They Really Are Different From the Rest of Us

If you’re like me, you often wonder whether right-wing media people and politicians believe the nonsense they pass on to the rest of us. For instance, did they really think Hillary Clinton’s email server was a horrendous, disqualifying breach of national security? Or that the FBI, one of the most conservative agencies in the federal government, plotted to elect her, despite all evidence to the contrary (like the fact that they helped elect her opponent)?

Granted, some “conservatives” are sufficiently stupid or ignorant to buy that kind of crap. But the people who run Fox News or the major right-wing websites are smarter and better-informed than the average right-wing boob who watches Hannity or listens to Limbaugh.

Brian Beutler, one of the best people writing about politics today, argues that the purveyors of right-wing nonsense really are different from the rest of us:

Outside of the specific American context, the word “liberal” describes … a philosophical approach to organizing society [that reflects] a common commitment to basic Enlightenment-era ideals like equality, democracy, and empiricism [i.e. evidence].

In recent years, political science tells us, the two American parties have polarized, and the polarization has been asymmetric. Republicans have become more conservative faster than Democrats have become more progressive.

It is increasingly clear that asymmetric polarization is the wrong metaphor for what has happened in American politics. To say the parties are asymmetrical is to imply that they’re fundamentally similar, but that one has become distorted in some way—that while Democrats and Republicans are still committed to basic Founding values, Republicans are rapidly adopting more extreme policy prescriptions. They’ve changed, but they can change back.

Whether or not that was ever true, it clearly no longer is. The parties aren’t two different animals of the same species. They have speciated [become different species].

Democratic politicians, liberal activists, and journalists have different purposes and respond to different incentives, but they are all liberal in that global sense. Two decades after Newt Gingrich redefined what it meant to be a Republican, it is clear that Republican politicians, conservative activists, and the right-wing media have become adherents to a fundamentally different political tradition.

Most conservatives are not aware of this anymore than liberal people walk through life meditating regularly on their historical connections to John Locke and John Dewey. But some conservatives are perfectly conscious that they’ve rejected the small-l liberal canon.

Paul Ryan is an Ayn Rand acolyte. In his political biography of Steve Bannon, Bloomberg writer Joshua Green details how Bannon became enthralled with the anti-modernist thinking of philosophers like René Guénon and Julius Evola, the latter of whom helped create the intellectual foundation of Italian fascism. Bannon is an admirer of the great propagandists of totalitarian Europe, including Leni Riefenstahl and Sergei Eisenstein, who used information instrumentally to mobilize (rather than inform) … Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. For years now, Bannon and his acolytes in right-wing media have made no secret of their desire to destroy mainstream journalism as a vocation in America. His understudy Matthew Boyle has boasted that his organization’s goal is nothing less than “the full destruction and elimination of the entire mainstream media,” through the “weaponization of information.”

Bannon has been banished from the Trump White House and driven from his chairmanship of Breitbart for saying mean things about the president to reporters, but his imprint on the modern conservative media is enormous and undeniable…. It is impossible to watch Fox News in prime time, or Devin Nunes at the helm of the House Intelligence Committee, or Rush Limbaugh bellowing at dittoheads, and not conclude that they have done the same, consciously or otherwise.

Mr. Beutler sees here a crucial lesson for the “mainstream” (i.e. reality-based) media:

The job of the mainstream media isn’t to cast judgment on people with different value systems, but journalists can’t do their jobs well if they aren’t aware that the value systems of mainstream journalism and American conservatism are different and in conflict. It should be perfectly possible to apply the neutral rules of modern journalism to both American political parties while accepting that Democrats (and journalists and scientists) descend from the Enlightenment tradition, while Republicans (and their allies in conservative media) descend from a different, illiberal tradition—and that this makes the parties behave in different ways.

It is why the right has felt comfortable spending the past weeks fabricating whole-cloth conspiracy theories about the FBI and setting about to cajole and intimidate impartial journalists into taking the theories seriously—or at least into offering liars big platforms to spread disinformation. Journalists have spent decades responding to this kind of manipulation with varying levels of appeasement, hoping to escape the curse of the “liberal” epithet. They should try instead to embrace their own particular kind of liberalism instead, and let their bad-faith critics scream into the void.

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:



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.

Death of the Liberal Class by Chris Hedges

Hedges argues that there is a power elite that controls the corporations, which completely control the economy, government and media. The power elite has instituted a permanent war economy that will shortly lead to financial and ecological catastrophe. This process began with the government’s use of propaganda to suppress opposition to World War I. Political liberals might have stopped the ascension of the power elite if they had stayed true to principles of peace and justice.

But the “liberal class” no longer speaks truth to power. Liberals in government, academia and the media may call for reform, but they are powerless to change anything, having been bought off by their corporate masters. There is nothing for reasonable people to do but retreat into small self-sustaining communities (similar to the monasteries of the Dark Ages) and/or perform acts of rebellion that are likely to have little effect on the status quo.

Given the thesis of this book, it hardly seems worth pointing out that it is repetitious and strangely organized, with sections that aren’t always related to the chapter headings. It also focuses almost completely on the United States, except for one brief section on working conditions in China. Hedges may be right that we are heading for catastrophe as a nation and a planet, but those are different propositions. His principal argument concerns the failure of political liberals to stop the corporate takeover of the United States. He seems to think that global climate change might have been avoided if corporations had less power in the United States, but that doesn’t follow.

Death of the Liberal Class is written with such force, that it is surprising to read on the dust jacket that the author is a columnist for a political website, writes for numerous publications (including Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, Granta and Mother Jones), and lives in Princeton. This makes him sound, accurately or not, like a member of the liberal class that he excoriates with such passion in this book.  (12/20/10)