Wirthlin Effect & Symbolic Conservatism

I’m not a political partisan, but neither am I politically disinterested and I try to avoid feeling politically apathetic. One way or another, I am a strong defender of my values, and so I spend a lot of time clarifying values (my own and others).

My values could be labeled many ways and I’m not more attached to any particular label than to any particular party. Nonetheless, it is through labels that we can speak of values in a larger sense, how we touch upon broader attitudes and worldviews, that which connects one value to another value to create sets of values.

In articulating certain values, I’m going to use data about labels that gets at what matters most beyond mere labels. But I also want to consider the issues for their own sake, to look into some data and see what picture forms.

I recently came across this brief mention of the Wirthlin Effect from the book Whose Freedom? by George Lakoff (pp. 252-253):

Richard Wirthlin, Ronald Reagan’s chief strategist for the 1980 and 1984 elections , writes in The Greatest Communicator about what he discovered when he went to work for Reagan in 1980. Wirthlin , a Berkeley-trained economist, had been educated in the rationalist tradition to think that voters voted on the basis of whether they agreed with a candidate’s positions on the issues. Wirthlin discovered that voters tended not to agree with Reagan’s positions on the issues, yet they liked Reagan. Wirthlin set out to find out why. His answer was that voters were voting on four closely linked criteria:

  • Personal identification: They identified with Reagan.
  • Values: Reagan spoke about values rather than programs and they liked his values.
  • Trust: They trusted Reagan.
  • Authenticity: They found Reagan authentic; he said what he believed and it showed.

So Wirthlin ran the campaigns on these criteria, and the rest is history— unfortunately for progressives and for the nation. The George W. Bush campaigns were run on the same principles.

“It is not that positions on issues don’t matter. They do. But they tend to be symbolic of values, identity, and character, rather than being of primary import in themselves. For example, if you identify yourself essentially as the mother or father in a strict father family, you may well be threatened by gay marriage, which is inconsistent with a strict father morality . For this reason, someone in the Midwest who has never even met anyone gay could have his or her deepest identity threatened by gay marriage. The issue is symbolic, not literal, and symbolism is powerful in politics.

That is a bit of info entirely new to me. I’ve never before heard of this Wirthlin guy, apparently one of the biggest players who shaped modern politics in the US. As an advisor to Reagan, he was one of those big players who played behind the scenes. This reinforces my view that presidents aren’t where the real power is to be found. Real power is being in the position to whisper into the president’s ear in order to tell him what to say.

Still, the general idea presented by Lakoff wasn’t new to me. I’d come across this in a different context (from a paper, Political Ideology: Its Structure, Functions, and Elective Affinity, by Jost, Federico, and Napier) and have mentioned it many times (e.g., What Does Liberal Bias Mean?):

Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967), scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro 1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic” refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right. “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it (Jost et al. 2004a).

I’ve previously pointed out that Americans are becoming increasingly liberal and progressive, but the real point is that this has been going on for a long time. The conservative elites, or at least their advisors, fully understood decades ago that most Americans didn’t agree with them on the issues. Nonetheless, most Americans continue to identify as conservative when given a forced choice (i.e., when ‘moderate’ or ‘independent’ aren’t given as an option).

It makes one wonder what exactly “symbolic conservatism” represents or what people think it represents. Reagan often stood in front of patriotic symbols during speeches and photo-ops. Look back at images of Reagan and you’ll find in the background such things as flags and the Statue of Liberty. Ignoring the issue of “true conservatism”, this symbolic conservatism seems to have little in the way of tangible substance, heavy on the signifier while being light on the signified.

Is this why Republicans have become better at obstructing governance than governing? Conservative elites and activists know what they are against, but it isn’t clear that there is much in the way of a shared political vision behind the conservative movement, mostly empty rhetoric about “free markets” and such (everyone wants freedom, markets or otherwise, even Marxists).

To look at the issues is to consider how values are expressed in the real world. What does it mean that many Americans agree with the symbolic values of conservatism while disagreeing with the actual enactment of those values in policies? What are Americans perceiving in the patriotic and pseudo-libertarian jingoism of the GOP or whatever it is? And why is that this perception appears to be so disconnected from reality on the ground, disconnected the reality of Americans’ daily lives and their communities?

Or am I coming at this from the entirely wrong angle?

It’s not primarily a partisan issue, even though it regularly gets expressed in partisan terms. We don’t seem to have a good language to speak about the more fundamental values and possibilities that underlie politics. All that we have is a confused populace and, I would argue, a confused political leadership.

Unfortunately, partisan politics is the frame so many people use. So, let me continue with it for the sake of simplicity, just keeping in mind its obvious limitations that can mislead us into unhelpful polarized thinking. Most importantly, take note that the American public isn’t actually polarized, not even between the North and South — as Bob Moser explained in Blue Dixie (Kindle Locations 126-136):

Actually, the GOP could dominate the region more completely— much more completely. In 1944, the Republican nominee for president, Thomas E. Dewey, received less than 5 percent of South Carolinians ’ votes (making John Kerry’s 41 percent in 2004, his worst showing in the South, sound quite a bit less anemic). That was a solid South. The real story of Southern politics since the 1960s is not the rise to domination of Republicanism but the emergence of genuine two-party competition for the first time in the region’s history. Democrats in Dixie have been read their last rites with numbing regularity since 1964, and there is no question that the region has become devilish terrain for Democrats running for “Washington” offices (president, Senate, Congress). But the widespread notion that the South is one-party territory ignores some powerful evidence to the contrary. For one thing, more Southerners identify as Democrats than Republicans. For another: more Democrats win state and local elections in the South than Republicans. The parity between the parties was neatly symbolized by the total numbers of state legislators in the former Confederate states after the 2004 elections: 891 Republicans, 891 Democrats. The South is many things, not all of them flattering. But it is not politically “solid.”

I can’t emphasize enough that it isn’t fundamentally about partisan politics.

When more Americans (including Southerners) identify with Democrats than Republicans, they aren’t ultimately identifying with a political party. What they are identifying with is a worldview and a set of values or maybe simply dissenting from the opposite. Political parties use their favored rhetoric, but they rarely live up to it. The central important point isn’t that most Americans are to the left of Republicans but that they are far to the left of Democratic politicians as well. What the mainstream media deems to be ‘liberal’ in mainstream politics isn’t particular liberal at all.

Besides, most Americans don’t vote and aren’t involved in politics in anyway. Most Americans feel demoralized and disenfranchised. Most Americans feel the opposite of empowered and engaged. Most Americans feel those with the power neither hear their voices nor care even if they did hear. But I would argue that, generally speaking, politicians simply don’t hear at all. They are listening to their advisors, not to the American people.

Going back to the Wirthlin Effect, I was brought back to a realization I’ve had before. Yes, Americans are confused about labels or else strongly disagree with the elites about what those labels mean. To repeat a point I’ve made before:

Considering all of this, it blows my mind that 9% of so-called ‘Solid Liberals’ self-identify as ‘conservative’. Pew defines ‘Solid Liberals’ as being liberal across the board, fiscally and socially liberal on most if not all issues. Essentially, ‘Solid Liberals’ are as liberal as you can be without becoming an outright communist.

How on God’s green earth could such a person ever be so confused as to think they are a conservative? What do these 9% of conservative ‘Solid Liberals’ think that ‘conservative’ means? What kind of conservatism can include liberalism to such an extent? What could possibly be subjectively experienced as conservative despite appearing liberal by all objective measures?

Consider the seemingly opposite Pew demographic which is labeled ‘Staunch Conservatives’ (basically, conservative across the board). Are there 9% of ‘Staunch Conservatives’ who self-identify as ‘liberal’? Of course not, although interestingly 3% do.

Compare also how many self-identify as ‘moderate’: 31% of ‘Solid Liberals’ identify as moderate and only 8% of ‘Staunch Conservatives’ identify as moderate. ‘Staunch Conservatives’ are as partisan as they come with %100 that lean Republican (0% that lean Democratic, 0% with no lean). On the other hand, ‘Solid Liberals’ have 1% who lean Republican and 3% with no lean; that might seem like minor percentages but that means 1 in 100 ‘Solid Liberals’ are drawn toward the Republican Party and 3 in 100 are genuinely independent.

So, yes, there is something weird going on here with the American public. Is this confusion artificially created? Is the public being manipulated by politicians who know the American public better than the American public knows themselves? Apparently not, as Alex Preen explained on Salon.com:

According to a working paper from two political scientists who interviewed 2,000 state legislative candidates last year, politicians all think Americans are more conservative than they actually are.

The research found that this was as true for Democratic politicians. All politicians across the board were equally clueless about and disconnected from those they claim to represent. This is why it isn’t a partisan issue. It is a bipartisan ignorance.

There is an elite among the elite who knows what is going on. The Wirthlin-like advisor types are in the know and I’m sure there are Democratic equivalents to him, although maybe Wirthlin was a cut above even the average advisor to the elite. These guys aren’t just advisors. They and those like them are pulling the strings behind the scenes. If one is feeling particularly conspiratorial, one might surmise yet another level of power beyond even the evil mastermind advisors.

Whatever is the case, I doubt Reagan had a clue. Wirthlin probably was only telling him what he needed to know to gain popularity and win the election. Reagan, like most politicians, was just an actor; but Reagan had the advantage over most politicians in having more practice at being an actor.

The first thing a politician has to do is convince themselves of their own rhetoric because only then can they convince the public. They have to become the role they are playing. It didn’t matter that most Americans didn’t agree with Reagan on the issues for Reagan believed in himself. It was his starry-eyed optimism and unquestioning confidence that convinced people to buy the product he was selling. That product wasn’t any particular issue(s). Reagan was the product. The American public elected a figurehead, a symbolic figurehead of symbolic conservatism to rule over a symbolic country.

Anyway, in saying that it isn’t fundamentally about partisanship, I must admit that it isn’t without merit that most Americans identify with Democrats. It is true that I’m one of those that tends to say our faux democracy is just an argument about Pepsi vs Coke, but even so there are real differences. This was made apparent to me some time ago when I came across a review of a book by James Gilligan, Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others which I posted about and then later, after reading the book itself, wrote a more personal response.

Gilligan’s book is one of the best presentations of compelling data I’ve read in my life. Part of what makes it so powerful is that the data is so simple and straightforward. There is a consistent pattern of several correlations of data and this pattern has continued for more than a century. When Republicans are in power, the rates of three things goes up: economic inequality, murders and suicides. When Democrats are in power, the rates of those very same things go down.

On an intuitive level, I’m sure Americans understand this. Most Americans don’t care about partisan politics, but they do care about these kind of social problems that impact all Americans. Any party or movement that could alleviate these problems would gain the support of the American public. Democrats don’t even fight that hard against these things and still most Americans would rather identify with them. The only reason that Democrats don’t win every election is that so many Americans don’t vote at all. People feel like they don’t have a real choice. Voting Democrats doesn’t generally make anything better, although maybe it keeps it from getting worse as quickly as it would under Republican administrations. Either way, it’s hardly inspiring.

If Americans cut through the bullshit and voted their consciences, they would vote for a third party like the Greens. And I don’t say that as a partisan for the Greens. But just imagine if the Green Party became a new main party. As we have it now, the Democratic Party is closer to the positions of the average conservative. What we have now is competition between a conservative party and a right-wing party. What if instead we had a competition between a liberal party and a conservative party with Republicans being a right-wing third party and with another major third party to the left of the Greens?

The only reason most Americans don’t vote for parties that are more on the left is because the MSM has them fooled. Most Americans don’t even understand what the parties represent. Most Americans don’t even realize how far to the left are their shared values. The bullshit rhetoric of symbolic ideologies combined with the MSM spin creates such a political fog that the American public doesn’t know which way is which.

I have hope, though, that with the rise of alternative media enough of the fog is lifting and the light of clarity is beginning to dawn or at least peak through.

In life, what we value is what we get, but first we have to understand our own values. Americans don’t just want the rhetoric of freedom. They want actual freedom. It isn’t the only thing they want, but it is very important. We can later on argue about the details of what freedom means. For now, we need the force of populism to shutdown the rhetoric machine. When average Americans can hear one another speak, then we can have a genuine discussion about the real issues. Not symbolism, but the issues themselves.

Sea Change of Public Opinion: Libertarianism, Progressivism & Socialism

I’ve been pointing out over this past decade the sea change occurring in American demographics and public opinion. Despite being well informed, I was blown away by looking at an area of polling I hadn’t previously looked into as deeply.

Pew had a poll from a couple years ago that I missed. If you look at the broad public opinion, it looks like the same old same old. Most Americans have a more favorable opinion of capitalism than socialism. They also have a more favorable opinion of conservatism than liberalism. But it’s always in the details where it gets interesting. The cracks are beginning to show in the Cold War edifice.

More Americans have a positive opinion of progressivism, significantly more than their opinion of conservatism. As many have noted, progressivism has basically become the label for those who like liberalism but are afraid of the negative connotations of the word itself. There isn’t a vast difference between what liberals support and what progressives support.

Even most Republicans give a positive response toward progressivism. This probably relates as well to why many people who self-identify as conservatives will support many traditionally liberal positions. These positions back in the Progressive Era used to be called progressive. Americans strongly support them. That is the true Silent Majority or rather Silenced Majority.

Now, prepare to have your mind blown… or else your stereotypes dismantled.

More Democrats have a positive view of of libertarianism than Republicans. And fewer Democrats have a negative view of libertarianism than Republicans. This shouldn’t be as surprising as would be suggested by watching the MSM. Libertarianism is a direct political competitor with the Republican Party, but Libertarians socially have more in common with liberals and progressives.

What about socialism and capitalism?

“Of these terms, socialism is the more politically polarizing – the reaction is almost universally negative among conservatives, while generally positive among liberals. While there are substantial differences in how liberals and conservatives think of capitalism, the gaps are far narrower. Most notably, liberal Democrats and Occupy Wall Street supporters are as likely to view capitalism positively as negatively. And even among conservative Republicans and Tea Party supporters there is a significant minority who react negatively to capitalism.”

Interestingly, blacks and hispanics both have a negative view of capitalism. However, blacks have a more positive view of liberalism while hispanics have a more positive view of socialism. That will be an interesting future dynamic as these two demograhics grow.

As Sarah van Gelder (at Yes! Magazine) summarized this trend:

“There is growing willingness to name corporate rule and global capitalism as key problems, and to look to decentralized, place-based economies as the answer. While capitalism is viewed more favorably among all Americans than socialism, the reverse is true among those under 29, African Americans and Hispanics, and those making less than $30,000 a year, according to a Pew poll. And more Americans have a favorable view of socialism than of the Tea Party.”

http://www.peoplesworld.org/capitalism-big-surprises-in-recent-polls/

http://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/is-capitalism-on-trial

http://dailycaller.com/2011/12/28/liberal-unpopular-but-newer-progressive-label-gets-high-marks-in-poll/

Interesting Stuff on the Web: 3/23/13

Here are a few things that caught my attention. Taken together, they almost form a loosely coherent thought-web about the complexity of the left/right spectrum and some interesting examples in contemporary politics, from left-wing states’ rights secessionists to conservatives of the liberal tradition. I’ll share them without any commentary:

U.S. Out of Vermont!
Move over, Texas: In the Green Mountain State, it’s leftists who want to secede.
By Christopher Ketcham

“Yet here in granola-eating, hyper-lefty, Subaru-driving Vermont was a secession effort that had been loud during the Bush years, had not ceased its complaining under Barack Obama, did not care for party affiliation, and had welcomed into its midst gun nuts and lumberjacks and professors, socialists and libertarians and anarchists, ex–Republicans and ex-Democrats, truck drivers and schoolteachers and waitresses, students and artists and musicians and poets, farmers and hunters and wooly-haired woodsmen. The manifesto that elaborated their platform was read at the conference: a 1,400-word mouthful that echoed the Declaration of Independence in its petition of grievances. “[T]ransnational megacompanies and big government,” it proclaimed, “control us through money, markets, and media, sapping our political will, civil liberties, collective memory, traditional cultures.” The document was signed by, among others, its principal authors, a professor emeritus of economics at Duke University named Thomas Naylor and the decentralist philosopher Kirkpatrick Sale, author of Human Scale. “Citizens,” it concluded, “lend your name to this manifesto and join in the honorable task of rejecting the immoral, corrupt, decaying, dying, failing American Empire and seeking its rapid and peaceful dissolution before it takes us all down with it.””

Conservatives Please Read
Book review by Historied of Sidanius and Pratto’s Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression

“I have worked as an executive in the corporate sector for 35 years and felt how powerfully this approach could be used there. The chronic lack of real talent to solve real issues of the business and environment, is very much compounded by issues of dominance and restriction of the search for talent and the education of talent to elite groups who are often clueless about the world. And this book provides a critical thinking 101 approach quite independent of its content.The growing hereditary nature of management succession (think President of the USA)is part of social dominance. The socially dominant send their kids to the best schools and these seem to be structured to restrict critical thinking or divert it into postmodernist irrelevance. This book helps you see such apparently unconnected phenomena in new ways. And it might direct students towards structurally relevant issues of society rather than the marginal. While this book is an obvious resource for the oppressed, I heartily recommend it to members of socially dominant power groups like myself.”

Comment by Andrew on Corey Robin’s post Edmund Burkey on the Free Market

“I’ve always been a fan of SDO theory. It reconcils social dominance and ‘selfishness’ with altruism, solving the riddle by positing that egalitarianism is actually a form reverse social dominance whereby the group overpowers the alphas and thens uses threat of violence and/or humiliation to keep any one member of the group from becoming more power than the other. This pairs nicely with anthropologists’ and of course, Marx and Engels’ observations on the ‘primitive communism’ of early hunter-gathering societies.

“Although many would likely cringe at the suggestion, I feel it’s an actual evolutionary explanation for the differences between leftwing and rightwing politics.”

Is There a Conservative Tradition in America?
By Patrick J. Deneen

“There’s a further problem in the contemporary narrative that has been developed by conservatives regarding the course of the Constitution. While the narrative of the Constitution’s corruption by Progressives has been popularized by Glenn Beck, it has largely been developed by scholars who study in the tradition established by the German émigré scholar, Leo Strauss. They largely rely on a significant essay written by Strauss entitled “The Three Waves of Modernity.” In that essay, Strauss explains that the break with antiquity – particularly classical Greek and Roman as well as Christian thought – was inaugurated by thinkers of “modern Natural Right,” in an incipient form by Machiavelli and then further by Hobbes and Locke. These thinkers argued that a new science of politics was needed, one that was not as resigned simultaneously to a vision of ideal politics based upon the inculcation of virtue, and also a theory of decline that necessarily accompanied those high aims, as that which characterized ancient thought. Building on the “low but solid ground” of self-interest, Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke sought to channel the great source of political strife toward productive ends, particularly in the areas of commerce and expansion of human knowledge (modern science). Aided by the insights of Hobbes’s one-time boss, Francis Bacon, the new science of politics was devoted to “the relief of the human estate,” a project that relied upon the new natural sciences for the expansion of human power and mastery over nature. This “first wave” of modernity recognized the inherent imperfectability of human beings – thus, that we have a nature, and that a successful politics can be built upon that nature – and served as the philosophical basis for the American founding.

“The “second wave” of modernity is called by Strauss “historicism.” Like a wave – following upon and deriving its content from the previous wave – this “second wave” took its point of departure from an instability within the first wave. The “second wave” of modernity took the basic insight of the philosophers of the first wave – that nature was subject to human control – and extended this insight to human nature itself. If external nature were subject to human dominion, why not human nature itself? Thinkers like Rousseau, Condorcet, Comte, and later, John Stuart Mill, developed the idea of human perfectibility, of the human ability to master not only external nature, but to improve human nature as well. If philosophers of the “first wave” argued that human nature was unalterable, philosophers of the “second wave” argued that human nature could be improved concurrent with an improvement in the material domain. The concept of moral progress became a central feature in second wave philosophy, a progress in historical time that was believed to culminate in man’s perfection, even ascent to a godlike condition. In America, thinkers like Dewey, Croly and later, Richard Rorty adopted the basic insights of this “second wave” of modernity.

“What Strauss perceived – and what his epigones too often overlook – is that the seeds of the second wave are planted within the logic of the first wave. A theory that rejects the fundamental governance of nature (at least that nature external to humanity) – or natural law – and substitutes this ancient Aristotelian and Thomistic standard for a more utilitarian calculus of interest inevitably jeopardizes any standard and even its own effort to ground its politics on a now more limited understanding of human nature. The “second” wave is embedded in the first wave – that is, lacking a standard by which humans are to be limited, their tendency will be to develop a political philosophy that invites thorough re-creation not only of our environment, but of the human creature. According to the implicit logic of Strauss’s argument, we do better to see that Progressive liberalism is the consequence of “Classical Liberalism,” and not its wholesale betrayal, as many today would like to believe.

“Strauss discerned that it is from the very individualistic basis of liberalism that arose the collectivist impulse of “progressivism,” initially in communism and fascism, but today in what we might call “progressive liberalism.” The false anthropology of liberalism – anathema to the deeper insights of a pre-liberal “conservative” tradition – spawns the perverse but inescapable progeny that it purports to despise, but which at every turn it fosters. Any conservative impulse is throttled by its more fundamental fealty to the liberal tradition.

“It’s true that “conservative liberalism” is more “conservative” than “progressive liberalism,” if we mean by that it takes at least some of its cues from an older, pre-liberal understanding of human beings and human nature. Still, its dominant liberal ethic – summed up in the five points I suggested at the outset – means that in nearly every respect, its official allegiances end up eviscerating residual pre-liberal conservative allegiances. In particular, it could be argued that conservative commitments 1-4 – that end by favoring consolidation (in spite of the claim to favor “limited” government), advancing imperial power and capitalism (i.e., why consolidation is finally necessary), and stressing individual liberty, are all actively hostile to commitment number 5 – the support for family and community. It is a rump commitment without a politics to support it, and one that daily undergoes attack by the two faces of contemporary liberalism, through the promotion of the Market by the so-called Right and the promotion of lifestyle autonomy by the Left. A true conservatism has few friends in today’s America.”

The ‘About’ page for the Front Porch Republic website

“The economic crisis that emerged in late 2008 and the predictable responses it elicited from those in power has served to highlight the extent to which concepts such as human scale, the distribution of power, and our responsibility to the future have been eliminated from the public conversation. It also threatens to worsen the political and economic centralization and atomization that have accompanied the century-long unholy marriage between consumer capitalism and the modern bureaucratic state. We live in a world characterized by a flattened culture and increasingly meaningless freedoms. Little regard is paid to the necessity for those overlapping local and regional groups, communities, and associations that provide a matrix for human flourishing. We’re in a bad way, and the spokesmen and spokeswomen of both our Left and our Right are, for the most part, seriously misguided in their attempts to provide diagnoses, let alone solutions.”

What It Means To Be A Progressive: A Manifesto
By John Halpin

“As progressives gear up for inevitable fights over taxes, budgets, and social policy, we shouldn’t forget about the importance of values in explaining who we are and what we want to achieve. We believe in freedom with opportunity for all, responsibility to all, and cooperation among all. We believe that the purpose of government is to advance the common good, to secure and protect our rights, and to help to create a high quality of life and community well-being. We want decent paying jobs and benefits for workers and sustainable economic growth. We want growing businesses producing the world’s best products and services. We want an economy that works for everyone, not just the few. We want all nations to uphold universal human rights and to work together to solve common challenges. This is what a progressive America looks like.”

Romney’s Mormonism: Socialism, Progressivism, Xenophobia

A caller on Diane Rehm’s NPR show (I think it was October 11) offered an insightful observation. And the two guests, mainstream talking heads, were utterly clueless in typical fashion.

The caller commented on how Ryan spoke of Romney’s charity. The caller thought that charity was great and that it was great that Mormons take care of their own, but he wondered how much Romney donates to charities that aren’t Mormon.

In a president, you want someone who will be concerned about everyone, not just those seen as part of their group. This is the fundamental problem about Romney honestly admitting that he thinks 47% of Americans are unworthy of his concern and compassion, that therefore he is genuinely only interested in representing the upper classes and other groups of people he happens to personally identify with.

What really caught my attention was something else the caller said. He pointed out that the Mormons are socialist within themselves. This is common on the right. Conservatives are fine with socialism for people within their own group, but not for those not part of their group.

This is where the cluelessness of mainstream talking heads comes in. They denied this was socialism. How can smart people be so ignorant about such basic issues. Of course, it’s socialism. Just because it doesn’t fit Cold War anti-communist propaganda doesn’t mean it can’t be socialism. Most early socialists in America were religious and limited their socialism to the in-group.

This is clueless in another way. The guests argued that the Mormon church isn’t a government. Of course, the Mormon church is a government.

 
Mormons have always kept their church governance closely tied with political governance. In Mormon Utah, the church essentially is the government, in fact originally tried to create a government separate from the  United States. You move to a Mormon town and you will be forced to follow Mormon-based laws. Furthermore, tithing is a tax, not a choice if you want to be a Mormon just as federal taxes aren’t a choice if you want to be American, although both being a Mormon and being American are choices that one can always choose otherwise. Mormons don’t even have a choice in how their church government spends their money, certainly less choice than an American citizen for at least democracy allows for one to vote in or out one’s leaders.

Besides, the right all the time uses the government to fund their religious programs. Churches get tax exemptions and many religious organizations get government funding. For example, the religious right voted in Bush who then rewarded them by funding abstinence only sex education. Compassionte conservatism is ultimately religious ‘socialism’ being implemented in secular politics (‘socialism’ in the broad sense as defined by conservatives).

This is all made clear by looking at history. Back when immigration was low and there were fewer foreigners\outsiders, Mormons were strong supporters of the social welfare programs of Progressivism. Now that immigration is at a high point, Mormons vote against the very programs they once voted for. Such xenophobia is sadly predictable, and it is equally true for the rest of the religious right.

American Paternalism, Honor and Manhood

I’ve been reading a number of books recently, mostly about early America and related subjects, including such topics as Quaker pacifism, Southern honor, and concepts of family. Here are some of my thoughts and observations.

First, I was only slightly shocked to learn that a mere 8% of Americans were considered legal persons when the Constitution was ratified. This means that 92% of the population had very limited rights of any sort, from voting to having one’s own bank account. Women, for example, were basically seen as property, owned by fathers and later husbands with only widowhood giving them some power and freedom.

The founding fathers wanted a society determined by class, race and gender. They wanted to create an independently wealthy class of “disinterested aristocrats” (i.e., rich white males). Talking to many conservatives, I realize that this vision of a ruling elite still has strong support.

There were two problems with this vision.

First, few of the founding fathers were independently wealthy and so a disinterested aristocracy wasn’t possible. Only someone like Franklin was wealthy enough to work as a politician for free. The rest had to work jobs on the side such as lawyers or plantation owners.

Second, the 92% of the population didn’t want to be ruled by a benevolent ruling class. Also, with Jefferson’s dismantling much of Hamilton’s centralized government, grassroots populist democracy flourished. The American people didn’t need anyone else to solve their problems, especially not about their own local self-governance. In the first half of the 19th century, government as a formal institution was almost invisible.

The founding fathers had been disappointed by their failed lofty ideals of a gentile brotherhood. Their vision was one of honor as defined by Englightenment thinking. It was about noble self-sacrifice by well-educated wise leaders (a modernized version of Plato’s philosopher kings). All of this was grounded in ancient ideas of a republic. Some of the founding fathers were more radical, but most of them didn’t want democracy as we now appreciate, heck most of them probably didn’t even understand such a concept. Rule by “The People” for them meant rule by the 8%.

Jefferson, somewhat unintentionally, made way for an entirely different vision of America. What America became in the 19th century was a country of shopkeepers and religious reformers. There was no nobility, no valor, no honor in being a shopkeeper. Anyone could be a shopkeeper. Even a lowly housewife or black person could produce something to be sold. And religious reform was an emasculating force often led by women.

Along with this, a middle class began to arise, although in some ways it was more of a perception than a reality in the 19th century. After the American Revolution had ended, there actually was more economic inequality than before. But the difference was that Americans now saw themselves as free, even if many of their freedoms had been curtailed by an overreaching and sometimes violently oppressive plutocracy (the Whiskey Rebellion comes to mind).

This also relates to Jefferson. He wanted a society based on agricultural landowners who worked their own land. This was the beginning of the American Dream of everyone owning their own home. The government artificially created a middle class by giving public land away for free or else very cheaply and by providing such things as public education. This made the American population more self-reliant and so less needing of paternalistic rulers.

Another unforseen result was the religious revivalism and the politicized religioisity that it fomented. This frightened many of the founding fathers who saw religion in more elite and intellectual terms. Adam Smith despised Evangelicalism and began to longingly speak of British aristocracy. Jefferson ended up being profoundly wrong in his prediction that Unitarianism would become the dominant religion within a few generations of America’s foundation.

What the Evangelicals and other religious reformers offered was something new. They didn’t want paternalistic benevolence such as money being given to the poor. They wanted to solve the problem of poverty itself. They tried to discover the roots of poverty and they sought to reform society. This was what would later result in the movements of Populism and Progressivism. Grassroots democracy was becoming a force to be reckoned with, especially with the new breed of populist politician (e.g., Andrew Jackson). This was only exacerbated by the influx of European immigrants during the 19th century, many of whom were escaping oppressive ruling classes and some of whom were radical revolutionaries.

The earlier ideals of honor and manhood were becoming lost. The Revolutionary generation was growing old and the public recollection of the Revolutionary era were becoming hazy. The founding fathers often felt forgotten and disrespected.

America was founded on the eve of early industrialization. Even farming was being transformed through new technology. In this marketplace society, there was no place for elitist Enlightenment thinking. Most Americans knew nothing about Enlightenment thinking and had no desire to know. Americans were becoming a people of producers and consumers.

Grand conflicts were no longer so apparent to the average American. People didn’t feel directly threatened by the French, British or even Indians. The frontier had moved so much further Westward, far away from the bustling cities of commerce.

The problem was: How were Americans to maintain a larger sense of meaning and purpose as a nation? How were boys to be made into men and how were men to prove their manhood? This problem seemed clear to the founding generation who reminisced about the ennobling effect of war. Many saw the War of 1812 as an opportunity to develop character in the American people. This feeling became strong in places like Kentucky where masculine identity had been built on romanticized notions of the early Indian fighters. However, the War of 1812 was a failure and besides it never captured the imagination of most Americans.

This sense of a problem remained. And it led to divisions in how America should be defined.

Andrew Jackson was a Scots-Irish Southerner who, along with being the first president not being born an aristocrat, embodied the Southern vision of militant honor. He combined that with an overtly racist and anti-intellectual sensibility that was particularly popular among Southern white farmers. The North was more industrialized and had a different vision of honor that was influenced by Puritan and Quaker values, but it was the South rather than the North that dominated politics at that time. It was only with the mass immigration to the North that allowed a change of political fortunes during the Civil War.

An odd thing happened, though. The Civil War was traumatizing for both sides. There was little honor in victory, but Americans began to romanticize the honor of Southern loss and so began to romanticize Southern notions of gentlemanly honor. This, of course, led to much conflict around class and race.

Going into the 20th century, Americans were still struggling with what honor and manhood meant. There was a mass exodus from farming communities. A new generation grew up in the cities, the largest generation of child labor and the first generation of modern consumers of all the products being built in the factories in which they worked. They were a generation without authority figures. They became known as the Lost Generation. They fought in WWI, a war worst than the Civil War. They travelled the world and became cosmopolitan in the way no group of Americans had been since the founding fathers.

This was the beginning of the Progressive era which was strongly promoted by religious reformers such as Evangelicals. This was when the National Parks were created and when the streams were stocked with European game fish, the idea being that such things as hunting and fishing could make men out of this urbanized generation of boys.

It’s interesting how these themes formed and how they continue to this day.

Fear of the Future: Against Progress

I was wondering about why people support certain things that seem against their own interests, even their own openly stated interests. What made me think about this today is a Pew poll:

Lower-Income Republicans Say Government Does Too Little for Poor People

“Mitt Romney’s statement that he is focused solely on the problems of middle class Americans, not the poor, may not sit well with lower-income voters within his own party. Roughly a quarter of Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters have annual family incomes under $30,000, and most of them say that the government does not do enough for poor people in this country.”

The Republican Party has had a War on the Poor for decades. Republican politicians regularly attack the poor as lazy and as leeches on society. The official stance of the GOP is less money for welfare or at least less welfare money for the poor.

It’s seems absolutely insane that a poor person would vote Republican while hoping for more help from the government. As I’ve been studying American history, I was reminded of how some American colonists supported the British government against those who sought freedom and democracy and I was reminded of how some slaves supported the Confederacy during the Civil War.

People fear change. Republicans use the rhetoric of the fear of change. They speak of traditional values and make romanticized claims about the past. Many people fear change because they fear the perceived/imagined threats of chaos, of social disorder and instability.

That is similar to why many who would benefit from revolution supported the British Empire. To embrace change is to embrace the unknown. There is no way one can know that one will gain something greater than what one loses. The British Empire, despite all of its failings and oppression, did offer stability and protection.

The Quakers, for example, feared change because they knew they were surrounded by enemies. The Quakers had been persecuted horrifically by the Puritans. The Quakers were despised by the Southern and Tidewater elites (who saw all of Pennsylvania as a breeding ground of the lower sort). And the Quakers were constantly being threatened by the Scots-Irish in their own territory. It turns out the Quakers did benefit from revolution, but it wasn’t certain that they would benefit.

Slaves were in an even greater situation of facing the unknown as they were intentionally kept ignorant. Most slaves had no idea about what was going on in the North. And it was true that most Northerners wouldn’t welcome them as equal citizens. But the fears of change that many slaves had weren’t entirely accurate, but then again they weren’t entirely inaccurate. The period of history directly following the Civil War was far from kind to African Americans. At least as slaves, their lives had stability and order. It took many generations and massive violence/oppression before African Americans would gain any civil rights victories.

It always comes down to fear of the future, fear of the unknown. That is what humans always face. Progress tends to benefit most people in the long run, but it doesn’t always benefit everyone and certainly doesn’t benefit everyone equally. The problem is that there is no other option. Civilization has set humanity on a course where we can’t just cling to the past. The world is changing whether we like it or not. We can embrace change and guide it toward our benefit or we can resist change and allow someone else decide our fate.

Thomas Paine and the Promise of America

http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/01182008/profile2.html

Decades ago Ronald Reagan borrowed a phrase from a founding father often overlooked. He rallied his party at the Republican National Convention with these patriotic words: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

Calling for a revolution, Reagan chose those words from the writings of America’s first great radical, and its first best selling writer. His name was Thomas Paine. Over two centuries ago this month, Paine’s most famous book, COMMON SENSE, sold what today would be fifty million copies. Farmers in the fields stopped to read it.

Other influential works followed including THE AMERICAN CRISIS which proclaimed, “These are times that try men’s souls.” George Washington took those words to heart when he ordered his troops to be read Paine’s passionate call for liberty as they went into battle.

Paine’s extraordinary life was both glorious and tragic. He was not always revered as some of our other founding fathers — and during his lifetime he was often feared and lampooned — and under threat of prison and even death. Harvey J. Kaye, who recently told his story in THOMAS PAINE AND THE PROMISE OF AMERICA, notes that Paine has again become currency in political debate because of a revolutionary idea that spread from the colonies to France and around the globe:

That the common people…that Americans could be citizens and not merely subjects. That people had it within themselves not only to listen to their superiors, but literally to speak to each other and deliberate and govern themselves.

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