority, and so every discussion in which all values are treated as equal in the classroom necessarily meant that straight male whiteness dominated, just in terms of sheer numbers. Then I went to a university that was predominantly women, and white males still dominated. White males dominate discussion, while white fragility ensures that treating all views as though they’re equal is doing nothing of the kind. The “neutral” classroom treats the white students’ hurt feelings with being called racist as precisely the same as anything racist s/he might say. And they aren’t the same.

That “liberal” model of class discussion is so vexed, and so specifically vexed in terms of race, gender, and sexuality. Often being one of few women in a class, and not uncommonly being one of few who openly identified as feminist, I was not uncommonly asked to represent what “feminists” thought about an issue, and I’ve unhappily observed classes (or was in classes) where the teacher asked a student to speak for an entire group (“Chester, what do gay people think about this?”) It’s interesting that not all identities get that request to speak for their entire group. While I have seen teachers call on a veteran to ask what the entire class of “veterans” think, I have never been in a class where anyone said, “Chester, what do “working class people” think about this issue?” I’ve also never been in a class, even ones where het white Christian males were in the minority, where anyone asked a het white Christian male to speak for all het white males.

The most important privilege that het white Christian males have is the privilege of toggling between individualism and universalism on the basis of which position is most rhetorically useful in the moment. In situations in which het male whiteness is the dominant epistemology, someone with that identity can speak as an individual, about his experience. When he generalizes from his experience, it’s to position himself as the universal experience. Het white males are simultaneously entirely individual and perfectly universal.

The “liberal” classroom presumes people who are speaking to one another as equals, but what if they aren’t? The “liberal” classroom puts tremendous work on identities who walk into that room as not equal—they have to be the homophobic, racist, sexist whisperers. That isn’t their job. That’s my job. I realized I was making students do my work.

That faux neutrality also guarantees other unhappy classroom practices. For instance, students who disagree with that falsely neutral position do so from a position of particularity. The “normal” undergrad has asserted a position which seems to be from a position of universal vision, and so any student who refutes his experience is now not only identifying with a stigmatized identity, but self-identifying as a speaker who is simultaneously particular and a representative of an entire group. When your identity is normalized, you claim to speak for Americans; when your identity is marked as other, you speak for all the others in that category.

There’s a weird paradox here. Both the het white Christian male and the [other] are taken as speaking for a much larger group, but in the case of the het white male it’s that he is speaking for humanity at a whole. If he isn’t, if his identity as het white male isn’t taken as universal in a classroom, then some number of people in that category will be enraged and genuinely feel victimized and dismiss as “political correctness” that they have to honor the experience of others as much as they honor their own experience.

What the white panic media characterizes as “political correctness” is rarely about suppression of free speech (they’re actually the ones engaged in political correctness)—it’s about holding all identities to the same standards of expression. The strategic misnaming of trying to honor peoples’ understanding of themselves as “political correctness” ignores the actual history of the term, which was about pivoting on a dime in order to spin facts in a way that supported faction. In other words, the whole flinging poo of throwing the term “political correctness” at people asking for equality is strategic misnaming and projection.

The second experience was in a class that was about the history about conceptions of citizenship, I was trying to make the point that identification is often racial, and that the notion of “universal” is often racist. I gave the class the statistics about Congress—that it was about 90% male and also in the 90% (or more) white. I asked the white males in the class whether they would feel that they were represented if Congress were around 90% nonwhite nonmale. Normally, this set off light bulbs for students. But, this time, one student raised his hand and said, “Well, yes, because white males aren’t angry.”

Of course, that isn’t true, and I’d bet they’d be pretty angry about not being represented, but, even were it true, it would be irrelevant. That student was assuming that being angry makes people less capable of political deliberation—that anger has no place in political argument. That’s an assumption often made in the “liberal” classroom, in which people get very, very uncomfortable with feelings being expressed. And it naturally privileges the privileged because, if being emotional (especially angry) means that a person shouldn’t be participating (or their participation is somehow impaired) then we either can’t talk about things that bother any students (which would leave a small number of topics appropriate for discussion), or people who are angry about aspects of our world (likely to be the less privileged) are silenced before they speak—they’re silenced on the grounds of the feelings they might legitimately have.

So, if we’re going to have a class about racism, we’re going to have a class in which people get angry, and not everyone’s anger is the same. Racist discourse is (and long has been) much more complicated than a lot of people want it to be—we want to think that it’s easy to identify, that it’s marked by hostility, that it’s open in its attacks on another race. But there has always been what we now call “modern racism”—racism that pretends to be grounded in objective science, that says “nice” things about the denigrated group, that purports to be acting out of concern and even affection. That is the kind of reading that angers students the most, and I think it’s important we read it because it’s the most effective at promoting and legitimating racist practices. But it will offend students to read it.

And so the class is really hard to teach, and even risky. And that was the other point I realized. If we have institutions in which only people of color are teaching classes about racism, we’re making them take on the politically riskier courses. That’s racist.

I remain uncomfortable being a white person teaching about racism, and I think my privilege probably means I do it pretty badly. But I think it needs to be done.










III. Trying to solve the problems of factionalized politics by creating a more unified faction

[This is part of a longer piece, but I really want this part to be separate–it’s about Democrats trying to relitigate the 2016 election. And my basic argument is that we’re engaged in demagoguery about that election.]

In a healthy deliberative situation, people will consider the policy first and faction second. In a culture of demagoguery, people frame every issue as “us vs. them.” We’re in such a culture now, and the US was in such a culture in the antebellum era. And I think that culture meant that the people who wanted to deliberate—who wanted to consider various policy options, listen to various sides, think about the long-term consequences for all of us, who had a broader vision of “us” (one that included everyone affected by policy decisions), were demonized. And they are now.

And, unhappily, there are within the Democratic Party the two factionalized narratives about 2016 mentioned at the beginning. My basic argument about them is that they’re both wrong, as are a lot of narratives about 2016, insofar as they say that progressives’ winning more elections just requires… anything, or that it’s obvious that progressives need to do…. anything. What makes those narratives wrong is that they are monocausal (one thing caused our problems and/or one thing will solve them), and they rely on naive realism (the notion that the truth is obvious).

Factionalized narratives say “there are two choices, and every right-thinking person chooses this one.” Deliberative narratives say, “there are many choices, and each has to be assessed in the circumstance, and each one has to be considered in terms of the past and future.” Factionalized narratives say the right answer is obvious; deliberative narratives say it isn’t. People committed to factionalized narratives say “everyone does it.” I don’t think that’s true.

And I think the comparison to the very similar antebellum situation explains why I don’t think everyone does it. I’m not convinced that this simultaneous entirely factionalized reasoning and condemnation of faction was “true of both sides.” I didn’t read a lot of Northern newspapers from the 1830s, so I can’t say whether they were just as much engaged in doublethink regarding factionalism (it’s great and every member of the faction should do it and every member of the faction should condemn factionalism), but my reading of the Congressional Record suggests they didn’t. The book I never wrote was about how proslavery rhetors tended toward deductive reasoning (the facts on the ground must be these because that’s what my principles say they should be) on every political issue before them. The rhetors who were antislavery (or just nonproslavery) tended to reason inductively, and say that a principle must be wrong because the facts on the ground suggest so. I think that’s a research project that could be useful for thinking about our current political situation—to what extent are people holding their premises safe from disproof?

For instance, William Lloyd Garrison had a journal, The Liberator, and he also had a very specific stance on abolition. Within the community of people who believed that slavery should be abolished immediately, there were profound and passionate disagreements about whether: slaves’ engaging in self-defense violence was justified, the Constitution was neutral on slavery or actively proslavery, abolitionists should insist on immediate and full citizenship for all slaves, abolishing slavery necessarily meant full citizenship for women. Garrison had his views on those issues, which he held passionately and argued for vehemently, he was no saint (Frederick Douglass noted that Garrison was not free of racist notions), and he may not even have been right in his arguments, but his paper published full and fair arguments against his positions. He believed in his arguments so thoroughly that he was willing to read and publish arguments he thought wrong.

How much current media could withstand that test? How many citizens could be like Garrison, and read and publish arguments with which we disagree? And this isn’t even setting a high bar, since Garrison was far from perfect—in fact, he was deeply flawed. It wouldn’t be that hard to be Garrison, and yet most of us fail to meet that low bar.

Antebellum proslavery media never published anything critical of slavery, and the factionalized southern media never published anything critical of their faction. What they did is what’s called “inoculation.” The goal of this media was to become the only source of information for its faction members, and they did that through reprinting articles about the evil behavior of outgroups (even about completely fabricated non-events). The main thrust was 1) deliberation is unnecessary because all you need to know is that we’re good and they’re bad; 2) DON’T LISTEN TO THEM—here’s what they’re going to say, and it’s obviously stupid and evil; 3) there is a war on us, and anyone who doesn’t recognize that is either knowingly or unknowingly on the side of our enemies.

So, in a democracy, a lot of public discourse was about how political deliberation was not only unnecessary, but actively bad (and unmanly). And they condemned the other side by presenting bastardized versions of “the other side’s” argument, as though they knew that their position of “it’s absolutely clear” would be weakened by showing the other side in a reasonably accurate way. And this fascinates me about authoritarian discourse: there is an odd admission that authoritarian discourse relies on single-party rhetoric, that it can’t withstand argumentation. So, perhaps, what it’s claiming isn’t so obvious?

The goal of much political discourse in the antebellum era, as it was in Thucydides’ era, and as it is now, was the establishment of a single-party state. Thus, much democratic discourse was oriented toward the destruction of democracy in the name of only allowing one faction to participate in the setting of policy. Unhappily, that is the argument happening on the left. The argument—whether centrists or progressives should set the policy agenda—is profoundly and irrationally anti-democratic because it’s making the assumption is that the Democratic Party must be a single-faction party. Why make that assumption?

Arguments for policy only seem sensible when the policy seems to arise naturally from a narrative about our current situation. The two dominant purity policy solutions arise naturally from two different narratives about why we are in our current situation. So, in order to argue for a non-purity policy, I have to show what’s wrong with both purity narratives about 2016.

And, really, there are a lot of plausible explanations about the 2016 election. There are, loosely, two purity narratives: first, that Clinton lost because too many of Sanders’ supporters were fanatics who refused to be pragmatic and vote for a less than pure candidate (let’s call that fanatical group Sandersistas, and let’s call the people who promote this narrative the Clintonistas);[3] second, that Trump is President because the DNC foisted a weak milquetoast candidate on the Dems instead of an energizing progressive with a clearly populist policy agenda. But it’s worth looking at all the other narratives as well (I’ll list eight here and mention a few others along the way).

But before even going into them, it’s important to remember that Clinton won the popular vote by a large amount (that’s important for every explanation). And she was predicted as having a 95% chance of winning; the most dire polls put her chances at around 70%.

One factor to keep in mind is that a lot of Obama voters went for Trump, and the first explanation is a lot of them were motivated by sheer sexism. Second, the Right Wing Propaganda Machine had been attacking Clinton for 25 years, and if you throw enough mud, some of it sticks. Third, voter turnout. Fourth, her campaign blew it because they focused on meetings with big money donors toward the end rather than hand-clasping in battleground states because Clinton was arrogant.  Fifth, voter suppression.  The sixth explanation is millennial sexism. Seventh, there is the argument that Sanders poisoned the millennial vote.  Eighth, the DNC was wrong to go for a third-way neoliberal instead of Sanders, who would have won (a surprisingly complicated narrative, explained below).[4]

1 and 2. The first and second can be combined in that they represent simply the problems that come with a candidate who has spent a lot of time committing the crime of being a woman in public. And there is an argument that her faults in those regards are reasons she shouldn’t have gotten the Dem nomination. I sometimes hear those arguments made by people who like Clinton and her policies, and I understand the impulse behind them. I certainly met even young people who had what even they admitted was an irrational aversion to her—the research is pretty clear that it’s harder to remember that every attack on a person has been debunked than it is to have a vague cumulative semi-memory that the person is guilty. For some people, that Clinton had these liabilities was a reason that she shouldn’t get the nomination, and I think there are two versions of that argument—one seems to me reasonable (even if, ultimately, I disagreed with it) and the other is disturbingly anti-democratic.

The first is that, even if it’s through no fault of her own, Clinton was carrying unsurmountable liabilities, and therefore Democrats voting in the primaries shouldn’t vote for her. Women who have also committed Clinton’s crime often bristle at this argument, since they’ve heard it as the reason they can’t be promoted (“unfortunately, sexist men just don’t work as well with women, so you’ll never be a good manager”), given certain jobs (“juries just don’t like women lawyers”), pursue certain careers (“people just don’t trust the financial acuity of women money managers”). Their argument is that you don’t reduce sexism by pandering to it. And that’s a good argument.

But I also think it’s not unwise to think strategically about the likelihood of a candidate winning. So, while I wasn’t persuaded to vote against Clinton in the primaries on the basis of the argument that sexism and propaganda made her a bad candidate, I don’t think people who put it forward are spit from the bowels of Satan. They’re just people with whom I disagree.

The second version of this argument is more disturbing.  That argument is that the DNC should have put forward a “better” candidate. I find this disturbing because I don’t think the DNC should “put forward” any candidate. I realize that is, at least to some extent, what all organizations do—the elite in the organization try to position for election the people they think will make the best candidates—so I’m not naïve enough to think the DNC will remain absolutely neutral (and, in fact, I ranted at a lot of DNC fund raisers during the primaries because I was outraged that there were DNC-funded ads attacking Sanders). But, the absolute most the DNC should do is put its finger on the scale (and even that is problematic, discussed below)—Democrats need to elect candidates, not have them selected for us. Because Dems haven’t been doing well at the level of Governor or Senator, there weren’t a lot of possible candidates. Warren, Biden, and Booker all had reasons not to run, and other possibilities weren’t experienced enough. Thus, I reject the basis premise that the DNC should have selected any candidate for the Dems.

Third, voter turnout. Although there is some debate as to whether voter turnout cost Clinton the election, there remains a strong argument that it did. Or, at least, there’s a consensus that better turnout among nonwhite voters would have helped Clinton. But even people who agree that voter turnout would have led to a Clinton victory disagree as to what that factor means. Some people connect it to the argument below—that voter suppression was crucial in the election. Others argue that yet another reason that Dems (or the DNC) shouldn’t have gone for Clinton—she didn’t have the charisma to get people to put up with the (probably deliberate) long lines in heavily Dem polling places. Some people argue that the low voter turnout out was Sandersistas who refused to vote for Clinton (part of the narrative that they cost Dems the election) but I’ve never seen good evidence for that claim—it’s belied by the demographics of Sanderistas versus the low turnout. My impression, admittedly just from listening to (or reading) people who didn’t vote or didn’t vote for Clinton but might have, was that they believed the polls; they were certain she was going to win, and so didn’t think it was necessary for them to vote. They either didn’t vote, or engaged in a protest vote (to show the DNC that there are progressive voters). I’ll admit that, especially for people for whom voting would have required considerable sacrifice (such as taking unpaid time off work), this seems to me a reasonable attitude—95% is pretty much a sure thing for most people.

Fourth, the argument that Clinton’s campaign blew it because they focused on meetings with big money donors toward the end rather than hand-clasping in battleground states is unfortunately often connected to presenting Clinton as arrogant. And I have to say that I get twitchy when anyone uses the word “arrogant” in regard to a powerful woman (or powerful nonwhite).

It is not actually clear that Clinton did make a mistake with serious consequences in her strategies. More important, when we engage in hindsight, and consider counterfactuals (something I do in my scholarship frequently) we have to think about whether our sense that the outcome was obvious is the consequence of knowing the outcome. If you know of the dotcom crash of 2001, you can look back to various factors in 2000 and see all the evidence that it was coming, and then you can think to yourself what idiots people were for not seeing it. (You might even find quotes from some people who predicted it, and think what idiots everyone was for not listening to those geniuses). But that’s just intellectual shoulder-patting. Certainly, there was evidence of coming disaster, but there was also evidence that this was a new model of economic growth—you have to look at all the evidence people had in front of them in the moment and understand what reasons they gave for the choices they made.

To make considering counterfactual anything other than 20/20 hindsight, you have to ask: Were the choices reasonable within the context of that evidence, regardless of outcome?

Even if Clinton made the wrong decision, and there were people at the time who said that, the question should be whether she was making a decision that was obviously unreasonable in the moment, and I don’t think it was. For instance, her believing polls doesn’t make her arrogant—I think it’s reasonable for someone with her background to think she might know what she is doing. And what she was doing was believing the polls, and spending her energy getting money to throw downticket.

Had Clinton decided not to meet with big money donors and had instead worked on ensuring she won a supposedly unlosable election by on the ground campaigning, and had she won, I think the same people who are lambasting her now would be lambasting her as arrogant for just trying to get herself elected instead of raising more money for Dems generally.

I think this criticism amounts to lambasting her for having believed the polls. Since it’s a criticism I’ve heard repeated by people who themselves cited the polls as authoritative in October, I don’t find it a very interesting argument.

Fifth, Voter suppression. This is an interesting argument. There are lots of arguments that there was voter suppression, and that it was enough to flip the election. But, it’s also disputed, and there are also major sources that are silent on the issue (such as 538). There are two reasons I think it probably did happen—or at least there was a determined effort to make it happen. The GOP Noise Machine works by deflection and projection (or, more accurately, projection as deflection) and the ginned-up fear-mongering about voter fraud quacks and walks like a projection/deflection move. If it is projection/deflection, there either there was actual voter fraud—that is, interference with voting machines—or voter suppression. But that’s sheer speculation on my part.

The more plausible reason to think there was voter suppression and it was effective is that the GOP has spent so much money, time, and effort trying to make it harder for nonwhites to vote. They must think it’s effective.

The sixth and seventh are generally connected—that millennials are sexist, or Sanders otherwise ruined the election for Clinton (every once in a while someone makes the claim about Stein, but that’s rare).

Let’s start with the Clintonista explanation that Sanders is entirely to blame (and keep in mind that isn’t Clinton’s explanation). It doesn’t hold up to empirical testing. It’s generally made on the basis of several leaps of inference. The best empirical support (and it isn’t very good) for blaming Sanders’ supporters relies on equating Sanders’ supporters and millennials, and that’s a false equation.  Clinton won the popular vote, and lost by small amounts in key states. So, a good argument for Sandersistas having cost Clinton the election would show that there were enough of them in the very close states who didn’t vote for Clinton to have shifted the election. And I’ve looked for that data, and I can’t find it.

The closest is some numbers run by Brian Schaffner, who estimates that 12% of Sanders voters voted for Trump (but the number might be 6%).  In a tweet, Schaffner estimated the state levels. If those estimates are correct, then, had all of those people voted for Clinton, she would have won. (All of this is explained in John Sides’ August 24, 2017 Washington Post article, “Did Enough Bernie Sanders supporters vote for Trump to cost Clinton the election?”)

So, does that mean that Sanders supporters cost Clinton the election, or, as another article terms them, Sanders “defectors”? Note the loaded language.

This whole narrative makes me nervous, especially since it’s taking Schaffner’s work as more definitive than even he says it is. And it seems to be getting used as a weapon in the purity war rumbling around the left—Sanders voters are unreliable, likely to defect, were too self-righteous to vote sensibly, or too unwilling to compromise. It’s also getting used by people who want to argue that Dems should have gone for Sanders, since it’s proof that he would have won. (It isn’t, since Clinton picked up more than that number in GOP voters who “defected.”)

First of all, we need to stop with the language of “defecting” and even “costing.” Even Schaffner points out that the people who did that weren’t typically Democrats, and they were racist. Sanders always did worse than Clinton as far as non-whites, but his defenders argue that he was changing his message, and he would have attracted more. Had he genuinely persuaded the public that he was not racist, he would probably have lost this 12%. Schaffner’s speculation is important to note: “I think what this starts to suggest to me is that these are old holdovers from the Democratic Party that are conservative on race issues. And while Bernie wasn’t campaigning on that kind of thing, Clinton was much more forthright about courting the votes of minorities — and maybe that offended them, and then eventually pushed them out and toward Trump.”

So, these weren’t Sanders supporters, I’d say—just people who voted for him in the primaries. And they certainly don’t represent anything important about Bernie-bros, or the young progressives who want the Dems to become more progressive—this isn’t that category. In fact, Schaffner’s evidence suggest that group did vote for Clinton, or, at least, didn’t cost her the election.

It might be that the fact that Sanders’ supporters repeated a lot of fake news reports and pro-Trump talking points on social media convinced others in their feed to vote Trump or third party, but I haven’t found a study to suggest that’s the case. My highly individualistic impression is that the people who voted for Sanders in the primaries and refused to vote for Clinton were the kind that had never voted for a Dem anyway (and didn’t vote for Obama, on purity grounds), or they lived in Texas, so they don’t really count as game-changers. I know that there were people who voted for Obama and then voted for Trump, but the research doesn’t suggest that many of them were Sanders’ supporters who refused to vote for Clinton.

So, the notion that Clinton lost just because of Sandersistas doesn’t really make the grade of a falsifiable claim. It’s just a guess, and not even a very good one.

And why would we make that guess? There is much better evidence about other factors, such as voter suppression and overconfidence among Clinton supporters (who thought she had it in the bag and so they didn’t need to vote). 538 persuasively argues it was the Comey scandal and the impact on undecided voters (most of whom weren’t millennials). Why make a guess that blames fellow lefties? That seems to me unnecessarily and strategically unwise.

People tend to blame the outgroup for anything bad that happens, and, unhappily, it’s not unheard of for people to be more concerned about heretics than heathens. That is, we can be more concerned about cleansing our group of people who aren’t like-minded enough than about people who are openly opposed to us. It’s an irrational act to which people are drawn when the ingroup is shamed, and that’s what I think we’re doing. It seems to me a skirmish in a purity war.

It’s also incredibly patronizing and delegitimates a point of view—that Sanders was the better candidate—of people with whom there are shared goals.

I think this kind of move (like all skirmishes in a purity war) sets up a nasty dynamic—like two people fighting over who is at fault for burning the Thanksgiving turkey. Once a person says, “It’s your fault,” it’s incredibly difficult to get the conversation back into a useful realm in which people are problem-solving—it’s all about defending yourself.

I mentioned that I do know Sanders supporters who refused to vote for Clinton, some of whom never vote in Presidential elections (basically, any candidate popular enough to get a nomination isn’t pure enough for them—they liked that candidate when you had to buy the speech on vinyl at the show; it’s just hipster politics), but some of whom probably would have. And they live in Texas. In Texas, we are accustomed to being systematically disenfranchised, and every vote other than GOP is a symbolic action, so, although I disagree with that choice, I don’t think it’s evil or ridiculous or illegitimate or even unreasonable.

Eighth, Many people for whom I care deeply make the argument that the DNC was wrong to go for a third-way neoliberal instead of Sanders, who would definitely have won. In some versions, the argument is that the DNC pushed a lousy candidate onto the Dems and is therefore responsible.

I find it really weird that so many reasonable people make that argument without seeing how odd it is. It’s either false or nonfalsifiable (like the Clintonista narrative that blames Sandersistas). It’s also really patronizing since it delegitimates anyone who voted for Clinton.

I see this argument a lot. It necessarily has two sub-points: that Clinton only won because of DNC support, and that Sanders would have won the general election.  That first argument, although repeated a lot in certain circles, has some implications that, I think (I hope), the people making it would reject if made explicit.

Clinton won the open primaries, and Sanders won the caucuses. So, by any reckoning, Clinton got more votes than Sanders. This argument says that she did so only because the DNC supported her. That’s a really offensive argument. If Clinton only won because of the DNC support, then the underlying assumption is that all those people who voted for Clinton would have voted for Sanders if the DNC had supported him—that they would do whatever the DNC told them to do.

I want to leave that out there because I really think that people haven’t thought that one through. Is that really an argument they believe?

That argument is saying that Clinton supporters were mindless sheeple who would do whatever the DNC told them to. The narrative is that Sanders’ supporters really know how to vote and how to solve our problems, and Clinton supporters were just mindless followers who don’t really know what we need and how we should vote.

That’s patronizing, just as patronizing as Clinton’s saying that Sanders supporters were young and misled. I think it’s wrong—factually, morally, and strategically–in both cases. Clinton supporters, like Sanders supporters, had good reasons and good arguments for their point of view; neither group should be delegitimated. And the second someone argues for delegitimating the other major group in a community, they’re engaged in a purity war.

Since Sanders never did as well with nonwhites and women as Clinton, and Clinton never did as well as Sanders with young people, any narrative that says THEY didn’t have legitimate reasons for supporting their candidate is just appallingly patronizing. It has to stop.

But, let’s take it a step further. Is it clear that Sanders would have won? The poll that Sandersistas cite shows that Clinton would win. So, either it’s a bad poll, or Clinton might have been a less good choice, but not bad.

Sanders might have done better because he has the dangly bits, and so might not have been hurt by sexism, but Clinton lost white evangelical women, and there’s no reason to think Sanders would have gotten them (especially since he would have had anti-Semitism against him—a mirror image argument of the “don’t vote for Clinton because other people are sexist”), and there’s even less reason to think he would have gotten nonwhites. He still doesn’t get issues about race, after all. He still talks about “working class people” when he means “white working class.”

Antisemitism in the US is a non-trivial issue, and there has never been a candidate who wasn’t a practicing something, so there isn’t any good reason to think that he could have won over any bigots that Clinton lost. Unhappily, I think arguing that we shouldn’t have nominated Clinton because of sexism logically implies we shouldn’t have nominated Sanders because of anti-Semitism. If you’re arguing for Dems needing to pander to prejudices, then you need to be consistent in that (and there are still huge swaths of American public opinion that equates “liberal Jew” and “communist”). And that’s why I think they’re both troubling arguments.

At the time of the poll that showed that Sanders was the better candidate, there was a counter-argument that the GOP wanted Sanders to be the candidate, as they knew they could win against a Jewish socialist, and so they were holding fire. I was extremely dubious about that argument, so I spent a few hours looking at my normal Right Wing Propaganda Machine sources, and I ended up deciding it was true. It was striking that there weren’t any negative articles about Sanders after October or so of 2015. For instance, Sanders’ wife had some complicated financial dealings (personally, I don’t think they were even on the same radar as Trump), but there was no mention of them in the Noise Machine. The few articles about him were about how Clinton was victimizing him. That doesn’t mean that supporting Sanders was definitely a bad idea and anyone who did was an idiot. It just means that it’s reasonable to have supported Sanders but unreasonable to think he would definitely have won.

And here I have to emphasize the point I’m making—I think politics is very rarely capable of definitely right judgments, and it’s almost always a question of probabilities. Thus, there are a lot of positions on an issue that are reasonable, but they don’t all necessarily turn out to be right. Being reasonable doesn’t guarantee that one is right, and turning out to be wrong doesn’t mean that one’s position was unreasonable. So, I don’t think it’s obvious that Sanders would have won, but that doesn’t mean I’m certain he wouldn’t have. I do think his situation was more wobbly than many people realize. Therefore, people who voted for Clinton aren’t (and weren’t) obviously wrong, and people who voted for Sanders aren’t (and weren’t) obviously wrong–the right answer is not certain.

What most of my lefty friends don’t know (since, unlike me, they are sensible enough not to wander around in the GOP Noise Machine) is that Clinton was slammed for being socialist. I saw this a lot on friends’ social media too (and still do). For instance, here’s the National Review, not even a very extreme site (not as rabidly factional as Fox, let alone hate radio): I think it would have been an issue for Sanders as a candidate—perhaps not fatal (Obama got past it)—but an issue.

And here’s another point for which I have no data other than listening to people. The evangelical right has thoroughly politicized their churches, as they did during segregation, and it’s all about abortion. Unless Sanders was going to change the Dem stance on reproductive rights (which would have lost him huge numbers of people), he would have faced opposition from them. So, again, I think it was reasonable to support Sanders in the primary on the grounds that he was most likely to win; I think it was reasonable to support Clinton on those same grounds. I think it was reasonable to be unhappy there wasn’t a third Dem candidate.

I think we’re reasonable people. The premise of democracy is that no individual or group knows what is best for the community as a whole, that a community benefits from having people passionately committed to different political agenda, that pure agreement is never possible but respectful and grudging compromise is good enough, that listening to people with whom you disagree is useful, that important political change happens slowly, and that being certain and being right aren’t the same thing. I think Democrats should value democracy. I think we agree to have at least that much democracy within our party, and that means acknowledging that difference as to which is (or was) the best candidate is perfectly fine—people might have good reasons for disagreeing.

If the Dems are going to win elections (rather than replay what happened in the 80s) we need to agree to disagree together.

The Principled Position on Pussy-Grabbing

I crawl around the internet and argue with people. And there is a recurrent argument that, for me, is what’s wrong with our current political deliberation in a nutshell.

A person (often a woman) says she couldn’t vote for Hillary (note that Clinton is identified by her first name) because Clinton called the women her husband assaulted sluts and whores. So they voted for a man who bragged that he assaulted women, or they voted in a way that enabled a self-proclaimed sexual predator to become President because they wouldn’t vote for a woman who might have enabled a sexual predator. They wouldn’t vote for someone who did what they are doing by how they are voting. That’s interesting.

It’s interesting that the serious logical problems of that argument don’t occur to them. So, why don’t they?

It’s interesting that they’re trying to argue that their opposition to Clinton is principled, when the principle (don’t vote for someone who supports sexual predation) is violated by their arguing for a self-confessed (not just possibly an enabler) of sexual predation. Why vote for a self-confessed sexual predator (and thereby enable sexual predation) on the grounds that the other candidate might have enabled sexual predation? It’s also interesting how often these women claim that their stance is Christian, while they are cognitively reconciling voting for a self-confessed sexual predator, whose wife had porno photos (which conservative Christians claims to abhor, and yet neither he nor his wife has said they think those photos were a bad choice), who has a history of adultery, and whose “Christianity” only occurred when it was useful with believing they are promoting Christianity.

Okay, let’s take their argument at face value. They are saying that their position is not sheer factionalism—it isn’t that they would vote for roadkill were it the Republican nominee—they have principles for voting this way. Let’s call this argument the “sexual predation principle” argument.

And, obviously, it’s an argument that trips over its own tongue. Voting for a self-confessed sexual predator because you can’t vote for someone who is doing what you’re doing by voting for Trump (enabling a sexual predator) isn’t an argument from principle about abhorrence of sexual predation.

It’s something else entirely. So, what is it?

And here is something that makes it all more interesting. We have, on tape, Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women. There is no good evidence that Clinton said the accusers were whores or sluts. The sites that claim Clinton did that (and you can google it, because I don’t want to give them the clicks—they’re clickbaity sites) refer to an unsourced anonymous claim that someone said to someone that she had said it to them. There are no sites that quote Clinton directly, let alone show video or her calling the accusers sluts or whores.

I’ve argued with people who claim they saw a video of Clinton saying that. There is no video. There never was. (If there was , you would have seen it through all of 2016). That’s the known phenomenon of people creating an image of a claim they’ve heard over and over (for more on that, see Age of Propaganda). So, why do people have a clear image of a video that never existed?

Because their hatred of Clinton is so visceral as to be visual.

Well, okay, they hate Clinton, and they can list reasons. But are those reasons grounded in principle?

Here’s why that matters. There are, loosely, two ways to reason: one is grounded in ethical principles—that, regardless of who is doing something, you condemn or approve of that thing. Christ endorsed that method of thinking about ethics when he said “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s also the good Samaritan story—an act is right or wrong on its own merits, and not on the basis of who does it.

The other method of thinking about whether something is right or wrong is the one Christ continually rejected—that a thing done by this kind of person is right (if you think that kind of person is right) and it’s wrong if it’s done by a kind of person you think is wrong. That kind of reasoning is purely factional (or tribal, if you prefer that term): people like you are good, and people not like you are bad.

It’s hard for people to see when we’re engaged in factional ethics because we can always come up with instances of bad behavior on the part of the other faction, and so we can sincerely believe our perception of our faction as always better is proven by evidence (aka, confirmation bias). But here’s what factional reasoning can’t do: hold all the factions to the same standards.

If Clinton was wrong to enable sexual predation, then Trump was worse.

That conclusion comes from holding principles the same regardless of faction, and people often don’t reason that way about ethics. People think that they’re behaving in a principled way when they’re reasoning on the basis, not of a logical principle, but a generalization about their group versus the other group–it seems like reasoning from a principle, but the logical principle is that “my group is good.”

And too much American political discourse is on those grounds, and that people reason factionally is shown most obviously when people point out the inconsistency. For instance, if you say to me, “Well, you say that Your Candidate is good because she cares about the environment, but she took $10 million dollars from an oil company to hide their oil spill,” a factional (and not principled) response is for me to say, “Well, Your Candidate did it too.” It doesn’t matter if Your Candidate did–that doesn’t mean mine didn’t.

Where that argument should go, if it’s a good one, is an acknowledgement on the part of everyone that both candidates did it, and then we can argue about which is worse

If you believe that your faction is always right, you might mistake reasoning from that premise (My faction is right; this person is a member of my faction; therefore, this person is right) as operating from a principle because you believe your faction to be more principled than any other.

Unhappily, a lot of the people who voted for a sexual predator did so because they believe that only the Republicans support Christ’s political agenda.

Let’s set aside the most obvious problems with that (Christ didn’t say “except for these people”), and just try to understand that these are people who believe that their political agenda is so Christian that they are justified in treating their political opponents in ways that violate what Christ said about how we should treat others.

What that means is that their political agenda is more important than a pretty clear commandment from Christ.

That’s political factionalism. Whether their political agenda is the same as what Christ would want is up for argument. Whether they’re violating what Christ said about doing unto others is not. They are, and they’re trying to come up with reasons as to why it’s okay.

So, it’s taking a particular and factional political agenda and insisting that only that agenda is good. That’s anti-democratic.

And here’s another way that it’s what’s wrong with American political discourse in a nutshell. It’s ignorant of history. American Christians have a long list of sins on our plate (especially conservative Christians)—policies that were, actually, sheer factionalism, in-group preference, or sheer prejudice. Advocating slavery, defending segregation, opposing unions or any protection for workers’ safety, refusing to allow Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany to come here—all of those things were presented by conservative Christians as the obvious political agenda of Jesus. Oddly enough, a lot of conservative Christians now want to claim those political stances as proof that they are right, but they’re evidence they’re probably wrong. Those positions were all progressive and liberal Christian movements, demonized by conservative Christianity. [1] Conservative, even moderate, Christians were opposed to Martin Luther King, Jr., and condemned him.

There is a second problem with trying to cite those movements as proof that what politically conservative Christians are doing now: all of those movements insisted on the “do unto others” test, the very one rejected by conservative Christians now

Support of Trump fails that test.

So, let’s stop pretending that “I voted for Trump because Clinton supported her husband” is some sort of principled stance. It isn’t. Let’s stop pretending that people who make that claim are feminists, or allies, or anything other than people who wanted Trump to get elected, and needed a reason that made them feel comfortable.

It’s what’s wrong with American political discourse in a nutshell because it looks as though the person is taking a principled stance, when, in fact, there is neither a logical nor ethical principle consistently applied. It’s a rabidly factional defense of a logically indefensible position. It’s just a way of managing the cognitive dissonance of voting for Trump only because he’s in their faction. But, let’s admit it isn’t principled, and it violates what Christ said about doing unto others.


[1] The appalling crime on the part of progressive Christianity, eugenics, (also supported by many conservative Christians) also violated the “do unto others” rule.