GOVERNMENT AND …

GOVERNMENT AND FREEDOM

                                      By Lawrence  K. Pettit

 

   Recently a writer claimed that this election is a choice between a party that is for larger government and less freedom, and one that is for less government and more freedom.  But in a democracy, it is government that protects and enlarges your freedom, unless you are the meanest beast in the jungle.

    Our government must be strong to protect each citizen’s civil rights and civil liberties.  Government ensures economic freedom by sustaining an opportunity structure for entrepreneurs.  Government is necessary to protect the health, welfare and safety of the individual citizen, who, by herself, cannot guarantee these freedoms.  Government ensures an equal chance in life by providing public education, and it makes our country more competitive through good public universities, and by funding scientific and other academic research.  Government gives us a just society with a body of laws and a fair and impartial judicial system.  Government fights crime and provides disaster relief.  Government provides parks and other public lands, along with fair regulations for access.  These things are all about living free.

    Government provides a strong military to protect our freedoms, and V.A. hospitals and other programs to furnish the care, rehabilitation and opportunities our veterans deserve.

     Contrary to the claims of those who profit from the manufacture and sale of arms and ammuniton, it is not a democratically elected government that is poised to take away our guns.  Rather, government acts to prevent criminals, thugs,militiamen and assorted lunatics from abusing the Second Amendment privilege, even as it protects that privilege for law-abiding sportsmen and other citizens.

    Our government ensures the free exercise of religion, but also the prohibition of any official religion (yes, even Christianity).  Without a strong, secular government protecting these principles, our freedom could be threatened with theocratic rule, as in Iran.

    What divides today’s political parties is not whether there should be “big” government, but what they wish government to do.  Democrats see government as essential to the elements of social justice outlined above.  Today’s Republican Party, as distinguished from the real Republicans of yesteryear, is more focused on social control – on regulating our sex lives, for example, from contraception to whom we may love.

    Again, as distinguished from authentic Republicans, today’s Republican Party is working hard in various states to suppress the vote of those groups that traditionally vote for Democrats.  These small-government advocates are waging war not only against science and the rights of women, but also against such freedoms as privacy and fair elections.

    This conservative war against social and economic freedom is reflected in the evident objective of Republicans in Congress to wage economic sabotage.  They have largely succeeded in blocking most of Obama’s measures to rescue the economy.  Their transparent (and unpatriotic) hope has been that through obstruction they could facilitate economic collapse, which would defeat the president in his bid for re-election.

    Our politics have devolved to where the small-government party is interested primarily in the freedom of economic predation, the freedom to intimidate fellow citizens, and the freedom to sell the government to corporations and the very wealthy.

     I prefer the party of strong government to protect the humam freedoms of all Americans.  I have never before been this partisan, but circumstances this year give me no choice.  In 2012 I will vote Democratic from the White House down to the courthouse.  Our American democracy is at stake.

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PUTTING A SPIN ON REPUBLICAN MENDACITY

[I wrote the original version of this as an op-ed in response to an op-ed by a Republican state senator that appeared in selected Montana newspapers.  This ran in the Helena Independent Record on Aug 14, 2012]

Taylor Brown’s recent op-ed builds a straw man on two Republican lies, and as such affords an opportunity to tie a few things together in response.

Brown says “it is no secret” President Obama thinks businesses should pay more taxes.  In fact, the president has initiated several measures to reduce taxes on small business.

Brown distorts and takes out of context the president’s remarks that we live in a civilized society, where we share responiblity for, and all benefit from, common infrastructure as well as government subsidies and supports that facilitate our individual successes.  In no way did Obama say we do not contribute to our own success.  In fact, he continually praises entrepreneurs and cites the virtue of hard work.  Just read or listen to his speeches.

Two recent Romney television ads compound this year’s legacy of lies.  First, the Obama administration issued an opportunity for state waivers from bureacratic requirements in welfare administration, provided the states show their plans would move at least 20 percent more people from welfare to work.

The Romney ads claimed Obama is eliminating the work requirement and giving money to people who refuse to work.

Second, the Ohio legislature eliminated for everyone but members of the armed services the right to vote during the three days preceding an election.  The Obama team brought suit to restore the right to all voters.  Romney ads, abetted by Fox News and other right-wing carnival barkers, claimed falsely that Obama wants to take the right to vote away from members of the armed services.

Brown’s comments and these other examples are typical of the Republican posture since Obama’s election.  They have continually lied about the president’s birth, religion, patriotism, humanity, intellectual achievement and familiarity with and acceptance of traditional American values.

In Congress, they have done everything possible to block his efforts to get us out of the mess he inherited from them.  They would rather tank the economy further than allow anything that would reflect positively on Obama’s efforts.

Before anyone commits a false equivalence and sings the idiot’s anthem, “Both sides do it,” consider this:  no matter how blame may be assigned for earlier times, two respected political scientists, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, have documented that, in the present, Republicans deserve all the blame for government stalemate, disdain for compromise and the ugly degradation of American politics.  This is based on solid, objective research by one author from the center-left Brookings Institution, and the other from the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Brown appears to subscribe to the Mitt Romney definition of success, which is measured only by how much money one makes.  He also implies that business people are the only, or primary, taxpayers

Millions of very fine Amerians pursue another set of values.  These relate to service to others, intellectual achievement, the pursuit of talent in the arts, or other endeavors not highly remunerated in our society.  These people work hard and reach success, happpiness and fulfillment of a different kind.  And, they pay taxes!  They also acknowledge the role that others, including government, play in providing opportunities and supporting their careers.  The sectors of society in which these people work are oriented toward sustaining the common weal, rather than amassing material rewards personally.

As much as we should, and do, celebrate the genius of American business, let us remember too that business thrives in part because of a supportive government, and because of a society sustained by citizens in other walks of life.  Let’s stop lying about our president, let’s stop complaining about taxes and let’s stop wasting everyone’s time flailing at straw men.

 

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Third party effort either naive or a clever GOP ploy

                             by Lawrence K. Pettit

[I published an earlier version of this as a guest opinion in the Great Falls (MT) Tribune on December 22, 2011]

   The emergence of “America Elects,” and the championing of such a third party movement by New York Times columnists David Brooks and Tom Friedman, causes one to wonder whether otherwise intelligent people have suddenly lost their marbles.  This movement is either a reflection of political naivetem which is doubtful, or the cleverest ploy advanced by the Republicans in many years.

   The rationale for a third party or candidate is based on the premise that the two partie are equally to bame  for the tanking of the economy and the inability to reach constructive compromises to do anything about it.  This is the “false equivalence” error employed by those who are intellectually lazy, politically timid or more interested in appearing objective than in discovering and reporting the facts. 

   While equal blame may be valid over the long haul, Republicans deserve all the blame for the current circumstances.  Through derregulation, costly wars and tax breaks for the very wealthy, Republicans caused the economic plight President Barack Obama inherited.  Moreover, through the stated objective of limiting Obama to one term above any consideration of contributing toward the development of therapeutic measures, Republicans in Congress have refused to compromise and have worked to block any measure to improve the economy.  Theirs is the cynical hope that the President will be blamed by a poorly informed or misled electorate for the consequences of inadequate government response.

   Meanwhile, the President and the Democrats in Congress have turned every cheek and rolled over time and again in an attempt to reach some bipartisan agreement to address our serious national problems.

   This false equivalence premise is compounded by the erroneous assumption that “independents,” who presumably would constitute a third party, and who are frustrated by Washington stalemate, are inevitably “centrists,” who stand between Democrats on the left and Republicans on the right on all policy issues.  Such is not the case.  Pundits such as Brooks and Friedman, in their advocacy of a third option, inevitably recommend a policy agenda for such a group that fits the center/left Obama/Democratic agenda almost verbatim.

   The trouble is not Democrats are so far to the left, or so ideological as to either propose out-of-the-mainstream legislation or to scorn compromise.  The problem, rather, is that Republicans have become an ideological, rightist party with no interest in participating in effective bipartisan governance.  Ryan Lizza, writing in the January 30, 2012, New Yorker, addresses the current polarization and stalement by highlighting data and analysis from current research in political science and history.  He reports that data on congressional voting records show that since 1975 Senate Republicans  moved twice as far to the right as Senate Democrats moved to the left, and that House Republicans moved six times as far to the right as House Democrats moved to the left, resulting in “asymmetic polarization.”   To nail this point down, Lizza quotes from a forthcoming book by Thomas Mann, of the bipartisan Brookings Institution, and Norman Orstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. These two well-known political analysts write: “One of our two major parties, the Republicans, has become an insurgent outlier – ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

   Thus, it is not surprising, but no less disturbing, that the Obama agenda for national recovery is blocked at every turn by Republicans who control the House and who, in effect, have the power to block consideration of virtually anything in the Senate by their unprecedented willingness to abuse the antique Senate rules.

    The effect of a third-party effort would more than likely be to elect a Republican president.  If this does not unnerve you given the piteous line up of current Republican contenders, you are living in a parallel universe.  If this happens, given the “insurgent outlier” mentality of today’s Republican Party, the third party, which wishes to be above politics, will have guaranteed at least a decade of defeat of their own objectives as well as a further rightward shift that will threaten American democracy as we know it.

                                                      Lawrence K. Pettit is a retired university president who lives in Helena, MT.  He is author of If You Live by the Sword: Politics in the Making and Unmaking of a University President, released in 2010.

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A CYNIC LOOKS AT THE INDEPENDENT VOTER

I am getting numbed by the barrage of untested assumptions about so-called independent voters. 

Are there any empirical data to support the conventional wisdom that independent voters are “moderates” who “think for themselves?”   Are these people really more objective, more knowledgeable and informed, more attentive, less attached to interest groups?  Are they more rational than everyone else?  Have they no self interest to optimize through politics?  Do they research the issues and then, free of any socioeconomic or socio-cultural or religious ties that would contaminate the purity of their analysis, think long and hard in some intellectual bubble on a distant campus before taking a position on an issue or candidate?  Are they, unlike a majority of Americans, sure to understand such simple things as the separation of powers?  Federalism?  Checks and balances?  An independent judiciary?   Separation of church and state? 

Even if all of the questions above were answered in the affirmative, does this mean that the vast majority of Independents would take a position on all issues in the center, as distinguished from Democrats on the Left and Republicans on the Right?

Are the anti-government cranks who voted for Ross Perot independents?   How about the kamikaze leftists who foolishly voted for Ralph Nader (and thereby elected George W. Bush)?   Is either group “moderate” or “centrist?”  Would a Libertarian or a Socialist answer that she is an Independent if the only other options are Democrat and Republican?

Why do people get away with saying “if President Obama wants to recapture the Independents, he has to move to the center?”    Are all the Independents huddled in the center?  On every issue?   Is Obama not already in the center?  Progressives think so.

Look at the cacophony of points of view and demographic groups within the Democratic Party. Consider the schism within the Republican Party between the fading establishmentarians who know how to both putt and compromise, and the latest embodiment of the far-right fringe, the Tea Partiers, who know neither. Now, why do we speak of Independents as though they are homogeneous?  Why should they be any more homogeneous than either major party?

I do not think there is a typical Independent voter.  I can conceive of several categories of Independents with enough differences among them so that the concept “Independent voter” is meaningless.

First, to disabuse us of the most common stereotype, there are those who are socially marginal and inattentive to politics, or to much else beyond their own circumscribed lives. These persons are so far removed from the process that they would not have the slightest idea how to differentiate parties or other political groups.  If they fall within the sample of a pollster, surely many of them identify as Independent because they simply do not know whether they are a Democrat or a – what is that other one? 

Second are those angry right-wing populists who are mad at the Republican Party and who regard the Democratic Party as a socialist-atheist-(or Muslim)-homosexual-Jewish-Hollywood elitist-school teacher-university professor-intellectual-artist-health nut-environmentalist-minority groups-welfare cheat cabal, determined to sell out America and prevent the Rapture.  Since these pleasant neighbors with flags could never be Democrats, and since they believe the Republicans are inadequately frothy in their denunciation of government and Democrats, they may identify, on occasion at least, as Independents.  I fear Obama would not capture these votes by moving to the center.

Third, are some of those on the Left who are mad at the Democratic Party (or the President anyway) and who regard the Republican Party as a nest of smug bourgeoisie with more money than brains, linked (however abashedly) to religious and political demagogues who make a living by inciting the fears and ignorance of  rednecks and who spread the gospel of anti-science and anti-reason.  All of these Republicans, in the view of this third group of Independents, are funded and manipulated by economic royalists who are the agents of capitalist greed and corporate control of government.  These particular Independents registered disapproval of the President’s health care reform act, for example, because it did not go far enough (even though pollsters lumped them with those who opposed “Obamacare” because they felt it went too far).  I do not think the President could win over these Independents either by moving to the center.

Fourth, are those of whatever station in life whose psychological need to feel objective and above it all impels them not to affiliate with either major party.  They may or may not be more intelligent and informed than partisans, for that is not what defines this group.  These are the people who are most likely to commit false equivalencies.  In this case they are not rational, but react reflexively with the “a pox on both your houses” response when things are not going well in Washington.  They do this rather than learning enough of the situation to determine whether one party may be more guilty than the other.  This sometimes really is the case (clue: in present-day Washington, the Republicans deserve almost all the blame for ugly partisanship and stalemate).  Many of the Independents in this group may have jobs or positions that require at least the appearance of independence, and thus they find the false equivalency a convenient device that is both time-saving and image-enhancing.  Think of journalists.   

Fifth, and finally, are those who actually approximate the stereotype of the Independent voter.  Although I have not met more than several, I suppose there really is a good number of folks whose life circumstances, or those of their parents, have not led them to an allegiance to either party, and who are reasonable persons who often inform themselves of the issues and the candidates, and approach politics and voting as true independents.  Does this necessarily mean, however, that when they reach a decision it is invariably “moderate” and in the center?   Unless we know this to be the case, why should we assume it?  While these people deserve praise for their objectivity, one has to ask, are they philosophically barren?  Do they not have values that are encapsulated in notions of democratic process, social justice, civil rights, civil liberties, and civic responsibility, and have they not connected the dots between these values and the policy disposition of one or another political party?   I suspect what makes them Independents is the high probability that whatever values they would wish to further through civic action are trumped by their disdain for politics and political parties.

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RELIGION AND POLITICS

As an aside in my recent book, If You Live by the Sword…, I suggested that for most religions, sects or denominations, there are two common and available models for religious practice and for interpretation of ecclesiastical writ. These models not only represent opposite orientations toward religion, they also reflect different personality profiles, and provide competing perceptual screens through which one views politics.

I associate with religious and political conservatives the “Social Control, Judge-and-Condemn” model.  Liberals and moderates tend more to follow the “Social Justice, Love-and-Forgive” alternative. These religious models correlate with one’s cognitive style and one’s sense of the social contract in a democracy, each of which I addressed in previous posts.

Not only within Christianity, but also among Jews, Muslims, and, I presume, some other religions, those who adhere to the conservative model tend to be more fundamentalist and evangelical; they are more exclusionary, believing theirs is the only path to salvation, and acting with suspicion, and sometimes fear or even hatred, towards “the other.”  They are given to a more literal interpretation of sacred texts, reflecting certain elements of the authoritarian personality: discomfort with ambiguity, seeing the world in black and white terms, and coping with a threatening universe by adhering to the straight and narrow path of morality – as defined by their brand of  faith.  They disdain “secular humanists” as immoral.

These conservatives are less receptive than are liberals to the findings of science, the arguments of reason or mere earthly expertise in any field. They have little, if any, interest in reconciling science and faith.  They are more likely to form beliefs that are handed down, and then filter out facts and information that are incongruent with their beliefs, which they consider God-based. They are firmly in the tradition of anti-intellectualism in America.

It follows that within Christianity, conservatives are more likely than liberals to emphasize the social control prohibitions of, say, the book of Leviticus, and less likely to regard as primary the beatitudes and actual teachings of Jesus.  (My own liberal approach when in high school was to read primarily what was in red ink – the words of Jesus – in my King James Bible, and to regard the rest of the Bible as an interesting and valuable work of literature).

What does all of this have to do with politics?  The Constitution of the United States reflects the liberal theology of our Founders.  The separation of church and state (which many conservatives are as determined to dismiss as they are to deny climate change), is a guiding principle as embodied in both the “establishment clause” and the “free exercise clause” of the First Amendment.  In addition, Article VI  (in addition to establishing “federal supremacy” –what an Article!!) provides that there shall be no religious test for public office.  Thus, there can be no official religion, the government may not interfere with the free exercise of any religion, one may not be barred from public office because of religious beliefs or identity, and the United States is not a “Christian nation,” no matter how much we officially trust in God.

We are a constitutional republic to be governed by the democratic process, and we cherish a body of democratic principles that have evolved as a social contract in the American experience.  (I have shared my sense of these principles in a previous post, “Can American Democracy Survive the New Republican Party?”).  These include not only interest articulation, but also interest aggregation, which involves discussion, accommodation and compromise.  They include as well basic human and communitarian values in support of the positive role of the federal government in ensuring civil rights, civil liberties and social and economic justice.

It is crystal clear what government may and may not do with respect to religion and politics, but what of voters?   Here we must consider individual rights expressed elsewhere in the First Amendment as restrictions on the federal government, and incorporated into the 14th Amendment as restrictions on the states.  The first of these is freedom of speech.  Just as there cannot be a law restricting the Presidency, for example, to “born again” Christians (as some pine for), or, as seemed to have been the case at one time, to Episcopalians, nor can there be a law preventing a citizen, a candidate, or a campaign organization from criticizing an opponent’s religion or urging voters to reject one because of his religion.

In my view the individual citizen should be free to hold and express whatever views he has on organized religion in general, and on the religion of any candidate for office.  A candidate’s religion may be an important datum for a voter, especially a thoughtful voter who has a good sense of what is important to sustain a democratic society, and is able to discern what, if any, religious beliefs and practices are inimical to the precepts of American democracy.  The individual voter also has the right to determine which candidate’s religious beliefs would best serve his own interests.  In the extreme, one is free to speak and to cast his ballot consistent with his bigotry, fear and hatred.  It happens.  An intelligent voter may wish to regard someone as intellectually unfit for high office because of that person’s embracing a religion the voter considers ridiculous. Another voter, perhaps not so intelligent, may vote according to instructions from the pulpit, or against a candidate on the basis of religiously infused social issues, such as abortion rights.

Standing between the citizen and the government in this regard is organized religion, and its political role is limited under the Constitution.  There is no doubt that a church should lose its federal tax exemption for interfering in politics. The church is free to make that choice.  The Catholic Church in the U. S. should have been on very thin ice when several of its Bishops in 2004 declared John Kerry ineligible for communion (and by inference, ineligible for Catholic votes) because of his favoring a woman’s reproductive rights.  The ice is just as thin, I should think, under the slippered feet of the current leader of the Southern Baptists for stating that only a Christian (by which he does NOT mean mainline) should be President of the United States.  That this same man defined Mormons out of the Christian fold is a matter of theology, not campaign law, and of little interest to me.  Whether Mormons are Christian is less important to the republic than whether Mormon doctrine is incompatible with the precepts of American democracy. To me neither is as important as Mitt Romney’s non-religious characteristics and beliefs, which seem increasingly to be vintage chameleon.

 

 

 

 

 

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CHRISTIE DOES NOT MATTER. IT’S WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE GOP THAT SHOULD CONCERN US

So Governor Christie is out.  He was lionized by the news media on the basis of very little (except the enormity of his girth and ego), and to no useful end.  But, it doesn’t really matter who the Republican nominee is.  What matters, for the first time in my life, is what the Republican Party has become, and how this creates an intellectual and philosophical chasm between the parties that makes the 2012 election outcome one of near Armageddon proportions.

At base are differences in cognitive style and interpretations of the social contract.  In an earlier post that asked whether our democracy can survive the new Republican Party, I implicitly addressed party differences in the concept of a social contract.  Today, let us look at the different cognitive styles of the two parties.

These differences are reflected in the composition of today’s Republican Party.  There are two elements.  First, an intellectual base that had been energized by the former liberal “neo-cons,” conservative pundits, and the relative few conservative intellectuals in think tanks and the nation’s campuses, is now displaced by a clutch of irrational, right-wing populist epithets, based on fear and hatred, and expressed with anger by what now functions as the source of Republican ideas, the so-called Tea Party movement.

For decades the Republicans have been ceding veto power to their far-right fringe.  But until now the responsible leaders of the party’s establishment kept control of the presidential nominating process, and until now Republican leaders in the House and Senate cooperated with their Democratic counterparts and the President in pursuit of compromise solutions to the nation’s challenges.   The current lack of decorum, disregard for conventional rules and norms, abuse of the filibuster, and zeal to knowingly harm the country and its non-wealthy citizens in order to saddle President Obama with blame for the consequences, is new, and it reflects Tea Party control of the levers of political blackmail.

As frightening as the Republican behavior in Congress (and among the states as they move to curtail suffrage and wipe out unions) is, the anti-intellectual set of beliefs that serves as its foundation is equally troublesome.  Not only is it mandatory in today’s Republican Party to be willfully opposed to the theory of evolution  or the reality of climate change,  one must also be anti-intellectual and anti-science in general, suspicious of the educated, and resistant to reason where it would undo conservative political, economic or biblical lore.  This has led New York Times columnist, Maureen Dowd, to declare, “Republicans are now the ‘How great it is to be stupid’ party.”   Chris Matthews on MSNBC adds that the Republican presidential primary is a contest to see who gets to lead “the planet of the apes.”

Thus, the new Republican cognitive style (both where it is real and where it is faked as a tactic) is that of an elementary school student, in contrast to the traditional Democratic style which suggests more that of a graduate student.

In his 2006 book, The Republican War on Science, Chris Mooney avers that while conservative philosophy leads inexorably to Republican resistance to science, this alone is not a sufficient explanation.  Mooney says that in its march to control the Republican Party, the modern conservative movement has relied on two key constituencies that have a clear interest in scientific research: industry and the religious Right.   The latter’s issue with science is the threat science poses to fundamentalist doctrine.  The former resists how scientific research leads to regulations on behalf of environmental protection, food safety, worker safety, etc., thus enabling “big government,” which, in turn, funds most science in the U.S. and conducts much of it.

This leads us to the second element in the modern Republican Party: big business, big money, corporate power, that control much of Congress through K Street lobby firms, and who now, courtesy of a Republican majority on the Supreme Court of the United States, may fund political activity without limits and without transparency.   Those who,  because of an orgy of deregulation during the Bush years,  tanked our economy, and who, because of the Bush tax cuts, enjoy privileged status that protects them from shouldering their fair burden in forging a recovery,  now to a potentially unprecedented extent bankroll the Republican Party.  These same forces are in an unlikely alliance with the Tea Party, made easier to sustain because as a right-wing populist movement the Tea Party (unlike its counterparts of the Left) is much more interested in agitating against the “elitism” of education than in seeking reparations from what FDR called “the malefactors of great wealth.”   Those who control the country’s wealth, and who are sufficiently educated to know better, are quite happy to provide financial support for the anti-science, anti-intellectual party so long as this support guarantees that ignorance, fear and hatred of those unlike ourselves will resonate with enough American voters to limit Barack Obama to a single term.

Today’s Republican Party, it appears, has two wings: the lunatics and the hypocrites.  Is this party competent to lead our now fragile political democracy when it overtly opposes so many of the fundamental tenets of a democracy?  Will the American voters answer this question affirmatively, and thus signal their desire to move the country far to the right of a truly democratic state?  The stakes could not be any greater.

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The Internet as a Medium of Mendacity

Internet as a Medium of Mendacity

For the last three years I have been increasingly convinced that the Internet provides an enormous propaganda advantage to the side that has no scruples about lying.  In today’s political environment, this, of course, is the Right.

I receive daily emails that have been forwarded perhaps hundreds of times – so-called “viral” emails –  that contain manufactured lies about President Obama as a person, or about his policies and aims.  Although many more of my friends are Center and Left of Center, I do not see an equivalent barrage of trash from them, none in fact.  But a few high school friends, and friends of theirs, and friends of their friends keep me quite abreast of what is going on in that loony, neo-fascist world of conservatives gone mad.

There must be an army of brown-suited gnomes dispersed across various right-wing fever swamps, where daily they craft new, lie-infested messages, virtually all written in the same voice – one that resembles the bogus macho voice so self-consciously evident in many men’s magazines.  These literary tocsins are designed to evoke fear, hatred and anger on the part of the unworldly audience they target.

Sadly,  those who receive these messages, and eagerly forward them to their email rosters, seem not to recognize a difference between what can be passed through the Internet without any regard for accuracy or truth, on the one hand, and the edited, fact-checked product of legitimate news sources on the other.  To them, a news story in the New York Times exposing as fraudulent the entire “birther” case, has no better claim than an insane email claiming that the President’s birth certificate is forged; an article in Science magazine substantiating the preponderance of scientific opinion about global warming would be no more authoritative than the naïve assertions of a hack with no acquaintance with science, who claims that climate change is a hoax.  One can point out to such people time and again that the material they believe in and disseminate  has been discredited by Snopes, but to them this simply means that Snopes has a liberal bias.  The true believer is not interested in facts, only in affirmation of his/her beliefs.

Although the preponderance of these messages is aimed at President Obama, the body of this genre covers the waterfront.  In addition to climate change, evolution and immigration, the hatred and paranoia are spread to cultural issues such as abortion, religion and homosexuality, and used to attack the premises of social justice, as well as the unemployed and welfare recipients – with a transparent subtext of racism.

Eugene Burdick in The Ninth Wave had a character confess his political formula as “hate plus fear equals power.”   Herr Goebbels used the technique successfully as the minister of Nazi propaganda.   Demagogues in American and European politics have always identified for their rube audiences the preferred targets of fear and hate.  The difference now is the existence of a powerful technology, the Internet.  This tool facilitates the constant flow of demagogic messages to repeatedly stoke fear based not on the reality of a person or a group, but on preposterous lies about them, creating a bubble of fake reality within which the intellectually docile consumers and forwarders of  these messages enthusiastically share their hatred of the “other.”

But why, at this time in American history, does this political sewer seem to be almost exclusively the domain of the conservative right wing?  To be sure, progressives are harshly critical of a number of conservatives, including Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, and the once relevant George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.  But, so far as I can tell, these criticisms are directed at what such people actually said, or what they did, or the effects of their actions, or their presumed unfitness for a particular office.  In the present political milieu, the Democrats and progressives have not thought it necessary, or dignified, to craft lies about their political opponents, and then attack the false realities they have created.   Why then has the other side done this with such alacrity?

One answer has to be, “because the Internet makes it so easy, and it has been so effective.”   But we need to get to a deeper level to try to understand why these propaganda techniques may be easier and more effective for conservatives than for liberals.

We can begin with a massive post-WWII study conducted to try to understand what it was about the German mindset during the Weimar Republic that explained anti-semitism and facilitated, or at least allowed, the Nazis to take over.  The product of that study is now a classic, a two-volume work, The Authoritarian Personality, by T.W. Adorno and associates.  The authors identified attributes of the authoritarian personality, which a series of later studies have found to correlate to conservatism in American politics.  Some attributes are as follows: regarding the world as a threatening place, and coping in part by sticking to the straight and narrow path of conventional morality; combining the ideas and skills of a modern society with  irrational or anti-rational beliefs;  being at once proud of one’s individualism but in constant fear of not being like all the others; jealous of one’s independence, but inclined to submit blindly to power and authority.

Subsequent studies have established that conservatives are much more likely than liberals to exhibit authoritarian personalities, and have associated related personality traits with conservatives.  Where conservatives see the world in black and white terms, reflecting a greater need for order, liberals are more likely to see shades of gray, and to be more at home with ambiguity.  Contemporary political scientists, Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, in reviewing the scholarly literature conclude:  authoritarians (conservatives) make stronger distinctions between in-groups and out-groups, and this enables them to impose order and minimize ambiguity.  In addition, authoritarians are more likely to embrace and work to protect existing social norms.   Where liberals are more empirical in their approach to truth, conservatives are uncomfortable with the uncertainties of scientific method, and prefer a ready conclusion ordained by authority that they already believe, either lay or ecclesiastical.  Hetherington and Weiler suggest that perceived threat intensifies authoritarian traits, and that in a threatening environment (e.g. the aftermath of 9-11, the economic crash, etc), the activation of the authoritarian impulse results in a more polarized society.

Returning to “fear plus hate equals power,”  we can see that the threatening nature of today’s politics  activates the fear/hate impulse of authoritarian personalities, and that it is the dominant world view of conservatives that makes them more susceptible than liberals both to use the Internet to advance extreme assertions that are without empirical basis, but which comport with their existing beliefs and values, and to be receptive when those techniques are used by others with whom they identify.

The same personality traits that enable conservatives generally to be more adept at shouting sound bytes during an argument or on “talk shows,” also make it easier for them to forward without question inaccurate viral emails with a conservative bias.  They are not tormented by self doubt – at least as it pertains to their politics or religion.  Perhaps it is these same traits that often causes the conservative world view and the actions it supports to wither in the cool light of historical examination.  In any event, history will have to deal with the political effects of the Internet and the role it has played in pushing modern conservatism to the authoritarian, right edge of the spectrum.

Lawrence K. Pettit is a retired university president living in Helena, Montana.   His memoir, If You Live by the Sword: Politics in the Making and Unmaking of a University President, was released in 2010

 

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