The Left Has Its Own Intolerance Problem: the Danger of Certainty

In writing this, I’m bracing to be called a Republican tool, or worse. And that’s the problem I want to address.

While resisting the egregious intolerance on the right, the left needs to face its own. Unlike the right’s, our version of intolerance doesn’t target minorities. Ours is aimed at those who disagree. 

You can see it in the response to Pete Buttigieg’s disagreement with the idea of free college for all — he thinks upper income people should still have to pay. Here’s AOC, who was cheered by many on Twitter over the weekend:

The same “Republican talking point” accusation has been made by Elizabeth Warren in answer to primary rivals challenging her Medicare for All plan.

When Obamacare fell short of being Medicare for All, some on the left accused Obama (who had risked his presidency and lost the Congress) of selling out.

And we see the same tendency every time debate among fellow Democrats gets shut down with ad hominem attacks like “neoliberal,” “corporate shill,” and the like.

I’d ask those who are tempted to join in to set aside your own opinions for a moment — I’ll park mine below* — and reflect: Surely it’s possible for more than one solution to be offered thoughtfully and in good faith?

And surely liberals, as believers in reason, should welcome that?

Of course we are all free to criticize other positions, and vigorously. But why assume that those who hold those positions — even if we’re sure they’re wrong — are enemies?

I think I have an answer to that “why.” I discovered it in reflecting on some of my own previous certainties.

The belief in reason that I just mentioned is one of modern liberalism’s greatest strengths. While so many on the right have abandoned this Enlightenment legacy, liberals have held it fast. And because we’re still guided by testable facts and logic, we’re more likely both to abandon old prejudices and to be open to better policies — “Reality has a well-known liberal bias,” as Stephen Colbert put it.

But there is a potential weakness here as well: that of being too sure we’re right. 

That’s because certainty easily becomes intolerance: ”If you disagree with me, you’re just wrong.“

Furthermore, since certainty makes us prone to ignoring new information, it can lead to big mistakes.

A historic example of such a mistake may be at the root of the liberal version of intolerance. That was the Enlightenment-era theory that since science explained so much else, it could explain, and even predict, history.

Giambattista Vico
Giambattista Vico by Francesco Solimena, via Wikimedia Commons

It seemed nothing but reasonable when Giambattista Vico first proposed it in his Scienza Nuova. But, independently, the Jacobins of the French Revolution revealed the intolerance it contained: if some of us have scientifically determined the direction of history, but others disagree, it follows that these others can only be either ignorant or evil. They must accept education, or be considered enemies of progress.

Unfortunately, the ensuing Reign of Terror did not debunk the “science” of history.

Marx picked it up in his theory of historical materialism. He saw confirmation in the unprecedented power, and exploitation, unleashed by the Industrial Revolution: history could be seen as a giant machine, with inputs, processes, and outputs.

But as Lenin, Mao, and others of Marx’s heirs found, at often terrible cost, history is not an Industrial Age machine. Such machines operated linearly and were many orders of magnitude simpler than a human society: in a machine, this part triggers that part in a known sequence, leading to a predictable result. History, however, turns out to be not a machine but a complex phenomenon, in the technical sense of complexity theory: it doesn’t exist until it emerges from a chaos of countless inter-related factors. So while we must do our best make educated guesses, history’s path forward is inherently unpredictable.

This is why five-year plan after five-year plan failed, as did communism itself, even though theory clearly predicted that it was capitalism that would fall. History refused to behave, and ignored the “science” that supposedly defined it. Most countries that tried to build centrally planned economies based on that science have long since given up.

But like many bad ideas, the science of history never really died. Instead it has persisted in a kind of zombie state, in a place and time so far from purges, gulags, re-education camps, and engineered famines.

The zombie lurks in the phrase “political correctness.” Yes, that term is misused by people trying to deflect attention from their intolerance of minorities. But the linkage of the concepts of politics and correctness also points to the left’s version of intolerance.

Tolerance of minorities can be, and is, morally right. That’s because we have recognized it as a moral value, along with others like justice and the rule of law. But “correctness” implies there’s only one way to think about promoting and defending this moral value, when that necessarily involves politics, policy, and economics — in other words, history in the making.

One can’t believe one is “correct” about such things — as opposed to “more likely to be right” — unless one believes history is scientific. In fact, such certainty even misunderstands science, which doesn’t purport to deliver certain answers, only the best ones currently obtainable.

I’m afraid “woke” isn’t much of an improvement. What’s intended by that term is hard to argue with: it’s valuable to be aware of what’s really going on. But it also implies that if you don’t agree with my view of what’s really going on, you’re deluded: asleep and dreaming.

We hear the zombie speak again when we’re told we’re living under “late capitalism.” Possibly we are, but how can we know? The science of history sure got that one wrong the first time.

I assume that many of the people who talk like this aren’t consciously thinking of the science of history — it’s more likely that they’re haunted by it. As John Maynard Keynes said, “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

Portrait of Voltaire
Voltaire by Nicolas de Largillière, via Wikimedia Commons

And I’m confident they have the best of intentions, as most of their forebears have had, going back to the Jacobins (at least at their start). But while morality is a force for good, moral certainty has led to many a wrong.

“O Liberty! What crimes are committed in thy name!” exclaimed Madame Roland, a revolutionary who found herself in the wrong faction, just before being Guillotined.

If only the Jacobins had listened to Voltaire:

“What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly — that is the first law of nature.”



*I’d like to see:

Free college, vocational training, and/or apprenticeships (in recognition that college isn’t the right choice for everyone).

More urgently, free, high-quality child care for all who need it.

Education equated in importance with national defense and funded accordingly, since the most valuable property now is intellectual.

School teachers elevated to a position of respect and compensation equivalent to doctors and lawyers, like they are in many other developed countries whose schools outperform ours.

At the same time, I recognize the need for realistic plans to get to these goals, plans that include the hard work needed to persuade enough of the many different people who make up a pluralistic democracy.

Back to the text.

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It’s Not Trump’s Fault, It’s Ours

One of the most important influences on the Founders was Montesquieu, who came up with the idea of separation of powers — a pretty good day’s work, and a foundation of our Constitutional republic.

Montesquieu also identified a republic’s necessary, animating spirit: virtue.

Portrait of Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu by or after Jacques-Antoine Dassier
Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, by/after Jacques-Antoine Dassier, via Wikimedia Commons

Virtue? I know, it sounds quaint.

That’s the problem.

If we citizens are to rule ourselves, each of us, as rulers, needs to care about doing what’s right in our civic life. But at the moment, too many of us, whether through inattention, ignorance, or outright cynicism, think having a Donald Trump as president is just fine.

In “The Spirit of Laws,” Montesquieu defines three kinds of government: monarchy, despotism, and republic. If a monarchy is to survive, it requires honor. Despotism runs on fear — sound familiar?

But a republic, since it is based on self-rule, requires virtue. For Montesquieu, virtue meant more than just morality, although it did mean that. He understood virtue in its classical sense, encompassing learning, judgment, and other capacities required of a citizen.

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Charles Willson Peale
Thomas Jefferson by Charles Willson Peale, via Wikimedia Commons

Jefferson was inspired by Montesquieu when he advocated for the primary importance of a free press and excellent public education. They were necessary to civic virtue:

“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.” (Letter to Edward Carrington, Jan. 16, 1787)

So how is it that all these years after Jefferson and Montesquieu, we find ourselves living under a wannabe despot?

It’s not Trump’s fault: he clearly can’t help being as low as he was made (by an abusive father, I’m guessing).

No, it’s our fault. It’s our fault for allowing it to become possible for a Donald Trump to even get close to the presidency.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Duplessis
Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Duplessis, via Wikimedia Commons

For a country to reach a state as debased as the state we’re in, its rulers must have shirked their duty. And that would be us.

Benjamin Franklin, like Jefferson, like Montesquieu, saw this coming. When asked if America was to be a monarchy or a republic, he answered:

“A Republic, if you can keep it.”

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Running From the Polls, Democrats Stumble Into Leading on Impeachment

As I’m not the first to point out, when Democrats see bad polls, they run from them. When Republicans see bad polls, they change them, through persuasion.* With polls showing a dramatic swing in favor of impeaching President Trump, Congressional Democrats have stumbled into leading on the issue, now that leading and fleeing point in the same direction.

On Friday’s “Morning Joe” (Sept 27, 2019), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi explained her new support for impeachment: her position hasn’t changed, the situation has changed, because the glaring clarity of Trump’s abuse of power in the Ukraine scandal has made the case for impeachment so easy for the public to see and understand. She quoted Abraham Lincoln’s famous assertion (from his first debate with Stephen Douglas):

With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.

I respect Pelosi, and I often agree with her choices of pragmatism over purity. But here’s what’s missing from her precis of politics: the rest of what Lincoln said.

…Consequently he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed. [Emphasis added.]

The case for Trump’s impeachment was made a long time ago, certainly by the time Robert Mueller released his report and came as close as he could to calling for it in the face of the Office of Legal Counsel’s directive against indicting a sitting president. But Congressional Democrats couldn’t rise to the challenge of making the case to the public.

They had to wait for Trump to do that for them.

All smart politicians check polls, often daily. But there’s a difference between checking polls and being led by them. Leadership means standing in front of the crowd, not behind.

Democrats in Congress now find themselves in front of a crowd, one that’s growing. All they need to do is to keep moving forward. Hopefully they’ll get used to the feeling.

*I think I first heard Bill Maher say this, but I’m not sure if he originated it.

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Smacked Around by the Schoolyard Bully, Congressional Democrats Threaten to Maybe Someday Do Something

I often call out Republicans in Congress for their cowardice and complicity in the face of Trump’s assault on our democracy. But many Congressional Democrats are making it hard to see how they’re any better.

Caricature of the Marquess of Queensberry, namesake of the boxing rules, from Vanity Fair, Nov. 10, 1877 via Wikimedia Commons
Caricature of the Marquess of Queensberry, namesake of the boxing rules, from Vanity Fair, Nov. 10, 1877 via Wikimedia Commons

If these Democrats continue to say that Trump is guilty of impeachable offenses, as he so obviously is, but then shy away from impeaching him, their overriding message, no matter what explanation they offer, is that they’re too weak and fearful to follow words with actions.

It would be better just to stay quiet.

Like it would be better not to invite people like Corey Lewandowski to show utter contempt for Congress, and just sit there and take it. They only play the helpless victims of the schoolyard bully:

SMACK — “Hey! That’s not right!”
 SMACK — “You’re breaking the rules!
 SMACK — “If you do that again, I’ll tell!”

Given the choice between the bully and the bully’s victims, many voters will choose the bully.

They may feel sorry for the victims. But they sure won’t follow them.

That’s because above all, leadership requires strength, or at least the appearance of it. If you can’t stand up for us, why would we stand behind you?

And you can’t convince people you’re strong by talking about it. You have to show it.

It means you may have to get in an actual fight, which means getting hit, and hitting back. Not scheduling a meeting to consider hitting back at some point in the future.

Most importantly, getting in an actual fight means taking the risk that you’ll lose.

That’s scary — but that’s all it is. Leaders know that losing is not the worst outcome.

If you do lose, you still will have shown the character and courage of a leader, one who can lead again in the next battle, or inspire others to.

But if you won’t even fight, you’ve lost already.

And you should face, at least, this: You’re not a leader.

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Beto: Wrong on Guns, Right on Guts

Beto O'Rourke
Beto O’Rourke photo by Gage Skidmore
via Wikimedia Commons

Are Democrats impeaching the president?

Yes. No. Maybe.

You see, it could be the right thing to do, but it’s also the risky thing to do. So they kind of are and kind of aren’t.

God forbid they just choose one and fight for it.

It’s a perfect Democratic stance, meaning not a stance at all. More of a straddle. Balanced, but wobbly.

And it sends the one big meta-message that so often drowns out everything else Democrats say: “Looking for leadership? Please, look somewhere else — anywhere else.” So, many voters do.

At the most recent Democratic debate, Beto O’Rourke came out and said what many gun owners believe all Democrats would say if they had the guts: “I’m coming for your guns.” (Assault rifles, in this case.)

Now in fact, I’m one of many Democrats who think Beto’s position here is a mistake. I agree with him that the average person shouldn’t own an assault rifle — but millions do. And I believe that in a democracy it’s both better and more sustainable to build support for a dramatic change like this instead of using the power of the government to force it.

I also think that Beto has created a political problem for all the Democratic candidates. Chris Coons is right when he says Beto’s statement will be repeated over and over in the other side’s attack ads and fundraising appeals.

But I think Beto’s boldness is exactly right. And it’s exactly what more Democrats need to find within themselves.

Instead, too many Democrats seem to think they can find a way to appear bold without taking a risk. In so doing, they come across as fearful and untrustworthy.

There’s because here’s no way around it: leadership requires — is — the taking of risks. If a leader can’t take a risk, they’re not a leader, they’re a follower, and what do we need them for? Followers are not in short supply.

Democrats have a natural electoral advantage that should mean we almost never lose: there are far more of the non-rich people we care most about than the rich people the Republicans care most about.

And yet, way too often, we do lose — including, in 2016, to the worst presidential candidate in history. It’s easy to blame Republicans for this by pointing to malfeasance like their race-baiting, gerrymandering, and institutionalized lying.

But Democrats also need to look in the mirror and ask themselves this question: Why are there millions of natural Democratic voters who can’t bring themselves to choose our candidates?

We need to remember that ultimately that choice is not based on policies, but the person. It’s the same as it has been since we were hunter-gatherers. We’re looking for the biggest, strongest, and bravest among us, and we identify them based on actions and nonverbal cues like posture, eye contact and tone of voice.

And yet so many Democratic candidates will happily disappear down policy rabbit holes, as they did again at the most recent debate, as if they think a presidential campaign is just a long seminar, instead of a crucible of character.

By taking a stand, even if a mistaken one, Beto showed voters what they want more than any particular policy, a strong leader. In doing that, I suspect he may even win over some hard core gun rights backers who’ll respect his gumption more than they hate his position.

Note that Donald Trump, who in reality is weak and incompetent, only proves my point: he fooled people into thinking he was a strong leader by showing them who he really was. By blurting out everything that popped into his head during the 2016 campaign, he came across as authentic. The far more qualified Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, came across as someone who had poll-tested whether to say “hi” or “hello.”

Imagine the power of marrying authenticity with actual character and ability.
Luckily, imagining that is not too hard. Barack Obama gave us a great example.

And happily, Beto’s risky statement on guns wasn’t the only bright spot at the debate. Pete Buttigieg nailed what matters most in one powerful sentence:

“Part of how you can win is to know what’s worth more to you than winning.”

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Noted Christian Mike Pence Visited the Border Today

Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.
Leviticus 27:19

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
Leviticus 19:34 

You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Deuteronomy 10:19 

The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
Psalm 146:9

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
Matthew 25:35 

Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of my brethren you did it to me.
Matthew 25:40

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How Liberals Lose by Being Right

Professor lecturing, with book and pointer

Liberals’ greatest advantage is that, because we care so much about facts and logic, we’re often right — as Stephen Colbert said, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

But being right is also liberals’ greatest weakness.

How can that be?

Because too many liberals think it’s enough. If it were, we wouldn’t lose so much.

Thanks to our commitment to reason, liberals are often right on policy, whether it’s about health, the environment, crime, civil rights, or the economy.

And polls consistently show that most Americans prefer liberal positions.

The trouble is, while most Americans like liberal policies, many of them don’t like liberals: more identify as conservatives or independents.

One reason for that is the aggressive negative branding campaign Republicans have been carrying out for decades now, often exploiting cultural and/or racial divisions. A famous example: the same Kentucky voters who thought they hated Obamacare loved the same plan when it was presented under a different name (now that so many Americans have tried it, Obamacare is popular no matter what you call it).

But I think another reason is that so many liberals act like everyone who disagrees with them just hasn’t caught up yet.

It doesn’t have to show up as overt arrogance — although it frequently does, as in terms like “red neck,” “gun nut,” or all the different variants of “those idiots.”

It also shows up every time any of us skips over trying to connect with and persuade the other side, and instead just tells them why they’re wrong.

But what if they are wrong? If you’re seriously trying to win an election, that doesn’t matter much. Politics is about persuasion. You don’t persuade many people by ignoring how they think and feel — right or wrong.

Let’s look at one of several hot-button issues that, over decades now, have driven away so many people who used to vote for Democrats: guns.

Most of the evidence supports typically liberal positions on guns, like requiring background checks, training, or other safety measures. And you know what? Most gun owners support them too. 

But so often, the way liberals talk about guns betrays both ignorance of and lack of interest in the interests and cultural concerns of gun owners. Instead, liberals sound like what they get accused of being: a distant, disconnected elite telling other people how to live.

Guess what: not every gun owner is a gun nut. Most want to use guns responsibly for recreation or self-defense. Many have treasured memories of growing up in a culture that includes hunting. And the ones who believe owning a gun is a question of freedom? Most aren’t militia wackos. Most sincerely believe in strict limits on government power.

You don’t have to agree with them. But if you can’t or won’t listen to them? You lose them.

And lose elections.

It’s been a serious problem for decades now, stretching from the Reagan Democrats to the Obama-Trump voters. In the face of Donald Trump’s entirely possible re-election, it’s no longer serious, it’s critical.

There’s a bitter irony here. Democratic policies help the working class, while Republicans help the rich. But Republicans, the party of business, know you have to lavish attention on the people you’re trying to sell to, as they have with working Americans.

Too often, Democrats act like it’s not worth their time.

Liberals, we claim to care. Let’s act like it.

As Obama used to say, change is hard. For many people, it’s also scary. Don’t just skip to the right answer.

Do the hard work of change: meet people where they are, listen to them, and persuade them.

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My interview on Cheddar about the first Democratic Debates

From June 26, 2019. More of my TV appearances about Election 2020 on my Facebook page.

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The original model for the presidency was George Washington. Now it’s the Mafia.

Portrait of George Washington
Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (via Wikimedia Commons)

The most important, and most disturbing message of the Barr hearings and all the back and forth over the Mueller report:

The presidency was designed with George Washington as its model. The model we have now is, “Can you make the rap stick?” In other words, the Mafia.

You might think that’s hyperbole. But our current president enthusiastically agrees with it.

As he’s boasted repeatedly, his mentor — and his model for the the perfect US Attorney General — was the notorious mob lawyer Roy Cohn.

Mug shot of John Gotti
Roy Cohn client John Gotti (via Wikimedia Commons)

Throughout his real estate career, he did business with the New York mafia and then the Russian mafia — without them, he probably had no career. Building on a reported record of financial and tax fraud, stiffing creditors and investors, and six bankruptcies, he specialized in selling overpriced real estate in cash transactions to known Russian gangsters, or to anonymized entities in places like the Cayman Islands. No reputable business person does that. Money launderers do.

As the Mueller investigation and other proceedings have documented and as we see for ourselves in plain sight, Trump cajoles, pays off, or threatens witnesses who might testify against him. Those who do are “rats” who “flip.”

As he’s been telling us, over and over, he’s a mobster.

His cowering co-partisans have convinced themselves that’s the same as a president.

We’re supposed to as well. Will we?

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The Time for Impeachment Is Here

House of Representatives chamber
The chamber of the House of Representatives (public domain)

I think they were right to wait, but it’s now time for House Democrats to move forward with impeachment. Yes, it’s almost certainly doomed in the Senate by the Republican majority, which long ago chose power over patriotism. But sometimes doing what’s right requires doing what’s hard, and may even require accepting defeat.

If the rampant corruption documented by the Mueller report were to be accepted as unimpeachable, it would establish a terrible precedent and do further damage to our democracy.

And it may not be as politically costly as some fear:

1) The process begins, not ends, with a vote to impeach, and even that follows the proceedings that lead up to the vote. The airing of the evidence will take a long time. That time will not go well for Trump or his enablers.

2) The Trumpist strategy has been to count on the death of reading and overwhelm the public with video. Impeachment will turn the 400-plus pages of the Mueller report into months of very compelling video.

3) Yes, the Republicans will claim the impeachment vote was driven only by politics, but of course they will. If it’s not one lie, it’ll be another. Politics has always been rough, but the modern GOP is an ethical catastrophe.

4) In voting No to impeachment, Senate Republicans will put the failure of their integrity on the record — not just for this election season, but for all of history. Voters will be presented a clear choice (made much clearer by all those clips).

5) It will be a clear choice if, that is, Democrats don’t look like they too are afraid to stand up when it counts. If they do, they risk endorsing the core of Trumpism: nothing means anything, except power. Furthermore, they risk looking weak, which is as politically costly as it gets.

6) If and when impeachment is voted down in the Senate, yes, of course Trump will claim it as vindication. But he’s claiming vindication now. The Senate’s “vindication” will ring even more hollowly, and hopefully that doleful sound will wake up a few more voters.

But in the end, if voters have had every possible opportunity to see what Trump is and they still choose him again, that will be their democratic choice. We’ll have to accept that he really is what they want. As important as it is to defeat Trump, defending democracy is the reason.

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