Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Driving People To The Extremes

A few weeks ago, it seemed like the Democrats were going to go to bat against their photogenic radical wing, with Nancy Pelosi taking "The Squad" to the rhetorical woodshed over their criticisms of less radical Democrats.
“I hope there will be some level of respect and sensitivity for our — each individual experience that we bring to this Caucus,” Pelosi said. “You make me the target, but don’t make our Blue Dogs and our New Dems the target in all of this because we have important fish to fry,” Pelosi said.

"It was a very stern and forceful speech," said a senior Democratic aide in the room.

Pelosi also told the assembled Democrats that if they, or a member of their staff, had thoughts to attack another lawmaker on social media they should "think twice," according to the senior aide.

"Actually, don't think twice; think once," Pelosi said.
I was rooting for Pelosi a bit -- a phrase that I never thought I'd find myself saying. Having seen my own party destroyed by media savvy members of the fringe, I wanted to see the hard nosed old legislator win out and enforce some decorum.

It was not to last. Donald Trump, who becomes restive at any moment he isn't the center of attention, decided that the fight needed to be about him, so he pitched in to attack the four freshman congresswomen of "The Squad", telling them that they should "go back" where they came from if they don't like the United States -- a nonsensical demand given that all four are citizens and three of the four were born in the US.

This predictably ignited a firestorm which shows no sign of dying down as critics point out (rightly) that the only sense in which Trump's targets have anywhere to "go back" to is that they are less white than the average congressperson. While a few weeks ago it seemed like the Democratic Party was ready to tamp down its radical wing, they're now united behind that wing in order to defend it from Trump.

To some commentators, this is yet another example of Trump playing "four dimensional chess" (a phrase I could be happy never to hear again) in goading the Democrats into uniting behind ideas too radical to win in the national elections.  There's some decent evidence that as self described "democratic socialist" representatives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez succeed in becoming the public face of the Democrats in swing states, swing voters of the sort likely to decide the next election have a negative reaction to them, so it's not wholly irrational to think that making the freshman four the face of the Democratic Party would be a good move for Trump -- himself chronically unpopular and unlikely to be reelected unless he's able to define himself as the only alternative to something worse.

But there's a real risk to this kind of thinking too. While it's possible that making a small number of democratic socialists the face of the Democratic Party would succeed in turning voters against the Democrats, it's also possible that making it seem as if the only alternative to Trump is democratic socialism will make democratic socialism itself more popular. Certainly, I've watched as left leaning or even somewhat conservative friends have drifted into increasingly hard-left beliefs over the last three years, simply out of dislike for Trump.

Indeed, it's a standard tactic of factions at the extremes to try to create a conflict in which they seem the only alternative to some even worse enemy. This is, for instance, a standard tactic of small terrorist resistance movements seeking to spark "wars of liberation". In his masterful book A Savage War of Peace, about the struggle of Algerian nationalists against the French colonial authorities, Alistair Horne describes how the terrorist movement for liberation actively sought to commit atrocities so horrific that they would elicit massive responses from the French authorities. Such massive responses inevitably angered even Algerians who did not support the terrorist activities themselves. The end result was that the conflict increasingly drove Muslim Algerians into the arms of the terrorists forces of liberation, while French settlers were increasingly radicalized to support extreme repression.

Our conflicts are still, thankfully, mostly rhetorical rather than violent, but the dynamics are the same. The radical elements at both ends of our political spectrum repeatedly attempt to cause confrontations which will cause the other side to launch broad attacks against the other. In doing so, these extremists both seek to make themselves the standard bearers in a struggle with only to clear sides, creating a "if you're not with us, you're with them" dynamic. They also seek to cause confrontations which will drive those who are not exactly on their own side, but can be made to feel dislike the other side, into their arms.

I can see how this plays out gauging my own reactions at this particular tempest rages. I found Trump's original provocation disgraceful, yet as I see friends on the left posting piece after piece which not only attack Trump but take the opportunity to state that they always knew all of us conservatives were total racists and now this proves it, I do find myself tempted to think, "These people all hate me so much; I can't possibly support letting them win even if I don't like Trump."

The key, however, is to know this reaction for what it is. The enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend. He's just your enemy's enemy. Most conflicts have more than two sides. Just ask the central Europeans who had the privilege of being dragged off into the woods and shot by both the forces of communism and of fascism in close succession. It may seem like an extreme example, but we ignore it at our peril -- as shown by the fact that while the right is trying to justify fully endorsing nationalism, we have America Magazine running an article trying to justify communism as a force for good on the theory that whatever evils it may have been responsible for, at least it's one of the longer lasting adversaries of capitalism.


BenK said...

People who resisted both invasions Poland put both treasure and blood on the line and were often martyred.

That wasn't moderate, it was radical. It was extreme.

Darwin said...

True. Definitely not moderate in the "lukewarm" sense that it's so often used. More like the golden mean, which is often a place that it takes heroic work to reach.