Monday, October 15, 2012

The Slope Isn't As Slippery As We Think

The longer the Presidential campaign goes on, the wackier the rhetoric gets. This, in and of itself, is not that surprising. The last month generally sees things reach a fever pitch, as all of our favorite ads get squeezed out by massive campaign spending endorsed by this or that candidate or SuperPAC.

In the midst of this stream of nonsense this year, I'm noticing one thread worth commenting on - the resurgence of the "slippery slope" argument. This is a favorite of fear-mongers and those who want to argue that everything will go to Hell in a handbasket if we elect the wrong guy. The basic structure of the argument goes something like this:

"My opponent once advocated X [insert exaggerated bit of opponent's political history here]. If we go down that road, it's a Slippery Slope to Socialism/Fascism/SomethingBadism [insert stock video footage of Europe circa WWII, or people standing in breadlines in the 1930s, or something else bleak and historical-looking]. Vote for me, or you'll end up like: Germany 1939/Russia 1922/pick your favorite historical case."

Examples are easy to find. Some are by amateur, even fringe, outside groups:

Some are more professional, efforts by the campaigns or parties to slip the subtle message in (note the quick "socialism" reference):

And some are both very professional and very direct:

This year it seems to be the Republicans' turn at the Slippery Slope trough. I've heard or seen a number of arguments about how this or that policy shift (attributed, rightly or wrongly, to President Obama) is really the "first step down the slippery slope". The favored fear-inspiring target for these arguments is Socialism, lending the whole thing a sort of Reaganesque, Cold War glow. We used to fear the Commies once, right?

To be fair, I've seen this from folks on the other side before as well. There was no shortage of people in 2004, or even 2008, talking about how George W. Bush was leading us down the Road to Fascism, and that we would soon become a Police State. Folks even believed that the administration had plans to rig elections, or otherwise monkey with the system, to gain what Karl Rove ominously called a "permanent Republican majority."

The problem with all of these arguments is simple: historical slopes just aren't that slippery. Not every country that institutes measures designed to increase equality becomes Communist Hungary. Some of them, in fact, do very well - by most measures Scandinavians and Swiss are better off than Americans. Likewise, not every country that increases the strength of law enforcement becomes Nazi Germany, bent on hunting down and imprisoning its political enemies and persecuting hated minorities.

The George W administration is an excellent case in point. If ever a Presidency had the opportunity to create a real police state, it was Bush's post-9/11 presidency. For about a year, Americans would put up with anything - up to and including troops with fully automatic weapons in airports and train stations. Even through 2004, with the Iraq war and continued terrorism, there was enough there to make a serious push for rewriting the rules of American politics. With a well-placed, planted attack or two or a Krystallnacht-style event, W and his administration could have tried to permanently cement their hold on power. Instead, in 2008 they faded into the background (where they apparently now reside in Cheney's Undisclosed Bunker, at least to judge by the 2012 GOP Convention).

None of this is to say that you can't advocate for or against a particular policy change. Like many Americans, I find it a little creepy that nearly every square inch of London is blanketed by monitored security cameras - often several of them. I'm not in favor of this kind of increased monitoring of ordinary civilian life, not least because there is a tendency to erode some freedoms. But I don't think England has turned into a fascist state, nor do I think it's likely to tomorrow.

Massive and sudden societal shifts can and do happen - but they are exceedingly rare. And usually where they do occur (think of the rapid fall of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 and 1990), the pressures for that change had been building for many, many years. You can't take a country and make it into something it isn't overnight, regardless of who is President.

This is where the Slippery Slope folks wander into crazytown. No President has the power to turn the United States from what it is (a large, chaotic, extremely diverse, rather unequal, basically robust democracy) into something it isn't and never has been (whether a centrally-planned Socialist Stalinism or a jack-booted Nazi police state). Heck, Presidents barely even have the power to get minor changes enacted. For all the Sturm und Drang over Obamacare, the ideas in it are very close to the mainstream of American politics - indeed, most of them were first mooted by Republicans, before they decided that letting a Democrat take credit for their stuff was bad. And look at how much effort THAT took to create.

So when you see an ad warning about the imagined dystopian future that Obama is going to take us to in four years, turn it off. When you hear a "we're all going to be Socialists if Romney doesn't get elected" argument at a party or in the office, call it what it is - tribalist fantasy. We have real and legitimate policy disagreements. Let's argue about those, instead of making up loony theories to scare our neighbors. Leave Halloween to the Jack-o-Lanterns, not the politicians.

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