“Debate” Versus Persuasion

In defense of political rhetoric…

A common argument on the left runs as follows: one should not have an excessive confidence in the power of “rational debate” to solve political disagreements. There is, after all, no reasoning with some people. They are beyond argument, and thinking that you can reason with them is delusional. Any attempt to do so is likely to hurt your political fortunes, because it misunderstands how power works. Politics is not a university debating society, in which each side offers its premises and conclusions and the team with the tightest logic wins. It is “war by other means,” a clash of interests that is won by gaining the ability to push your agenda through, not by showing the other side how reasonable you are.

This issue often comes up when someone on the left does something perceived to undermine free speech and open discussion. When a white supremacist gets punched in the face, or a right-wing pundit gets shouted down on a college campus, some moderate and civility-minded person will suggest that the best way to fight right-wing ideas is by debating them, not by shutting down the conversation entirely. Inevitably, the response of those who do believe in shutting down “debate” is roughly as follows:

“It’s ridiculous to suggest ‘debating’ certain ideas, like fascism. You can’t debate such a thing. You can only destroy it. It is laughable to propose that we should sit down and argue about whether white supremacism is a good thing.” 

A version of this argument is made by Richard Seymour. Seymour says that “fact-checking” members of the far right is “beside the point.” You can’t “debate” someone like Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen. That’s because a debate only works if both parties are interested in having one. But people like Trump and Le Pen aren’t interested in debate. They use language as propaganda, rather than in a good faith attempt to find truth. Anyone who has watched a video of Adolf Hitler’s spittle-spraying orations can instantly see the futility of “debate” against certain parties.

Seymour therefore counsels against ideas like, say, inviting Marine Le Pen onto your talk show so that you can grill her. You might think you can “expose” Le Pen this way, but you won’t:

“The basic idea that ‘exposing’ fascists is bad for them, that ‘exposure’ is something that they want to avoid, depends on the totally erroneous idea that they are there to free associate about their ideas, to converse, to logically defend various truth claims. If they were worried about being ‘exposed’ in that way, they wouldn’t come on your television show, or go out of their way to court publicity.”

Discussion about the limits of debate is important. It has implications for questions of both free speech and political tactics: if dialogue is impossible, what’s the point of attempting it? If right-wing speakers are not attempting discussion, but propaganda, why shouldn’t you try to shut them down? And if political power is not built through debate, should we even be trying to convince people?

It’s important, in considering these questions, to clear up what “debate” is to begin with. Many of the criticisms of “debating” people seem to assume a narrow definition of debate: they criticize those who think pure logic can successfully counter right-wing political points. The idea here is that “debate” consists of rational argumentation: I present my points, with evidence, you present counterpoints with evidence, I rebut your counterpoints, you parry my rebuttal with some more evidence, and one of us wins through superior logic. It is this form of debate that is impossible with Donald Trump. With Donald Trump, I present my points, with evidence, and he says I founded ISIS and then brags about having a billion dollars. You can’t really meet this with “fact-checking” or even “logical argumentation,” because facts don’t mean anything to him.

But it’s too simple to say this means you can’t “debate” people like Trump or Le Pen. From the fact that you can’t use a particular kind of debate (throwing facts at someone), we would be concluding that you can’t debate them at all. That’s not necessarily true, however. “Debate” is not strictly a contest of logical argumentation; it is a contest of persuasion, and the strict presentation of factual arguments and conclusions is only one of the ways in which this occurs.

Debates are about argument, but they’re also about rhetoric, the art of discourse. “Rhetoric” has a negative connotation these days, but it shouldn’t. It has a great tradition. Rhetoric is simply the use of spoken and written tactics of persuasion. The rhetorician calculates her words for the effect they will have on the audience. As classically conceived, this is opposed to the dialectician, who uses words in an open-minded truth-seeking inquiry.

Richard Seymour is right. People like Trump and Le Pen aren’t doing anything resembling open-minded truth-seeking inquiry. Instead, they are calculating their words toward a particular end, namely the end of getting people to support them. It’s therefore not so much that you “can’t debate” such people as that you can’t bring logic to a rhetoric fight.

It may sound as if I’m encouraging the left to give up reason and embrace propaganda. But that’s not quite what I mean. I think it’s very important to seek truth, and examine yourself, and figure out what the facts are. I just don’t think that’s necessarily what wins debates. Political debates are won by having the most persuasive messages. All I’m suggesting is thinking about trying to find some words that actually convince people, rather than trying to find the most logically precise words. In a public political contest, being too logical will make you sound lawyerly and difference-splitting. It won’t carry the audience, and the audience are the ones who vote.

In making the decision as to whether to debate someone, and how, it’s that effect on the audience question that should be crucial. It’s all about the audience; you’re never going to persuade your opponent, your job is to persuade the person watching. Yet Democrats often debate as if they’re trying to persuade their opponents, which is one reason they fail. You shouldn’t be trying to prove to Trump that he’s wrong, or somehow grill Marine Le Pen on television until sheer force of reason causes her to abandon her lifelong political convictions. What you should be doing is trying to make these people look callous and foolish, which may or may not involve the use of pure logic.

I don’t like to invoke the authority of the ancient Greeks, but Aristotle really did point out something quite useful in his treatise on rhetoric. He wrote that:

“There are… three means of effecting persuasion. The man who is to be in command of them must, it is clear, be able (1) to reason logically, (2) to understand human character and goodness in their various forms, and (3) to understand the emotions-that is, to name them and describe them, to know their causes and the way in which they are excited.”

Rhetoric consists of logos, ethos, and pathos—logic, emotion, and character. To be a skilled persuader you need all three. Make purely logical arguments and you’ll flounder, because you also need to be able to use language in ways that touch people emotionally and that convince them you’re a person of sound character who ought to be listened to. People come around to your views partially for logical reasons, but partially because they come to trust you, and to see you as reliable.

That’s one key reason why people on the left lose debates. It’s not because “you can’t debate a fascist,” it’s because fascists think about how to actually win the audience. If you’re not thinking about that, of course you’ll lose.

There’s something that sounds faintly dirty about encouraging people to think beyond purely rational forms of persuasion. But it’s that refusal to get one’s hands dirty with rhetoric that is the problem, not the willingness to use language rather than physical force as one’s chief political weapon. The choice is not necessarily between “trying to reason logically with the other side” and “engaging in violent struggle.” It could also be that for progressives, persuasion is usually best effected neither through violence nor formal deductive reasoning, but through effective messaging, telling people things that actually get them to support your politics. In other words, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it and who you are

Bernie Sanders offers a good illustration of what I mean about using language effectively by going beyond reason and incorporating character and emotion. I long thought Sanders would be particularly effective in a debate against Donald Trump, far more so than Hillary Clinton. That was not because Sanders has a more acute command of debater’s logic than Clinton; in fact, she’s far better at this. Rather, it’s because Sanders had those other two appeals: the emotional appeal and the character appeal. Sanders could very effectively describe meeting people without health insurance, and speak with moral conviction about the plight of the underclass, and he could fundamentally get people to trust him by having a kind of personal integrity that many people respected. (Hardly anybody respects the character of either Clinton or Trump.) Democrats need to not just be right on the facts, but to have candidates that can speak to people on an emotional level, and who seem to have the kind of human traits in which people can place their confidence. (This is why, political positions aside, it’s probably a bad idea to run a slippery self-aggrandizing politico like Cory Booker or Andrew Cuomo in 2020.)

Thus I think giving up on argumentation, reason, and language, just because Purely Logical Debate doesn’t work, is a mistake. It’s easy to think that if we can’t convince the right with facts, there’s no hope at all for public discourse. But this might not suggest anything about the possibilities of persuasion and dialogue. Instead, it might suggest that mere facts are rhetorically insufficient to get people excited about your political program. You don’t need to refuse to debate people. You need to stop trying to debating them simply by pointing out that their statistics are erroneous and their syllogisms faulty. 

Again, let me emphasize quite clearly that while I believe in the power of persuasive communication, I do not believe in Trying To Reason With All The Trump Supporters. That would be stupid. For one thing, you’re far less likely to persuade a serious Trump supporter than a person who is instinctively left-leaning but simply doesn’t vote because they find all politics disgusting. And as Michael Kinnucan has pointed out here before, it may also be unwise to focus on appeals to the (largely) mythical “swing voter” who hops back and forth between Republicans and Democrats depending on who makes the best argument in that particular cycle. The vast majority of people who vote are pretty set in their ways, and time may be better spent energizing and politicizing the people who don’t participate (but who have real grievances and would benefit from joining a political movement). Under this theory, activism is better focused on black voters in Detroit than the small number of people in rural Michigan who turned from Obama to Trump. (I say this “may be” better because I am less certain than Kinnucan is that “swing voters” are hopeless, even if they are a small minority, and they can, after all, be a small minority that counts for quite a lot.)

So I don’t share the belief that if we just sat down with people on the far right, and talked about our differences face to face, we would find that we all believe the same things deep down. This was Barack Obama’s perspective, and it was colossally naive. If you sit down with Republicans and try to “meet them in the middle,” they will just sense that you are weak and eat you alive. It turns out that human beings don’t all
“believe the same things deep down.” Some of us believe deep down that the free market should be permitted to work people to death without even a basic guarantee of subsistence. Others of us believe that the government should ensure everyone gets healthcare and housing. These beliefs cannot be reconciled, and most of the people who hold each of them are pretty committed to their perspective, so discussing them does not seem as if it will be especially fruitful.

But it’s also true that you can’t build political power without caring about discussion and communication, because it’s impossible to coordinate human activity without these things. Every successful political movement has built itself in large part using words, because it takes words to convince people to perform acts. And political rhetoric, which incorporates factual reasoning but also goes beyond it, has a noble heritage, from the logical and emotional force of Martin Luther King’s argument against piecemeal civil rights advancements to the rousing words of the Internationale.

Ultimately I worry that, in mocking the idea that you can “debate” fascists, some on the left also end up jettisoning the very idea of having to persuade people of your ideas, and end up thinking that the only way you can “debate” someone is by fact-checking them (and since we know that doesn’t work, language fails us and we must retreat into violence). Yes, it’s true, you can’t just present the facts and evidence and assume people will agree with you and you’ll win. But any good lawyer could tell that you don’t just win a case through the force of the evidence, you also win it through the effectiveness of your presentation.

The other side understands this. Republicans know how to appeal to people’s guts, to their feelings of bitterness, suspicion, and fear. If the left is going to respond, it needs a message of equal power. Not mere facts, though of course we want those. But something that appeals to the nobler emotions: to solidarity, and joy, and the spirit of human kinship. We have effective emotional appeals, we just need to use them.

There’s nothing inherently shameful about political rhetoric. In fact, it’s essential. You should be appealing to the heart as well as the brain. You should have a character people can trust, not just arguments they can agree with. And it’s the only way you’ll win.

CNN Will Never Be Good For Humanity

Cable news is incapable of being a serious adversary to Donald Trump…

It should be perfectly obvious to anyone that there is no war between Donald Trump and CNN. It may look like there is. But there isn’t. This is because Donald Trump and CNN share the exact same core objective: to put on a really good show.

I say this is “perfectly obvious.” That’s because it’s an undeniable fact that CNN exists to serve the interests of the Turner Broadcasting System, which in turn exists to serve the interests of Time Warner, Inc., which exists to serve the interests of the shareholders of Time Warner, Inc. And Donald Trump exists to serve the interests of Donald Trump, whose primary interest is in appearing on television a lot and being famous and powerful. These two sets of interests are perfectly symbiotic, and there is no reason that there should be any serious conflict between them. Donald Trump wants to be on television. CNN wants people to watch television. And because people watch television when Donald Trump is on it, neither CNN nor Trump has any reason to make any effort to seriously undermine the other.

It’s bizarre, however, that when I have mentioned to people the simple fact that Donald Trump and CNN have the same relationship as clownfish and sea anemones, I have been treated like some kind of conspiracy theorist. I am, it is suggested, positing some kind of worldview in which media and political elites gather in backrooms and conspire over cigars. I am being cynical, and implying that nothing is as it seems and that we’re all stupified, zombified sheeple, unaware that the powers that be are laughing behind our backs while we obsess over a spectacle manufactured for consumption.

But in actual fact, I’m implying nothing conspiratorial at all, and it exasperates me endlessly that the idea should be perceived this way. I don’t think Sean Spicer and Wolf Blitzer meet for breakfast each morning and plot out the day’s Trump feud. Rather, it’s simply that by independently pursuing their own personal/institutional objectives, they benefit one another. This requires no shady collusion whatsoever. After all, the clownfish and the sea anemone do not have to work things out in a smoke-filled room. They don’t even particularly have to like one another. They simply go about their business, and the same thing happens to be good for both parties. Thinking about how relationships emerge from rational self-interest doesn’t make you Glenn Beck with his chalkboard; it’s standard economic thinking.

I’ll give you further evidence that I’m not offering a “conspiracy”: you don’t usually see conspiracies described openly in the pages of the Hollywood Reporter. And yet here we are:

On the TV front, [network president Jeff Zucker] and CNN have ridden the Trump wave as adeptly as any outlet. In the critical 25-to-54 demographic, CNN’s daytime audience in January was up 51 percent year-over-year (Fox News was up 55 percent); it pulled in an extra $100 million in ad revenue (counting both TV and digital) last year compared with past election years. Profit for 2016 neared $1 billion, and the short-term outlook suggests the Trump bump will lead to another $1 billion haul. “It’s going to turn 2017 into an even better year than we already expected to have,” says Zucker. 

Here’s the New York Daily News‘s Don Kaplan:

The feud between Donald J. Trump and CNN is like an iceberg: There’s so much more going on beneath the surface than anyone knows. At first glance, it would seem completely adversarial, but it’s not… Those who know Zucker understand his ego is almost as outsized as Trump’s, and given their history, the pair shares a special bond — one that entitles Zucker to a level of access other news executives do not enjoy. Zucker told New York Magazine the pair talked at least once a month during Trump’s campaign for the White House.

And Politico:

In fact, the presidential campaign and the first few weeks of the Trump administration have proven to be a boon to the bottom line for CNN and its competition. In many respects, Trump’s vitriol toward the media and the tough coverage of his administration reinforce themselves, driving coverage forward.

By all accounts, the rise of Donald Trump in American politics has been fantastically good news for CNN, which has seen an incredible ratings boost and reaped a billion dollar profit from the campaign cycle. And Jeff Zucker is an old friend of Donald Trump’s, having launched Trump’s television career by commissioning The Apprentice in 2004. (You can find lots of photos of them hanging out together.) For the head of a network with an ostensibly adversarial relationship with the new president, Zucker has seemed remarkably pleased with the direction of things: “This is the best year in the history of cable news … for everybody. We’ve all benefited.” (The New York Times recently observed that “nibbling filet mignon in a private dining room overlooking Central Park, Jeffrey A. Zucker, the president of CNN, did not look like a man perturbed.”) According to Politico, Zucker and CNN recognized early on that “Trump would be a ratings machine,” and deliberately gave him “quite a bit of coverage,” including broadcasting many of Trump’s rallies and speeches in full. Faced with the fact of his own complicity in the rise of a terrifying and incompetent president, Zucker said he had no regrets, and reportedly “sleeps great at night.”

Donald Trump and CNN’s Jeff Zucker

All of this is completely at odds with the received idea that Trump and the network are in a fight to the death, with Trump undermining journalists, ushering in a post-fact era, and posing a serious threat to the freedom of the press. CNN contributors and correspondents declare that Trump poses an “existential crisis” for American journalism and poses a threat to democracy and free speech. But television executives don’t seem to share that opinion. During the election CBS’s Les Moonves seconded Zucker’s perspective:

It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS… For us, economically speaking, Donald’s place in the election is a good thing… Donald’s place in this election is a good thing… The money’s rolling in, and this is fun. It’s a terrible thing to say. But bring it on, Donald. Keep going.

Could anyone who actually had serious grave concerns about Trump speak like this? (Moonves later insisted he had been joking, though since what he said was true, it’s unclear what the joke was supposed to be.) Certainly anyone who thought that the future of the press was at stake, or recognized that millions of lives could potentially be destroyed through mass deportation (let alone nuclear war and climate change) you would have a hard time classifying anything about the election as “fun” or wishing Trump continued political success.  Yet that’s how the heads of CBS and CNN are feeling: they’re not worried. They’re downright pleased. For them (as opposed to everyone else), this is great. It is, as Zucker put it, “a very exciting time.” You don’t have to speculate especially wildly, then, in order to be skeptical of there being any real “hostility” between Trump and CNN. All you have to do is listen to its chief executive’s words.

Again, this doesn’t necessitate believing that there is a conscious effort on CNN’s part to help Trump. While overt media-political collaboration does happen (according to Cenk Uygur’s internal account of working at MSNBC, the Obama administration had significant pull with executives there and shaped the network’s tone), the real question is simply whether it’s possible for a profit-driven media to care much about serious journalism or moral values if ratings and profits lie elsewhere. Financial self-interest powerfully shapes us on a subconscious level, and it’s easy to see why the optimal position for CNN at the moment is to feel like they are opposing Trump while not actually doing anything to seriously undermine him.


And that’s precisely what seems to be happening. Yes, there are regular spats with Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway. These are entertaining; they even go viral! But after Donald Trump’s recent speech to Congress, in which he accomplished the spectacular feat of reading from a set of prepared remarks for the first time in his political career, CNN declared him “presidential,” with even the network’s progressive commentators gushing over Trump. It was somewhat bizarre to see Trump’s supposed bitter adversaries giving him totally undeserved praise for a transparently manipulative bit of agitprop. But as The Atlantic‘s Derek Thompson explained, television news is a show, and shows demand narratives, and Trump steadily becoming statesmanlike is a great narrative, so there was no reason not to give Trump the story he wanted:

The fundamental bias in punditry is not toward “presidential” behavior or against “resistance.” it is more simply pro-plot twist. Narrative shifts are great for television, so great that it is irresistible to manufacture them in the absence of actual shifting narratives.

(Journalistic symbiosis with Trump has a long history, by the way. Ever since the New York Times compared him to Robert Redford in 1976, before writing in 1989 that The Art of the Deal made one “believe in the American Dream again,” Trump has been offering the press great stories, and the press have dutifully printed them. Trump knows the ins and outs of media as well as anyone alive, and has been phenomenally successful at using the news to his advantage in order to build his celebrity and, ultimately, his power.)

Anybody who believes that CNN’s rhetorical commitment to journalism is actually serious should read the Hollywood Reporter‘s account of Zucker’s plans for the network. Serious adversarial reporting such as Jake Tapper’s has a place because Tapper successfully draws viewers. But the rest of the network’s plans have barely any connection to anything resembling journalism. Its future is in stand-up comics (W. Kamau Bell) and TV chefs (Anthony Bourdain—I love him, but that’s what he is.) They’re paying 25 million dollars to a YouTube vlogger named Casey Neistat, a man whose specialty appears to be giddily trying out incredibly expensive goods and services on camera, and whose plans for how to use the $25 million are inscrutably vague and buzzword-laden. To bolster their investigative reporting, CNN poached a team from BuzzFeed who had “broken several major stories, including Trump’s appearance in a soft-core Playboy video.” (A consequential scoop if there ever was one.)

But while the network’s preference for popularity over integrity would seem undeniable, CNN editorial VP Andrew Morse has insisted that it isn’t what it looks like: “We are decidedly not in the clickbait business… We don’t do cat videos, we don’t do waterskiing squirrels.” Morse might be a little more believable if the network’s politics section didn’t literally run headlines like “Haha Guys, This Bird Looks Like Donald Trump.” (He might also want to check the network archives before confidently declaring that CNN is free of cat and squirrel-based news stories; in fact, CNN is the perfect place to go for a “Squirrels Eating Potato Chips” video, and in the weeks before the election they were literally running stories like “Here’s The Whole Election In Cat GIFS.”)

The point here is not that there is something wrong with providing access to amusing cat photos or clips of squirrels noshing on Pringles. It is simply that CNN is a company, not a public service, and it can be expected to act like a company. Its aim is to produce content that people will watch. Sometimes the public’s taste will coincide with the public good. But not too often. And the rise of somebody like Donald Trump, who constitutes both a unique threat to human wellbeing and a unique opportunity for compelling television, heightens the tension between the journalistic and economic motivations of CNN. And since it’s the economic dimension that directs most corporate action, especially when there are billions of dollars to be made, CNN has a lot to gain from being just antagonistic enough toward Trump to guarantee some good entertainment without being so antagonistic as to bring him down and have to return to C-SPAN levels of thrilling political discourse. Thus to use Moonves’s formulation, in the Trump era, what’s “bad for America” is great for CNN.

The fact that CNN will never be good for humanity is not really the fault of the people who work at CNN. After all, it’s hard to see how they could do anything differently. (Though, to their credit, they have experimented with some impressively elevated programming.) Once your mandate is to get viewers, you’ve already got a pernicious conflict of interest, and the quest for viewers (or clicks) is endemic to contemporary American media. So much is driven by the pursuit of eyes on the page or screen, and anyone working within that system will struggle to do things that are morally necessary but don’t really attract a viewership.

This is a very old criticism, but I think in many ways it is a correct one. (The most clichéd sentiments are also often the truest sentiments.) When the production of media is motivated by profit, the temptations to sacrifice integrity are going to be great. In the case of Donald Trump, these temptations will be all but irresistible. An age that requires resistance therefore requires independent nonprofit media. Economics still runs the world, and behind the apparent war between CNN and the Trump administration is a relationship just as agreeable as that of the clownfish and the sea anemone.

They Must Be Trying To Fail

By failing to appoint Keith Ellison to chair the DNC, Democrats have written their suicide note…

At this point, one has to conclude that the national Democratic Party has a death wish. Given the opportunity to throw a minuscule bone to the Sanders progressives, the DNC declined. By giving its chairmanship to former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, instead of Rep. Keith Ellison, party leaders have shown that they must be actively desiring electoral oblivion.

The Ellison/Perez fight had been portrayed as a re-litigation of the Sanders/Clinton primary fight. It was and it wasn’t. It was, in that Keith Ellison was endorsed by Bernie Sanders, while Tom Perez had the backing of members of the party’s more traditional establishment. But that’s also an oversimplification. After all, Chuck Schumer, not exactly a socialist insurgent, had endorsed Ellison, and the political differences between Ellison and Perez were not nearly so obvious as those between Sanders and Clinton.

The race between Ellison and Perez was, however, a meaningful moment in determining the future of the party. And it wasn’t only the left-wing Ellison supporters who seemed to think so. After all, Obama-affiliated Democrats drafted Perez specifically in order to keep Ellison from attaining the chairmanship. Pressure had been brought upon them by wealthy party donors to make sure Ellison was foiled. Even though Perez’s supporters repeatedly insisted that Perez and Ellison were roughly equal in their left-wing credentials, it was clear that they couldn’t possibly have meant what they said. After all, they were desperate to thwart Ellison. As Clio Chang pointed out in The New Republic, the case for Perez made no sense. His boosters suggested that he was just as progressive as Ellison, but in that case, why run him? The only way Perez’s candidacy could be explained was by assuming that all the arguments made for him were false, and that party elites did perceive Ellison as a proxy for Bernie Sanders.

It was quite clear to anyone who thought about it honestly that this was an important moment for the party, and that party insiders knew it. They were willing to launch a disgusting smear campaign against Keith Ellison, which implied that he was a closet anti-Semite. (Some commentators verged into outright bigotry against Ellison’s Muslim faith; Jonathan Weisman of The New York Times suggested that Ellison was an ill-advised choice because he was black and a Muslim.) Ellison quite obviously represented the Sanders-supporting progressive insurgency, and Perez the traditional party elites. While some Clinton supporters went for Ellison, and some Sanders supporters for Perez, nobody could believe this fight was empty of political content, or purely about these two men’s personalities.

That’s why not selecting Ellison is a colossal mistake on a strategic level. Many of Bernie Sanders’ voters during the primary came to hate the DNC, resenting the party’s bias in favor of Hillary Clinton. Sanders voters didn’t like Clinton. They disagreed with her policies on a number of substantive points, and didn’t like being told they had to suck it up and vote for her after Sanders lost the primary. The 13 million people who voted for Sanders in the primary voted for him in part because they felt disillusioned with the traditional Democratic Party. They felt that the Obama Administration had been insufficiently progressive, and that Clinton represented the interests of a tiny group of incredibly wealthy people who couldn’t care less about the lives of the working class. Those people remained angry after the primary. Many of them did not show up to vote in the general election.


It was already extraordinary that the Democratic Party had made so little effort to appease the disaffected progressive faction. After all, when you don’t give ground to the left, they don’t organize for you. In the worst case scenario, they vote for Ralph Nader and destroy your electoral chances completely. It’s very important not to thumb your nose at your base. This was precisely what Hillary Clinton did. She selected Tim Kaine as her running mate, in what even Matt Yglesias acknowledged was an enormous “fuck you” to the party’s left flank. Her operatives spurned the offers of Sanders organizers to help get out the vote in Rust Belt states. We know how this turned out.

So it was incredibly important that the Democratic Party take some steps to indicate that it cared about progressives. Since the election, it hadn’t been doing a very good job of this. (Nancy Pelosi’s insistence that nothing needed to change, and her rebuke to a young leftist, demonstrated the prevailing attitude.) Appointing Keith Ellison to chair the DNC was the perfect opportunity. After all, chairing the DNC is a pretty minor role. It would mostly have been a gesture of friendship and unity, showing that even after the catastrophic mistake of ignoring leftist warnings not to run Clinton, the party was capable of valuing its leftmost members.

But no. Instead of granting the tiniest possible concession, the party has decided to affirm precisely what Nancy Pelosi has indicated: democratic socialists and social democrats don’t belong in the party. It’s not for them. What the party does depends on what billionaire donors want it to do.

This is politically suicidal. During the 2016 campaign, I made efforts to convince leftists to vote for Hillary Clinton. I ran into a lot of resistance. The general theme was: why should I vote for her when she doesn’t seem to care about my values? Why should I support a party that exists for its billionaire donors? And it was hard to come up with good answers to those questions. People on the left despised Clinton and the Democratic Party establishment, and didn’t feel as if there was any reason to be loyal to a party that didn’t seem to want them.

There was another serious pragmatic reason to believe the party needed Ellison. Like Sanders, he had the momentum and energy. Keith Ellison could get young people excited about Democratic politics. He had a way of connecting with people. Even Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post, who had supported Hillary Clinton, was incredibly impressed with Ellison when he spoke to him, because of Ellison’s unique gift for explaining progressive values in concrete and relatable terms. In an era where Democrats are losing incredibly badly at every level, they needed someone who could motivate people and get them to organize. They needed someone who would harness the force that led to Bernie Sanders’ massive rallies, an enthusiasm that Hillary Clinton could never generate. With a significant segment of those people seeing their candidate yet again blocked (this time by an even more absurdly undemocratic process, in which ordinary party members had absolutely no say), it’s hardly likely that Perez will be able to energize those same forces. Electing Ellison was essential because it could have kept more left-wingers from quitting the party in disgust, and helped bring back some (much needed) robust grassroots organizing.

Now, progressives in the party are further alienated. Good luck getting them to vote for Democrats. No matter how many people may have insisted that Ellison/Perez wasn’t a replay of Sanders/Clinton, it’s impossible to deny that in some ways it was. The progressives needed to receive some kind of gesture. And they have received one: an enormous middle finger.

Even When It Doesn’t Save Money

Don’t use other people’s values and logic, use your own.

It is frequently tempting to justify policies by pointing to the money that will be saved by implementing them. This is a mistake. Or rather, it’s dangerous. Because if you suggest that the reason to do something morally good is that it saves people money, then you’re stuck if it turns out that this morally good thing actually doesn’t save people money, or turns out to cost quite a bit of money.

Cost-saving arguments are frequently made by people on the left in order to defend their policy preferences. Giving prisoners college degrees, for example, is good because it ends up saving the state money in the long run by reducing rates of reoffending. The death penalty is bad because it’s extremely costly to actually implement, given the complex legal procedures necessary in order to successfully execute someone. Drug-testing welfare applicants is bad because it costs a lot of money without yielding many results.

Each of these arguments has something in common: they support a left-wing policy position, without requiring a left-wing set of moral preferences. They try to show conservatives that one doesn’t need to be on the left in order to support educating prisoners, ending the death penalty, and declining to give drug tests to welfare applicants. It’s enough just to care about saving money. And everyone wants to save money!

But by making these kinds of arguments, people on the left both come across as dishonest and stake their claims on highly risky propositions. There’s something dishonest here because the real reasons why many people on the left support these things have nothing whatsoever to do with cost-saving. They don’t like the death penalty because they find it barbaric, they think prisoners should have access to education because they believe everyone deserves an opportunity to better themselves, and they don’t like drug-testing welfare applicants because they think it’s intrusive and demeaning.

How can one be certain that it’s not really “cost-saving” that motivates these positions? Well, because if it turned out that the policy in question didn’t save money, or there was a way to save even more money by doing the opposite, many people advancing these arguments would become somewhat uncomfortable. The easiest response to the cost-saving argument against the death penalty is that the death penalty would become much cheaper if we just took people behind the courthouse and shot them immediately after they were found guilty. And what if we find an incredibly cheap, yet even more invasive, way of drug testing welfare applicants? Would an opponent’s position waver even slightly? The truth is that most leftist positions are motivated by moral instincts, and everyone knows it. It’s convenient that educating prisoners or ending the death penalty might be good for the government’s coffers, but it’s certainly not why we care about those things.

You’re also doing something very risky when you make a big deal out of cost-saving arguments: you’re depending on the facts to always back you up. The moment the economics change, the argument that was in your favor is now just as powerful a reason not to listen to you. As Current Affairs has previously noted, many pragmatic cases for liberal immigration policy are of this sort. People will say that immigrants grow the economy, or they put more into the system than they take out, or they don’t decrease native-born employment. But if the facts change, and someday immigrants do take out more than they put in, would the advocates of liberal immigration policy thereby change their minds? Many of them wouldn’t, because immigration is actually a moral issue (people should be free to move about the world, especially when a land of prosperity has more than enough to go around) rather than a matter of pure economic self-interest.

The fact that these arguments are premised on appeals to self-interest is another reason why leftists should be careful about them. If we say that people should help prisoners because it is in their self-interest to do so, we are telling them that the reason they should care about prisoners has little to do with empathy and altruism. But that means that we’re affirming the legitimacy of selfishness and callousness, instead of grounding our appeals in the moral imperatives that come with being human. The fact is that many of the things we believe in aren’t going to be cost-savers. In fact, they’re going to be very expensive. It’s extremely costly, for example, to provide prisoners with good healthcare. If we want to follow the cost-saving criterion, we should just let prisoners die when they get sick. But that’s abhorrent. And it’s abhorrent because it shows a lack of willingness to sacrifice anything in order to ensure all people have the basics of life guaranteed to them.

The same type of problem plagues progressive arguments about economic inequality. Opponents of inequality frequently suggest that inequality is not just bad for those at the bottom. In fact, it’s bad for everyone, including those who seem to benefit. Robert Frank suggests that people at the top are forced into a status competition that even they don’t get anything out of, while others have reported that health, happiness, and trust in a society can be worsened by high levels of inequality. The Washington Center for Equitable Growth (WCEG), an anti-inequality think tank, seeks research on the various effects inequality might have on everyone:

How, if at all, does economic inequality affect the development of human capital?… Do different levels or kinds of inequality impact the potential for talent to emerge across the income, earnings, or wealth distributions, and, if so, how? We are interested in proposals that investigate the myriad mechanisms through which economic inequality might work to alter the development of human potential across the generational arc, including children, young workers, prime-age workers, and older Americans.

But note: many progressives are not against inequality because they believe it harms everyone. They are against inequality because they believe it harms the poor, but proof that it harms everyone would be a very convenient way to make a strong case for getting rid of it. After all, if you don’t need people to be altruistic, but just need them to care about themselves, it’s easier for you to persuade the rich that reducing inequality would be a very good thing.

What if inequality isn’t bad for everyone, though? What if it’s fantastic for everybody at the top? What if the only people who are seriously deprived are the huge numbers of people who lose out? Then what? If the case against inequality is that we’re all hurt by it (somewhat counterintuitive, since it seems as if the wealthiest among us probably aren’t hurt at all), then what happens if that case turns out to be shaky? If you’ve carefully avoided the moral appeal, you’ve got very little left. But it may well turn out to be true that some things are going to have to require sacrifice, period. They’re not going to “help the rich as well.” Not everything is win-win, and if you try to frame everything as win-win, you are avoiding making the honest and difficult moral demands upon people that are necessary to build a more just world.


This is not to take a position that the empirical findings showing the harmful effects of inequality are wrong. They may well be right. But it’s clear that the WECG, which is, after all, committed to equitable growth, would very much like it if the research it produced turned out to give reasons why inequality is bad. It’s true that in their call for proposals, the Center doesn’t say that you have to find inequality has harmful effects on human capital. But I am not sure they want to end up producing a pile of research showing that inequality doesn’t have wide-ranging effects. (The instinct to use purely neutral and technocratic arguments, as against explicitly moral ones, can lead you to some strange contortions indeed. The WCEG even has an article explaining how slavery was bad in part because it was bad for the slaveholders, by inhibiting “economic creativity” and innovation. If it had been great for economic creativity, would it have been justified?)

Now, none of this is to say that it doesn’t matter what something costs, or that we shouldn’t consider the effects of a policy on everybody before deciding whether it is a good idea. Instead, I am saying that our values should be presented honestly and frankly, and that we should be clear about just how much our position is actually being influenced by the empirical considerations of cost-saving. If you bury your morals, and talk as if you’re just about the numbers, you’ll quickly be exposed as inconsistent when you have to fudge or bury the numbers on an issue where they conflict with your morality. (For example, people on the left say that racial profiling doesn’t work. But if it did, would it be okay, or would we end up trying to avoid or massage the statistics in order to continue to maintain that it didn’t work? Legal philosopher Ben Eidelson has suggested that the real reason we should be against racial profiling is that it’s a hideous affront to human dignity that singles people out based on a pernicious demographic characteristic.) There is sometimes a tendency among liberals to be cowardly about their own supposed values, and to try to argue based on conservative premises (we’re the real patriots), on the theory that Americans are mostly conservative in their instincts and need things framed accordingly. But Republicans will always make better Republicans than Democrats will, and when you appropriate someone else’s values and disguise your own, you just sound cowardly and vermicular.

As I have argued before, with Democrats losing at nearly every level of government, it’s more important than ever for progressives to develop a clear and persuasive political message. I am skeptical of messages that do not offer an obvious coherent moral worldview. Cost-saving arguments risk muddying the values one is trying to express, because it becomes unclear whether one cares about the conservative principle of small government or the leftist principle of giving people help. And sometimes it’s just going to be true that you can’t have everything, that we are going to have to be asking some people to sacrifice or care about things for reasons other than self-interest. While it’s not impossible to make multiple kinds of arguments in succession, all of which point toward the same end, it’s also important to stick by your values, and tell people why you hold them, instead of pretending that you are just following their own values and their own logic. People just might respond better to some honesty. I don’t like the death penalty because I believe in mercy, even when it’s hard. I don’t like inequality because it’s an obscenity for some people to be billionaires while others can’t pay for their children’s cancer care. And I don’t like drug tests or profiling because they are vicious and spiteful and rob people of their humanity. Saving money is a bonus. But when it’s not why we care about what we care about, it’s not what we should spend our time talking about.

What We’ll Tolerate, And What We Won’t

Milo Yiannopoulos didn’t get his book deal canceled for his bigotry…

It wasn’t that he told a woman there was something wrong with her for wearing a hijab in America. It wasn’t that he encouraged people to “Purge the Illegals” and gave out ICE’s hotline number at a presentation. It wasn’t that he mocked a transgender college student in front of a crowd, saying he’d still almost bang her because she looked like a man. Instead, it was his discussion of the complexities of his sexual experiences with adults as a gay teenager that caused Milo Yiannopoulos to lose his $250,000 book deal with Simon and Schuster.

The swift recent reversal of Yiannopoulos’s fortunes is in many ways illuminating. The Breitbart editor had spent the last year building a public profile by going around American college campuses giving “lectures” with titles like “Why Do Lesbians Fake So Many Hate Crimes?” and “Why Ugly People Hate Me.” At these events, he would tell people why “feminism is cancer,” refer to various people as “cunts” and “retards,” and make jokes about how Muslims were probably terrorists. When appalled students tried to have the talks canceled, he would insist that the PC left was simply afraid to deal with arguments, facts, and statistics. (The more obvious explanation is that the PC left doesn’t think a person whose idea of elevated political discourse is “100% of fat people are fucking gross”—and who gigglingly posts pictures of the overweight people at his gym—is sincere about wanting to improve political dialogue on campus.)

As Yiannopoulos would continue to bait students with outrageous and cruel remarks, and students would continue to take the bait by giving Yiannopoulos publicity and fueling his persecution narrative, he managed to bring himself mainstream attention. For God only knows what reason, a major publishing house decided to reward him with a six-figure advance. (Actually, we know full well the reason: $) Bill Maher invited Yiannopoulous on Real Time, where the two enjoyed a pleasant back-and-forth about how the left were the real intolerant ones, before agreeing that transgender people were a bunch of sex criminals who couldn’t be trusted in women’s bathrooms. (The only relief during Yiannopoulos’s otherwise unendurable Real Time appearance was provided by Larry Wilmore, who enthusiastically told Yiannopoulos to go fuck himself after Yiannopoulos speculated that his black co-panelists must have low IQs.) Finally, the Conservative Political Action Conference placed a gleaming maraschino atop Yiannopoulos’s recent success by offering him a speaking slot.

Until a few days ago, then, Milo Yiannopoulos was doing quite well for himself. Then the pedophilia tapes surfaced. It turned out that Yiannopoulos had once made a few remarks that were difficult to interpret as anything other than a defense of sex between older men and young boys:

“We get hung up on this sort of child abuse stuff, to the point where we are heavily policing consensual adults. In the homosexual world, particularly, some of those relationships between younger boys and older men — the sort of ‘coming of age’ relationship — those relationships in which those older men help those young boys discover who they are and give them security and safety and provide them with love and a reliable, sort of rock, where they can’t speak to their parents.”

When the interviewer pointed out that this sounded like “Catholic priest molestation,” Yiannopoulos replied: “You know what? I’m grateful for Father Michael. I wouldn’t give nearly such good head if it wasn’t for him…” In another interview, Yiannopoulos confirmed that age 14 he had had sexual interactions with a priest, but said that this “wasn’t molestation,” nor was it pedophilia, because “pedophilia is not a sexual attraction to somebody 13 years old who is sexually mature. Pedophilia is attraction to children who have not reached puberty.”

Conservatives were scandalized. Bill Kristol called the remarks “despicable” and CPAC rapidly rescinded Yiannopoulos’s invitation to speak. Soon after, Simon & Schuster canceled his book deal, and there were reports that Breitbart editors were threatening to resign if he wasn’t fired. During Friday’s Real Time, Bill Maher had said that Yiannopoulos was “only at the beginning of [his] career.” By Monday, it seemed like he was at the end of it.


The rapid undoing of Yiannopoulos was interesting for several reasons. It served as an instructive illustration of what conservatives were and were not willing to tolerate. All the hateful filth about women, Muslims, and transgender people actually made a conservative publishing imprint want to publish his book. These things evidently do not cross a moral line. (To his credit, National Review editor Jonah Goldberg deplored this lack of principle, commenting that “apparently the racism and anti-Semitism wasn’t a deal breaker.”)

As far as CPAC goes, Yiannopoulos’s invitation and dis-invitation shows where the standards lie. For Simon and Schuster, on the other hand, dropping Yiannopoulos may have been strictly business. As Roxane Gay, who withdrew her book from the publishing house in protest of their decision to offer Yiannopoulos a contract, explained: “Simon and Schuster realized it would cost them more money to do business with Milo than he could earn for them. They did not finally ‘do the right thing.’ They were fine with his racist and xenophobic and sexist ideologies.” Indeed, like most publishers, S&S is far more concerned with what they can sell than with whether it’s moral or immoral.

But just as interesting as what didn’t make Yiannopoulos toxic is what did. Ironically, the remarks that finally got him expelled from the mainstream were among his less indefensible. He has been condemned by almost everybody for “defending pedophilia.” But this is not quite fair. In fact, while his comments are shocking, the arguments he is making are not unfamiliar in LGBT discourse. As Current Affairs editor Yasmin Nair explained in a thoughtful and provocative essay in 2005, the intensity of feelings around child abuse often prevent people from appreciating nuanced arguments. Nair was writing about a publisher’s decision to exclude an article on pederasty from a book on the history of same-sex relationships, after right-wing complaints that it would condone “rampant child molestation.” As she writes, there is a long tradition of the right using fears about pedophilia “to condemn all queers, particularly gay men, as predators of children.” It is often impossible to have a discussion about the reality of queer people’s lives, because anyone who speaks of their neutral or positive experiences with older people as a youth is perceived as endorsing pedophilia.

Yiannopoulos says that gay men’s experiences as teens with older men are often complicated, not always easily captured by the available terminology. He says that his own teenage sexual encounters with men did not fit the labels “molestation” and “pedophilia,” especially since pedophilia refers to attraction to the pre-pubescent. He offered a further clarification on Facebook:

I do not support pedophilia. Period. It is a vile and disgusting crime, perhaps the very worst…If I choose to deal in an edgy way on an internet livestream with a crime I was the victim of that’s my prerogative. It’s no different to gallows humor from AIDS sufferers…I did say that there are relationships between younger men and older men that can help a young gay man escape from a lack of support or understanding at home. That’s perfectly true and every gay man knows it. But I was not talking about anything illegal and I was not referring to pre-pubescent boys.

It’s not, on the face of it, an unreasonable explanation. Yiannopoulos may not have made his point very well. But there’s something nuanced and defensible here. First, he’s saying that the relationships between gay men and teenage boys (according to their own accounts) have historically been messier than simple categories allow for. And second, it’s absurd to say that he can’t make dark or crass jokes about his priest if it’s his way of dealing with what happened to him.

Unfortunately for Yiannopoulos, there is no possibility of complexity where it comes to discussions around age, sex, and consent. Fears of pedophilia have made it so that even the slightest hint that one is condoning it brings instant total ostracism. (These same sentiments have also made it so that no punishment is considered too severe when it comes to those convicted of sex crimes against minors. Nobody wants to speak out on behalf of society’s most loathed group of criminals, thus they get shunted under bridges and denied housing rather than given treatment.)

Yiannopoulos has quickly found out which ideas will actually get you booted from the public square, and they’re left-wing ones rather than right-wing ones. It turned out the real people you can’t offend are the conservatives whose latent homophobia make them instantly pounce on a gay man as a defender of pedophilia when he tries to explain his world to them. How fitting that Yiannopoulos should end up subjected to the very kind of vicious misrepresentation of LGBT people that he has spent his time encouraging. How appropriate for him to discover that his friends on the right only supported him so long as he nurtured their prejudices; they loved their campy gay mascot until the moment he challenged them. Then he was a pervert.

You can learn a lot about society’s values and the allocation of power by examining what people get exiled for. Yiannopoulos is not the only heinous individual who was punished for his lesser crime rather than his greater ones. Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was a bigoted nutcase who called Islam a “cancer” and said that “fear of Muslims is rational.” He promoted the works of alt-right conspiracist and rape apologist Mike Cernovich, as well as a host of other figures from the far-right fringes. Yet all of this was, if anything, a qualification for his position. Instead, what did him in was his dissembling about a chat with the Russian ambassador. Tell scurrilous lies about the weak and excluded, and you’re fine. Tell minor lies about diplomacy to the Vice President, and you’re toast.

It is interesting watching people turn on Yiannopoulos over the more innocuous thing, instead of the more insidious things. Newsweek‘s Kurt Eichenwald, for example, said that while Yiannopoulos had “good points on PC culture,” anyone who stuck with him now was “evil.” Thus in the phase when Milo was bashing gays and transgender people, he was simply “making good points.” Now that he’s been caught sticking up for gays, he’s a monster. When he invited conservatives to titter at LGBT people, he was fun. When he tried to speak earnestly and sincerely on behalf of those people, he was reprehensible.

Of course, Yiannopoulos is a monster. Personally, I find him totally odious and lacking in any appealing traits. (Though my opinion on this is not universal; New Statesman editor Laurie Penny has called him “sweet,” “charming,” and “kind.”) The fact that he received a major book deal, and was paid any mainstream attention at all, sadly shows how the amorality of the market can allow those who pander to the ugliest human instincts to be handsomely remunerated. But even those of us on the left who have hated nearly every word he has spoken should be disturbed that his attempts to defend gay sexuality, rather than his attacks on it, are what got his $250,000 taken away.

I doubt anything could make Milo Yiannopoulos feel even a faint pang of conscience or regret over his long record of cruelty and unpleasantness. He seems, in both his public and private dealings, a proud sociopath. But ideally this would teach Yiannopoulos an important lesson. He believed he was a martyr for free speech when he toured college campuses making cracks about how feminists are ugly. In fact, he was steadily growing more popular, and offered limitless money and television appearances. He believed that people found his ideas “dangerous,” but a mainstream publisher seemed to think they belonged in bookshops everywhere.

In fact, it turned out that there was nothing “dangerous” at all in picking on women and refugees. People will pay you good money for that. The dangerous ideas are the ones they don’t pay you for, the ones that don’t get you on HBO. You’re actually dangerous when you do what Yiannopoulos did in the “pedophile” tapes: defend society’s most hated outcasts, and tell the truth about the complexities of gay men’s sexuality. You’re dangerous when you stick up for those on the fringes rather than kicking them. There’s nothing courageous or edgy in bullying the despised and excluded. But it might be dangerous if you dared to empathize with them.

“Fake News” and the Limits of Fact-Checking

Fighting for truth requires more than just pouncing on Trump…

At this point, the most tiresome and ineffectual observation one can make is that many things Donald Trump says are untrue. It’s tiresome because people have been pointing this out every single day for two years, and it’s ineffectual because by now, it is highly unlikely that anybody out there is going to stroke their chin and say “You know, you’re right, I’m not so sure this Trump character is entirely honest.”

In the last few months, the writings of Andrew Sullivan have been among the more hysterical and unhelpful guides to understanding our situation. Sullivan believes Trump’s presidency is literally the end of America as we know it, and thinks the proper lesson from Trump’s ascent is that there is simply too much democracy in this country. He is among the many commentators whom Trump seems to have turned slightly mad (though he has long been a conspiracist). It is therefore little surprise that he continues to have conniptions over Trump’s never-ending stream of untruths.

Sullivan suggests that living in the United States is now like “being a child trapped in a house where there is an abusive and unpredictable father” (in fact, for people like Sullivan and myself it is absolutely nothing like that, and the comparison is offensive). Madness is supreme, lies pass for truth, the Supreme Leader tries to convince us that black is white. And Sullivan is at his wit’s end trying to figure out a solution:

What are we supposed to do with this? How are we to respond to a president who in the same week declared that the “murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 45 to 47 years,” when, of course, despite some recent, troubling spikes in cities, it’s nationally near a low not seen since the late 1960s… What are we supposed to do when a president says that two people were shot dead in Chicago during President Obama’s farewell address — when this is directly contradicted by the Chicago police? None of this, moreover, is ever corrected. No error is ever admitted. Any lie is usually doubled down by another lie — along with an ad hominem attack.

Sullivan does, however, have an idea for how to respond:

Here is what we are supposed to do: rebut every single lie. Insist moreover that each lie is retracted — and journalists in press conferences should back up their colleagues with repeated follow-ups if Spicer tries to duck the plain truth. Do not allow them to move on to another question. Interviews with the president himself should not leave a lie alone; the interviewer should press and press and press until the lie is conceded. The press must not be afraid of even calling the president a liar to his face if he persists.

Well, good luck with this.

Sullivan’s thundering outrage about Trump’s relationship with the truth, as well as his proposal to meet this with more insistent fact-checks and new rounds of follow-up questions, nicely illustrates a particular tendency shared by many of Trump’s opponents in the media. Seeing a “post-truth” presidency fueled by “fake news,” they respond by demanding that the press become more resolute in checking Trump and upholding its public duty to prevent the light of truth from being extinguished.

All of which sounds good and noble, as well as difficult to argue with. But I think it overlooks two important and related issues: effectiveness and humility. First, it’s not enough to check the facts and shout that Trump is a liar. You have to actually get people to believe you. Second, the “Trump is a liar and the press must hold him accountable” framework allows journalists to avoid self-criticism, and makes them less likely to concede when Trump is actually right on the facts. If you’re always out to get Trump, you’re less likely to be fair to him, and if you’re not fair to him, you’re less likely to persuade the people whom you seek to persuade.

Trust in media is at an all-time low. That should concern journalists just as much as Trump’s lies, because it means that they can fact-check the hell out of whatever they like, but few people are likely to believe them. You can scream as loudly as you like that Trump has exaggerated the crime rate, but unless you work on the trust problem, you’ll be shouting into an empty void.

Working on the trust problem will require scrapping the simplistic idea of a “truthful press” against the “lying President.” In fact, precisely because so many journalists have adopted the Sullivan worldview, thinking of themselves as the heroic guardians of truth against a habitual liar, they have ended up pushing dubious anti-Trump stories. The Federalist compiled (and Trump retweeted) a list of news stories since the election that have tried to damage Trump, but have been either false or exaggerated. For example, journalists spread a claim that there had been mass resignations from the State Department in protest of Trump. This was totally false. Members of the media have gone absolutely apoplectic over Trump’s incorrect claim that there is mass voting by non-citizens, without acknowledging that it was The Washington Post that first published a study suggesting this was the case. And nearly every standard of journalistic scrutiny and restraint is instantly jettisoned when it comes to stories involving Trump and Russia.

It’s never a good idea to envision yourself as a crusader against evil, because it inevitably blinds you to the issues on which reality is murky, and reduces the chance that you will question your own presuppositions. With a media that needs to regain public confidence, it is especially important that they be as scrupulously fair to Trump as possible. That means not making mountains out of molehills, and not reflexively calling things lies and falsehoods. For example, at Trump’s recent press conference, he claimed that Hillary Clinton “gave Russia 20 percent of the uranium in the U.S.” The fact-checkers pounced. Actually, they said, Russia’s nuclear agency bought a company controlling 20 percent of America’s uranium production capacity, and Clinton’s State Department was only one of a number of agencies whose approval was required for the deal. Thus what Trump said was “mostly false.”

But this is missing some key points. First, while Trump’s statement departs slightly from the literal facts, Trump isn’t the only one who thought the uranium deal was a serious issue. A New York Times report in 2015 confirmed that “the sale gave the Russians control of one-fifth of all uranium production capacity in the United States” and “brought Mr. Putin closer to his goal of controlling much of the global uranium supply chain.” The Times also raised ethical concerns about Clinton’s approval of the deal, noting that “shortly after the Russians announced their intention to acquire a majority stake in Uranium One, [Bill] Clinton received $500,000 for a Moscow speech from a Russian investment bank with links to the Kremlin that was promoting Uranium One stock.” Second, and more importantly, what Trump was trying to draw attention to was the double standard that is applied to him when it comes to Russia. If Trump had been involved with this kind of deal, with similar financial compensation from Russians for a speech, for many in the press it would have been further evidence that Trump is a puppet of Vladimir Putin. But nobody thinks that about Hillary Clinton. Clinton’s approval of the uranium deal may have been wise, but Trump mostly raised the issue to draw attention to the fact that the reporting on his own relationship with Russia has been over-the-top conspiratorial.

I don’t think anybody can accuse me of liking Donald Trump; the book I’ve written about him is called Anatomy of a Monstrosity (available in paperback for $17.95) and is, let’s say, not especially complimentary. But it’s precisely because I so strongly oppose Trump that I am strongly determined to make sure all of my claims about him are defensible. The New York Times recently reported that certain people may actually be made more sympathetic to Trump by overreactions to him, although the evidence suggests that support for Trump is shrinking rather than growing. If you are concerned with actually stopping Trump, you need to ask how to get people to listen to your criticisms. And if you’re talking about the death of the Republic, and failing to recognize that beneath a factual misstatement there may be an underlying true point, people will be justified in feeling as if you are not a credible arbiter of truth.


The problem of media credibility seems like it should be central in discussions surrounding “fake news.” That term is now used by liberals to describe fringe conservative websites, and by conservatives to describe CNN and The New York Times. It’s also, as Glenn Greenwald has written, somewhat like the term “terrorism” insofar as it is used totally inconsistently and without any clear standard as to what it means. That is, to some degree, an inherent problem, because it requires some distinctions that can only be resolved via judgment rather than appeal to objective fact. (For example, what distinguishes mere shoddy reporting from fake news? If Slate or The Washington Post report false things, at what point do they become fake news? Greenwald notes that mainstream commentators seem to want the category of fake news to exclude their own organizations by definition.)

The problems with the “fake news” discourse were in evidence at a recent two-day conference at Harvard on the subject, called Combating Fake News: An Agenda for Research and Action. Notably, no portion of the conference was dedicated to trying to define a standard for what constitutes fake news. Instead, the talks focused on how to get rid of it. On the second day, breakout groups asked questions about various forms of “interventions” that could occur to stop the scourge of fake news:

Group A: Interventions by government What regulatory interventions, if any, are appropriate by government actors? In the US context, how does the first amendment act limit interventions?

Group B: Interventions by private sector For companies such as Facebook, what steps are possible and desirable with respect to controlling fake news and misinformation?

Group C: Interventions by third parties What kinds of interventions are possible by third parties– fact checkers, extensions, apps?

Group D: What role for the academy? Crossing disciplinary stovepipes to understand and mitigate the effects of fake news.

The presumptions here are instructive, as well as the omissions. The idea here is that consumers are making bad choices, and it is up to us to intervene and stop them. It’s no coincidence that the conference’s keynote speaker was Cass Sunstein, who is best known for proposing ways to manipulate people into acting the way policy-makers want them to act.

But by skipping the question of how to define fake news, efforts to stop it will inevitably be partisan. Just as Sunstein’s “nudge” idea contains an implicit set of assumptions about what constitutes people’s self-interest, any use of the phrase “fake news” will necessarily contain an implicit judgment criterion for what it is and isn’t. In this case, the buried assumption is that mainstream media organizations are not fake news; fake news is something that comes from independent and “fringe” media.

The Harvard conference once again shows how the need to improve the media itself is consistently overlooked. Instead of asking why people don’t trust the newspapers, and how the newspapers can restore that trust, we ask how people can be stopped from making bad choices. The solutions are things like “apps” and “extensions.” (It’s unclear how such things could possibly do any good, seeing as they would only ever be used by those who are already concerned with the problem.) The conference posed the question of how “public institutions, e.g. local, state and federal government” should intercede, even though any attempt by government to become arbiters of truth and falsehood would be terrifying.

I sense a certain impotence here. Liberals see a bunch of false things flying around, and don’t know what to do. Because they think the mainstream press generally does a pretty good job, the only possible solutions are to (1) hire more fact-checkers or (2) empower some entity, such as Facebook or Twitter, to determine what is true and what is false. But both of those ideas are disastrous. Nobody will read the fact-checkers, and their belief in their own factual correctness will end up leading them to ignore their own biases, which will lead even fewer people to read them. And Facebook can’t possibly sort out what’s true and what’s false, and nobody should want to trust it with that job.

Personally, I think the “fake news” problem is overblown, or at least only a small part of the picture. We’re better off now than in the days of yellow journalism, and we could always have the misfortune of being like the British, whose tabloid newspapers are almost entirely filled with manure. The real question, it seems to me, is not “Who should step in to stop the fake news?” but “How do the country’s major media institutions become trustworthy?”

There is an undercurrent of arrogance and presumption to some of the discussion about fake news and Trump. Media figures are outraged that they, the trustworthy and good, are being disbelieved and shat upon. Chuck Todd of NBC haughtily declared after Trump’s press conference that “delegitimizing the press is un-American.” (On the contrary, delegitimizing the press is a sacred patriotic duty.) And Andrew Sullivan is an unabashed elitist, upset at an excess of democracy. Because such people refuse to recognize that many people have perfectly good reasons for not listening to a word they say, they aren’t committed to taking the kind of self-critical steps that will actually fix the problem they care about.

It’s not that fact-checking is bad or unnecessary. Obviously journalists should challenge the president, and consistently hold him accountable. But repairing the problem of fake news and getting people to disbelieve lies will require much more. It will require a press that people respect, which will require clearly examining one’s own buried assumptions and values.

Democrats Need a Coherent and Powerful Message

Clinton’s communications director demonstrates how Democrats shouldn’t communicate…

One of the reasons Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election is that nobody had any idea what she actually wanted to do as president. Everyone knew what Trump wanted: to build the wall, bring back the jobs, and bomb the shit out of ISIS. But it was never clear what Hillary Clinton was actually proposing to do. The messaging from the Clinton campaign was entirely focused on who she was (an experienced and responsible person, rather than an unhinged and bigoted one) rather than any actual plan she had for how to fix the country’s problems.

This really isn’t an exaggeration. You can try it on your friends: ask them what Clinton’s main plans were (no, desperately lifting Bernie Sanders’s free college proposal doesn’t count). See if they can tell you. Even Joe Biden saw it, saying that Clinton never figured out why she was running in the first place, beyond feeling as if it was something she probably ought to do. We hear sometimes about how Clinton had the most progressive platform ever. But nobody can remember what was actually in it.

One serious problem of the Clinton campaign, then, was its failure to craft a clear message. Because Clinton wanted to court both moderate Republicans and Sanders socialists, her public statements frequently ended up saying almost nothing (witness her official comments on the Dakota Access Pipeline, which were rightly mocked as meaningless). An important lesson to learn from Clinton’s loss should be: it’s got to be clear what you stand for. And you have to stand for something, you can’t stand for everything. Furthermore, saying things like “we face complex and intersectional challenges” is not a compelling diagnosis of America’s social ills. It’s empty language, it won’t resonate. (I remember multiple news stories from the campaign in which voters said they literally couldn’t understand the words that Clinton was speaking.)

But Clinton Democrats have not necessarily learned this lesson. Witness what Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s former communications director, had to say recently on the subject of what to make of the large anti-Trump protests:

I think that a lot of this energy is not — the base is there, but you are wrong to look at these crowds and think that means everyone wants $15 an hour. Don’t assume that the answer to big crowds is moving policy to the left. I think the answer to the big crowds is engaging as much as you can to be as supportive as you can and understanding — what these people want, they are desperate. It’s all about identity on our side now. They want to show he does not support me. I support you, refugee. I support you, immigrant in my neighborhood. I want to defend you. Women who are rejecting Nordstrom’s and Neiman Marcus are saying this is power for them. Donald Trump doesn’t take me seriously, well, I’m showing you my value and my power, and I think it’s like our own version of identity politics on the left that’s more empowering, and I think that’s we’re — that’s a safer place to be.

There are a few issues to note here. First, if anyone wondered whether Clinton Democrats would have learned that they needed to care more about economic issues, the answer is no. Palmieri, like Nancy Pelosi, does not sense any need to respond to the economic populism that led 13 million voters toward Bernie Sanders in the primary and helped Trump win crucial Rust Belt states. The standard progressive criticism of Clintonian centrism is that it values racial diversity and inclusive gender politics, but it actually doesn’t care about lifting the living standards of working-class people of any race or gender. Palmieri confirms that this impression is no myth; it’s “all about identity” these days, and we shouldn’t assume people want $15 an hour. (Is there actually anyone who doesn’t want $15 an hour?) And “power,” to this contingent of Democrats, is about whether you shop at Neiman Marcus or not. It’s not about, say, power in the workplace.

But there’s a separate important question to ask: what is Palmieri actually talking about here? Look again at the above paragraph. It’s almost totally without meaning. What is “a safer place to be”? What does “it’s all about identity” even imply? Yes, one gets the fact that she’s rejecting calls to adopt more progressive economic policies, and that she thinks doing politics means deciding which expensive department store to shop at. But the most striking thing about the statement is its utter vacuousness. She wants to be supportive and empowering, but we get almost no specifics as to what that entails. (Palmieri also said that voters were “scared” rather than “angry,” a distinction just about as clear and useful as the one between “greatness” and “goodness” in the baffling Clinton slogan “America is great because America is good.”)


Now remember that Palmieri was Clinton’s communications director. That should have meant she was the person most skilled at delivering a clear message. She should at least have been able to speak an intelligible English sentence. But Palmieri’s style is the Clinton style: the words slip through your fingers like sand, and nobody has any idea what is actually being said. (Incidentally this same communications director, when she was once asked whether the Clinton Foundation would return Bill Cosby’s donations, replied: “They, um, but you know, the, uh, the foundation has, uh, it’s, uh, buh, there’s been a lot of donors that, uh, have given, uh, have given money, uh. They, uh, as our friend Paul Begala said, it’s, you know, wealthy people giving money to help poor people. Uh, we think that’s, uh, that’s a positive thing.” Loyalty rather than competence has long been the central criterion by which Clinton staffers are selected.)

Thus, while one important goal for the Democratic Party must be to offer policies that materially benefit the working class, another goal is to find ways of speaking that people actually understand and relate to. You’re not going to sway people towards your message if you don’t really have one, if there’s no clear and coherent vision for what the party means and stands for.

This in itself is a reason why the progressive wing of the party needs to shape its direction, and why the DNC needs a Keith Ellison rather than a Tom Perez. Even if you disagree with what the progressives are offering, they’re actually offering something, something intelligible and cogent. As with Trump, everybody knew what Bernie Sanders stood for: Medicare for all, reining in Wall Street, free college. You can take it or leave it, but at least there’s something to actually take. Centrists don’t have an actual vision, because they form their politics by triangulating between whatever worldviews are on either side of them. That means that they don’t really believe in anything, or at least that their beliefs are not founded on obvious inner moral convictions.

But in order to win people over, you’ve got to actually believe in something. People see through empty rhetoric about empowerment and inclusiveness. They know that politics is about what the government does, and that unless you’re telling them what you plan to do with the government, you’re not actually telling them anything. If Democrats are going to get back into power, they need a simple and morally forceful set of basic values and policy plans.

The Sanders/Cruz Debate Was The Best Political TV in Ages

Last night was a glimpse of what tolerable political media could look like…

My God, that was fun. And enlightening. And thorough. How on earth was it on CNN?

Last night CNN hosted the most improbable of televised spectacles: a 2-hour debate on healthcare policy between Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders. Ostensibly, it was to be a debate about ObamaCare, but since neither Cruz nor Sanders likes Obamacare much, it ended up being a debate over whether to fix Obamacare through a single-payer system or by letting the market decide. It was therefore essentially a contentious two-hour tussle over the relative merits of socialism versus capitalism.

Both Cruz and Sanders were in excellent form. Cruz is a slick debater and came armed with a bevy of statistics about the horrors of Canadian healthcare, as well as a map showing how ObamaCare had hurt Trump voters. Sanders did what he does best: making an emotionally compelling case for the need to take care of one another, and challenging the callous moral underpinnings of Republican pro-market orthodoxy.

Over the course of two hours, Sanders and Cruz gave their spiels on various aspects of the healthcare system, including drug pricing and importation, the coverage of pre-existing conditions, Medicare and Medicaid, women’s health, and cost control. They answered thoughtful questions from audience members who had suffered in various ways from America’s disastrous overpriced healthcare system. (Cruz was confronted by a woman with multiple sclerosis who had had to leave Texas because it had declined to expand Medicaid, while Sanders had to explain to the owner of a hair salon chain why she should feel a responsibility to pay for her employees’ health insurance.)

Sanders’s best moments came when he challenged Cruz on Cruz’s lawyerly evasions. When Cruz was asked whether, under his plan, insurers could deny people with pre-existing conditions, Cruz replied that nobody would lose their health insurance. Sanders pointed out that people with health insurance not losing it did not mean that people without it could get it. Similarly, when Cruz insisted that he would preserve the right to “access” good health care, Sanders replied that “access” meant very little without the ability to actually afford it:

You have access, but you don’t have enough money. You have access right now, go out and get a really great health insurance program. Oh, you can’t do it because you can’t afford it. That’s what [Cruz] is saying. Oh, you want to go out and buy one of Donald Trump’s mansions? You have access to that as well. Oh, you can’t afford $5 million for a house? Sorry. Access doesn’t mean a damn thing!

Cruz, too, successfully hammered Bernie on the cost of his single-payer plan, and slickly re-characterized all of Sanders’s proposals as pro-government and anti-choice. (He also gave a closing statement that bizarrely referenced the “More Cowbell” sketch from Saturday Night Live to make the case against single payer, telling the audience that Sanders was just trying to give them more cowbell. As I say, bizarre.)

Naturally, I am biased in attempting to assess the victor of the debate, considering my previously expressed opinions on the subject of Ted Cruz. But I had been worried that Bernie would struggle against Cruz, given Cruz’s reputation as a formidable debater (Bernie was sometimes ropey during the primary debates, and missed numerous opportunities to land important points). But Sanders did exceptionally well, getting the case for universal healthcare across with impressive clarity and force.

Because of that, I remain more convinced than ever that Sanders would have absolutely crushed Donald Trump had he been the Democratic nominee. That’s because Sanders is very effective at disowning bad Democratic policies while embracing good ones. Unlike Clinton, he doesn’t try to defend the least defensible actions of the Obama administration. He doesn’t insist the Affordable Care Act is great, he insists it’s somewhat better than what came before. When Cruz pointed out that Democrats were bought by Big Pharma just as much as Republicans, Sanders didn’t try to dispute it; he agreed. Sanders’s status as an independent willing to criticize his party means he doesn’t end up having to make dishonest and partisan arguments in order to exonerate the actions of his team.

But the most important takeaway from last night’s debate wasn’t that Bernie would have won (though he would have). Instead, the most extraordinary thing about the debate was just how good it was. It was two hours of actual policy substance in which the disagreements between two sides were laid out clearly and thoughtfully, with each side challenging the other’s assumptions and having to demonstrate a serious knowledge of the issue. Because it was on a single subject, it didn’t have the cursory, talking-point oriented feel of the presidential primary debates, which sometimes had to cover about ten issues in 90 minutes. The moderators carefully kept the senators from straying away from the subject of healthcare, and that level of focus and depth made it the single most substantive policy discussion on television in recent memory.

For a couple of hours last night on CNN, then, the viewing public saw a vision of what political media could be like, if media companies were serious about trying to get people informed, and staying away from sensationalism. This was no talking-head jabber-fest, it was an authentic discussion in which disagreements were carefully but contentiously explored. It was an incredibly refreshing change from the usual barrage of Trump-oriented, substance-free hysteria. (Indeed, one of the most impressive aspects of the debate was that the name “Donald Trump” was spoken only about twice.)

CNN has been notoriously dreadful for a long time. They helped build Donald Trump’s candidacy by broadcasting full-length live feeds of his rallies, and their closest thing to a substantive and hard-hitting commentator is Anthony Bourdain. But if the Sanders/Cruz debate is indicative of a new long-term strategy, there may be some minuscule sliver of hope for American political media. This is what we need more of. Real debates that neither descend into pointless bickering nor avoid serious disagreements like the divide between socialism and capitalism.

Hosting political debates on CNN won’t fix American politics. But it will sure make political television a lot more bearable. More of this, please. More of this all the time.

If Your Party Doesn’t Appeal To Young People, It Will Wither And Die

If Democrats fail to address millennials’ economic concerns, they will continue to flounder…

With the Democrats having been resoundingly defeated in the 2016 election, it should be obvious that the party has some serious introspection to do. Party leaders need to (very quickly) figure out how to mobilize the politically disaffected in order to reclaim power, and they particularly need the kind of organizing energy that Barack Obama was able to inspire in 2008. Doing this would giving millennials good reasons to turn up to the polls and support Democratic politicians. Unfortunately, if Nancy Pelosi’s comments at a recent CNN town hall are any suggestion of the attitude among party elites, there are no plans to attempt to engage the concerns of younger voters. This is terrible news for the party’s political fortunes, which are currently somewhat dire.

At the town hall, NYU sophomore Trevor Hill asked Pelosi about the party’s stance on economic issues. Pointing out that millennials were less enthusiastic about capitalism than those in older generations, Hill said: “I wonder if there’s anywhere you feel the Democrats could move farther left to a more populist message.” Hill insisted that he was not trying to get Pelosi to make a “radical statement about capitalism” but merely pointing out that “the younger generation is moving left on economic issues.”

Pelosi’s reply was firm. She chuckled, and declared: “I have to say, we’re capitalist ― and that’s just the way it is.”

It was an alarmingly oblivious response. Pelosi didn’t even suggest that there was room for a “democratic socialist” perspective, of the kind promoted by Bernie Sanders. The party is for capitalists, she said, and that’s that. Pelosi went on to talk about the problem of income inequality and made some remarks suggesting that it was possibly a bad thing and might need perhaps to be somewhat curtailed. But she entirely evaded Hill’s question of whether the party had any intent of moving left on economic issues.

Pelosi’s response was predictable. She is on the record declaring that the Democratic Party does not need a “new direction,” even after losing the House, Senate, and Presidency. Nobody should have expected Nancy Pelosi of all people, who is the very definition of an entrenched Democratic politician, to believe that the party needed a fresh start.


But the response was also deeply troubling, insofar as it suggested that party elites are not especially concerned with courting younger voters. To a majority of millennials, capitalism is a dirty word, and for Pelosi to actually laugh at the prospect of changing the Democrats’ perspective on it shows an ideology deeply out of touch with the way many younger people think. As Hill observed afterwards of Pelosi’s disappointing answer: “She can’t possibly understand where I, or millions of other millennials who are drowning under capitalism, come from… She refused to admit that the Democrats needed to move in a populist direction, which is what so many millions of Americans are crying out for them to do.”

There are perfectly good reasons why young people don’t like capitalism. They’re drowning in debt, they work awful jobs, and many of them have worse economic prospects than their parents. Capitalism, to them, means working for low pay and no hope of advancement. That’s why they flocked to Bernie Sanders. But Pelosi’s message says firmly to Bernie Sanders socialists: you are not wanted in our party. That means writing off a huge number of people. Sanders may not have won in the primary, but he got 13 million votes to Hillary Clinton’s 16 million. Telling populist-leaning Democrats to go screw themselves means alienating extraordinary numbers of people, who are unlikely to show much enthusiasm for a party apparatus that has made it clear it doesn’t care what they think.

The Democrats’ attitude toward young people has been troubling for a while. Age was a key divide between Clinton and Sanders supporters, and during the campaign some of Hillary Clinton’s supporters were astonishingly patronizing toward younger voters. Gloria Steinem suggested that young women were only supporting Bernie Sanders because they were following boys, and Madeleine Albright made the case that those who didn’t support Clinton would roast in hell. The editor of Mother Jones magazine declared that she “hated millennials” for their refusal to embrace Hillary Clinton. Clinton decided to select Tim Kaine as her running mate instead of choosing someone that young people might have been able to muster some shred of excitement about (like, say, Bernie Sanders). Even Matthew Yglesias of Vox noted that the Kaine pick was a deliberate middle finger to Sanders supporters, sending the message: “You get boring, centrist Tim Kaine! What are you going to do — vote for Donald Trump?” (Failing to note that there was another option beyond Clinton or Trump: staying home).

This is actually one reason why it’s so essential that Democrats make Keith Ellison head of the Democratic National Committee. Ellison speaks about engaging young people, about broadening the party’s appeal, about building the grassroots. He prioritizes the economic issues that millennials care about. Tom Perez, on the other hand, is about as exciting as Tim Kaine. The choice between Ellison and Perez is going to say a lot about whether the party is committed to becoming something new, or repeating its mistakes ad nauseum.

The Democrats’ political situation is terrible at the moment. They have lost 900 seats in state legislatures, they continue to hemorrhage governorships even in blue states, and Donald Trump is the President of the United States. Unless Democrats can engage new people and generate enthusiasm, their party will wither and die. Donald Trump ran a populist campaign and won. Bernie Sanders ran a populist campaign and nearly toppled the “inevitable” nominee and ruined what was supposed to be a coronation. It’s very clear that without a different economic message, the party is going to fail to excite those who could be its most effective activists. (Democrats also need the skills that young people bring; remember how good Bernie Sanders’ ad team was?) Nancy Pelosi’s declaration that unless you support capitalism, you are not a Democrat, means that 51% of millennials should want nothing to do with the Democrats. Perhaps she’s comfortable with that. But anyone who cares about building a progressive majority shouldn’t be.

The Rule Of Law Is Overrated

Is it ethical to send people you know to prison for immigration violations? Only if you look to the law for moral guidance.

In a recent column, New York Times “Ethicist” Kwame Anthony Appiah encourages people to help Donald Trump send people to prison for immigration violations.

Appiah is answering a reader’s question about marriage fraud. The reader has discovered that an acquaintance has gotten married solely in order to obtain a green card for her spouse, and wants to know whether it would be ethical to turn the pair in to the feds. Appiah, a professor of philosophy at NYU, answers that it would. While the reader is not obligated to report any immigration violations she knows about, it would be a decent thing to do. As he explains:

Given that you’re clearly not the only person who has the relevant information, and given the diffuse nature of the harm, you’re not obligated to report what you know. But provided you are morally certain about your conclusion, it would be a good thing if you did. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has a website where you may report anonymously. 

Appiah grounds his argument in the concepts of fairness and the rule of law. We have a set of rules and procedures for a reason, he says. It wouldn’t be fair for some immigrants to “jump the queue” while others waited their turn and followed the rules (as Appiah, a British immigrant, did). After all, it is “the nature of the nation-state arrangement that states have a right to regulate who crosses their borders.”

All of which sounds a bit persuasive. But, as is so often the case, the words mask the human reality. Immigration fraud is, after all, a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement distributes a flyer on the subject featuring a cheery pun on how “walking down the aisle” of a church could lead to “walking down the aisle” of a prison corridor). Donald Trump’s administration has considerable power under existing law to come down harshly on those who commit fraud. And judging by his recent executive actions on immigration, there’s no reason to think he wouldn’t.

Thus Appiah is recommending a course of action that could cause two people very serious harm, getting the noncitizen thrown out of the country and the citizen prosecuted and possibly imprisoned for a felony. Yet nowhere in Appiah’s consideration of the ethics of the matter is there a discussion of these consequences, or why the benefit that comes from giving the government information about a violation outweighs the harm you would do to people’s lives.

That’s because Appiah strongly believes, as many liberal-minded people do, in the Rule of Law. Under the rule of law, it doesn’t matter whether a law is harsh or unfair. It is the law, and it must be obeyed. Even if a law is so morally abhorrent to you that you feel compelled to disobey it, you must nevertheless accept the punishment that comes along with civil disobedience. The punishment doesn’t enter into Appiah’s ethical calculus because it isn’t relevant: the question is whether the law should be obeyed, and it should, because rules are rules regardless of what we may personally think about them.


The problem with this kind of thinking is that it does presume that the laws are generally fairly good. There’s something dishonest here: we pretend that we believe that the law is the law and must be obeyed. But nobody would take this to its extreme. After all, if we were operating under fascist law, and the penalty for visa fraud was the death of the violator and their entire immediate family, Appiah would presumably not recommend turning someone in. That would be because he felt the law was cruel and unjust. Thus you can say that you believe people ought to follow the rules because they’re the rules. But you’re implicitly also endorsing the substantive provisions of the specific rules in question, because if the rules deviated too far from your own sense of fairness, you would no longer believe that they needed to be deferred to without consideration for the costs and benefits of the punishment.

Many people invoke “rules are rules” logic. But they are all being dishonest. Nobody actually believes in the rule of law. They only believe in the rule of the laws they are okay with. For example, when Kentucky court clerk Kim Davis refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses, many progressive people insisted Davis should “do her job,” because the law was the law and she should enforce it. But if, in an alternate political world, the law required Davis to shout offensive homophobic slurs at every same-sex marriage applicant before stamping them all DENIED, the same people who insisted she should Do Her Job Because It Is The Law would be celebrating her as a hero if she was the sole clerk who refused to obey her instructions. Every insistence that we should Follow The Law contains some kind of implicit approval of the law’s substance, because nobody is willing to follow the principle to its total extreme end point. (Even the most devoutly law-loving conservative would begin to recognize the limits of the principle if a law were passed requiring them to murder their family and burn down their church.)

This is not to say that the rule of law is a meaningless value to hold. It’s perfectly fine, and probably necessary, to believe that many laws we don’t like should be obeyed simply because they’re laws. The point, however, is that it is important to recognize that nearly everyone only believes this up to a point. Their invocation of the rule of law to defend a particular rule also contains a tacit acknowledgment that the rule in question is not so unjust as to be worth violating.

In times where laws are basically non-horrendous, this distinction may be so trivial as to not be worth discussing. If you believe that even the worst laws are not so bad that they are worth jettisoning The Rule Of Law for, then there’s no problem. But Trump’s America could force liberals to reckon with the question of when a law conflicts with your values to a point where it should not be deferred to. If helping uphold the law means helping Donald Trump send my acquaintances to prison for immigration violations, is it enough to invoke law and order for this to be an ethical course of action?

Kwame Appiah believes that a country’s immigration rules are its immigration rules, and that they should be followed for that reason. But he also believes that the particular immigration rules in America are fair and should be followed. (Interestingly, the immigration system is actually set up in a way that lets British immigrants like Appiah “jump the queue,” which perhaps partially explains why he does not see much of a problem with the rules as they exist.) They’re not, though. They’re cruel, and about to get far crueler. And those who insist that rules are rules may find themselves justifying increasingly inhumane sets of consequences.