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The politics of decency



Kevin Drum makes a provocative argument:

Here’s the thing: to the average person, it seems perfectly reasonable to be suspicious of admitting Syrian refugees to the country. We know that ISIS would like to attack the US. We know that ISIS probably has the wherewithal to infiltrate a few of its people into the flood of refugees. And most voters have no idea how easy it is to get past US screening. They probably figure it’s pretty easy.

So it doesn’t seem xenophobic or crazy to call for an end to accepting Syrian refugees. It seems like simple common sense. After all, things changed after Paris.

Mocking Republicans over this—as liberals spent much of yesterday doing on my Twitter stream—seems absurdly out of touch to a lot of people. Not just wingnut tea partiers, either, but plenty of ordinary centrists too. It makes them wonder if Democrats seriously see no problem here. Do they care at all about national security? Are they really that detached from reality?

The liberal response to this should be far more measured. We should call for tighter screening. Never mind that screening is already pretty tight. We should highlight the fact that we’re accepting a pretty modest number of refugees. In general, we should act like this is a legitimate thing to be concerned about and then work from there.

Mocking it is the worst thing we could do. It validates all the worst stereotypes about liberals that we put political correctness ahead of national security. It doesn’t matter if that’s right or wrong. Ordinary people see the refugees as a common sense thing to be concerned about. We shouldn’t respond by essentially calling them idiots. That way lies electoral disaster.

This seems wrongheaded on a number of levels.

First, unless Drum thinks ISIS poses an actual threat to the national security of the United States — which is difficult to believe, unless a threat to national security is defined as “something bad happening,” in which case “national security” is a meaningless concept — then the proper response to calls for an end to accepting Syrian refugees is to point out that such a policy is grotesquely inhumane, as it buys Americans an infinitesimal decrease in the already infinitesimal risk that we as individuals will be victimized by jihadist terrorism, at the cost of failing to do anything to ameliorate the vast suffering of the actual victims of ISIS, 99.99% of whom are in Syria and Iraq.

Second, turning to the pragmatics of electoral politics, the idea that random liberals mocking conservatives on social media will have some sort of effect on actual electoral outcomes is highly implausible. Furthermore, arguing in this way helps create a Broderite frame in which sensible, moderate, serious etc etc people search for the reasonable middle ground between cowardly xenophobia and simple human decency.

Finally, even if we accept for the purposes of argument that it’s true that resisting cowardly xenophobia (repackaged here as “simple common sense” — note to Kevin Drum: at moments of intense social and political panic, the most despicable ideas are often as presented as “simple common sense” by opportunistic politicians) is politically costly, that doesn’t seem like a very compelling argument for not resisting it. Specifically, does Drum think it’s a bad idea for Barack Obama to respond to the despicable Ted Cruz in the manner in which he did?

Ted Cruz, a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, has announced plans to introduce legislation in the Senate that would bar all Muslim Syrian refugees from entering America.

That stance has been greeted with widespread ridicule and disgust by Democrats who insist that keeping people out of the U.S. is anathema to the founding principles of the country. “That’s shameful,” President Obama said in a speech addressing the Paris attacks on Monday. “That’s not American. It’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.”

While the idea of presidential leadership, the bully pulpit, and so forth gets much well-deserved mockery on this blog, that doesn’t mean there aren’t moments for actual moral leadership from the nation’s political leader. This is one of those moments, but apparently Drum, Charlie Pierce et. al. are more concerned about hurting the feelings of people who would prefer to indulge their baser instincts, without any reminders of the better angels of our nature.

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