Saturday, January 16, 2010

Hate and Hope

I look back on Obama's first year, and compare the hate and the hope afoot.

For Christmas I received a wonderful book by Lady Bird Johnson- her White house diary, full of politeness and fine observations from her special station in life. One observation that struck me was of Harry Truman, who accompanied her to Greece for the burial of its King in 1964. (As an aside, her utter boredom on meeting the various royals of Europe, employed, unemployed, and pretending, spoke volumes). Lady Bird was truly happy around Truman, and observed that his cheer and kindness to everyone he met impressed her deeply, especially after the vilification he had gone through in office. I thought- what does she mean? Truman is very well-regarded in historical hindsight- what ever was the matter?

Looking into it more closely, it appears that the Republicans were the matter. Joseph McCarthy started his ugly career during Truman's administration, and Truman's firing of Douglas McArthur also caused a hail of criticism and hatred. On both counts, Truman has been thoroughly vindicated by history. These form classic examples of the susceptibility of the body politic to the fear-mongering and authoritarianism of Republicans. Which grand tradition continued this year in full flower, as Republicans trotted out "coddling terrorists", federal insolvency, Obama's "socialism", "missing" birth certificate, and "death panels", among many others.

Democrats are not immune to a bit of fear-mongering, such as Kennedy's "missile gap", LBJ's "daisy" ad, and the more recent (and more justified) responses to Bush's plans against Social Security. But it seems part of the DNA of Republicans to match their hatred for government in general with distain for civility and, in an odd way, for their constituents, who tend to be divided between the very poor (and uneducated) and the very rich (who need no education to influence policy). Something unconscious is going on here- deeply temperamental differences between the parties that divide our political spectrum:

These political temperament maps come from They even have a map of famous composers.

One would imagine that people who temperamentally favor authoritarianism would have a basic respect for the government, (i.e. authority), whatever its composition. But that turns out not to be true. Such lack of respect propelled fascists to power in the last century, by totally undermining nascent democracies in favor of new hybrid religio-cult-totalitarian systems. The reason is that democracy is fundamentally a problem for the authoritarian mind-set, not a solution. The whole transaction whereby citizens deliberate on what they want as common goods and who might best render those common goods is problematic for an authoritarian, who instead seeks a stable order with a strong social hierarchy featuring strong leaders, based not on rational (and thus dynamic) utilitarian grounds, but on deeper connections ("religo"), such as Volk, religion, nation, blood, "traditional values", commune, or other quasi-religious ideology. A sort of patriarchial family writ large.

The amazing durability of the idea of nobility and royalty is a testament to this mind-set, deeply seated in everyone, but more so in some than in others. Just when the rationale of royalty had expired in the wake of the Enlightenment and the French revolution, Napoleon got right back on that horse, making himself an emperor and authoring yet another royal house in a Europe already infested with them.
Another manifestation of the authoritarian mindset is a problematic relationship to reason and truthfulness itself. For if the social order is supposed to be fundamentally staked on properties other than reason and utility as realized in a Lockean social contract, and instead on emotional buy-in to strong social hierarchy such as an aristocracy or royalty, undergirded by theological or ideological support, then getting there hardly involves reason, does it? It involves deeply emotional arguments that speak to what advertisers would call our "reptilian" brain.

But back to the "death panels". Republicans, having fallen so suddenly out of power, have understandably seized on any tactic that comes to hand. As with the Gingrich "revolution" before them, they have grasped at ways to de-legitimate the administration, with false scandals (remember Vince Foster?) and endless inuendo. Trained in the notorious Young Republicans, they don't fight fair, since their whole attitude towards the institutions they are dealing with is one of distain rather than respect.

The point, as Grover Norquist and many others of the hard right portray it, is to gain power for the sake of strangling the institution, thus creating a new dispensation of freedom and traditional values in the land, maintained by .. well, it is difficult to say, but since the democratic state may be construed as inherently a liberal institution, other institutions more amenable to authoritarianism, such as corporations, churches, and the military are the typical power centers in this desired world. Some segments look forward to total anarchy, of course, where society (or those "left behind") retreats to the hardy frontier ethic of every clan for itself.

Ugly as this is to witness, I understand it as a psychological issue. The structure of our centrist, two-party system dictates that there will always be two roughly equal sides to the great debate- sometimes aligned along the libertarian-authoritarian axes of the diagrams shown, sometimes more along the communism-neoliberalism axes, which is to say, between egalitarianism and economic differentiation. The Republican party, taken to ideological extremes in the last twenty years, has briefly fallen out of its position of ~half the electorate, (partly due to the disgracing of its ideology by reality), and will only find its way back once it recaptures some middle ground in temperamental terms.

But another option for Republicans is to successfully activate latent authoritarianism in enough of the electorate, bringing them over to their side instead of compromising with the middle. Thus the campaign of fear and hate. It is commonly observed that wars help the incumbant by activating unifying feelings / ideologies. George W. Bush shamelessly used fear and terror for political gain, going so far as to raise the terror alert level at politically convenient times. Though this kind of politics is the sort of thing we rue at leisure, (and in the long lens of history), it can be shockingly effective in the short term.

Here's me!

Sorry about the rant, but this is partly why I am so impressed by Barack Obama's first year. He campaigned on, and is carrying out, a huge agenda. He has been harrassed in ways large and small by a revanchist opposition that is poisoning the body politic through its rhetoric, amplified through its house organs (Sarah Palin: "I am thrilled to be joining the great talent and management team at Fox News. It's wonderful to be part of a place that so values fair and balanced news,").

With all the compromises, and the bizarre masochism of the Senate and its "rules"*, Obama has accomplished heroic tasks, especially in saving the economic system from freefall, and in making solid progress on health reform and climate mitigation. While I carp constantly that there is much more to do and better ways to do it, a great deal has been done. Obama's ability to maintain his moral composure and progressive aims amidst the relentless pressures and drains of office is deeply impressive. I only hope he can keep it up. Lady Bird recorded how the office was slowly killing her husband- a willing sacrifice to the country they both loved, yet painful to see, especially in another Democratic president with high aims and great skills.

* Obviously, the Senate at very least needs to reinstate the requirement for Senators to actually speak for the duration of a chosen filibuster, with cameras going.


My heart goes out to Haiti, whose suffering seems to know no end, despite a very high level of religious devotion. Haiti was also subject to a coup by the Bush administration in 2004. A News Hour report showed one woman lying on the street, babe in arms, with compound fractures in both of her lower legs- helpless, and likely hopeless as well.


  1. Nice post.

    I resist being too partisan - many of the ant-intellectual Republicans today were Democrats 30 years ago. But I agree with the absolute cry-baby, dirty tricks description of the current Republican Party.

    I haven't taken the political compass test in a year or two. It's a great one - tough too. On 75% of the questions I am thinking "It depends!" or "Let me hear testimony from experts on both sides!"

    I am surprised by my results - not on the social side but on the economic side. I consider myself moderate on economic issues, but hey, maybe not.

    My results were:

    Economic Left/Right: -6.12
    Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -4.41

    I didn't realize you are such a right winger, Burk! ;)

  2. Thanks, Steven-

    Everyone thinks they are moderate- I do too! That is what makes these questionnaires so fascinating- documentation that we really are weird, and that everyone else is as well. Most politicians seem to bunch on the upper right somewhere- they are power seekers, after all, however liberal.

    The site brings up the interesting point that Hitler, while off-the-charts in the authoritarian dimension, was pretty middle-of-the-road on economic issues. National Socialism, after all! His Keynesian and egalitarian policies were actually extremely successful, prior to the war, etc.

    Best wishes!

  3. "Everyone thinks they are moderate- I do too!"

    That is so funny, I almost wrote the exact same thought, but then I thought that there probably are people who enjoy thinking of themselves as having an extreme position.

    But yeah, I totally agree that we tend to see ourselves as the "center" in most things!

  4. What's the mantra of the right these days, expressed with all due seriousness? "America is a center-right country." That is what makes it particularly funny-ironic-not-funny when others (generally on the right) try to dress up their desires as "objective" morals.