Hearing Extremes

One of the problems with our contemporary political discourse is the assumption of extremes. It shapes how we read the statements of opponents and how politicians speak to their base. Two examples have caught my attention of late:


A recent conversation with a conservative revealed that he interpreted Elizabeth Warren’s remarks on claims of “class warfare” as an argument “that ‘rich’ people … ‘exploit’ the education that we paid for with their workers.” He went on to explain that business owners aren’t exploiting workers because people choose whom to work for.

Warren did not use the word “exploit” in her statement. Nor did she say anything about the unequal relationship between workers and employers. Her argument was about the relationship between the wealthy and society. In fact, she didn’t even explicitly call for more taxes on the wealthy, just explained the justification to taxing them at all.

But my friend was convinced that he knew what she really meant. To him, her argument sounded more like this: “Let’s soak the fat cats for all we can get! Workers of the world, unite!” He heard something of her underlying logic (the wealthy should pay taxes in recognition of the benefit they receive from society) and assumed that she was advocating the absolute extreme version, that she was a communist in reformer’s clothing.

Unfortunately, George F. Will made a similar set of assumptions, concluding that Warren is a collectivist at heart. In arguing this point he wrote, “The fact that collective choices facilitate this striving [of the rich for wealth] does not compel the conclusion that the collectivity (Warren’s “the rest of us”) is entitled to take as much as it pleases of the results of the striving.” Of course, Warren didn’t draw that conclusion in her remarks either. Her argument only went so far as the reasonableness of taxation. Perhaps Will is right that she’s channeling John Kenneth Galbraith and we’re still having the exact same argument we were having in the sixties. But if that argument is inescapable, that has a great deal to do with the unwillingness of pundits like Will to let it go. Doing so would require him to address Warren’s statement at face value, likely giving him little material for filling a whole column. (Not that he found much in his misreading: most of the column’s dedicated to arguing with the deceased Galbraith.)


Of course, it’s just as easy for liberals to hear conservative rhetoric as absolutist, as though they don’t recognize the reality of competing aims. A favorite recent example of a head-on collision between ideology and reality came during one of the Republican presidential debates. Rep. Michele Bachmann was asked (again) about how much of each dollar earned a worker should be allowed to take home. Her response: a crowd pleasing “All of it!” She went on to lecture Pres. Obama and liberals for thinking it’s the government’s money when it’s actually each individual’s money. This was all classic conservative rhetoric and classing Bachmann. But then, at the end of her response, she suddenly pivoted to concede that “we have to give money back to the government so that we can run the government.” Even Bachmann realizes that, however much it makes for a good sound bite, we can’t have zero taxes.


We’ve grown so used to having ideology pitched to us in absolutes (as fodder for the base or caricature of the opponents) that we hear the absolutes even when they’re not there. In that regard, it doesn’t really matter what exactly Warren said, her opponents will hear class warfare and collectivism in her remarks. The response to Bachmann’s statement reflects why this difficulty persists. She was roundly cheered for the first part of her statement, but her concession to reality was ignored by those who would rather focus on pure rhetoric. So she’ll keep giving us more of the ideology and less of the reality. That’s what a partisan system rewards and so that’s what we get from most politicians and pundits.



UPDATE: What does it mean that E. J. Dionne Jr.’s recent post reflects some of my comments? He criticized George F. Wills’ piece on Elizabeth Warren, raising some of the same points as I did in this post? I’m choosing to take it as a sign that I was on to something.

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