Today's Tea Party is a manifestation of political fundamentalism. It is a manifestation of a powerful herd instinct marked by anger and paranoia and fueled by the energies of distorted nationalism. There was a similar herd instinct in the 1920s that troubled thoughtful Americans.
Walter Lippmann worried about “the bewildered herd” instinct and saw its manifestations in the right wing fanaticism of the 1920s. Historian E. Leuchtenburg saw Red Scare, the activities of the Klan, the prohibitionists, the anti-immigration mania, the anti-evolution crusade as manifestations of political fundamentalism, which one might liken to today's Tea Party Movement. It was a selfish, mean-spirited perspective that was deeply rooted in the conventional wisdom of Social Darwinism and belief in unrestrained capitalism. It was especially strong in rural areas that were experiencing a deep and long agricultural recession, where conservative Protestant Christianity was strong, and where there was a mounting fear of the different, pluralistic and multicultural forces found in urban area. The political fundamentalists were determined to take back their country.
They feared American being dominated by others, but they also harbored a suspicion that the process of change would transform them. Andre Sigfried, said, “They have a vague, uneasy fear of being overwhelmed from within, and of suddenly finding one day that they are no longer themselves.” They responded by trying to force on the nation a single interpretation of the Constitution; it was sort of tribal rite and “magical form of nativism,” in Leuchtenburg's words. Attempts at social change and social justice were considered un-American and inspired by foreign ideas. Leuchtenburg thought “political fundamentalism attempted to deny real divisions. (1) There are more than a few parallels with the Tea Party movement, though the latter seems to recognize differences of opinion, though demonizing those who differ, and like the political fundamentalist of the 1920s, seek conformity.
It was these force in the 1920s that disturbed Lippmann. He worried that “the herd instinct...had surreptitiously acquired the sanction of conscience in democracy.” ( 2 )Lippmann probably expected too much of people. He wanted careful reasoning and a certain level of detachment. Jefferson and Madison would have settled for a good measure of reasoned self-interest. Had that occurred in the Twenties, the decade would not have been a wasteland. There is a parallel between the aura of conscience accorded the ravings of the Klansmen, xenophobes, and anti-evolutionists of the 1920s, and measure of respectability many in the mainstream media accord the pronouncements of the Birthers, the xenophobia of today's Tom Tancredo's, and even the flat-out lines about Affordable Health care and economics that come from the Tea Party people and the politicians seeking their votes.
Then, in the Twenties, and now, Americans faced massive outbursts of irrationality that could only damage the political system.Willard " Mitt" Romney, whose own Mormon people were victims of irrational prejudice, found it necessary to support programs that would prompt undocumented workers to “self-deport,” and he stood behind Arizona's draconian anti-immigrant law and rejected the DREAM Act, which would have offered home to young Hispanics who worked hard at their studies or served their country in uniform.
The reason Willard “Mitt” Romney and John Boehner can lie so often and brazenly is that they are playing to and riding the wave of a massive herd instinct, at the core of which is the Tea Party movement. For many of the voters who coalesced into the great anti-Obama coalition of 2010, anything one could say about Obama is believable and become an article of a twisted faith rooted in fear of “Others,” Hence, the charges that Obama was a “socialist,” “foreign-born,” “Muslim.” Stuck now people are even blaming him for not preventing an advance cres of Secret Servicve men from partying in Columbia. It was his job to somehow know what they were up to and prevent it. In this kind of atmosphere, any claim sticks. The great fear of many in the anti-Obama coalition is that the United States is becoming a multicultural, pluralistic society that will no longer be run exclusively by white males. Add to this deep economic problems and the decline of the middle class, and we have some understanding of why the present rightist panic has such power.
Romney and Boehner deny that Barack Obama has done anything to improve the dismal economy he inherited; and both say Obama has made things worse. Then they say Obama has done nothing to improve things while insisting that government action does not create jobs and defending their opposition to the stimulus and Obama's failed efforts at getting more stimulus legislation. They never point to one new regulation Obama has created before saying that corporate America in sitting on trillions it is afraid to invest in American jobs. Boehner may not understand any of this, but Romney must know why the money sits idle, and one reason is that the cash reserves are needed to support bets made on the derivatives market. Corporations have become as active as banks in that cassino. The get away with all this because the mainstream media refuses to call out lies and inconsistencies or even ask for explanations of unsupported charges.
The herd instinct is not good for democracy, and thoughtful people in the past considered what could be done about it. Edward L. Bernays, father of the modern public relations or spin industry thought PR techniques should be used to curb and direct it. Bernays was the father of spin and the modern public relations industry. He learned from his uncle, Sigmund Freud, that a great deal of what people do and say is motivated suppressed desires and irrational impulses. He learned from Wilfred Trotter that there was such a thing as “the herd instinct,” which could sometimes endanger democracy. Sometimes, it was necessary for the good of the republic to steer public opinion along socially desirable avenues and away from herd instincts. Noam Chomsky explained his thinking this way; “new techniques of regimentation of minds, he said, had to be used by the intelligent minorities in order to make sure that the slobs stay on the right course. (3)
Bernays was right in emphasizing how important modern PR techniques are. He wrote: “ The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society." He added: "Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. . . . In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons . . . who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind." (4)
Though much what he accomplished did not serve democracy, Bernays thought of himself as a Roosevelt/Kennedy liberal. He did not think “propaganda” was a dirty word, but he claimed he tried to distinguish between “improper-ganda” and “proper-ganda.”
In 1933, Hearst correspondent Karl von Wiegand, who had just returned from Europe, told Bernays that Joseph Goebbels had used Bernay's writings in arousing hysteria against the Jews. Clearly, PR techniques could be for destructive purposes. He wrote that this shocked him and he concluded that the campaign against the Jews had been carefully engineered; it did not come about on its own.( 5 )
Were Bernays to see today's Tea Party, he would also conclude that it had been deliberately manufactured because, as one critic wrote, he thought that most of the time “ people are reactive dullards, dry sponges whose views will be coloured by ...whatever ink the savvy few choose to squirt at them.” (6) This is an elitist view that gives ordinary people too little credit. On the other hand, the opposite view that people almost always act reasonably is a fiction rooted in the Enlightenment's optimistic view of people. It could well be that in times of great stress and crisis that large people behave irrationally and that some savvy strategists also manipulate people's fears and anxieties to for their own purposes.
Since the 1920s and 1930s, much has been learned about how science can be employed toi defuse populist left-wing movements. But it is not easy understand how PR techniques could be used to channel Tea Party energies along less destructive lines. It is easier to imagine modern propaganda techniques being very effective at selling unnecessary wars or directing the anger of Tea Party people at people who need the protection of the safety net, than it is to see how they could be used to get people to respond to their impulses for justice and compassion.
There are progressives like George Lakoff who have become expert in cognitive and linguistic science. They have developed strategies for presenting the progressive in the most persuasive way, despite the power of the reactionary storm that seems to beset us. Progressive need help in finding ways to combat the many lies and distortions that the Romney campaign relies upon. Romney is relying on the irrational hatred many have for Obama and also upon power of what so many accept as the conventional wisdom, built on Social Darwinism and ruthless capitalism. If his many lies are not punctured, this rightist narrative will become even stronger. Anthropologist Anthony F.C. Wallace has shown how frightened people in time of deep crisis fall back--really dowuble down-- on conventional narratives resort to political fundamentalism. We dare not let the conventional wisdom peddled by Corporate America and Mitt Romney gain more ground.
Some liberals have worried that it is not ethical to draw upon cognitive and linguistic sciences to better present their message. If progressives do not soon learn to better present their case and fashion attractive political narratives, the political field might long be dominated by those who learn how to benefit from paranoia, rage, and other irrational impulses.
2.Ronald Steel, Walter Lippmann and The American Century(New Brunswick: Transaction Publications, 2004) 157
5. Edward L. Bernays, Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of Public Relations Counsel Edward L. Bernays( New York, 1965), 652