Saturday, May 21, 2011

Why are America's conservatives so bat-shit crazy?

Jacob Weisberg at Slate published a really insightful article yesterday. It is entitled "Fantasy Island: Are Republicans losing their grip on reality?".

The answer to that question is, of course, yes. They are losing their grip on reality if they ever had it. Here's some examples:
One party, the Democrats, suffers from the usual range of institutional blind spots, historical foibles, and constituency-driven evasions. The other, the Republicans, has moved to a mental Shangri-La, where unwanted problems (climate change, the need to pay the costs of running the government) can be wished away, prejudice trumps fact (Obama might just be Kenyan-born or a Muslim), expertise is evidence of error, and reality itself comes to be regarded as some kind of elitist plot.

Like the White Queen in her youth, the contemporary Republican politician must be capable of believing as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Foremost among these is the claim that it is possible to balance the federal budget without raising taxes. Most Republican politicians are intelligent enough to understand that with federal revenues at 14.4 percent of GDP and expenditures at 25.3 percent, it is, in fact, impossible to close the fiscal gap with spending cuts alone. But GOP candidates acknowledge this reality at their peril. Grover Norquist, the right-wing lobbyist and former collaborator of Jack Abramoff's, has appointed himself chief enforcer of the party's anti-tax catechism. If Republican candidates won't sign his no-new-taxes pledge, Norquist and fellow inquisitors at the Club for Growth threaten them with excommunication, social death, and the punishment of being "primaried" by a well-funded conservative challenger.
This is the fiscal orthodoxy which is enforced on Republican politicians. There is a similar orthodoxy regarding whether it is even acceptable to speak favorably of the theory of evolution or of human caused climate change. Otherwise intelligent and well-educated Republican politicians who are asked if they believe in evolution will hedge heavily by saying something like "We need more evidence."

What it comes down to is that to be a Republican politician at all you have to support the magical thinking of the base. If you don't then there are organizations like Norquist's Club for Growth who will primary you and remove you from the political position you hold.

What is happening is that the Republican politicians are running for political office based on the votes of people who depend on medieval magical thinking. If they are social conservatives they are used to practicing magical thinking as they profess to believe in the virgin birth of Jesus (a common myth of many religions in the Roman Empire two thousand years ago) or that somehow the bible was written by god himself and is inerrant - without error in morality, history, science, and everything else their fundamentalist preachers can claim for it. If they are not social Republicans then the next largest group is people who believe that society is made up of rigid classes and that the upper class (themselves) are the only class capable of ruling the nation through government. These are people who still resent the French Revolution. These conservatives can often be identified when they state the read Edmund Burke. The Wikipedia section on Burke's beliefs regarding Democracy includes this:
Burke was a leading skeptic with respect to democracy. While admitting that theoretically in some cases it might be desirable, he insisted a democratic government in Britain in his day would not only be inept but also oppressive. He opposed democracy for three basic reasons. First, government required a degree of intelligence and breadth of knowledge of the sort that was very uncommon among the common people. Second he thought that common people had dangerous and angry passions that could be easily aroused by demagogues if they had the vote; he feared the authoritarian impulses that could be empowered by these passions would undermine cherished traditions and established religion, leading to violence and confiscation of property. Thirdly, Burke warned that democracy would tyrannize unpopular minorities who needed the protection of the upper classes.
This is very much a class-centered view in which the lower classes are capable of nothing more than deference to the aristocracy.

In Burke's day, however, an Aristocrat held his class position by virtue of birth and of God's will. Today the "aristocratic" leaders of the Republican Party hold their position only as long as they are acceptable to the followers who demand that they practice magical thinking on a broad range of subjects. If, like Speaker Boehner has hinted, the Republican politicians threaten to make deals with the generally more realistic Democrats they are immediately threatened with being "primaried." Since the conservatives in the party have "primaried" almost all of the moderates in the last 30 years, this is not an idle threat.

So what we in America now have as an opposition party is one in which the leadership is completely dependent on pleasing a base that demands they act on magical thinking rather than accept facts and reality. So the answer to Jacob Weisberg's question "Are the Republicans losing their grip on reality?" the answer is clearly yes. And they are forcing their leadership to act on their magical beliefs.Unfortunately they are attempting to force their fantasies onto reality, a practice that can only lead to further disaster.

Just for fun, take a look at this book review by Jacob Heilbron on the book “Among the Truthers”.
[But] as Kay sees it, conspiracy thinking is now experiencing a dangerous uptick in popularity. The terrorist threat has replaced the Red menace, as 9/11 had nothing less than what Kay deems a “seismic” effect on America’s “collective intellect.” He devotes much attention to the “truther” movement, which contends that the United States government perpetrated the terrorist attacks.

Some of Kay’s most illuminating passages center not on what conspiracy theorists believe — even to dignify it with the word “theory” is probably to grant them more legitimacy than they deserve — but on why they are attracted to such tedious rubbish in the first place. He divides them into different camps, including the “cranks” and the “firebrands.” Cranks are often reacting to male midlife crises — combating conspiracies, Kay says, offers a new sense of mission. Cranks, he adds, are frequently math teachers, computer scientists or investigative journalists.
These people [cranks and firebrands] are ready to almost instantly "primary" a Republican representative if some authority tells them to do it. A politician who has committed his life to a career in politics (That's a major investment in time, education and money) is going to do his best to placate these idiots.

Another book on the crazies is Denialism: How irrational thinking hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens our lives. by Michael Specter. Jacob Weisberg and I are writing about the political effects of Denialism because that is where denialism has a really, really major impact on everyone's lives. But the phenomenon is much broader than just politics.

In the past the political leaders were not held hostage to the demands of people like the denialists. That is no longer true. These fantasies have become fodder for people like the Koch Brothers to use to manipulate our politicians. They use the political impact of organized denialists to keep politicians from making rational decisions in government. The result is that the Koch Brothers and their associates make a great deal of money today at the expense of the long term damage to the nation and to the world.

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