Ethics & Public Policy Center

David Frum, Speech Policeman

Published in National Review Online on December 6, 2010



Last week, the distinguished liberal thinker and activist William Galston, along with an equally distinguished conservative counterpart, David Frum, announced in the Washington Post the forthcoming founding of a new organization called “No Labels.” The stated aim of No Labels is to combat the “hyper-polarization” of American political debate by “calling out” politicians, media personalities, and opinion leaders who “recklessly demonize” opponents. Unfortunately, their announcement gives us reason to fear that No Labels will only increase the level of political acrimony by attempting to constrain debate, thereby exacerbating the very polarization the group claims it seeks to combat.

No Labels aims to “expand the space” of public debate in America by reducing the fear of “social or political retribution.” But this expansion is, by the two men's own account, really a contraction. That is, Galston and Frum intend to moderate public debate by “establishing lines that no one should cross,” as they put it. Specifically, they seek to police the use of labels like “racist” and “socialist,” which they believe are used recklessly in a way that undermines democratic discussion of “legitimate policy differences.”

What this represents, in part, is an attempt to delegitimize and silence the substantial number of Americans who believe, with good reason, that President Obama's policies are socialist in both effect and intent. Far from reducing the fear of “social and political retribution” in public debate, Galston and Frum mean to engineer an increase in such retribution, and to direct it to their own ends. In a democracy, we ought to be at pains to avoid preemptively drawing bright lines against any substantive point of view. Arguments instead ought to be tested and winnowed in the marketplace of ideas, with citizens judging political advocates on how well they support their own assertions and how effectively (and how fairly) they address counter-arguments.

What exactly do Galston and Frum mean when they say they intend to “call out” those who use labels like “racist” and “socialist” in public debate? I think I can answer that question, since a series of attacks engineered by Frum on my then-unpublished book, Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism, appears to have been a dress rehearsal of sorts for the operation of No Labels.

On July 27, 2010, I announced the forthcoming publication of my book at National Review Online's blog, the Corner. The announcement made it clear that my book was the result of more than two years of empirical and historical research into Barack Obama's political past, and would marshal “a wide array of never-before-seen evidence to establish that the president of the United States is indeed a socialist.” Frum, however, didn't wait to consider my evidence or argument, or even bother to read my book. Instead, he invited a self-described Democratic activist who writes under the pseudonym “Eugene Victor Debs” to attack the very idea of my book — before either had read it.

I would probably not have responded to an anonymous attack on an unpublished book were it not for the fact that I knew and respected Frum, who warned me in advance that Debs's piece was coming and invited me to respond. I did reply to Debs, after which, to my surprise, the attacks kept coming, both from Debs and from Frum himself. In my responses to Frum and Debs, I finally began to speak more frankly about my dismay and puzzlement at their persistent attacks on a raft of new evidence that I had not yet even had a chance to present to the public. Oddly, since the actual publication of Radical-in-Chief, there has been not a word about the book from either Frum or Debs.

The announcement of the No Labels project by Galston and Frum makes perfect sense of all this. Given Frum's response to the mere title and description of my book, it's clear that the purpose of No Labels is not to engage those who call Obama socialist in a serious intellectual exchange, but rather to put their arguments beyond the pale of acceptable public debate. Far from being a recipe for moderation, Galston and Frum have hit on a surefire way to excite the very polarization they claim to oppose.

The media response to my book to date is a typical example of the political polarization Galston and Frum decry. Hailed as “the most important political book in years” in a feature-length review in the pages of National Review by a distinguished historian of the American Left, Ronald Radosh, Radical-in-Chief has been completely ignored by the mainstream press. This is something I am constantly asked about as I appear on radio or before various groups to speak about the book. Again and again, critics of Obama react with anger and exasperation at the refusal of the mainstream press to engage with a sober and heavily documented critique of the president's radicalism. That sort of shut-out is a small but typical example what's polarizing political debate in America.

All Galston and Frum have done is to make explicit — and reinforce — the mainstream press's existing determination to ignore and silence critics of Obama's radicalism. Once No Labels gets going, public resentment at these silencing techniques is bound to increase. Contrary to Galston and Frum, the way to reduce polarization is not to suppress disagreement but to invite reasoned debate on the issues that actually divide us. Since a substantial portion of the public views the president as a covert radical, let the topic be debated in the widest and most respectable forums. If the president's accusers offer mere bluster, or his defenders are living in denial, we shall see it all then. A true public debate on this issue in the pages of the mainstream press would rivet the public's attention and immediately raise the level of discussion. By further suppressing this debate, on the other hand, Galston and Frum promote distrust and enmity between Left and Right.

None of this is particularly mysterious — or at least it ought not to be to those who have learned from the classical liberal approach to democratic debate recommended by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. Mill discourages the creation of implicit or explicit rules banning any substantive claim in public debate, calling on us instead to judge a given argument according to the quality of its reasoning and the degree to which it fairly represents and successfully parries opposing points of view.

On its face, a principled opposition to political labeling is both incoherent and illiberal. Labels can surely be misused. Yet political discourse itself would be impossible without the basic terms through which we name and recognize our own political beliefs and those of others. Abused as they may often be, we can't even think without labels — which is to say, without categories. Galston and Frum label their own opponents when they decry them for “brain-dead partisanship.” Apparently, Frum consigned my book to that category without even reading it. Who was the brain-dead partisan there? Galston and Frum don't actually mean “no labels.” What they really mean is, “n
o labels of which we disapprove.” Their new group might more aptly be named “Shut Up.”

It is not the job of those who cherish liberty of thought and discussion to ban claims of Obama's socialism or of Tea Party racism, but to subject all of these assertions to the scrutiny of serious debate. While many or most accusations of Tea Party racism are baseless, legitimate complaints are possible and cannot be ruled out in advance. If Tea Party critics have serious evidence of racism, let them present it. If their evidence is tissue-paper thin (as most of it has been), that weakness can be (and has been) exposed.

Furthermore, the equivalence Galston and Frum draw between accusations of racism and socialism is deceptive. Few, if any, people call themselves racists. On the other hand, a sitting U.S. senator, Bernie Sanders, and a prominent Washington Post columnist, Harold Meyerson, proudly call themselves socialists. My book reveals that many of President Obama's colleagues and sponsors in the world of community organizing secretly saw themselves as socialists. Is it so impossible to believe that a man who was shaped for years by that world — and proudly boasts of it — might share the beliefs of his socialist mentors and colleagues?

By what standard is a lengthy and heavily-documented argument to this effect ruled out of acceptable public discussion? Why should Galston and Frum want to “call out” me or someone persuaded by my book? Why should making or accepting my argument be treated as moving beyond “a line that no one should cross?” And doesn't that entangle Galston and Frum in exactly the sort of “political and social retribution” they claim to oppose?

I don't want to imply that the only believers in Obama's socialism who should get a pass from No Labels are the ones who rely on my book. Two and a half years of research into Obama's past has left me with a healthy respect for the many Americans who concluded long ago that Obama was a socialist. No doubt some of these folks are intemperate and open to criticism. But I'm struck by how the critics were largely right — and for the right reasons, too. They looked at Obama's questionable political partnerships, the not-so-hidden hints of radicalism in his memoirs, his own unguarded remarks during the campaign, the general tenor of Alinskyite community organizing, and the upshot of his political program. This yielded a rough-and-ready judgment that was harsh, but by no means unsupported. Two years of painstaking research in archives scattered across the country confirms that, on the whole and in the round, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Joe the Plumber, a host of bloggers, and even John McCain were correct: Obama really is a socialist. These critics are the folks Galston and Frum want to delegitimize and silence, but they had Obama correctly pegged from the start. My book irks Frum because it proves that his favorite targets have been right all along.

I suppose Galston and Frum will now put Jonah Goldberg's thoughtful piece on Obama's socialism beyond the pale of respectable public debate as well. What, exactly, other than Galston's and Frum's decree, disqualifies it? Among other things, Goldberg does an excellent job of showing how some of Obama's strongest and most respected public supporters use the word “socialist” to characterize his policies. Will No Labels attack those who praise Obama for his socialism, or only the president's critics?

And where do we draw the line? Political philosopher and commentator Peter Berkowitz recently published a piece in Policy Review analyzing and exposing the deceptive and illiberal nature of Obama's progressivism. Berkowitz may not use the forbidden word “socialism,” but his offense, from Galston's and Frum's point of view, is arguably greater. Berkowitz takes the currently approved label “progressive” and exposes many of those whom it describes as employing a hypocritical and undemocratic ruse designed to deceive the public into overlooking the real intentions of its practitioners. To be sure, Berkowitz concedes that the deceptions of today's progressives likely stem from some difficult-to-determine combination of honest self-delusion and intentional stealth. But if it's out of bounds to call Obama a stealth socialist, why shouldn't we also reject out of hand Berkowitz's critique of stealthily illiberal progressivism? We could forgo all attributions of bad faith in public debate — if we could always rely on human honesty and transparency. Yet Galston's and Frum's argument actually depends on the attribution of bad faith to their “brain-dead partisan” opponents. It's only President Obama's good faith and transparency that they appear to place beyond question.

Berkowitz's point is that, under the guise of furthering democratic debate, today's progressives actually scheme to find ways to suppress it. Galston and Frum are up to the same thing.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism.

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