What exactly do Galston and Frum mean when they say they intend to “call out” those who use labels like “racist” and “socialist” in public debate? I think I can answer that question, since a series of attacks engineered by Frum on my then-unpublished book, Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism, appears to have been a dress rehearsal of sorts for the operation of No Labels.
On July 27, 2010, I announced the forthcoming publication of my book at National Review Online’s blog, the Corner. The announcement made it clear that my book was the result of more than two years of empirical and historical research into Barack Obama’s political past, and would marshal “a wide array of never-before-seen evidence to establish that the president of the United States is indeed a socialist.” Frum, however, didn’t wait to consider my evidence or argument, or even bother to read my book. Instead, he invited a self-described Democratic activist who writes under the pseudonym “Eugene Victor Debs” to attack the very idea of my book — before either had read it.
I would probably not have responded to an anonymous attack on an unpublished book were it not for the fact that I knew and respected Frum, who warned me in advance that Debs’s piece was coming and invited me to respond. I did reply to Debs, after which, to my surprise, the attacks kept coming, both from Debs and from Frum himself . In my responses to Frum and Debs, I finally began to speak more frankly about my dismay and puzzlement at their persistent attacks on a raft of new evidence that I had not yet even had a chance to present to the public. Oddly, since the actual publication of Radical-in-Chief, there has been not a word about the book from either Frum or Debs.
All Galston and Frum have done is to make explicit — and reinforce — the mainstream press’s existing determination to ignore and silence critics of Obama’s radicalism. Once No Labels gets going, public resentment at these silencing techniques is bound to increase. Contrary to Galston and Frum, the way to reduce polarization is not to suppress disagreement but to invite reasoned debate on the issues that actually divide us. Since a substantial portion of the public views the president as a covert radical, let the topic be debated in the widest and most respectable forums. If the president’s accusers offer mere bluster, or his defenders are living in denial, we shall see it all then. A true public debate on this issue in the pages of the mainstream press would rivet the public’s attention and immediately raise the level of discussion. By further suppressing this debate, on the other hand, Galston and Frum promote distrust and enmity between Left and Right.
None of this is particularly mysterious — or at least it ought not to be to those who have learned from the classical liberal approach to democratic debate recommended by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. Mill discourages the creation of implicit or explicit rules banning any substantive claim in public debate, calling on us instead to judge a given argument according to the quality of its reasoning and the degree to which it fairly represents and successfully parries opposing points of view […]
It is not the job of those who cherish liberty of thought and discussion to ban claims of Obama’s socialism or of Tea Party racism, but to subject all of these assertions to the scrutiny of serious debate. While many or most accusations of Tea Party racism are baseless, legitimate complaints are possible and cannot be ruled out in advance. If Tea Party critics have serious evidence of racism, let them present it. If their evidence is tissue-paper thin (as most of it has been), that weakness can be (and has been) exposed.
UPDATE: My NewsReal colleague Mark Meed has more sharp analysis of this “No Labels” nonsense, including Frum’s selective reading of surveys to reach his preferred picture of what the American people want.