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Debate and Vituperation


[This is a transcript of Episode 58 of the Podcast titled RevolutionZ.]

Recently nine long-time progressive/revolutionary activists — myself, Noam Chomsky, Kathy Kelly, Ron Daniels, Leslie Cagan, Norman Solomon, Cynthia Peters, Bill Fletcher, and Barbara Ehrenreich — co-signed an open letter to the Green Party about campaign strategy in swing states.

The letter had two aims.

1 Open a discussion seeking shared insights and refined positions before commitments on all sides are fixed.

2 Help set a discussion tone avoiding the attribution of views never held and the imputation of motives nowhere felt.

I suppose we won’t fully know whether the first aim gets met for quite some time. But we already know that the second aim has so far fallen far short of success.

In this RevolutionZ episode, I would like to discuss that failure.

To set the scene, I see the social and political context of the Open Letter as capitalism, sexism, sexual oppression, racism, ecological destruction, political authoritarianism, and fascism, plus steadily escalating activist resistance, nearly exploding outrage toward existing social relations, and even growing desires for fundamental change, especially among youth.

I see the electoral context as that either Donald Trump is going to get four more years, or some Democrat is going to replace him, where which happens will depend on state by state anti-Democratic electoral college votes. I see, as well, that by the end of the summer, roughly 40 states will have their electoral college results written in stone. And unless the tally from just those 40 will put Trump or the Democrat into office, the remaining electoral college tallies, summed, will decide the outcome. Thus, 10 or so battle-ground states will each be won by a relatively low margin that delivers the whole state’s electoral college support to a candidate and potentially giving that candidate overall victory.

Finally, I see the political parties context of the Open Letter as that the Republicans have added to their familiar pursuit of greed and system defense a suicidal extreme of anti rationality, pervasive lying, racist violence, macho malevolence, and ecological delusion, while the Democrats still mainly advance greed and system defense, but now with a large caveat due to the emergence of Sanders and various other progressive elements of an entirely new sort, whereas the Green Party remains as ever a focus of independent progressive program, activist energy, and bottom up potential, but, also, an in my view problematic national electoral strategy.

Given its context, the Open Letter focussed on only Green electoral policy because its signers deemed other issues such as the Electoral College, ranked voting, on-going massive structural injustices, ecological crises, war, militarization, immigration, inequality, and Democratic Party policy inaccessible to Open Letter influence, though we felt an Open Letter might positively affect Green policy.

Thus the Letter proposed that the Green Party run its Presidential Candidate in forty or so safe states as planned, but that in ten or so battle-ground states, the Green Party not seek presidential votes but instead campaign to promote its program and also oppose Trump by asking its supporters to vote for the Democratic candidate, hopefully Sanders.

Those disliking the proposal emphasized a few reasons.

1 Greens seeking votes in battle-ground states won’t determine who wins overall. The proposal’s concern is false.

2 Trump re-elected would be barely worse than the worst Democrat, or even the best Democrat. The proposal’s fear is exaggerated.

3 If the Democrats lose it will be their own fault. The proposal’s focus on Green strategy is misplaced.

4 Greens have a principled right to run a candidate. The proposal is unprincipled.

5 Greens not seeking presidential votes in a battle-ground state may cause Greens to temporarily lose ballot access they might have retained. The proposal has too big a downside.

6 Not seeking votes in battle-ground states would hurt Green morale. More downside.

7 Greens are responsible to build the Greens. The proposal seeks irresponsibility.

Advocates of the proposal offered some responses.

1 Green strategy is a factor, not just hypothetically, but because it already has been. The proposal’s concern is realistic.

2 Four more years of Trump will endanger the whole planet and further propel the drift toward Fascism and these costs vastly exceed anything any Democrat might impose, much less the major gains Sanders might bring. The proposal’s estimate of danger is accurate.

3 If the Democrats lose it is true that their choices will have massively contributed to their losing, however that in no way reduces the importance of trying to affect other potentially critical factors. A Green candidate could win sufficient votes in battleground states to let Trump win what would have otherwise been a lost election. The proposal’s Green focus is legitimate.

4 Yes, Greens have a right to run a candidate, but not everything we have a right to do is wise to do, and while campaigning for down ballot candidates and for the Green program and to build the party in battleground states has no downside, campaigning for votes in battleground states could be critical to a Trump victory. The proposal’s suggestion to do the former but not the latter is principled.

5 The loss of ballot access which the currently preferred Green strategy might not even win, as it didn’t win it in numerous states in 2016, can be offset by petitioning and having to petition in some additional states is not remotely a loss that should outweigh possibly contributing to having Trump for four more years. The proposal has a minimal downside.

6 Green morale should not be hurt by Greens running to win non presidential elections, to advance Green Program, and even to vote for whoever is opposing Trump and urge others to do likewise in battleground states, while simultaneously organizing to prepare to fight for Green change against whoever opposes it. The proposal’s components are all Green.

7 A Green candidate, like every political actor with conscience and concern, has a responsibility to do what makes most sense for the well being of society’s oppressed and for the prospects of continued activism, not simply what is thought to be best for his or her organization. The Open Letter seeks responsible behavior.

Different people have had different reactions to the above pro and con positions and final resolution is unlikely until the election.

In any event, here I don’t want to discuss which side is right, but the character of the ensuing debate and even the character of debate per se.

First, why do I say that that the Open Letter failed to establish a mutually respectful, reason-guided tone for discussing election strategy? Second, why does it matter?

Third, what might be done about it?

What convinced me we hadn’t established a good tone was various early responses. Within just a few hours of the Open Letter appearing, the Green Party distributed a fund raising letter titled, “Trying to Shut Us Up with an Open Letter.”

The Green funding letter started by saying that calling for a discussion of Green electoral strategy, was telling “Greens to just shut up and submit to a fundamentally undemocratic system.” It called the Open Letter a “steaming pile of cowardice and shoddy logic.” It said “the two-party cartel has marshalled their shills within Left spaces” and that the signers “are content with elections that everyday people experience as an endless cycle of hopelessness, alienation, and betrayal.‘’

The Open Letter signers who were thusly dismissed as shills and as being content with elections as they are, are myself, Noam Chomsky, Kathy Kelly, Ron Daniels, Leslie Cagan, Norman Solomon, Cynthia Peters, Bill Fletcher, and Barbara Ehrenreich.

Does anyone doubt that Green fund raisers, even two minutes before the Open Letter appeared, would have mightily welcomed a supportive Open Letter urging donations to the Green Party from the exact same folks they were a few hours later calling “shills” for the Democratic Party?

Had the signers had no prior history of ceaselessly opposing economic inequality, social injustice, ecological dissolution, and liberalism, and even if the signers were people Greens hadn’t highly respected right up to the moment they read the Open Letter, this kind of attacking the messenger and not the message would be wholly counterproductive.

Some other indicators of our having not facilitated a good tone were serious left journalists saying in serious left publications:

that the signers who in fact suggested a partial change of strategy in what will be at most ten states were instead telling the Greens “to not run at all, to stand down”;

that the signers who in fact urged running in swing states to advance Green Program and elect down ballot candidates, and to build a base for continued struggle instead demanded that third parties “abstain from effectively raising issues”;

that the signers who in fact sought discussion of a strategy that the Greens themselves have employed in the past were instead “bossing and shaming”;

that the signers who are all radicals and revolutionaries are instead “all liberals selling liberalism”;

that the signers who routinely and militantly oppose the Democratic Party instead “don’t want to go against the Democratic Party” and are “sheep dogging for the Democratic Party”;

that the signers who routinely advocate replacing the establishment’s defining institutions, are instead “more interested in supporting the establishment and bossing people around than changing the system”;

that the signers who in fact are part of and tirelessly work to build the left and who are militant critics of neoliberalism and imperialism are instead exemplars of “attacking and suppressing the left while legitimizing the purveyors of neoliberalism and imperialism”;

that the signers who in fact routinely urge the centrality of seeking and conducting activism that diminishes current suffering, blocks future suffering, and simultaneously builds toward replacing the underlying structures that create suffering, are instead “violating important principles.”

Some questions arise: Why do debates about strongly held views so often involve patently false personal attacks? Why did folks within hours of the Open Letter proposing a discussion of alternative strategy shovel abuse at its signers? Was the abuse a sincere, thought out, and warranted reaction because to want a discussion of a strategy they feared may have horrible effects demonstrates that one is a shill for the Democratic Party? Did responders deliver denigrations because they thought doing so clarified reality? Did they claim the Open Letter sought other than it sought, said other than what it said, and was the work of Democratic Party shills welcome or stifle discussion?

As a general description, I would say too much current debate spins or even knowingly misrepresents contested claims so they become easy to dismiss. Having misrepresented, I,would say such debate then too often proclaims that no one could sensibly support the dismissed view. Then, to explain non-sensical support, too much debate misattributes ulterior motives as explanation for people denying the obvious.

With those features, such debate convinces by subterfuge that shouldn’t convince or even exist. Or it fails to convince even when evidence and reason might have. And in any event, whether it convinces or not, it alienates those to whom it attributes views they never held and from whom it imputes motives they never had.

More, and this is often part of its purpose, this type of debate tends to silence people who do not wish to be slandered or drawn into defending against slanders, much less people who do not wish to commit slanders to fight back. It alienates spectators witnessing the actions, and, arguably worst of all, it normalizes the unproductive behavior.

I believe everyone easily sees the faults of this type of debate when they are targets or spectators of it. I think few see the same faults when they perpetrate them.

For example, progressives all realize and bemoan that Trump lies and attacks whoever differs from him. We realize and bemoan that Trump doing that, and others seeing and abiding it, normalizes and spreads the behavior. But do we see the behavior spreading into our own actions, habits, and even reflexive responses?

We all see that distortion based, illogical, and lying debate has been happening for a long time and has been greatly exacerbated and accelerated by Trump. But do we see that it now infects most substantive debate not only among opponents, but also among allies, friends, and even in families?

Do we see how the rush to immediately misstate messages and denigrate messengers demolishes our abilities to innovate toward improvements?

Do we prioritize finding what we might do to correct this destructive trend?

One suggestion of what to do, prevalently adopted, is that when we have important differences we should escape the inclination to debate destructively by hiding the differences and not debating at all.

During the run-up to Thanksgiving and then Christmas I wonder if you noticed, as I did, the many self help advisories in diverse media about how families could gather and best avoid mutual misrepresentation of views and misattribution of motives. The advisory was to talk about neutral topics like sports, TV, shopping, and innocuous gossip so as to avoid religion, race, gender, sex, finances, global warming, and politics.

In other words, inside families, inside groups of friends, among political allies, and between and inside political parties, to avoid destructive debate keep differences invisible, unstated, and therefore undebated.

Avoidance is an approach that works, to a point. But it also reduces the subject matter of families, friends, allies, and political groups and parties to what is inconsequential to members of each, thereby causing each to avoid whatever might lead to deeper mutual understanding and innovation, even if such understanding and innovation might be highly beneficial.

So while avoiding consequential differences is a widespread approach of those hoping to not suffer the ills or enlarge the sway of counterproductive, contentious, and ultimately anti-sympathetic debate, avoiding differences arguably diminishes us as much as what it seeks to avoid.

Instead of fleeing difference only to attain shallow hollowness, a vastly better rejection of harmful debate came from Howie Hawkins, who is campaigning to be the Green Party’s Presidential candidate.

In context of the continuing debate over Green electoral strategy, Hawkins recently wrote “Despite our differences on electoral strategy in 2020, we have broad agreement on policy demands. We should have our strategy debate with the idea that we are allies on policy, including transforming our anti-democratic electoral system, and that we want to get to a future where we are comrades in the same major party of the left.”

This was exemplary compared to the choices of how to differ and debate summarized above. And it is certainly true that allies do need to be able to address their differences without misstating views and misattributing motives. But I would like to suggest that we need to go a step further.

We should not question motives, misstate views, and denigrate messengers even when we are dealing with real opponents, or even with real enemies, not only when we are dealing with allies.

To misrepresent and malign even with enemies doesn’t only demean them, it demeans us too. More, at first we may misrepresent and malign only enemies, which is already bad enough. But then the behavior starts to occur with allies. And then with friends. And finally even with family.

We all need to not just be smart, correct, and caring when we agree with others, but also when we don’t.

“Trumpism” debates by misrepresenting claims and maligning motives. Destructive left debate is not as virulent as Trump’s own version, but it too spreads like a disease. And it too devours solidarity and reduces morale far more effectively than any repression from without.

Can we find an antidote that doesn’t have a downside?

When difference arises, before debate ensues, perhaps involved parties should calmly and clearly determine what their differences really are. This seems obvious yet it rarely occurs. Maybe when ‘a’ says that ‘b’ says so and so it should be a question, not a statement until agreement is reached as to the positions or views in dispute.

Next, perhaps debating difference should only address the stipulated difference and its implications, and should do so based only on evidence and logic, or, if motives are for some reason relevant, then perhaps they too should be determined via questions, not imputed via assertions.

Further, perhaps when debating, one should hope to arrive at some new understanding rather than to win or not lose. Instead of kill lest we be killed, perhaps we ought to learn and help learn.

If those suggestions are ill conceived, maybe someone else can come up with better advice to promote constructive debate. I find myself wanting such advice, hoping for it, and hoping it works.

At any rate, that ends this episode’s discussion of debate dynamics, a topic which I think ought to attract a lot more attention than it does.

However, before entirely finishing this episode, what about the election itself?

I have never crystal-balled an election. And it is still really, really early. But, so many people, including serious progressives, doubt Sanders prospects and even deny that he can win, that given my very different view, I have decided to weigh in.

Based on Sanders current support and based on expectations for growing levels of volunteer assistance, I think Sanders will encounter literally unprecedented Democratic Party, mainstream media, and elite power broker opposition during the coming few months. Each of these sectors will, overall, favor anyone but Sanders. They will each shamelessly slip desperately from one option to the next.

Their machinations could work, but I don’t think they will. I think Sanders can get to the Democratic Convention with a significant lead. However, with Warren, Biden, Buttigieg, and perhaps Bloomberg still having support, even in the best case, I think Sanders will be short of what’s needed for a first ballot victory.

I think the Democratic establishment will then have to decide what to do – and with their fear and loathing of Sanders a given – I think they will face a daunting question. Should they intervene to prevent Sanders nomination, thereby likely causing a total implosion of the party, a loss to Trump, and the emergence of AOC or some similar contender as an unstoppable force in four years? Or should they let Sanders win the nomination and than sabotage his election, including trying to extract back room deals from Trump for their actively opposing Sanders so that in four years, with the left vanquished, they can hope to gain back control? My guess is that in that case, establishment Democrats will pursue their own interests with not five seconds given to considering the plight of society or the world, and I think they will choose the latter scenario.

However, then, in the election, I would guess that while establishment Democratic Party help to Trump might get 3% and who knows, perhaps even 5% of Clinton’s voters to vote for Trump or stay home, Sanders will be able to get 5% and perhaps even 15% of Trump’s voters to switch to him, and will likewise be able to engage many more new voters – whether young and first time or disenchanted with Trump and attracted to an even bigger outsider seeking change. Ironically, I also think that not only will all the elite attacks on Sanders not dislodge his base of support, it will entrench his base and actually on balance even help Sanders attract former Trump voters by making evident to even the most cynical that Sanders really is an enemy of elites.

To be sure, all the above depends on progressive and young supporters of all backgrounds not just voting for but also working for Sanders, writing for Sanders, researching for Sanders, and door to door knocking for Sanders, for months on end. Otherwise, at the convention, he will be easily beatable.

In short, I think no one can win election 2020 away from Sanders if those who would ecstatically celebrate his victory believe in his winning and therefore do all they can to accomplish it.

Is this optimistic? Sure. But can anyone prove it cannot happen? I don’t think so. And if it can happen, and for the well being of the whole damn planet it must happen, then we must all together make it happen.

And if we do, then the day after Sanders takes office, even more consequential battles fueled and led by grassroots activism and wisdom, and supported by an activist Sanders administration, can commence.

Okay, all that said, I now have to make an appeal. RevolutionZ needs somewhat more help of two sorts than it is currently getting.

First, RevolutionZ needs help with visibility. Can you find a minute to tell others about our podcast, perhaps via social media, or perhaps in person?

And second, RevolutionZ needs material aid. Can you find a few minutes to visit www.patreon.com/RevolutionZ? There you can become a patron of exploration of revolutionary vision and strategy. It is easy to do and the support you pledge can be as little or as much as you like. And it will be very much appreciated and help a great deal.

In sum, RevolutionZ needs only another $300 a month in Patron support. Can we get that? 100 people giving $3 a month will do it. Or just 30 people giving $10 a month will do it. Over 1000 people will hear this appeal. It’s in your hands.

And, all that said, this is Michael Albert signing off until next time for RevolutionZ.

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