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Uploaded:2016-04-19
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In which John discusses the quality of political discourse in U.S. politics, the practice of reductio ad Hitlerum, and what's wrong with making politics more about insults than policy.


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Good Morning Hank, it's Tuesday!

So back in August 2009 somebody started a Tumblr called "Obama is literally Hitler" which satirized all the comparisons between Barack Obama and the leader of the Third Reich. Hitler analogies have a long history the phrase "reductio ad Hitlerum" was coined way back in 1951 to describe arguments that rely on comparing other people's position to those of the Nazis or Hitler.

And even before Hitler was literally the worst, other people were. Like one common uber-villain was the Pharaoh from the Hebrew Bible's Book of Exodus. During the American Civil War, abolitionists sometimes called slaveholders Pharaohs, and Southerners sometimes called Abraham Lincoln a modern Pharaoh. But these days, we have Hitlers and the Nazis to compare to everyone and everything.

On social media, we read that Hillary Clinton is like Hitler, or Donald Trump, or Ted Cruz, or Bernie Sanders. Also, an actual candidate for president compared the contemporary United States to Nazi Germany.

All of this isn't just inaccurate, it's counterproductive. For one thing, hearing your preferred candidate compared to Hitler doesn't make you less likely to vote for them. You're just repulsed by the analogy, not least because it implies that you are a Nazi.

But for another, the analogy imagines that something is terribly, terribly wrong with the United States. Like 1930s Germany wrong. And that's just not true. The U.S. economy has grown each of the last six years, unemployment has dropped throughout the 2010s. Crime is down. 90% of Americans have health insurance (the highest rate since the 1970s. The United States is not in some mortal peril. Now of course, the U.S. does have big problems. Americans have too much student loan debt, for instance. High income inequality is hindering growth. Our healthcare system is way too expensive and not particularly effective. We desperately need comprehensive immigration reform, and we still have a very high violent crime rate compared to other rich nations. 

But we've always had big problems. Like, when we talk about making America great again or reigniting the American Dream, when exactly was this Golden Age we're hearkening back to? Was it 200 years ago when the vast majority of people couldn't vote because they weren't land owning white males? Was it 100 years ago when most women couldn't vote? 50 years ago when interracial marriage was still illegal in half the country? Or was the American Golden Age in, like, 1985 when unemployment was higher than it is today, median household income was lower, and you were more than twice as likely to be murdered. Plus, there was no Snapchat. I feel like this imagining of a past that never existed furthers the notion that the U.S. is facing some unprecedented danger that only Candidate X or Y can solve.

And then when politics focuses on name calling, rather than policy, it becomes really hard to have a discussion because when you call my candidate an idiot or a loser or a cheat, you're calling into question my whole future! In a way, it feels like you're calling me those things, which makes me want to remove myself from the conversation long before we get to the nuances of say, immigration reform or tax policy. All the presidential candidates have done this sort of name calling, but I don't want to create a false equivalence here. Donald Trump does it by far the most. Like, here's just a sampling of Trump's insults: liar, choker, disloyal, a low life, crazy, dishonest, reckless, a hypocrite, and a soft, weak little baby. And that's just some of the things he said about Ted Cruz that I can repeat in a Vlogbrothers video.

Now putting aside the accuracy of those insults, I mean, I quite like little babies, but I've seen very little evidence to indicate that Ted Cruz is one. I think insults hurt American political life, which in turn makes our government less effective regardless of where our political leaders sit on the ideological spectrum. And I really hope that eventually in this election cycle, we can find ways to avoid insults and instead focus on what government should do and how. So Hank, you and I are gonna start trying to do that. Next Tuesday, I'm gonna take a look at the Republican candidates' tax plan. But first, Hank, on Friday, you're gonna take a look at the tax plans put forth by the Democratic candidates. I will see you then. Here's to civil discourse.