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Who can use tactics shows double standard at play

Let’s not kid ourselves: the question of what politics are, as this week’s Viewpoint theme asks, underhanded has little to do with actual tactics and everything to do with power.

A few days ago, noted Assad supporter, homophobe, and 2020 presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard suggested that her fellow Democrats bore some responsibility for the government shutdown and its effects. She said they had sacrificed compromise for ideals.

Many other public figures, politicians and otherwise, have expressed similar sentiments. It has become common, if it has not, in fact, always been common, to blame strong political convictions for the negative consequences of disagreement. But this line of reasoning has many problems.

Notably, we should always ask ourselves whom we are blaming for a failure to compromise. Gabbard blamed the Democrats, but she could have more readily attacked Republicans, with whom one might expect she disagreed more than with her allies.
But Republicans are in power in Washington right now, controlling the presidency, the Senate and the Supreme Court, and we tend not to blame people in power for whatever is in their control.

The subtext of all this is the assumption, usually correct, that people in power will never compromise if given the opportunity. It’s up to those who lack power to compromise their values for the sake of some smaller change.

If we think about power as a force that oppresses, this makes sense. By its very nature, oppression doesn’t go away when disempowered people ask nicely. If it did they would not be disempowered.

And thus the double standard of “underhanded” politics arises. We can see this trend all across our society.

If a small liberal arts college in southern Minnesota covers up for tenured professors who have assaulted students, or if the Senate Minority Leader creates a new Democratic platform that only talks about economics, at the expense of race, gender, sexuality, and other salient social issues, or if the president furloughs 800,000 federal workers for well over a month, over the holidays and at the coldest time of year, we may not be happy, but we call it politics, and you can’t argue with power.

If, conversely, a group of students at that liberal arts college calls for the removal of that professor, or if activists decry the class essentialism of the Democratic vanguard, or if a divided Congress refuses to fund the racist, xenophobic wall that would stop the shutdown, the conventional response is to say those people are reaching too far. You can’t argue with power.

This imbalance, more than anything, shuts down any and all legitimate critiques of authorities’ abuses. If power is something with which ordinary people must negotiate, but can never circumvent, then that power will go unchecked indefinitely. And if that power goes unchecked, then oppression gets what it wants, and the cycle continues as before.

The alternative is reframing. Instead of complaining about the tactics that people use to build power, we ought to focus on what they seek to accomplish. I find it deeply ironic that the very people in whom we tolerate abuses of power are the people who abuse it the most, while the people we most often claim abuse their power in fact have little of which to speak.

For instance: I’ve heard many people over the past few years complain about the methods Carls Talk Back has used to reach an audience. The tone policing often centers around words like the students’ “demands.”

But to gripe about demands misses the point. A college can demand whatever it wants of us: work, time, money. Students rarely have the opportunity to demand something in return, because they do not have an $800 million endowment and the benefits of brand-name status. To do so begins to reverse the imbalance of power between the two groups by placing them on equal footing.

Likewise, authoritarianism is, definitionally, not something with which one can easily argue. Which makes that arguing all the more important. We can only resist oppression if, instead of accepting it on its own terms, we actively push back against it, whether within its system or without.

For these reasons I believe “underhanded” tactics are most important precisely when they seem the least justifiable. People who hold the most power will always abuse that power the most. Resisting that inevitability ensures progress, however slow, toward a better world for all.

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