12 min read

The End of Both Siderism — Why We Need to Confront The Consequences of Anti-Democratic Political…

Updated on 8/18 with responses to a few counter-arguments.
The End of Both Siderism — Why We Need to Confront The Consequences of Anti-Democratic Political…

The End of Both Siderism — Why We Need to Confront The Consequences of Anti-Democratic Political Ideologies

Updated on 8/18 with responses to a few counter-arguments.

In law, there are always two sides to every case. The plaintiff and the defense. Many people who go into politics are lawyers who got their start on debate teams, switching between one of two sides on any issue, learning to marshall sets of facts in support of pre-determined conclusions.

But politics doesn’t work that way in practice (or lawyering for that matter). Most people’s opinions are squishy, ill-formed and subject to change. The small portion of us who are politically active, meanwhile, tend to have coherent ideologies, strategies for achieving political ends, and a set of tactics we think can achieve our goals.

But instead of grappling with those realities, we too often revert to both-siderism at the personal and institutional level, wishing the two parties to be reasonable or chummy or friendly so they can get around to solving problems. We get upset when one or both sides doesn’t seem to play by the rules of decorum and propriety that big money, big media, and Beltway culture have enforced for years. We treat politics as a sport — a debate competition — with winners and losers who can all go out for ice cream together after the game.

But politics isn’t a sport. It’s a deeply contentious exercise of power in society. And in politics, the winners get to reshape the rules of the game. The past few years have made that readily apparent. So it’s time for an end to both-siderism. It’s lazy, it’s easily exploited, and it no longer fits the objective reality of our politics. Instead, we need to confront the real ideological differences we have and their consequences. Because it’s not enough to condemn political violence; we need to understand that political violence is an outgrowth of anti-democratic political ideologies.

Both-siderism is often an excuse for inaction

For most people, the idea that “both sides” are at fault absolves them of their responsibility for participating in politics — if both of the (only) two sides are bad, there’s nothing I can do to make it better anyway. I’m still a good person, but I don’t have to choose sides if I can believe both sides are bad.

Similarly, people who say “all politicians are corrupt” and that “nothing changes anyway” are largely trying to articulate why they feel they don’t have to expend the energy to address injustice.

Of course, we can all do something to change our politics. That’s democracy.

Both-siderism makes us feel smarter than the politicians

If someone can see the fault in both sides, then they must be smarter than the entire political class. Free of bias themselves, independent of thought and mind, they’re able to look down on politics as a dirty sport. They may even feel that it’s bad to have any ideology.

Yes, Republicans are bad the opinion columnists write, but Democrats also have their faults. Writers afflicted with both-siderism often call on presidents or other public figures to demonstrate “more leadership” or “unite the country,” though how one goes about doing those things amid deep, unresolvable ideological disagreements is often left to the reader’s imagination.

This is also the wrong way to view power. Words are important, but power flows from people taking action. Columnists who take this stance should instead decide which actions from which group of ideologues might improve real people’s lives.

Both-siderism is a reactive defense mechanism

President Trump’s bumbling press conference yesterday marked the nadir, perhaps, of empty-headed both-siderisim.

What debate team rules tell us is that if we can expose our opponent’s hypocrisy they will somehow concede their point. In practice, arguments about hypocrisy are just a tool partisans use to feel superior to their opponents, work the refs in the press, and give their base something to complain about if the media is not covering the hypocrisy to their satisfaction. Under Trump, the use of hypocrisy arguments has become a farcical exercise that allows his supporters, including elected Republican leaders, to avoid talking about the consequences of various policies they seek to implement.

Don’t want to feel bad about being in a coalition with white nationalists who helped elect Trump? Make up a violent “alt-left.” Both sides, you see!

Don’t want to own up to how a birther conspiracy theorist like Trump fans the flames of racism? Call Obama divisive. Both sides! Nailed it!

Don’t want to deal with the vile racism that’s found a welcoming home in today’s Republican Party? Call civil rights activists racists, too! Both sides! Whee!

And these calls of faux-hypocrisy also justify anti-democratic power grabs.

Want to ram through healthcare legislation with no hearings? Just lie and say the Democrats did the same thing, too!

Want to steal a Supreme Court seat from the Democrats? Just make up a “rule” that both sides have purportedly followed. Free pass!

Want to gerrymander Congressional districts so badly that some states don’t even have competitive races? Just point out that Democrats have gerrymandered, too!

Want to make it harder for black people to vote? Just yell about how the Democrats used to harbor racists, too.

Both-siderism denies the consequences of political ideology

Both-siderism suggests that there are two valid sides to every debate and that only the tactics each side uses might be out of bounds. If both sides are valid, we just have to make sure they play by the rules and everything will sort itself out. Violence, we say, is a no-go zone and we condemn the tactic. But what we miss, far too often, is that the tactic is the result of a broken, anti-democratic ideology.

I hope the Charlottesville attack and Trump’s response clarifies this. Our politics has simply moved beyond the post-war consensus in which both-siderism flourished. We need to move with it.

The alt-right is the latest in a long line of racist, anti-immigrant, white supremacist movements that radicalize white men and convince them to engage in political violence. That violence is justified, they say, for the preservation of the white race. Their policy platform would necessitate the creation of a police state to violently expunge millions of immigrants and their families from the country. Already, alt-right policies put in place by the Trump administration block people from becoming citizens based on their national origin and religion. Implementing an alt-right program requires denying people who disagree with them, including young people and people of color, their political power, especially their right to vote. The savvier among the alt-right cloak their reactionary ideology as a simple demand for free speech — for everyone to be fair to both sides and respectfully allow them to spread hateful ideas. Then they complain about hypocrisy to distract from the deadly consequences of turning alt-right politics into real-world policy.

This ideology has been met with many responses: peaceful protest, violence, civil action to shut down fascist groups, and defeat at the polls.

Protesters raiding the headquarters of the Nazi German-American Bund Hall in Union City, New Jersey in 1938 (via The Atlantic)
Protestors outside Madison Square Garden, where 20,000 fascists gathered in 1939. (via The Atlantic)
British police attempting to clear anti-fascists from the streets in 1936 for a march by the fascist Blackshirts and their leader Oswald Mosley. The anti-fascists shut down the march, an event that’s commemorated in East London. (via TIME and Getty Images)
Protestors shut down an Oswald Mosley event again in 1960. (via Museum of London)
Anti-fascist counter-protestors shielding clergy in Charlottesville, Virginia, 2017. (image via @mzfayy) Slate has a summary of what it looked like on the streets to activists.

So when people like Joe Biden say, “There’s only one side,” in response to Charlottesville, I tend to agree. But it’s also a means of trying to place the alt-right outside our normal politics. It’s not. White supremacy has always been here. We fought a Civil War against domestic white supremacy. We fought a World War against global white supremacy. We started and stopped Reconstruction. We needed a Civil Rights movement and a Voting Rights Act to even begin to right so many of the racist wrongs in our society. And now we’re still fighting the same battles, in Lincoln’s words, to test the idea of whether any nation conceived in liberty and equality can long endure.

The one side that we need to be on — the one thing that has to unite good people in the fights ahead — is a commitment to protecting and defending democracy. Because in a democracy, everyone gets to vote. Everyone gets to participate. And everyone with an ideology that says someone else isn’t allowed to participate in a democratic system is overwhelmingly defeated at the polls. When they’re not defeated, when they get allies in Congress and the White House, our democratic order starts to break down.

Now, we have a anti-democratic cancer in our politics. It’s growing. That cancer has infected the Republican Party and, under Trump, it’s metastasizing. Republican leaders are aiding and abetting the cancer’s growth all around the country by altering the rules of the electoral game to keep a diminishing population of relatively well off white people in power. Their base demands nothing less and many who have refused to buckle to their demands have been booted from office in primaries. Others lodge quiet, anonymous protests to reporters and friends, keeping their heads down, hoping this will pass.

But it’s not passing. There is no “good Trump” that will emerge from this mess. The President of the United States is a radicalized conspiracy monger who is an avid reader and fan of the alt-right. And we have to come to grips with the fact that there is no moderating counter-movement in the Republican Party to stop the lurch toward authoritarianism. The Republican elites are holding onto the old order that got them there, the old order that kept the alt-right’s predecessors further away from the levers of power, but they are losing, too.

So it’s good to see Republican politicians condemning the president’s words and condemning white nationalism. But now here’s the hard part: what are they doing to stop it? Are they going to figure out how to create a path to citizenship for millions of our neighbors, many of whom were brought here as children? Are they going to force the president to keep funding programs that weaken white supremacist groups? Are they going to rescind the unjust laws that prevent so many of our neighbors from participating in elections?

How are they going to change these numbers?

Political polarization is affecting how people see the basic rules in a democracy. (Source: Marist poll via Washington Post)

There will be more white supremacist political violence between now and November 2018 and November 2020, I’m sure. Politicians need to be clear that they’re not responding to that political violence merely as an out-of-bounds tactic. They have to recognize it as the result of an anti-democratic ideology that sees violence and resulting civil strife as the “continuation of politics by other means.”

I’ll be counter-protesting, peacefully, if I can help it, supporting legal defense for persecuted immigrants, and continuing to educate myself about the alt-right through invaluable tracking efforts like Ctrl-Alt-Right-Del. But mostly, I’ll be doing my best to make sure more people can vote and that they vote to put more Democrats back in office. I don’t trust today’s Republican Party to restrain Trump. We’ve been watching them fail for more than a year now. Only a Democratic House and more Democratic Senators can stop the anti-democratic descent at the federal level.

Until the Republican Party purges itself of Trumpism and the alt-right — and until it stops trying to manipulate our electoral system to prevent more people from participating — it deserves no one’s support. And ultimately, losing elections may be the only way the Republican Party can cleanse itself.

(Peter Loge has some salient thoughts about how Republicans can respond and why they own this.)

Update — 8/18 — It’s been interesting to see how people are processing Charlottesville. I’d like to address a few arguments I’ve seen that strike me as both prevalent and wrong.

Defending Nazi free speech rights — Nazis and their allies do have free speech rights. What they don’t have is the right to enter liberal cities like Berkeley and Charlottesville to commit acts of violence in the name of recruiting more people to their cause. That’s what we’re dealing with, not just the abstract right to publish or march or hold a public event or the abstract tactic of political violence. White supremacists love when liberals defend their free speech rights; it elevates their ideology to the level of Constitutional discourse. And they love when liberals decry violence on “both sides” because it equates beating a black man over the head with sticks because of his race with defending a community against a violent Nazi march. Practically speaking, the best response to arguments about free speech is to help others understand how white supremacists use free speech arguments as cover for their horrible worldview. We have to critically examine the speech at hand: it’s hate speech and it’s the basis for creating policies that involve violently expelling millions of our neighbors from the country and denying other people the right to vote. It is speech calling for the death of democracy.

Not all conservatives— We don’t have to belabor the fact that not all conservatives or Republicans are Nazis. That’s obvious. What we do have to focus on is what conservatives and Republicans are doing to reduce the influence white supremacists and the alt-right have on their base. Right now, I do not see that they have a game plan for combatting them besides issuing statements of condemnation. That is simply not enough. So if a conservative tells me that critics shouldn’t paint too broad a brush, my response is, what are you doing to make that harder then?

Debating personal racism — Part of how white Americans cope with our country’s history of white supremacy is to treat racism as if it’s a personal problem rather than a systemic one. But in politics, people’s personal racism is less important than their support for policies that institutionalize racism. If everyone woke up not racist tomorrow, it would still be significantly harder for many people of color to vote than it is for their white neighbors. So Donald Trump and his supporters love to have debates about the pureness of what’s in their hearts so they can tell you about all their black and immigrant friends. Meanwhile, they pass policies that purge black people from the voter rolls and kick Muslims out of the country.

Just ignore the Nazis — If only leftists wouldn’t attempt to defend their communities, some say, the white supremacists wouldn’t be able to use violent confrontations as a recruitment tool. I disagree in principle and practice. White supremacists, uncontested, will absolutely recruit more people. We can argue about how quickly or slowly they’ll be able to do so under various scenarios in which their marches are blocked by counter-protesters or descend into violence, but pretending that we can ignore them into irrelevance is a mistake that neglects the lessons of history. Second, the people who are actually doing the counter-protesting don’t buy this argument! So my main counterpoint here is pragmatic: if you think the white supremacist rallies should be ignored, what’s your plan to go convince a bunch of anti-fascists that you’re right? Not to be glib, but I’m pretty sure the folks in black masks don’t read David Brooks.

Similarly, they don’t watch SNL and as funny and cathartic as Tina Fey’s recent bit was, it’s message was that counter-protestors should treat white supremacist rallies “like the opening of a thoughtful movie with two female leads. Don’t show up.” She says the Nazis will be left “screaming into the air.” That’s not true. They’ll be screaming at new recruits. So there are a lot of creative means of peaceful counter-protest worth thinking about and doing and the anti-fascists and the socialists and the clergy will be out there trying to block the Nazis from marching, and some of them will be willing to punch and punch back. But we can’t comfort ourselves into ignoring the hate that Donald Trump and his aiders and abettors in the Republican Party have allowed to fester for far too long. It’s on the surface now. We need to confront it.

Thanks for reading. You can subscribe to receive updates.

Subscriptions are free, but you can provide monthly or annual support.

You can also leave a one-time tip using the links below. Your contributions help cover the cost of hosting.

If you're interested in hiring me for consulting work or have an institutional home for writing like this, please contact me.

$1 tip $5 tip $10 tip