Not long ago, Michele Bachmann said that Barack Obama's visit to India cost $200 million a day. She also claimed that Obama was about to introduce a new form of trans-American currency, and she introduced a bill to prevent the death of the greenback. Then she said that Hezbollah is planning to place missiles in Cuba.
At a 2012 Republican presidential debate, a soldier serving in one of our wars outed himself as gay and asked candidate Rick Santorum about how he would protect the rights of gay soldiers. There were angry shouts and boos from the audience, and the former Senator did not take the boisterous members of the audience to task. At other meeting there were loud outbursts in favor of letting an uninsured man die without medical treatment. On the other hand, the audience cheered in favor of 234 executions in Texas. Many more paragraphs could be written about the anger, verbal violence, and ugliness that has overtaken American politics.
A writer could build an almost endless catalog of crazy statements, uncivil behavior, outright demagoguery, and violent language that has occurred in American political life since 2008. Yet, responsible commentators and pundits do not analyze these phenomena or speculate on what they mean for the health of the republic. All of these distressing phenomena relate to overboard partisanship and are the result of manipulation of some innate human defensive instincts.
One might guess that Republican leaders do not discourage these ugly outbursts because they realize that appealing to what was once called the lunatic fringe is effective in attracting more support and also in activating their base. What is happening is that the Republican elite--the rich, bankers, and corpoate people-- are consciously using cultural and hot button issues to enlarge their base. It is not natural for ordinary people to support policies that reduce their prosperity and security while enriching a small el;ite. They need to be blinded by hot button ssues and be rewarede with empty symbolic victories.
The people at the top of the GOP are driven by uncontrolled hubris and lust for power, just like Greek tyrants, Roman despots, and some Twentieth Century dictators. Since the mid-seventies, they have been getting what they want, de-regulation, tax breaks, the ability to hide fortunes off-shore, and the destruction of the trade unions. They displayed a fierce anger when the election of Bill Clinton threatened their hegemony. By then, they thought they were on the cusp of taking over the country for good. Other disappointments have followed, the most recent being the re-election of a black president. John Mc Cain, a pathetic figure nursing his own frustrated ambition, and Lindsay Graham, another little man who gets ego gratification from Neo Con adventures, have been making all sorts or reckless charges and suggestions.
Most recently, they demanded the use of air power against Syria even though that state has an abundamce of anti-aircraft systems. Their friends in the House just issued a report claiming Hillary Clinton was responsible for the Benghazi attack and the administration changed talking points purely for political reasons. They offer no proof--just the rage at having lost the election. The majority of the House Republican caucus want a select committee as a prelude to something like the White Water witchhunt.
This overboard extremism, coupled with open hostility to gays, immigrants, Hispanics, and African-American culture cost the GOP the 2012 presidential election. But appeals to extremism also preserved control of the House of Representatives and of a majority of state governments. There has been talk about reaching out to young voters and minorities, but in the end that would weaken the Republican base. What is more likely is that the present levels of paranoia and rage will continued, but there will be more efforts to avoid statements that are openly hostile to blacks and minorities.
“Us against Them” thinking is wired into humans and into their cousins, the apes. Carville’s comparison of extremist right wing sentiments to blood lust was hardly off base. Humans and apes are wired to hate enemies, have difficulties identifying with others, be indifferent to the needs of others, and to be suspicious of those who are not like us. Chimps are usually hostile to other groups of chimps. Bonbos usually mix with other groups of bonbons. Some say we humans fall somewhere between the two. Others say we lean toward the chimps because we are so warlike and violent. Given this basic information, it is no wonder that those who appeal to the negative features of our basic nature are so successful.
There was the so-called Stanford prison study in which students were supposed to stay two weeks in a basement. The students acting like “guards” became so abuse and arrogant that the experiment was ended early. The guards or “in-group” came to think they were superior to the other group and saw them as less human, and that feeling enhanced the feeling of self-worth and solidarity of members of the guard group. It is difficult to determine what throws the mental switch that makes people behave this way. It is somehow controlled by how people perceive their interests and whether they feel threatened. So long as people feel a common interest with almost all the others in their society the switch will not be triggered. Those who want to short-circuit feelings involving the common good, often appeal to fear of others in order to activate the reptilian cores of our brains. We also know that both apes and humans hate to observe unfair treatment of others. To some degree, pointing to clear acts of unfairness should combat those who want to activate irrational responses among us.