Your reaction to my first post really blew me away! I just want to thank all of you for being so awesome. I want to write a series of these, describing my ideas about how these movements arise, how we can understand them and how we can, hopefully, begin to beat them.
After the debate in Denver, my Republican friend messaged me. (I’m gonna call him Bob.) He starts trying to get into it with me, so I tell him what I think about it. (I’ve done a bit of debate. I thought plenty, but that’s not for this article.) Bob tells me, that Romney was never in favor of cutting taxes. And now it's "on the record,” so he believes it’s a promise. He tells me that Romney was never talking about a $5 Trillion tax cut, but a $5 Trillion revenue increase, and that it just got Obama "confused." Bob now totally buys all of the new lines, no matter how far they were from his previous beliefs (which he also quite fervently defended).
So, I’m going to ask a simple question, what is a Republican? I’ll wait a second, try to answer it. Keep your answer to yourselves. No shouting. But, don’t just picture some images. I mean, really, define the standard beliefs of the Republican, in words, without using the word “conservative” or any other synonyms. It’s not so simple, is it? This question is the heart of my project here. Republicans are not simple creatures. (Neither are Democrats, but I assume most of you know that already.)
kamarvt tried to answer the question, at least in part, last time in a comment, “I am wondering why the diarist [that's me!] dismisses the idea that sociopathy is rampant in the right wing.” In general, I reject this because it’s incorrect. Mental illness does not cause this ideology (at least not writ large, I have to give some credence to the fact that some of them must be, but not any significant numbers). 53% of Americans are not sociopaths. 25% of Americans are not sociopaths. This is not only depressing, this is not only a thought that prevents us from thinking ourselves capable of reaching out to them. But, this reifies the political opposition, and it is simply wrong. The cause of the sociopathic like symptoms is the mentality of war.
But, we can’t get ahead of ourselves, not quite yet. My general project is to understand the mentality of the far right. The mentality of people like Bob. Not all Republicans are crazy. But the crazy Republicans seem to be far louder than most of the others. This is no coincidence. This is the very heart of the matter. In order to undertake this, we have to step back a bit.
At the most simple level, a Republican is a member of the party that is in opposition to the Democrats, and who is not named Ralph Nader. There is some kind of ideological opposition between the parties. It’s not really all that easy to define what those ideologies are, you can describe them in some very nice words. But, at the end of the day, if we had to describe it to the little green men, if they ever come down, we’d be at a bit of a loss to really describe it to someone who hasn’t lived it.
(Keep that in mind until after the jump!)
We do not live in a post ideological world. We live in a world of red states and blue states, of rich and poor, of… you get the idea. Slavoj Žižek is a man who has taken ideology seriously. He has argued that, while our conscious opinions are important in defining what we believe, they cannot be taken at face value. We have to divine the underlying meaning:
Racism, for example. Žižek recommends that we look for symptomatic contradictions, as when the anti-Semite claims that the Jews are both arch-capitalist exploiters and Bolshevik subversives, that they are both excessively tied to their overly particular tradition and deracinated cosmopolitans undercutting national traditions. In the Jim Crow South, blacks were presented simultaneously as childlike innocents needing the guidance of whites and as brutal sexual predators. In contemporary America, Mexican immigrants are viewed at once as lay-abouts burdening our social welfare system and as relentless workaholics who are stealing all our jobs.In a lecture, Rick Perlstein is actually asked the question, what do conservatives believe? He responds that, while he has been researching them for most of his life, he actually cannot figure it out. Now, they are for tax cuts, and against any tax increases. (Well, unless those increases come in the form of closing loopholes. Seriously. What do they think closing loopholes does. Seriously.) But, when JFK wanted to cut taxes, they were for the balanced budget. Even though these aren’t always opposed, they are right now!
These contradictions don’t show that ideology is “irrational” — the problem is exactly the opposite, that there are too many reasons supporting their views. Žižek argues that these piled-up rationalizations demonstrate that something else is going on.
She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran's benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She's got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.That’s one hardworking woman. Eighty names?! Damn, Reagan. That woman probably knows welfare laws better than anyone on your staff! Why didn’t you hire her!?
How do we handle these contradictions? How do we diagnose these symptoms? We look at conflict: “The […] distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy. […] The distinction of friend and enemy denotes the utmost degree of intensity of a union or separation, of an association or dissociation.”
The political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly; he need not appear as an economic competitor, and it may even be advantageous to engage with him in business transactions. But he is, nevertheless, the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible. These can neither be decided by a previously determined general norm nor by the judgment of a disinterested and therefore neutral third party.Republicans actually believe that Democrats are a threat, an existential threat, to their way of life. Perhaps even to their lives. They believe that Democrats are enemies of democracy. They’ll steal the election. They will take our guns, just like Hitler. So, they are willing to commit to civil war in order to stop it.
We are mystified when Republicans move the goalpost. We are mystified when they seem to be defined only as opposing whatever Democrats believe. We should not be. They are defined as only opposing whatever democrats believe.
The political does not reside in the battle itself, which possesses its own technical, psychological, and military laws, but in the mode of behavior which is determined by this possibility, by clearly evaluating the concrete situation and thereby being able to distinguish correctly the real friend and the real enemy.When there is an Other, the Same (yes, that is actually what it is called) actually identifies itself in opposition to the Other. This is one of the chief, defining, characteristics of a Same/Other conflict. Another defining characteristic is that the Other is actually almost totally depersonalized. The Same can no longer feel empathy for the Other.
This is the mentality of war. One cannot feel sympathy for the enemy when you are actually, truly threatened. I do not know what the biological mechanisms are, but the evolutionary justification is clear: people who do not feel empathy for their enemy are more likely to survive. (General Sherman.) Of course, I do have to give kamarvt some credit, some of them are clearly sociopaths. But, I doubt that it is any more than we see in the general population. Maybe a few more in the richer supporters of the Republican party than in the Democratic party, but it is not what we are facing writ large.
And we see this lack of empathy in a very real sense. Bob has clearly taken Michael Savage to heart when he claims that liberalism is a mental disorder. Bob has said just this to me. But, it's so obvious that people would see it this way if they are at war. 'How can people make the decisions of democrats' -- even when they themselves had been espousing those same ideas at some random point in the past, and certainly will again in the future! It's not that they cannot understand the ideas, it is that they cannot understand liberalism. The ideas are divorced from those that are espousing them, and only those who are espousing them are relevant. Psychologists have even found these same associations with independents! The people are what's important, not the idea. (Well, at least, not any idea. I'm sure, even if Paul Ryan tried to get his party to back his new favorite economist, Karl Marx, he wouldn't get all that much support.) But, we see these issues pop up everywhere in American politics. Understanding it is necessary. Understanding how to overcome it is more necessary still.
Consider, now, how sinister the comparison to Hitler actually is. Hitler was a right wing reactionary! That is why the right wing reactionaries were so very scary to Americans for so very long. (Nixon and others justified, even in the Nixon tapes, their suppression of left wingers by arguing that the right wing populists would be so much worse! So much more terrifying!) It's just as sinister as Glenn Beck usurping the legacy of MLK! MLK was a leftie. He believed, and he so explicitly, in redistribution. He was antiwar. This usurping is actually pinning the left wing populists as, secretly, right wing populists. Thus, the only antidote is the "real" left wing populism. The right wing populism! The doubletalk is amazing! The fearmongering, and I can't even tell if it is as deeply considered as I am saying. Many of these people either believe it, or are just saying extremist things in order to get viewers. But, whether it is a conspiracy of redefinition or a legitimate reaction, this is something that I believe we must understand, and I believe the epistemology I am sharing with you is crucial in doing this.
We have to counter this thinking. We have to expose it, deny it and utilize history on our own terms. These people have their own sets of facts. You cannot have access to the "truth" without taking sides with them. Once you do, you see what Bob saw, that Mitt Romney is always telling the truth. Mitt Romney is always winning and he believes that the new Mitt Romney is the same Mitt Romney that has always existed. There aren't multiple Mitts. There is only one. The Mitt that is going to beat the Democrats, beat the enemies. Mitt is Bob's friend, so to speak. (I don't think they personally know each other, though he does come from a powerful family, so they actually might have familial ties.)
I think that Barack Obama is actually going to strides to counter this. He is using Big Data, and targeting people with massive amounts of ads, in order to convince them of the correctness of his policies. gives an anecdote:
A tour of coal-mining country in southern Ohio by the Atlantic’s Molly Ball produced some vivid anecdotes that illustrate this data. “Those opposed to Obama cited various reasons,” she wrote, “from disappointment to anger to being convinced he’s a Muslim. But the impressions of Romney were remarkably consistent: He’s for the rich.”In short, what we need to do in order to counter this is to breed fear of the rich and the Republicans. We need to frame Republicans as the party of the rich, and Democrats as the party of the people. They are the party that cares about the people, and they are the party who can solve the problems of the people. However, economic populism isn't enough. It is too easy to caricature. We need to come up with a new understanding of the Republican party in order to counter it. And we need to frame it as dangerous. We need to frame the Tea Party as dangerous. Many of us already know about these dangers. We need to inform everyone else.
Journalists have even found working class voters who believe that Obama is a secret Muslim and intend to vote for him anyway, because – as one Virginian put it – “at least he wasn’t brought up filthy rich.”
And, again, not all Republicans are crazy. The loudest ones are the ones who exist in the friend/enemy distinction. However, there are plenty of very smart, and very reasonable Republicans. They just aren't loud enough. I would welcome a resurgence of the moderate Republican. I would love a second coming of Eisenhower. However, I believe that, until the moderates can take back the party, we cannot move forward in this country and we cannot solve the problems of today.
How can we accomplish? There are solutions, but we both have to admit the seriousness of the conflict. We both have to come to the conclusion that we want to come together again. I don’t, yet, know how to do this. Perhaps some of you have some suggestions?
No, Barry, this is not a good suggestion: