On the occasion of May Day, we are worrying about rising authoritarianism in the United States.
One of your Editor’s sterling attributes is that we have no impulse to tell people — other than perhaps our long-suffering offspring — how to run their lives or that they need to improve in some way. This automatically means that we have no empathy for social conservatives and “progressives,” both of which clubs are very much about enlisting government to “improve” me, you, and everybody else, regardless of the cost to human dignity, the purpose of life, and other such abstract concerns that make civilization better than its absence.
Both sides of course deny that coercion is their game, but each does such a great job in documenting the perfidies of the other that it is best simply to let their arguments stand. The hope of my lifetime, that the authoritarians of the left and right would discredit each other, was looking good in the 1990s but has since gone on life support, no more profoundly than in the current presidential election. The top four vote-getters are all authoritarians in direct proportion to their populism, are all very keen to lean on the state to improve people, or to persecute one group to benefit another (which is in fact how even most benign social improvement methods actually work out), supposedly because justice.
Here in Austin, or in at least my midnight blue neighborhood, the joy is all for Bernie Sanders, who promises to use the power of government to coerce an entirely different group of people than his predecessors. People love him for this. One teeny-weeny link to illustrate the default impulse:
Bernie Sanders supporters have hounded federal regulators with allegations about bias in the media, according to records obtained by The Hill through a Freedom of Information Act request.
A review of about 850 complaints to the Federal Communications Commission about the three major cable news networks throughout the campaign season found that one of the most popular objections came against CNN in the days after the first Democratic debate last October.
In what looked to be a coordinated effort, more than 160 complaints alleging CNN bias in favor of Hillary Clinton were filed. The complaints pushed a now-debunked story claiming the cable news network deleted favorable polling that showed Bernie Sanders won the debate.
Now, you might say that trying to get the government to dictate speech — and make no mistake, that is what these complaints are trying to do — is all about expanding freedom, because “corporations” or some such incoherence. Yeah, that argument is so old it is one of the chapters in the “Ye Olde Authoritarian’s Book of Power.”
Obviously, this is but one moment. But it is in fact an ancient tactic of the authoritarians, and we are seeing its rise on college campuses, the beating heart of the Feel-the-Bern movement. The latest rage — and we pun advisedly — among undergraduates and their fellow travelers on the faculty is to ban speech that offends their sense of justice. See the long list of cases at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and the notorious campus speech moments from last year. The Yale case is typical. After having taken offense to a measured email written by a professor (who had objected to a puritanical policy regarding Halloween costumes, itself a regulation of expression), students demanded that Yale fire the professor instead of merely responding to her argument or objecting to it. Their first impulse, or perhaps their calculated tactic, was to appeal to authority to silence the professor, or teach the professor a sorely needed lesson, or something.
There are, of course, countless recent examples of this on both left and right. Authoritarianism is ascendant, and our great fear is that we will not see it discredited until something really bad has happened. In the meantime, people who promote the power of the state as a solution to other people’s problems would do well to consider this meme, which circulated in libertarian circles, from the Occupy Wall Street movement a few years back: