"The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness." -- Joseph ConradOnce upon a time, a Red Duke wrote a book called The Political Unconscious. 'Twas a grand assault upon the frontiers of tedium and a significant achievement in narcolepsis, and it slid a relatively benign set of critical perspectives beneath a towering Jell-o mold monster of neo-Hegelian philo-sophistry. If one were to attempt the lexical sandpaper of the first half's syntax and vocabulary, one would be mentally broken, like a Guantanamo Bay victim, and miss anything useful in the applications of the theory.
The author borrowed Freud's concept of the unconscious and Jung's concept of the collective unconscious as analogies (and only analogies) for the Hegelian and Marxist problem of zeitgest/base-superstructure: why do the authors who try to write politically stink, and why can't we just hold up the yearly farm reports to understand poetry? The answer is that the political component (explicit formations of an implicit belief that we may call, with Althusser, ideology) of literature is unconscious, but like the unconscious in in-forming like a shadow or a container.
(Yeah, yeah. You sooo don't care.)
I would like to borrow the metaphor again for another reason. I think that psychological (i.e. immediately contextual, individually mandated) and cultural (i.e. ethnology, tradition, and present group definition), as well as historical conditions can lead people to formulate political positions and systems without any conscious effort. If the ideology is right, they will even sometimes come out believing that what they made by accident is the way it has always been.
Currently, the Republican Party is speaking along two separate lines -- each with its own compelling logic and set of appeals, each with its own ethnic and psychological base. Combining the two of them, as they are doing now, is unimaginable.
1. Plutocracy/aristocracy: Volunteerism over governmental aid, privatization of industries, income tax as the only tax to worry over, exclusion in schools, discrimination and pollution becoming normal and natural.
2. Demagoguery: Asking how many times a person mentions terrorism, how many times a person says "God," setting the solitary goal of being more religious in act (and thus acting), rejection of all sophistication, expertise, and science.
Imagine these two as the Platonic Lambda: they are parallel lines that meet at their perfect origin, and they crash together in an inevitable historical conclusion, too. If you follow past the Spirograph of Seriousness, I will explain the two strokes of the Lambda a bit more and what awareness of history would tell us they portend.
A demagogue is, literally, a ruler by popular prejudice -- a person who rises because of the demos (the "common people" with connotations of "unwashed"). A populist is a politician who campaigns on the issues of the "little guy" (with connotations of "salt of the earth"). The difference between these two is the political, rather than cultural or ethnic, nature of the person. A populist is pushing the policies that affect the little guy (unmonied, under-represented, populous but unexamined), where the demagogue promotes the emotions, prejudices, and fevers of the little guy (and frequently these emotions and prejudices have gotten a great deal of airing and representation).
Obviously, there is a value judgment involved, and that's why Fox News commentators can call all Democratic efforts at populism "class warfare" and demagoguery and their own screaming and weeping of blood over the Park 51 Community Center (search for "Ground Zero Mosk") addressing an important issue. Before we reach for, "We'll have to leave it there, Wolf," we can establish this much:
* Is the issue the candidate supports an economic matter coming from the realities of the poor/working citizens?
* Is the issue arising from a danger to the health of the low income or average income citizen particularly?
If "yes," then it's populist. If "no," it isn't.
* Is the issue based on the rejection of new citizens or the recognition of color/religion as a division within the populace?
* Is the issue based upon fear of losing place?
If "yes," then it's probably demagoguery. The reason it's demagoguery is not because it's bad, but because it is using prejudices ("argumentum ad populis").
"Demagogue" is an old word because it's an old fear. A good many college English programs these days teach rhetoric from Aristotle, but not many explain why Aristotle was in the business of writing up a score card for political argument. Classical society dealt with demagogues too often and sweated its nights away between them with fears of another. Aristotle was dealing with speech writers and spin doctors, and so, giving up on Plato's idea that we let the truly wise decide for us, he came up with a set of criteria by which the average lunk head could decide what was good or bad persuasion.
Aristotle was, in some ways, the perfect philosopher of democracy. He believed that an ordinary person could (and did) have access to a set of principles that would allow us all to agree on eloquence (right persuasion). He had not read John Locke, however, and he did not think all men are created with equal rights. Like most, he thought that there are some people constitutionally created to be inferior to others, but, among the ones capable of decisions, everyone could use logic. (Aristotle's masters had thought that politicians were bad rulers, kings were tyrants, and that the people would always vote for the ham sandwich over the good, and so they only trusted, in effect, themselves.)
Noam Chomsky (and Immanuel Goldstein) said that since the voter can remove a politician from power, he is at war with the people. Politicians would find their jobs much simpler if voters could be taken out of the picture (hence the GOP's major push to get back to the "good old days" when parties decided on senators). The Romans really, really worried about and suffered from demagogues.
As the GOP sets off in pursuit of demagoguery, we have to remember what the demagogue does, historically. A man of the people who employs emotion alone typically has a cult of personality.
Imagine a leader who convinces everyone of the wickedness of the enemy within, who gains ever more power on the basis of being a Not-Them. Such a person will vent great volumes of violence, rhetorical and real, on persons -- usually without doing anything to the "threat" -- and then either move to greater threats or greater powers required. ("I'm tired of the seccalar humminiss and their law degrees and experts tellin' us that Jesus is illegal! Vote for me, because I'm a real Christian." -> "My opponent says he's a Christian, but did you know that Islamofascists are building communism in our very town? My opponent wished his staff a happy holidays. My staff are all required to tithe 10%, and I show a film on the true face of Satan being Mohammed to all my employees." -> "You need to vote for me, because Satan's servants have taken over all the television stations and radio stations, and my opponent keeps pouring money into them with advertising. I, on the other hand, use only these mimeographed sheets in parking lots, and I vow to lead public prayer services and Bible readings in the town square every day until all the Muslims and Jews are converted.")
A demagogue who defines himself or herself as "not THEM" is defining solely as dissimilarity, and therefore there is no actual identity. Richard Hooker points out that "Wise men are still men, and the truth is still the truth," and the early Calvinist churches, having set their sole priority being not Roman Catholic began to compete with one another for congregants on the basis of who could be least traditional (Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity, "Introduction"). The Republican who wants to be "not elitist" will begin going to extremes to parade ignorance (do we really need to be reminded of George W. Bush's ability to seem like a person who couldn't get into Yale?)
Demagogues, Meet Sic Semper Tyrannus, etc.
Demagogues have gales of emotion rather than interests propelling them forward. Thus, they cannot be countered or mollified by reason. The public can wake up from the fever dream, but the demagogue her or himself will not shake free of the need for the juice. Instead, such a creature tends to create materially the conditions specified in the fantasy. The president will create weapons of mass destruction or international terrorist conspiracies. The religious leader will weave together a cooperative gay and lesbian coalition to oppose his church.
Because demagogues may be driven by a lust for money or power but are empowered by something else, their actions politically are irrational. Like Ralph Reed hiding the payment he got from Abramoff to "activate the crazies" against legalized gambling, their moves are dictated by an interest that must be vested and a display that must remain vague and yet ever-inventively extreme.
It was not merely the Roman aristocrat who feared Julius Caesar bypassing the Republic by bribing the plebs. (It was only the nobility that freaked out over his labor reforms and farm redistribution, but that was after he became emperor.) The flight of a demagogue is the flight of a missile with a payload. If the Republicans succeed in getting their TEA Party star, if they find a Sarah Akin or a Jim de Paul, then we can expect great evil.
The other stroke: Sell, SELL, SELL!
Do you remember that the uniting theme between Reagan and H. W. Bush was each man's attitude toward governmental services? H. W. Bush was more of a long range thinker than Reagan, and he was more pragmatic. He was, in fact, quite Nixonian. However, in his inaugural, he offered us an alternative to social security, medicare, job corps, and all the rest: compassionate community service. He called on "a thousand points of light" to fill in. He invited community organizers like Barack Obama to provide what government would not (although he termed it as something government should not).
Bush I's view was that we would band together like the folks we are, and we'd use our churches and town halls to look out for one another. That would be better than government because it would be responsive and close to the need. In short, he advocated turning over the care of America to NGO's.
Digression: the origin myth of government
We know that the volunteerism that Bush I spoke of, and which W. Bush spoke of in his "faith-based" offices, is neither mutually exclusive of governmental aid nor novel. It is also not apt, but that's another matter. You see, historically, either we moved from the town square to the New Deal because isolated communities were insufficiently funded and staffed to meet national challenges, or because there was a crypto-Communist take over by The State in the 1930's. Either we gave up the church basement approach for the queue of 1971 fear film because companies that were multi-state learned to play communities and states against each other to disable their protections, or because a group of Delores Moon Glompers came together and, with nothing but paper degrees, decided to experiment on the nation.
We know that the origin of today's departments and divisions is a reaction to inadequacies in scale or capacity from prior, local and state, solutions. We know that the number of de novo programs from university laboratories is miniscule, that they go to pilot programs, that the pilot programs battle, that the winners of the battles then battle for attention, that those with attention then battle for support. However, when the privatizing/privateering approach combines with a demagogic element, they know a different history -- a history built on consensus obtained by doctrine.
Sell it now
"Pencil necked geek," "girly man," "poindexter," "East coast liberal elite": all of these caricatures have in common a call to the base instinct of smashing those who make us feel bad (as opposed to those who harm us). When this element gets picked up by the financiers, we're in trouble, but it's possible because we have no classes and no overt markers of elites in the United States. Since we don't have any real "intelligentsia" (David Brooks? George Will? Newt Gingrich?), any member of it can quickly don overalls or coveralls and decry them smarty pantses who got us in this mess. They can wear a suit from Barney's and believe that they're masters of the universe, but not elites. The masquerade works in reverse, as well: each frustrated pickup truck ornament can believe that he or she is a billionaire without the suit. After all, the only thing that separates them is the money or the scheme or the luck.
The access point, rhetorically, for those whose interests are solely expansion has been the income tax. The audience that falls for the demagogue is unaware of taxes it pays daily. However, if it has not withheld enough, it may have to write a check in April, and therefore it only knows about one tax. For the wealthy, on the other hand, income taxes are the main tax that still functions progressively. All the others seem to hit the poor harder than the rich. Only income tax increases with income. By making income tax their cock crow, and by pretending that eliminating it will achieve their dream of an Amish community for everyone, they gather support for a more dangerous principle: the plutocrat.
Plutocrats, and especially transnational ones, can look at the world in terms of things for sale (commodities) and things not for sale. Since their power is in purchase, and since their power increases as there is less available alternative, they must have a globe, and not merely a nation, for sale. It is not enough that Mississippi make its schools for sale, or that Louisiana give its tax money to private, for-profit schools and religious schools of dubious credentials. There must be no alternative -- no service not for-sale. So long as there is a non-commodified service or good, the wealthy cannot have a practical differential of power.
(If that's cryptic, think of it this way: I went to a public high school outside of Atlanta. A number of wealthy kids went there with me and some very poor kids. We received a top-notch-for-public-school education. The wealthy who pulled their children in favor of a local Marist or other spent a large amount on tuition and did not receive a substantially better outcome. Students from our big, dumb HS went to Harvard (1, my year), Yale (2), William and Mary (1), Davidson (4), Emory (1), etc. However, if there were no option but private schools, then it would be a "fair playing field" for the wealthy: more money would make a better outcome.)
If money is the root of all evil, then what is Mitt Romney?
Think about his statements and how they would have sounded as recently as 1980. His claim to have paid the minimum of taxes and not a penny more, the embrace of corporations, the statement that he would not have a nanny now because he's running for office. . . we have had a bad change. The "greed is good" idea has gone from a devil we suppress to a creature we worship.
Plutocrats are historically very noxious. They use money to change laws to protect money. Eventually, the monied groups fight amongst themselves to establish a ruling clan, and then that group sets up partial laws to favor it over others. If we want to see plutocrats in action, we need only to look at the glory of the "merchant princes" of Florence and the Borgias.
Money turns the government toward the money's interests, and a presumption of globalism will make such things worse, not better. If "money" knows no national border, then the plutocrat has no reason to keep Oceana strong or Cenmerica free. In fact, the plutocrat's interest, in such a scenario, is in seeing all governments disintegrate, as they are the threat to the money. Furthermore, money will allow the plutocrat exceptions from violence and want exactly to the degree that the commoners hurt.
Plutocrats have historically called forth the Foreign King or the Demagogue (Savanarola, anyone?) to lay ashes across the land. Plutocrats end up in the stormed castle or the overgrown jungle.
Where they go, and where we go
The GOP has married a vision of the demagogue with the plutocrat. They have done this purely instinctively and reactively. For years, Democrats complained that there seemed to be no one planning things for our party, and that complaint is certainly true of the Republican Party now. There is no hand on the wheel. There are, instead, competing jerks to the rudder.
Nor can we think of how to fight or neutralize or win over the demagogue's audience or the plutocrat's base. If we do that, we will react. Reaction is how they got in their mess.
Worse than reaction is being wedded to a love of instantly minted tradition. The GOP argues that the U.S. health care system is natural, when it arose spasmodically and reactively. They argue that their philosophy is tradition, when it evokes fantasies that our ancestors do not recognize. They manufacture nostalgia and fresh generations of history, and their first converts are themselves.
Men yet remain men, and the truth yet stays the truth.