Iceman: I don't like you because you're dangerous.
Maverick: That's right, Iceman. I am dangerous.
Top Gun, 1986
Last week, Nate Silver said "now is not the time" for any movements - progressive or otherwise - to pressure the government on economic policy, and demanded that progressives defer to "expert opinion" (a euphemism for "Establishment-approved opinion"). This line of thinking has been so prevalent among the elite political class for so long, that it could accurately brand an entire faction of officeholders - for instance, the "Now Is Not the Time" Democrats who rubber stamped the Patriot Act and the Iraq War because they said "now is not the time to question the president."
After Nate issued his edict to progressives, I and a few others challenged his premise, saying history teaches that now is exactly the time for movements to pressure the government. And, like a lot of self-described "experts" who don't like having their Mt. Olympus orders questioned, Nate has responded with a bit of a temper tantrum - but one that lets us explore some pretty important questions. Specifically, tonight he has written a new post calling himself a "rational progressive" and denigrating everyone he disagrees with as "radical progressives" - and in classic Bush construction, you're either with Nate or you're a "radical" and a "Marxist" (his words) who is a mortal threat to America.
Before delving further, let me just praise Nate for accurately identifying a few of the different strands and tactics of progressivism (though his attempt to depict a multi-faceted, grassroots movement through a binary prism is oversimplistic to the point of distortion). In fact, when I spent a day with Barack Obama back in 2006, the then-Illinois senator made a very smart distinction between "reformers" and "revolutionaries" that tracked the outlines of some of what Nate wrote tonight. But what Obama didn't do (likely because he's both too smart to do it and probably doesn't believe in it) and what Nate did do is use the same kind of dishonest framing the right has used for a better part of a generation, in hopes of marginalizing and ridiculing his critics.
For example, Nate says he is "rational" but people he disagrees with are supposedly "radical" - as if anyone more radical than him can't be "rational." He says "rational" progressives are interested in "ideas" and "reason" while "radicals" are interested in "wills" - and the implication is that "radicals" are know-nothings uninterested in "ideas" or "reason." Nate is an "optimist" and says we're "pessimists." Oh, and of course there's the oldest of old canards: Nate's "rational" colleagues "see ideology as malleable" (ie. they are "pragmatic!") while "radical" progressives are rigid "Marxists." Basically, you get the point: Nate loves his country and the rest of us know-nothing fools hate America.
Let's be very clear: this is not about a petty "Nate Silver versus David Sirota" grudge match (at least for my part, I have no grudge and find lots of Nate's work extremely valuable), and it's far more important than a silly intra-blog flamewar. This is about something much bigger. Why? Because the language Silver employs is the hackneyed tripe we all have gotten used to in the Bush years, whether from the DLC or from the Republican Party. It's the kind of language that packaged true policy radicalism - foreign wars, financial deregulation, rigged trade pacts, etc. - as "rational" and "ideas"-based, and opposition to such radicalism as Luddite and, well, simply too "radical." It's nothing new or interesting. It's straight up archaic and, frankly, boring.
However, what is notable is Nate's McCarthyist accusation that those who seek transformative change are "dangerous."
|As you'll see, at the end of Nate's post, he cites two random blog posts (that are, by the way, verifiably true) as proof that I - and progressives he thinks are too "radical" - pose a "danger" to the United States (interestingly, Booman made a similar claim a few days ago as well).
If American history teaches anything, it is that the "dangerous" epithet is the last and most banal refuge of those who seek to preserve the status quo. From Joe McCarthy slandering progressives as dangerous communists to George W. Bush saying anti-war activists were dangerous terrorist sympathizers, Estasblishmentarians have been painting their foes as threats to the nation for decades.
Aimed at me individually, the charge is clearly so silly it should undermine the credibility of anyone making it. I'm a journalist, an author and a blogger. The idea that I alone can "marshal an army," as Nate says I can, is laughable. I mean, yes, I'd like to think my work is making an impact - but me alone "marshaling an army?" If you think that, you're spending too much time with Michael Phelps and his bong.
The idea that my work, or the work of anyone more "radical" than Nate Silver, is "dangerous" - well, that's not laughable, nor is it insulting, really. It's a badge of honor, and I want to thank Nate for throwing out the epithet. I say that not because I think the progressive movement is "dangerous" to the United States, but because it is, in fact, dangerous to the status quo, and throughout history, when the status quo starts calling progressives dangerous, it means we're actually starting to make a serious impact.
Let's remember that the FBI, for instance, called Martin Luther King "the most dangerous man in America" and a dishonest demagogue as he was pushing - and ultimately passing - transformative civil rights laws. Let's remember that labor union activists in the 1930s and protestors against the Vietnam War were all called the same thing in their time.
Now, I know what you're thinking. "Is Sirota so egomaniacal that he's actually likening himself to Dr. King or the great heroes who helped build the labor movement or end the Vietnam War?" Of course not. I'm one journalist, author and blogger living in Denver, Colorado, and while I hope my work is making some kind of impact, I have no delusions of grandeur. But I point out the historical examples to remind everyone that as we head into these next few weeks and months, the issues before Congress and the country are only going to get more divisive - and I suspect the "dangerous" epithet is going to be thrown around a lot by the Nate Silvers and everyone who isn't interested in transformative change.
The stimulus bill was as close to an ironclad political inevitability as any bill that has come before Congress in a long time. The economy is tanking, a mandate election just happened, and the bill had a huge amount of momentum behind it. But the next set of bills - EFCA, universal health care, bankruptcy reform, financial regulation, and initiatives dealing with climate change - are not inevitable. They are even more politically divisive than the stimulus, and you can bet that everyone pushing anything truly transformative is going to be called "demagogic," "dangerous" and far worse.
So when that happens, don't say you weren't warned by Nate Silver or by me, and also - don't feel bad, feel honored. To be called a danger to the Establishment is to be told we are making the right people scared - it is to be told that those in power are genuinely scared that we're going to succeed in our efforts to change things.
Indeed, change actually is dangerous to the status quo - and so we shouldn't expect that status quo to do anything other than tell us it thinks we're "dangerous." We are a danger to the Establishment - which is exactly why we're the opposite of dangerous to the country at large, and exactly why when our opponents tell us we're "dangerous," we should respond as Maverick did to Iceman: immediately, affirmatively and proudly.
ADDENDUM: A few people in the comments here, and in the Quick Hits, have basically said that Nate shouldn't be taken 100% seriously in his writing about movements, because, up until now, most of his work has been analyzing poll numbers. While I agree that Nate's glaring inexperience on political campaigns, in political organizing, and in movement building likely prevents him from producing the same kind of quality work about movements as he has produced in analyzing polls, I don't think that alone should disqualify his opinions from being considered legitimate. Everyone has a right to an opinion and a right to make their case, whether they have a fancy title behind their name, or whether they have - or haven't - been involved in politics. That's what democracy is all about - all people should have a right to make their case and have their case treated with respect (though, as an aside, I do find the sheer level of chutzpah amazing among people with zero experience on campaigns or in organizing/movement building nonetheless firing off such declarative orders about what a campaign or a movement should and shouldn't do). When we don't respect that principle, we do exactly what the media elite do, which is to prioritize someone's opinion over someone else's based on privilege, title, or some other ascribed trait. What should determine the legitimacy of someone's argument is whether it is convincing and whether it holds water on the merits/facts. Nate has every right to make his case and have it be treated seriously by us - it's legitimacy should be judged on whether it is convincing and whether it stands on the merits/facts. And obviously, I think he falls short on those latter metrics.