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