Destroyed By Madness?

Tom Sullivan of the Hullabaloo blog summarizes. Quote:

… The trend lines were there — from the Birchers and Goldwater to Nixon and the Southern Strategy, from the parallel rise of the Christian right and movement conservatism, to Reagan, to “Rush Rooms” and the Gingrich revolution, and from birtherism to climate denialism to Trumpish authoritarianism.

It is quaint to think George W. Bush’s tax cuts, malapropisms, and war cabinet once seemed the apotheosis of the conservative project. The momentum of that project would carry the right’s explosive-laden artillery shell beyond its intended liberal targets. Plutocrats would get their tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks, but at risk of bringing the shining city on the hill’s walls down around them and us…

The movement conservative leaders thought they had built upon a philosophy of lower taxes and small government was simply a facade. Their own internal polling told them their voters had no interest in it. The culture wars the party fueled as a useful tool in advancing their donors’ objectives was their base voters’ true philosophy:

This would seem to confirm the conclusions that liberals have long harbored. The Republican Party’s political elite is obsessed with cutting taxes for the wealthy, but it recognizes the lack of popular support for its objectives and is forced to divert attention away from its main agenda by emphasizing cultural-war themes. The disconnect between the Republican Party’s plutocratic agenda and the desires of the electorate is a tension it has never been able to resolve, and as it has moved steadily rightward, it has been evolving into an authoritarian party.

The party’s embrace of Trump is a natural, if not inevitable, step in this evolution. This is why the conservatives who presented Trump as an enemy of conservative-movement ideals have so badly misdiagnosed the party’s response to Trump. The most fervently ideological conservatives in the party have also been the most sycophantic: Ryan, Mike Pence, Ted Cruz, Mick Mulvaney, the entire House Freedom Caucus. They embraced Trump because Trumpism is their avenue to carry out their unpopular agenda.

… As dead as irony is in the Age of Trump, the irony remaining is how a movement in reaction to the social transformations of the 1960s now mirrors, and in many ways exceeds, the worst excesses of which it accused civil rights “communists” and long-haired hippies with their drugs and godless “moral relativism.”

Now it is the Republican base addicted to drugs, looking for an angry fix, and making obeisance to a false prophet as the party’s elite grovel for a seat at his right hand. What conservatives need now is not pundits or preachers, but poets.

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness …”

End quote. 

Or psychiatrists. Anyway, he’s being poetic. He knows they weren’t the best minds to begin with.

How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley

Jason Stanley is a philosophy professor at Yale. He previously published a book called How Propaganda Works. His new book is a guidebook to fascism. He doesn’t spend much time on its history. His purpose is to explain how fascism and similar approaches to politics work.

The mechanisms of fascist politics all build on and support one another. They weave a myth of a distinction between “us” and “them”, based on a romanticized fictional past featuring “us” and no “them”, and supported by a corrupt liberal elite, who take our hard-earned money and threaten our traditions. “They” are lazy criminals on whom freedom would be wasted (and who don’t deserve it, in any case). “They” mask their destructive goals with the language of liberalism or “social justice”, and are out to destroy our culture … and make “us” weak. “We” are industrious and law-abiding … “they” are lazy, perverse, corrupt and decadent [188].

Among the mechanisms Stanley cites are: the idea that some kinds of people are inherently better than others; the creation of a mythic past; the widespread use of propaganda; the promotion of conspiracy theories; the use of contradictory statements to demonstrate power and obscure reality; anti-intellectualism; encouraging feelings of victimhood among the majority population; the celebration of law and order and military might; and respect for “traditional family values”.

Stanley doesn’t spend much time on the economic aspects of fascism, except for fascism’s general opposition to labor unions. Perhaps it’s enough to say that fascist leaders are authoritarians and wield extraordinary power over economic affairs. One possible problem with the book is that his use of contemporary examples may suggest that there is no significant difference between fascism and contemporary conservatism (or whatever we should call the reactionary politics of today’s Republican Party). His point, however, is that contemporary “conservatives”, in particular the current occupant of the White House, exhibit behavior that matches many of the distinctive behaviors of history’s best-known fascists.

Finally, one aspect of fascism that sets it apart is what Stanley calls the “Führer Principle”:

The father, in fascist ideology, is the leader of the family; the CEO is the leader of the business; the authoritarian leader is the father or CEO of the state. When voters in a democratic society yearn for a CEO as president, they are responding to their own implicit fascist impulses.

The pull of fascist politics is powerful. It simplifies human existence, gives us an object, a “them” whose supposed [defects highlight] our own virtue and discipline, encourages us t oidentify with a forceful leader who helps usmakese sense of the world, whose bluntness regarding the “undeserving” people in the world is refreshing…. If the CEO is tough-talking and cares little for democratic institutions, even denigrates them, so much the better. Fascist politics preys on the human frailty that makes our own suffering seem bearable if we know that those we look down upon are being made to suffer more [183].

 

The New, Not Conservative, Radical Right Know Nothings

America’s first “third party” began life as a secret society called the Order of the Star Spangled Banner. If an outsider asked anything about it, its members were to answer “I know nothing”.

From Ohio History Central (the former Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society):

The Know-Nothing Party, also known as the American Party, was a prominent United States political party during the late 1840s and the early 1850s….The Know-Nothings feared that the Catholics were more loyal to the Pope than to the United States. More radical members of the Know-Nothing Party believed that the Catholics intended to take over the United States of America. The Catholics would then place the nation under the Pope’s rule. The Know-Nothing Party intended to prevent Catholics and immigrants from being elected to political offices. Its members also hoped to deny these people jobs in the private sector, arguing that the nation’s business owners needed to employ true Americans.

From the Smithsonian’s magazine:

At its height in the 1850s, the Know Nothing party … included more than 100 elected congressmen, eight governors, a controlling share of half-a-dozen state legislatures from Massachusetts to California, and thousands of local politicians. Party members supported deportation of foreign beggars and criminals; a 21-year naturalization period for immigrants; mandatory Bible reading in schools; and the elimination of all Catholics from public office…. only those with the proper qualifications deserved full rights. Women’s suffrage was abhorrent and unnatural, Catholics were a threat to the stability of the nation, and German and Irish immigrants undermined the old order established by the Founding Fathers….

Between 1845 and 1854, 2.9 million immigrants poured into the country, and many of them were of Catholic faith. Suddenly, more than half the residents of New York City were born abroad, and Irish immigrants comprised 70 percent of charity recipients.

As cultures clashed, fear exploded and conspiracies abounded. Posters around Boston proclaimed, “All Catholics and all persons who favor the Catholic Church are…vile imposters, liars, villains, and cowardly cutthroats.” Convents were said to hold young women against their will. An “exposé” published by Maria Monk, who claimed to have gone undercover in one such convent, accused priests of raping nuns and then strangling the babies that resulted. It didn’t matter that Monk was discovered as a fraud; her book sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The conspiracies were so virulent that churches were burned, and Know Nothing gangs spread from New York and Boston to … San Francisco….

But instead of continuing to grow, the Know Nothings collapsed under the pressure of having to take a firm position on the issue the slavery. By the late 1850s, the case of Dred Scott (who sued for his freedom and was denied it) and the raids led by abolitionist John Brown proved that slavery was a more explosive and urgent issue than immigration….

But nativism never left, and the legacy of the Know Nothings has been apparent in policies aimed at each new wave of immigrants. In 1912, the House Committee on Immigration debated over whether Italians could be considered “full-blooded Caucasians” and immigrants coming from southern and eastern Europe were considered “biologically and culturally less intelligent.” From the end of the 19th century to the first third of the 20th, Asian immigrants were excluded from naturalization based on their non-white status….

[Historian Christopher Phillips concludes] that those bewildered by current political affairs simply haven’t looked far enough back into history. “One can’t possibly make sense of [current events] unless you know something about nativism,” he says. “That requires you to go back in time to the Know Nothings. You have to realize the context is different, but the themes are consistent. The actors are still the same, but with different names.”

This is why another historian, Kate Antonova, argues on Twitter that we should stop referring to Republicans as “conservative”. It would make more sense to call them “Know Nothings”, not just because of their nativism, but because of their devotion to alternative “facts”.

I’m a historian of conservatism. I’d really like to see everyone stop describing the GOP today as being conservative.

Conservatism is a philosophical approach & a policy position. The GOP is a fundraising machine for a policy platform… 

Obviously, GOP is further to the right of the Dems & for most of 20th century has been more conservative than Dems in any sense of word.

But a distinct shift has been at work for several decades & leap-frogged to the fore with Trump’s election.

Ask knowledgeable philosophical conservatives & they will tell you how unhappy they are w/ how far GOP has drifted from that position.

Trump’s GOP has become a radical right. That sounds like a contradiction, but it’s an established term w/ many examples….

So here’s a little background on where the [Right-Left] spectrum comes from and the diffs btwn philosophical conservatism and a radical right.

BTW, … I frame my course on modern European history (French Revolution to the present) as an “epic battle between reason and unreason”.

IOW, the Enlightenment posed a question to Europe: what happens if we use reason (not tradition or religion) to govern ourselves?

There follows a lot of background, not a little, on the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, Joseph de Maistre, Edmund Burke, Metternich, Bismarck, Konstantin Pobedonostsev (the Ideologist of Russian Reaction), the provincial gentry in 19th century Russia, the history of 20th century Europe, as well as socialism, fascism and nationalism.
 

And speaking of nationalism, Prof. Antonova continues:

It was always out there, not just as benign reaffirmation of the values of the Constitution every July 4 that both parties used to agree on.

There was always a resentful, white-supremacist nationalism based not on affirmation of liberalism but on hating the other.

What changed in 2016 is that a major party embraced this extreme, handed it power, and is now refusing to check that power in any way.

We have to accept that the GOP has abandoned the last vestiges of a conservatism that is cautious, that accepts the premise of rights.

This GOP is a virulent radical RT containing elements of theocracy (Betsy DeVos & evangelical base voters) & fascism (neo-Nazis)….

Current situation inherits many old battles, but is also product of new landscape brought by information revolution.

May I modestly suggest we revive the name Know-Nothings for the modern GOP? Because their denial of reality defines them, not conservatism.

European fascism twisted science to its ends, but the science it relied on – since totally debunked – was mainstream at the time.

There’s a fundamental difference in today’s radical right, which gleefully says FU to knowledge, education, demonstrable fact. 

A radical right that makes up absurd “alt facts” & presents them confidently, fully aware that base will believe literally anything… 

…as long as it’s associated with their “team” and/or serves as a hit against the other “team.” 

Liberals & conservatives in the proper sense of those words are now both (uncomfortably) covered by the shade of the Never Trump tent. 

Both accept the premise of rights & representative govt. Current president, cabinet & Congress explicitly oppose the govt they run. 

Base voters, largely white, many evangelical, cheer undermining of democracy & boo defenses of traditional American values. 

They are not conservatives. They are a radical right…. 

We’re gonna need some new words to describe this, as it continues to develop in unpredictable ways. 

But one thing is sure: the days of Reagan v Mondale are over. The Cold War is over. The “short 20th century” is over. It’s something else now.

Who’s On First? Private Property or Competition?

David Brin trained as a scientist, has written science fiction and consults with the government and corporations regarding what will happen next. He’s not an economist, but he’s written an interesting little article about right-wing ideology. It’s called “Stop Using Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek to Support Your Political Ideology: The Irony of Faith in Blind Markets”. 

Brin cites John Robb, an author, “military analyst” and entrepreneur, as a big influence on his thinking. Robb isn’t an economist either, but here are a couple of paragraphs from his blog

The only way to manage an economy as complex as [ours] is to allow massively parallel decision making.  A huge number of economically empowered people making small decisions, that in aggregate, are able to process more data, get better data (by being closer to the problem), and apply more brainpower to weighing alternatives than any centralized decision making group.

In other words, central planning cannot cope with the economies of developed nations in the modern world. We need the Invisible Hand of the market. Yet: 

…an extreme concentration of wealth at the center of our market economy has led to a form of central planning.   The concentration of wealth is now in so few hands and is so extreme in degree, that the combined liquid financial power of all of those not in this small group is inconsequential to determining the direction of the economy.  As a result, we now have the equivalent of centralized planning in global marketplaces.  A few thousand extremely wealthy people making decisions on the allocation of our collective wealth.  The result was inevitable:  gross misallocation [of resources] across all facets of the private economy. 

Getting back to Brin, he argues that:

….across 4,000 years we’ve seen that whenever a small group of men become powerful enough to control an economy and command-allocate its resources, they will do so according to biased perceptions, in-group delusions and fatally limited knowledge. Whether they do the normal oligarchic thing—cheating for self-interest—or else sincerely try to “allocate for the good of all,” they will generally do it badly.

So what’s the solution? Brin says it’s competition: “the most creative force in the universe”: 

By dividing and separating power and—more importantly—empowering the majority with education, health, rights and knowledge, we enabled vast numbers of people to participate in markets, democracy and science. This has had twin effects, never seen in earlier cultures.

  1. It means everybody can find out when a person stumbles onto something cool, better or right, even if that person came from a poor background.
  2. It allows us to hold each other accountable for things that are wrong, worse or uncool, even when the bad idea comes at us from someone mighty.

…cutting through countless foolish notions that held sway for millennia—like the assumption that your potential is predetermined by who your father was—while unleashing creativity, knowledge, freedom, and positive-sum wealth to a degree that surpassed all other societies, combined.

Even the most worrisome outcomes of success, like overpopulation, wealth stratification and environmental degradation, come accompanied by good news— the fact that so many of us are aware, involved, reciprocally critical, and eager to innovate better ways.

Some have argued that cooperation has contributed just as much to human progress as competition has, but putting that issue aside, Brin arrives at his major point: the people who call themselves “conservatives” and claim to revere thinkers like Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek, both of whom extolled the benefits of a competitive market, don’t really believe in competition:

The problem is that it’s all lip service on the right! Those who most loudly proclaim Faith In Blind Markets … are generally also those proclaiming idolatry of private property as a pure, platonic essence, a tenet to be clutched with religious tenacity, as it was in feudal societies. Obdurate, they refuse to see that they are conflating two very different things.

Private property—as Adam Smith made clear—is a means for encouraging the thing he really wanted: fair and open competition….But anyone who actually reads Adam Smith also knows that he went on and on about that “fair and open” part! Especially how excessive disparities of wealth and income destroy competition…. When today’s libertarians praise the creative power of competition, then ignore the unlimited [worship of property] that poisoned it across the ages, we are witnessing historical myopia and dogmatic illogic, of staggering magnitude….

But in rejecting one set of knowledge-limited meddlers—100,000 civil servants—libertarians and conservatives seem bent on ignoring market manipulation by 5,000 or so aristocratic golf buddies, who appoint each other to company boards in order to vote each other titanic “compensation packages” while trading insider information and conspiring together to eliminate competition. Lords who are not subject to inherent limits, like each bureaucrat must face, or rules of disclosure or accountability. Lords who (whether it is legal or not) collude and share the same delusions….

Hence, at last, the supreme irony.  Those who claim most-fervent dedication to the guiding principle of our Enlightenment: competition, reciprocal accountability and enterprise—our neighbors who call themselves conservative or libertarian—have been talked into conflating that principle with something entirely different. Idolatry of private wealth, sacred and limitless. A dogmatic-religious devotion that reaches its culmination in the hypnotic cantos of Ayn Rand. Or in the Norquist pledge to cut taxes on the rich under all circumstances—during war or peace, in fat years or lean—without limit and despite the failure of any Supply Side predictions ever, ever, ever coming true.

An idolatry that leads, inevitably to the ruination of all competition and restoration of the traditional human social order that ruled our ancestors going back to cuneiform tablets — Feudalism

As Paul Krugman has often pointed out, it’s not the 1% that’s the problem. It’s more like the 0.001% (Brin’s “golf buddies” and their ilk around the world) whose vast wealth makes them modern-day aristocrats. It’s also those who Krugman called “enablers” in today’s column – the minions who spread the “private property is sacred” and “government destroys liberty” gospel. If these so-called “conservatives” were true to the spirit of Adam Smith, they’d celebrate “mass education, civil rights, child nutrition and national infrastructure etc.”, which Brin mentions, as well as antitrust enforcement, workers’ rights and environmental protection, all of which have “empowered greater numbers of citizens to join the fair and open process of Smithian competition”.

PS – Brin’s article is on a site called Evonomics: The Next Revolution in Economics. It’s worth visiting.

Justice Ginsburg Shoots Down a Dumb Conservative Argument

Our era’s radical Republicans are willing to take a conservative position when it suits them. Thus, during the recent Supreme Court argument regarding same-sex marriage, the right-wingers on the Court pointed out that marriage has involved a man and a woman for thousands of years. From ThinkProgress:

The Court’s conservatives [sic] fixated upon their belief that same-sex marriages are a very new institution. “Every definition [of marriage] I looked up prior to about a dozen years ago,” Chief Justice John Roberts claimed, limited marriages to opposite-sex couples. Advocates for equality, Roberts continued, are “seeking to change what the institution is.” Meanwhile, Justice Samuel Alito argued that even “ancient Greece,” a society he perceived as welcoming to same-sex relationships, did not permit same-sex marriage. Justice Antonin Scalia insisted that “for millennia, not a single society” supported marriage equality.

A natural response would have been: “Of course, and now we’re changing that. Sometimes we make progress”. Justice Ginsburg, however, pointed out that for thousands of years marriage was legally defined as a relationship between a dominant man and a subordinate woman. A further ThinkProgress article on the subject quotes the 18th century legal authority Sir William Blackstone:

…the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband; under whose wing, protection and cover, she performs everything.

Traditionally, wives were subservient to their husbands. Being married wasn’t a relationship that two men or two women would ordinarily enter into. Today, however, the law considers marriage to be a relationship between equals. Since marriage is now egalitarian from a legal perspective, it makes sense for anyone who wants an equal partner, whether that partner is of the opposite or same sex, to want to be married. Since there are benefits to being married, and since being able to procreate isn’t a requirement, justice dictates that any two adults who want to get married should be allowed to.