Barkley and the Backlash

chensiyuan (CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Recent political comments by Charles Barkley have received a lot of attention, including an intense pushback. But his dust-up isn’t just another example of mudslinging. A sound structure sits below both sides of the debate he instigated. And every citizen will need to become more familiar with it.

Using unambiguous language, Sir Charles blamed both major political parties for America’s divisions: “I think our system is set up where our politicians, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, are designed to make us not like each other so they can keep their grasp of money and power.” (Spoiler alert: regular readers will notice the importance of that last term.)

In response, Barkley’s detractors accused him of blindly following a “both sides” fallacy. One twitter user summed it up: “I’d love to see someone ask Charles to explain exactly which D politicians are trying to make white people and black people hate each other, which ones are using racial dog-whistles or racist tactics like voter suppression/accusations of fraud to divide and demean.”

This debate was instigated by the topic of race. But it’s centered on the two political parties. Barkley astutely wove together several subjects that weren’t often grouped together in past eras, but are increasingly associated with one another in ours: race, power, political parties, and intentional division.

Beneath the surface of our discourse, America has been experiencing a surreptitious yet unrelenting shift toward such connections. Barkley’s comments bring that perspective into the mainstream. But the underlying framework needs to be better understood ……

At the most basic level, Barkley acknowledges that the country’s primary conflict is not left versus right. Instead, he sees a top versus bottom division: centralized power structures in vertical opposition to the citizens. Then he favors one end of that axis by professing faith in those citizens: “I think most white people and black people are great people.”

Barkley’s detractors, on the other hand, insist that the country’s only conflict is left versus right: a horizontal framing that can label “the other side” as racist.

At the heart of this debate sit the RNC’s and DNC’s chameleon-like, shape-shifting self-presentations. Barkley calls out both as coercive, top-down forces. He accuses them of controlling people from their powerful position.

The response can be distilled to: “No, the parties are opposed!”

Where do the parties really reside? Both sit high in the upper quadrants of the circle ……

The two Fundamental Questions function as the foundation of this conflict. Barkley favors one: “Who should control power in America?” The backlash favors the other: “Which side exhibits better values?” Each of us much choose which to prioritize: Is the horizontal values question more important? Or should I focus vertically …… on power?

The parties pretend to compete on one, while they quietly cooperate on the other. Their power grab is becoming difficult to hide, though. If they can’t tamp down on comments like Barkley’s, they’ll be facing a two-front war for the hearts of the American people.

It’s not a war they can win.

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