The contextualization fairy

Recently, John Holbo posted two items (here and here) on Crooked Timber about something odd in American politics.  Right-wing politicians in the USA quite often make public statements that would, if taken at face value, suggest that they are far more extreme in their views than they in fact are.  So, Professor Holbo finds remarks from Texas governor Rick Perry which, taken literally, would imply that Mr Perry thought that Texas should secede from the USA, that all federal programs established since 1900 should be abolished, indeed that there should be no government at all.  Mr Perry obviously does not believe any of those things, so obviously that only his committed opponents try to take him to task for making such extreme remarks.  This is not unique to Mr Perry, but is a usual pattern for right-wing US politicians.

What makes this so odd is that, while it is common for right-wing American politicians to exaggerate the radicalism of their views and for the public to realize that this is what they are doing, Professor Holbo can find no examples of their left-leaning counterparts doing the same thing.  A Democratic or leftist candidate who makes a radical-sounding statement likely means that statement to be taken at face value, and it certainly will be taken at face value by most observers.

Many commentators on American politics explain the right-wingers’ habit of making extreme sounding statements for which they do not expect to be held responsible as an effort to move the “Overton Window.”  The Overton Window, named for the late Joseph P. Overton, is the range of ideas that the people who hold sway in a given political culture hold to be acceptable at a particular time.  Only ideas within the window are likely to be put into effect.  The window shifts back and forth, as some ideas that had once seemed outlandish begin to seem mainstream, while other ideas that had once seemed mainstream begin to seem outlandish.

Key to the Overton Window is the idea of contextualization.  The idea of devolving Medicare, the program that ensures that most Americans over the age of 65 will be able to pay for health care, to the states may seem outlandish to many in the USA, but compared to the idea of large states seceding from the Union it is quite moderate.  The idea of shifting the revenues of Social Security, the program that provides a guaranteed income to  most Americans over the age of 65, from current benefits to private savings accounts may seem outlandish to many in the USA, but compared with the idea of abolishing the entire welfare state it is quite moderate.  Other policies favored by powerful interests on the right end of the political spectrum may also seem outlandish, but compared with anarchism they too are quite moderate.  So, within the context of the extreme remarks for which they are not called to account, rightists can gain a hearing for policies which they do seriously advocate.

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“We do not believe in appointing Deputies to do what we think it wrong for ourselves to do”

Grover Cleveland, before he entered politics

This summer Mrs Acilius and I read Ryan P. Jordan‘s  Slavery and the Meetinghouse, a study of the great difficulty American Quakers had in the years 1821-1861 trying to decide on an approach to take to the issue of slavery.  Last night I was reminded of this passage, from pages 114 through 115 of Jordan’s book:

The editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, Sydney Howard Gay, wrote that the Anti-Slavery Society disagreed “with the philosophy of the Quaker[s]” who when appointed to political positions would not hang a man themselves but “would appoint a Deputy that would.”  “We do not believe,” continued Gay, “in appointing Deputies to do what we think to be wrong for ourselves to do.” 

Gay wrote these words in October of 1848, when many American Quakers were rallying to support the presidential campaign of slaveholder Zachary Taylor.  In the willingness of the ostensibly antislavery Quakers of the day to support a slaveholding president, Gay saw cowardice.  He equated the cowardice he believed he saw in this matter with the cowardice he saw in the same Quakers in regard to the death penalty.  In the seventeenth century, the founders of Quakerism opposed the death penalty, and in many parts of the world that opposition continues even today in an unbroken line of tradition.  The Quakers Gay saw in the antebellum USA paid lip service to that tradition, but many of them merely hid behind others while they became complicit in executions.

What brought this to my mind last night was this tweet from author Michael Brendan Dougherty:

I don’t like Rick Perry. And I think he failed in his answer on this. But it is wrong to say that “Rick Perry has executed” people.

To which I responded:

@michaelbd “it is wrong to say that “Rick Perry has executed” people.” Better Grover Cleveland, who did the job personally, than to delegate

Only someone with a lively interest in nineteenth century US history would be likely to know what I was talking about there, so permit me to explain.  In 1872, Stephen Grover Cleveland was sheriff of Erie County, New York.  The law of the state of New York in those days declared it to be the responsibility of the sheriff of each county to hang the prisoners condemned to death for crimes committed in that county.  As this 1912 New York Times article (pdf) put it, “In the office of Sheriff of Erie County there had for many years been a Deputy Sheriff named Jacob Emerick.  Mr Cleveland’s predecessors had from time immemorial followed the custom of turning over to Emerick all the details of public executions.  So often had this veteran Deputy Sheriff officiated at hangings that he came to be publicly known as ‘Hangman Emerick.'”  Evidently Emerick didn’t enjoy this sobriquet, and Cleveland noticed that the law explicitly named the High Sheriff as the officer responsible for hangings.  So when Patrick Morrisey was scheduled to be hanged on 6 September 1872, Cleveland resolved to execute Morrisey himself.  To return to the Times article, “Cleveland surprised the community and his friends by announcing that he personally would perform the act of Executioner.  To the remonstrances of his friends he refused to listen, pointing to the letter of the law requiring the Sheriff to ‘hang by the neck,’ &c.  He furthermore insisted that he had no moral right to impose upon a subordinate the obnoxious and degrading tasks that attached to his office.  He considered it an important duty on his part to relieve Emerick as far as possible from the growing onus of his title of ‘Hangman.'”   The following year, Cleveland again acted as hangman, putting one John Gaffney to death.  Cleveland was subsequently elected mayor of Buffalo, then governor of New York.  He was the Democratic Party’s candidate for president of the United States in 1884, 1888, and 1892, winning the popular vote on all three occasions and winning the electoral vote in 1884 and 1892.  He remains the only US president to serve two non-consecutive terms in office and one of only four candidates to win the popular vote three times.  He is also the only former sheriff to go on to become US president.

It is because of Cleveland’s willingness to look Morrisey and Gaffney in their faces and pull the lever that dropped the platform from beneath their feet that I have more respect for him than I do for Rick Perry.  In his years as governor of Texas, Mr Perry has signed death warrants that have consigned the 234 people to death.  So far from performing these executions himself, Mr Perry seems never even to have attended an execution.  And while Cleveland could acknowledge that performing an execution was one of the “obnoxious and degrading tasks attached to his office,” Mr Perry claims to regard signing death warrants as a carefree exercise.  This difference alone shows that Grover Cleveland lived in a different moral universe than does Rick Perry.  People whose imaginations are shaped by television and video games may think of indifference to human life as a form of strength, and of personal encounters with the object of one’s violent behavior as unimportant.  Such views would likely have struck a man of Cleveland’s sort as a sign of profound moral and spiritual immaturity.  Granted, executions were far more routine in America in the nineteenth century than they are today, even in a death-penalty happy state like Texas.  But does the fact that we execute fewer people today mean that we take the matter of life and death more seriously than the Americans of Cleveland’s day took it?  Or does it simply mean that other features of our society have interfered with the smooth functioning of the “machinery of death“?