Drones R Us
Watching last night’s debate, I was struck by one thing:
A lot of progressives and libertarians must not understand either presidential elections or American public opinion. I say this based on the reaction I saw on Twitter and Tumblr — but not Facebook, tellingly, which is less of an echo chamber for me — to the candidates’ brief discussion of drone warfare.
There was general outrage at the way in which the moral problem of drones was dismissed, brushed aside based on a quick utilitarian calculation that places virtually no value on the lives of non-Americans, who are simply presumed to be militants.
This is good outrage. Our use of drones — specifically, our willingness to target American citizens abroad and our callousness with regard to innocent people caught up in the carnage — is a major problem.
The mistake is in the thinking that accompanies the outrage, which seems to be that these politicians know drone strikes — or, perhaps, the use of force in general, depending on your persuasion — are immoral and continue to support them because they are themselves immoral monsters. To demonstrate that they are virtuous — and thus deserving of our vote — the candidates ought to have taken a stance against drone strikes or warfare in general.
But I think this is a misunderstanding of how presidential elections work and it’s a misunderstanding of America itself. It would be political suicide to speak out in opposition to drone strikes, or to a military option in general, at this stage in the election … and that presumes that the candidates actually oppose these things (which they do not). Why suicide? In their support for drones, for backing up Israel against Iran, and for acting aggressively on the world stage in general, the candidates are very much an embodiment of the American people themselves. Americans support the use of drones … and by a wide margin. It’s odd to think that the presidential candidates would take this moment to disagree with the electorate.
This misunderstanding reminds me of a very long argument I had with a good friend back in 2000 about the moment in the Bush/Gore debate when the death penalty came up and was quickly dismissed. My friend argued that both Bush and Gore were equally awful with regard to the death penalty; my argument was that they might not be equally awful — since Bush signed 152 death warrants — and that we shouldn’t expect a serious debate about the death penalty from the presidential candidates. When it comes to controversial topics, especially ones that touch on issues of justice and vengeance, we should, instead, expect meaningless platitudes that pander to the majority.
When it comes to drone warfare or saber-rattling about Iran, the majority wants to hear that there will be even more to come. The majority is wrong about this, as they are about many things, but it’s not clear why people are so surprised that the presidential candidates agree with the majority.
If you think the majority is wrong about something that’s very important, it doesn’t make any sense at all to keep expecting politicians to get out in front of the issue and tell people that they’re wrong. Instead, it’s a far better bet for the minority — who are sure they’re right — to employ reasoned arguments or sad, sentimental stories to change Americans’ hearts and minds. In the long run, this is likely to be far more effective than simply complaining that the candidates aren’t spending more time defending or refuting a policy that enjoys broad public support.