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In An Era of Republican Bad Faith, The Left Must Respond In Kind

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Here’s good truth: bad faith is real. In a normal world, it saves time to assume your opponent is operating in good faith. But American politics is a far cry from rational.

Join me on a trip down memory lane. In the ‘70s, the conservative movement hacked the reigning liberal orthodoxies. The mandarins of the right understood how liberal culture worked. In particular, they identified three weak spots of liberalism, and two had to do with fear. One, liberals feared being identified with leftism. Two, liberals feared populism.

And three—most importantly—liberals based their right to rule on being reasonable and open-minded, whatever those words are supposed to mean.

The first two weak spots explained how to scare liberals. But the third spot worked best of all. It showed the conservatives how to make liberals love them, or at least tolerate them.

The Far Right learned to dress up their policies according to the polite fictions of media, academia, and think tanks. They learned to mutter “just asking questions” before proposing to measure skull shapes. They fooled liberals once, and have not stopped fooling them since. As a result, any right-wing hack without obvious marks of bodily disease can pass serious muster in Washington.

the persistence of grovr norquist in the discourse underscores that we've had decades to figure out how to cover people whose fundamental stance is to make claims in bad faith and haven't figured out how to just, like, not take what they say at face value— Kelsey D. Atherton (@AthertonKD) January 6, 2019And until recently, none of the Important People had figured this out. But times are changing.

I think a big reason why @AOC is so much better at politics than so many older, more experienced Dems is that she's never known a world where Republicans aren't cartoonish villains who reliably act in bad faith. So she treats them as what they are.— Ian Millhiser (@imillhiser) January 6, 2019The ease at which Alexandria Ocasio Cortez basic answers fluster reporters and dictates the terms of the public discourse on policies should show you just how little the Democrats have tried over the past 4 decades.— Chad Vigorous (@PrettyBadLefty) January 7, 2019
The user goes on to say—and AOC would agree—that Ocasio-Cortez isn’t some kind of singular political genius. She’s nothing more than an elected official with the ability to describe objective reality. The Right and the media and the pundits treat AOC as if she was turning air into rat poison. How debased our politics have become. You open your mouth and utter clear, factual, declarative statements in a calm voice, and all of a sudden you’re a dark wizard.

What AOC and Rashida Tlaib are doing is basic. They’re not blindly assuming good faith where good faith is unwarranted. That’s their killer app.

See, what passes for “good faith” these days is nothing but reciprocal class courtesy among the urban professionals. Everybody under fifty understands this. Most young Americans can recognize bad faith. We see it all around us. That’s why the clash between generations—between complacency and truth, between the real story and the official narrative—has been striking to watch.

Did you watch AOC’s interview? Where in the seventeen hells of Henry Kissinger does Anderson Cooper get off asking if Trump is racist? Jesus, man, does the sky hold water? AOC’s simple statement traumatized Cooper. You could see the light of the Hamptons waning in his eyes.

Look, we can discuss philosophic and legal terms for what “good faith” means. But let’s throw out the gumbo and drill down. In essence, acting in “good faith” means this: you play a game with the understanding that everyone else is playing the contest fairly. When you argue in good faith, you assume the other party is actually interested in debate, not tricking you. However, when it is obvious that the other team is cheating, when they playing with demonstrable malice, then you are not required to play in good faith.

In fact, it is important for an ethical person to immediately call out bad faith. But this is what the Establishment refuses to do.

How gullible is the Establishment?

Quite. They will do the Right’s work for them. Just so the Heritage Foundation will think well of them.

It’s why Washington Post editors and reporters like Sal Rizzo and Glenn Kessler keep trying to “well, actually” Ocasio-Cortez. In comparison, they regularly let Trump get away with semantic murder. It doesn’t matter that Ocasio-Cortez quoted a simplification, and that the Administration spreads racist mythology every day. The Post pretends they’re the same thing. AOC and Tlaib aren’t even in the same galaxy as Trump. It’s not comparing apples to oranges; it’s like claiming an apple is cancer. That doesn’t matter to the Post. The Kessler-Rizzo style of good faith means being a handmaiden to power.

You see, the higher up you go, the more good faith you get. That’s the way the Establishment works.

How gullible is the Establishment?

So very. The television networks made Trump President. Since that time, they’ve spent time propping up his regime, giving his fantasies airtime, and refusing to call him out on his most obvious falsehoods. Despite assurances that they are on our side, the news still treats the office of President as if it were occupied by an important person, a peer of Washington, of Lincoln. As if Trump were a Very Serious President on a Very Serious Earth. On the basis of good faith, they granted the world’s most famous liar a chunk of primetime television.

Let’s review the facts. We know Trump lies. Trump knows he lies. The Establishment knows he lies. But they still gave him a free pass.

That’s right, true believers. The Orangeman spent half his term slamming the networks stern to bow. In response, the broadcasters handed their precious screens to a known fabulist. In service of what? A good faith that the President has never practiced, nor pretended to practice. No wonder Trump voters in the suburban fortresses around America’s Cheesecake Factories worship him. He makes his haters into his servants.

It is obvious, and has been obvious for decades that the far right is, in the words of the tweet above, “cartoonishly evil.” They live to practice bad faith.

So: if it is obvious that one side is not acting or speaking in good faith, why would anyone with power act as if they were? The bipartisan marriage broke up decades ago, but the press is still denying there was a divorce.

Why do the institutions of the American Establishment, particularly the media, act as if Trump was respectable, and that his party is sane? Why do they consider fantasies like The Wall and Climate Change Denial worthy of coverage? After all, the Establishment doesn’t give time to the Flat Earth Society, but there’s always column space for weather truthers. Isn’t that funny?

Most journalists live in bone-deep terror of being called out as leftists, But if verifiable facts happen to jive with progressive ideas, then why be afraid to publish them? Why should the press worry about being called liberals? Isn’t it the media’s job to publish the truth?

Well: the Establishment is centrist. Centrists cling to institutions. The media (and approved opinion) are such institutions. And the American media’s self-appointed job is not to speak truth, to find truth, or come near the truth. Rather, it is to be an “honest” broker between powers.

The reason climate denialists have column space in the Times is because there are very, very powerful people backing them. Now, if the Flat Earthers get picked up by the right number of billionaires, then I guarantee you the Times will discover that there’s been an interesting story there all the while. That is the good faith the media practices. We will be a decent mediator between incredibly wealthy people. You can count on us, sir. It’s the good faith of a Harvard divorce lawyer, not a brave reporter.

Good faith in politics only makes sense in a society where everyone agrees on human dignity. We do not live in that world. Practicing good faith in a time of bad faith debases the coinage of legitimacy. In other words, it renders democratic government a sham. It makes the citizens feel, correctly, that their representatives do not represent them, do not share their passions. Civility is useless when the civic itself is in jeopardy. If the opposite number stops being cartoonishly evil—if they stop supporting the President who believes in imaginary walls—then we can talk. Politics is not a market for miracles, and we are far from a state of grace. Let’s see works first. Good faith follows.

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