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.

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A Month of Unwritten Posts Condensed Into One

It’s not as if there’s a shortage of reading material on the Internet. Nevertheless, since I haven’t done my part lately:

You might hear of a new Quinnipiac University poll, according to which Fox News is the most trusted network news in America. The poll found that 29% of American voters trust the news on Fox more than any other network. However, the poll also found that 57% of American voters trust either CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC or MSNBC more than Fox. In other words, 29% of us trust the right-wing propaganda “news” delivered by Rupert Murdoch, and twice as many of us trust the other kind, the “mainstream media” news that Rupert doesn’t own. So it’s bad enough, but not as bad as it sounds.

Meanwhile, a Pew Research Center poll found that 53% of Americans disapprove of the Affordable Care Act, even though the ACA has resulted in more people getting health insurance than the Obama administration predicted, while contributing to slower growth in overall healthcare spending. A Bloomberg article helps explain this discrepancy. First, many people think they can do without the comprehensive health insurance the law mandates and resent paying for services they’ll never need (like maternity care) or don’t think they’ll ever need (like rehabilitation). Second, more than half of the big companies in America have told their employees that the ACA is forcing them to pay even more for health insurance.

The Bloomberg article says that the coverage mandates aren’t making health insurance more expensive. The mandates are merely “pooling the cost of that coverage across more people”, which is why fewer people are having trouble paying for healthcare. Furthermore, employers are blaming an ACA provision (the so-called “Cadillac” tax) for immediate cuts in benefits and higher insurance payments, even though it’s unlikely that these employers will ever be subject to that provision.

But does it matter what the facts are? According to a very interesting article by Heather Cox Richardson, Professor of History at Boston College, America’s right-wing doesn’t accept the importance of empirical evidence or rational argument. She traces this amazing attitude back to William F. Buckley Jr.’s 1950s book God and Man at Yale. Richardson says that:

Buckley rejected the principles that had enabled social progress for centuries and laid out a mind-boggling premise: The Enlightenment, the intellectual basis of Western Civilization, was wrong.

Rational argument supported by facts did not lead to sound societal decisions, Buckley claimed; it led people astray. Christianity and an economy based on untrammeled individualism were truths that should not be questioned. Impartial debate based in empirical facts was dangerous because it led people toward secularism and collectivism—both bad by definition, according to Buckley. Instead of engaging in rational argument, Buckley insisted, thinkers must stand firm on what he called a new “value orthodoxy” that indoctrinated people to understand that Christianity and economic individualism were absolute truths.

If we accept the premise that Christianity and economic individualism (the idolatry of the “free market”) are absolute truths, it makes sense to reject any contradictory ideas, however well-founded those ideas are given the empirical evidence.

For example, the governor of Minnesota, Mark Dayton, inherited a $6 billion deficit from his predecessor, a self-styled “fiscal conservative” who wouldn’t raise taxes. Dayton convinced the legislature to raise taxes on the rich and increase the minimum wage. Republicans predicted, as always, that businesses would leave the state and unemployment would rise. What actually happened was that the deficit turned into a surplus, unemployment went down and Minnesota now has one of the best economies of any state. Forbes Magazine (a bastion of capitalism) recently ranked Minnesota as having the 7th best “economic climate” and the 2nd best “quality of life” in the nation.

But if you believe that higher taxes on the rich and a higher minimum wage are absolutely wrong, since they conflict with your “understanding” of morality and economics, it’s understandable that you’ll reject the evidence. Nothing that conflicts with absolute truth can possibly be true.

To end on a positive note, however, consider that Larry Summers, a leading economist and Wall Street-friendly Democrat, is now arguing for a relatively progressive set of policies. According to an encouraging article by Thomas Edsall of the New York Times, Summers has concluded that “free market capitalism, as now structured, is producing major distortions”:

In order to stem the disproportionate share of income flowing to corporate managers and owners of capital, and to address the declining share going to workers, the report calls for tax and regulatory policies to encourage employee ownership, the strengthening of collective bargaining rights, regulations requiring corporations to provide fringe benefits to employees working for subcontractors, a substantial increase in the minimum wage, sharper overtime pay enforcement, and a huge increase in infrastructure appropriations – for roads, bridges, ports, schools – to spur job creation and tighten the labor market…. Summers also calls for significant increases in the progressivity of the United States tax system.

Summers has advised both President Obama and Hillary Clinton on economic matters, so it’s a positive sign that he now advocates more worker-friendly policies.

Finally, with our harsh winter finally winding down, I want to express my sincere appreciation for everyone who has to work outside or travel to their jobs during terrible winter weather. Many such people aren’t able to take a day off or “work at home”, because you can’t drive a snowplow or staff your boss’s restaurant from your living room. I also want to express my profound appreciation for whoever devised the snow shovel with a bent handle. I’ve used one for years and there’s nothing better for shoveling snow while avoiding back pain!

backsaver-shovel2