Commentary: Incommensurability in 2021 American Politics

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by Kenneth Levin

 

The ubiquitous term “paradigm” and the concept of “paradigm shifts,” were popularized by the historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn. He used them to characterize, roughly, a scientific theory’s fundamental elements and the changes in fundamental elements that occur with scientific revolutions and changes in theory.

Another term popularized by Kuhn is “incommensurability.” Kuhn argued that scientific revolutions do not entail simply the accumulation of additional knowledge of the natural world but entail a recasting of the world, looking at the world in a fundamentally different way. A pre-revolutionary theory, say the Earth-centered cosmos of Ptolemaic astronomy, and a post-revolutionary theory such as Copernicus’ model of the Earth revolving around the sun, propose, in their ramifications, such different understandings of the world as to be in large part beyond shared comprehension, i.e., to be “incommensurable.”

Many view the political divide in today’s America as just a variation on the types of divisions that have always characterized American politics. That perspective is reflected, for example, in the not uncommon anticipation that the Biden presidency would entail a return to “normal.” It is seen as well in calls for, and expectations of, greater bipartisanship in Congress. But the radical agenda put forward by the progressive wing that has seized control of the Democratic Party from its former liberal leadership, and the perspectives on the nation’s past and its proper future that underlie that agenda, are no variation on past political differences. They are, rather, a revolutionary break from the past. That it is a break led and promoted by major institutions in the wider society, most notably academia (and championed by other institutions such as mainstream media, much of corporate America, cultural elites and the social media behemoths), render it that much more potent a force.

The following list of the policies promoted in this radical agenda, and comparison of those policies to consensus perspectives traditionally shared by Americans despite political differences, illustrate how far this new agenda is from the latter. It illustrates as well why the understanding of the nation and the vision of its future embraced by these two camps—would-be post-revolution America and pre-revolution America—are incommensurable.

One: To Keep the Constitution or Replace It?

The Constitution, of course, is the foundation of the American social contract, defining the structure of the federal government, its relation to state governments, the responsibilities of both, and the freedoms of citizens. All federal and state officers take an oath to support the Constitution, as do all immigrants going through the naturalization process, and embrace of the Constitution has been seen virtually since its ratification as defining as well the common bond among the nation’s citizens. This continues to be the case today, except now there are vocal groups with significant followings in political circles, academic and media circles, and elsewhere that wish to dispense with and replace the Constitution. They note that its authors were exclusively white males, that a substantial number of them were slave owners, that the text, while looking forward to slavery’s demise, in various ways made accommodations for the interests of the slave owners in order to assure the establishment of the federal system.

Certainly, these indictments of the document have long been recognized. But as per the common view of leaders of the mid-20th century civil rights movement, a view perhaps most forcefully articulated by Martin Luther King, Jr., the remedy typically has been seen not in dispensing with the Constitution but in more fully extending its rights and protections to those still not accepted as equal citizens. It has been seen to lie in carrying to completion the work begun with the post-emancipation, 13th to 15th Amendments but hardly completed over the near-century of segregation and Jim Crow that followed. Against this view, those now calling for replacement of the Constitution insist that the MLK-advocated agenda will not do. Their vision of the nation requires nothing short of tearing down the constitutional edifice and rebuilding it in a manner that, to their perception, is no longer “white-oriented” and “white-dominated.”

There is no compromise between these two views of the Constitution and the nation it defines. They are not translatable into each other. They are incommensurable.

Two: Is the Bill of Rights Sacred or Dispensable?

Individual provisions of the Constitution and its amendments, including the Bill of Rights, are also under attack. Freedom of speech, as enshrined in the First Amendment, has been all but eradicated on many college and university campuses ostensibly to avoid offending the sensibilities of some, and this campaign against a fundamental right has moved beyond academia to calls by elected officials and others for greater limits on free speech. Other efforts to undermine provisions of the First Amendment include calls to ban print and media outlets that do not conform to progressive doctrine and are therefore deemed to be purveying falsehoods and to be a public danger. Steps at inhibiting, in the context of COVID, the free exercise of religion have also been undertaken by public officials, even as the same officials have tolerated non-religious gatherings, including progressive-approved demonstrations and riots.

The view that the First Amendment is an essential element of America’s political/social contract, and the opposing view that such freedoms should not be allowed to interfere with the progressive agenda, are incommensurable.

Three: Election Integrity

Articles I and II of the Constitution include regulations for the election of members of Congress and of the president and vice president respectively. Amendments to the Constitution and acts of state legislatures over time have established a shift to popular vote for the selection of members of both houses of Congress and, with respect to the presidency and vice presidency, for the selection of Electoral College slates. Constitutional amendments and acts of state legislatures have also established expansion of voting rights to include previously disenfranchised citizens. Throughout this evolution in the elective process, a generally shared public perspective has been the sanctity of the vote and the importance of assuring that elections entail one person, one vote and sustain the people’s confidence in the integrity of the process. But this perspective is also currently under attack. Voices within the progressive camp, and indeed the leadership of the Democratic Party, now insist that assuring one person, one vote is itself a formula for voter suppression and is intrinsically racist. They argue that election “access” is more important than what has generally been deemed as election integrity.

In the wake of the 2000 presidential election and the challenges to the Florida vote, a bipartisan commission on election integrity was formed, chaired by Jimmy Carter and James Baker. The commission came up with 87 recommendations, among them: That states increase voter ID requirements; that they note and act on problems intrinsic to mail-in ballots; that they halt ballot harvesting; that they maintain up-to-date voting lists; that they allow election observers to monitor ballot counting; that they confirm voting machines are working properly. The H.R. 1 bill currently before Congress—the Democrats’ premier initiative for the current legislative session, reflecting the progressive agenda on elections—would write into law virtually everything that the bipartisan commission warned against. Democrats’ complaints about the recently legislated changes to Georgia’s voting rules to assure election integrity are largely in the same vein.

H.R. 1 also subverts the Constitution by nationalizing election rules, which are constitutionally under the control of state legislatures with Congress playing a lesser role. This in the service of furthering H.R. 1’s undermining of election integrity.

It is noteworthy that requiring voter IDs and banning or restricting mail-in ballots—both of which are attacked by the progressive camp as racist and as mechanisms of voter suppression—are the norm in the world’s democracies. For example, of the 27 nations in the EU, 17 ban mail-in voting except for those living abroad. Another six require a photo ID to obtain a mail-in ballot.

On public sentiment regarding the voter integrity issue, a recent poll showed  64 percent of whites, 59 percent of blacks, and 58 percent of other minorities rejecting the claim that voter ID laws discriminate against some voters. In addition, 59 percent of whites, 56 percent of blacks, and 63 percent of other minorities said it was more important to make sure there is no cheating in elections than to make it easier to vote. Yet one major party and much of the media, corporate America and academia, as well as their legion of followers, currently militate against voter integrity.

There is no compromise position between seeking to guarantee the sanctity of the vote and dismissing measures to do so as intrinsically racist and in need of legislative dismantling. The two positions are incommensurable.

Four: Group Identity or Individuality?

The civil rights era ideal of more fully realizing the promise of the Constitution, of extending the rights and privileges prescribed in the nation’s founding document to all citizens, and of doing so not simply de jure but de facto, is reflected in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of his children living “in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But today’s leaders and foot soldiers agitating for a post-Constitutional America insist on race—and, by extension ethnicity and other elements of group identity—being central to how one is judged. Indeed, as in scientific revolutions, familiar words have different meanings in the pre- and post-revolutionary American worlds; and in post-revolutionary America MLK’s dream is nonsensical. “Character” is a familiar word, but while for MLK it obviously means something distinct from a person’s race, in post-revolutionary America “character” is inseparable from race. In the latter, white privilege and African American subjugation suffuse one’s entire being, and so they suffuse character as well. The two meanings of “character” are embedded in two different world views and their different languages. They do not translate from one to the other; they are incommensurable.

Five: Equal Opportunity or ‘Equity’

“Equality of opportunity” and “color-blind society” are likewise terms whose meanings are very different in pre- and post-revolutionary America. In pre-revolutionary America, they are ideals which the great majority of citizens regard as essential national goals. Among the adherents of post-revolutionary America, they are sham concepts intended to obscure the nation’s pervasive racism and white supremacism. Indeed, even the word “equality” is conceived in such terms and construed as requiring replacement by “equity.” Only an equalization of outcomes can begin to address the nation’s intrinsic racism. References to equality, with its implicit connotation of equal opportunity and inevitably diverse outcomes, are seen as ineradicably tainted with white privilege.

Six: Blind Justice or Serving the Interests of the Oligarchs?

“Justice” as a legal concept, and as implemented in our legal system, likewise has very different meanings in the two worlds of pre- and post-revolutionary America. In the former, “justice” signifies one’s presumed innocence unless proven guilty, and the equal treatment of every individual by the legal system, including equal rules of evidence, equal protections, and equal application of relevant statutes. While any legal system may fall short of that ideal— an inability to pay for competent legal representation too often skews “justice,” for example—the vast majority would acknowledge that the solution is to strive for a level playing field and neutral rules. In post-revolutionary America, as reflected in the doctrines of critical legal theory, “justice” so conceived is meaningless because legal systems, including ours, are regarded as inevitably serving the interests of a society’s powerful and codifying biases against disadvantaged and marginalized groups. According to this doctrine, America’s legal system and notion of “justice” must be dismantled and radically reconceived to expunge white supremacism and anti-minority bias.

The two perspectives on justice and the American legal system are incommensurable.

Seven: Political Bias in the Dispensing of Justice

As noted, promoters of critical legal theory reject traditional American concepts of justice and equality before the law. They characterize those sentiments as window dressing on a system designed to dispense unequal justice and institutionally incapable of doing otherwise. But at the same time, critical race theory has infiltrated the federal agencies charged with upholding the rule of law, which now promote and institutionalize their own system of unequal justice. They dispense justice prejudicially on the basis of political beliefs and affiliations and call it higher “justice.” This can be seen in the treatment of people at the top of the political totem pole, as in the pass given to Hillary Clinton for her violations of myriad federal statutes in the handling of federal communications—violations which on a much lesser scale have earned others long prison sentences. It can be seen in the pass given to Joe Biden, who openly bragged, without consequences, about using American foreign aid to cow the Ukrainian government into firing a prosecutor investigating his son, Hunter. And it can be seen in the post-revolutionary treatment of the hoi polloi: Black Lives Matter and Antifa rioters (who last summer destroyed federal property in Portland and elsewhere and even attacked the Capitol), were allowed their mayhem and destruction without consequences, while merely attending a conservative rally in Washington this January, and never approaching the Capitol, led others to be targeted by federal law enforcement. Or, again, it can be seen in the tolerance of that mayhem and destruction by crowds in the midst of a pandemic even as others pursuing constitutionally protected (but non-progressive) activitiesactivities, such as gathering for religious services, were being harassed and subjected to punitive measures.

The ideal of equality before the law, versus dual systems of justice, based on people’s approved or unapproved political sentiments, are, again, incommensurable.

Eight: Weaponizing Government Agencies

In post-revolutionary America, the ruling class has gone beyond mere disparate application of the law; it violates the law.  The Obama Administration enlisted the FBI, other sections of the Justice Department, and the CIA to illegally spy on people associated with the Trump campaign and, subsequently, the Trump Administration; to file false, illegal, FISA warrant applications; to illegally leak information to the media; and to violate federal statutes for political gain in other ways as well. Earlier in the Obama Administration, the IRS likewise had been illegally subverted to treat organizations filing for tax exempt status differently on the basis of the organizations’ political affiliations.

The perpetrators of these crimes justified them in terms of protecting the nation against the incoming leadership of those whom they regarded as the wrong (and therefore illegitimate) people. It is the age-old rationalization for the seizure of power by all promoters of anti-democratic, dictatorial regimes.

The corruption of the federal bureaucracy in the service of a post-revolution America has even crept into the military, an institution which traditionally had eschewed at all levels of rank, partisan politics—and  prided itself in doing so. More recently, however, the services have begun training all their members on the dangers of right-wing extremism in their ranks and have claimed the right to impose limits on service members’ freedoms under the First Amendment, supposedly necessary to address such extremism.

It is certainly true that promoters of extremist ideologies have joined the ranks of the military over time, both to proselytize for their causes and to gain military skills to use in future attacks on the nation. But the necessity of guarding against such abuses of the military by extremist groups is very different from propagandizing our armed services with a particular political agenda. That agenda characterizes its partisan  foes as extremists, and seeks to enlist federal agencies, including the military, to ferret out those foes, the vast majority of whom are not extremist in any meaningful sense. It is also noteworthy that the worst case of extremist violence within the military in the modern era was not perpetrated by someone from the radical Right but rather from an Islamist-inspired military physician who killed 13 and wounded more than 30 others at Fort Hood in 2009. That form of extremism, however, is studiously ignored by this new military training.

On one side stands the pre-revolutionary American conviction that federal and state bureaucracies should treat each citizen equally in carrying out their respective responsibilities, and that that obligation is most particularly incumbent upon law enforcement and military arms of government. Arrayed against this is the post-revolutionary ideal of the bureaucracy as an instrument for advancing a progressive agenda and crushing opposition to that agenda. The two are not reconcilable, or reflective of two perspectives within an essentially common, shared view of the world; they are, once more, incommensurable.

Nine: Officially Sanctioned Opinion

Another general consensus within pre-revolutionary America, dating to the beginning of the American experiment, has been that the republic requires a well-informed citizenry. Freedom of speech and of the press and the right of peaceable assembly, as enshrined in the First Amendment, were intended not only as an enumeration of individual freedoms but also as a guarantee of peoples’ access to the information necessary for them to fulfill effectively their role as citizens. The necessity of an educated citizenry was also a major factor in the establishment of the nation’s public school systems and the ideal of universal education.

Throughout American history, some ideas have always been regarded as dangerous and not fit for the public square. But constitutional as well as statutory laws have generally held that the answer (with some specific exceptions) is not censorship but rather the freedom to express counterarguments to such ideas; that the cleansing power of more light was the proper resort. And over the decades, those limits on freedom of expression that were institutionalized despite Constitutional guarantees were generally, if only gradually, beaten back.

In post-revolutionary America, not only are the freedoms of the First Amendment under attack for protecting offensive and supposedly wrong opinion, but the nation’s institutions of learning now censure and censor whatever the progressive ideology deems unworthy and dangerous, indoctrinating the nation’s children in the progressives’ hymnal of right ideas.

Until the mid-20th century, before such developments took hold, students typically would not be able to extract political opinions from their professors even in a political science class. Professors were interested in promoting students’ ability to weigh disparate information and formulate lucid and compelling arguments, whichever side of issues they chose to argue. Grades were based on the students’ success in demonstrating some mastery of those skills.

Today, instead of being taught how to think, students are indoctrinated in what to think. “Diversity”—another term with radically different meanings in pre- and post-revolutionary America—now denotes differences of skin color or ethnic background; and the only diversity that should be meaningful in an educational setting, diversity of opinion, is proscribed. (And that better sort of “diversity” is essentially absent from the progressive lexicon, because it is deemed redundant, as skin color and ethnicity are regarded as inexorably determining opinion.) Opinion outside the narrow band of progressive orthodoxy is censured and censored. Faculty, especially in the humanities and social sciences, are virtually monochromatically progressive.

Students now leave their academic institutions not only with radically different lessons from those imparted to their teachers but also with a radically different comprehension of what it means to be “educated.” The earlier focus on training students how to think, how to gather information and process it, tended to yield graduates who may have felt they had learned much but also realized that there was much more out there yet to learn; and this often imparted some humility. With the new focus on progressive indoctrination, the message from teachers is that as long as a student has become a believer in the progressive ideology and can regurgitate its tenets and their ramifications, that student knows everything he or she needs to know. Graduates are consequently inclined to believe they have been inducted into the circle of the right-thinking and, despite generally knowing less than their predecessors, are less likely to perceive anything incomplete in their “education.” Nor are they particularly predisposed to humility regarding how much they know.

This indoctrination has penetrated grade schools as well—including private and even parochial schools. The purveyors of the racist creed of critical race theory know they are pushing a subversive curriculum and often try to keep it hidden from parents, even frequently seeking to enlist pupils in doing so. That reflects a corollary to the progressive promotion of big government: devaluation of the family in the service of expanding and apotheosizing the role of the state.

One is dealing, again, with dramatically different worldviews. On one side is the pre-revolutionary American comprehension of the necessity of an informed electorate and so of the necessity of people having access to competing opinions and viewpoints and being educated in a manner that improves their capacity to gather and weigh competing perspectives. On the other side stands a post-revolutionary program of suppressing access to information and opinion not conforming to the progressive agenda and of redefining education as properly limited to proselytizing for that agenda. The two are not reconcilable and do not entail any shared view of the world. Yet again, they are incommensurable.

Ten: Working Against Policies Proven to Help

More than a few observers have argued that the Democrat/progressive camp is simply using the obsession with race, and the divisiveness it instigates, to advance its political objective of accruing ever-increasing power in what it anticipates to be a perpetually Democrat-controlled government. Indeed, the Democrat/progressives’ actual treatment of African Americans in crucial areas has reflected anything but genuine concern for the community’s needs and interests. And a prime example is in the area of education.

Little weighs as heavily on impoverished children’s potential for extricating themselves from their difficult circumstances and shaping a better future for themselves than the quality of the education they receive in their elementary and secondary schools. But the black populations in our large urban centers, that have for decades been under Democrats’ control, have consistently been very poorly served by their schools and lag significantly behind national averages in command of basic skills.

Those in charge point to lesser per student spending and the difficult family circumstances these impoverished children often face. Both factors are indeed at play in shaping the school experience of inner-city children from low-income families. But the history of charter schools over the past three decades undercuts claims that these factors render better educational outcomes out of reach. Charter schools are public schools that operate independently, with greater autonomy but with increased performance expectations. They are open to students on the basis simply of application or, if oversubscribed, on the basis of lottery. The general history of such schools has been mixed but overall positive, and, as the Harvard School of Education reported in the summer of 2017, “…low income students, especially black and Hispanic, tend to benefit from charter schools most….” And, in inner cities, such schools are serving children with basically the same social disadvantages as their peers and are doing so with per capita budgets no greater than those of the public schools.

Not only have major cities failed to improve their schools, but their political leaders—like New York mayor Bill de Blasio, who shouted out at a campaign rally during the 2020 presidential primary race, that he “hates” charter schools—have often worked to undercut and obstruct charter schools, even as tens of thousands of black families, desperate for a better future for their children, have sought admission.

The politicians have taken this course in large part to serve the interests of teachers’ unions and others opposed to charter schools. They have chosen political expediency over the welfare of their cities’ children.

Initiatives promoted by Congressional Democrats last year in the context of the COVID-19 lockdowns, and passed as well in the COVID relief packages advanced by the Biden Administration and enacted by Congressional Democrats this year, have provided additional financial assistance to those out of work, in part by supplementing state unemployment payments. They have done so, then as now, to a degree that rendered it more remunerative for many beneficiaries to not return to work. This, both in 2020 and presently, has undermined many small businesses, including minority small businesses, that could not find workers as they sought to reopen, and has also potentially locked recipients, disproportionately black, into ongoing welfare dependence. The COVID package of earlier this year also dismantled—as had the Obama Administration—elements of the 1996 Clinton welfare-to-work reforms, which, while not a universal success, did help to lift myriad families out of poverty.

The Democrat/progressive Left pursues policies that, on the basis of repeated prior results, are known to increase dependence of large swathes of the nation’s urban poor on government largesse while diminishing opportunities to escape that dependence. In that context, the refusal of Democrat/progressive municipal machines to provide meaningful education to their cities’ largely minority poor, appears not just a sacrifice of those children to the interests of the unions, who then repay the machines with political contributions. It appears also to be another plank in the program of promoting and maintaining dependence on government largesse.

The Obama Administration’s assault on the Massachusetts fishing industry and the consequent loss of work a few years ago gave a new twist to the well-known Chinese proverb: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. The Democrat/progressive policy calculus runs more like: Enable a man to fish and you free him from want and dependence for a lifetime; create obstacles to fishing, make them the norm, while giving a man a fish, and another tomorrow, and another the day after that, and you own him, and his vote, for all his days.

In summary, the nation is faced with two competing political paradigms. The older paradigm is reflected in the pre-revolutionary American ideal of educated citizens able to weigh alternative views, draw informed conclusions and use their voices and their franchises to reinforce and advance the rights and protections guaranteed by the Constitution. It is also reflected in the related ideal of employment opportunities for all that will assure their investment in the success of the American project. The competing paradigm is the post-revolutionary program of controlling everyone’s access to information and education, in the service of advancing only approved ideas. It is reflected in limiting even the most basic educational opportunities of the most vulnerable—disproportionately the African-American urban populations whose welfare the post-revolutionary leaders claim to champion—in the service of limiting their options in life and keeping them dependent on government support. It is reflected as well in limiting the subsequent employment opportunities of the most vulnerable in the service of the same end.

In the context of the competing scientific paradigms studied by Thomas Kuhn, the victorious paradigms were not, as generally construed, the ones that best conformed to nature writ large. Rather they were the ones that the scientific community regarded at the time as answering the most pressing and significant questions about nature; the paradigms that seemed to most successfully address those puzzles. The two, incommensurable, political paradigms of pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary America coincide with two different comprehensions of human nature; at least of human nature as manifest at this time in American history.

The assault by the promoters of post-revolutionary America  on basic Constitutional rights, on educational and economic opportunities, on free and fair elections, is powerful and transparent. So, too, is the accompanying substitution of indoctrination for education from grade school to the universities. The drivers of the assault are confident of their ability to impose a progressivist autocracy on the nation not simply because of the resources and power they bring to bear, or the successes they have enjoyed. They are also confident because they believe most of the country’s population is willing to capitulate to that autocracy, to embrace the status of serfs to their supposed betters in the elites promoting the post-revolutionary program, in return for having government assume responsibility for people’s essential needs.

The confidence of the progressivist cadres and their fellow travelers in this take on the nature of most Americans is reflected in Barack Obama’s montage of scenes from “The Life of Julia,” in which every stage of the cartoon character’s life journey is smoothed by government caretaking. The assumption was and is that Julia’s experience would be the envy of the vast majority of its viewers. The assumption was and is that Julia’s life would be so alluring that viewers would not ask obvious questions. They will not skeptically ask what all-controlling and all-dispensing governments in history have ever not also dispensed judgement on the worthiness of its Julias for government largesse, and on what choices are right or wrong for its Julias as they make their way through life, and on what expectations the government will have of its Julias in return for the caretaking provided.

The different comprehension of human nature embedded in pre-revolutionary America’s founding documents is of people striving to be liberated from controlling governments. It is of people aspiring to make their own choices in life, to pursue their own aspirations, and more than willing to assume responsibility for those choices and their consequences. It is a comprehension of people desiring to have an informed say, through their elected officials, in the actions of government and seeking from their government primarily protections of their freedoms. It is a comprehension affirmed by the way in which Americans have chosen to live over the last two and a half centuries, where even the great majority of those disadvantaged in the opportunities available to them—by virtue of poverty or bigotry or disability—have embraced the same longing. They, too, have aspired to be free to make their own choices in life and pursue their own dreams untrammeled by the heavy hand of government, wanting from government above all the guarantee of that freedom.

The two visions of human nature are also irreconcilable and incommensurable. Which of the two, in fact, is closer to capturing the reality of the American people’s current aspirations will likely determine which of the competing paradigms of America, pre-revolutionary or post-revolutionary, will prevail and will define the nation’s future.

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Kenneth Levin is a psychiatrist and historian and publishes often on domestic and foreign policy issues.
Photo “Flag flying” by Ben Schumin CC 2.0.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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