A Little Sympathy for the Devils

Why do otherwise intelligent people believe that radical ideologies will improve their lives? It’s because they’re seeking an actual solution they don’t see offered anywhere else.

Photo by Eliel Thomaz on Unsplash

The way my grandmother talks about her communist neighbors as a girl (or the way her parents brought food to enslaved Soviet prisoners of war), you might get the impression that there was a degree of camaraderie or empathy there between them.

To my knowledge, none of my late relatives were outright communists themselves. Empathy — as flat as that sounds — was the more likely limit. You grew up in the same land. You went through the same hardships. You were responding to the same conditions. You understood why some of your neighbors sought a better life through communism or fascism, even if you vehemently disagreed with them.

On neither the left nor the right can I find anyone writing from a perspective like that anymore. And, I suppose that’s with good reason. You’re all afraid of getting labeled an apologist or crypto- of whichever ideology you talk about. We’ve also all collectively lived through the fruition of these ideologies, and rightly have some anxiety that validating the emotional complaint informing extremism leads to validating the ideology itself.

So instead we get low-thought pieces on banning symbols and statues, sniffing out and exiling every secret extremist, and figuratively (or literally) burning the books of any number of thinkers who helped bring these ideologies into life over the last two centuries.

All of that is stupid. Whether there’s a statue of Lenin in Seattle or not has nothing to do with whether people will read him or be inspired by him. I’ve never seen a statue of Marx in my entire life, but I’ve read all three volumes of Das Kapital, the manifesto, and some of Engels too — and I consider them important sources of inspiration in my own independent political thinking. Humans are curious and innovative in the ways we solve problems. Look no further than the underground market in North Korea for an example of the lengths we’ll go to encounter contraband intelligence.

Censorship is a lost cause. And frankly it’s anti-democratic and anti-American. This isn’t a police state. This shouldn’t be a police state. Our thoughts and research should not be policed, denigrated, or outlawed. Americans should resist the drive to police thought, and embrace the responsibility to value dissent. A cornerstone of a functional democracy is being able to evaluate competing ideologies on their merits, and to advocate for yours alongside others advocating theirs. Being a republic is not about ideological ascendancy, but about taking those concerns that affect Americans so deeply, and guiding society towards the optimal solution for the entire public.

The match of these two — a democracy and a republic — depends on both the liberty to dissent and the social agreement that we protect that liberty, even where we disagree with expressions it produces. We are not a socialist state, a communist state, a fascist state, or even a neoliberal state. We are a country for the people, and by the people. That means viewing one another as a common people, not as irredeemable extremists, bigots, or idiots.

Common people ahead of common philosophy or creed.

I agree with I’d argue most Americans that we’ve lost some of that in the recent period of hyper-partisan polarization. I see the reflexive instinct to label one another as “fascists,” “communists,” “white supremacists,” and the like to be a good example of how this mood is fed and grown.

Sure, some people are true believers in whichever of these ideologies. I think a larger number of people are attracted to these ideologies because they offer an answer to problems they don’t see being answered anywhere else — and finding that answer is more valuable than the loss of value that occurs by aligning with an ideology with which they don’t entirely agree.

Here’s an example. A large number of my former coworkers — Black working class men and women — supported Trump in both 2016 and 2020. The irony is twofold. First, Trump received more votes in 2016 from people of color than moderate-bipartisan Romney did in 2012, and he netted more votes from people of color in 2020 than in his previous election — this despite countless articles conflating Trump with white supremacy.

The second irony is that these are the same coworkers I’ve read Marx and Engels with, and who have persistently attempted to unionize for protection against wrongful termination and withheld pay that the state refuses to deem worthy enough to consider.

These are the same families who show up to demand that the local government amp up policing in their neighborhoods instead of giving in to the demands of middle class radicals across town.

These aren’t Republican capitalists or Democrat communists. They’re perhaps more correctly defined first and foremost as Americans looking for a country that actually cares about their lives.

The American culture war struggles to digest that information because it sees Americans as ideologies instead of people. It equates Trump and “law and order” to white supremacy and fascism. It equates communism to Clinton, Harris, feminists, blacks, and the defund the police movement. It sees America as a country irreparably divided along ideologies of race and gender alone, absent completely a political consciousness of class, crime, and devastated economics.

The culture war can’t conceptualize a political position based in actually trying to improve your life, the lives of your family, and the situation of your neighborhood ahead of being ideologically pure, full of hatred, or a total idiot. It can’t conceptualize Republicans inspired by Marx or tradesmen optimistic about capitalism.

And that’s why the conversation so often just stops at an ad hominem attack. You’re a fascist. You’re a communist. You’re a white supremacist — or, worse — MLK’s infamous “white moderates.”

American politics have become lazy like this. The logic that’s intended is that the label is so shocking, we’ll seize into some sort of moral outrage that either repels us from the subject or reveals our true, diabolical nature as the very thing that’s been named.

If you want to see how well that’s worked looked no further than the generation of blue-haired college graduates embracing the label “communist” without the slightest discernible understanding of what that means or how it differs from any number of other left-wing and liberal political positions.

Look at people like myself. You can call me a “white supremacist” or a “racist” all day long — I literally do not care anymore. I have become so desensitized to those words that it does not impact me. Years ago, it would have shut me up in a fit of shame and self-reflection. It doesn’t anymore. My reflex is to assume I’m being criticized by someone too partisan to understand my opinion or the legitimate concerns I’m voicing.

That’s a loss when your political battle goes beyond simply identifying everyone with whom you disagree. Calling people communists doesn’t stop the resurgence of communist ideology. Calling people white supremacists doesn’t stop racism.

Both make it easier for politicians of any stripe to offer no real change at all, just all the right mean tweets at all the right targets. Both just reiterate that more moderate people’s legitimate grievances are so outside the accepted political norm that an extreme ideology is the only place they will be heard.

And hammering that nail over and over again makes it more difficult to distinguish real, intolerable extremism from totally reasonable complaints all Americans ought to care about.

Photo by Michael Heuser on Unsplash

I’ve said before and I’ll say again, I think America would best be served if both the left and the right chilled out with the partisan labels. But more importantly, we have to go deeper than that. If we want a republic instead of an ideological war zone, we have to go deeper than that.

People who care about this country and the futures of those living in it need to hold to our own ideological framework, and let the extremists argue against that, rather than for the morality of their own crusades.

We aren’t reinventing the wheel here. I know it’s a radical thing to say these days, but America was founded on and has grown into some pretty solid ideas intended to prevent the kind of conflicts bubbling up right now. Values like civil equality, blind justice, and representative democracy are the values of this country’s popular ideological center. Individualism tempered by the common good — that’s a centrist value too.

Those values are what brought many of our ancestors here from overseas, and they’re what still call to immigrants these days too.

Those values are under attack from extremist factions of many different stripes — and that’s the war that needs to be exposed and countered. When you are proposing that justice look specifically at color or gender, when you are talking about burning books based on the color of their author’s skin, or when you are proposing that civil equality be replaced by “equity of outcome,” you aren’t proposing some progressive reform, you’re proposing an overhaul of American identity and social structure all together.

By my reckoning, it’s less important whether we call these people “fascists,” “communists,” or “anti-racists,” and more important that we make a clear case for why existing and improvable American values are better than the options they are proposing.

Central to that — and to circle back to my original point here — we have to be willing to seriously evaluate the issues impacting everyday Americans’ lives. The best way to combat extremism isn’t to ban all mention of it or to push its supporters further into the darker parts of the internet.

It’s to take away their ability to radicalize moderate-minded people by treating their potential recruits like actual Americans with resolvable American problems their country ought to care about, rather than as disposable bigots and idiots we’ve already lost.

That doesn’t mean every issue someone brings up is reasonable, important, or even real. But it does mean that our investigation of their concerns doesn’t start and end with a label othering them out of American society.

Most of us know that as real as fascism, racism, and communism are — very few people truly adhere to these beliefs, and their capacity to organize is even more limited. Where they appear larger is in their success at capturing the interest of people who feel unheard and pushed out of more ascendant political conversations. Our goal ought to be rebuilding connections between these people and their country, not further alienating them.

We ought to value the importance of protecting dissent. After all, it could one day be us who is the dissenter to popular political thought. So ask people what they mean when they proclaim their alignment to one ideology or another. Ask what they’re responding to. Ask about the solutions they see as necessary, and why other solutions are inadequate.

Give others the grace to grow and change their opinions over time too.

Read more. Read political theory older than the 1960s. Read enough to form a cogent argument for your politics that doesn’t dissolve to moral outrage.

Do all these things like the future of your country depends on them.

That’s the privilege of living in a democratic society — we can have these kinds of conversations without being disappeared because of them. We can read other perspectives without being imprisoned. We can even meet in groups to discuss these ideas without being shutdown because of them.

Those are privileges worth fighting for.

Those are rights worth exercising more too.

We have a responsibility to each other to defend societies where this kind of open exchange and debate can occur. For many around the world, that kind of liberty is too often denied.

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