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The Myth of the Winnable Culture War
Since the people we disagree with aren’t going anywhere, we might as well talk to each other
In response to the predictably voluminous criticisms of yesterday’s article, “Spying and Smearing is ‘Un-American,’ not Tucker Carlson”:
I disagree with Tucker Carlson on a variety of issues. I’m not saying this to “distance myself,” but rather to make a point that imagine he’d agree with, also the point of the article: there’s a difference between disagreeing, and what we’ve begun to do in media since Trump’s arrival.
Take one of Carlson’s most-criticized recent statements:
I disagree with the assumption that people who come to America from countries more dysfunctional than ours will bring the problems of their home countries with them. It’s an oft-cited statistic, but Nigerian immigrants are the most educated people in America, with 61% holding at least a Bachelor’s degree, nearly twice the rate of both native-born Americans and immigrants overall. There are similar numbers involving immigrants from South Asia, Korea, China, and other parts of the world.
Were this a debate with Carlson, I’d argue that conservatives are the ones who should be howling for more immigration, as three out of four naturalized immigrants say they are “very proud” of being Americans. This is a much higher number than native-born Americans, 69% of whom say they are “ashamed” of some parts of our culture (just 39% of immigrants agree). Immigrants work at a higher rate than native-born Americans, their children are educated at higher rates, and maybe the most patriotic.
He’d counter, and I can imagine what some of those arguments would be. But he’d be happy to have the debate. He might change my mind about some things, perhaps I’d change his about others. The other day, he described looking on Twitter after the Cuba situation blew up. “Three separate prominent conservative figures were against American intervention,” he said. “That’s change.”
The perception that conservatives don’t change their minds is as stupid as my belief that liberals would never cozy up to the CIA and NSA turned out to be. Conservative attitudes toward war, gay rights, surveillance and a host of other issues have shifted radically in recent years. Also, people don’t act and think solely as groups, as there’s enormous variance within every demographic. Pretending otherwise is a pernicious media myth. But I’m getting off track.
Here’s what we do now, instead of arguing: we fling terms like “white supremacist,” “transphobe,” “conspiracy theorist,” and “fascist” around, knowing that if the words stick, they lead to outcomes: boycotts, firings, removal from Internet platforms, etc. When Brian Stelter and Oliver Darcy compare Carlson to Alex Jones, they do this knowing Jones was booted off the Internet, so it’s a not-so-subtle way of voting for that same outcome.
Fine, many of you will say; I want Tucker Carlson booted off the air, and the Internet. I’d argue there are a lot of problems with thinking that way (this is exactly what censorship proponents said they wouldn’t do three years ago when the Jones situation happened, i.e. start arguing for removal of more mainstream conservatives), but beyond that, the technique isn’t limited just to Carlson.
When Ezra Klein proposed an open borders policy to Bernie Sanders years ago, Sanders balked, saying it was a Koch Brothers idea designed to provide big companies with cheap labor. Pundits were apoplectic. “Bernie Sanders's fear of immigrant labor is ugly — and wrongheaded,” decried Vox. The Guardian said he’d fueled “domestic, nativist sentiments,” while Jacobin said he’d “played into a right-wing nativist trap.” Buzzfeed later compared his stance to that of Trump advisor Stephen Miller, “known for his anti-immigrant, white nationalist rhetoric.”
Sanders spent much of his five years as a presidential contender fending off such not-so-subtle accusations of racism, nativism, misogyny, “toxicity,” being “alt-right” and “alt-left,” being a “white savior figure,” being a useful idiot for Russia, even anti-Semitism. When he criticized the press, or talked about “elites,” he was accused of being Trump. There was very little direct engagement with him on his policy beliefs, and a lot more rhetoric aimed at him as a person, most of which was unanswerable.
Sanders, who was popular in the same media spaces I worked in, where being labeled a bigot is the worst thing imaginable, never quite figured out how to deal with these criticisms. He tried to change his message downplaying “identity politics,” proposed a near-total moratorium on deportations, and repeatedly made the mistake of validating bogus or bad-faith criticisms of him, for instance agreeing that online “Bernie Bros” were “disgusting” and pledging to do something about “that crap.
None of it worked, and criticisms only intensified. He should have called out the tactic. Regarding Bernie Bros: all candidate bases have vicious online communities, and some are filled with clearly paid instigators, who even win praise in other outlets writing about other candidates. The Los Angeles Times saluted Kamala Harris for nurturing an effective “modern political army” in the “K-Hive,” which had trolls writing all sorts of racist and lurid things, like “Gotta kill, very violently.” As Matt Orfalea in Grayzone pointed out, the hypocrisy in the treatments of the two movements was transparent, as seen in this pair of Daily Beast headlines:
This has become our whole style of political argument: hit someone with an unanswerable accusation and then, as Lyndon Johnson would say, make the sonofabitch deny it.
It’s why so much effort was spent denouncing “economic anxiety” as code for racism, why Hillary Clinton accused both Jill Stein and Tulsi Gabbard of being foreign assets, why the New Yorker ran a story arguing Glenn Greenwald’s criticism of Russiagate was rooted in his disdain for “the ascendance of women and people of color in the [Democratic] Party,” why Cenk Uygur is accusing “alt left” enemies of being “paid by the Russians,” why Current Affairs went after impossibly congenial podcast host Krystal Ball by accusing cohort Saagar Enjeti of being a human gateway drug to Hitler, why critics went after Substack by claiming it was racist and transphobic (or, most amusingly lately, “bad for democracy”), why former New York Times editorial page editor James Bennet was ousted for putting the lives of black staff “in danger” by running a Tom Cotton editorial, and, yes, why Andrew Weissman went after Carlson by saying sowing distrust in the NSA is “un-American.”
These are all debate-pre-emptive strategies. When Clinton went after Gabbard, we stopped talking about whether or not military intervention in Syria was a good idea, and moved to debating whether Gabbard was an accomplice to genocide. Critics of Russiagate from the start had to calculate their appetites for being accused of supporting Putin or Trump. Anyone even considering going on Fox now can expect to spend years answering questions about abetting fascism and white supremacy. Argument goes out the door: the discourse becomes entirely about courage and career risk. How much flak are you willing to take? How much can you afford to take?
This is why people who probably have very different or even opposite politics on the policy level, like Greenwald and Carlson, are suddenly in a broadcast partnership. They’re part of a dwindling club left in major media who are defying these tactics. In a hypothetical universe where this moral panic era subsides, one could envision them going back to violently arguing with one another over immigration, spending, policing, etc. But for now they’re on the same side, not on issues, but against a tactic.
It’s become fashionable especially in Democratic Party politics (but more lately on the Republican side, too) to embrace this maximalist form of debate on the grounds that it works. De-platforming works, boycotts work, shaming works, they say; shaming is how we effect change. These people like to point to the fact that Alex Jones is effectively a non-factor in public life now, and Milo Yiannopoulos has vanished, even Donald Trump is a sideshow, and so on.
Two things about this. One, just because you can’t see someone anymore, doesn’t mean they’re not there. Donald Trump’s 74 million supporters haven’t disappeared just because Trump’s off Twitter. They’re now listening in the tens of millions to shows like Steve Bannon’s War Room. True, advertisers are mass-boycotting Carlson, but if they succeed in getting his show pulled, that audience won’t go to CNN, they’ll find some other haven. Maybe their next broadcast guru will be someone who doesn’t ask Sidney Powell for evidence of election fraud, doesn’t warn about Covid-19 early, doesn’t argue against war in Iran or Syria. If you’re going to try to eliminate this or that voice, be aware there’s a downstream calculation involved that may not turn out the way you think.
Point two is related: rhetorical coercion tends to backfire. For all the relentless messaging about how Trump’s racism left nonwhite voters with only one choice last fall — an idea symbolized by Joe Biden’s off-the-cuff “You ain’t black” comment — Trump gained with every nonwhite demographic last fall. This was an eyebrow-raising political story, but an absolutely extraordinary media story, one that spoke to the fact that even mass quantities of certain types of messaging can be counterproductive.
Remember how Republicans in the Bush era talked about blue-state enemies? Their conventional wisdom was that liberals equated with terrorists, liberalism was a “mental disorder,” liberalism was “treason.” Their rhetoric did not include a vision for the other half of America outside of conversion or expulsion. Plenty of this is still going on, but the updated version is prevalent now among Democrats, who are trying to make a strategy of absolute non-engagement stick with additional tools like platform censorship and domestic surveillance.
As any married person knows, there are certain words you never say in a fight, because you’ll still be living together when it’s over. Americans, like it or not, are married to one another. That’s not accommodationist talk, it’s just fact. The people we disagree with aren’t going anywhere, and it makes more sense to talk to them than not.