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.

Disturbing the Peace

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified 225 years ago. It states:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

So let’s consider the Oxford Dictionary definition of “militia”:

A military force that is raised from the civil population to supplement a regular army in an emergency. “creating a militia was no answer to the army’s manpower problem”

Now let’s read who showed up last Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia, as reported by The Guardian:

With their loaded assault rifles and pistols, camouflage, combat boots and helmets, it looked like the US army had descended on the pretty college town of Charlottesville, Virginia, as a white supremacy rally turned violent last weekend.

The military did officially turn up, in fact, in the form of the Virginia national guard, called into service to back up the police when a state of emergency was declared at 11am on Saturday morning….

But they were not the most visible or heavily armed soldier types [present]. That distinction goes to the militia [sic] members brought together as a unit from a handful of the hundreds of unofficial paramilitary groups that have long thrived across America due to the second amendment’s directive: “A well regulated Militia….”

With their trigger fingers ready on their loaded, battlefield-style rifles, held across heavy-duty body armour, these quasi-troops turned heads as they murmured to each other via radios and headsets.

The men in charge of the 32 militia members who came to Charlottesville from six states to form a unit with the mission of “defending free speech” were Christian Yingling, the commanding officer of the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia, and his “second in command” on the day, George Curbelo, the commanding officer of the New York Light Foot Militia.

“We spoke to the Charlottesville police department beforehand and offered to come down there and help with security,” Yingling told the Guardian.

“They said: ‘We cannot invite you in an official capacity, but you are welcome to attend,’ and they gave us an escort into the event,” he added.

Gun laws vary from state to state and even city to city, but Virginia has one of the most relaxed sets of laws in the US. It is legal for civilians to carry weapons openly, including intimidating assault rifles loaded with 30-round magazines, which the Light Foots – but not the police or official military – carried during the Charlottesville event….

Curbelo praised his militia unit…. “We were de-escalating things and treating people injured on all sides, until we were hugely outnumbered,” he said, although he noted: “If I saw me coming at me in all my gear, I would find it intimidating.” 

This is insane. Private citizens who enjoy getting together and pretending to be soldiers are not a “well-regulated militia”. They aren’t a “militia” at all, no matter what they call themselves. A better word for these idiots is “paramilitary”:

Organized similarly to a military force. “illegal paramilitary groups”

Even if some right-wing fool on the local police force said they’d be welcome (“Come on down. Bring the biggest guns you have. The more the merrier!”), they had no business being in Charlottesville. The city police, the Virginia state police and, if necessary, the National Guard were responsible for keeping the peace. 

Furthermore, the law says these paramilitary groups are illegal. From Philip Zelikow, a lawyer and history professor, at the Lawfare blog:

For those close to the action, including the law enforcement personnel on duty, hardly any aspect of the Charlottesville confrontation was more menacing than the appearance of organized, often uniformed, private bands of men in military getups, openly brandishing assault rifles and other long guns.

This is an ominous development, but it is not a new one. And it can be—and has been—countered with legal action. I took part in that work.

In 1981 an organization called the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan organized and trained paramilitary groups to harass Vietnamese-American fishermen on the Texas Gulf coast. They, too, wore Army-surplus-style clothes and gear, not white sheets. Working with Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center, David Berg and I represented the fishermen in a federal lawsuit against the Klan. We invoked a Texas law more than a century old that banned “military companies” other than those authorized by the governor. There are similar laws in most states, including Virginia.

We asked the judge to shut down the Klan’s paramilitary activities.  Since this law had never been interpreted, we developed a legal standard to define the barred activity…We focused on private efforts to create a military or paramilitary organization that had “command structure, training and discipline so as to function as a combat or combat support unit.”

Expert witnesses explained how the group’s activities met the standard. The Texas attorney general urged the judge to accept our application of the law.  The judge … granted our request and in 1982 shut down the training activities…. The order worked. 

Our approach was used again in 1985 and 1986 when the Southern Poverty Law Center took legal action against the Carolina Knights of the KKK and its successor, the White Patriots Party. After they violated court orders, a jury found the organization and its leaders guilty of criminal contempt. The leaders were jailed….

The problem arose again during the 1990s as self-styled militias organized in several states. Morris and I published an op-ed in the New York Times in May 1995 to review the legal option of restricting the activity of private military groups. That danger subsided, after many lives had been lost—above all, in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. 

But the danger is rising again, as my town, the nation and the world can plainly see.

The Second Amendment arguments can be—and have been—overcome.  Individuals may have a right to bear arms for self-defense, but they do not have a right to organize and train as a private military group. In 1886 the Supreme Court laid the groundwork for controlling what the Second Amendment calls a “well-regulated Militia,” when it held that “[m]ilitary operations and military drill are subjects especially under the control of the government of every country.  They cannot be claimed as a right independent of law.” A New York appellate court noted in 1944: “The inherent potential danger of any organized private militia is obvious. Its existence would be sufficient, without more, to prevent a democratic form of government, such as ours, from functioning freely, without coercion”….

The language of Virginia’s Constitution is clear. While “a well regulated militia” is valued, including what state law calls the “unorganized militia,” the Constitution stresses that, “in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.”

Well, when truckloads of organized groups of heavily armed men drive into my town—or your town—it is time to uphold the civil power. Virginia, like most states, has the legal power to stop them. And the precedents are on the books.

Amen.

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.

Our Bubble Is Bigger and More Porous Than Theirs

The Columbia Journalism Review is a magazine for professional journalists. It’s been published by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism since 1961. Like it or not, it’s a relatively reliable source of information.

So it was interesting to read about a study they conducted. They analyzed “over 1.25 million stories published online between April 1, 2015 and Election Day”. They “analyzed hyperlinking patterns, social media sharing patterns on Facebook and Twitter, and topic and language patterns in the content of the 1.25 million stories, published by 25,000 sources over the course of the election”. They answered questions like: “If a person shares a link from Breitbart, is he or she more likely to share a link from Fox News or from The New York Times?”

This is what they found:

… a right-wing media network anchored around Breitbart developed as a distinct and insulated media system, using social media as a backbone to transmit a hyper-partisan perspective to the world. This pro-Trump media sphere appears to have not only successfully set the agenda for the conservative media sphere, but also strongly influenced the broader media agenda, in particular coverage of Hillary Clinton.

While concerns about political and media polarization online are longstanding, our study suggests that polarization was asymmetric. Pro-Clinton audiences were highly attentive to traditional media outlets, which continued to be the most prominent outlets across the public sphere, alongside more left-oriented online sites. But pro-Trump audiences paid the majority of their attention to polarized outlets that have developed recently, many of them only since the 2008 election season (my emphasis).

Attacks on the integrity and professionalism of opposing media were also a central theme of right-wing media. Rather than “fake news” in the sense of wholly fabricated falsities, many of the most-shared stories can more accurately be understood as disinformation: the purposeful construction of true or partly true bits of information into a message that is, at its core, misleading. Over the course of the election, this turned the right-wing media system into an internally coherent, relatively insulated knowledge community, reinforcing the shared worldview of readers and shielding them from journalism that challenged it.

In other words, there are bubbles and there are bubbles. As the Republican Party has moved further and further to the right, Republican orthodoxy has increasingly conflicted with reality. Since journalism at its best tends to reflect reality, fewer “conservatives” have been willing to get news and commentary from the most professional sources. This explains the growing popularity of right-wing propaganda sites like Fox News. They’re a comforting alternative to what the right began calling the “mainstream” or “lamestream” media. 

This means that a sizable minority of Americans are now convinced that the most objective sources of news are unreliable. The result is that right-wing politicians can get away with murder. Their supporters are immune to the truth. Meanwhile, liberal or progressive politicians don’t get the credit they sometimes deserve and those of us who pay attention to the traditional media are left wondering how so many people on the right can be so out of touch. 

I’m not saying that newspapers like The Washington Post and programs like CBS Evening News always get it right. Hardly. But the people who work at places like that at least try to get it right. They aren’t committed to supporting one political party at all costs. The result is that if you get your news and commentary from a variety of respected sources, you’ll probably have a fairly good grasp of what’s going on in America. You’ll realize that the Affordable Care Act hasn’t been a “disaster”, for example, and that the American economy is in much better shape than when President Obama took office.

Some will say that we all live in bubbles and we’re all equally biased. It’s easy to express that kind of cynicism, but it’s not born out by the evidence. As the study says, “pro-Clinton audiences were highly attentive to traditional media outlets”, while “pro-Trump audiences paid the majority of their attention to polarized outlets”. There’s a reason that more than 99% of the major newspapers in the United States, hundreds of them, even papers that always endorse Republican candidates, endorsed the Democrat for President, not the Republican. The people who run newspapers and write editorials get their news from a variety of credible sources that at least try to be objective. 

The good news is that most Americans are still open to journalism that does that. The bad news is that millions of right-wingers, including some with too much power, aren’t. I don’t know how to fix this problem. I don’t think anyone does. Here, for instance, is the conclusion of the Columbia Journalism Review article:

Rebuilding a basis on which Americans can form a shared belief about what is going on is a precondition of democracy, and the most important task confronting the press going forward. Our data strongly suggest that most Americans … continue to pay attention to traditional media, following professional journalistic practices, and cross-reference what they read on partisan sites with what they read on mass media sites.

To accomplish this, traditional media needs to reorient … by recognizing that it is operating in a propaganda and disinformation-rich environment.

And then what? Knowledge of the situation is a necessary first step, but what comes next? There will always be a market for fantasy. I suppose all we can do is stand up for reality.

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“You’re On Your Own”

Every now and then, you might find yourself wondering “What’s the deal with these people?” Why are four Republican Congressmen sponsoring a bill that would abolish the Environmental Protection Agency? Why does the President think financial advisers should be free to give advice that favors themselves, not their clients? Why did a wealthy relative of mine strongly resent paying taxes for public schools?

Paul Waldman, writing in The Washington Post, nicely explains the guiding principle behind actions and attitudes like these:

President [D]rump is not an ideologue — not because he’s open-minded, but because he has little in the way of particular beliefs about policy. He does, however, have impulses, inclinations and prejudices. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), on the other hand, is an ideologue, as are many if not most of his compatriots in Congress.

Put that Congress and this White House together, and you get a Republican government with a clear and coherent ideology, one you can sum up in a short declarative statement:

You’re on your own.

This is the driving principle behind nearly everything the Republicans are trying to do in domestic affairs…

He then offers examples. They make very interesting reading if you’ve been trying to understand how people like Drump and Ryan manage to consistently choose the wrong side of every issue.