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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

Originally posted to Big Chuck on Sat Apr 21, 2012 at 11:22 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Had one of these nutcases following us who read (18+ / 0-)

    our bumper stickers... He zipped around us and got in front of our F350 and slammed on his brakes at 55 mph. Then  he turned into the same store we were going to. After we parked he came up to our pick up and yelled that Obama was a socialist... He was a guy probably about 70 and he was foaming until he saw my 6'2" 54" shoulder hubby so he turned on me because I got out of the vehicle quickest... I laughed at him and said "Do you even know what the to check for onset alzheimers?" ... I laughed and walked away....

    I know I shouldn't have but dang I didn't want to slap around a 70 year old man who was physically trying to intimidate me. It wouldn't look good to have a woman kick his ass in the hardware store parking lot. By that time my hubby was out & said knock it off to him and grow up... we don't discuss politics with the ignorant... and we went into the store. He huffed and puffed and followed us until he couldn't take my laughing any more.

    Proud Slut...Fear is the Mind Killer

    by boophus on Sat Apr 21, 2012 at 11:34:40 AM PDT

  •  Progressives Don't Have Access. (15+ / 0-)

    The rightwing information environment was put together back in the 60's & early 70's and also included appropriating the radio- and televangelist infrastructure as they recruited fundamentalism to become politically engaged.

    Meanwhile at the elite end, the pullback in anti trust enforcement generally, and of enforcement of broadcast public service requirements and media ownership limits, turned the entire mainstream press into a corporate advocacy propaganda system.

    Progressives just don't have access to the mainstream population in any way comparable to the rightwing.

    Furthermore since the Democrats turned conservative, so long ago, the party generally doesn't intend to do strong and educational messaging to try to move the mainstream away from where corporates & conservatives leave them.

    Without any scholarly component to my views, purely as practicality I've long encouraged replacing most progressive and Democratic explanation-based messaging with emotion-dominated messaging for all the reasons you outline and for another very practical one: the mainstream information environment simply will not deliver explanation-based messaging successfully to most of the mainstream population. The systems and environment is all wrong for that.

    The big problems we face if we ever do decide to message effectively is that there are not many of us to do it and no infrastructure where we have fair equal access. That's a lot of obstacles to handle cleverly.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sat Apr 21, 2012 at 11:49:45 AM PDT

    •  There are two. (7+ / 0-)

      First, the Old Media: conservatives control the "news" media and the television networks, but Hollywood has been a liberal stronghold since the Marx Brothers.  Furthermore literary publishing has always been controlled in this country by liberal New Yorkers with, like the film business, a disproportionate representation from the (generally liberal) Jewish community.  Thus while conservatives control the description of "what IS", liberals very much dominate the conversation of "what COULD BE" through the Dream Machines.  For a current example, read or view The Hunger Games.

      Second, the New Media.  Liberals, even anarchists, dominate the internet hands-down.  Peer-to-peer connectivity is the perfect model for the liberal organization as developed since the 60's, and we have been here from the start.  Despite numerous attempts, conservatives have had very heavy wading trying to adapt the free-for-all nature of internet connectivity to their ideas of top-down hierarchical control.  Few net-citizens are willing to put up with it, which leaves them forced either to give freedom to their mass of followers, which they recognize as being potentially dangerous in multiple senses, or to retain very few followers at all.

      It's not CNN.  But then, it's not CNN.

  •  Good job. We need more history at DKos... (11+ / 0-)

    Its important to see that this has all been done before. Part of the reason for the campaign against real education is to prevent people from learning how to defend themselves against manipulation by media.

    An interesting point you did not cover is that prior to Freud/Bernays, advertising followed the rationalist point of view. Those earlier ads provided a large amount of facts about the product. I recall some fast food chain in the 1980s had formica table tops that showed a collage of circa 1900 ads - and they were full of detailed descriptions.

    Then the psychologists came in, and advertising became all about manipulating people with symbols and jingles and spokespersons.

    Sometimes, when I see the food fights that happen here at DKos, I despair that thinking will ever outweigh emotions in politics.

  •  Nice job with historical analysis (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ybruti, palantir, sb

    and very relevant to what's going on todya.

  •  It's not about techniques and tactics (8+ / 0-)

    You can't oppose something with nothing and expect to prevail.  you most certainly cannot accept, even share, the fundamental ideological precepts of those whom you supposedly oppose, and expect to overcome their domination.  To this point the Democratic party establishment, which is all that matters within the system,  has remained completely acquiescent in their acceptance of the Thatcherite dogma that "There Is No Alternative" to neoliberal corporate capitalism and the state as enforcer of ruling class interests against any challenge, however tepid and marginal.  You cannot foster a break from a regime whose axioms and premises are also your own.  

    The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges. ~ Anatole France

    by ActivistGuy on Sat Apr 21, 2012 at 02:12:57 PM PDT

    •  Jeffersonian revolution (7+ / 0-)

      is abandoned concurrently with democracy when "government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed corporations." As OWS implies, the liberal position is essentially Tory. Any progress in restoring democracy depends on the success of a strategy to get money out of politics. Opponents of this, typically don't believe that democracy works or haven't faced the future of a money race after Arizona Free Enterprise.

  •  Reading "The Glory and the Dream" (10+ / 0-)

    by William Manchester, American history 1932-1972, I'm constantly amazed at how much American history repeats itself. It seems there has always been a huckster like Glenn Beck, media controlled by the Republicans, fear of European-style socialism, anti-union sentiment, hatred of a somewhat progressive President, anti-immigration forces, etc. And yet there has been progress, often very slow, on many fronts.

    The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right. -- Judge Learned Hand, May 21, 1944

    by ybruti on Sat Apr 21, 2012 at 04:16:05 PM PDT

    •  My favorite history book of all time. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      NoMoreLies, ybruti, sb

      Manchester is glorious.

      Father Coughlin = Rush Limbaugh.

    •  Thanks for the mention. I'm looking for some (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      audio books for an upcoming long car trip and I found this in the library.  I'll be able to go there and back and not run out of discs.  I love history for car trips, and agree with how much repetition there is and not just from the 30's.  I recently read 1L which was Scott Turow at Harvard Law in the early 70's.  All the same issues.  It gets discouraging.

      When I as young and innocent I didn't realize that hard won progress could be lost, let alone so easily.  We must double down our efforts.

  •  All well and good... (8+ / 0-)

    But let us not also forget that economic stagnation and impoverishment go hand-in-hand with the rise of extremism.

    Even Obama alluded to this with his comment regarding people clutching their Bibles & Guns, as a response to economic desperation and what they perceive as an upheaval to the existing order.

    Here's the problem though:

    We have no FDR.  

    We will not have someone concerned for the 99% heading up a major party ticket.

    The oligarchy of today is well aware of what could happen were such a thing ever possible.

    To preclude such an event form ever happening, the 1% are happy to provide us a choice:

    We can have our Austerity w/ a side of slightly progressive social policies, or, we can have a side of social regressive policies.

    We're free.

    We should clap and thank them for giving us the choice.


    There is a reason that Obama's Chiefs of Staff come from Wall Street Banks. And it has nothing to do with Change We Can Believe In.

    by Johnathan Ivan on Sat Apr 21, 2012 at 07:01:26 PM PDT

  •  Hmmmmm. (5+ / 0-)

    "Herd" behavior (a gratuitous insult, really, as the behavior being discussed is not mob action but individual opinion of individuals being dismissed by the speaker) is hardly an innovation of the 20th century.  Enlightenment wishful-thinking (another example of irrationality) aside, human cognition is evolutionarily pragmatic, not rational.  In times of plentiful resources and low base risks, people are willing to take chances -- risks are correspondingly lower when basic needs are reliably met.  In times of moderate stress, tension, fear, anxiety, and environmental risk, the human mind is biased to err on the side of caution and avoid undertaking additional avoidable risks.  Too much is already at hazard; there's no safety margin.  Conversely when basic needs are NOT being met and cannot conceivably BE met by tested, trusted, and reliable means, then the organism veers towards the embrace of wild, low-probability gambles.  This is known in common parlance as "having nothing to lose".  Each strategy is highly appropriate to its situation in a large statistical sample; it may not be "rational" in terms of specific truth-claims or justifications, but it is eminently suited to the long-term survival of the genetic lineage.

    The foregoing explains succinctly why liberal politics tends to be the province of those born to some wealth, or at least "comfortable", while the majority of the working classes, who live one step from economic disaster which can only be avoided by diligent caution, tend to be socially conservative.  Exceptions will mostly prove to be individuals whose perception of their current economic status varies from others with the same objective resources.  The fundamental principle to grasp is that social changes constitute RISKS, and people who are in fundamental economic distress will reject avoidable risks.

    Furthermore the elucidation of complex causality is the most difficult cognitive problem there is.  It is not irrational when a casual observer assumes the classic "post hoc, ergo propter hoc"; it is not automatically correct, but it is a reasonable hypothesis which easily becomes ingrained if supported by some evidence.  Thus one gets the reasoning that "divorce was rare when I was a child, then the Pill became available; now divorce is common therefore it must be due to the Pill".  And a rising rate of divorce and decline in historically conventional marriages, as a major social change, would automatically be considered "bad" as social change is an unnecessary risk in the context of poor wages and high unemployment.  Neither is causality inferred from correlation irrational.  It is often wildly inaccurate, but it is not irrational.  It is simply jumping to conclusions on inadequate data, which is what our brains are designed to do (total information being unknown in nature).  Thus: "My father's pay increased steadily throughout his lifetime; mine has DECREASED steadily throughout my lifetime; massive social changes have occurred during this time including the practice of Affirmative Action and acceptance of massive immigration; the Blacks' and Latinos' increased living standards must have come directly out of my wallet."  Inaccurate, but NOT irrational.  However, due to the inherent biases of human cognition, once the hypothesis is formed, it will take twice as much evidence to disprove as it did to originally "verify".

    The thought-processes of people we don't agree with are seldom any more irrational than our own.  They are informed by the same set of inherent human tendencies: to form preliminary hypotheses based on minimal information; to seek confirmation of those hypotheses more diligently than disproof ("confirmation bias"); to seek our own economic and interpersonal advantage; to interpret our own behavior in the most positive light; to hoard resources, be they bank statements or stocks of canned food; to avoid risking the loss of any comfort or possession to which we have become accustomed; to reproduce, along with all the behaviors associated with mate selection and sequestration; and to protect and advance the success of our offspring.  Of such habits are both "rational" and "irrational" thought processes sprung.

    •  Not sure... (0+ / 0-)

      "The foregoing explains succinctly why liberal politics tends to be the province of those born to some wealth, or at least "comfortable", while the majority of the working classes, who live one step from economic disaster which can only be avoided by diligent caution, tend to be socially conservative.  Exceptions will mostly prove to be individuals whose perception of their current economic status varies from others with the same objective resources.  The fundamental principle to grasp is that social changes constitute RISKS, and people who are in fundamental economic distress will reject avoidable risks."
      This may be true for a time, until it isn't . Perhaps that's what you meant by 'avoidable risks'. At some point risks are felt to be unavoidable? Then revolutions happen. Massive risks are taken. People risk their lives.
      Poor people mostly. Even recent history shows that the poor are not always conservative, they managed to come out in the streets and change things in Bolivia, in Venezuela. The Arab Spring is not made up entirely of the middle class.  Earlier of course Cuba comes to mind.
      Even in the twenties radical thought and action wasn't the sole province of the well off. E. Debs received the most votes ever for a socialist presidential candidate in 1920 I believe.( Which of course is why there was a quick move to destroy radical parties here. )

  •  tribal (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Musial, sb

    the literature of all groups encourages love for the group, while projecting hate for the others. this is the greeks calling everyone but themselve barbarians, this is the jewish people, referring to the goddess of the caananites as the abomination. this is a fundamental trait. what seems new, but may not be, is how the conservatives are projecting hate on their fellow american.

    war is immoral. both parties are now fully complicit in the wars. bring everyone home. get to work.

    by just want to comment on Sat Apr 21, 2012 at 09:48:29 PM PDT

  •  Another thing that happened around the 1920s (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Musial, sb, cassandracarolina

    was the escalation of violence against blacks. Rosewood, Florida suffered a horrific massacre 1923 but the massacre on Black Wall Street (Greenwood/Tusla, Ok) in 1921 was named the worst race motivated massacre in America's history.

    From a black perspective, the herd mentality you describe is pretty spot on when you consider the racial frenzy that must have escalated during that time.

    "It's not enough to acknowledge privilege. You have to resist." -soothsayer

    by GenXangster on Sat Apr 21, 2012 at 10:11:39 PM PDT

  •  I guess we'll see which way the heard votes (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    on which direction to stampede this November.

    Rick Perry is George Bush without brains.

    by thestructureguy on Sat Apr 21, 2012 at 10:29:48 PM PDT

  •  The classic: (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    We are the principled ones, remember? We don't get to use the black hats' tricks even when it would benefit us. Political Compass: -6.88, -6.41

    by bmcphail on Sun Apr 22, 2012 at 06:44:06 AM PDT

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