The Benefit of Thinking in Shades of Gray

Black whiteI know. It’s easier to separate people into groups of either “good’ or “bad.” Nuance is a difficult way to think because it requires us to actually acknowledge some of the good things people we think of as “bad” do, as well as the bad things our heroes sometimes have to do. Nuanced thinking is just too french, right? How easy is to to admit that George W. Bush was actually not bad once or twice, such as when he supported AIDS programs in Africa (although I suspect that was part of the deal he made with Colin Powell to get the latter to lie to the UN). And his attempts to make the wars he started and subsequently screwed up not about Islam are to be commended. On the other side, it’s difficult to accept Russ Feingold’s vote against the funds Obama asked for to close Gitmo. And what about drones? It’s hard to conceive of a peaceful purpose for an armed drone, isn’t there? Therefore, that Obama must be a killing machine, which disqualifies him as a progressive, right?

I get it. It’s a lot easier to think about everything in terms of black and white. Thinking in shades of gray is very complex and can’t always be dealt with using simple sloganeering. But if progressives want to be successful politically, copping the same “black/white” or “good/evil” pose for everything is counterproductive.

Take the drone example. Since we don’t have “Star Trek” phasers right now, and we can’t “stun” terrorists, we need a way to get rid of them, so that they can’t hurt innocent people again, and among the ways available to us are drones and troops. Drones are actually the most efficient means we have available, and they cause the least damage to civilians. Speaking of drones in the same way one speaks of war is not at all helpful. It’s simplistic and untrue, and when people check to see if you’re right (and some will), they will discover exactly that.

Many on the far left alternate between calling companies, groups and individuals “good” and “evil,” while barely taking a breath in between. If a company puts hundreds of millions of dollars into things we like, they become a “good” company, but if we find out they did one thing we deem “evil” and they become “evil” themselves. All of the good they’ve done is immediately forgotten. And many progressives call such a thing “principled.” Only, there’s nothing principles about it; it’s just flaky.

Take Google. Overall, Google has done a lot of good as a corporation. Their philanthropic arm does some great things for a lot of people, the company has been on the cutting edge of developing renewable energy technologies and they are developing cutting edge broadband services that could kill the clout that cable and phone companies currently have. They also fight against child pornography, they have been at the forefront of disease mapping and they are also bringing educational opportunities to people around the world who otherwise have little hope. They also donate tens of millions of dollars to progressive charities, including millions in Silicon Valley and the other communities where they have offices and facilities. Most of what the company is trying to do tends to fall on the side of good.

However, about two years ago, Google joined ALEC, which all progressives are supposed to acknowledge are tied with the Koch Brothers as the embodiment of evil for our time. By joining ALEC, apparently everything good Google has ever done was wiped away clean.  In one move, a good company became purely evil.

This black-and-white tendency is becoming tiresome. I mean, the difference between Walmart and Google is night and day, but we can’t express ourselves clearly because we scream about everyone based on the last bad thing professional lefties complain about. How can we complain about an obviously evil company like Walmart, when we also slam Google the same way because they’re not perfect? It’s become increasingly difficult for progressives to be taken seriously that way. There are actually rational reasons for Google to align themselves with ALEC. They want to have legislation passed, and — and this is VERY IMPORTANT for all progressives to understand — there is no one from the left doing that.

Why is that, exactly? Where is the progressive ALEC? Keep in mind, ALEC writes bills, and they will write a bill about anything a paying customer wants. It’s not like they write right-wing bills and look around for someone to buy it. Why do we act as if we’re somehow above ALEC? If we really want to win the politics, we have to play by the rules as they exist in the meantime. If right wing groups like ALEC can get away with writing laws for Republicans to pass, why are we not doing the same for Democrats? If you ask me, it sounds like a great idea. I’m not sure why this is such a horrible thing.

Black white dylanWe also need to stop whining about Citizens United and start using it to get good people elected. We do need to get rid of Citizens United, but we can’t do that without winning first. We can whine and cry about the Kochs, but until we get rid of Republicans and change the law, we can’t change our current system of legalized bribery. Nothing will change as long as Republicans keep winning state and federal elections. We have to start championing Democrats, but we can’t do that as long as the loudest segment of the progressive movement screams about everything in terms of “good/evil”  or “black/white,” especially when they’re proclaiming themselves as our voice.

We expect this simple-minded black/white, good/evil binary style of thought from the right wing; it’s the main reason their policy decisions are generally so bad. The Republican “base” is largely incapable of thinking in shades of gray. Why do so many on our side fall for the same simple-minded model when we discuss issues? We should certainly know better. The inherently negative tone that resonates from binary thinking is politically great for them, but it’s ruinous for us.

This is the number one mistake right wingers who come over to the left make, by the way; they think the same rhetoric that works for Republicans will work for progressives. Unfortunately for them(and us), most voters are rational, which means they don’t see everything as either all bad or all good, especially with regard to politics. As countries go overall, this country isn’t the third world shithole that many pro lefties want people to picture. We don’t have the level of poverty of many countries, and when our side talks about the NSA as if it’s rounding up people by the thousands and throwing them into FEMA camps, all progressives sound ridiculous. And face it; we actually have a potentially strong democracy; we just don’t use to its best effect. We all have the vote, and we actually have the power and ability to change everything. But the black/white thinking that engulfs the far left prevents that from happening.

It is our binary good/evil negativity that keeps the minority Republican Party in power. They use the negative energy generated by binary progressive thinking to help them drive down turnout, which is their only chance to win. Binary thinking can’t translate to a political win for us because it’s irrational. We’re supposed to be the rational side, remember? 

Blue DogThe far left’s hatred of “Blue Dogs” is a great example. You don’t have to like Blue Dogs, but Blue Dogs tend to not represent an obviously progressive district. Their brand of politics would be wrong for a Maxine Waters, for example. But when a Blue Dog nabs a Nebraska or Texas Senate seat. or wins a majority Republican district, every progressive should be giddy. It’s not black and white; Blue Dogs can be bad or good, depending on the district or state they represent. Russ Feingold can’t be elected in Montana, but if Maryland elects a Max Baucus, that’s a problem.

It’s also not possible to have a Democratic majority without Blue Dogs. Consider this; the LGBT Equality Caucus went from 114 members in the 113th Congress to 53 in the 114th. The House Progressive Caucus is down to 71 members, which means it’s not even a majority of the minority Democratic caucus. Dismissing Blue Dogs as “evil” because they aren’t perfect enough to be the kind of Democrat you want is completely irrational. Part of the reason there aren’t more progessives in government is because no one on our side is doing the legwork necessary to make that happen. The loudest progressives in the debate are demanding things they’re not willing to work for. Numbers are more important than ideology. The greatest progressive in the country can’t do squat as part of the minority party.

And our black/white election strategy is also killing us. Adding 5-6 more progressives every election cycle is a feel-good move, but at that rate it would take 20 election cycles to get a progressive majority. Of course, most of those elected at the beginning of such a cycle will retire early on. It’s wheel-spinning at its finest. There’s a reason why the Progressive Caucus started with 72 members in 1991, and they have 71 now. At it’s peak, the 111th Congress, they had 85 members, but almost a dozen of them were swept away when our side targeted Blue Dogs. Part of that is the inexact nature of black/whte politics. Most voters don’t know or care what you think a “Blue Dog” is. When you point to a Blue Dog, they think “Democrat” and they become disgusted with the entire party. You can’t scream “Democrats suck!” and then whisper, “well, except for these Democrats” and expect that to be effective. People hear “Democrats suck!” coming from both sides. They already know Republicans suck, so they don’t vote, they stay home election day. And that, my progressive friends, is why Republicans keep winning.

For a really long time, we have to focus on getting all Democrats elected. Once we have 300 House seats, 67-70 Senate seats and most state legislatures – and yes, it can be done – we can then pick off a few of the worst Democrats. Until then, we’re just hurting ourselves. This should be common sense. I mean, if we’re successful at trashing Blue Dogs, the replacement will be usually be a Republican.

And please stop quoting Truman about Republicans and Democrats, because this is not 1948. Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but the current GOP is nothing like the GOP of Eisenhower, Nixon or Goldwater. Hell, it would be difficult for Saint Reagan to be a Republican these days.

Aren’t you tired of losing, progressives? Me too. So stop making it happen.

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