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February 15, 2005

free speech and democracy

Don Herzog: February 15, 2005

Judging by the latest poll, American high school students don't believe in free speech.  They don't believe we actually have a right to it and they don't believe we should.  Only 51% agree that "Newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories."  75% wrongly believe that the law bars burning the flag as a means of political protest, and almost as many think that's a good thing.

Not that their elders are all that different.  The First Amendment Center has been polling for years.  Their evidence shows lackadaisical support for free speech even before 9/11.  In June 2004, 36% of adult respondents thought we have too much freedom of the press, after being prompted with the claim that the first amendment protects that freedom but sometimes the government restricts it.  Since 1999, that figure has jumped around from 31% to 40%.  Vary the question wording by eliminating the prompt and cutting directly to whether the press has too much freedom to do what it wants, and the results over the same years range from 42% to 53%.  Variations in response due to apparently innocent changes in question wording are business as usual, and public opinion scholars rightly worry about them.  But here it's safe to say that an explicit reminder of the first amendment moves opinion only a bit.  Another angle into the same question:  prompted with the thought that there's a debate about press freedom and censorship, 49% last year said that there is too much press freedom.

The bleak news continues.

Year after year, around half disagree, most of them strongly, with the claim that "People should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to religious groups."  Larger majorities disagree, again most strongly, that "People should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to racial groups."  Sizable majorities disagree, most strongly, that public school students should be permitted to wear t-shirts with messages others might find offensive.

The Chicago Tribune (7/4/04) reported more such poll results.  20% said the media should not "be allowed to publish or broadcast news stories that suggest war is not going well."  (I suspect the paper dropped the definite article, and asked people about "the war," not "war" as a general matter; but that's what they published.)  20% said the media should not "be allowed to publish or broadcast editorial opinions critical of how the war is being handled."  Excuse me, what country is this?  Compare:  Ria Novosti (10/29/04) reported that 29% of Russians believed state control of mass media would be useful.  But Izvestia (7/28/04) reported that 71% of Russians wanted media censorship.  Yeah, we're doing better than Russia.  Somehow I don't find the comparison all that consoling.  As a stirring slogan, "Better somnolent than ex-red on civil liberties!" lacks a certain something.

One last poll result from the First Amendment Center.  A sizable majority of adults rate the American educational system as doing only a fair or poor job in teaching students about the first amendment.  Amen to that.  Do you want the schools to teach "values"?  Are you invested in the commotion over Heather Has Two Mommies?  Ready to go to the wall for prayer in public schools?  Fiddle, fiddle, burning Rome, fiddle.  There are "values" I'm much more interested in.  Our children need to learn the basic ground rules of liberal democracy.  They need to see what's at stake in casting that system as "government by discussion," in Bagehot's fine phrase from 1872.  Our representatives chatter, we chatter, we chatter with our representatives, and out of all that chatter — some of it heated, some of it trenchantly critical — we work up more intelligent views.  So much the worse for democracy as preference aggregation, the view Richard Posner adopts, yet another debased form of market fundamentalism.

To the extent that we chatter only with the like-minded, we can't make progress.  Political controversies should be civil enough for the parties to keep engaging, but if civility means never giving offense, we'll drown in stupid pieties. Our children need to learn that toleration and respect for others are perfectly compatible with robust debate.  Yes, I want them also to have room to critically scrutinize whatever story they're told about politics.  True story:  in third grade, I solemnly wrote in my notebook that capitalism was good and socialism and communism were bad.  I had no idea what any of that meant, and my teacher sure wasn't going to tell me.  But I duly memorized it for the social studies exam.  That was worse than pointless.  Another true story:  in eighth grade, I was hustled off to the principal's office for asking a perfectly polite but critical question of the state representative who showed up to address a small assembly.  How I had embarrassed the school!  But I didn't think we were supposed to kneel in the presence of elected representatives.

Then too these dispiriting poll results make me further skeptical of the usual rap that universities have sunken into a morass of political correctness.  I've already insisted that universities should be more diverse, though I also think the familiar indictment about PC nonsense is much exaggerated.  But the adults condemning "offensive" speech in these surveys aren't university students and I rather doubt they're clinging to whatever pablum about multiculturalism you think they were fed in their dorms freshman year.  Looks like the rot has set in deeper and wider than campuses.

Political scientists have long known that American public opinion shows indifferent support for civil liberties — and that what abstract support there is for freedom of speech melts away when people are asked specific questions about, say, radicals giving lectures in public parks.  They've assured us, though, that we can count on "elites" to safeguard liberal principles for us.  I've long thought that bunk.  A democratic country can't flourish by relying on courts and politicians.  And it's been quite some time since we could rely on those "elites" for robust support of free speech, anyway.

There's more to free speech than whether the government engages in censorship.  Campaigning in 1984, Ronald Reagan remarked,

I think that the current leadership of the Democratic Party, the leadership that we saw last week in San Francisco I think their instructions for getting to the convention were:  Go west to San Francisco, and then turn left.  They've gone so far left that they've left the mainstream.

Walter Mondale, beyond the pale?  Oh please.  It's crucial that contenders in liberal democracies respect the role of a loyal opposition.  So it's worse than worrisome that popular commentators cash in by trampling on that respect.  Anne Coulter flouts that norm when she writes,

Liberals promote the right of Islamic fanatics for the same reason they promote the rights of adulterers, pornographers, abortionists, criminals, and Communists.  They instinctively root for anarchy against civilization.  The inevitable logic of the liberal position is to be for treason.

And Michael Moore flouts that norm when he writes in an open letter to the president,

As Bill Maher said last week, how bad do you have to suck to lose a popularity contest with Saddam Hussein?  The whole world is against you, Mr. Bush.  Count your fellow Americans among them.

Does free speech mean that Reagan, Coulter, and Moore have the right to talk this way?  Absolutely, if that means it would be outrageous for the government to try to sanction them.  But they are still damaging liberal democracy, making a mockery of government by discussion.  Their language isn't sharply focused criticism of anything in particular.  It's mere invective, designed to banish the opponent from public discussion.  The more shrill, the more polarized, the more contemptuous the public debate, the less we can listen to and learn from each other.  Yes, politics is a continuation of war by other means.  And yes, it's always easy to claim that the other guys started it.  And yes, the line between hard-hitting argument and hitting below the belt is sometimes hazy.  But if you permit yourself a secret — or public — snicker when "your" side gets off a good sharp nasty salvo of contempt, or if you fasten on the "other" side's nastiest rhetoric and refuse to hear what else they're saying, you're part of the problem, too.  The cleavage that matters here is not left/right.  It's the one between those of us intent on keeping political debate constructive and those engaged in hurling mud.  On this issue — not how radical our views are, but how stridently we support them I'm inclined to quip:  extremism in the pursuit of moderation is no vice.

But hey! Janet Jackson exposed her breast on TV!  What's become of our values?  Yup, TV is trash.  Fiddle fiddle.


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Posted by: oliver

I think the highschoolers' response is exactly what you'd expect, considering the environment. Every highschool is a revolution only barely staved off by martial law.

Posted by: oliver | Feb 15, 2005 8:50:07 AM

Posted by: Literally Retarded

Oliver -

That sounds like wishful thinking - it's what we thought in the 60's when, BTW, similar polls yielded similar results. A general free-floating poll question about civil rights will generally yield an unconsidered answer. Check reality - our civil rights are more extensive and better protected now than they have been at any time in our history - and we are way ahead of the rest of the world.

That's not due to the judges and the politicians, it's the result of those adolescents growing up and realizing that these rights have to be protected. To the extent that 40% of our eligible voters choose not to participate in elections doesn't refute the actual conditions in the country. They are probably too busy out getting rich. God bless 'em.

Posted by: Literally Retarded | Feb 15, 2005 8:57:52 AM

Posted by: Jim from New Jersey

Did you cite Reagan, Coulter and Moore because you found all statements equal in their repugnancy?

It seems to me the quotes from the first two are in fact validated by the third. Comparing the president (unfavorably!) with a mass murdering dictator? That IS beyond the pale.

Professor Herzog, the latest controversies in what some consider social progress are most certainly not the result of chatter between the people and the legislature. The great majority of unwelcome changes in American society have come from a small clique of people with the arrogance that comes with no accountability. So in fact, Heather has Two Mommies will normally not create a fuss except when you refuse parents a choice. Why is that so hard to understand?

And given performance results in many parts of this country, the failure of public schools to impart first amendment lessons is entirely understandable. How can they have time if the administrators are cancelling Mother's day because it might be offense to gay couples?

With respect to the media, when was the last time they did themselves the favor of reminding people that a first amendment exists? Stories on the MSM are replete with an individual's words and how they must pay the price for them. I don't see the cloak of protection reinforced in such a message.

And you wonder why homeschooling is taking off, along with the test scores?

Posted by: Jim from New Jersey | Feb 15, 2005 9:10:25 AM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Well, let’s take a look at the 1984 election results:

Reagan: 54,450,603 (59.0%) popular vote and 525 electoral votes

Mondale: 37,573,641 (41.0%) popular vote and 13 electoral votes

(If I recall correctly, Mondale’s running mate, New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro didn’t even manage to carry her own congressional district.)

So, yes, I’d say a pretty good case could be made for the proposition that the American public agreed with Reagan and decided that Walter Mondale was, in Mr. Herzog's words, "beyond the pale."

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Feb 15, 2005 9:21:56 AM

Posted by: Tad Brennan

Mr. Ridgely,

The polling numbers that you cite do suggest that a majority of Americans preferred Reagan to Mondale. Whether they did that because they thought Mondale was "beyond the pale" cannot be discerned from the numbers.

When consumers prefer Coke to Pepsi, they do not always think that Pepsi is beyond the pale. When they purchase one car in preference to another, they generally do so for a variety of small, incremental reasons. This is sometimes the case in popular elections, as well.

I would think that anyone who has been alive for more than a few decades would realize in hindsight that Mondale was a fairly moderate, standard-issue plodding politician. He might have been a worse choice than Reagan, but he was far from a bomb-throwing radical.

Mondale was not, in fact, beyond the pale, as someone of your age and experience ought to be able to judge from this distance. If a series of accidents had landed him in the Oval Office (a la Gerald Ford), the country would have survived quite handily.

It is the job of political rhetoric to take small differences and magnify them into reasons for choosing one candidate over another. It is the part of wisdom, however, to see small differences at their proper size.

Part of what I suspect Herzog is complaining about is the tendency of professional political rhetoricians to try to magnify small differences into wars-to-the-death, i.e. to demonize the opposition. This goes hand in hand with attempts to divide the electorate into winners and losers, and to make every election a winner-take-all affair. A healthy democracy is never a winner-take-all affair; the winners still view the losers with respect and affection, as fellow-citizens, as reasonable people, and as the potential winners of the next round. Respecting one's fellow-citizens seems to me a central aspect of patriotism.

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Feb 15, 2005 10:04:25 AM

Posted by: john t

I disagree with D.A. Ridgely,Mondale swept to victory in one state,proving irrefutably that he was within the pale,a statement coined by the British to describe the 20 or so miles outside Dublin that they didn't care for. Well at least we have a comment on the educational qualities in America from an academic,perhaps now we can start to move on to reading,geography,and history and reduce the emphasis o drivers ed,sex ed,and enviro studies for 8yr olds,which lead some of them to fear that an iceberg is about to crash thru their front door. Somewhere in this I would have hoped for a comment on the role and the perception of that role that the media plays in this sort of reaction,you know,Dan Rather,Eason Jordan,the ABC news chief telling staff how to reort campaign news etc. I've many times wondered if something like the British libel laws would would be a corrective to some of both the political and apolitical coverage. Maybe we could demummify Anthony Lewis and ask him?

Posted by: john t | Feb 15, 2005 10:21:17 AM

Posted by: rtr

Well one of the first things children are taught in schools is silence, to be quiet, to shut up and listen. Given that, it's hardly surprising they might seriously question the first amendment. Punishment goes hand in hand with exercising free speech. How does "disruptive behavior" relate to the first amendment? Of course if students were free to talk about whatever they want whenever they want education would be much more difficult. And better students are also probably in favor of ejecting problem free speechers out of classroom.

You can burn a flag but you can't tell a public school teacher to "STFU" without being suspended, expelled, or given detention? If society can be forced "for their own good" to attend school, pay for social safety net and welfare entitlements, then what's wrong with forcing society "for their own good" to not say certain things or require polit bureau certification for what's publicly said? The left has probably done the most damage to free speech. They are the instigators of "hate speech" and political correctness. They are the ones in favor of using a police state to enforce tax collection for whatever a democratic majority chooses to fund. They are decidedly against free association. This is seen in laws prhibiting all types of "discrimination". What good is free speech if one cannot freely associate or discriminate?

The end of free speech is the logical end result of the end of liberty generally, for which the left is decidedly to blame. Free speech has been constrained as it is by the implementation of the actions of leftist philosophy. The future free speech society is one of car bombs and belt bombs. Violence begets violence. The left has always confused violence, property, and speech. They had no respect for private property or the speech of others when they conducted their '60s protest sit-ins. Why the sudden change in tune when they finally see the tip of the sword of censorship ready to swing toward them and academic tenure? Taxation is not only theft, it is censorship. Academia has been empowered by building themselves up upon the censhorship of others through forced redistribution. They need to feel some of this pain to understand the lessons that need to be learned for a more tolerant society. They still do not get it.

Posted by: rtr | Feb 15, 2005 10:29:35 AM

Posted by: Henry Woodbury

With due respect, I think this post misses the mark entirely. "Everyone should play nice." Yes, but they don't and endless complaining about commentators who don't play nice (how many mentions are Ann Coulter and Michael Moore going to get on this blog, anyway?) simply informs the unfortunate attitudes of those who don't "get" the first admendment.

High school students don't dismiss free speech because they all love the government. They dismiss free speech because their whole lives they have been told to play nice.

The two most aggressive, ongoing attacks on the first admendment in this country are 1) Campaign Finance Laws (the current bugbear for McCain, et al, are those outrageously independent 529s) and 2) Anti-obscenity agitation. What do these have in common? They both bespeak an authoritarian desire to have everyone play nice.

Posted by: Henry Woodbury | Feb 15, 2005 10:35:06 AM

Posted by: CDC

Don wrote, "To the extent that we chatter only with the like-minded, we can't make progress. Political controversies should be civil enough for the parties to keep engaging, but if civility means never giving offense, we'll drown in stupid pieties."

Don: You are to be congratulated for being consistent. When you start a thread you post your opinion then leave comments open until the subject is exhausted. The people here are smart and about half of them disagree with you. That speaks well for you.

So much for being nice. Reagan's statement was beyond the pale? Leaving aside Mr. Ridgely's accurate (as usual) criticism, saying that that the views expressed at the '84 Democrat convention were outside the mainstream was pretty tepid. Contrast that with some of the vitriol directed at him.

Your "Reagan, Coulter and Moore" statement looks like the "throw a big net" rhetorical device. It reminds me of a "violence against women" statistic cited by Thomas Sowell. He said that 97% of married women are murdered, raped, maimed, beaten or irritated by their husbands.

Posted by: CDC | Feb 15, 2005 10:37:17 AM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Mr. Brennen:

Well, “beyond the pale” were Mr. Herzog’s words, not Reagan’s. Reagan said the democratic leadership had moved to the left of the mainstream, and the mainstream has largely proven Reagan correct ever since. That election wasn’t about Coke versus Pepsi, it was about New Coke versus Classic Coke, at least in the minds of the electorate.

Now, I think Mondale was a decent man, as was his mentor Humphrey, and I’ll grant you the nation could have withstood either man or, for that matter, Dukakis or even McCarthy as president. But from McCarthy’s nomination to date, the Democratic Party has moved increasingly in a direction that has distanced it farther and farther from the mainstream. (Clinton is sui generis by any standards.) For that matter, Reagan’s signal accomplishment was to establish and take advantage of the fact that the mainstream, itself, had begun to move in the opposite direction.

It seems to me that the very phrasing of the issue in terms of being either “in the mainstream” (Reagan), on the one hand, or “beyond the pale” (Herzog) or “bomb-throwing radical” (Brennen), on the other, is to come perilously close to violating the very call for civility and rhetorical moderation that Mr. Herzog is urging.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Feb 15, 2005 10:40:52 AM

Posted by: Mark O

You wrote: Walter Mondale, beyond the pale? Where do you get that? Did you make it up? In the quote you give, Mr Reagan said that Mondale had "left the mainstream". The speach you link, has no mention of the phrase "beyond the pale". The election results might vindicate the notion that Mr Mondale did not occupy the mainstream position. I fail to see how Mr Reagan's speach makes your point. Ms Coulter's point is made by the quote you give from Mr Moore (or perhaps Mr Churchill).

The connection you wish to make between citizens wishing for more civility in public discourse and government censorship is a little weak perhaps. Public discourse has been rancorous since the 1800 Adams/Jefferson campaign. It's not exactly new.

Public discourse on first amendment rights recently has more concentrated on the right of law enforcement to obtain library records with a subpoena than actual censorship. fiddle fiddle, right back at ya.

Posted by: Mark O | Feb 15, 2005 10:53:22 AM

Posted by: Henry Woodbury

When Ann Richardson announced that George Bush was "Born with a silver foot in his mouth," was that funny, or beyond the pale? In my mind, it was funny. When I occasionally read a conservative missive that cite's Richardson's comment as an example of the left's lack of civility I just roll my eyes. Reagan's quip is in the same vein. If that kind of kibitzing upsets you, all I can say is lighten up. Develop a thick skin. Lower your expectations of human nature.

Posted by: Henry Woodbury | Feb 15, 2005 10:57:34 AM

Posted by: Paul Shields

Henry: et al?

Posted by: Paul Shields | Feb 15, 2005 10:59:00 AM

Posted by: Henry Woodbury


I hate typing fast.

McCain Calls for New Limits on Money to Political Groups

"Picking up new allies in his push to limit political spending, Senator John McCain proposed new restrictions on Wednesday for some independent political groups that poured more than $400 million into last year's elections....
Though the bill's prospects are uncertain, it has drawn early backing in unusual places. Mr. Bush has expressed support for regulating 527 groups. Senator Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican who opposed the 2002 law, is co-sponsoring this legislation and will hold hearings in the Rules Committee, which he leads...
Democrats backing the bill include Senator Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, Mr. McCain's longtime partner on campaign finance issues, and Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, who is in charge of fund-raising for Senate Democrats."

Posted by: Henry Woodbury | Feb 15, 2005 11:09:51 AM

Posted by: mikec

I agree that these statistics are worrisome. Maybe a good way to remedy the situation would be to get rid of all the speech codes that are currently in place throughout our public school systems---grade school, high school, and college. Saying "offensive" things about religion, ethnicity, sexual preference, etc., is strictly forbidden throughout the US educational system. Should we really be surprised that people who have had their speech restricted by the state for most of their life don't value free speech?

Posted by: mikec | Feb 15, 2005 12:28:45 PM

Posted by: Bret

It's interesting to me that Don focused on the poll results related to the freedom of the press portion of the first amendment. To me it more indicates that people don't trust the press, rather than they don't support the concept of free speech. For example, the First Amendment Center poll also shows that 61% (37% strongly) agree that "The falsifying or making up of stories in the American news media is a widespread problem." If you think that the press is making stuff up, it seems logical to me that you might think there should be some restrictions on that.

The other thing I think is lacking is that the penalties for breaching the apparently desired restrictions on speech were never discussed, so it's hard for me to know how seriously to take these poll results. For example, if a poll found that the punishment when people "say things in public that might be offensive to religious groups" was the death penalty, I'd be concerned. If on the other hand, it was that the speaker should be verbally condemned by those around them, I personally wouldn't worry about it too much. A substantial majority of people think First Amendment rights are a good thing, and some of those think they need to be strengthened further.

These polls are performed by groups with strong interest in the First Amendment. While I'm not going to claim that these particular organizations designed their polls to produce results that would concern some of us, I personally discount information from groups such as these for that reason. All in all, I see nothing in those polls that gives me any concrete reasons for worrying.

On the issue of constructive political debate versus mudslinging, I think those two activities are the responsibilities of two very different groups, but both are completely legitimate. Think tanks, universities, and people who have interest should engage in political debate to come up with new concepts and extend existing ones. Marketers then sell those concepts to the electorate using a completely different arsenal of techniques, including mudslinging. Don has previously acknowledged that he has very little interest in the selling portion of the process and so it's not surprising to me that he is put off by some of those techniques. I see nothing wrong with the current politcal processes. In fact, I think the availability and decentralization of information, political debate, and political sales has never been better.

Posted by: Bret | Feb 15, 2005 12:34:28 PM

Posted by: miab

D.A. Ridgely writes: "Well, let’s take a look at the 1984 election results:

Reagan: 54,450,603 (59.0%) popular vote and 525 electoral votes; Mondale: 37,573,641 (41.0%) popular vote and 13 electoral votes . . .
So, yes, I’d say a pretty good case could be made for the proposition that the American public agreed with Reagan and decided that Walter Mondale was, in Mr. Herzog's words, "beyond the pale.""

CDC writes " . . . Mr. Ridgely's accurate . . . criticism . . . ."

At first I thought this was a joke, but CDC's response made me rethink that. So I ask: is this serious? Are you really at the point where you are putting 41% of voters "beyond the pale"?

Was Kerry "beyond the pale" because he only commanded the support of 48%?

I could see saying libertarians are beyond the pale, in that they only get about 1% support. But Walter Mondale and 37.5 million voters?

It's truly a scary statement about the future of American democracy if anyone other than Ridgely, CDC, and Ann Coulter believes that.

Posted by: miab | Feb 15, 2005 12:38:41 PM

Posted by: Bret

I'm just noting with irony that David V's post from yesterday (old friends) criticizes Ross Douthat, a journalist for writing misleading articles, and here's Don wondering why people are concerned about freedom of the press.

Posted by: Bret | Feb 15, 2005 12:44:34 PM

Posted by: Acton


Just finished Prof. Herzog's post, and was so parched I had to get a glass of water.

It is worth stepping back for a moment and recognizing that the trends DH describes have been going on for a long time. There is no *new* ignorance about or hostility to practical applications of the First Ammendment. Political discourse in this country hasn't just suddenly cultivated fever swamps here and there. American politics has always had its share of insular ideologues, resiliant know-nothings, and their admirable opposites.

And yet, freedom reigns! Why? Not because "elites" protect freedom, but because laws protect freedom.

Perhaps it is because the polls that DH points to reflect the undigested responses of free people whose freedom is not (to them) visibly threatened. Credibly threaten those freedoms, and you might observe a different response.

Nobody with any respect for the intellect disagrees with the gist of DH's post. Who doesn't wish that political discourse wasn't less insipid than it is? But it isn't. So, one resolves, as DH puts it, not to be "part of the problem."


Posted by: Acton | Feb 15, 2005 1:00:06 PM

Posted by: Acton


Just finished Prof. Herzog's post, and was so parched I had to get a glass of water.

It is worth stepping back for a moment and recognizing that the trends DH describes have been going on for a long time. There is no *new* ignorance about or hostility to practical applications of the First Ammendment. Political discourse in this country hasn't just suddenly cultivated fever swamps here and there. American politics has always had its share of insular ideologues, resiliant know-nothings, and their admirable opposites.

And yet, freedom reigns! Why? Not because "elites" protect freedom, but because laws protect freedom.

Perhaps it is because the polls that DH points to reflect the undigested responses of free people whose freedom is not (to them) visibly threatened. Credibly threaten those freedoms, and you might observe a different response.

Nobody with any respect for the intellect disagrees with the gist of DH's post. Who doesn't wish that political discourse wasn't less insipid than it is? But it isn't. So, one resolves, as DH puts it, not to be "part of the problem."


Posted by: Acton | Feb 15, 2005 1:00:26 PM

Posted by: No Labels Please

"The Press" is a just a particular subset of the population, whose distinctiveness from said population is growing less and less with the advent of the internet, blogs, cable, etc.

I'm with Bret - I think the general population is suspicious of awarding special freedoms to a subset that it doesn't particularly respect.

I suspect if you poll for support of the statement: "People should only be allowed to say things with approval of the government", you will not find many backers.

With respect to the lack of support for offensive racial or religious public speech, it is incredibly amusing to hear a member of academia wondering how this has come about, as campuses have been at the forefront of restriciting this type of speech for decades now.

Open pot, Mr Herzog, smell coffee.

Posted by: No Labels Please | Feb 15, 2005 1:04:50 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

miab, you make a good point. No, I wasn't trying to say I thought Mondale was literally beyond the pale. What I've tried to point out is that the dichotomy between "mainstream" and "beyond the pale" is a false one. I stand by my statement that the Democratic Party has moved farther and farther away from mainstream American political opinion, but I don't think that makes it per se "beyond the pale," let alone "bomb-throwing radicals." (Mr. Brennan's phrase, and my apology for spelling his name incorrectly in my earlier response.)

Say what you will about the electoral college, those are the votes that count and both the major parties know it and devise their campaigns accordingly. When you candidate loses by 525 to 13, the fact that you won 40% of the popular vote doesn't mean it really wasn't such a fiasco after all no matter how much psychological succor you manage to squeeze out of it. A nearly 20 point spread in popular vote is huge in a presidential race and Mondale was crushed in that election. Crushed.

Look, if the left (however broad that concept may be) continues to fare worse and worse in political contests, then I think it is reasonable to believe there are factors afoot well beyond name calling and focus group rhetoric, etc. If the left chooses not to believe that, well, that's fine with me.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Feb 15, 2005 1:05:52 PM

Posted by: CDC

miab: What I thought I was saying is that there was nothing wrong with Mr Reagan's statement that many of the views expressed at the '84 Democratic Convention were outside the mainstream.

CPUSA and the American Nazi Party are beyond the pale. Libs aren't.

Posted by: CDC | Feb 15, 2005 1:07:23 PM

Posted by: Dallas

"I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for . . . ."

- Howard Dean -


Over to you, DV.

Posted by: Dallas | Feb 15, 2005 1:31:23 PM

Posted by: Dallas

Oops! Should be:

Over to you, Don.

Posted by: Dallas | Feb 15, 2005 1:35:04 PM

Posted by: Dallas

I also think the familiar indictment about PC nonsense is much exaggerated.


Consider this case: a student writes a paper advocating corporal punishment for the maintenance of discipline in the classroom; receives an "A" grade; and then is dismissed from the university for expressing "personal beliefs inconsistent with the university's "program goals."

Wham! Bam! Get the hell out of here! No room for that kind of talk around this place!


Posted by: Dallas | Feb 15, 2005 2:30:47 PM

Posted by: CDC

Miab: Furthermore, in '64 Goldwater was "outside the mainstream". The daisy commercial presented him as "beyond the pale". Sixteen years later a man with almost identical views became president.

"It's truly a scary statement about the future of American democracy..."

I hate cliches like "give me a break", but that says it pretty well.

Posted by: CDC | Feb 15, 2005 2:43:19 PM

Posted by: Jodi

Two (unrelated and leading in opposing directions) thoughts tangentially related to your post:

--Pat Buchanan (I think it was Buchanan, he was hosting a show on Fox News) kept asserting that no one questions or rejects the right to free speech even as he insisted that Ward Churchill be fired. It reminded me of Hobbes' sense of rights.

--some Moslem women want to use the Internet for all sorts of information gathering, economic, and social purposes. Yet, they are deeply offended by the pornography and reject American versions of free speech.

Posted by: Jodi | Feb 15, 2005 3:03:35 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

And the connection between Mr. Churchill's freedom of speech and whether he may be fired for exercising it would be ..........?

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Feb 15, 2005 3:20:51 PM

Posted by: rtr

"Oh please. It's crucial that contenders in liberal democracies respect the role of a loyal opposition. So it's worse than worrisome that popular commentators cash in by trampling on that respect."

Respect? What is more disrespectful? Threatening with imprisonment or death those that don't pay taxes? Having the government just automatically deduct taxes from paychecks? It's way way way way way way way way way way...way beyond respect. It's nothing short of an act of war. If anything it's quite amazing discourse remains for the most part as civil as it does, most likely a modicum of civility is required for messages to be sent and understood to those wielding power, the voters. Who's telling landlords whom they can rent to or not and at what price? Tyranical strangers. That's just a couple tip of the iceberg examples of the disrespect of *actions*. Not being able to verbally express some things in public may be far less disrespectful than what is currently waged at the general public.

Anyone on the right think the left is a loyal opposition? They are disloyal to the principles of freedom and liberty. They are petty control freak thieves bent on using force to impose their subjectiveness upon as many as they possibly can. They could care less whether compliance is voluntary, whether the terms of trade and charity are explicitly established and agreed to by all parties. If by opposition we mean Marxist socialists, I suppose so. "Loyal" is one of the last words that would come to mind when thinking about the left.

If the left feels at home preventing landlords from discriminating on the basis of race or sexual orientation then it's time to extend that same welcome to academia by prohibiting discrimination against the values of the U.S.A., such as teaching the socialist-communist works of Karl Marx. The more you look at it, the weaker is the grounds for stopping the likes of some from banning Marx in college courses, at least at public institutions. This is a necessary evil to implement in order to wake the left up. It's as easy to accomplish as banning the 'F' word in public schools or public airwaves and at most requires a supermajority. At any rate there is a target rich environment to conduct serious damage of the freedoms enjoyed by academia. I for one am ready to begin the raids. The left is certainly *not* in favor of free speech so why should the right protect the speech of the left, especially when almost all of leftist philosophy and speech encourages hateful violence.

Posted by: rtr | Feb 15, 2005 3:34:31 PM

Posted by: Jim from New Jersey


To my knowledge there is no death penalty for the refusal to pay taxes.

Other than that, I find it very difficult to disagree with your other points.

Posted by: Jim from New Jersey | Feb 15, 2005 3:55:38 PM

Posted by: rtr

Indeed there is a death penalty for refusal to pay taxes. Just try preventing the ATF or whomever from raiding your home, imprisoning you and confiscating your property as they enforce their claim against your property. That 80-year-old ladies can be forcibly removed from their homes, have them auctioned off, to pay taxes says something has gone fundamentally wrong with freedom and liberty. The government of the U.S. has become a bunch of illegitimate tyrants.

Posted by: rtr | Feb 15, 2005 4:08:02 PM

Posted by: washerdreyer

rtr: I believe you're making the claim that anyone in favor of taxation and anti-discrimination laws is on the Left. Maybe you mean anyone in favor of taxation beyond that needed to pay for a "Night Watchman" state, but you don't even allow for that. And your objection appears to be to taxation per se, not any particular level of taxation. Given the equivalence you draw between "in favor of taxation and anti-discrimination laws" and "on the left," do you agree with the claim that both of the major american political parties are leftist parties?

Posted by: washerdreyer | Feb 15, 2005 4:38:10 PM

Posted by: AlanC9

OK, rtr, so absolutely any violation of the criminal law is punishable by death? You should really ease up a bit on the empty rhetoric. It's not helping (assuming you actually care about being persuasive, which is just an assumption on my part).

Anyone remember exactly what was said at the 1984 Democratic convention? I remember it being boring, but that's about it.

Posted by: AlanC9 | Feb 15, 2005 4:45:06 PM

Posted by: David Velleman

D.A. Ridgely writes:

the Democratic Party has moved increasingly in a direction that has distanced it farther and farther from the mainstream. (Clinton is sui generis by any standards.)

For those of you who do not read Latin, allow me to translate. "Sui generis" is the Latin phrase that means "conclusive counterevidence to what I just said -- please ignore."

Posted by: David Velleman | Feb 15, 2005 5:00:58 PM

Posted by: rtr

I believe many are hooked on government programs like crack addicts are hooked on crack. Wars come and go but government budgets come in higher just about every year. If there is to be taxation as opposed to other revenue forms, it should be minimized and enforced equally under the law. Correct, both major politcal parties are "on the left", one is just on the "far left", which is probably why they are losing elections, among other reasons.

And remember, the same grounds that justify taxation can justify violations of free speech. I have no problem making it a criminal offense to report disfavorable war news if those same people are going to steal 40% of my income. It's the same "necessary" free speech taxation needed to pay for a "night watchman" state. Teaching Marxism is treasonous. Let's enforce it as such. Hell, what percentage of paychecks are taken away by the government without citizens ever touching or seeing *their* money? I want the books on and by Marx taken off the shelves of libraries of academia. That is no more or less illegitimate than taking 40% of your income. We can install compliance agents to record purchases of books the same way businesses fill out tax compliance forms on behalf of their employees. Perhaps some government editing and redistribution of the corrected texts with inserts showing which words and sentences are treasonous and why could also suffice. That does not mean some passages might be wholesale eliminated either. This is the police state that exists, that was brought about by the socialist left, so let them have a taste.

Posted by: rtr | Feb 15, 2005 5:11:21 PM

Posted by: Perseus

1) What I would like to know is: when was this golden age in American politics when the public rhetoric was *not* shrill, polarizing, and contemptuous?

2) Yes, I am invested in the commotion over "Heather Has Two Mommies" and the other PC inspired changes in the school curriculum because they have gutted the civics education that made students learn about the First Amendment. I have been shocked and appalled at how little students know about American history and government (other than our historically poor treatment of American Indians and blacks), and I most definitely do attribute this state of affairs to largely liberal "educators" who have distorted educational priorities (link: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,146684,00.html). Talk about fiddling while Rome burns.

3) Speaking of Walter Mondale and the 1984 presidential campaign, I am reminded of his concession speech in which he said that he was thinking of "the poor, the unemployed, the elderly, the handicapped, the helpless, and THE SAD" (emphasis added).

Posted by: Perseus | Feb 15, 2005 5:19:33 PM

Posted by: CDCCDC

"Anyone remember exactly what was said at the 1984 Democratic convention?"

They blasted Reagan for his (highly successful) tax and foreign policies. They were quite shrill and (to my eye) extreme. The public reaction was not positive. Jean Kirkpatrick used her speech at the Republican convention to draw a distinction that was not favorable to what she called the "San Francisco Democrats".

Posted by: CDCCDC | Feb 15, 2005 6:36:09 PM

Posted by: miab

D.A. Ridgely writes:

"the Democratic Party has moved increasingly in a direction that has distanced it farther and farther from the mainstream."

and, later: "I stand by my statement that the Democratic Party has moved farther and farther away from mainstream American political opinion, but I don't think that makes it per se "beyond the pale," let alone "bomb-throwing radicals." "

While I appreciate being brought within the pale, I still don't understand even this view regarding the mainstream. When the Republican party was in the minority in the House & Senate and there was a Democratic president, was the Republican party out of the mainstream?

I just don't see how you can call a party "out of the mainstream" that takes 48% of the vote in a presidential election, 45% of the seats in the Senate, 47.5% of total votes cast for house seats.

The problem in today's political discourse is not just the tone of the rhetoric -- it's the fact that people otherwise of good faith begin to believe the rhetoric. The fact that anyone can even for a moment think a party with those numbers is "out of the mainstream" means the lens of ideology has warped honest vision. Has "mainstream" come simply to mean "member of a bare majority that wins an election"?

When the Democratic party drops below 10% of the national vote, you can start calling it out of the mainstream, along with Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan. Until then this is just a piece of unpleasant rhetoric that works to delegitimize disagreement.

Posted by: miab | Feb 15, 2005 6:47:07 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Mr. Velleman's Latin translation skills may be a bit rusty. Those who do not believe Clinton is a uniquely talented politician (in both the best and the worst sense of the phrase) are free to consider his election counterevidence to my claims regarding American political trends since roughly 1968.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Feb 15, 2005 7:03:26 PM

Posted by: No Labels Please

Perseus is exactly right - political discourse is actually much more civil than at most times in US history. The only exceptions might have been during times of international conflict when the country was united in common cause [WWI, WWII].

Anyone who doubts this is not any type of student of history....

What has changed is the succesful attempt by the left to control speech, academic appointments and the direction of scholarship at most of our leading universities. It's sort of a virulent network effect, with leftish politics being something like Windows and rightish politics being something like Linux.

Posted by: No Labels Please | Feb 15, 2005 7:59:13 PM

Posted by: Clark Goble

The problem with most polls is that the questions are often too vague. You end up guessing at what the pollster is really trying to get at, even though a truthful answer to the way they phrased it would present something else.

Consider the question, "Newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories" Well we all instinctively are shocked that anyone would disagree. But do we? Would you support a Newspaper giving nuclear secrets? What about a Newspaper knowingly and intentionally giving up the names of spies in a fashion that their death was certain? What about incitement to riot? Now from the way the question is phrased, it clearly wasn't getting at those issues. But would a high school student be aware of that? Or would they interpret the question simply as whether there are any limits on free speech?

I don't know, but I doubt anyone does from the poll results a lone.

Same with questions about freedom of press. What is meant? Does it mean that perhaps some people don't think the press ought to be able to publicize the names and addresses of victims of sexual assault? We don't know.

The problem with analysis of these sorts of polls is that while I suspect that at least some of the people who answer are thinking of these infrequent and extreme cases, the results are interpreted as if they were thinking of more mainstream views. (i.e. high school students think criticism of the Iraq war ought be suppressed - not that anyone here is saying that.)

Posted by: Clark Goble | Feb 15, 2005 8:06:17 PM

Posted by: Paul Torek

Reagan's, Coulter's, and Moore's: which of these quotations just doesn't belong? CDC got that one right. Reagan's commentary is about as outrageous as the opinion, expressed by half the pizza joints I've ever been to, that theirs is the best pizza in the nation. Coulter and Moore actually managed to express propositions -- false ones.

Jim from New Jersey asks when was the last time the mainstream media did themselves a favor by reminding us the First Amendment exists. I'd rather ask when was the last time they did all of us a favor by actually making full use of their First Amendment rights. Like putting politicians' feet to the fire across a broad spectrum of American politics. But hey, Janet Jackson! Fiddle, fiddle.

On second thought, maybe Coulter and Moore aren't the worst our media scene has to offer. More damage is done by the kind of journalistic "objectivity" that Jon Stewart so aptly and mercilessly lampoons.

Posted by: Paul Torek | Feb 15, 2005 8:30:45 PM

Posted by: [email protected]

Since this thread has already pretty much degenerated from the original post I would like to know Don Herzogs' opinion about the recent conviction of Lynne Stewart and the recent affirmation of the contempt of court citation in the case involving Judith Miller?

Posted by: [email protected] | Feb 15, 2005 9:10:03 PM

Posted by: DBCooper

Is it any wonder high school students aren’t rallying around the first amendment, when types like Ward Churchill are thrust into the spotlight as first amendment martyrs? Is it really surprising when lethargy and disinterest are the response? There are times throughout our history when people of great courage voicing a great message were the standard bearers of the first amendment. Today, sadly, we have a parade of dregs and dullards at the leading edge of the first amendment debate.

BTW, PC is alive and thriving at Universities today...if in doubt, just use the word niggardly in a sentence at your next presentation. And I’m positive it won’t be the conservatives in the audience that will be attacking you afterwards.

Posted by: DBCooper | Feb 15, 2005 9:24:08 PM

Posted by: LPFabulous

I think Ridgeley's and Velleman's trouble over Mr. Clinton is that they're delusional enough to believe he was even "of the left". They both fail to realize that he was in fact a smooth-talking Southerner who talked about (and, contra Kerry, actually seemed to believe in) God and (also contra Kerry) persuasively claimed that he wanted abortions to be rare. More than anything else, these two things characterize the American "mainstream" today and the Democratic Party has largely abdicated them along with its sanity.

Does anyone think that a party that just elevated HOWARD DEAN to arguably its most powerful position has any claim on the American mainstream other than about 40% of Americans (among them a huge number of academians, journalists, and union members) just don't like Republicans?

Posted by: LPFabulous | Feb 15, 2005 9:33:49 PM

Posted by: LPFabulous

As people, that is. I mean for the dislike of Republicans to be independent of principle, sort of like the way the average writer for the Michigan Daily just reflexively hates anyone who drives an SUV.

Posted by: LPFabulous | Feb 15, 2005 9:35:14 PM

Posted by: Simon

D.A. --

This wanders far afield, but I don't see the usefulness of describing "trends" in AMerican politics when within the last few years we've seen the largest entitlement increase in a generation and a complete restructuring of the welfare system. Even the current debate over Social Security -- with identifiably "conservative" policy prescriptions -- takes place on a very different terrain than the GOP critiques of the '30s, '40s, '50s, and '60s.

And of course this all sets aside the (almost) two decades since President Reagan. Since then, we continue to see commentators rail about a culture that is going to hell in a handbasket while the president of a major seminary is fired for marrying his lesbian daughter. And this is more conservative than it was in 1968?

Whatever one can say about political and social trends since 1968, the idea that they can be neatly categorized as "left" or "right" is nonsensical.

Posted by: Simon | Feb 15, 2005 9:44:54 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely


I can only speak for my own delusions. I largely agree with your observations regarding Clinton, but I think the circumstances of his first nomination and election need to be put into the context of the general trend in Democratic Party politics over three decades, and I also think his unquestionably amazing political skills account more for his career than his positions (whatever they may be) on political issues.

Anyway, this is way off topic. If someone wants to assert that Clinton successfully ran on what was presented as a mainstream platform and appealed to mainstream voters, I have no argument. If someone wants to argue that Clinton is typical of the Democratic Party's presidential nominees since 1968 or its general ideological trend, well, I think they have a very difficult case to make.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Feb 15, 2005 9:48:28 PM

Posted by: Don Herzog

There's lots in here and the hour is late, so you will I hope forgive me for not responding to much of what's been said. So I'll make a small point and a big one.

The small point: has it always been thus? Is it better or worse now? Am I all that clueless about history? Nothing in my post depends on any decline narrative about our fall from grace or the good old days.

The big point: I don't think it's persuasive to lean on the distinction between Reagan's "left the mainstream" and my "beyond the pale." Reagan's comment followed his "Go west to San Francisco, and then turn left," and all of us know perfectly well what the image of San Francisco in these matters is. The phrase also nicely turns on, they're out to sea.

Now Mr. Ridgely and some others can also be read as saying, quite right! the Democrats since then are mostly outside the bounds of respectable argument! And once again I find myself agreeing strenuously with miab: this is just scary.

Talk of "mainstream" or "pale" at this point has to be normative, not statistical. That is, it's not just that Mondale got clobbered by receiving only tens of millions of votes. And it's not just that the sui generis Clinton -- David V's Latin is always impeccable -- won. Let's remember too that Al Gore won the popular vote.

So the view that for some decades now the Democrats have been "outside the mainstream" is just the view that many millions of American citizens have views that are in some fundamental way out of line. Indeed, that in one election a majority had such pernicious views.

If you think that Reagan's comment was fine and your account of why turns out to be this one -- the Democrats have such weirdly repellent leftish views that they ought to be relegated to the fringes of our society -- then you have remarkable disregard for the judgments of millions of your fellow citizens. So you shouldn't bother worrying about what the right norms of debate are. You should be worrying about why we should have democracy at all -- or whether we should.

Posted by: Don Herzog | Feb 15, 2005 10:05:58 PM

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