Popper’s Paradox and Biden’s “Divisive” Speech


I teach a high school philosophy class. My rules are simple:

  1. Everyone will be treated with basic human dignity.
  2. Everyone will be heard.
  3. Anything expressed in class is subject to challenge
  4. Challenges must hold to philosophical standards of argumentation

In this class, I teach my students how to argue in thoughtful ways. They are taught that philosophical arguments must be empirical or rational. If making a moral claim, it must be consistent and generalizable. Philosophical arguments must be free of logical fallacies. With these rules in place, students can freely express themselves without fear of censure.

This is a very attractive environment for teens primed for pondering the great human questions and how the answers may shape their very identities. This class is always full. Furthermore, I take great pride in the fact that my class population is always diverse, both demographically and ideologically. My Philosophy Class appeals to students of all religions and political bents.

One day I was approached by a couple of students. These students identified as non-binary. They were concerned about a new student in the class. This student had a history of making homophobic comments among peers. This made my non-binary students nervous about expressing themselves when subjects relevant to their identities came up.

I listened. The student in question had never been inappropriate in class, but I understood where my gender non-conforming students were coming from. I had a problem. Like all problems in a classroom environment, it was also an opportunity to learn. My class is premised on a liberal philosophy of free speech bound by rules of academic freedom. This premise falls apart in the face of fear. How should I handle this?

I asked my students, “do you remember the rules of class?”

They did.

“Has he violated these rules?”

As it stood, he hadn’t.

“If he does, I’ll take care of it. In the meantime, you have things to say that are important to you and that help other students grow as individuals. I’m here to support you. There’s no reason to be afraid. Keep doing what you have been doing all semester.”

This seemed to satisfy them.

Some days later the conversation turned to a topic related to political polarization. The conversation turned to the many anti-LGTBQ+ statements being made by politicians and commentators in the media. Most students expressed support for their LGTBQ+ classmates, but the new student chimed in, “yes, but can’t we come up with a compromise and find some middle ground?”

On the face, this “common ground” request seems like a perfectly sensible ask.

But my non-binary students didn’t take the hook.

One of them responded, “No. We can’t. If you believe that I shouldn’t exist, then there’s no room for me to compromise. Any compromise I make, I lose.”

I was proud of this student because he was referencing a topic discussed in class, a variation of Popper’s Paradox of Tolerance. Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, in his book The Open Society and its Enemies, posited that a tolerant society, like my classroom, creates opportunities for those with intolerant agendas to express their regressive beliefs. In doing so, they attract more intolerant people to their cause, giving weight and even political power to their intolerant beliefs. In the end, the intolerant will take over and destroy the tolerant society. Popper’s answer to this was simple. Tolerant societies should not tolerate intolerant discourse.

I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.

Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies (1945)

I don’t accept Popper’s proposed solution. His argument, however, does pose significant problems, especially in the contemporary context. It’s clear that we are witness to all of the pitfalls mentioned in this short excerpt. The so-called MAGAs1 exemplify all of Popper’s concerns. They offer a message and a cultural value system of intolerance. When called out on their racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia, they play the victim and accuse liberals of intolerance. Then accuse liberals of being “Marxists” intent on destroying American society and indoctrinating the youth into their atheist, gay, socialist, agenda. What can be expected of such intolerant liberals?

I’ve been thinking about Karl Popper and John Rawls a great deal lately. Upon hearing the predictable responses to President Biden’s Democracy Speech, I’ve been thinking about this particular student as well. Biden’s statement that “there is no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven, and intimidated by [Orangemanbaby] and the MAGA Republicans, and that is a threat to this country…” is demonstrably true and non-controversial by any enlightened standards. Our nation is in the throws, as Biden said, “an inflection point” of a fascist uprising emanating from an organized and loudly vocal minority of right-wing activists. These activists are empowered and legitimized by the previous administration and have captured one of our major political parties.

The President may be correct when he points out that “Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans. Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology.” This is, however, irrelevant. However small that minority may be, it stands virtually uncontested in the GOP. The majority of Republicans may not like the MAGAs among them, but they are either willing to play along for their own advancement, or they are too cowardly to make a stand lest they be Lizcheneyed.2 The Republican Party is, as it stands, complicit in the rise of American fascism, and history will remember them as such.

The Republican response to the speech would make a great addendum to a new release of The Open Society. The President’s speech was universally derided by the right as being “divisive.” Keven McCarthy, who flirted with being a man of character for all of about eight and half minutes back in January of 2020, condemned Biden’s speech. “President Biden has chosen to divide, demean, and disparage his fellow Americans — Why? simply because they disagree with his policies,”

Of course, that’s not true. In fact, President Biden is not the one guilty of division. What has divided this nation is the mobilization of the monstrous elements of the right, the paranoid, the fascists waiting in the wings. They were released from their cages in 2009 when one of “those people” actually became President of the United States. This strategy of whipping up the paranoid and organizing them into a political force was intentionally partisan and power oriented. The Conservative Movement was on life support in the face of two disastrous wars and the total collapse of the global economy. Unleashing the monsters was a desperate attempt by the neocons, ironically embodied by none other than Liz’s very own father, Dick Cheney. Mitch McConnell, the Monster Herding Machiavelli admitted this when he proclaimed, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” The single most important thing was not the wellbeing of the American people in the face of a devastating economic crisis. It certainly wasn’t the preservation of American democracy. The single most important thing was to take power, and mobilizing the intolerant, paranoid masses was the centerpiece of this plan.

The fruits of this strategy are clear. They failed to make Obama a one term president. They also destroyed the Republican Party as the vehicle of American Conservatism.

The GOP as it stands today is the vanguard of American Fascism.

I take no satisfaction in saying that. Indeed, I’ve been rather slow to make this stand. However, this is a stand that must be made. As President Biden said, “…America must choose: to move forward or to move backwards? To build the future or obsess about the past? To be a nation of hope and unity and optimism, or a nation of fear, division, and of darkness?” My idea of unity and optimism may be different from the President’s, but fear, division, and darkness are universal enemies of democracy regardless of its shape.

The paranoid monsters have been organized into a full fledged fascist movement, wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross. I do not believe Popper’s strategy is the right course of action. If democracy is to survive it must find ways to nullify the ever-present anti-democratic elements in its midst without surrending its foundational principles.3 Calling out the fascists, the illiberal, the anti-democratic, and the authoritarian for what they are must be the first step.

Is this divisive?

Maybe. But a democratic society has no room to compromise with fascism or authoritarianism. Any compromise constitutes a loss of democracy.


  1. I’ll use the terminology, but I believe that using terms like “MAGA” and “Orangemanbabyism” does nothing but water down the acid truth. What we are talking about is Fascism, plain and simple. There’s nothing new here. The Orangemanbaby in question did not create a movement. He simply broke the seal on what historian Richard Hofstadter referred to as the “paranoids” or the latent fascists who have long been an odorous stain on American society.
  2. It’s important to remember that Liz Cheney voted with the Orangemanbaby over 90% of the time during the previous administration. This may be enough to get an A on a final exam, but ninety percent loyalty isn’t enough to save her political career in the face of the fascist uprising. Purity–absolute purity and compliance–is a cornerstone of fascist ideology.
  3. Remember the requirement expressed at the beginning of this post. Moral arguments must be consistent and generalizable.

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