Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Right Wing Mind: Lost, Revealed, or Manufactured?

A review of How The Right Lost Its Mind, by Wisconsin conservative talk show host Charles Sykes.

Oh, where are the decent Republicans? The Ronald Reagans, the Newt Gingriches, the Paul Ryans? Thus goes the lament of Charles Sykes, who writes a searching and impassioned book decrying the moral and intellectual collapse of Conservatism into right-wingnut demagoguery and authoritarianism. Like any theologian, he is not willing to go the whole distance and question the fundamental nature of American conservatism and its pieties (which he refers to as "truths" with some frequency). But he is remarkably honest about the rot that characterizes the party, even as it is ascedent politically. I recommend his work, though obviously he remains staunchly (if nicely) conservative. Being from Wisconsin, and all. He had, indeed, played a central role in denying Trump the Wisconsin primary, from his talk show perch.

There are many threads that lead from there to here, and I will break out a few of them below. The arc of his story is that the sainted William Buckley exiled the wingnuts from the Republican party, preparing it for several decades of intellectual growth and political dominance. Now they are back with a vengeance. Sykes spends most of the book describing the many ways this happened, but explaining *why it happened in any deep way is another matter altogether. One might also ask why they were there in the first place, and where did they go in the meantime?

Media: from responsible to clickbait

The fact that Trump, after all we have seen, still has a solid 35 to 40% of the population on his side indicates that America is up to its gills in wingnuts. Have they always been there? No, to a large degree, we are responsive to our social environment. People can be led. The soothing chamber of commerce environment of past Republican generations did a great deal to dampen nuttiness. Now, the spittle-drenched ravings of FOX and its analogs are doing the opposite, driving otherwise pleasant and reasonable people to embrace the very worst devils of their nature.

What is equally bad, the new media has comprehensively replaced careful, professional curation of news with a downward spiral of virality and clickbait. Facebook's business model is explicity to reward clicks. "News" that gets clicks gets paid in ad money, and wins, which means replication over the platform and from its content providers, be they basement trolls or foreign operatives. No worse information system could be designed. Facebook is sort of a machine to bring out the worst in people, mistaking titiliation for news, let alone thought. For Google search, the analysis of linking and clicking is a valuable feature, winnowing the internet down to the most significant sites. But for news, this practice has obviously disastrous consequences, given human proclivities and weaknesses. That is why news organizations came to be in the first place, over the last century.

Propaganda exhibit A. The dossier was created by one of the world's leading experts on Russia, and no significant revelation from it has been disproven. It continues to be corroborated by, and serve as the spark for Muller's and the FBI's investigation.

One example of this problem, which Sykes should have delved into, but didn't, is the villainization of Hillary Clinton. When you sit down and compare the relative merits of Trump and Clinton, in terms of experience, aptitude, scandalous behavior, poor judgement, family stench, and corruption, there is no comparison. Yet because of the totally unhinged nature of the right-wing media, which the mainstream media could not help but cover (calling it "controversial", and other normalizing locutions), the vitriolic wingnut narrative seeped into the public consciousness, to the point that "jail her" was publically acceptable as a mantra by Trump himself and his campaign.

Is conservatism authoritarian?

This leads to Sykes's most significant insight and claim, that conservatism is not the same as authoritarianism. It was the wingnuts who were and are again, authoritarian, while true conservatives do not look to a maximum leader to deliver them from political impotence, but value compromise, core values, and legal and civic norms. Here I disgree strongly. There is clearly a long and close relationship between the two. The spectre of left-authoritarianism is certainly possible. But as a rule, authoritarians are right-wing. Conservatives, as Sykes describes, work long and hard to keep this id under control, not always successfully. Law and order, xenophobia, traditionalism, religion- all these tend to be shared themes which animate both strands of the right, and of which the Trumpists are merely a more extreme manifestation. Republicans have been cultivating the "Southern Strategy" for decades, and what is more authoritarian than this concerted effort to maintain the white terror of the South?

Patriarchy is the point

Similarly, manliness, strength, and similar macho themes are very much conservative touch points, as are anti-abortion, hostility to birth control, and other measures to keep women subjugated. The Trumpist trolls are merely more open about it than their patrician forebears. We owe Sykes and his (few) colleagues in the never-Trump section of the party a great debt for their resistance, both during the campaign and ongoing. But they should not kid themselves that their cherished pieties are somehow different in policy terms than the crudities now on display in the White House.

In this respect, as in so many others, FOX has lead the way in normalizing and activating the basest instincts of the right, whether conservative or authoritarian. And now, with social media, Trump appears to have not only FOX and friends, but also legions of trolls on his side, ready to visciously attack any Republican who utters anything less than complementary. I used to think that Trump did not have his own paramilitary, so he could not get very far in subverting our establishment. But these social media forces seem to be his Brown Shirts, and have brought the rest of the Republican party to a whimpering state. Politicians who stray are subjected to relentless attacks, which for some reason they pay attention to, as though the trolls on facebook and twitter are somehow representative of the public interest. As if the thorough-going financial corruption of both parties were not bad enough!

 Or is it stupidity?

Choosing to listen to the very worst that America has to offer is a sin of legislators, but they are observing, as do we all, that these propaganda and troll armies are having an effect on the electorate, influencing the easily led. This raises the question of why, in a country whose educational system was supposed to be the envy of the world, and whose people are, on the whole, the richest. What happened? Sykes certainly does not delve into that conundrum, confining himself to the mantra that as long as we stick to conservative verities of small government and high tax cuts, all with be well. But the basic fact is that human nature is to a great degree conservative, and the unthinking position is in favor of the status quo. Reform is the business of intellectuals, which some Republicans may have been, briefly, at one point. But now, dumb is their brand, and they are increasingly proud of it.

Pot calling the teacup black.

But I think there is one further hypothesis that might be considered. A recent New Yorker article mulled over the steep drop in crime over the last two decades, not only in the US, but in all developed countries. It did not come to any particular solution or explanation, other then aggressive policing policies. But I have one- lead. Our cities were drenched in lead from gasoline for decades, peaking in the 1970's before lead was banned from gasoline. Lead is known to affect cognitive development, meaning that we had demographic cohorts from that time who were likely heavily damaged by exposure to lead. While crime is a pursuit of the young, and the crime wave in the US tracks the rise and fall of lead in gasoline quite closely, politics is a more mature pursuit. Thus one can theorize that the lead-affected cohorts of the 70's peak might be the ones now responsible for the political and media system, both as voters and as participants. This would be a somewhat shocking hypothesis, yet also a hopeful one, as we are assured of a return to normalcy in a few decades, at least.

A problem of compassion

At any rate, conservatism is the unthinking choice in politics, the dedication to keeping things as they are, to stasis. While liberals express hope in the future and compassion for others, conservatives (not to mention right wingnut trolls) express fear- of others, of social innovation, of change in general, and of the state and its role in antagonizing traditional power centers like the church, the corporation, and the patriarchy. Indeed, one might paint conservatives as the faction of fear, which turns into hate on the authoritarian end of the spectrum. The mantra of small government is implicitly a mantra of big power elsewhere- of big and bullying companies, of monopoly, financialization, unemployment, and all the other ills that the modern state stands ready to remedy and regulate. Can the ideals and compassion of the left get carried away? Communism certainly proves that. But broadly speaking, the concept of a compassionate conservative is an oxymoron, and that informs both the thesis Sykes is trying to sell, and also the larger question of why this moment has brought out the Trumpist shadow.

Population pressure

One issue that seems also to get short shrift is overpopulation. The culture in the US has changed from one of hopeful frontier values with land for anyone who wanted an independent existence, to an intensely urbanized one. Most urban areas have also reached a sclerotic state of development, having "built-out" decades ago, and now find it virtually impossible to even imagine building new interstates or other substantial infrastructure that would be required to relieve (in some areas) incredible traffic problems and housing shortages. Thus we experience an increasingly zero-sum game where the 1%, instead of thinking about the future of the country and growth, are instead grabbing what they can from the system as it exists, with little thought for tomorrow, or for others. In such a frustrating environment, the appeal of rage- of blowing things up, burning it down, and starting from scratch is somewhat understandable, but only as an impulse, not a policy.

Is inequality the American way?

This hardly needs expansion in this post.

The culture war

The long-standing left-right culture war over recent decades has many fronts, and conservatives generally feel that they have lost on most of them. Abortion has been fought (so far) to a draw, outside of the reddest states where it has been exterminated in practice. The gay rights fight has be excruciatingly disasterous, however. Liberal compassion was really flying its freak flag there, and it has made the traditionalist conservatives, and their troll shadow army, outraged. The culture has moved relentlessly on, and yelling stop has had little effect in most precincts. There is one front, however, where the right has clearly won, and that is guns. This is where the most rabid partisans have occupied and expanded their ground, providing the model for scorched-earth, vitriolic, irrational, feed-the-worst-instincts propaganda. Is it fascist-inflected? Authoritarian? Or just conservative? Whatever it is, it certainly occupies the most right part of the spectrum, and it is no surprise, after its signal success in cowing legislators and advancing its agenda that this community has been taken as a model for success on the wider field of right-wing causes.

A little light relief, courtesy of Colbert.

The South

Enough said.

Ideas, shmydeas

This is perhaps the most important thread, especially in considering Sykes's work. He is tirelessly admiring of William Buckley and Paul Ryan, as substantive, thoughtful conservatives. His arc is from serious conservatism of yesteryear, and of Wisconsin, to the degraded Alt-right petulance of today. But what if the ideas were no good to start with? What if these have always been convenient and irrational fronts for serving the rich and the powerful? The Republican's attitude towards deficits has shown, as nothing else can, their shameless hypocrisy about their so-called "ideas". When Democrats are in office, deficits are disastrous and spending evil. When Republicans are in office, quite the reverse. Nor have any of the tax cuts generated Laffer-ian economic growth, merely Keynesian growth, along with deficits. The record of conservative "ideas" has been abysmal, and the new Trumpians merely recognize that this was always the case, and dispense with ideas altogether, in favor of e-motivated politics like trade bashing, immigrant-bashing, and tweeting. Then they do what they want, which is evidently to make the rich much richer, and screw everyone else, workers, the poor, the environment, the world at large.

Likewise with small government. When it comes to compassion and equality, cuts and small government are in order. But when abortion comes up, or a bloated military, the sky is the limit. No, the ideas were never more than a cover than support for patriarchy, property, and hierarchy- conservatism of the oldest kind, whether in patrician clothes, or something more swastiky. Indeed, the media issues raised above, and the lead issue, gross inequality, and all the other issues that have causal relevance for the decline of our political system, come back to a role for government itself to regulate and improve our physical and social environment. Government is our means to solve big problems, and frequently has to be big to do so.

In the end, Charles Sykes is likable and thoughtful. And his urgency in turning the Republican party back towards civility and a concern for institutions, law, and other people, is heartfelt and important. However, the idea of putting the crazies back into the closet, and reverting to the platitudes of God, Tax Cuts, and Small Government, is not viable. Sykes says so himself, urging new ideas to be developed, whose nature, however, he leaves in great obscurity. My suggestion? Join the Democratic party.

1 comment:

  1. One more causal issue, related to the media, is social atomization. As Robert Putnam has described so well, such modern developments as TV, Radio, mobility by automobile, and suburbs have given us freedom to do what we want, and that is often to stay at home and vegitate. There has been a dramatic reduction in clubs, associations, and civic life in general, as our attention has become devoted to old and new media. This leads to lower social skills, less empathetic contact with others and other points of view, and ultimately, a weakened social and political system.