Political Correctness

Part I, about opinion and conscience


The Republican Party is pretty fucked. I can only guess what the leadership (elected and not) is hoping for, but I imagine it’s a Trump loss followed by a reorganization of the GOP’s nominating procedure similar to the one the Democrats enacted following the miserable failure of George McGovern. That is, the strengthening of top-down mechanisms like super-delegates. Trump’s recorded comments to Access Hollywood’s Billy Bush about how much he loves to commit sexual assault have provoked a handful (so far) of leading Republicans (and perhaps the Party itsef) to throw in the towel on the presidential election.

Trump’s die-hard supporters are surely calling this a textbook example of political correctness, and they’re right. His statements (and actions) are finally out-of-line. One of the things his candidacy has revealed is that there is no real party line on members’ conduct. Each Republican is left to draw and redraw their own, leading to the humiliation of the entire leadership one at a time. Just look at Ted Cruz’s face.

Neither the Republicans or the Democrats seem to have consistent and enforced policies in place to remove sexual predators from their organizations. When a “scandal” emerges, everyone takes the lay of the land and they form an ad hoc consensus on whether someone should be shuffled aside (like Mark Foley or Larry Craig) or backed to the end (Bill Clinton or Clarence Thomas). Who gets to stay and who goes is less based on the conduct itself than submerged factors like public opinion or the electoral map. What does that say about the kind of organizations these parties are?

If you’re part of running any organization, one of your duties is to help protect members from people who might use the group to prey upon them. The TOR Project and the UK’s Socialist Workers Party, for example, have both been dealing with the serious fallout that results from enabling sexual predators. In most organizations driven by volunteers there’s an ostensible equality among members; even if there are leaders and staff members, you’re all in it together. The Democrats and Republicans don’t work that way. Belonging to one of these parties is more like being a Mac user. For most members it’s a consumer choice. And if members want to volunteer, most help get out the vote.

The relation between politicians and party members isn’t comradeship, it’s product and consumer. The party duopoly fights for market share, and representation becomes a brand identification. When the Democrats or Republicans want something from their members it’s votes or money — and not necessarily in that order. The Democratic Party says its for the right to abortion but it doesn’t direct its members to do clinic defense. We are not called upon to do anything. That’s what the professionals are for. And like CEOs or filmmakers or ballplayers, the parties keep individual politicians around as long as they get votes and don’t damage the brand too much.

It makes me think of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s question: “For every stoic was a stoic; but in Christendom where is the Christian?” A brand choice — or, this time, barely a choice — isn’t enough politics. Americans are looking for lines between acceptable (or even laudable) and unacceptable conduct, but our political system has nothing to offer. I think this is connected with what we call “political correctness.” In the absence of relevant political leadership, we’re all left to draw individual lines across everyday life. Each person with a social media account becomes their own party, tasked with declaring their official positions on the issues of the day. It’s a lot.

But under liberalism (broadly conceived) this is how it’s supposed to work. Politics is done by professionals; the rest of us have opinions and consciences and we can say the words and buy the products that reflect them. This explains some of the frustration during the primary in the Hillary campaign with the left flank of the Party demanding candidates say what they were going to do to stop racism or end rape. Under liberalism those are not political issues, they are problems of individual conscience.

Political correctness is what you get when conscience is asked to bear the weight of politics, and it’s not flattering. Individuals don’t generally look good drawing lines all over the place. What makes you so self-righteous? Why do you always know what’s best? Who gave you the crayon anyway? Drawn freehand, the lines are often erratic. People get things wrong they have no business getting wrong. Too many are led astray by conspiracists and contrarians, charlatans and hacks.

It’s easy to mock the politically correct, and if you can’t figure it out there’s a very popular instructional series for children called South Park. You can write off individuals as hysterics, as flawed hypocrites, as craven approval-seekers… the list goes on. There is no mechanism by which those individuals could come together and work out a consistent and relevant political line collectively. And there’s not supposed to be because that would challenge the primacy of the professional political class.

Take Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the National Anthem: He’s obviously taking a political position, but without infrastructure he was left to do it alone, as an expression of opinion and conscience. Other players joined him, but they did so under the same individual terms. When a couple professional teams took collective action it was in the form of the lowest common brand denominator: A stand for the right to opinion and conscience.

The right to opinion and conscience (and the “just jokes” subsection) are hallowed American values. But it’s worth asking what exactly they’re good for. Individual moral leadership can be cinematic and inspiring, but there’s only so much it can accomplish. It’s also a massive burden that offers way too many opportunities to show your ass. Kaepernick has done an incredible job bearing that scrutiny without discrediting himself, but it’s too much for one quarterback. Compare that to the famous “Ali Summit” in 1967 when Muhammed Ali met with political leaders in the black sports community (led by Jim Brown) behind closed doors to explain why he was refusing enlistment into the armed forces. Initially skeptical, Ali convinced them, and they put themselves on the line as a group to back him. History has vindicated them in relatively short order.

I believe we are in urgent need of a better understanding of how opinions are forged into politics. One thing we know is that people can’t perform that kind of alchemy on their own. Politics are relational; they’re shared. Disdain for political correctness often takes the form of disdain for collectivity. Complaints about the “language police” are an assertion of the liberal individualist right to say whatever you want. Of course, in practice, as members of human communities of caring and accountability nobody says whatever they want. There are norms and expectations and consequences. No matter who you’re talking to you can probably think of something you could say that would convince them to put their hands on you. But one of the promises of liberal capitalist democracy is that no one can make you join a human community of caring and accountability if you don’t want to. Pay your taxes, follow the law, and get enough money to live: those are your obligations. Anything else is opinion, conscience, political correctness. If you want to be a deplorable person and spend all day calling people names on the Internet, that’s your right.

This is not a great situation.

I’ll do part two later probably sorry