Name the solution

There is this notion, proclaimed on all sides of the political spectrum, that if you want to solve a problem, the first step is to name it, center it, because only then can you properly address it. It sounds very rational, very modern. To address a problem, list it on the clipboard. Then we can get together and devise the 19-step plan that will remedy it.

This is often counterproductive for social problems, where the names that we demand be given have connotations that are far from neutral.

From 9/11 through the Obama era, Republican constituencies were scolding us we had to publicly name and call out “radical Islamic terrorism” as a problem, the enemy. Beginning in 2016, Democratic-aligned constituencies demanded that we center and call out “racism” and “white supremacy”. That continues, with a litany that includes “patriarchy” and “transphobia”, wrapped in a bowtie under the unobjectionably objectionable name “hate”. Now Republican-aligned constituencies demand that we publicly call out illiberal “wokism” and activist/academic movements like “critical race theory”.

I’ll try to put this gently, so as not to commit the same error I am criticizing. This approach to politics is unhelpful. The things partisans demand we call out can in fact be bad. All terrorisms, defined as violence or threat of violence against innocents to compel political change, are bad. Nearly all of us agree that racism, white supremacy, and “hate” are horrible. Even the “wokest” people will cop to existence of excesses in social justice activism, though they may argue that cynical overstatement of those excesses is a bigger problem than the excesses themselves.

We are asked to name, and then to publicly call out, problems not because there is some insight gained in the naming. What, we didn’t realize that racism was appalling before contemporary anti-racisms put it front and center? Was the Obama administration unaware of the existence of Islamic terrorism while it was drone assassinating weddings in the Middle East?

We are asked to name and denounce because some coalitions are better immunized, while other coalitions are put on the defensive, when public debate is structured around certain names. The Democratic Party’s coalition includes religious minorities, including Muslims, who are not terrorists but whose social networks and religious traditions are more proximate to groups that prosecuted atrocities in the name of Islam than the white Christians who overwhelmingly define the Republican Party. When we are naming white supremacy, the shoe is on the other foot. The point of this politics is to polarize in a way that gives one coalition the high ground, and sows division in the other while portraying them as apologists for evil.

There may be some electoral value to this, in the sense of persuading a sliver of swing voters or drawing habitual nonvoters into your great moral struggle. The polarization it provokes “usefully” helps stabilize partisan gerrymanders. It is emotionally delicious, as we grunt in our tribes, to hold up mirrors through which we are awesome and they are not. While naming problems and demanding denunciations may move some people to vote your way, it may entrench others and undermine your purported cause. A virtue weaponized ceases to be a virtue at all, and those who might be tarnished by association often perceive demands to denounce even things that they concede are bad as attacks. Because defiance of unjust coercion is itself a virtue, insistent calls to denounce may instead rally sympathy or support. When Republicans call out “critical race theory”, does that render progressives more or less supportive of social justice activism, whatever its excesses?

However things actually shake out at election time, whether demanding denunciations helps or hurts either party, the tactic reliably delivers revenue to media and political institutions. You can’t fundraise off quietly persuading a reasonable but mistaken public. When there are monsters to battle, partisans shower champions with cash.

If you are actually interested in constructive social change, this is a terrible politics. Durable change does not in fact come from crushing a near-equally-matched social enemy. It comes from cooptation until the rump social enemy is small, and can then be cleanly defeated. Gay marriage is no longer controversial in the United States, because the broad public was pretty quietly won over before the Supreme Court delivered a final victory. If the political parties had remained actively polarized around the issue, if nonsupporters strongly identified as objectors, there would have been no victory. An (unlikely) Supreme Court win would have become a new Roe vs Wade, a battle cry rather than a final outcome. The campaign for gay marriage was waged in favor of a solution, rather than as a fight against homophobia, which might have polarized the public into factions more or less implicated by the charge. It was a campaign for something that like most things, most people had never taken a strong position on, and could be content to accommodate what seemed kind without ever having to admit defeat or prior error.

You can’t coopt people while you are calling them out. You can’t achieve durable victories — win the peace rather than a continuing war — without bringing people into what becomes a broad consensus. When it’s the 99% against the 1%, you can crush the opposition. When it’s the 52% against the 48%, you can’t. If you try you get civil war, hot or cold. Both sides in every civil war are sure they have God and justice on their side while they destroy first the prerequisites of civilized life, then lives directly. At home as abroad, the real struggle is always for hearts and minds. The rest is just carnage.

Naming problems and demanding denunciations hardens the battle lines, digs trenches. Making everybody confess the people’s enemy is not a rational path to positive change. On the contrary, what reason demands is a politics that welcomes and improves the imperfect but well-intentioned creatures that we nearly all of us are, a politics that is generous with redemption rather than fierce with judgment of our fellows. By all means, hold policymakers (and pundits!) to account. But never publics. That’s a fool’s errand. Offer solutions and be grateful towards people who sign on, rather than name problems and condemn people for insufficient zeal in demanding their extirpation.

Update History:

  • 9-Jun-2021, 1:15 p.m. EDT: “sews sows division” (Thanks Steve Roth!)

6 Responses to “Name the solution”

  1. Steve Roth writes:

    *sows division

  2. N writes:

    “There may be some electoral value to this, in the sense of persuading a sliver of swing voters or drawing habitual nonvoters into your great moral struggle.”

    I don’t think that’s the goal. Karl Rove got credit for the “mobilize your base” approach to elections, and it worked well enough that both parties have adopted it. Elections are not decided by swing voters, they are decided by extremists in swing states; apparently the so-called “swing voters” don’t actually vote. It was a surprise to nearly everybody that centrists showed up for the Democratic nomination last year.

    “You can’t coopt people while you are calling them out.”

    These people are telling you that they have no interest in coopting anybody. Believe them.

  3. Detroit Dan writes:

    I’m with Steve on this — “Getting to Yes” is my life philosophy as well as political philosophy. More allies => greater strength. More intractable enemies => weakness.

    Karl Rove did achieve some short term success, but that has evaporated. Democratic prospects can be improved by focusing on the positive rather than name calling, in my opinion.

    And as always, doing what is politically astute (avoiding gratuitous insult) is also the right thing to do for the country as a whole. In the long run we sink or swim together.

  4. C Jennings writes:

    I think this is a sensible path. I’m not sure the times are sensible.

    The forces of discord have seized the agenda (although it has been in process for 30+ years , so seizing seems a bit, imprecise).

    Calling people out and hardening the lines is a bad tactic and a worse strategy, see also “deplorables”.

    But how to implement this call to… I’m stumped. Is this a call to civility – no. A call to rationality – no. A call to a polity, that feels closer.

    A community of citizens bound by a desire to preserve and repair the republic. My bias – that seems right. Are the times too fractious. If they feel that way then perhaps it is time to be anti-fractious. But the road will feel ugly, and not clean, and not pure, and the compromises need to feel like truth and honor and faith are not being traded away. Well, not fully. This feels really hard – and the other side will not trade fair. But we probably need to begin.


  5. Detroit Dan writes:

    Thanks C Jennings. You capture some of my sentiments pretty well! Here’s a response.

    How best to express justifiable outrage? We need both civility and rationality, and the goal is to end up with an improved polity. It’s a fine line to walk, and it can be much more difficult for people whose livelihood is tied into the outrage machine in one way or another.

    I myself am outraged at certain things but find I have to step back so that the outrage doesn’t consume me and make the political situation worse. Rather I’m always looking for a sweet spot for constructive communication. That is hard work, but doable in my experience.

  6. Zach writes:

    I think this pairs nicely with the idea of universal programs. One of the strengths of universal programs is they provide for a common good that people can be for that doesn’t come with all sorts of points for division. My personal penchant for universal programs is precisely because I don’t trust the polity to be fair in how it decides on who “deserves” a basic good. It’s the flip side of Clarence Thomas’s belief that the government is inherently racist, so it shouldn’t have any power. I think a similar thing, but that universal programs can be a check against systemic oppression.