Update August 15, 2016: As part of a site-wide cleanup, I made some changes to this post that I have been wanting to do for a while but kept putting off due to laziness. I did this because, even considering the constraints of a short blog post, I don’t think my arguments were sufficiently well-thought or described. In addition, two out of my three ideas were, I believe, reinforced after the Orlando shooting on June 12, 2016.
I have followed politics with increasing interest over the last few years. This is both enlightening and depressing. It’s enlightening because I now have a better understanding of how our society and world works. But it’s also depressing because the nature of politics has grown increasingly toxic, filled with more and more people who refuse to be radical centrists. I’m also starting to get distracted during my daily work life when I think about the most extreme political news from the night before (and occasionally, the week before).
As I struggle to understand what makes Democrats liberal and Republicans conservative, I often think about how these parties may be pursuing their goals in a suboptimal manner. For instance, Arthur Brooks has written about about how conservatives do not display enough compassion in his 2015 book The Conservative Heart. In a similar manner, I have some suggestions for Democrats on how they can win a broader audience or more easily achieve their goals.
Part 1: On Taxation
In most of the Republican presidential debates, and somewhere on most of the Republican candidates’ websites, I see the following come up over and over again: simplify the tax code. Yet I don’t see this discussion as much on the Democratic side, in part because “simplify the tax code” might be a euphemism for “tax cuts for the rich.”
Yes, “simplify the tax code” is one appealing way of describing a tax code to voters. Another appealing way, if statistics on Americans’ views of taxation are correct, is to say: “let’s tax the rich.”
So let’s combine them together. If a Democrat could say that we’ll be simplifying the tax code and raising taxes on the rich, that eliminates one of the “advertising advantages” of the Republican plan.
Part 2: On Guns
On gun control, the Senate voted against a Democrat-designed bill to prevent suspected terrorists (e.g., those on the nation’s no-fly list) from buying guns, which was a response to the San Bernardino shooting. The decision was almost entirely partisan-based.
My question is: what were those Democrats thinking? In an age of divided government, the voting outcome on a bill like that should have been obvious.
The standard Republican response is to say that mental health or terrorism is the real problem, not with guns themselves. We can debate on the merits of those statements, but right now — at least in Congress — it may be better for Democrats to go along with bills on overhauling mental health (e.g., Nicholas Kristof mentions one possibility in his On Guns, We’re Not Even Trying op-ed).
After the Orlando shootings, a similar situation occurred. This time, the shooter was on the no-fly list, but I still predicted that no gun control bills would be passed. I was right. Incredibly, a vote might not even have happened until Senator Chris Murphy led a 15-hour filibuster.
Consequently, I think Democrats should cease focusing on gun-related bills in Congress and work at more local levels to advance their agenda. For Congress, let’s keep the focus on directly fighting terrorism.
Part 3: On Radical Islam (and Political Correctness More Generally)
Many (if not all?) of the Republican presidential candidates have criticized President Obama and Hillary Clinton for refusing to say “radical Islam.” Those two don’t say that term due to concerns over alienating Muslims.
My suggestion is to move on from this and start saying “radical Islam.”
This might be controversial, but when I look at those words together, the “radical” part implies something far removed from standard Islam. Something “far removed from standard Islam” is what took over the minds of the San Bernardino and Orlando shooters1. Even most of the Republican candidates (sans Trump?) understand that the vast majority of Muslims are not radicals (or “jihadists” if you prefer), and in fact, are among some of our biggest allies against terrorism.
Unfortunately, the skyrocketing obsession over whether President Obama and Hillary Clinton will say “radical Islam” is overshadowing real issues. I would suggest getting on the same page and stating the fact that the war on terror is largely a war against people who claim to be Muslims. If there are concerns over alienating real Muslims, then we need to be careful to add gigantic disclaimers, like this: “we are at war with radical Islam, which to repeat, does NOT mean we are at war with the vast majority of Muslims, or at war with the religion itself.”
Avoiding the term “radical Islam” is, I believe, an example of “political correctness,” a term which has seen frequent usage in recent political discourse. I am personally against political correctness, but due to the rise of Donald Trump, I think there’s been a huge misunderstanding of what that term means. Political correctness is not when Trump argues that American Muslims were cheering en masse after 9/11. That’s just plain wrong. Political correctness should be applied when we discuss concepts or facts that are true.
A better example happened after the Orlando shootings. As part of the investigation, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the FBI released a transcript of Mateen’s 911 calls during the shooting, but censored the name of the group to which he pledged allegiance. I was extremely disappointed upon finding out about this, and if I was a prominent politician, it would be hard for me to resist joining Florida Governor Rick Scott, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and other politicians in their criticism over the report. It is not necessary to be protective about something like this, and we should avoid unnecessary distractions over our war on terror.
As I point out in a related blog post, Sam Harris would instead argue that Muslims who follow their scripture exactly are the real danger, because the scripture encourages the reckless murder of infidels and other behavior that would make civilization’s stomach churn. To his credit, Harris points out the many moderate Muslims who don’t follow scripture exactly. He does not view the religion that those moderates follow as real Islam. Thus, he would think “real Islam” is what I and most others call “radical Islam,” and what we think of as “Islam,” he would equate with a “moderate variant” of Islam. ↩