How activism is warping American democracy
Activists have changed the way that growing numbers of Americans think about political reality itself — and not for the better
America needs less political activism.
That will sound absurd to many, but it's true. There are other and better ways to engage in democratic politics than pushing a narrow agenda, hyping its urgency and importance, and exaggerating the problems it would supposedly solve. Dispassionately analyzing the political scene is one alternative. Supporting candidates with a broader message that appeals to a wider swath of voters is another. Yet increasingly the latter two options are being swallowed by the activist mindset. And American democracy is suffering from the consequences.
Activists specialize in making demands, usually in a specific area of policy, and they seek to influence the political culture and move office holders toward fulfilling them. To further these goals, activists work to draw attention to themselves and raise money to pay for lobbying. Both are achieved by the generous deployment of hype.
Consider the National Rifle Association. It demands that the rights of gun owners be protected against lawmakers who would transgress them. But the Supreme Court has ruled that individuals have a constitutional right to own firearms. So where's the threat? All it takes is one newspaper columnist to muse about repealing the Second Amendment for the NRA to (metaphorically) weaponize the suggestion, turning it into an imminent threat to gun rights and an opportunity to set more expansive fundraising goals. When thousands of NRA members send in their checks, the money is deployed to threaten Republican office holders with primary challenges if they dare support even the most modest proposal for gun control.
The same thing happens on the left, with pro-choice activists holding Democrats' feet to the fire in standing against even the most modest regulation of abortion.
That's the way activists think and operate. It's incredibly effective, and it's becoming more so with every passing year. Back in the 1990s and 2000s, for example, significant gun control measures and abortion restrictions could pass on at least a somewhat bipartisan basis. But not today — and the change is to a significant extent because of the influence of activists. (And no, news that the NRA is open to allowing the baby-step of regulating "bump stocks" in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre doesn't count as a significant change in direction.)
But their influence isn't only felt in the halls of Congress. Activists have also changed the way that growing numbers of Americans think about political reality itself.
As Jonathan Chait noted in a recent column on the subject, the term "white supremacy" has begun to be used in dramatically more expansive ways over the past year or so. Where it once denoted an ideology that explicitly seeks to uphold, well, the supremacy of white people over other racial groups, now it is increasingly being expanded to include anyone who voted for Donald Trump, or even any white person who fails to display adequate concern about the persistence of racism in American society (with the level of adequacy set, of course, by the activists themselves). At the very furthest extreme are the Black Lives Matters activists who disrupted a free speech event at the College of William and Mary earlier this week, in part by chanting that "liberalism is white supremacy."
A similar radicalization of language could be seen in some feminist responses to the death of Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner. Rather than merely calling Hefner someone whose work mainstreamed the objectification of women, these activists described him as a purveyor of "misogyny," a word that both historically and etymologically means "hatred of women." Not merely the exploitation of women, and not simply their degradation — both of which are plausible descriptions of Playboy's effects, as it provided millions of American men with images of naked female bodies at which to leer lustfully. But to describe such leering as hatred of women goes several steps further — into territory on which only an activist (or someone influenced by an activist's tendency toward exaggeration) could tread with confidence.
Finally, there is the parallel trend, in both the U.S. and Europe, toward describing those who propose restrictive policies in response to Islamic terrorism as motivated by racism. Not only is Islam a religion and not a race, but fear of those who perpetrate deadly violence in the name of Islam isn't purely irrational. Such attacks do happen. It's certainly possible that fear of Islamic terrorism is overstated and the response by Western governments sometimes goes too far. But that's different than preemptively ruling any and all responses out of moral bounds on the grounds that they invariably display race-based animus.
Yet this is precisely what pro-Muslim activists (and those who've been influenced by them) increasingly suggest.
These activists are well within their rights to make their case. But it falls to the rest of us to treat such claims with skepticism, suspecting that they function as the political equivalent of misleading ad copy that deploys hype and exaggeration to sell a defective product to an easily manipulated population of democratic citizens.