“All politics is local.” — Thomas P. (“Tip”) O’Neil, former Speaker of the House (1935)
Let me confess. I’m not a trained political operative, far less a pollster. But one sad political fact has stuck in my mind for almost a decade now.
While still teaching law, I had an intelligent, experienced colleague. This colleague is smart, practical and generally progressive. This colleague had had a distinguished career in a major federal regulatory agency. This colleague is African-American.
Yet this person had voted for George W. Bush—Dubya!—for president not once, but twice. Why? Because of the issue of abortion, which presidents in fact have little direct power to influence. It took me—a white guy—to direct this colleague’s attention to Barack Obama and his stellar intelligence and empathy.
Now I have a tendency to obsess. I have mulled over this sad history in my mind many, many times. And here’s what I think now:
Most of the important issues in politics today are really, really complicated. Global warming certainly is: you have to know and credit climate science even to understand the issues and how pressing and threatening they are
. Then you have to combine the complexity of climate science with the complexity of energy economics, macroeconomics and the “art of the possible” to get anything done. That’s what’s going on in Paris this week.
The rise of the Islamic state is also complicated. Its causes are as diverse as the millennial Sunni-Shiite split, the general failure of Arab states, the Syrian Civil War, the regional drought that may have helped drive that war, and the complex tribal evolution of places like Iraq, Syria and Libya, among others.
And economics—what really affects people’s day-to-day lives—is complicated, too. Like Einstein’s special theory of relativity, it’s often counterintuitive. Who would guess that Keynsian economics actually works: that it’s not just OK, but beneficial, for government to run up a big deficit putting people to work when broken private markets can’t?
But that’s true nevertheless. As Nobel laureate Paul Krugman never tires of reminding us, Keynesian pump-priming worked in the Great Depression and most recessions since. It almost didn’t
work in the Great Recession now finally resolving, simply because we did too little of it, in large measure due to GOP and Fox propaganda.
So if you want to move the average voter, who has no training in or knowledge of climate science, Middle-Eastern political-military history or economics, what do you do? You KISS. You “keep it simple, stupid.” You focus obsessively on issues that require no training in math, science, history or abstract thinking to understand. If that approach worked so well with my sophisticated colleague, think how well it works with the average voter.
That’s what the GOP has done with abortion for over thirty years, ever since Roe v. Wade
There’s no complexity about protecting babies. Spiders and some lizards eat their young. Alpha-male bears and lions will kill cubs that are not their own. But there’s no complexity with us humans. Protecting our young is a universal evolutionary imperative. So when you define abortion as killing babies—never mind the complexity of the mother’s and society’s issues—you are making as clear and simple an appeal to human morality and emotion as can possibly be made.
That’s why the GOP has beaten the abortion drum for over thirty years and why it probably never will stop. It’s an issue that any voter can understand. And the more you oversimplify it by ignoring issues of the mother’s health and economic circumstances and the disadvantages of unwanted children, the simpler it gets.
For the GOP, the abortion issue is the gift that keeps on giving. It will continue to do so until GOP thinkers find other “policies” to promote besides letting their rich and powerful backers do what they please.
So what has all this to do with the Black Lives Matter movement? As strange as it may seem, a lot.
Unlike climate change, Middle-Eastern politics, and macroeconomics, assaultive, over-militarized police are a simple issue. They are undesirable. Period.
At the moment, the GOP has kept the simplicity of this issue at bay by exploiting the myth of the “thin blue line,” the folks who keep “them” from “us.” But there are two problems with that tack. First, the more we Yanks move toward majority-minority demographics—an inevitable progression—the more “them” become “us.”
Second, even before “them” become “us,” it’s not hard to see how what happens to “them” could also happen to “us.” Remember the 90-year-old (East) Indian guy who got slammed to the ground in Houston for failing to understand English perfectly and respond to orders like a disciplined soldier? It doesn’t take much deep thought to understand that, if it could happen to him, it could happen to me, absent police reform.
To be sure, there are perceptions to overcome. Ever-present racism and the notion that police (even if bent) keep us from the abyss are deeply engrained. But “justifying” racism and patent police misbehavior requires some fancy footwork and complexity. It’s the analogy of justifying abortion by citing the mother’s health and circumstances or the social burden of unwanted and possibly defective children.
I’m not arguing for moral or intellectual equivalence here. I’m simply noting that just as the “pro-choice” side of the abortion issue requires more complex reasoning than the contrary, so does the pro-police side in cases of clear police abuse. Those cases include such things as the 90-year-old guy getting body slammed, a woman (Sandra Bland) dying in jail for allegedly failing to signal a lane change, and a fat, out-of-shape middle-aged guy (Eric Garner) getting choked to death by multiple policemen for allegedly selling cigarettes without a license. It’s not too hard to see that there, but for the grace of God, go I, or someone I care about.
Just as the pro-choice side has the burden of complexity in abortion, the pro-police side bears the burden of complexity in Black Lives Matter cases. If simplicity (whether or not morally right) gives the advantage to the GOP on abortion, it gives the advantage to us Dems on police misconduct and militarization. No one wants to think that police, who are supposed to protect us when we can’t protect ourselves, might turn against us or morph into a force of lawless Brown Shirts.
So the Black Lives Matter movement is not a problem for progressives. It’s not even a difficult response to a problem. Instead, it’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to build a simple, morally right position on a key local issue.
It’s also an opportunity in another respect: intensity and enthusiasm. At the moment, American progressives personify Yeats’ immortal lines, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Most of us are pallid and lackluster. Few of us are out on the streets marching for reducing carbon emissions, fighting IS, admitting more hapless, persecuted Syrians, or stimulating our economy. But there are plenty of people out marching for equality in policing and police reform.
As many commentators have noted recently, Dems are probably going to capture the White House in 2016. But we are badly losing the battles at the state and local levels, in part because we have a weak “bench.” Making the Black Lives Matter movement a centerpiece of local Democratic politics can bring enthusiastic young people into the party and into local elective office, where they can insure the party’s future. Already the BLM movement has started to do that in places like Ferguson, Missouri and neighboring communities.
The BLM movement is not something to be handled, managed and/or swept under the rug. It’s something to be celebrated, promoted and fostered. Just like our country, the Democratic party cannot bet its future on old white men. It has to expand and foster the youth, strength and enthusiasm that the BLM movement offers. And it should never forget that other minorities, as well as thoughtful old white men like me, have a stake in the BLM movement, too.
So here’s my pledge. As and old white guy, I don’t care whether my leaders are black, brown, yellow, red, white or green, as long as they are thoughtful and progressive. If police abuse drives smart, dedicated young people into the Democratic party and local politics, I’ll support and vote for them. As long as police abuse is not their only
issue, I’ll look to them to give our party the enthusiasm and dynamism that it has lacked for far too long. And I’ll look to the BLM movement to give us Dems an issue with the simplicity of protecting babies, which our party also has lacked for far too long.
In an earlier version of this post, the sixth-to-last paragraph erroneously began as follows: “Just as the pro-life
side has the burden of complexity in abortion . . . .” (Emphasis added.) As the rest of this essay makes clear, the pro-life side enjoys the benefits of simplicity. Yet the issue of abortion remains a complex one
, in which oversimplification and often outright lies aid the “criminalize-it” demagogues.