Wednesday, October 18, 2017

We're All Wrong (About Something)

Political disagreements are nothing new. But in 2017 we don't just disagree with our political opponents, we loathe them.1

We’ve never been shy about telling people they’re wrong about about politics, but these days we often go further. Our opponents are not only wrong, they're evil. They shouldn't just be defeated, they should be punished. We shouldn't just prevent people from believing what they say, we should prevent people from even hearing what they say.  And forget about actually talking to them - that would just make us complicit in their evilness.

I totally understand this. After all people are saying some really crazy, evil things in 2017, and we certainly don’t want the rest of America to forget how evil and crazy those things are.

At the same time, there’s a lot of evidence that, if we want to make things in America not suck quite so much we’re going to need to get some Americans to change their minds about politics, and to do that we’re going to need to talk to them.

But how can we have a genuine conversation with people who are so obviously wrong?

Of course, they think the same thing about us. And you know what? They’re right.

But so are we.

The truth is that in 2017, both sides are almost certainly wrong about something.

We know this because 100 years ago both liberals and conservatives believe things that, in 2017, we all believe are not only obviously wrong, but as evil as anything our opponents are talking about today.

So it stands to reason that, 100 years from now, people will be saying the same thing about all of us right now.

Don't believe me? Let's take a trip back in time to 1917.

American Politics 100 Years Ago

Before we jump in, we need to acknowledge that the words we use today to talk about politics don't mean the same things they did 100 years ago. No one called themselves "liberal" for starters. It wasn't until the 1930s when FDR started using the word to describe his political beliefs.2

The parties stood for different things back then too. In 1917, most of the southern supporters of segregation were Democrats and many of those fighting it, and working to curb the power of large corporations were Republicans. 

But regardless of what they called themselves, it's clear that, just like today, some Americans wanted to preserve the status quo, keep on doing things the way they've always been done, and keep the government from meddling in people's private affairs. We've always called those people "conservatives." Others want to use the government's power and resources to try and change things, overturn old biases traditions, and make the world a better place. 100 years ago people like this called themselves "progressives."

So, what were conservatives and progressives arguing about back in 1917?

Conservatives in 1917


One of the old institutions conservatives were trying to protect was, of course, racism. And one of the cornerstones of old fashioned racism was a prohibition on interracial marriage. So even though it was already outlawed in 30 states, conservatives in 1917 were fighting to pass a constitutional amendment banning interracial marriage, just to make sure those evil progressives could never get rid of it.

They were also working to preserve sexism, by fighting tooth and nail to prevent women from getting the right to vote. 

After all, they said, why "waste time, energy, and money" giving women the vote, when they'll just do whatever their husbands tell them anyways?

Conservatives were also fighting to  preserve that cornerstone of modern capitalism: child labor.

After all, if a child wants to work in a steel factory, and the factory wants to hire her, what right does the government have to step in and say she can't?

Or, in the words of Democratic Senator Ben Tillman:

“The United States had assumed the right to enter the homes of the people and tell them how they must rear their children, and how, when, and where they must work them”3

In 2017 the conservatives of 1917 look pretty ugly, because the institutions they were trying to preserve were awful.  

If you're a modern liberal like me, none of this is surprising. We always talk about how conservatives are always on the "wrong side of history," especially when it comes to social issues like race and gender, and this just seems to prove our point.

But what about Liberals?


In the early 1900s the progressive movement was fighting to change society and overturn old institutions they thought were unjust or evil. And it was during this period when where some of today's most famous liberal heroes first made their mark.

There was Republican President Teddy Roosevelt, who was known as the "trust buster" for his aggressive efforts to break up huge corporations. But Roosevelt also extended Federal environmental protection to over 230,000,000 acres of American wilderness and prosecuted corrupt government officials who were cheating Native Americans out of their land.4

There was WEB Dubois, one of the most brilliant and influential American scholars and advocates of the 20th century, who helped found the NAACP in 1909, did groundbreaking work in sociology, philosophy, and history, and was one of the leading figures in the fight against Jim Crow, lynching, and racial discrimination in education and employment.

There was Margaret Sanger, who opened the first birth control clinic in America in 1916, founded Planned Parenthood in 1921, and, who fought to legalize contraception across the United States.

Just like liberals today, Roosevelt, Sanger, and DuBois were all working to overturn old institutions, and entrenched forces like racism, sexism and big business. They were fighting for change, to try and make American a better and more just society. And they were doing it a much more hostile environment.

One hundred years later, their achievements still look pretty impressive.

But one reform that progressives of the of the 1900s were also fighting doesn’t look so great in 2017: Eugenics

That's right. Eugenics, the cornerstone of the Nazi’s “master race” ideology. The idea that we should use selective breeding and even forced sterilization to improve the “genetic fitness” of humanity, by preventing “inferior” humans - including the poor, disabled and “immoral” from reproducing.

It sounds awful today (and it is), but try to look at Eugenics from the perspective of a 1917 progressive.

Eugenics was an effort to use “modern science” (Darwin! Natural Selection!) to help “improve society” and “make the world a better place.” It was a challenge to old “traditionalist” views about sex and marriage, such as those held by the Catholic Church, who argued vigorously against eugenics during this era.

This wasn’t a “fringe” view among progressives. In fact, all three of these progressive heroes were strong supporters of eugenics.

Progressives Arguing for Eugenics

Here’s Teddy Roosevelt in a letter to a leading eugenicist, the biologist Charles Davenport, 

“…[S]ociety has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind….Some day, we will realize that the prime duty, the inescapable duty, of the good citizen of the right type, is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type."

For his part, WEB Dubois conceived of “a carefully bred, selected, and trained elite” group of Blacks, called the “Talented Tenth,” who would lead the way to racial equality by pulling up “all who were worth the saving up to their vantage ground.”

In contrast, Dubois identified the “submerged tenth” of Blacks “lowest class of criminals, prostitutes and loafers," as an example of “human stocks with whom it is physically unwise to intermarry.” Following his lead, the NAACP’s official magazine, “The Crisis” declared that “Eugenics will improve the Negro of the future.5
Similarly, Margaret Sanger argued that America should:

“…apply a stern and rigid policy of sterilization, and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring. ”

Through grass roots advocacy and organizing, eugenicists progressives were able to get compulsory sterilization laws passed in over 30 states. In all, around 60,000 Americans, including criminals, the mentally ill, and those who “transgressed sexual norms” were forcibly sterilized.   It was only after World War 2 and the horrors of the Holocaust, that the eugenics movement in America was finally abandoned. 

Back to 2017

With 100 years of hindsight it’s clear that both progressives and conservatives were really wrong about some stuff in the 1900s. That’s not surprising when you think about it. This is what human progress is after all, right? Over time we become wiser, we understand more. It’s obvious that we as a society know more today than we did 100 years ago.

But that suggests that, 100 years from now, we’ll know a lot more than we do today. So our descendants will probably look at all of us the same way we look at people in the 1900s.

I doubt many of us are as intelligent as WEB DuBois - one of the most brilliant progressive thinkers in American history. If even he couldn’t see the flaws in his views on eugenics, then it seems like we should admit that we might be wrong about something ourselves.

But just because both sides are wrong doesn't mean we're both equally wrong. Eugenics or not, I think most modern Americans, conservatives and liberals alike, would probably agree that WEB Dubois was a lot less wrong than those conservative opponents of interracial marriage, women's suffrage, and child labor laws.

Politics shouldn't be a debate about who is right, but about who is less wrong.

Progress is Never Perfect

Roosevelt, DuBois, and Sanger believed some pretty awful things. But they also did more than any of us will probably ever do to make America a more equitable and just society.

This is probably how it’s always going to be. No one looks perfect with one hundred years of hindsight. But that’s how history is made – by imperfect humans doing the best they can, getting some things right and other things wrong. That’s something we need to come to terms with.

Today there are new heroes working to continue the legacy of the progressive movement. You probably have your own idea who they are. One hundred years from now future historians will look back at the early 2000s and talk about how important the liberal heroes of our era were in making America a better place.

However, the history books will also say: "Those progressive heroes of 2017 weren’t perfect. They believed some things that, by 2117 standards, seem ignorant and evil."

This is how history books have always talked about previous eras, and it's how they will talk about ours. We need to accept that some of the things we believe about politics are almost certainly wrong.

But that doesn't mean we should give up on trying to make American a better place.

This is a tough tightrope to walk. We need to keep pushing for change, trying new things. We can’t be paralyzed by our fear of failure. Otherwise we’re never going to make any progress at all. But at the same time, we need to be humble. We need to acknowledge that we’re going to make mistakes, get some stuff wrong.

And maybe, just maybe, we shouldn't be so hard on people when we feel they've gotten something wrong. It's fine to let them know, and try and correct them. But be nice about it. After all, we're probably wrong about something ourselves.

How to Be Less Wrong

If our goal is to be less wrong, then talking to conservatives can actually be really helpful. Sure, many of the things they say about liberals are totally bogus. But like the Catholic Church in the 1900s, at least some of their criticisms are probably valid. Because conservatives have different biases than we do, they're going to be better at finding flaws in our arguments than we are.

So if we're wrong about something (and we probably are) conservatives are going to be the first to notice.

Plus, while we're talking with them, we can help them see the flaws in their beliefs, and maybe get them to change their minds.

So, keep fighting for what you believe in. Just don't be so sure that you've got everything figured out.


1 Not that you really need academic research to tell you this, but research by Shanto Ieyngar and his collaborators (see references) have confirmed that Americans really do hate members of "the other side" more than we used to, even though we haven't moved that far apart in terms of our political preferences.

2 See Ellis & Stimson (2012), p.8. FDR introduced Americans to this term in his famous "fireside chats." Actually, before FDR, the word "liberal" was usually used to refer to people who championed the "personal liberty" of modern capitalism and democracy in contrast to the earlier frameworks of aristocracy and nobility. This is why people today who champion "free markets" today call themselves "libertarians" and some even call themselves "classical liberals." You can see why adopting this term to refer to his coalition was a bit of a political masterstroke for FDR. The man knew what he was doing.

3 United State Congress (1916), p 12,294.

4 Woodward (1974), pp 207-209. Brinkley (2009)

5 Door & Logan (2011)

Finally, a special thanks to Adam Daroff, who was invaluable in helping to make this post a lot "less wrong" than it would have been otherwise. That being said, I take full responsibilities for these ideas, so get mad at me, not him, if you don't like them. 


Brinkley, D. (2009) The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America. NY: Harper Collins.

Dorr, G. M., & Logan, A. (2011). "Quality, not Mere Quantity, Counts": Black Eugenics and the NAACP Baby Contests. In P. A. Lombardo (Ed.), A Century of Eugenics in America. Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press.

Ellis, C., & Stimson, J. (2012). Ideology in America. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Lantzer, J. S. (2011). The Indiana Way of Eugenics; Sterilization laws, 1907 -74. In P. A. Lombardo (Ed.), A Century of Eugenics in America. Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press.

Iyengar, S., Sood, G., & Lelkes, Y. (2012). Affect, not Ideology: A social identity perspective on polarization. Public Opinion Quarterly, 76(3), 405-431.

Iyengar, S., & Westwood, S. J. (2015). Fear and Loathing across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization. American Journal of Political Science, 59(3), 690-707.

Singleton, M. M. (2014). "The ‘Science’ of Eugenics: America’s Moral Detour." Journal of Americans Physicians and Surgeons, 19(4), 122-125.

United States Congress. (1916). Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the First Session of the Sixty-Forth Congress.  Washington DC, U.S. Government Printing Office.

Woodward, C. Vann. (1974). Responses of the Presidents to Charges of Misconduct. NY: Delacorte Press

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