Tuesday, May 26, 2009

On Worst-Case Scenarios

-- by Sara

I woke up this morning to the cheerful news (brought by my CAF colleague Bill Scher, who served it up with my daily Progressive Breakfast) that Andrew Sullivan had graced yours truly with a nomination for his "Michael Moore Award," which is apparently given to anyone on the progressive side who he thinks is being shrill, outrageous, and simply over-the-top.

This dubious honor was conferred on the basis of the following paragraph, clipped from yesterday's post (which Dave cross-posted to Crooks & Liars) on the potential right-wing backlash that may result if California's Prop 8 is overturned today:
"In the worst case, this decision could become the catalyst for a new round of large-scale domestic terrorism from the right. As I've noted, everything I'm seeing points to a subculture that is gearing up for this kind of heroic last stand in defense of a lost cause. And this time, it's not going to be just a few white supremacist/militia/patriot/anti-choice wackos. The new crop of right wing militants is better connected, better trained, better armed, and absolutely determined to go down fighting. And, as the SPLC keeps telling us, there may considerably more people motivated to support them than there have been in the past. It’s not unthinkable that between 15 and 20% of the country could be inclined to start -- or at least support -- a civil war over this."
It's not the only criticism I've gotten along these lines in the past 24 hours, so I thought a response might be in order.

The key words in that paragraph are the opening ones: In the worst case. This phrase means something very specific to me, and to anyone who's done planning or foresight work. The best way to figure out what you're likely to face in the future is to develop supportable, fact-based scenarios that cover the full range of bases, which are typically summarized as:
* The most likely case (if all current trends continue -- which actually only occurs less than half the time)

* The best case (if everything goes right)

* A couple of high-impact, low-probability cases (black swans, wild cards -- rare, but totally disruptive if they do happen)

* The worst case (what will happen if the most negative factors present in the scenario all come into play)
Right now, much of the country's gay leadership (including, apparently, Sully) is going on the sunny assumption that where Prop 8 is concerned, the best case is also the most likely case. The consensus seems to be that the right wing was pretty quiescent when all those other states instituted gay marriage, so there's no absolutely no reason to expect that California will be any different.

They may be right. The best case may in fact be what happens. However, it's irresponsible -- if not dangerous -- for political leaders to blithely assume that the future is settled, and simply proceed on their most optimistic assumptions without questioning them. Unfortunately, the left does this pretty routinely, which is why we're constantly being blindsided by the right.

And that's why I wrote that post. I wanted to challenge that assumption, and to shake people out of that complacency. (Which is, let me remind you, what futurists do. This my job -- what I was trained to do -- and I take it pretty seriously.) California is different, for reasons I think I made pretty clear. Massachusetts or Vermont don't have the demographic or cultural clout to change the way things are done in every corner of the country. But California does, which is precisely why it's so deeply demonized and feared by right-wingers everywhere. Furthermore, the state's courts and judges have been right-wing targets going all the way back to the 1950s' Birchers. There's history here -- and deep fear and anger that's settled in over decades. And overturning Prop 8 is the most perfect issue I can imagine to set that pot boiling all over again.

Most of yesterday's piece focused on some very specific, well-supported reasons that I think the gay community should question their complacency. It also included a most-likely scenario (assuming the court rules against Prop 8, which is in itself not a most-likely scenario), which is that a few far-right whack jobs around the country would use the event as an excuse for a fresh round of violence against gay targets. We might see another Matthew Shepherd, or another Knoxville. Or two or three. And wise people should at least prepare themselves for that possibility.

There's nothing particularly outrageous or over-the-top about this claim: this stuff happens fairly regularly in America, as I think even Sully would agree. There's always been that 2-3% of the population who are implacably and militantly on the political extremes, who aren't burdened by the same social braking systems the rest of us came equipped with, and who are prepared to act out violently if provoked. I merely pointed out that overturning Prop 8 is the most perfect imaginable example of the kind of event that might provoke them.

The worst case scenario Sully quotes above takes that forecast just one logical step farther. In addition to that 2-3%, there's a larger circle -- maybe 12-15% of the country -- who are hard-core believers in right wing ideology. These folks listen to right-wing talk radio, buy the books, and are committed to the worldview. But they're also generally hard-working, law-abiding, and often church-going people who don't pose much of a threat to anybody -- at least, not under normal conditions.

The problem is that this larger group can, on occasion, be radicalized by the smaller one into organized, sustained violent action. We've seen this happen in the past -- and invariably, it's led to the worst eliminationist excesses that dot American history. The Klan takeover of Oregon and Indiana in the 1920s was an example of this. So are the lynch mobs that enforced Jim Crow for three generations in the South. The difference between one crazy loner with a gun and a bigger mob that takes justice into its own hands almost always comes down to whether or not this larger group decides it's going to get involved.

Furthermore, as the Department of Homeland Security recently warned us, this larger group is unusually roused and anxious right now -- which means it's not out of place at all to posit a worst-case scenario in which the impending threat of nationwide gay marriage drives them to abandon political solutions and begin taking their frustrations out against gays in their own communities. If that expanded into a regional or national trend, the words "civil war" would certainly apply.

If I was throwing around scare stories that weren't rooted in history or current trends, that would indeed be over the top, and I'd be well worthy of the ignominy Sullivan is attempting to heap on my head. But it is not fearmongering to say that there are known patterns to things (including right-wing behavior), and to point out that elements of the current situation are objectively, factually, demonstrably conforming to at least some of those patterns. It's not fearmongering to challenge people's fondest assumptions about how things are working out, and to point out very plausible ways they could take a turn for the worse. It's not fearmongering to consider just how far south that turn might go before it bottoms out. And it's not fearmongering to suggest that prudent preparations, just in case, are probably in order.

Leaders of any movement to refuse to allow their assumptions to be questioned, or make a habit of ridiculing those who offer serious alternatives that challenge their happy talk, reveal a blindness that should worry us all. There is always a worst case (even if it's not the most likely case); and movements that endure are the ones who are always mindful of just how close or far away they are from ending up there.

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