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Janan Ganesh, the Financial Times’ political columnist makes a point which will by now be familiar to many of us.
Consider the Bathtub Fallacy, a staple of educated opinion for too long.
Whenever the state imposes a counterterror measure, especially one as brute as the US president’s, statistics are dug out to show that fewer westerners perish in terror attacks than in everyday mishaps. Slipping in the bath is a tragicomic favourite. We chuckle, share the data and wait for voters and politicians to see sense.
For good reason, that epiphany never happens. Leaving aside the many curbs on freedom that governments enforce to prevent accidents — product regulations and tort laws, we call them — most people can intuit the difference between domestic misfortune and political violence. The latter is an assault on the system: the rules and institutions that distinguish society from the state of nature. Bathroom deaths could multiply by 50 without a threat to civil order. The incidence of terror could not.
If the lawyers who volunteered to help unjustly detained arrivals at American airports showed liberalism at its best, the elision of terror with slippery porcelain is liberalism at its eye-rolling, clever-clever, unserious worst. In the coming years, reasonable people have to oppose populists while taking immense care in how they oppose them. Voters are watching. If they come to see a choice between demagogues who push security and national cohesion to paranoid extremes and liberals who take these things too lightly, the liberals should just forfeit the next few electoral cycles to save time and ballot paper.
The most insidious art in politics is the steering of one’s opponent into fringe positions, almost without their knowledge. Leaders of the Third Way, Tony Blair in Britain, Bill Clinton in the US, did it by holding the centre so greedily that their adversaries had nowhere to go but their ideological comfort zones. Boxers call it “cutting off the ring”.
Today, populists do it through their own extremism. They bet on it being enough to incite liberals into righteous overreaction, and then on voters to favour rightwing stridency over the opposite kind. The first bet looks promising so far, the second seems a sure thing.