Comforting Abstractions

People attend a rally at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul to protest against the death of George Floyd, May 31, 2020. (Eric Miller/Reuters)
We have real people to hold accountable, and we know their names.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE W ho is responsible for the mess in Minneapolis? The answer to that question is not unknowable — but it is, in many political quarters, unspeakable.

Minneapolis’s municipal government, its institutions, and its police department are what they are not because of the abstract Hegelian forces of capital-H History, but because of decisions that have been made by people. Who these people are is a matter of public record. We know their names: Jacob Frey, Betsy Hodges, R. T. Rybak, Sharon Sayles Belton, Medaria Arradondo, Janeé Harteau, Tim Walz, Mark Dayton . . . the rogues’ gallery is practically inexhaustible.

But, oh, the transmuting magic of partisanship! Minneapolis is a Democratic city, with a Democratic mayor and a Democratic city council (0.0 Republicans on that body), in a state with a Democratic governor and a Democratic state house; these are the people who hire police chiefs and organize police departments, who specify their procedures and priorities, who write the laws that the police are tasked with enforcing — Democrats and progressives practically to a man. (Not every member of the Minneapolis city council is a Democrat — there’s a Green, too.) That’s a lot of lefty power, hardly anything except lefty power — but, somehow, the bad guy in this story must be Donald Trump.

President Trump is, of course, cooperating mightily with the effort to make him the villain of the piece — his low character, tough-guy strutting, and habitual Twitter buffoonery all go a long way toward that. The Democrats are lucky to have him as a foil. Otherwise, they might be made to really seriously answer some uncomfortable questions, such as: Who has been in charge in Minneapolis lo these many years? Philadelphia? Chicago? Detroit? Los Angeles? Cleveland? Dallas? To the extent that governance matters, how is it that the situations in these communities is to be understood as anything other than the result of practically exclusive Democratic political power? And if Democratic political power is insufficient to turn things around in these places, then why is the answer to the current crisis more Democratic political power?

Cue the retreat into abstraction: The problem mustn’t be political leaders and the decisions they make — that can’t be it, because progressives have all the power in these cities — and so the problem instead must be something without a fixed address and regular business hours: systemic racism, white supremacy, white privilege, capitalism, etc. It isn’t that racism is imaginary, any more than crime, poverty, or government corruption is imaginary. But Minneapolis hasn’t been governed by abstractions all these years. It has been governed by people.

And we know who they are.

This plays out in some obvious ways. For example, some critics of police violence have come around to the view that one of the problems here is the power of police unions, which resist efforts to increase accountability and oversight of their members. There is a political party in this country that is very much committed to increasing the power of public-sector unions, that has worked hard with some success to do that, and that is enormously dependent upon the financial and political support of those unions for its campaign efforts — and it is not called the Republican Party. It’s the other one.

It surely is the case that the African-American children who attend public schools in Philadelphia or Atlanta are subjected to the same racism experienced by other black Americans. But it wasn’t the agents of white supremacy that corrupted their school administrations and made their educational institutions into the dysfunctional failures they are today. It wasn’t David Duke who turned the Atlanta public schools into a criminal conspiracy that ended in racketeering convictions. Progressives have been running the show in big-city school districts for decades, and the mess they are is the mess progressives made of them.

The Democrats are going to have their convention in Milwaukee this year. If Republicans had any wit to them at all, this would present a priceless political opportunity, because Milwaukee is a mess, its schools are an especial mess, and Wisconsin has the biggest black–white academic-achievement gap in the country. Black students in Wisconsin have the second-lowest graduation rate in the country.

When the Democrats gather in Milwaukee, they will do so to nominate Joe Biden for president. Biden points to the situation in Minneapolis and says, See, this is why you need me instead of Trump. The list of legitimate complaints and criticisms of Trump is very, very long, but he wasn’t running the circus when Minneapolis became what Minneapolis is — he was hosting a game show and appearing in softcore pornographic films. Biden, on the other hand, was elected to the Senate in 1973. He was for many years rather proud of being the author of a crime bill that many progressives link to mass incarceration and was a staunch advocate of the so-called war on drugs, which has contributed to the militarization of police departments, both in terms of their arsenals and their attitudes.

Was Joe Biden simply a hostage to his times? Consider that while Biden was pressing for tougher “war on drugs” measures in the 1990s, National Review declared “The War on Drugs Is Lost,” and argued:

It is our judgment that the war on drugs has failed, that it is diverting intelligent energy away from how to deal with the problem of addiction, that it is wasting our resources, and that it is encouraging civil, judicial, and penal procedures associated with police states. We all agree on movement toward legalization, even though we may differ on just how far.

Biden is not a great intellect or an innovative policy thinker, but there were other thinkable thoughts. Donald Trump, who was tied up in bankruptcy court for much of that period in history, was not a key player in the debate.

We live in a remarkably open society. I have observed the workings of our lawmakers and leaders up close for many years, from horrifying city council meetings in San Bernardino to quiet backroom discussions in the House. There is very little mystery to American life, in that regard. We know what decisions have been made, we know what arguments were put forward in the justification of those decisions, and we know who made the decisions and who implemented them.

We have no need to resort to abstraction. We have real people to hold accountable, and we know their names.

In the current crisis, that apparently is the one thing we are unable or unwilling to do.

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