Politics and governance used to be about making deals. Now, it’s about inflicting pain on your opponent.
When you have a monopoly on what is right and true anyone who disagrees with you is evil. Since you can’t make deals with the Devil, you will see any disagreement as a fight to the death.
Under such circumstances, face-saving compromise is out of the question. Where life is a zero-sum game, you need to have your opponents to surrender.
Politicians who engage in such games might be cynical; they might not know how to negotiate; they might be playing the crisis for their political advantage.
They leave it to the pundit class to define the backdrop, to frame the issue as a struggle between good and evil.
The most zealous true-believers, men like Andrew Sullivan and Paul Krugman, see Republicas as virulent haters, the embodiment of human evil, a group that needs to be destroyed.
I have often had occasion to point out the intemperate rhetoric spewing from both of them. Sullivan believes that the current impasse in Washington can best be solved by running a stake through the heart of the Republican Party.
Krugman believes that he is always right and that Republican are always wrong. Better yet, he believes that Republicans are responsible for everyone that has ever gone wrong in the history of the Republic.
Krugman and Sullivan present themselves as crusaders who are trying to destroy evil. They are fighting for a righteous cause against—take your pick—the Devil or the Antichrist.
You may have thought that God was dead, but clever rhetoricians are still embracing the Biblical narrative of good against evil, of God against the Devil, of Christ against the Antichrist.
It is not about debating or even arguing. It is about suppressing your opponents, silencing them, sending them straight to Hell.
Obviously, the posture is theocratic. It has nothing to do with deliberative democracy and the marketplace of ideas.
Harvard professor Niall Ferguson reminds us of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ original formulation of what he called free trade in ideas. Thanks to Holmes the concept has become the foundation of free speech jurisprudence.
Examine what Holmes said:
When men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe…that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas – that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.
I put the phrase, “fighting faiths” in boldface, because I want to emphasize that Holmes saw the marketplace of ideas, the bedrock of democratic governance as an instance of human progress. In place of the wars between religions, wars where it was us or them, him or me, good or evil… where triumph over one’s opponents had to be absolute and irrevocable… Western civilization invented the free market in ideas.
Lately, Ferguson has been challenging Paul Krugman to defend some of his erroneous predictions. He has called Krugman out for a quality that I have often noted in his writings: his pretense of never being wrong. Being on God’s side, Krugman must always be right. His opponents are evil and he is good.
When things go right it proves that he was right. When things go wrong the fault always lies with Republicans. It is simple-minded to an extreme, but it has attracted a large audience.
Ferguson offers that people like Krugman, who believe that markets should be regulated, should take some of their own medicine. They could start by self-regulating their intemperate rants.
Free markets depend on civility and, dare I say, honor. If participants do not respect each other and do not want to make deals, they will transform the market into a war between religions. In that war everyone loses.
Ferguson explains that Krugman is inflicted with chronic incivility, especially toward anyone who disagrees with him:
… even if Krugman had been “right about everything,” there would still be no justification for the numerous crude and often personal attacks he has made on those who disagree with him. Words like “cockroach,” “delusional,” “derp,” “dope,” “fool,” “knave,” “mendacious idiot,” and “zombie” have no place in civilized debate. I consider myself lucky that he has called me only a “poseur,” a “whiner,” “inane” – and, last week, a “troll.”
Like Sullivan, Krugman traffics in eliminationist rhetoric. If your opponents are cockroaches and need to be destroyed, someone somewhere is likely to get the idea that this should become policy.
Both Sullivan and Krugman hate their opponents. When you want to destroy the opposition and find nothing redeeming, nothing to be respected in its positions, you are purveying hate.
Naturally, both men would quickly declare that anyone who disagrees with any of their dogmas is a hater and deserves to be suppressed.