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Henry Farrell Has a Nice Piece on How Clive Crook Is part of Our Problem

It is an interesting problem. A number of people who a couple of decades ago I judged to be smart parts of the bipartisan center--like me--have reacted to the growing insanity of America's Republican Party by pretending that it has not happened, and that America's problem today is "partisanship" understood as equally shrill and unreasonable on both the left (Democratic) and right (Republican) sides.

Clive Crook is perhaps the one who, like Lucifer, has fallen furthest, for reasons that we speculate about sometimes after we have had two beers. But the sight of him last fall attacking Democrats for saying in public things about Sarah Palin that all the reality-based Republicans were saying in private--and that Peggy Noonan was saying when she forgot that the microphone was on--was truly dismaying.

Henry Farrell takes his whack at this problem:

Centrism as tribalism: I’ve been doing my best to resist getting pulled back in by Clive Crook. I really have. I nearly succumbed when I read his Monday FT column, in which otiose self-congratulation dukes it out with utter lack of self-knowledge for seven hundred words but pulled myself back from the brink (self-congratulation wins, but it’s a very close call). But his follow-up blog post has propelled me into the abyss. Mr. Crook has a theory of what is wrong with American politics. It involves partisanship, of the kind not practiced by himself and his friends. From the column:

Increasingly, rage is the dominant mood of US politics – but the feeling is not confined to the far right. Committed partisans on both sides question their opponents’ legitimacy. It is one thing for an adversary to be mistaken, quite another to be a liar or traitor. You do not argue with an opponent like that, or seek an accommodation. You silence him, you shout him down, you impeach.... We floating voters see things differently. We approve of consensual politics, thinking that it delivers better policies. And we believe this for two main reasons. First, good policy involves trade-offs. In the farther reaches of left and right, these are forbidden. For the left, there could never be a reason to lower taxes on the rich. To improve incentives? No, the less you tax the rich, the richer they become and the lazier they can afford to be. … Second, good policy requires stability. Though Democrats apparently find this hard to imagine, they will not always control the White House and both chambers of Congress. Measures that infuriate the other side – remember the Bush tax cuts? – can be reversed.

And when he is criticized for drawing a false equivalence between the left and right, he responds:

I take the point (though I think this way of putting it is pretty generous to Jimmy Carter). I wasn’t trying to equate these views, or compare their merits, only to give examples from each side of attacks that question not the judgment but the legitimacy of the other. Charges of that kind, which seem to be becoming the standard line of attack, are uniquely toxic.

The problem with these claims is not that they are unreasonable on their face. They are contestable – Nancy Rosenblum’s recent book provides an excellent critique of the ‘fIoating voter as exemplar of independent good judgment’ shtick – but they are far from ridiculous. And we will pass quickly over Mr. Crook’s suggestion that leftwingers are constitutionally incapable of understanding that there can ever be any benefits to lowering taxes on rich people can be dismissed as standard right-wing pundit shtick. The more fundamental problem is that Mr. Crook is peculiarly unsuited to lecture anyone about silencing, shouting down, and questioning not only the judgment but the legitimacy of people whom he disagrees with. Perhaps he truly believes that there is some difference between “questioning the legitimacy” of one’s intellectual opponents, and coming out with vicious slurs like

The Democratic party’s civil libertarians seem to believe that several medium-sized US cities would be a reasonable price to pay for insisting on ordinary criminal trials for terrorist suspects.

But me – I’m not quite sure what the precise distinction is between “uniquely toxic” attempts to shout one’s opponents down, and suggestions that people whom one disagrees with view the deaths of several million of their fellow citizens as a “reasonable price to pay” for achieving their political aims. Perhaps that is because of my previously demonstrated “incompetence” and “total lack of good faith.” If so, I look forward to Mr. Crook explaining further the doubtless self-evident (to those who are not chumps like meself) dividing line between the objectionable forms of rhetoric that he dislikes so much, and the presumably non-objectionable forms that he himself spouts so enthusiastically. In the meantime, I have a theory (it’s no more than that) of what is going on here. Mr. Crook clearly considers himself to be an independent mind, floating above the political fray and pronouncing judgments upon it. But given his past form, he is quite obviously wrong. His particular attitude to the online left suggests that his tribal loyalties are every bit as strong as those of the partisans whom he deplores – he is demonstrably happy to engage in rage-filled, irrational and delegitimizing rhetoric when it is aimed against the enemies of the “We” who “approve of consensual politics.” His tribalism is one of the center rather than the partisan left or right, but it is perhaps more pernicious for being completely unselfconscious.

Here’s the more speculative bit, which you can take or leave as you like. Crook’s more loathsome rhetoric over the last year or so has been consistently reserved for those who want to see torturers and enablers of torture prosecuted. In a backhanded class of a way, I think this may possibly reflect well on him. I suspect that at some level he is genuinely conflicted between the standard DC bipartisan line on torture (that it is best to brush it all under the carpet) and the argument that torture is a fundamental and basic abrogation of civil rights. Hence – perhaps – his calumniation of those who put the strong case that we should neither forget nor forgive those who authorized torture – it is much easier to ignore their arguments if one defines them out of existence in advance.

As stated – take this suggestion for what it is worth – I have no sources of special insight into Mr. Crook’s psychology. Regardless, Mr. Crook should steer well clear in future of columns (which he has written more than one of over the last few months) deploring the hateful state of American politics and rhetoric. He is himself, after all, a not-insignificant contributor to this problem.