When Good People Go Bannon

Or, The Importance of Overton Defenestration

So I’m speaking today at The Economist’s Open Future Festival, on a panel with Anil Dash and Monika Bickert to debate whether technology is still a force for progress. Normally, this wouldn’t merit a Medium post, but one of the other individuals on the program turns out to be a ringleader of the alt-right, that collection of white supremacists, nativists, misogynists, and unabashed anti-Semites. That individual is Steve Bannon.

Despite that, I’m showing up for the panel. Here’s my reasoning.

How Awful is Steve Bannon?

Very awful. If you’ve forgotten who is, just click on some links.

Should The Economist Have Invited Bannon to Speak at their Festival?

No. It’s a mistake for The Economist to give Steve Bannon prominent, one-on-one stage time at its Open Future Festival.

Why not? Isn’t it Important to Debate Even Extremist Figures Across the Political Spectrum?

Here’s my basic point: Bannon’s agenda is so extreme and hostile to the survival of American democracy and rule of law, it falls beyond the (very wide, in our diverse country) limits of acceptable political discourse. To maintain a functioning, multi-ethnic democracy with rule of law and respect for individual rights and freedoms, we need to start reestablishing shared norms against the mainstreaming of racist authoritarianism and the people who promote it.

Why do Political Norms Matter?

As The Economist reports and editorializes every week, the foundational institutions of liberal democracy are eroding around the world under sustained and determined assaults. From Hungary and Poland to the Philippines to the US, the forces of illiberalism — the authoritarians, the nativists, the nationalists, the racial supremacists, the kleptocrats — are resurgent. The once unthinkable — autocratic rule, politicized courts, racialist policies — is now happening. This demands a sustained and determined defense by all those who believe in democratic governance, individual liberty, and equality under the law.

A crucial element of that defense is the reassertion of basic social and political norms. Open debate across the political spectrum, right to left to other, is a necessary (and wonderful) feature of a free society; but even so, free societies and institutional democracies have to defend themselves against those who would destroy them from within. As a free society, we don’t censor or repress our homegrown extremists; rather, we deal with them in ways that signal our collective revulsion and rejection.

Free speech doesn’t mean a free spotlight for every extremist. (To borrow Renee DiResta’s excellent phrase from a different context, “[f]ree speech is not the same as free reach.”) There is a reason why The Economist will not invite the Grand Lizard of the Ku Klux Klan or the leader of the American Nazi Party to a (tough, skeptical) interview by its editor-in-chief on the stage of the Open Future Festival: Their racist/nativist/anti-democratic positions are irretrievably hostile to the survival of our multi-ethnic, democratic society. We deny them participation in conventional political discourse — op-ed pages, candidate debates, conference panels, invited legislative testimony — not because we are hypersensitive enforcers of political correctness, but because they are explicitly dedicated to destroying the very institutions, norms, and practices that, however imperfectly, define what’s good about this country. Treating racist extremists as pariahs is not just an expression of our revulsion at their views; it is a necessary tactic to defend our liberal democratic order against those who aim to gain power within our systems only to destroy them and replace them with something horrific.

There’s a name for this particular norm: The Overton Window. Over the last few years, and especially since the 2016 election got underway, America’s Overton Window has moved in all the wrong directions; if we’re to reverse that trend, to reestablish shared bonds of civility and reinforce common ground, we have to chuck Bannonism squarely outside it.

So What About Today’s Event?

If we accept that there are limits, that there must be norms of baseline political acceptability, and that defenders of liberal democracy — even those like The Economist that are constitutionally devoted to free speech and fearless dialogue — are wise to reflect those norms, the question becomes: Are Bannon’s views and agenda beyond the spectrum of acceptable politics? Is Bannon closer to the KKK and the American Nazi Party than he is to Mitt Romney and Ted Cruz?

For me, this is easy: Bannon is a ringleader of the racist alt-right, a repellent collection of white supremacists, nativists, misogynists, and unabashed anti-Semites. Insofar as his public actions reflect the man, he is a bigoted pseudo-intellectual who has tasted power and, cast aside by his patron/puppet, is now scrambling to find new audiences for his illiberal, racist agenda in Europe. As an important journalistic norm-setter, The Economist should relegate Bannonism to the same fringe ideological bucket as the KKK, and not dignify it via a marquee interview with its editor-in-chief. Unworthy of even a stubbornly contrarian institution like The Economist, affording Bannon a mainstage spotlight strikes me as a conference version of clickbait.

Why Not Bail Out?

Simply this: my presence on stage will give me a chance to express these views. Since The Economist has (wrongly, in my view) made clear they’re not disinviting Bannon, I’ll show up to make the case for a renewed norm against normalizing racist authoritarians.

And then we’ll debate whether tech is a force for progress.

Is The Economist Bad for Hosting Bannon in This Way?

No. They’re mistaken, not bad. I’m a big fan of The Economist — I’ve been a longtime subscriber, love its wide-ranging reporting, and share a good deal of its classically liberal politics, particularly on social issues and matters of democratic structure and practice. For the particular kind of nerd that I am, The Economist delivers a special joy as its correspondents bring me up to speed on, e.g., the upcoming Albanian parliamentary elections. The Economist’s editor-in-chief has written a cogent defense of her invitation to Bannon; I don’t find it convincing, but it is certainly made in good faith.