The myth of the “Democratic City”: an un-strawmanning.

The myth of the “Democratic City”: an un-strawmanning.

The recent claims about entire cities — used to assign wholesale blame to Democratic leadership — have actually been in the GOP playbook for years.

Ryan Derenberger is a freelance journalist and editor, a Journalism and AP Language teacher at Whitman HS in Bethesda, MD, and the founder of 'The Idea Sift.'

September 3rd, 2020 at 9:40 pm EDT

In 1992 comedy My Cousin Vinny, ’80s star Ralph Machio plays a fish far out of water, a city-boy named Bill passing through Alabama. He and his friend Stan are wrongfully arrested for the murder of a convenience store cashier. Panicked, Bill calls upon his cousin, a newly licensed lawyer. Vinny the lawyer arrives, an underestimated walking Italian stereotype played by Joe Pesci.

In a jail cell, Bill assures Stan, “You have to see the Gambinis in action. I mean, these people, they love to argue.”

Vinny botches the preliminary proceedings, hard. Machio positions to fire him, but Pesci pulls him back, flipping through a deck of cards and showing Machio what he’d be losing if he sends Vinny packing.

“The D.A.’s got to build a case,” Pesci explains. “Building a case is like building a house. Each piece of evidence is just another building block. He wants to make a brick bunker of a building. He wants to use serious, solid-looking bricks, like, like these, right?”

At first, Pesci shows a playing card face forward only, a rectangle.

“He’s going to show you the bricks. He’ll show you they got straight sides.” Pesci traces along with his fingers. “He’ll show you how they got the right shape. He’ll show them to you in a very special way, so that they appear to have everything a brick should have. But there’s one thing he’s not gonna show you.”

Pesci turns the card to reveal the last side, the rectangle now paper-thin — a common magic-trick card the whole time. 

“When you look at the bricks from the right angle, they’re as thin as this playing card. His whole case is an illusion, a magic trick.”

How many cards are you actively confusing for bricks, right now? How many assumptions currently percolate in your brain, that the right attorney could undo in less time than it would take you to make lunch?

And how many thin ideas in our ideascape are currently attempting to swim their way through your synapses, to the back of your brain, unexamined? 

From September 2020, I’ll point one swimmer out for you. Let me play the role of your attorney.

Online and bouncing through social media is a viral political idea that, like a bad D.A.’s brick, works not symbiotically with your mind, but against it, capping your ability to process and critically think.

These pernicious thought viruses, what they do is convince you they’re pieces of evidence unto themselves, as opposed to claims with very little evidence, true forms.

Among the world’s thinnest playing cards.

Through that convincing, you grant them access to deeper, more permanent parts of your mind.

The now-primetime claim:
A riot after a peaceful protest in a Democratic-led city is a result of failed Democratic leadership.

or more generally…
An unwelcome outburst of citizenry is the result of local leadership failures.

Notice that the thought, expressed most notably from the American right recently, caps the responsibility only as high up as the opposing political party ostensibly or literally presides. There is no claim about national leadership playing a role — though all levels of leadership and citizenry play a role to varying degrees, a brick of actual depth. 

The right has these past two weeks played the above card to its base regarding Kenosha and how the peaceful protests give way not every night, but some nights to a percentage of protestors sticking around, and others coming out for the first time, to use the situation to justify property damage. 

Trump easily guzzles and spits the infectious thing as though it’s Fiji water. From the tarmac on his way to Kenosha this week, he offered, “I think a lot of people are looking at what’s happening to these Democrat-run cities and they’re disgusted.” 

A Washington Post conservative columnist licked up the ensuing puddle, and spit it another yard: “Americans understand that Democrats are in charge of the cities on fire.”

Not to be outdone, Trump returned to send the saliva flying further, retweeting “Leave Democrat cities. Let them rot.”

We speak of “red states,” “blue states,” and now “blue cities” — I’m not sure we should be calling any city a “Democratic city” or a “Republican city” when every city has more than just Democrats or Republicans. Each has both, and independents, and libertarians. Some are public in their opinions. Many aren’t.  

The conservative claim assigning blame wholesale, though, has actually been around for quite some time.

Let’s rewind to 2015. Conservative darling Ben Shapiro then presented the same claim to justify even greater, sweeping declarations about the left as a monolithic entity, but certainly, too, that Democrats in positions of power deserve a totality of blame for uprisings gone wrong, as though the thought were self-evident. No need for follow-up. No need for unpacking, for sourcing, for verification. Just a bricked fact.

Upon inspection, we’ll find that it, too, is paper thin.

Excluding the peaceful protests, Shapiro played the card regarding the riotous nights in Baltimore after Freddie Gray’s passing. 

Recall that Freddie Gray was a Black American from Baltimore, MD, killed in police custordy. He was arrested in 2015 after he ran having seen Baltimore Police pull up nearby. The police officers did not know why Gray was running. They chased him, caught him and found a knife on him. 

According to the Baltimore City Police Department, the knife, a switchblade, was illegal to carry without a permit. The state’s attorney, however, proved otherwise using Maryland law, and the detail remained a point of contention during litigation.

Conservatives will point out that Gray was a drug dealer. Interestingly, no drugs were found on him. They’ll also point out that not all of the arresting police were white, a fact they fallaciously think negates entirely the possibility of abuse of power.

The fact of a racial split among the officers on trial is not the silver bullet Shapiro or his ilk seek. Black communities have for over a century evidenced abuse and hate from all American police officers. A majority of American police during that time have been white, many of whom proud white supremacists for years, and a majority still are white.

An even larger majority than that of white police officers is the group we might say are calloused by training and fieldwork alike, perhaps out of necessity at times, but fossilized as permanent habit, regardless of an officer’s race or gender.

Officers’ racism is an idea-enemy for Black Americans; so too is any callousness general, any quick, anachronistic rage.

Prior to his appearing before a judge, and certainly well prior to his having a trial by right, Freddie Gray died. He sustained spinal injuries during the process of being arrested and transported for processing for trial. The custody included an officer’s knee to the neck, similar to the method employed by Derek Chauvin when he killed George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Rumors initially circulated that, police having left Gray unbuckled in the van, the officer who drove him to the Police Department then subjected him to a “rough ride,” a speedy, twisted route that violently tosses the unbuckled into the metal walls of the van again and again. 

During the later trial in which the arresting officers were charged to various degrees of manslaughter and assault, the prosecution could not evidence the “rough ride.” Rather, evidence did arise that a deadly injury to Mr. Gray’s spine may have occurred as a result of the officers’ severe and sustained restraining.

Baltimore, long wary of targeted policing tactics from overzealous officers of all races, fell into both peaceful and violent protests, the latter happening mainly at night.

Here was how Ben Shapiro used what happened in the city as a way to place blame square on blue leadership and, at the same time, ambitiously and flippantly dismiss the existence of white privilege, an odd mutation of the main meme:

“Everything is ‘white privilege.’ When black people riot in Baltimore, a majority black city, with a majority black police force, with a black police commissioner, with a majority black city council, with a black mayor, with a black president, with a black attorney general, that’s all ‘white privilege.’”

The left has added a great deal of subtlety to the country’s conversations about race, with widely-sourced statistics on differences in the number of de-escalation attempts police employ with persons of color, for instance, or in the sentence lengths of Black Americans compared to those of white defendants who committed the exact same crimes. The data corroborate consistently what Black Americans have reported for centuries and white supremacists and police officers alike for the better part of those centuries have proudly admitted.

To distill the left’s storied and continual body of evidence in a simple sentence “White privilege is everywhere,” as Shapiro does, ignoring its support, is disingenuous (and odd considering that the right also criticizes the left for some kind of overreliance on evidence and expertism, surely one of the strangest cultural memes in history, a basic survival instinct demonized).

What the left argues is that white privilege, like a blood drip that appears to “walk away” from a crime, is at the heart of much racial disparity in our country. This, even, is a simplified claim borderline made of straw, because it’s a thesis with, again, books upon books upon books that expound upon why this is so, to what extents, when and where. 

Shapiro shrinks it all. Poof.

Next for Shapiro is a list absent conjunctions, a rhetorical tactic called asyndeton. It’s a strategy of speed, providing the audience with the visage of a long list, even when the list is, compared to volumes of subtle and careful argumentation from the left, paltry and stubby.

He draws a wide, wide conclusion attempt using what looks like evidence as his premises. Hidden, then, is a liberal usage of a rhetorical device called enthymeme, the outright omission of what should be necessary premises when speaking or writing and drawing a conclusion. 

The effect of enthymeme is that a speaker “pulls one over” on the audience — a D.A.’s magic card. Had the premises been stated, the audience, scratching their heads, would have pumped the brakes: “Uh, that’s not right…That’s… thin.” Omitting, Shapiro draws a conclusion and let’s the audience ambiguously fill in the blanks through confirmation bias (“Oh yeah, I thought that was dumb, too!”) or anchoring to his speed and vocabulary as though either is indicative of logic and intelligence in Shapiro (“I mean, he sounds really smart. I kind of get what he’s saying”).

So if Shapiro was right, that with these black leaders in place, it would be impossible for white privilege to exist, at a minimum the below nine premises must prove “true.” Only then might we consider his conclusion valid and sound. The below comprise Shapiro’s ghost syllogism, reincarnated magically on your screen for your consideration. As you read each premise, simply ask yourself, “Is this true?” (Hint: Only one will be.)

P1. The citizens who are under the leadership of one who shares their skin color will all certainly benefit more than they had under other leadership.

P2. Those who will benefit from leaders for varying reasons will see that benefit quickly upon their leaders’ taking office or being elevated to power, within each leader’s term as opposed to as a result of lasting legislation or graduated change. 

P3. The existence of checks and balances from other leaders still present in all levels of government means nothing, the power of skin color in each of these black leaders being so absolute that the other leaders around them have no sway. 

P4. If a benefit does not appear, the still unbenefited must be at fault as a community.

P5. Benefit is measured by whether or not riots occur.

P6. Black leaders, among other leaders, were in some positions of power when Freddie Gray was murdered and Baltimore communities mostly peacefully demonstrated during the days, with some rioting over nights.

P7. The actions of some members of one black community are sufficient to justify conclusions about the totality of Black Americans and the left.

P8. The identification of failure in black communities, led by some Democrats, proves that white privilege must not be to blame for a community’s problems.

P9. If white privilege is not at fault in a given race-related situation, then it does not exist at all.

∴ C. Some of one black community rioted after peaceful daily demonstrations, a proof of “lack of benefit,” even when some leaders of the same skin color had been recently elected, with no outside influence from other leaders, thus proving that white privilege is a myth.

Premise six is true. Using only premise six, Shapiro draws his big, thin conclusion.

Notice that what I’ve done, here, is an un-strawmanning, a Frankensteinian attempt to bring to life the lifeless through the exact means that do bring arguments to life: an organization of claims and evidence. Yet my act of organizing Shapiro’s arguments shows them for what they really are.

They are monstrously fragile, and they will remain lifeless to the inoculated in logic. What poor rhetoric it is that Shapiro and the right pedal. It shrivels under even desk-lamp light, all-destroying like chemotherapy. 

The likelihood that an absolutist claim like Shapiro’s is correct is one in infinity. What, there are literally no other circumstances that led to an event? Not a single bit of qualification? The nature, the nurture, coincidence, luck, bad luck, none of it mattered, huh. None of it had any effect on anything.

And so the right characterizes “blue cities,” angry blue citizenry 100% the fault of blue leaders, as if not another color or shade were around at all. Perhaps even a different kind of blue, police blue.

In Baltimore, red cops who might not live in the city, but in nearby red suburbs, commuting out of their neighborhoods and into others’. Or green cash, scarce, a great recession barely in the rearview.

With Kenosha, red voters and legislators, red rhetoric on Twitter, red in the Oval — you know, like how Shapiro blamed the president for the Freddy Gray protests? All the way up this GOP play goes to as high as even a pixel of their opposing color sits, but no further.

How absurd and easy-to-disprove absolutist arguments are. They earn weak scores in rhetoric courses for a reason: they’re objectively wrong. 

To put it another way, they’re unsubstantiated, and they reveal either that those wielding them do not understand the difference between claims and evidence, or that they do, but are exploiting others’ unknowing awe at the illusion.

Before you mistake magic for matter, check the deck.


“A riot after a peaceful protest in a ‘Blue City’ is a result of failed Democratic leadership,” or more generally, “An unwelcome outburst of the citizenry is always the result of local leadership failures.”

We speak of “Democratic Cities” of “Red States.” These shortcuts, as with any shortcut, are not altogether without utility. But they obscure, misconstrue. They delay the very conversations we need to have to heal as a country. They’re selective. They’re weak. 

IDEAS SIFTED: My Cousin Vinny, Kenosha circa 2020, Ben Shapiro circa 2015, Logic circa always.

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Ryan Derenberger is a freelance journalist and editor, a Journalism and AP Language teacher at Whitman HS in Bethesda, MD, and the founder of 'The Idea Sift.'