Beware the liberal thought police

Liberals really need to stop declaring certain political opinions illegitimate

Be wary of what you hear.
(Image credit: iStock)

After 10 days of an all-points-bulletin freak-out that's been equal parts panic, fury, and nervous breakdown, the time has come for liberals to regain their equilibrium.

This doesn't mean denying the dire situation facing the country. The president-elect is woefully unprepared (temperamentally and experientially) for the job that confronts him. His team appears to be overwhelmed by the challenges of the transition. He has already elevated one very bad person (Steve Bannon) to a position of considerable authority in the incoming administration. A number of the president-elect's policies would mark a radical break from recent tradition, some may well be unconstitutional, and the risk of him spreading an unprecedented level of systemic corruption throughout the federal government and civil society is distressingly high.

All of those things are deeply troubling. They are "not normal," as Donald Trump's legion of critics in the media repeatedly remind us.

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But it's also the case that many objections to Trump and the voters who elevated him to the presidency are so broad that they risk overshooting the mark. In this respect, the response to Trump radicalizes certain distressing and counter-productive intellectual tendencies and argumentative habits that were already all too common among liberals long before the election — tendencies and habits that contributed in important ways to Trump's shocking triumph at the polls on Nov. 8.

I'm talking about the propensity of liberals to deem certain political opinions automatically illegitimate, out of bounds, and unacceptable.

The urge toward exclusion is a perennial possibility of politics. That's because politics takes place on two levels. On one level is the back and forth of partisan conflict, involving persuasion, argument, electoral battles, triumphs, and defeats. On this level, pretty much anything goes as long as it abides by the rules of the political game. But there's also a second, more fundamental level of politics that involves a competition over who gets to set the rules, the boundaries of what is publicly acceptable, in the first place — and precisely where those boundaries will be positioned.

The most obvious example of second-order politics in the American system is the judiciary, and especially the Supreme Court. Until the Obergefell decision in 2015, for example, the American people were engaging in a free-flowing debate about same-sex marriage, with some people in favor of allowing it and others opposed, and public opinion shifting rapidly in the "pro" direction. That was politics conducted on the first level. But then the Supreme Court stepped in to declare gay marriage a constitutional right. That was second-order politics in action: Suddenly the rules were changed, with the "pro" side summarily declared the winner throughout the nation and the "anti" side driven — and permanently excluded — from the political battlefield going forward.

But second-order politics isn't only found in the formal strictures of a Supreme Court ruling. It comes into play when prominent institutions in civil society (such as mainstream media outlets, universities, corporations, movie studios, and other arms of the entertainment industry) informally unite in deciding that an issue, or a specific position on an issue, is simply unacceptable because it crosses a moral line that leading members of these institutions consider inviolable. Over the past several decades, a range of positions on immigration, crime, gender, and the costs and benefits of some forms of diversity have been relegated to the categories of “racism," "sexism," "homophobia," "white supremacy," or "white nationalism," and therefore excluded from first-order political debate.

If liberals want to understand why their power in the nation's first-order political institutions has gone into such steep decline, they might want to consider the possibility that it is partially a reaction to the enormous power they've wielded in recent years at the second-order level.

One of the secrets of Donald Trump's electoral success was his refusal to abide by many of the limits that liberals have sought to place on acceptable political opinion and debate. In devising their response, liberals need to be careful. Yes, Trump is putting certain previously excluded issues on the table for first-order public deliberation. Liberals (rightly) oppose Trump's policy proposals on these issues. But the best way to respond is to make arguments against adopting those policies — to engage in first-order politics — and not to revert to second-order politics by repeatedly screaming "racism!" in the vain hope of getting these issues taken back off the table.

In the days since the election, we've heard an awful lot of the latter from liberals — and not only about Trump. Vice-President-elect Mike Pence, whose stances on government spending and social issues place him much closer than Trump to the gravitational center of the Republican Party establishment, is apparently beyond the political pale for many liberals as well.

I get it: I'm a centrist liberal. On most issues, I prefer Democratic policies and want to see them prevail. Having to watch a Republican president and Congress gut programs I favor will be painful, and I suspect those changes will badly hurt large numbers of Americans. But should the pursuit of those policies really be preemptively ruled out of bounds? Listening to liberals over the past week or so, you could be forgiven for thinking that many of them fervently wish they could be.

But they can't be — because roughly half the country either favors some version of those policies or doesn't think favoring them should disqualify a candidate from serving as president of the United States. If the 2016 election teaches us anything, it should be that telling people they're not allowed to think certain things or prefer certain policies, or calling them names for doing so, doesn't eliminate those thoughts and preferences. It just drives them underground, where they will come roaring back once someone breaks the unwritten rules of propriety by daring to champion them.

Liberals need to focus on formulating ideas and arguments that will prevail in first-order politics instead of trying to preemptively expel from the debate those defending contrary ideas and arguments. Excommunication may appear to succeed in the short term. But in the end, it will often backfire, empowering the excluded opponents in the bargain.

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