Members Only | February 5, 2021 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Why conservatives love ‘the slippery slope’

Claire Bond Potter says it teaches Americans to fear government.

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Just a day before the House stripped Georgia Republican Congressperson Marjorie Taylor Greene of her committee appointments for violent speech and disseminating conspiracy theories, Rep. Jim Jordan was apoplectic. In a surprisingly tough interview with Sandra Smith and John Roberts of Fox News, the House Republican from Ohio warned that censuring Greene was a “slippery slope” toward silencing all Americans

Although Jordan never used the phrase, Twitter picked up on the “slippery slope” argument. Acting against an elected representative was more dangerous to democracy than Greene’s proposal: that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi be executed for treason.

House Republican Jim Jordan: “This will never end, and if we don’t stop it now, every single American is at risk.”

“Tell me where it ends, Sandra?” Jordan asked, pointing at the audience. “Who’s next? Look at the cancel culture!” If the Democrats “keep attacking people, their First Amendment free speech rights, where does it end?”

American politics has always relied on logical leaps, or articles of faith. Rhetoric like “When in the course of human events” and “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America, there’s a United States of America” inspire faith in the American democratic order.

But the “slippery slope” argument invokes darkness, instilling or leveraging irrational, unfounded fears of annihilation. By the 1870s, pseudo-intellectuals like Madison Grant insisted that only colonialism, ending non-white immigration, and suppressing Black civil rights would prevent the worldwide destruction of the “Caucasian” race.

Here’s the tip jar!

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover saw the rise of socialism after World War I similarly, launching a decades-long assault on the left starting in 1919. Donald Trump’s characterization of Latin Americans as murderous rapists enlisted fearful Americans in a ruthless and racist project to exclude, deport and divide.

But the slippery slope fallacy is also established conservative political theory. In Road to Serfdom (1944), Friedrich Hayek proposed that nearly invisible choices to restrict freedom ended in dictatorship. Contemporary legal scholars, philosophers, and ethicists take the slippery slope—that B inexorably follows A, and is far worse than A ever was—seriously. In 2003, Eugene Volokh, the legal scholar, argued in the Harvard Law Review that, while not absolute, “slippery slopes are … a real cause for concern.” 

The slippery slope also proposes that there is a descent into chaos and unfreedom that can only be prevented by checking liberal policy agendas: abortion, gun control, and national health insurance. On the 10th anniversary of Roe v. Wade (1973), Ronald Reagan declared that failing to protect every fetus was a slippery slope to legalizing infanticide. Paying doctors to consult with terminally ill patients under Obamacare was re-cast as a slippery slope toward “death panels.” In Box v. Planned Parenthood (2019), Clarence Thomas not only incorrectly linked legal abortion to eugenics, but also insisted the procedure was “an act rife with the potential for eugenic manipulation.”

Not surprisingly, much of Donald Trump’s strong-man rhetoric depended on logical fallacies, many of the slippery slope variety. As he approached the 2020 election, these became more catastrophic. A vote for a Democrat was a vote to replace the American Dream with socialism. Background checks—which he had once cautiously supported—were now a “slippery slope” leading to a future “where everything is taken away.”

As Jim Jordan threatened on Fox News, Republicans could learn to take everything away too. “It won’t stop with Republicans. It’ll-it’ll go to all of us,” Jordan said, jabbing his thumbs into his own chest. “So this will never end, and if we don’t stop it now, every single American is at risk. And that’s what concerns me.” Why, Senator Dianne Feinstein’s name had just been removed from a public school in California!

Slippery slope arguments are tactical. They distract from real issues, while activating conservatives to overcome their differences and rally around a vague, but potent, idea about freedom. Expect to hear more of this rhetoric in the coming months, as Republicans frantically try to rebuild a party riven by defeat and disunity, and work to hide the complicity of the party leadership in the violent end to Trump’s presidency.

Claire Bond Potter

Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School, and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy.

Published in cooperation with Alternet.

Claire Bond Potter is the Editorial Board's politics historian. A professor of historical studies at The New School for Social Research in New York City, she is the co-executive editor of Public Seminar and the publisher of Political Junkie. Follow her @TenuredRadical.

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