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.

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.

Us and Them

Psychologists and others have been trying to figure out why people have opposing political views. Why are some of us stalwart liberals or progressives, and why are some of us “conservatives” or right-wing nincompoops?

Personally, I leaned right when I was a teenager, moved left in college and have maintained that position through thick and thin. The people who study this question aren’t interested in individual stories, however. They’re trying to explain why these different political perspectives exist at all and why they have such staying power.

The Washington Monthly has a long review by Chris Mooney of two books on the subject. These are the two key differences Mooney cites:

— Liberals tend to score higher on openness (the willingness to explore, try new things and meet new people), while conservatives score higher on conscientiousness (the desire for order and stability — and as I’ve read elsewhere, although the article doesn’t mention these characteristics — loyalty or a sense of duty).

— Conservatives pay more attention to negative stimuli than liberals. For example, when conservatives are shown images of alarming, threatening or disgusting things, they tend to look at the images more closely and have stronger physical reactions.

There is evidence of a partial genetic basis for these differences. Researchers suspect that:

What is ultimately being inherited is a set of core dispositions about how societies should resolve recurring problems: how to distribute resources (should we be individualistic or collectivist?); how to deal with outsiders and out-groups (are they threatening or enticing?); how to structure power relationships (should we be hierarchical or egalitarian?); and so on. These are, of course, problems that all human societies have had to grapple with…. Inheriting a core disposition on how to resolve them would naturally predispose one to a variety of specific issue stances in a given political context.

It’s possible, therefore, that the two-dimensional diagram posted here earlier this week that labels voters as populists, conservatives, libertarians or liberals based on their social and economic preferences may measure the underlying dispositions described above.

If it’s true that conservatives experience the world as more threatening than liberals do, there may be little point in trying to convince them otherwise, as Mooney points out. Their perception of the world is built-in to a great extent. Likewise, of course, if liberals perceive the world as less threatening, there is little point in trying to convince them it’s more dangerous than they think. Despite this apparent difficulty, Mooney ends his review with a call to action:

We run around shutting down governments and occupying city centers—behaviors that can only be driven by a combination of intense belief and equally intense emotion—with almost zero perspective on why we can be so passionate one way, even as our opponents are passionate in the other….Ideological diversity is clearly real, deeply rooted, and probably a core facet of human nature. Given this, we simply have no choice but to come up with a much better way to live with it.

I tend to be more skeptical. If these tendencies are actually so deeply-rooted, there’s probably little we can do to surmount them. In fact, the only option may be to keep pounding away at the facts, hoping to persuade people whose dispositions aren’t so deeply-rooted to move in our direction. And by our direction, I mean toward the perspective that is more open to new possibilities, less fearful of people who don’t belong to our tribe, and more egalitarian. 

Our other option is to wait for evolution to do more work, for despite the fact that there are benefits to having people in your group who are more fearful and others who are more adventurous, it seems likely to me that human progress has partly consisted in liberal tendencies edging out conservative ones. These two specimens, for example, appear to be remnants of an earlier stage in human development:

putin-bush

Update:

As I was saying:  

Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference today:

The presidential contender urged that “young people” in the crowd “extrapolate what the world would look like in ten years if [the current international situation] continues forward.” … “If you inherit a world where the Chinese get to decide who gets to ship products to the South China Sea and all the countries in that region are tributaries,” and “North Korea can blow up California” with nukes, and “Iran can reach the East Coast of the United States, and can wipe Israel off the face of the earth,” and “Russia continues to hold its neighbors hostage” through both its military and its oil.

The only thing we have to fear is everything.

Wondering About Fascism

Observing the political scene, you might sometimes wonder whether America could ever turn into a fascist state. But aside from identifying Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany as its prime examples, not everyone agrees what fascism is.

In The Anatomy of Fascism, political scientist and historian Robert O. Paxton offers his answer. Published in 2004, it’s a book that’s worth reading. Here are some of his conclusions:

“The moment has come to give fascism a usable short handle, even though we know that it encompasses its subject no better than a snapshot encompasses a person.

Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence, and without ethical or legal restraints, goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”

“The ideas that underlie fascist actions are best deduced from those actions, for some of them remain unstated and implicit in fascist public language. Many of them belong more to the realm of visceral feelings than to the realm of reasoned propositions:

  • A sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions;
  • The primacy of the group … and the subordination of the individual to it;
  • The belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external;
  • The need for authority by natural chiefs … culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny;
  • The superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason;
  • The beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success
  • The right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint … right being decided by the sole criterion of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle.”

“Today a ‘politics of resentment’ rooted in authentic American piety and nativism sometimes leads to violence against some of the very same ‘internal enemies’ once targeted by the Nazis, such as homosexuals and defenders of abortion rights. (But) the United States would have to suffer catastrophic setbacks and polarization for these fringe groups to find powerful allies and enter the mainstream….No swastikas in an American fascism, but Stars and Stripes (or Stars and Bars) and Christian crosses. No fascist salute, but mass recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance….An American fascism would transform them into obligatory litmus tests for detecting the internal enemy…. Its targets would be the First Amendment, separation of Church and State, … controls on gun ownership, desecrations of the flag, unassimilated minorities, artistic license, dissident and unusual behavior of all sorts that could be labeled antinational or decadent.

We can find … (the most) ominous warning signals in situations of political deadlock in the face of crisis, threatened conservatives looking for tougher allies, ready to give up due process and the rule of law, seeking mass support by nationalist and racialist demagoguery.”

Paxton repeatedly emphasizes that fascism has always arisen in response to the perceived failure of democratic systems to deal with some crisis or other, and that its ascension to power has always required the support of existing right-wing elites, such as leading politicians, senior military officers and wealthy individuals who see fascism as a counterweight to socialism or communism.

Given the historical record, it seems doubtful that America will one day adopt fascism as its political system. For one thing, Americans tend to be individualists, which conflicts with being good fascists. Secondly, despite what some right-wingers claim, there are remarkably few socialist tendencies in our politics for fascists to define themselves against. Furthermore, as Paxton points out, a government can become authoritarian (for example, by spying on everyone and locking people up without trials) without becoming fascist.

On the other hand, given a sufficiently serious crisis and a sufficiently charismatic demagogue, it could happen anywhere. 

But He Seemed Like Such a Nice Man

Michael Lind offers an explanation for the intense right-wing, anti-government, apocalyptic rhetoric that we hear so much of these days: “(Ronald Reagan’s) moderation in office had less effect on American society than the decades of vilification of the public sector that he pumped like toxic waste into public discourse.”

Lind points out that “every crackpot element of today’s radical Right can find inspiration in quotes from Reagan”, such as:

“In the present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

“Government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.”

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”

“The best minds are not in government. If any were, business would hire them away.”

And on other topics:

“Within the covers of the Bible are all the answers for all the problems men face.”

“You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness” (from Reagan’s nomination speech for Barry Goldwater in 1964).

They say the world has become too complex for simple answers. They are wrong.”

“It’s silly talking about how many years we will have to spend in the jungles of Vietnam when we could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it and still be home by Christmas.”

Lind concludes: “Reagan won his popularity by encouraging Americans to think and feel like aggrieved victims, while absolving them from any responsibility for the modern government that they themselves voted for.”

http://www.salon.com/2012/08/28/reagans_radical_rhetoric/