Klein’s argument commits the same error that Obama has since the beginning of his presidency—the delusion that the answer is somewhere in the middle, and that both sides can be convinced to agree. Granted, rejecting this is a tough blow, and embracing this idea of moderation is what led Obama to victory in the 2008 primary (along with charisma, having opposed the invasion of Iraq, etc.). But once elected, he was inescapably wedded to this idea, even if it meant shying away from hard truths and disappointing everyone.
Klein has no such limitations, theoretically, which is why it’s frustrating to see him embrace the same premise. But we can imagine a counterfactual, where Obama DOES speak out about Ferguson, about the unjust and unjustified police crackdown, and how it all fits into the continuing marginalization of the black community. How is this world different from our own
Klein claims that Obama will polarize opinion around the ongoing crackdown. We’ll grant him that—but we shouldn’t be deluded that the opinion isn’t polarized already. It’s pretty easy to see the parallel reactions on Twitter, with liberals posting copiously about the nightly police brutalities, and conservatives seizing on every report of looting, as well as every “wrong” Michael Brown ever committed. Would Obama speaking out really make things that much worse? Do we have any hope of closing this gap if he doesn’t speak out?
Klein’s argument also smacks of the simple consequentialism that wonks are wedded to—we should choose the policies that make x go up because x is good, and make y go down because y is bad. Political polarization is a prima facie bad, therefore we should choose the decision that reduces polarization. But, does this actually result in a better outcome in the end? Is it helping the people of Ferguson?
And what about a world where we instead made our decisions based on deontology—not contingent on consequences, but instead because decisions treat people as an end in themselves (or whatever criteria you want to use). Or if you’re not willing to go that far, a kind of sophisticated consequentialism where we recognize the utility of a reputation for truth-telling (or to use the example I was taught in college, a friend who you know does things for you as a friend and not because it’ll maximize utility). Granted, sophisticated consequentialism usually doesn’t come up in Intro to Philosophy classes in college, but it’s not rocket science either.
Klein’s case would almost be self-parody if it weren’t part of a troubling tradition of rationalizing away the wrong decision. There’s nothing as hard-working as an American politician or pundit trying to justify abandoning the black community. Blacks were cut out of the New Deal, cut out of post-war prosperity, and cut out of the social safety net. When the sacrifice you have to make to the god of consensus is young black lives, it should merit unease and repulsion, not a “this is just the way things are” thinkpiece.