Tradition and Progress

Some have attributed the resurgence of right-wing populism as a reaction to the abrogation of traditional values. It’s easy to see the truth of this. However, it is not immediately obvious that it is distinctly right-wing phenomenon. Modern conservatism traces its intellectual roots to thinkers like Edmund Burke, who assigned traditional values and norms an important role in the maintenance of social order. Around the same time, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was laying down the groundwork for the myth of the noble-savage, romanticizing tribal societies as somehow purer and more natural than those in the intensely hierarchical, increasingly market-oriented West.

In both cases, we see a peculiar reverence for traditional order, just differently construed. For Burke, inter-generational change is worthy of resistance. But for Rousseau, it is Western civilization’s centuries long fall from grace that we ought to eye with suspicion. On the right, you can see these views reflected in elderly men and women who hearken back the idealized simplicity of their childhood or a romanticized picture of the world inhabited by their recent forebears as a model for what society ought to be like. Meanwhile, staunch lefties esteem fantasies about the dietary wisdom and delicate conservationism of indigenous and preindustrial societies. What both views have in common is a fallacious tendency to equate antiquity with efficacy.

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Unmasking Leviathan: The Radical Right’s Attempt to Reshape American Politics

The world can be a scary place. This is a view exacerbated by popular media, which tends to focus attention on sources of violence and despair in disproportion to their prevalence. No surprise there – these things translate into ad revenue more readily than a cold assessment of reality. So it is that polls have the public rating ISIS and North Korea as greater threats than climate change. An exceedingly large portion of Americans also see their own government as a top threat.

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There are some good reasons for this. Foremost among them is the loss of legitimacy brought about as private interests seize more and more of the public domain, bending government action toward narrow aims and away from the public interest. The U.S. government has grown exceedingly expensive and unwieldy over the years, even as it has grown less and less capable of acting in the interests of the majority. A desire to rein it in is not misplaced.

However, disguised beyond all this concern over ISIS and North Korea and the U.S. government is a more fundamental threat to the American way of life. That it is so poorly recognized, despite being so well evidenced, is both depressing and disturbing. Because the fact of the matter is that there are forces working to reshape American democracy in a manner most citizens would likely find objectionable. And to significant extent, they are succeeding.

Currently, a cadre of wealthy Americans and right wing intellectuals is working to transform the United States into something rather twisted. Their core motivating principle is that the accumulation of capital takes precedence over all other values. Indeed, it is in their view the ultimate arbiter of value. To them, human worth scales with earnings.

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Combating Political Religion: How Small Government, Free Market Dogma Fails to Account for Observable Reality

There is growing sense that those interested in finding out what is true of the world are becoming a rarer and rarer breed. Everywhere we look, someone is trumpeting some blatant inanity. Vaccines cause autism. Adding flouride to water is a government conspiracy. Genetically modified organism are dangerous. Organic food is particularly nutritious. Christians are a persecuted minority. The 44th President was a foreign national and communist agent. The 9/11 Terror Attacks were an inside job. The world is only 6000 years old. Humans can’t influence the climate.

Nonsense is everywhere, but the impression that it is more prevalent than ever is mostly a matter of appearances. Humans are innately tuned to focus on the negative aspects of their environment. Good reasons for this abound, easily distilled in the recognition that it is far more consequential for us to spend our time thinking about the things that could be better than it is to spend it thinking about the things that are going just fine. On the landscapes of our ancestors, where decisions about what to pay attention to were a regular matter of life and death, it was vitally important to take note when things were about to turn sour – when herds of prey were about to migrate to a new territory, when seasonal changes were about to reduce the availability of edible fruits, when an unfriendly band of visitors turned up in your neighborhood.

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The Republican Party is Now an Open Threat to American Democracy

Let’s dispense with all this sour nonsense about equal corruption among America’s primary political parties. That little piece of banality has been rotting on the shelf for far too long, and it’s time we tossed it out. Not only is it trite, it’s also untrue. Sure, the Democratic Party exists as little else than an instrument of self-perpetuation, seeking today only to make sure there are Democrats tomorrow. It’s ranks are rife with corruption and short-sighted self-interest. But it hardly holds a candle to the festering political abomination that is the Republican Party.

It’s time we face the facts of the modern political landscape, raw and unburnished. The Republican Party has, in no uncertain terms, become an unbridled threat to American democracy, the perpetuation of constitutional order, and the rule of law. On the national stage, there are vanishingly few Republicans who haven’t either bought wholesale into an outrageous breed of ideological fanaticism or who haven’t been bought – wholesale – by the agents of plutocratic corruption.

Consider, momentarily, the program of recalcitrant obstructionism the Republican Party has undertaken throughout the Obama presidency. They have resisted bipartisan compromise at every turn, undermining the traditions of representative governance in slavish devotion to puritanical ideological proscriptions and wealthy special interests. Unable to overturn the Affordable Care Act via electoral mandate or the legislative protocols outlined in the U.S. Constitution, they have resorted to holding the entire Federal Government – and the people it represents – hostage. Far from a form of patriotic dissent, this is an expression of a deeply rooted and tremendously troubling authoritarian impulse. Beneath the inane rhetoric lies a simple, hideous imperative: govern according to our whims or don’t govern at all.

The ideological fervor and rank perfidy of the Republican Party began to reach its zenith in early 2016, when the death of Antonin Scalia left the Supreme Court one seat short of its full complement. Rather than fulfill their constitutional obligation to review President Obama’s appointee – moderate Merrick Garland – the Republicans in the Senate refused to take action, repeatedly arguing that the American people should have a voice in the appointment (forgetting, conveniently, that the American people had already expressed their voice in the election of Obama). Now, they’ve doubled-down on their original anti-democratic impulse. Senate Republicans like John McCain, Ted Cruz, and Richard Burr have advocated indefinite inaction on the matter of Supreme Court appointments – but only if Hillary Clinton wins.

Of course, they and their far-right apologists will be eager to attribute their behavior to bold patriotism – a heroic defense of Second Amendment rights against the pinko activist Clinton is, in their view, sure to appoint. This is bullshit. There is no sense in which patriotic devotion to the founding principles of the United States can be taken to motivate or justify this breed of my-way-or-the-highway governance. What Senate Republicans are essentially saying is that electoral results should validate their will or be blatantly disregarded.

In this line, Republicans are also openly advocating impeaching Hillary Clinton – in advance of any criminal conviction or breach of presidential authority. To anyone who thinks representative governance was ever, maybe, perhaps, kind of a good idea, this rhetoric should be both sickening and alarming. These people are unabashedly asserting that their governmental aims and political ideals should be put ahead of the will of the people. Somewhere, lingering not far over the horizon, are open appeals to fascism.  

Still not convinced? Consider the mounting evidence that an ideologically motivated, overtly politicized wing of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is working to undermine Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. Inspired by the book Clinton Cash – by Government Accountability Institute president and Breitbart editor-at-large Peter Schweizer – they are actively trying to put the worst presidential candidate in history – a man who represents a clear threat to democratic order – in office.

Pressing further down the political hierarchy, it’s clear that many state-level Republicans aren’t big fans of democracy either. They’ve been busy redrawing congressional districts, resulting in voting blocks where the only competition is between hardcore conservatives and far-right extremists. The ideological fanaticism that permeates the Republican House is largely attributable to their incessant gerrymandering. At the same time, they’ve been working hard to suppress voter turnout among ethnic minorities and other traditionally left-leaning demographics. Ostensibly, this is about voter-fraud. But since in person voter-fraud is virtually non-existent, Republicans are on record touting the partisan merits of their actions, and have made demonstrable efforts to exclude left-leaning ethnic minorities from the electoral process, it’s difficult to mount a convincing argument that their restrictive ballot initiatives are about anything other than stealing elections.

Unsurprisingly, these authoritarian urges have clearly trickled down into the Republican electorate, evinced in razor-edge relief by the broad support currently enjoyed by Donald J. Trump – a candidate who has repeatedly promised to disregard the U.S. Constitution, undermine the rule of law, use the power of his office to persecute political enemies, encouraged violent recourse against his political opposition, and sewn doubt in the very mechanism responsible for the peaceful transition of power that lies at the core of democracy. Clearly, there is a wide consensus among the rubes and fanatics in the Republican base – lead into a clamor of dark derangement by the pied pipers in the right wing media echo chamber – that the American government should conform to their ahistorical, racially charged vision or cease to exist.

Doubtful? Consider the right-wing militants who seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, who, armed and under threat of force, demanded the U.S. government cede public lands to private interests. Or the former senator who suggested a Clinton victory would be cause for brandishing muskets – a clear allusion to violent revolution. This sentiment has been echoed down the ranks of the babbling, politically incoherent mobs of ignorant swine clamoring for the election of Donald Trump. These are people who harbor the dangerous, intrinsically despotic view that democratic governance is only valid when it ratifies their will, advocating remediation through violence when it does otherwise.

On a pragmatic level – measured only in terms of votes cast and the political consequences thereof – voting Republican and entertaining a suite of values consistent with the principles outlined in the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are becoming increasingly contradictory domains. It is only through tortured intellectual gymnastics or abject, willful ignorance that these two things can ever coincide in the same mind. More and more, voting Republican is becoming, at the very least, an expression of a bizarre breed of facultative fascism – a willingness to opportunistically dispense with democracy in order to see your ideological preferences satisfied. Reconciling support for Republicans and belief in the principles of representative government is an uphill battle, and the grade is only getting steeper.

Usually, this is the place where conservatives still clinging to some modicum of sensibility retort, “but the Democrats are just as bad!” But this is hogwash – slimmy, pathetic apologetics under a veneer of bipartisan objectivity. Democrats are not openly expressing such vicious disdain for constitutional order and the rule of law. They are not instituting voter suppression initiatives. They did not give us the disastrous Citizens United vs FEC or McCutcheon vs. FEC decisions, nor do they currently openly support them with the vigor of sentate Republicans like Ted Cruz of Mitch McConnell. They do not openly applaud the Federal Government’s precipitous slide into the gaping maw of plutocracy. That anyone thinks otherwise is glaring testimony to the efficacy of Republican propaganda machine and the cesspit of vitriol and misinformation that is the conservative media echo chamber. Only on a political landscape so thoroughly decoupled from the realm of verifiable fact, where a balkanized media presents a populace largely devoid of the tools necessary to critically evaluate information a smorgasbord of “facts” precisely tailored to their extant ideological biases, could something as monstrous as the modern Republican Party emerge and persist.

Conservative apologists might wish to point to the putative Fabian socialism of Barack Obama as justification for their decision to endorse politicians who, in broad daylight, work to erode the foundations of representative government in America. But this is a facade, erected in belligerent indifference to the fact that the little legislation Obama has gotten through congress has been consistently struck in the neoclassical mold of neoliberal economics. Yet even if it were true that Obama was the pinko operative Conservatives fear, this fact alone would hardly justify an assault on the very fabric of American democracy.

To be clear, this isn’t an argument against small-c conservatism. It’s nothing of the sort. If you think government should be smaller and interfere with the affairs of business as little as possible, fine. But in the modern Republican Party, those values have morphed into a form of fundamentalist religion: small government and market deregulation at all costs. This is a platform entirely divorced from reality, rooted instead in ideological zealotry and crude venality. It can only be maintained when people assiduously avoid learning about how the world actually works: that sometimes government is bad and sometimes it is good, that unfettered market behavior can be both incredibly lucrative and enormously destructive.  

By all means, be a conservative, if that is where your inclinations take you. In doing so, however, it is absolutely critical that you avoid doctrinaire attitudes and eschew certitude. Responsible governance can be built in an electorate composed of competing value systems, but only when the people who harbor those values are responsive to evidence and open to the possibility that they are wrong about some things. Uncertainty is the lifeblood of rationality.

There is no political utopia: the manifestation of the perfect liberal vision would necessarily entail misery and oppression for conservatives, and vice versa. Politics isn’t about achieving perfection, it’s about doing the best we can with the resources we have available. Which is a matter of diligently seeking out and correcting the errors that are bound to crop up in any form of political order. If government gets too big and restrictive, respond accordingly. If a market produces harmful downstream consequences, regulate it. If the regulations prove overly restrictive, tweak them. Representative government demands constant effort.

The modern Republican Party exists in defiance of this point. Like religious fanatics, some of them are so convinced that they’ve got the world figured out that they are willing to resort to fascism to see their will through. Others, like bought-out sycophants, are willing to abandon all principle to enrich themselves by selling legislation to the highest bidders. In both cases, the results are the same: an outright assault on the rule of law and the foundations of representative government.