In a very good diary about conservatives gleeful over Obama's failure in Copnehagen, I saw a link to this essay - Politics as religion in America - by Neal Gabler, published in today's LA Times. I read it, felt it deserved its own diary, and since I haven't seen one up yet, I'm making it my contribution.
The basic premise (to be fleshed out below) is that right-wing politics has taken on the trappings of a revealed, fundamentalist religion, and that progressives and other opponents do not know how to deal with this, because they are playing politics while the right-wing is playing God.
[I]t is becoming increasingly clear that liberals haven't just been succumbing to superior message control, or even to a superior political narrative (conservatives' frontier individualism versus liberals' communitarianism). They are up against something far more intractable and far more difficult to defeat. They are up against religion.Mull that over for a moment, and see how well it fits what we've been seeing. Look at how the defenders of right-wing ideology - Gingrich, El Lardo, O'Reilly, immediately holler and scream whenever any GOP official steps away from the message, no small how small the distance. Absolute and total obedience to doctrine is a hallmark of fundamentalism.
Perhaps the single most profound change in our political culture over the last 30 years has been the transformation of conservatism from a political movement, with all the limitations, hedges and forbearances of politics, into a kind of fundamentalist religious movement, with the absolute certainty of religious belief. [Emphasis added]
Gabler makes the point that he doesn't mean religion in the usual sense of a belief in a divine authority, but rather the trappings of religious observance and enforcement:
I don't mean "religious belief" literally. This transformation is less a function of the alliance between Protestant evangelicals, their fellow travelers and the right (though that alliance has had its effect) than it is a function of a belief in one's own rightness so unshakable that it is not subject to political caveats. In short, what we have in America today is a political fundamentalism, with all the characteristics of religious fundamentalism and very few of the characteristics of politics.Personally, I think he is underestimating the influence of Christian fundamentalism (even as he acknowledges it) on the GOP attitudes. For one thing, it's a reasonable argument that the political fundamentalism of the GOP can be correlated with the plot by Robertson, Falwell, et. al., to take over the GOP starting around 1990. And while their direct influence is arguably no longer as powerful as it was back in those days, one has only to look at the McCain campaign and its attempt to pacify the Family Values Council, the Focus on the Family, and similar groups, to see that even if the stranglehold has been loosened, it has by no means been untied.
The indirect influence of these groups, however, is still very much paramount - in the attitude that the GOP faithful display toward their own. The faithful (generally known around here as the "core" or the "base," but I think "faithful" is a better description, certainly for this purpose) will attack any deviation from the perceived truth just as viciously, and often using similar language, as religious faithful attack anyone who deviates from revealed truth. These are the techniques and vocabulary of the religious fundamentalists, who through proximity and prevalence have passed them on to the political fundamentalists.
Before continuing with Gabler's text, let me pontificate for a moment on a longstanding position of mine, which closely matches his.
The United States is the first, and most successful, country to be founded on an idea: The idea that reason shall be the basis for governance. Not ethnicity, not family, not divine revelation, but the marketplace of ideas. It is a foundation that perhaps could not have happened at any earlier time, but the United States came into existence at the moment when Enlightenment thinking was the most powerful and popular philosophy of the day, when thinking people had been soured on religious domination and its attendant conflicts, and when an opportunity had just been created to construct a structure of governance from the ground up. (Well, not entirely, since legislatures were already in existence, but many of the details of America's Constitution were sui generis.)
The essence of Enlightenment thinking is this: Truth can be discovered through reason. This is a direct attack on both organized revelatory religion, and on the divine right of kings (and dictators, warlords, etc.) We fought a revolution to eliminate the second type of ruler, and for the most part we have kept attempts to restore that type of rule at bay (though we have political dynasties such as Bush and Kennedy, we are also deeply suspicious of them and often vote them out of power. W was an exception, but we won in large part through fraud and manipulation, and also profited from a general sense of ennui.)
The first type of rule rejected by the Enlightenment - revealed religion - has never accepted defeat. Because of the Constitutional protections - not just the First Amendment, but the whole process of putting power in the hands of the people and seeing that it stays there - it has always been difficult for religion to seize power in America, and indeed for much of our history, fundamentalists have refused to "dirty their hands" with politics. But the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 galvanized them and made them look for ways to influence, then dominate, then control, the levers of power.
One of the hallmarks of fundamentalism is certainty - the absolute conviction that the believer is right, that he alone is right, and that any attempt to convince him otherwise is a temptation of the devil (for religious believers) or traitors (the political version) and must be resisted with all one's might. For a powerful example of this, look not to Pat Robertson or James Dobson, but to Dick Cheney. Cheney is not particularly religious, and hold views (primarily on homosexuality) anathema to the religious right. But he is possibly the most rigid officeholder in our political history; convinced that he alone could properly sense the threat posed by al-Qaeda, dismissive ("So?") of any disagreement with his views, and more than willing to brush aside any legal or ethical impediments to the path to truth (read: victory) as he and he alone could see it. Reality, events on the ground, far from shaking his convictions, only serve to reinforce them. That is a classic description of a religious fanatic, only in this case he's a political one.
Now back to Gabler:
The tea-baggers who hate President Obama with a fervor that is beyond politics; the fear-mongers who warn that Obama is another Hitler or Stalin; the wannabe storm troopers who brandish their guns and warn darkly of the president's demise; the cable and talk-radio blowhards who make a living out of demonizing Obama and tarring liberals as America-haters -- these people are not just exercising their rights within the political system. They honestly believe that the political system -- a system that elected Obama -- is broken and only can be fixed by substituting their certainty for the uncertainties of American politics.Simply put, talking to these people is as much a waste of time as talking to a missionary, and for much the same reason.
As we are sadly discovering, this minority cannot be headed off, which is most likely why conservatism transmogrified from politics to a religion in the first place. Conservatives who sincerely believed that theirs is the only true and right path have come to realize that political tolerance is no match for religious vehemence.
Unfortunately, they are right. Having opted out of political discourse, they are not susceptible to any suasion. Rationality won't work because their arguments are faith-based rather than evidence-based. Better message control won't work. Improved strategies won't work. Grass-roots organizing won't work. Nothing will work because you cannot convince religious fanatics of anything other than what they already believe, even if their religion is political dogma. [Empahses added]
You cannot beat religion with politics, which is why the extreme right "wins" so many battles. The fundamentalist political fanatics will always be more zealous than mainstream conservatives or liberals. They will always be louder, more adamant, more aggrieved, more threatening, more willing to do anything to win. Losing is inconceivable. For them, every battle is a crusade -- or a jihad -- a matter of good and evil.Unfortunately, Gabler does not offer any helpful hints for how to deal with the situation (having ruled out dealing with the people):
Those who oppose the religification of politics may think all they have to do is change tactics, but they are sadly, tragically mistaken. They can never win, because for the political fundamentalists, this isn't political jousting, this is Armageddon.Well, inclined though I am to pessimism and cynicism, I do think there is something we can do about it.
With stakes like that, they will not lose, and there is nothing democrats -- small 'd' and capital "D" -- can do about it.
First, we need to eliminate their influence on the media. The media, as Gabler discusses, continues to see these people as legitimate players on the political scene, just another "side" whose views deserve equal time. This is the legacy of a ploy perpetrated and perpetuated by the original right wing noise machine, who insisted that a single lie on our side balanced out a thousand lies on theirs. We need to move the media away from this false equivalency. Countdown and MSNBC have started in this direction, somewhat, but the MSM still needs to learn this lesson.
Additionally, the media needs to stop considering their tactics as "politics as usual." It is not. It is the antithesis of the kind of politics that this country was founded on, and goes so far away from it as to be almost treasonous. Some in the media, even on the right, are starting to see and say this, as the fundamentalist tactics start to frighten even those who benefit from it. But much more needs to be done.
Finally (well, for now, as this is getting overlong), reasonable people in politics need to stop giving time, consideration, and legitimacy to the unreasonable. Put in plainer language, that means it's past time for the Democrats to stop playing "bipartisanship" with the Republicans. The Republicans now in office see themselves (accurately or not) as beholden to the faithful, and are therefore incapable of offering the sort of compromises of which politics is made, for the faithful will brook no compromise.
OK, one last thing: The Republican party needs to be destroyed. I dislike coming to such a conclusion, but the truth is clear that today's GOP is nothing more than a vehicle for the faithful to inject their antipolitics into the political sphere, and they do so with the deliberate intent of destroying politics as it has been known since the birth of the Republic. At one point, just after the 2008 election, it looked as though the GOP might free itself from the shackles of the faithful, but no longer. The faithful's infection of the GOP is too wide, too deep, to be eradicated by any sort of political surgery. For the sake of the future of the Republic, the Republican party must go.