Sanders supporters pushed Clinton to the left—now they have to keep her there

Published: Quartz (June 7, 2016)

Heading into California primary today, Donald Trump is catching up toHillary Clinton in the general election polls. According to political analysis from statisticians like Nate Silver, the reluctance of some Bernie Sanders supporters to back an alternate Democratic candidate is part of the reason for Trump’s boost. Sanders’ backers tend to identify as progressive, according to Silver, but not necessarily as Democrats. “If Clinton wins over those voters, she’ll gain a few percentage points on Trump in national and swing state polls,” Silver explains. “If not, the general election could come down to the wire.”

If Democrats are going to sway disaffected Sanders fans, they will need to remind voters that the Democratic Party is not the enemy, even if it is “the establishment.” Clinton is very much a traditional Democratic presidential candidate. As a result, she is institutionally beholden to a set of policies that, while perhaps falling short of the democratic socialist ideal, still achieve much of what Sanders aspires to do.

A short history lesson is in order here. Although the Democratic Party has been around since 1828 (making in the oldest continuously active democratic political party in the world), it didn’t become a definitively left-wing organization until Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency in the 1930s. During his 12-year-long administration, Roosevelt’s New Deal provided economic relief to millions of poor Americans struggling during the Great Depression, as well as took measures to prevent any future crashes.

The New Deal programs laid the foundation for the constructive programs pursued by other progressive Democrats, particularly Lyndon Johnson, whose Great Society included the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s, the creation of Medicaid and Medicare, and the War on Poverty; and Barack Obama, who provided widespread relief after the economic crash of 2008 and passed comprehensive health care reform. Even less accomplished Democratic presidents managed to prevent major rollbacks on social welfare policy by compromising with their Republican adversaries, particularly Harry Truman (who worked with the infamous “Do Nothing” Congress) and Bill Clinton (who saved Medicare from a Republican-controlled Congress even after they forced a government shutdown.)

As the presumptive Democratic nominee, Clinton will be bound by historical precedent and party leadership to continue in this tradition if elected to the presidency.  Sanders supporters need to ask themselves what policies are most important to them. Certainly there is little question that she would have to spend much of her administration thwarting a Republican-held Congress. Beyond that, Sanders supporters need to ask themselves what policies are most important to them, and to what extent these policies overlap with Clinton’s stated goals.

In general, Clinton’s economic policies are watered-down versions of what Sanders is proposing. To reduce unemployment and income inequality, Clinton proposes spending $275 billion on job-creating infrastructure and raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour. Similarly, to make education more affordable, Clinton has prioritized making community college free and public four-year colleges debt free, as well as providing universal preschool to all four-year-olds. While once an avid proponent of free trade and deregulation, Clinton is now committed to opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership and increasing regulations on Wall Street.

The difference between the two candidates is perhaps best captured by their respective stances on health care reform. Sanders wants a socialized single-payer system, while Clinton supports tweaking and modifying the existing reforms passed by Obama under the Affordable Care Act. It’s reasonable for Sanders supporters to argue that their candidate’s proposals are better. It is patently unreasonable, however, to ignore the large overlap between the Sanders and Clinton agendas.

As others have already argued, Sanders supporters are actually in a position of power here. If Clinton wins a tight election without the support of Bernie fans, she may not feel particularly sympathetic or beholden to their concerns. If she wins as a direct result of their backing, however, it will certainly push her to focus on the economic policies the Sanders campaign has focused on for the past 12 months.

And of course, if Clinton actually loses in part because Sanders supporters stayed home, the next president will be Trump, whose economic plan is designed to benefit the rich through strategic tax reductions. There will not be a $15 minimum wage under a president Trump.

Some independent-leaning progressives may not like the influence wielded by the Democratic establishment. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t back the party’s candidate—with conditions.

If Clinton reneges on her progressive economic proposals, Sanders supporters should absolutely hold her accountable in 2020. Unless and until that happens, however, it’s important to remember that she represents a political party that has a long history of fighting for liberal causes—and just as importantly, against conservative ones. For better or worse, being a good progressive this year requires being a good Democrat, at least at the ballot box.

Why Hillary Clinton’s shift to the left makes some liberals so mad

Published: Quartz (March 30, 2016)

With many months to go before the conclusion of the US presidential primaries, battles lines in the Democratic party have become deeply entrenched. Just as right-wingers love to claim that Hillary Clinton is a radical liberal disguised as a moderate, so too are many progressives inclined to see her as a conservative corporatist whose liberal stances merely pander to the Democratic Party base. This is partially because her 2016 campaign received contributions from various wealthy interests. But it also stems from the clear way that her ideology has evolved from centrist to progressive over the past quarter-century. It is tempting to characterize this evolution as proof that she lacks core convictions—especially if one is a Bernie Sanders supporter or a jaded liberal.

But there is another way of looking at Clinton’s ideological past. At a time when the Republican Party is being overtaken by the kinds of socially regressive attitudes fueling Donald Trump’s impending nomination, Clinton’s success among a majority of Democrats demonstrates how our party has evolved with the times.

First, a brief history lesson. It’s important to remember that the Democratic Party entered the 1990s having just lost its third presidential election in a row. Ronald Reagan’s landslide victories were widely interpreted as having pushed America to the right. A movement of so-called New Democrats concluded that the party of Franklin Roosevelt needed to move to the center to accommodate this reality.

Clinton’s success among a majority of Democrats demonstrates how our party has evolved with the times.

When a New Democrat named Bill Clinton won the presidential nomination in 1992 and was subsequently elected, and re-elected, the zeitgeist among Democrats in the post-Reagan era became one of acquiescent centrism. For eight years, this new brand of liberal worked cautiously to try and create a more progressive society—economically prosperous, technologically innovative, and maintaining the ethos of diversity it had cultivated since the 1960s—while still not going as far left as they could have.

The original Clintonian ideology reflects this outlook. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell didn’t allow LGBT service members to openly serve in the military, but it was better than the previous anti-gay ban. NAFTA may have disempowered American labor and welfare reform may have increased extreme poverty. But these un-progressive acts were matched by progressive ones, including raising the minimum wage, passing the Family and Medical Leave Act, and creating the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). Hillary Clinton herself underwent an evolution at this time, chucking the pugnacious progressivism that had defined her career in the 1970s and 1980s and moving to the center with her husband. Whether this shift was in accordance with the dictates of the time or out of sincere conviction, only she knows for sure.

While this mindset may have been an effective governing tool, it bred apathy among mainstream Democratic voters. The 1996 presidential election was the first to have turnout fall below 50% since the 1920s. And the 2000 election—in which left-wing defections to Ralph Nader helped George W. Bush defeat Al Gore, despite losing the popular vote—wasn’t much better.

The 1996 presidential election was the first to have turnout fall below 50% since the 1920s.

The tragedy of September 11th scarred Americans so badly that many went along with the Bush administration (at least at first) when it waged a controversial war in Iraq and eroded our civil liberties. Meanwhile, the economy remained sluggish. And when the financial crisis hit late in Bush’s second term, the same government that had cut taxes for the rich focused on bailing out the banks rather than helping ordinary Americans. Marginalized groups—particularly non-whites, women, the LGBT community, and the poor—realized that they weren’t being represented in positions of power throughout society.

It was during this time that Democrats began to truly move to the left again, in large part because of young people. As a Pew Research poll published in February explains: “From 2000 to 2015, the share of Democratic and Democratic-leaning registered voters describing their political views as liberal increased by 15 percentage points, from 27% to 42%.”

As an undergraduate at Bard College (a school the Princeton Review once deemed the most left-wing university in America), I recall this phenomenon clearly during the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama. When he first emerged on the political scene during the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama appealed to myself and my peers as a statesman who seemed to embody diversity and multiculturalism. He opposed Bush’s unpopular foreign policies and vowed to eliminate a status quo that favored the rich.

From 2000 to 2015, the share of Democratic-leaning voters describing their political views as liberal increased by 15 percentage points.

He was certainly a change from the parade of safe Democratic candidates we’d seen in previous election cycles: Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry. While Bard may have been ahead of the curve in 2004, by the time the last of my Bard friends graduated in 2008, much of the party had come to resemble our campus. Obama had seized the nomination from Clinton by holding her New Democrat concessions, such as supporting the Patriot Act and the Iraq War, against her.

Viewed through the lens, it’s possible to remain convinced Hillary Clinton’s move to the left is an act of deliberate deceit or insincere expediency. And yet, this belief disregards the other option: that the same conditions that pushed Democrats to the left could just as easily have had the same effect on Clinton, whose career as a major figure in national politics covers the same period.

Certainly my own views have evolved considerably from the 1990s through the present. I too supported the Iraq War at first, and at one point I might have nodded along with Clinton’s now infamous “super predator” comments, whereas I now actively support the ideals of the Black Lives Matter protesters.

If Democrats are going to hold up ideological consistency as the chief measure of worthiness, no one is going to be found worthy.

Does this change invalidate my current pro-civil rights stances or beliefs on foreign policy non-interventionism? I would say absolutely not. It merely reflects my ability to grow and mature intellectually.

I would imagine that this is true for many Democrats who’ve been politically conscious in turn-of-the-millennium America, including our own president. When Barack Obama first took office in 2008, he supported the Defense of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It wasn’t until public opinion began to take a pro-gay rights turn that he followed suit. Even Sanders, despite his reputation for ideological purity, has flip-flopped on issues like gun control, first voting for granting gun manufacturers legal immunity and opposing mandatory waiting periods before switching sides. He also voted for the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the same law that Clinton has been so heavily criticized for (and which sparked her super-predator comment).

In short, if Democrats are going to hold up ideological consistency throughout the decades as the chief measure of a presidential aspirant’s worthiness, the chances are that no one is going to be found truly worthy of high office.

Of course we should hold Clinton accountable for her past policy mistakes. And it is perfectly logical that many progressives (including myself) might initially opt for a more liberal alternative in the primaries. That said, this attitude becomes illogical when—in the name of trying to choose the candidate most likely to implement liberal policies—we reflexively distrust anyone whose record shows any type of shift.

While evolution could indicate craven expediency, it could also simply indicate the candidate has an open mind.

While such evolution could indicate craven expediency, it could also simply indicate that the candidate in question has an open mind, or at least has been willing to adapt to the political realities of his or her time. If this is the mindset we would prefer applied to ourselves, it is patently unfair and unrealistic to fail to extend it to others—particularly in an election like this one, in which the stakes are so high.

The Obama era alone has brought about the election of the first African-American president, a broader proliferation of movements for racial justice, a significant economic improvement from the nadir of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, an end to the war in Iraq, the national legalization of same-sex marriage, and the passage of comprehensive health care reform, to name only a few achievements. If Clinton is elected in November, we will also be able to add the election of our first female president to that list.

We cannot know for sure whether she is a centrist in disguise or simply a politician and human who changed her opinion on major issues, along with millions of Americans. But she deserves the benefit of the doubt. If we are unwilling to give her that, then we implicitly deny America’s main progressive party—and millions of its voters—the ability to make progress as well.

The Danger of Ideologues

Published: The Good Men Project (March 26, 2016)

“The only index by which to judge a government or a way of life is by the quality of the people it acts upon. No matter how noble the objectives of a government, if it blurs decency and kindness, cheapens human life, and breeds ill will and suspicion—it is an evil government.”
– Eric Hoffer

I posted this quote not only because I agree with its contents, but because it perfectly encapsulates my reason for not considering myself to be an ideologue, either liberal or conservative. Ideologues on both sides are prone to making a terrible mistake – i.e., they start to care less about whether their policies are adequately serving important human needs than they do about the strictness with which those policies are hewing to a set of abstract philosophical concepts.

The problem with the two major ideological movements in this country is that both tend to jettison this goal as soon as they conflict with their preexisting partisan belief systems. My affiliation as a liberal derives from the fact that the left seems less inclined to do this. For all of their faults, modern progressives tend to sympathize with the poor instead of seeking ways to blame them for their own misfortune; to seek equality for marginalized groups instead of profiting off their oppression; and to embrace science and intellectual progress instead of clinging to blind faith. By contrast, we live in a society where the primary conservative political institution (i.e., the Republican Party) has become so obsessed with implementing a puritanically right-wing economic agenda – not only for the purpose of pleasing its wealthy backers, but also in the name of adhering to a dogma that simplistically demonizes all state economic intervenionism – that it will minimize, dismiss, misrepresent, and even justify the existence of widespread economic suffering (e.g., unemployment, working poverty, sub-par quality of life for the socioeconomically disadvantaged in areas such as housing and health care, inequitable access to means of socioeconomic mobility including affordable and decent education, etc.) What’s more, the growing power of cultural reactionaries within the right-wing has caused conservative thinkers to violate many of their own avowed principles in order to violate the civil liberties of individuals who run afoul of their prejudices (e.g., Mexicans, Muslims, women, homosexuals, inner-city minorities).

This is not to say that liberalism is free of comparable offenses against common sense and decency. By far the worst among these is a knee-jerk antipathy against America, one that causes many on the left to not only support distorted and contextually myopic interpretations of our nation’s history and legacy, but also to blatantly sympathize with our country’s enemies, even ones whose actions violate basic humanitarian precepts (e.g., the sympathy and/or support among many leftists for Joseph Stalin in the 1930s and 1940s, Ho Chi Minh during the Vietnam War, Saddam Hussein and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during the Bush Era, and Hugo Chavez today). While the radical leftists who hold such views are hardly as influential within the Democratic Party as the far right remains among Republicans, they can still be seen peddling their doctrine among fringe politicians, throughout the media, and on college campuses.

There are many reasons why this problem exists within ideological movements: Egos can become so invested in an ideology’s correctness that, even after an idea has been discredited, steadfastness becomes an emotional need based on pride rather than an intelligent opinion based on reason. Political battles can reach such a fevered pitch that partisans lose sight of larger issues and bigger pictures. Hatreds and irrational biases that cannot be openly expressed without receiving widespread condemnation take on more socially respectable forms and integrate themselves into mainstream belief systems. People can make honest mistakes.

Regardless of why it happens, however, there are two simple questions you can ask yourself to determine when it is happening. Would a given ideology, if implemented, promote the welfare and guarantee the rights of all people, support common decency, and value the inherent integrity of every human being? Does it work to avoid breeding irrational suspicion, prejudice, and maliciousness? I am under no illusions as to the fact that any ideological movement can ever honestly answer each of those questions in the affirmative, but this is one of those unattainable goals toward which all should nevertheless strive. Until the unlikely day arrives when one of them reaches it, I will maintain a healthy skepticism not merely toward all ideologies, but toward all ideologues.

Understanding the Sanders Revolution

Published: The Daily Dot (October 13, 2015)The Good Men Project (October 13, 2015)

In tonight’s Democratic presidential debate, Bernie Sanders will take his first big step in avoiding the fate that befell another Vermont liberal, former Gov. Howard Dean, whose candidacy tanked after the public got a negative first impression of him following his defeat in the Iowa caucuses. Part of this will depend on his own performance, but much more will have to do with whether he is truly bringing about the radical game change he claims to represent.

It’s important to remember that the comparison between Sanders and Dean is mainly strategic. Sanders has made it clear that he does not view his campaign as merely symbolic; the man who openly identifies as a democratic socialist intends to become the 45th President of the United States. Because of the prevailing assumption within the party establishment that America will never elect him, he has received scant institutional support. His first congressional endorsement came last week, a delay that is unheard of among candidates doing as well as he is in the polls. Even though his fundraising record is impressive, there is the possibility that, as with Dean in 2004, the Sanders surge of 2015 is simply a spike of enthusiasm among the party’s base of progressive idealists that will be quickly be quelled by the nomination of someone more “electable.”

That term, electable, deserves to be further scrutinized here. Anyone who tells you that the term, as conventionally used, is entirely devoid of subjective bias is kidding themselves. Plenty of objective data can be found among analysts like Nate Silver and the gurus of fivethirtyeight.com, but it’s easy to use statistics to convince yourself (and others) of anything. When it comes to what is considered “electable,” that has more to do with what a majority of people seem to consider a choice that the masses will readily accept. Aside from being relatively free of scandals (the parameters of what constitutes a ‘scandal’ are always shifting), the one necessary quality is that the candidate come from one of the two major political parties. Having thus narrowed the contest to two candidates (occasionally three for demagogues like George Wallace or the super-rich like Ross Perot), a presidential candidate is assessed based on his qualifications (experience in politics, achievement in the private sphere, a certain amount of charisma or gravitas) and whether his ideals and issue stances are in keeping with America’s presumed centrist proclivities… in other words, electability.

Therein lies the key difference between Dean and Sanders. Although Dean was widely considered unelectable in 2004 and thus passed over in favor of John Kerry, he was not a self-proclaimed socialist. The party was concerned that he might be another George McGovern or Walter Mondale, but no one viewed him as unelectable on a more visceral level. Even if his opponents called him a socialist, they knew that that was a slur to be used against him, not a reality that would be dispassionately accepted by all sides. Consequently Dean had plenty of endorsements from establishment figures, including Al Gore himself, and was certainly accepted as a viable frontrunner in early 2004.

Sanders, by comparison, embraces the term Socialist, one that could have landed him on a government blacklist within his own lifetime. He has left the party establishment in his own lifetime and is technically registered as an Independent in the Senate. Even the statisticians don’t consider him to have a serious chance of being nominated. When Dean says that Sanders is “an attractive candidate [who] is basically calling out the Democrats, much the way I did in 2004,” he misunderstands what Sanders represents. Dean didn’t wish to be viewed as a radical; Sanders is banking on the fact that people want radical solutions. If Sanders is right, then the conventional wisdom that once dictated presidential elections in this country no longer applies.

Just look at the Republicans. Donald Trump is the frontrunner, with Ben Carson close at his heels. The GOP hasn’t nominated a candidate without political experience, based solely on his business record, since Wendell Willkie in 1940 – and he was a center-leftist who drew his support from Wall Street and academia. By contrast, Trump is being called a fascist by Newsweek, and other frontrunners like Ben Carson and Ted Cruz are widely regarded by the establishment as too right-wing, with all three ridiculed as too gaffe-prone… in short, unelectable.

My hunch is that these paralleling political phenomena in the two political parties – you know, the ones that have produced every American since the 1850s – could be signs of something bigger. If it is even remotely possible that Trump or Carson or Cruz can be nominated by the Republicans, then it is at least as likely that Sanders can be nominated by the Democrats.

Is this a prediction? Not really: The Democratic and Republican parties have both undergone periods of radical reinvention in the past, so it’s entirely conceivable that one could be happening in the Obama and post-Obama era. That said, one is usually better off sticking with the conventional wisdom (at least officially), which means here that the Democrats will probably nominate Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden and the Republicans will go with Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, or John Kasich.

Nevertheless, we should be on the lookout tonight to see whether Sanders will conclusively demonstrate, one way or the other, that he is or is not the next Howard Dean. There is no guarantee that a radical moment is coming, but it’s enough of a possibility that we all should watch.

Why Even Some Liberals and Independents Are Refusing to Sign Up For Obamacare

Published: mic (March 31, 2014)

The Obamacare deadline is Monday, and a flurry of reports, headlines and talking heads are weighing in its success or failure. But sometimes politics cannot be understood without a human touch.

One of the most devastating aspects of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) implementation, flying under the radar, is the unwillingness of Republican-led states to accept the Medicaid expansion provision included in Obama’s legislation. This, and not the law, is making health insurance cost prohibitive for many — forcing people to choose the annual fine rather than accept the costs of even the cheapest plans.

One state where this applies is Pennsylvania, where Gov. Tom Corbett has dithered from flat-out rejecting the expansion to taking a re-election-friendly “moderate” pose of attaching requirements that cut benefits and rule out helping the unemployed. I started asking around for stories of people negatively impacted by Corbett’s decision and, like most Pennsylvianians, I didn’t have to go far. These are the faces of those being impacted by a failure to extend Medicaid under the ACA.

Adam, 29, independent

We can start with my friend Adam, a videography student at Northampton County Community College and part-time waiter at a local sushi restaurant. After being told that his income level was too low for any insurance plan offered on the ACA website, he discovered that he would not be allowed to enroll in Medicaid due to Pennsylvania’s rejection of the ACA’s expansion of the program. Adam was left with no option but to pay the “individual mandate” penalty.

“I think it was very irresponsible for Pennsylvania not to include the Medicaid expansion for the Affordable Care Act,” Adam said, before adding that he was not a wholehearted supporter of the ACA itself. “It is the exact opposite of what people criticize it as being,” he explained. “It is not socialism in any way — it is forced capitalism. You are forced to pay these corporations for a service or else you will be fined.

“By passing the bill, our government is arguing that health care is a right and a necessity in our democratic society, but it is abdicating its responsibility to actually provide that service, instead leaving it to a competitive market that is more interested in turning a profit than providing quality and affordable service.”

George, 21, independent

George, a musician who also works at a pizza restaurant, had even less luck than Adam. “Every single affordable health care was labelled as ‘catastrophic’ and required me to pay between $150 and $300 a month, with between a $5,000 and $10,000 deductible,” he explained. Because he can’t afford the monthly payments, he realized that it was simply easier to pay out of pocket when he sees his doctor, even with the penalty.

And why wasn’t Medicaid an option? When he tried applying, he found that he didn’t qualify under Pennsylvania’s specific guidelines (such as having a record of using other welfare benefits in advance), all of which would have been rendered moot had the ACA’s expansion criteria been accepted by the state.

“It’s not like I refuse to get health care,” he pointed out. “Quite the contrary, I want health care, and I’m trying my hardest to receive it. The government won’t let me, so now they’re penalizing me for something that’s their own fault.”

Jennifer, 32, liberal

After being accepted into a local nursing program, Jen was informed that she needed to have health insurance to take classes. Despite making very little at her current job as a doula, she explained, she was denied Medicaid coverage because Pennsylvania still requires “you to be a child, pregnant, or have a chronic illness that requires monthly medication, such as diabetes, in order to qualify” — all of which, again, would not have remained in place under the ACA.

In the end, Jen was the one on this list who still signed up for the cheapest plan possible, in no small part because it was a job requirement.

Ironically, the Medicaid expansion problem can be traced to the very Supreme Court decision that upheld the ACA’s constitutionality. Prior to the court’s ruling, the ACA required any state participating in Medicaid (which, despite being voluntary, every state does) to expand their coverage to include almost all adults under the age of 65 with an income at or below 133% of the poverty line. In addition to closing coverage gaps that had long disqualified millions of low income Americans from receiving Medicaid benefits, this policy would have guaranteed that individuals unable to afford the insurance premiums of the plans offered through the ACA’s new insurance exchanges could still receive health care coverage.

Unfortunately, despite constitutionally validating most of the ACA’s provisions, the Supreme Court also ruled that states could not be “coerced” into accepting the Medicaid expansion by linking it to other federal payments. As a result, each state has the right to accept or reject the Medicaid expansion on its own, and, as the map below shows, Republicans in many states have chosen to deny this benefit to their residents.

Bear in mind that this is not being done because it could realistically undo the law. Republicans may have good reason for optimism regarding the upcoming midterm elections, but even if they won every seriously contested Senate race, they still would fall short of the veto-proof majority necessary to repeal the ACA. With killing the bill out of the question, the only remaining motive for state Republicans refusing to expand Medicaid is to (a) please their die-hard right-wing bases and/or (b) cause political headaches for President Obama and the Democrats.

In the end, the readers of this article who live in a state that has rejected the Medicaid expansion fall into one of two categories: those who are either struggling themselves or personally know men, women, and children among the working poor who are struggling as a result of Republican partisanship, and those who aren’t. If you do know people who are being denied the benefits of the ACA’s Medicaid expansion by their state’s Republican leaders (or are among them), keep them in mind when casting your ballot this November.

For once, the well-worn cliche is literally true: Your vote can save lives.

In the words of John F. Kennedy, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

Richard Nixon: The Social Liberal Of His Time

Published: mic (August 25, 2013)

How To Tell If You’re An Ideologue

No one wants to be an ideologue. Defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary as “an often blindly partisan advocate or adherent of a particular ideology,” ideologues are correctly viewed as one of the banes of the political world. While at their most extreme, they provoke violence and oppress non-believers, even the more innocuous ones manage to hinder debate and exacerbate social divisions, often being as obnoxious as possible in the process.

Yet although no one wants to be an ideologue, the indisputable fact remains that ideologues are still everywhere. They just don’t view themselves as such, which brings us to the purpose of this essay – how to tell if you’re an ideologue.

To start, ask yourself the following question (which I’ve put in boldface for reasons that will be explained at the end of the editorial):

Do you believe it’s possible for well-intentioned, well-informed, independent-minded, and intelligent people to disagree with your political views?

Even the most ardent zealot usually says yes when this question is merely posed hypothetically, since doing otherwise would involve admitting to being an ideologue (or at least a pompous jerk). For this question to work, however, you need to test yourself with concrete examples instead of applying it as an abstract self-assessment. List three political issues that are especially important to you. Then, for each one, name three individuals whose positions are the opposite of your own, making sure to include both people who are directly involved in your life (anyone you’ve debated face-to-face, commenters you’ve encountered on message boards) and those who aren’t (politicians, pundits, influential intellectuals).

After you’ve done that, think about how you’ve treated them or what you thought about them privately. How many have you assumed weren’t poorly informed or in some other way just didn’t “get” the things that you better understood? How often did you claim someone wasn’t really “independent minded” like yourself, whether it was because they were unduly influenced by the media, their religion, a political party, or anything else that had “brainwashed” them? Have you dismissed people as being downright irrational or stupid? Do you often believe someone is really driven by some ulterior motive, such as prejudice, greed, or a radical political agenda?

Make no mistake about it, there are many, many people out there who possess some or even all of the negative characteristics I just described. Thousands of years of recorded history exist to attest to that, enough to glut the appetites of even the most avid misanthropes. That said, the defining characteristic of an ideologue is the tendency to automatically jump from Point X, or the fact that another person doesn’t share his or her point-of-view on an important political issue, to Point Y, or the conclusion that said disagreement is in and of itself proof that the other person is stupid, ill-informed, brainwashed, and/or malevolent.

This doesn’t mean that believing or accusing another person of having those traits automatically makes you an ideologue. What it does mean, however, is that the burden of proof falls on you to actually demonstrate that those things are true.

If you think someone is using poor reasoning or is ill informed, don’t just rest on the assertion that if they knew what they were talking about they would support this policy or agree with that theory. After they state their position, ask them to list their facts, provide their sources, and explain their logic. Then check their facts for accuracy, their sources for reliability, and their logic for fallacies. When it comes to the deeper beliefs on which they’re basing their opinions, dissect why you think they’re wrong – and, just as important, make sure you are aware of your own assumed ideological premises, rather than taking for granted that any intelligent person would automatically share them.

At no point should you ever openly declare that the other person has revealed himself to be stupid, brainwashed, or poorly informed. If you can demonstrate errors in their facts, sources, logic, and basic ideological premises, your conclusions about the other person’s intelligence and knowledge will become self-evident. The moment you directly say that your opponent is intellectually wanting simply on the grounds that he or she disagrees with your views, on the other hand, you reveal that you have reached a point in which you don’t feel comfortable defending your beliefs and must blindly accept their veracity. That, in turn, reveals that you are an ideologue.

Similar rules apply when attacking someone’s character. If you believe that someone’s position betrays a radical political agenda, demonstrate the connection between the belief in question and the larger agenda they allegedly possess. It isn’t enough to simply say that holding a certain opinion automatically proves a larger belief system; you need to demonstrate the link between Point X and Point Y. Likewise, if you feel someone has a certain belief because of a personality flaw – such as greed, power-lust, or prejudice against other groups of people – explain either how the belief in question proves the ulterior motive or, even better, how the actual person you’re talking to has actually revealed it in him/herself. Merely asserting these things to be true reveals not only that you are an ideologue, but also that you are the most dangerous type of ideologue – i.e., the one who feels the need to vilify dissenters.

I’m not claiming to have always perfectly followed the standard I just laid out. Indeed, I suspect most people have acted like ideologues at some point or another in their lives; after all, human beings are proud creatures. That said, I do know that there are well-intentioned, well-informed, independent-minded, and reasonable people who disagree with my political views. No matter what your views happen to be, I guarantee the same thing is true of you.

POSTSCRIPT: WHY THE OPENING QUESTION WAS IN BOLDFACE

I encourage all people who encounter ideologues trolling the message boards here to respond with the boldface question I put in this article. Don’t let them get away with not answering it or simply brushing it off either. While not feeding the trolls is usually the best route, forcing accountability on them is a close second.

Extremism in the 2012 Republican Primaries

Published: The Morning Call (November 21, 2011)

If I were a Republican, I would be very concerned right now about the future of my party.

Allow me to explain. As of the moment, President Barack Obama is an extremely vulnerable incumbent. Unemployment remains chronically high, his approval ratings are mired in the low 40s, and he has done a horrendous job of selling his signature achievements to the public. While other geese have been in far hotter water than this and still managed to escape uncooked, it’s clear that the Republicans can walk away with this thing if they nominate the right candidate.

That candidate is Mitt Romney. He is articulate, intelligent, squeaky-clean. His policy proposals are conservative enough to meet the basic economic, social, and foreign policy requirements of any Reaganite with realistic expectations (emphasis on the word “realistic”) and his strong business record is perfect for a political market defined by economic hardship.

He is, in short, the kind of inoffensive moderate conservative who is capable of swaying independents while remaining acceptable to party regulars (the latter quality being sorely absent from this year’s only other Republican moderate, Jon Huntsman). This is exactly what the GOP needs to win elections. If historical precedent wasn’t enough to illustrate that point, current polls consistently back it up.

And yet …

And yet because the word “moderate” appears before “conservative” in Romney’s ideological label, hard-line right-wingers are determined to find someone else. Hence the slew of month-and-a-half-long love affairs we’ve seen with a series of fad candidates. From late March through the end of April, the beau ideal was Donald Trump. They went through a lag period after he was deflated by his humiliation at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, but in mid-July they flocked to Michele Bachmann, where they remained until the end of August. Rick Perry took her spot in the beginning of September, and there he stayed until mid-October, when it suddenly became Herman Cain’s time to shine. Now his four-to-six weeks are up, and Newt Gingrich is the latest craze.

Since the Iowa caucus is being held on Jan. 3, it’s unclear whether Gingrich will still be on top when it matters most, since the recent past suggests he’ll be right near the end of his month-and-a-half expiration date by that time. Barring any major gaffes on his part (not inconceivable given his track record), it’s entirely possible that he’ll be able to stay fresh just long enough to pull it off in Iowa and then take the whole thing. That said, it is equally conceivable that he’ll fizzle out shortly beforehand and thus either give the nomination to whichever lucky rebound candidate replaces him or, as happened post-Trump, cause a lag in the Anyone But Romney movement, allowing Mitt to emerge triumphant while the hard right scrambles for a suitable replacement.

This latter scenario is obviously in the best short-term interests of the party, but it doesn’t address its deeper problem. As groups like the tea party become increasingly powerful in the Republican organization, they keep knocking out moderate conservatives who would have been elected and replacing them with zealots who snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. In 2010 this cost them the Senate, as the tea party spurned moderate conservatives four times in favor of extremists (Sharron Angle in Nevada, Ken Buck in Colorado, Linda McMahon in Connecticut, and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware) and, in turn, lost general elections which by all indications Republicans could have otherwise won. Now this same habit threatens to cost them the presidency, for while Romney may still lose to Obama, it is delusional to believe that a Gingrich, Cain, Perry, Bachmann, or Trump could ever beat him.

It is this delusional quality that would make me a very concerned partisan indeed if I were a Republican. When the Democrats went through a comparable phase in the 1970s and 1980s, they nominated a series of liberal stalwarts — George McGovern in 1972, Walter Mondale in 1984, Michael Dukakis in 1988 — who were beaten even in elections that data showed could have been won had they gone with a more moderate alternative (Ed Muskie instead of McGovern, Al Gore instead of Dukakis). Republicans would be well advised to learn from this recent historical lesson.

Matthew Rozsa, who resides in Forks Township, is a graduate student at Rutgers University-Newark and will begin Lehigh University’s Ph.D. program in history in January.