“Big Tent” Conservative Movement?

I’m always looking for new books. It’s an addiction. Because of this, I love book reviews. I’ll even spend an afternoon reading book reviews of a book I’m unlikely ever to read, just out of curiosity.

I was looking at some recently released books, about politics and history. One book that is a collection of essays caught my attention, simply because of the title. It is Big Tent: The Story of the Conservative Revolution–As Told by the Thinkers and Doers Who Made It Happen by Mallory Factor and Elizabeth Factor. That is an intriguing premise.

It is intriguing because I suspect few people, maybe especially among conservatives, would identify the conservative movement as “Big Tent”. The problem of “Big Tent” movements for conservatives is that they necessitate compromise and cooperation among people who disagree and sometimes have opposing views, purposes, and interests. Conservatives, at least in mainstream politics and punditry, regularly claim to hate or be wary of this kind of compromise and cooperation. What these leaders of the conservative movement want instead seems to be ideological purity.

It makes me wonder if some of these leaders or the activists who had been following them are beginning to question this tactic of ideological purity. The purveyors of the “Small Tent” view has been the Tea Party movement, which hasn’t wanted to claim that it is identical with the conservative movement. But the Tea Party has lost a favor, even among conservatives and Republicans. Maybe some people, such as the authors of this book, hope to redirect the conservative movement in a whole new direction. All of a sudden, those on the right are realizing that they can’t have a future by focusing merely on the demographic of old white people.

One reviewer, in his conclusion, seems to voice some doubts about whether those on the right will want to buy  what the authors’ are selling (The Conservative Movement vs. the Friars Club of Beverly Hills, Stan Greer):

Whether or not conservative/libertarian readers ultimately concur that they do belong (and want to belong!) to a club that has both Donald Rumsfeld and Rand Paul as members, Big Tent, which Factor edited and coauthored with the assistance of his wife Elizabeth, will surely help them come to a better understanding of how they came to their own beliefs.”

Yes, whether or not, maybe with probability leaning toward the ‘not’. The apparent argument of the book seems counter-intuitive.

A part of me finds something appealing about “Big Tent” politics. It used to be, earlier last century, that both parties had a right-wing and a left-wing. As such, there was less right-left polarization between the parties, although obviously other things distinguished the parties. According to Pew data (Beyond Red vs Blue), the Democratic Party is still a “Big Tent” party with an almost equal division between liberals, moderates, and conservatives (about a third of Democrats self-identifying with each of the three labels). The same Pew data doesn’t show such a self-identified spectrum in the Republican Party.

However, parties and movements aren’t necessarily the same thing. It is possible that the conservative movement is “Big Tent”, even if the GOP isn’t. Part of the problem is how to define “Big Tent” and how to objectively measure it. Who is supposed to be part of this “Big Tent” conservative movement? Why would those who don’t identify as conservative. such as libertarians, want to be part of any conservative movement? Libertarians are among the biggest critics of conservatism, especially in mainstream politics.

Does the author offer any demographic or polling data to give evidence for his claim that the conservative movement is a “Big Tent”? Having a wide range of conservative-to-rightwing members/supporters isn’t necessarily the same thing as “Big Tent”. What evidence is there that most Americans ascribe to these views? It is possible that supposed “Big Tent” conservatism is broad in some ways while also being shallow in other ways.

An important confusion is the difference between symbolic and operational forms of ideologies. 

Most Americans, when given a forced choice, choose to self-identify as ‘conservative’. But when given an unforced choice, most Americans choose ‘moderate’. Also, many more Americans will choose to self-identify as ‘progressive’ than will choose to self-identify as ‘liberal’, but even more interesting is the fact that also more self-identify as ‘progressive’ than as ‘conservative’. This goes against the assumption that Americans see progressivism and liberalism as the same and it undercuts the conclusion that most Americans are truly conservative… or else it implies that most Americans are generally confused/uncertain about the meaning of labels (and if that is the case, all these polling about self-identified labels may be less than useful and accurate in telling us much of anything about the general public’s view on politics and ideologies). 

This issues is more complex than it gets presented in the mainstream media and by partisan politics.

I wonder about the author’s argument, as I see lots of evidence to the contrary or else evidence that complicates simple assessments and straightforward conclusions. But I always listen to opposing arguments and take them on their merits. The only way I can judge the merits of this particular argument is to see what objective evidence can be offered, either by the author or others who agree with the authors, but I’m not feeling motivated to buy and read this book. I see the premise for this argument as more of a hope than a reality. Even so, if these authors and those who agree with them want to try to make it a reality, I give them my full support.

In terms of present reality, for those making this argument for a “Big Tent” conservative movement, the following is the evidence one has to somehow counter, explain, reinterpret, and/or disprove:

http://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/06/19/sea-change-of-public-opinion-libertarianism-progressivism-socialism/

“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.”

http://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/01/23/us-demographics-increasing-progressivism/

“The media villagers lazily recite the Gallup polling to assert that America is a center-right country ideologically.
Political scientists, however, know better. The old classifications of liberal, conservative and moderate have long since lost their meaning.The decades long far-right media assault to demonize “liberals” has caused many liberals to defensively identify themseleves as “progressives.” The “liberal” brand of the Democratic Party has been watered down by conservative corporatist Democratic organizations like the Democratic Leadership Council, New Democrats, Third Way, Boll Weevils and Blue Dogs, etc. Today’s Democratic Party is not the party of FDR and Truman, or LBJ.

“I have said many times that conservatives today “are not your father’s GOP.” Conservatives today are the John Birchers whom Republican conservatives like William F. Buckley kicked out of the GOP for being too extremist, and the theocratic Christian Right whom “the father of movement conservatism,” Arizona’s Sen. Barry Goldwater, rejected as being too extremist. Think about the irony in that for a moment. This is the man who famously said that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!”

“The media villagers collectively suffer from amnesia and cannot recall that the Republican Party once had a liberal wing and many moderates. They have since been purged from the Republican Party by its extemist fringe, but they are still out there in the electorate.

“When respondents are given more options from which to identify their political beliefs and, more importantly, when polled on specific issues, a surprising and seemingly contradictory result emerges (only because of media mislabeling). Americans are far more left-of-center in their beliefs on specific issues, even self-identified conservatives. These “liberal” beliefs are in fact the “centrist” or “moderate” position of large majorities of Americans.”

http://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/03/13/political-elites-disconnected-from-general-public/

“”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. Unsurprisingly, Republicans think voters are way more right-wing than they actually are.”

“It’s unsurprising that right-wingers are clueless about the average American. That is the nature of being a right-winger, often not even realizing one is right-wing, instead thinking one is a normal mainstream American

“”Liberal politicians, meanwhile, don’t imagine that their constituents are super-liberal. A majority of them also believe that their constituents are more conservative than they actually are. Which, well, that explains your Democratic Party since the Clinton administration. They weren’t polled, but I’m pretty sure “nonpartisan” political elites in the media share the exact same misperception. (“It’s a center-right country,” we hear all the time, which it turns out is both meaningless and untrue.)”

[ . . . ]

“”Left-liberals who actually pay attention to surveys of popular opinion on things like raising taxes on rich people and expanding Medicare instead of raising the eligibility age are frequently a bit annoyed when they watch, say, the Sunday shows, and these ideas are either dismissed as radical or simply not brought up to begin with, but all of Washington is still pretty sure that Nixon’s Silent Majority is still out there, quietly raging against the longhairs and pinkos. In fact the new Silent Majority is basically made up of a bunch of social democrats, wondering why Congress can’t do serious, sensible, bipartisan things like lock up all the bankers and redistribute their loot to the masses.””

http://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2014/01/15/wirthlin-effect-symbolic-conservatism/

“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.”

And:

“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).”

And:

“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.””

Tea Party Welfare

Books About Conservatism and the Tea Party
By Timothy Noah, The New York Times

“Today, nearly all political centrists are Democrats. And with the rise of the Tea Party, Republicans are experiencing another 1964 moment. Indeed, Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson report in their exceptionally informative book, “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” more than a few Tea Partiers “dated their first political experience to the Goldwater campaign.” But there are important differences between the two movements. For one, the Tea Party, unlike the Goldwater insurgency, has managed to win elections and thereby obtain some power at the national and state level. For another, the Tea Partiers’ anti-­government ideology is tempered by quiet support for Social Security and Medicare. That’s because the activists themselves tend to be middle-aged or older. Tea Partiers aren’t opposed to government benefits per se, according to Skocpol and Williamson; rather, they’re opposed to “unearned” government benefits, which in practice ends up meaning any benefits extended to African-­Americans, Latinos, immigrants (especially undocumented ones) and the young. A poll of South Dakota Tea Party supporters found that 83 percent opposed any Social Security cuts, 78 percent opposed any cuts to Medicare prescription-drug coverage, and 79 percent opposed cuts in Medicare reimbursements to physicians and hospitals. “So much for the notion that Tea Partiers are all little Dick Armeys,” Skocpol and Williamson write. The small government Tea Partiers favor is one where I get mine and most others don’t get much at all.”

“This poses a particular problem for a conservative Republican like Rep. Paul Ryan, who favors privatizing Medicare and shifting more of the financial burden onto recipients. But it’s also a problem for anyone seeking to lower the budget deficit, because it’s the “earned” benefits like Social Security and Medicare that are mainly responsible for runaway government spending. On the other hand, although Tea Partiers, who tend to be comfortably middle class but not wealthy, hate paying taxes, they don’t necessarily mind when other people pay taxes; the South Dakota poll had 56 percent of Tea Party supporters favoring a 5 percent increase in income taxes for people who earn more than $1 million a year.”

This is what I’ve been pointing out again and again.

The Tea Party conservative (and the fiscal conservatives who support them) isn’t against big government and isn’t against welfare. Rather, they are against big government that helps other people who aren’t like them: minorities, immigrants, and the young.

The GOP strongholds are the Deep South and the Far West which are the regions that receive the most federal benefits, meaning they receive more federal taxpayer money than they pay in federal taxes. The Far West, in fact, has been dependent on government funding since the 19th century simply to make the region habitable.

I see the same thing in Iowa. Eastern Iowa isn’t as dependent on farm subsidies and so Eastern Iowans don’t elect politicians to make sure they get this type of government welfare which means they more often vote for Democrats. Western Iowans, however, are dependent on government welfare through farming subsidies and so they vote for Republicans who always get federal funds for their constituents.

These kinds of conservatives will complain about spending other people’s money. Yet they are perfectly fine with other people’s money being spent on themselves and on what they care about (e.g., abstinence-only sex education, oil subsidies, military, etc). There is this fundamental disconnect from reality that is mind-blowing. If the Tea Party got rid of government, it is people like the Tea Party supporters (along with others living in Republican-voting states) who would be among those who would suffer the most.

They benefit from the welfare such as farm subsidies created by progressives and attack progressivism. They’ll tell the government to keep its hands off of their Medicare. Where do they think Medicare comes from? Who do they think pays for it? It’s just plain bizarre.

Conservative’s Two Faces of Fear

I’ve noticed that many conservatives (along with many right-wingers) make two contradictory criticisms. They don’t notice the contradiction because they typically don’t make both criticisms simultaneously or else not directed toward the same issues. However, the two criticisms are linked by the same fear which makes the two criticisms seem without contradiction.

They criticize both centralized government and grassroots activism. Both criticisms are based in their fear of democracy. They fear a government that would fairly and equally represent all people, including the poor, unemployed and homeless, including immigrants and minorities. But they also fear the people governing themselves through direct democracy for they fear mobocracy (and the same reason they fear grassroots organizations such as workers forming unions). These aren’t two fears but rather a single fear manifesting in two ways.

What conservatives want is an elite, but an elite that isn’t responsible to the masses. This is why they strongly support capitalist elites and religious elites. They want an elite that represents and enforces their views and not the views of anyone else. They want to create a conservative society where conservatism is forced on everyone whether they want it or not. They want this because to them this is their reality, in fact is reality itself. They truly believe that America is a conservative country and that their sense of morality is a universal truth that liberals seek to deny. To conservatives, forcing their beliefs and values onto others is simply an affirmation of ‘reality’ and so isn’t really force. Those who experience the business end of this force are to be blamed for bringing it onto themselves (the rationalization given for communist witchhunts, for torture of ‘terrorists’, etc).

I’ve noticed a lot of conservative thinking is based on contradictions such as these where what bridges the contradiction is usually a single unifying fear… along with many unstated unconscious assumptions (about reality and human nature). Not all conservatives (and right-wingers) think this way, but enough of them do that it has come to define the conservative movement and become the frame in which their politics is understood and debated (at least in the mainstream).

The Mystery of GOP Truthiness: what is the appeal?

An article from The New York Times discusses the low quality of GOP candidates:

“It is an ‘Animal House.’ It’s a food fight,” said Kenneth Duberstein, a chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan. “Honestly, the Republican debates have become a reality show. People have to be perceived as being capable of governing this country, of being the leader of the free world.”

It makes me wonder what these Tea Party Republicans want. I’ve talked to some of them. They like that these candidates aren’t polished as if that makes them more sincere, more real.

But why would anyone want to elect someone president simply because that person is as uninformed as the voter? Why wouldn’t they want a president who is smarter than they are? This is what distinguishes these GOP candidates from the likes of Obama. Whether or not you agree with Obama says, you realize that he at least knows what he is talking about. Then again, Tea Party Republicans apparently aren’t able to make that distinction.

The only thing these GOP candidates having going for them is confidence that could be described as blind arrogance. They feel their beliefs are equal or greater than the knowledge of others. They see no distinction between opinion and fact which makes one wonder if they can tell the difference between imagination and reality.

The Tea Party claims to be pushing for something new, but how is any of this new? This appears to be the same appeal that Bush had. Bush presented himself as a simple country boy who didn’t know much about that high falutin political stuff. Bush modeled himself as a compassionate conservative in order to speak to the far religious right and yet he also spoke the fiscal conservatism that appealed to libertarians. When Bush was elected, there developed a conflict that some described as the faith-based community vs the reality-based community. It was Bush or Rove who was reported as having said:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

When I hear the rhetoric of GOP candidates, I can’t tell any difference from the rhetoric of Bush when he was campaigning. The only difference is that Bush surrounded himself with evil masterminds.

By the way, it was Colbert who really brought this issue home with his coining of the term ‘truthiness‘. If you would like to have the full Colbert experience, he introduces the term in the video here and he takes it even further here in his roast of George W. Bush.

I ultimately don’t really care about the GOP. The fact that some Republican leaders fear that the GOP brand might be destroyed certainly doesn’t bother me. More power to them. Continue the destruction as far as I’m concerned. I don’t care about the game of partisan politics for either side. But I do care about our democracy. I would rather both sides were putting forth their best candidates with the best ideas to help improve our country. More importantly, I also care because I personally know some Republicans.

My parents are Republicans and both are drawn to the Tea Party. My parents are highly educated. My dad, in fact, spent much of his life as a college professor (the realm of the intellectual elite that right-wingers so often deride; i.e., those who can’t do teach). I would go so far as to say that my dad is smarter and more informed than the average GOP candidate. My parents aren’t mindless partisans, although they are life-long Republicans. They are just the typical older middle class Republican who still reveres Reagan, but they aren’t any happier about the hyper-partisan politics than I am. My dad thinks the right-wing pundits have gone too far and the lack of listening to the opposing side bothers him. Still, my parents are attracted to these hyper-partisan candidates. The reason seems to be the same for why they voted for Bush: the plain-spoken persona.

I don’t want to just dismiss this as being ignorant or stupid. I know my parents very well. They aren’t ignorant and stupid. I can somewhat understand this attraction toward the plain-spoken. There is nothing wrong with this.

I actually like people who are plain-spoken. It’s just I don’t see a conflict with being plain-spoken and being intelligent/educated/informed. The reason I like Chomsky is because is plain-spoken. The reason I voted for Nader was because he is plain-spoken. Nader, in a speech about a decade ago that I attended, explained that he intentionally didn’t rile up crowds. He said that when a crowd gets emotionally riled that it just leads to mindless groupthink rather than intelligent discussion. Nader cared more about real solutions than simply winning by cheerleading to the crowd.

This is what distinguishes this left version of plain-spoken from the right version (well, excluding the more mild-mannered Ron Paul). My parents really liked Cain. Why? Basically, because he was a straight shooter (as Cain explains it, he “shoots from the lip”). However, Cain isn’t mild-mannered or thoughtful in the way Nader is (or Ron Paul, although even the thoughtfulness of Ron Paul is less than that of Nader). What makes Cain any different than Bush? Nothing really. So, why do my parents think he would lead to different results than Bush? I honestly don’t know.

I find myself emotionally conflicted. I respect my parents. It was from my parents that I inherited my own thinking abilities, especially my intellect from my dad. I respect my parents in this basic way… and yet I don’t respect the candidates they support. Why can’t my dad see that he is smarter and more well informed than Cain? Why does my dad want to vote for someone less smart and less informed than he is? This perplexes me.

My dad would make a better GOP candidate than someone like Cain. My dad probably even has more real world experience and knowledge about the nuts and bolts of how businesses operate because my dad worked as manager of a factory, has advised many businesses in their operations, and has taught a generation or two of business leaders. It’s precisely because my dad left the corporate ladder of ruthless hyper-individualism that makes him so moral. Unlike Cain, he left that world of immorality/amorality in order to teach morality to students. Heck, I might even vote for my dad if he ran as a GOP candidate, despite my ardent liberalism.

I remember showing my dad the above linked video of Colbert roasting Bush. He thought it was mean-spirited. I was a bit surprised, even though maybe cynicism should have made me impervious to such surprise. Is someone who dismisses reality (if not outright lying/deceiving) in order to promote a war of aggression less mean-spirited than the person who points out that this person was dismissing reality? Why is my dad more bothered by the person who points out the untruth than by the person who promotes the untruth? Whatever the answer to that question is the mystery to phenomenon we are now watching in the GOP debates.

 * * * *

Additional thoughts (11/18/11):

While at work, I was cogitating on this issue. I realized there is a deeper aspect to this. But first let me point out where my line of thought began.

I was specifically focused on the context of my dad and his support of Cain. In my mind, my dad is superior to Cain in all ways except for one. The one way Cain excels above more moderate, intelligent, knowledgeable, and moral conservatives is that he has an unquestioning sense of pride and self-confidence. He is the type of conservative who just knows he is right and just knows he is the right person for the job. It’s an unwavering confidence that inspires and demands respect from many conservatives. The plain-spoken aspect would be meaningless without this key element of pride, what to me seems like arrogant pride (maybe the element that Ron Paul lacks).

What someone like Cain knows how to do is be a salesman, selling himself while climbing the corporate ladder and selling the corporate brand. Cain sees the presidency as if it were the CEO of a massive corporation and the brand to be sold is ‘America’. The presidential CEO doesn’t need to know about the nuts and bolts of actual policies in the way a corporate CEO doesn’t need to know how a factory is run. The CEO is the symbolic figurehead, the charismatic leader, the man with a vision. CEOs don’t need to do anything practical. CEOs only need to know how to work with people, i.e., how to get people to do the work that needs to get done.

It’s just like how Bush ran the presidency. Bush wasn’t a Rhodes scholar like Clinton, wasn’t stupid but surely was no genius. He had no background in the legal profession (such as constitutional law like Obama had) and no experience in international affairs (other than being family friends with some of the wealthiest families in the world such as the Saudi royal family). In fact, Bush was a failed businessman born into wealth (who probably would have been a failure his entire life without the power and privilege that comes with wealth). What Bush had to offer was that he was a people person and he had the connections. Bush could make things happen because he was surrounded by people who could make things happen. Bush was just the figurehead. It didn’t matter that he didn’t know much of anything.

It’s obvious that I feel dismissive toward this type of person. Even so, I’m not dismissing the appeal that someone like this has for the average conservative or even the average American in general. Americans love leaders who are idealistic and optimistic, whether or not they have any other positive qualities. This is why both Kennedy and Reagan were equally popular presidents, both having spoke of America in terms so positive as to be patriotically grandiose. It doesn’t matter that Clinton had a brilliant mind and Bush didn’t. Average Americans don’t care about brilliance. They want a president that they can relate to, someone who will play the role as national cheerleader. Humility is the very trait that will destroy a campaign quicker than a sex scandal.

Americans have become known for our confidence (along with their egotism and obliviousness; i.e. the ‘loud American’). Americans want everything big including the egos of their leaders. On a less critical note, this has its roots in American religion. Americans are so positive and confident because of our beliefs, and American religion has tended to be very individualistic (actually, there is a less individualistic tradition such as Catholicism that is equally American but it is a much quieter tradition and so tends to get ignored; in the US, the loudest always wins even when they don’t, they win because they loudly declare they win and the MSM ignores everyone who isn’t loud). I’m not quite expressing this right. There is this essence of optimism, not necessarily loud even if often so.

Let me try to explain this in more personal terms to bring it back to my own family. My conservative parents raised my brothers and me in the Unity Church which is New Thought Christianity. It is a very liberal church, liberal to the point of being New Agey. So, why would my conservative parents raise their kids in a liberal church? It’s simple once you understand this essence of American optimism. Unity Church comes out of the evangelical tradition. Unity Church is just the liberal version of evangelical prosperity gospel (it also goes by many other names).

This religious optimism is the same attitude at the heart of the optimistic vision of capitalism as a ‘free market’. This is the reason why so many conservatives simultaneously promote capitalism and Christianity, both of these embodying that optimistic vision, both expressing a meritocratic vision of society that verges on social Darwinism. God punishes the bad and rewards the good. This connection between religion and economics isn’t theologically sound, but that isn’t the point. It’s an experience, an emotional understanding. It’s right because it feels right. It can’t be explained logically. It just is. Such optimistic confidence doesn’t need to be explained. The desire for explanation has a scent of doubt about it. Doubt is the only sin. Just believe with all your heart. Just know what is right. Just know God is on your side.

It’s hard for me to explain this. I grew up with a version of this optimistic Christianity. It isn’t all bad. I wouldn’t be who I am now if it weren’t for my Unity upbringing. My intellectual curiosity was fed upon this positive thinking. I was taught that the mind is an expression of God, is the creative force of God. Each of us is co-creating the world with the Creator. The world is participatory and we all are participants. There is no point in making excuses. Just believe in yourself and — like the Nike ads used to say — Just Do It! It is a very attractive worldview. If not for my depression, I might still be living in such a mindset… and maybe if my parents had experienced depression like mine, they might have left this mindset behind long ago. That is my fatalistic side peeking out. We all are who we are for reasons we don’t understand. For someone living in this optimistic vision, it is very compelling and the thought of living otherwise seemingly offers no benefits or advantages.

I was thinking about my dad’s experience of life. I connect with him in many ways. I understand where he is coming from. He took a Dale Carnegie workshop when he was young (which was taught by Carnegie himself), and it has forever influenced and inspired his life. I didn’t take a workshop, but I did read Carnegie’s book when I was young and it did have quite an impact on my young mind. I so much wanted to be that kind of person. Without depression having torn down my dreams, I might have gladly followed my dad’s footsteps in this direction of confident self-assertiveness, of demanding to be liked by others by liking others, of being a ‘good person’ doing good things. During my first years of severe depression, I kept wondering why I too couldn’t just be a ‘good person’, couldn’t just believe in myself, couldn’t simply help make the world a better place, couldn’t be kind and giving, couldn’t be successful and happy, couldn’t fit in to what the world said I should be. Everything felt impossible, the precise opposite of the positive thinking. The idealism and optimism I was raised with just magnified my depression to the point that I became cynical; the brighter the light, the darker the shadows. As George Carlin explained, “If you scratch a cynic, you’ll find a disappointed idealist.”

My role in life has become that of the failure of the family and this role has now expanded into that of the weird bachelor uncle. “Ben had so much potential. I wonder why he never did anything with his life.” Obviously, I’m slightly bitter about my New Thought upbringing. People like my dad (confident, successful, popular, respected, sought after, etc) could never understand someone like me. I’ve come to think of myself as the shadow of my parents, the parts of themselves that they rejected. Arnold Mindell has this theory about the roles people play. If a certain aspects are denied by certain people, then some other person will be forced to play out those rejected aspects. The darkness cannot be refused, no matter how much it is ignored and suppressed. My parents fled to their conservative vision of righteous morality and optmistic self-certainty. What they left behind in the process became what the Bible describes as the sins of the father being visited upon his sons.

My dad believes God has guided him in some way in his career: divinity and materialism, the miraculous and the successful wedded together. This is what I’m forced to take seriously. Listening to my dad speak, I can profoundly sense the sincerity behind his words. He is communicating a very deep and personal truth. This is the tricky part. My dad has taken a subjective experience and used it to theologically validate a particular vision of society. Because God guided my dad, because he listened, this implies that anyone else who is a failure has failed to align their life with God which means they deserve their failure as punishment. This is the darkside of worshipping the God of success. The genuine spiritual experience easily becomes corrupted in its being used to rationalize away social injustice.

Much of American Christianity has come to worship Mammon (the vision of success embodied in capitalistic meritocracy). I remember my dad telling me that it never made sense to him the scene where Jesus throws out the moneylenders from the temple. Such an angry Jesus didn’t fit his vision of the emodiment of God. Why would Jesus be so angry with people doing business? How could moneylending (the very heart of modern capitalism) be bad?

I’ve gone off track a bit here. To bring it back to the topic at hand, this meritocratic optimism relates to the anti-intellectual confidence, Cain being the perfect representation of how these two fit together. To be fair, anti-intellectualism doesn’t just exist on the right. I can’t remember all the times I’ve been driven to irritation by the anti-intellectualism of left-leaning New Thought and New Age types. This anti-intellectualism, whether on the left of the right, annoys me to no end. There is no way to talk to people who have become enthralled to this attitude of confident certitude.

Still, there is a difference between the left and right that is quite significant. The left-leaning spirituality in America is heavily influenced by traditions such as Quakerism. Spiritualism, the forerunner of much of the New Age, was largely originated by radical Quakers. What differentiates Quakers from the prosperity evangelicals is that the former has a tradition of promoting education. The anti-intellectualism of the left-leaning spirituality is much more mild. In the Unity Church I was raised in, there was no lack of intellectual curiosity among the membership. In fact, Unity tended to attract very highly educated people. Unity goes the opposite direction from the right-wing evangelicals in that it encourages people to have minds so open that their brains might fall out. The right-wing evangelical tradition, on the other hand, is more in the tradition of the Scots-Irish which includes absolutely no tradition of promoting education. It’s from the Scots-Irish that average Americans get their disdain for the ‘Intellectual Elite’.

Anyway, this confidence in all its forms is what makes American culture what it is, the good and the bad. It’s because of this culture of confidence that such things as the present GOP fiasco of campaigning become sadly inevitable. As long as we place confidence above intelligence and knowledge, we will continue to get politicians who are confident despite their ignorance and misinformation. It’s not to say that most Americans are stupid. It’s just that even smart people like my parents end up voting for stupid people because our political system offers stupid candidates. We Americans come to think that politicians aren’t supposed to be smart and that smart people aren’t supposed to be politicians. This becomes so implicit that we stop even questioning all the stupidity. It’s simply the norm, the way things always have been, the way things are supposed to be. Stupidity will lead to more stupidity until at some point we will hit a crisis point, a SNAFU of stupidity… maybe we are already at that point.

 * * * *

More additional thoughts:

I was thinking about this all last night, even as I was falling asleep. I just couldn’t get it off my mind because I felt like I wasn’t communicating my essential thought on the matter. To me, it isn’t about whether someone is smart or stupid, that of course being an overly simplistic way of looking at it.

Everyone has various talents and potentials, but not all talents and potentials are equal for all careers. Being a politician, especially in Washington and even more especially as president, requires a very specific set of skills such as a working knowledge of international affairs and of federal laws. I know that I don’t have what it takes. Why is there this myth among the right-wing that any random Joe could be president in the belief that the president is just a symbolic figurehead requiring no talent beyond being friendly and good-looking (along with the whole confidence thing)?

The problem I see with voting for someone who is equal or inferior to me in knowledge is that it is selling ourselves short. I don’t want average. I want excellence, the best of the best. America has a very large population. No one can honestly claim that the GOP candidates are the best that the conservative movement has to offer. Why not vote for the best? What is to be gained by running politics like a reality show? Is mere entertainment all that many Americans expect from politics?

To be clear, I don’t just blame Republicans. I certainly think Democrats could offer a lot more better choices. It just seems like the same thing again and again in both parties, both sides playing the same old puppet show. I don’t want to just blame the American public for the sorry quality of candidates. Obviously, the system itself filters out the people who are most qualified to help run the country well. Cenk nailed this in a recent video (maybe its better to end with Cenk words than with my own):

Backfire Effect, Oppressed Minority, & Political Divide

Here are just a few thoughts, but I won’t offer any complex analysis. This is just some info I’ve come across recently: (1) the backfire effect demographics, (2) the most oppressed minority, and (3) the main US political divide.

(1) The backfire effect is very interesting. It’s the cognitive behavior of someone’s beliefs becoming stronger when confronted with facts that contradict those beliefs. When dealing with such a person, rational discussion is impossible.

Anyone can be prone to the backfire effect at times, but only certain groups are consistently prone to it.

Unsurprisingly, research shows that conservatives are most prone. Liberals, on the other hand, may or may not change their beliefs when confronted with new info. However, most liberals tend to not becoming stronger in their beliefs in reaction to facts that counter their beliefs.

Looking at the research, there was only one other demographic I noticed that was also prone. This other group are those who are highly educated, specifically experts. For different reasons than conservatives, an expert believes he already knows more than others, at least when it comes to certain subjects. The expert is probably often right, but this often being right can lead the expert to not as seriously consider new info.

(2) The most oppressed minority isn’t what most people would guess. Researchers have asked Americans who they’d vote for as president. A majority would be willing to vote for a Mormon, for a woman, for a racial minority, and even for a homosexual.

Who wouldn’t most Americans vote for? Atheists. There has never been an openly atheist president and openly atheist politicians are rare.

I was listening to a radio show where a novel was being discussed. The novel apparently involved an atheist character. This led to several atheists to call in to express the prejudice they’ve experienced from Christians, especially in rural areas. The prejudice included ostracization and hate mail.

Atheists, and the non-religious in general, is a growing demographic. But Christian institutions continue to wield immense power in the US. Too often religious freedom simply means the freedom to be religious but not the freedom to be treated fairly as an atheist or non-believer.

(3) The strongest divide in US politics may not be what is portrayed in the MSM. The most loyal base of the Democratic party isn’t the progressive/liberal movement. In fact, it’s social conservatives who are minorities.

These Democratic party minorities are traditional conservatives, not right-wing conservatives as seen in the Republican party. These minorities are social conservatives who largely are evangelical protestants. As traditional conservatives, they believe in social solutions to social problems and they support social institutions to maintain social order. Traditional conservatives, unlike right-wingers, aren’t against government.

The major divide isn’t between liberals and conservatives. Rather, it’s between minority evangelical protestants and white evangelical protestants. The former is a growing demographic and the latter is a shrinking demographic, and at the moment they are at a balance point that hasn’t yet fully shifted. Most interestingly, the Democratic minorities are more socially conservative than the Republican whites, but the Democratic minorities are socially conservative in a traditionally conservative way. The Democratic party, oddly, has become the defender of traditional conservtism.

So, the actual political divide right now is between traditional conservatives and radical right-wingers. Liberals have for various reasons chosen to side with the traditional conservatives.

 

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