Monday, August 14, 2017

The mainstream's borders have to be patrolled

The very existence а political life depends on the distinction between the mainstream and the fringe politics. Debate and disagreement among political groups may be vitriolic and irrational. However, debate with the fringe is impossible; the very act of debate with Nazis and racists is dangerous and counterproductive, because it legitimizes their existence. Wear a swastika, and you become what Russians call “Non-handshakeable,” nerukopozhatnyy. The boundaries have to be more or less clear, and ought to be patrolled, otherwise debate within the mainstream becomes impossible. The history of democracy shows how the inability of major groups to engage politically leads to dictatorship or civil war. The Weimar Republic could be one example, Spain before its civil war is another.

The danger of the fringe groups is not in their size – the White supremacists in the US are a tiny group – it is in their ability to erode the boundaries between the mainstream and the fringe. Let us assume someone on the Right breaches the unspoken taboo, and reaches out to the white supremacist for any reason. That would compromise their ability to engage with the more centrists or the liberal politicians. The non-handshakeability is contagious, and it can eventually erode the very space for the political debate.

Most people intuitively understand the dynamics. For example, the Fox News anchors, after a brief initial hesitation, eventually called the racists what they are. Despite all their rhetoric, they want to stay within the boundaries of the civilized society. After all you can only be effective if you are taken seriously. Almost all Republican politicians easily make the same calculation. The US had not left-wing political violence for a long time, but I am sure, if it gets to that, the liberals will do the same – quickly distance themselves.

However, our President somehow failed to make the very simple rational move. And yes, Pence is right, it does not look like a big deal on its surface. Trump left the door to engaging with the white supremacists only slightly ajar, just in case. What they both fail to understand are the rules of the larger political space. It is a contagion situation – a 1% of legitimization given to the fringe may contaminate 100% of your owl legitimacy. The risk is huge, the returns are really small and uncertain. How many votes does he think he will get from Nazis? The inability to calculate selfish reasons is worrisome because it indicates the general weakness of rational thinking. I am sure this is a concern for the Republican leadership.

Of course, the boundaries between the fringe and the mainstream shift. Relatively recently, racism was a part of the mainstream American politics. This is why the racists still hope to claw their way back to respectability. They saw Trump as their best chance in many decades, and they are taking it. I don’t think it is going to work for the reasons I cite. The stakes for the rest of the political field are too high to allow it. The borders have to be patrolled.

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