The Left and the Right in Relationship
We find that, in our location and life circumstances, we are in contact with a variety of people across the ideological spectrum(s), along with across cultural differences. This diverse town is a major medical and research center centered around a liberal state college. The writers workshop here is the oldest of its kind. Though relatively small, the community draws people from all over the country and all over the world; and it’s situated amidst farmland, pulling in many residents and workers who grew up in rural communities and small towns as well; thus balancing out the middle class WEIRDness (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic). But our own bias is mostly that of a local yokel, if someone who at times has lived in other states and regions of the country. Most of our life has been in this town and, though without a college degree ourselves, we fit in just fine with our intellectuality, love of learning, and book obsession. All of that, of course, goes along with our liberal-mindedness.
Yet, as radically left-liberal as we might be, we were raised by conservative parents who are rightward socially, religiously, and economically, if they are somewhat moderate; and we spent our teen years in the conservative, nay right-wing authoritarian, Deep South. Even now in being surrounded by liberalism, for various reasons, we somehow end up spending much of our time talking with those on the right, some more reactionary than others: Republican partisans, fundamentalists, Tea Partiers, MAGA supporters, and alt-righters. Some are family, while others are friends and coworkers. They are a diverse bunch and so they wouldn’t agree on a number of issues, but among them there is a common disconnect that comes up again and again. It’s certainly frustrating, to a leftist, and often just plain strange and disconcerting.
We probably spend more time thinking about such people than they spend thinking about us, and so here we are. Let’s give an example. There is one guy we’ve personally known for a long time. He is an all around conservative Republican trapped in a right-wing media bubble and echo chamber. His views tend toward the conventional, though increasingly reactionary as he ages. He more or less fits the stereotypical profile of demographics and life experience that one might expect, though not relevant for our present purposes. Among our right-wing relationships and acquaintances, he is the one we talk to the most regularly and the most engagingly, for the simple reason we’re around each other a lot. So we are particularly familiar with his worldview and what motivates it. We are informed of his background and what has shaped his life.
He is smart and educated, as is the norm around here, and yet his understanding is so narrowly confined as to give him no larger perspective. Admittedly, he has physically seen more of the world than we have. Intellectually, though, he is less well traveled. Anything that disagrees with his beliefs and biases is often dismissed out of hand. Though retired from the educational field, he simply doesn’t have much curiosity outside of what he already knows or thinks he knows, and having been an expert in his field he is prone to the smart idiot effect, in believing he doesn’t have to research a topic for himself to have a relevant opinion that is to be taken seriously. When point blank given evidence that contradicts his views, he’ll typically refuse to look at it and just digs in further; the standard backfire effect that research shows is more common on the Right, and well-educated conservatives most of all (an interesting phenomenon we won’t discuss further here).
All evidence that doesn’t confirm his bias is asserted as having a liberal bias or is somehow wrong, faulty, or whatever; without any need to prove it (e.g., climatology science is false, manipulated, and corrupt because he read one right-wing book on the topic and so no further information is needed). He won’t offer counter-evidence, just assumes he is right until he is proven wrong, which is impossible to do in his own mind since he already knows he is right. How does one respond to that? Of course, when this anti-intellectualism is pointed out, he gets defensive and asserts that, as someone on the left, we’re just calling names. No, we’re not. We’d love to have a meaningful intellectual discussion with him about many topics, but his intellectual willingness in many cases is not up to match, though not for lacking general intelligence, far from it.
A Liberal Mind Amidst Right-Wing Media
If this otherwise nice fellow were merely stupid, we wouldn’t bother talking to him in the first place or at least we wouldn’t engage with him beyond casual chatter. Yet in having been bottle-fed on early Cold War propaganda, he lacks intellectual defenses against manipulative media. He tends to mindlessly repeat the rhetorical framings, narratives, and talking points he hears from right-wing media and political elites. Unlike us, his media consumption doesn’t extend very far, pretty much limited to sources that conform to the same basic set of scripts. He doesn’t have exposure to any left-wing media or even moderately liberal media, in the way we are constantly exposed to right-wing and conservative media. Part of the reason for this difference is that we have an uncontrollably driven sense of curiosity that ends up leading us all over the place, along with what we inadvertently pick up from the surrounding cultural and media milieu.
As a liberal-minded liberal, it’s hard for us to imagine not wanting to know other perspectives. Besides, even when trying to mind our own business, it’s impossible to ignore right-wing media when it’s constantly in our space, such as televisions playing in the background and newspapers laying about. Keep in mind that all corporate media has a right-wing bias, if only in terms of the capitalist realism and class war of the ownership class (i.e., the super-rich elite who own most of the corporate media that is concentrated in a few transnational corporations). Also, consider that, if you go anywhere in the United States, the most common channel to be playing in any place of business (restaurant, bar, hotel lobby, etc) is Fox News. This isn’t a right-wing country, at least not in terms of supermajority public opinion, but we are ruled by a right-wing elite, media and otherwise.
That is the thing. In our having liberal-minded thin psychic boundaries, it’s not part of our capacity to block out what is in the world around us, whether or not it would be our preference. We are hyper-attuned and sensitive like a staticky shirt picking up lint everywhere we go, the kind of cognitive tendency that comes up in studies on what distinguishes liberals and the liberal-minded. It’s an expression of high openness to experience, and it has other affects as well, in terms of the dual trait openness/intellectuality. Though we may be an extreme example in our roving curiosity, surveys show that liberals in general consume more conservative media and alternative media than do conservatives of liberal media and alternative media; partly because liberals are on average younger and spend more time on the media-diverse internet. Then again, it’s hard for a liberal to do otherwise, of any age group, as right-wing media is pervasive, while leftist media is mostly excluded from the ‘mainstream’.
Anyway, it’s just in the nature of liberals to be liberal-minded, that is to say motivated by intellectual curiosity and cognitive complexity, and so seeking out a greater variety of views and sources. One of the strengths and weaknesses of the liberal-minded personality trait openness is that the boundaries of the mind are thin and porous, that is to say the opposite of highly focused and narrowly confined. To the degree one is liberal-minded one would not be content and satisfied listening to the same set of opinions over and over, hearing talking points parroted. With wandering and sprawling minds, curiosity tends to get the better of liberals. We on the left are vulnerable to being drawn into the corporate-controlled media environment, just because we’re curious and that is mostly what is available. It takes a lot more conscious effort and intention to look for underfunded leftist media.
Let’s consider some specifics. For instance, according to audience data, a liberal is more likely to watch Fox News than a conservative is to listen to NPR, even though the former is much further right than the latter is to the left; as even NPR is mostly privately-funded (i.e., corporate-funded) and, according to one analysis, gives more airtime to right-wing think tanks (an analysis that was already biased in labeling centrist think tanks, to the right of the American public, as ‘liberal’). To find a leftist equivalent of the extremist rhetoric heard on Fox News, one would have to look even further left to alternative media, but such media territory is a complete blindspot for most conservatives, as well as for many liberals. It’s hard to imagine anyone in the United States who is not intimately aware of Fox News, what it spouts, and the effect it has. It’s strange considering most Americans, on most issues, are to the left of the political elites, including the DNC elite. Yet majoritarian left-liberal views are so silenced in ‘mainstream’ media, even supposed ‘liberal’ media, as to be treated as near non-existent.
This is part of a larger pattern of ideological divide. Similarly, someone on the left is more likely to be familiar with genetic determinism than someone on the right is to be equally familiar with epigenetics, and the same for numerous unequal disparities of knowledge: leftist knowledge of corporate capitalism versus rightist ignorance of Marxism and communism (or even ignorance of the anti-corporatist capitalism of the American founding generation), leftist knowledge of neoliberalism versus rightist ignorance of anarchosyndicalism (or any other similar variations of socioeconomic leftism), leftist knowledge of right-libertarianism versus rightist ignorance of left-libertarianism (despite left-libertarianism being the original meaning of ‘libertarianism’), leftist knowledge of fundamentalist apologetics versus rightist ignorance of pagan parallels in Abrahamic religions (the latter of which was written about by Thomas Paine, the main inspiration for the American Revolution), and endless other examples.
So, one side is always coming to the table with greater familiarity with the other side, but it is not mutual to an extreme degree. Instead of knowledge, right-wing rhetoric turns leftists into inane cartoon characters. In listening to Fox News, one lady we know is always saying how absurd and crazy is the political left, by which is typically meant the DNC elite. Indeed, if one were to mostly watch Fox News and little else, it would be hard to not be shocked by leftist politics that, as portrayed, makes absolutely no sense. But what doesn’t occur to the indoctrinated reactionary mind is that maybe it’s the media caricature, not the target of derision, that is absurd.
Getting to Know the Reactionary Right
Because of a lifetime of such a media environment, and because of being liberal-minded in our curiosity, we have become quite conversant not only with conservative ‘mainstream’ media like Fox News and The Wall Street Journal but also have gained long familiarity with more alternative stuff: Reason Magazine, Epoch Times, Imprimis, etc; along with the websites, blogs, and Youtube channels of religious apologists (e.g., Stephen J. Bedard), racists (e.g., Richard Lynn), white supremacists (e.g., Steve Sailer), genetic determinists (e.g., HBDchick), anarcho-capitalists (e.g., Stefan Molyneux ), and on and on; ad nauseum. Also outside the bounds of respectable society, we’ve listened to the likes of Alex Jones, Stephen Bannon, and Jordan Peterson long before most on the Right had even heard those names.
After seeing him in Richard Linklater’s movies in the early Aughts, it was from Alex Jones that we first learned of the concept of a false flag operation; that was when he had yet to go full Looney Tunes, if he was already teetering on the edge of sanity. As that decade ended, during the Obama administration, Stephen Bannon came out with a documentary on generations theory that we saw; and we quickly recognized it as propaganda. Our parents were watching a lot of Fox News at the time and Glenn Beck became a common presence in our life. On our own, around then or maybe earlier, we checked out the largely unknown Greg Gutfeld on his late show on Fox News, but found it boring; and now he is the new primetime comedian commentator to fill Beck’s absence. It was during that period when we first came across talk of Jordan Peterson, his not having been politicized back then and, instead, mostly known for his 1999 book Maps of Meaning. It was actually a Canadian liberal who introduced us to him; prior to his having embraced the alt-right, having become an IDW (intellectual dark web) figure, and having turned his life into political spectacle.
In the past, we used to actively seek out such interesting and intriguing, sometimes bizarre, stuff and would look into almost anything, as we felt morally obligated and intellectually compelled to understand what was going on in the world, including what was bubbling up in the reactionary mind. At times, depending on our mood, we could and still can be openly curious to almost any alternative view, if sometimes just for shits and giggles. The most extreme paranoid fantasies and rantings, in the more innocent times of decades past, could be taken as mere entertainment; because there was no mass movement and corporate media pushing them to the extent seen now, and certainly there had yet to be a Donald Trump presidency and a MAGA insurrection. Our alternative-loving mentality has had a way of leading us down strange, sometimes dark, paths; a habit we blame on our tender young psyche having been imprinted upon by Robert Anton Wilson and Art Bell; what once were gateway drugs for the curious liberal.
We don’t regret our past explorations. It made possible for us to follow all the lines of influence that eventually formed into the present deranged reactionary right, though it would’ve been hard to have predicted what it was to become in its full glory. We were right there at the beginning and it’s fascinating to think back on it. We came of age in the ’90s and viscerally felt the changes in the air. When still in high school, while down in South Carolina, we’d sometimes catch the early right-wing radio talk shows, such as Laura Schlessinger and Rush Limbaugh, along with occasionally listening to fire-and-brimstone preachers as they can be mesmerizing. Following that, we spent several summers in the Bible Belt region of North Carolina, where we worked at a Christian camp and, also while dating a local girl, got to know far right fundamentalists up close and personal.
All in all, the world of the reactionary right is not alien to us, even as it will always be something outside our own mentality. We’ve lived with it, grasped what it is, watched it develop, felt its impact in our gut, and seen what it does to others. It influenced us as well, if only in determining what we didn’t want to be. Now we’re in a different place in our life. We’ve tried to learn to be more discerning in what we put into our mental space, as we’ve found too much of the crap out there to be torturous and usually pointless, not worth wasting one’s time upon. Concern for mental health required us to stop such bad habits of wide-open curiosity, if we still prize an open mind. Nonetheless, it’s not like we can isolate ourselves. Even now, we know the exact talking points that are popular right at this moment on Fox News. We absorb it all like a sponge, all the more reason to set clear boundaries.
No Shared Knowledge, No Mutual Communication
To get back to the conservative guy we mentioned, for all the above reasons and more, we know where many on the right are getting their thoughts and ideas from, whereas few on the right have any clue about where those of us on the left are coming from. It’s a immense chasm to cross, and so it makes actual and mutual communication a rarity, but it can happen at times and that is what motivates us to reach out to the right-wingers within our personal world. Frustration aside, we do enjoy dialogue with those of other views, and that is why this particular conservative has occupied so much of our attention. When not taken in by right-wing fears, he actually is capable of nuanced thoughtfulness and so talking with him is far from a waste of time. Plus, we simply value our relationship with him on a human level; not everything is about overt ideology.
Because of our larger perspective with a broader knowledge base, we are able to sense our way into his worldview; and so we sometimes can couch our own views in the language, ideas, and frames that make sense to him. Yet he can’t return the favor, as it simply is not in his capacity. Our holding all the responsibility for translation can be tiresome. Even then, only on occasion do we successfully manage to lure him out of his reality tunnel of ideological realism and groupthink. At those times, he is able to be somewhat clear-minded and critical, if only briefly for he soon falls back into a more comfortable stance. The only reason we’ve been able to reach him at all is because the political right is fractured and the cracks offer opportunities for light to shine in, creates weak points to gain leverage and wedge open just enough before the openings snap shut again.
In contrast to his GOP partisanship, we are an equal opportunity critic of the entire two-party duopoly. This is useful in that we can get him to lower his defenses by our attacking the DNC elites, particularly the Clintonistas, of which we despise all the more as they stand in for the entire Left on corporate media spin, while in reality third way politics mostly triangulates itself between the moderate right and the corporate right, with some liberal sugar to help the poison go down. In talking to him, we can segue from such criticisms of Democrats into even harder hitting critiques of the totalizing corruption of both parties within a common power structure that dominates society. This usually works in drawing out his semi-libertarian streak, but his defenses return at the slightest hint of ideological threat. We have to be cautious in not being too provoking, and our success is spotty at best.
Still, we can often get him to agree, surprisingly, with rather leftist views (on the problems of neoliberalism, excessive CEO pay, near monopolies, externalized costs, harmful inequities, culture of trust breakdown, monied corruption, etc). That is as long as we don’t point out that we are expressing leftism. The main challenge is that, no matter what, he will always mentally still be living in the early Cold War. A McCarthyist battle against authoritarian Stalinism and in favor of authoritarian fascism will never end in his Burkean moral imagination, and no non-authoritarian third option is quite possible as a viscerally real choice, despite his being able to intellectually conceive that non-authoritarianism sounds nice as an ideal and in theory. Basically, like most on the reactionary right, he has no actual understanding of democracy or genuine concern about it. How could he when all he hears is anti-democratic rhetoric on right-wing media?
Democracy is just a word to be bandied about and, in reactionary style, defenders of democracy get caricatured as attacking ‘democracy’ (i.e., the status quo of the Establishment). Yet, since he is part of the respectable classes, he can’t admit that he is anti-democratic (i.e., right-wing authoritarian) and anti-egalitarian (i.e., social dominance orientation), if not entirely (like many Americans, he is ideologically schizoid). Such an admission would be politically incorrect, even on the political right. This is the double bind we are caught in as a society. Many individuals can’t openly declare and commit to what they actually value, believe, and uphold. Another obvious example is how racists these days deny being racists, whereas in the past they’d have been proud of their racism, to the point of open supremacism and eugenics. This goes hand in hand with the political right co-opting the label of classical liberalism, while eschewing the ugliness of classical conservatism, but eschewing it in name only.
Reaching Out to the Closed Mind
To this conservative guy, old school neocon President Joe Biden is a communist or else he is a communist puppet under the control of Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders. And the corporatist Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare) is likewise communist, despite it increasing the wealth and power of the private oligopoly of insurance companies, and despite it having originated in a right-wing think tank and having been first implemented by the Republican Mitt Romney (it would make more sense to call it Romneycare). Everything that isn’t far right is communist, or anything that is right-wing but then adopted by the Democratic Party. And whatever you do avoid the topic of postmodern Marxism, a complete oxymoron since postmodernists and Marxists are historically bitter enemies, to such an extent that declassified records show that the CIA intentionally promoted postmodernism to combat Marxist influence. Such facts are irrelevant, though, in speaking to those on the Right.
In not knowing themselves, in refusing to know themselves, right-wing reactionaries know the other side even less and know the larger world not at all. So, lost in such darkness, they are prone to frightening nightmares, where what they project outward is cast back upon them as shadows; with all the shadow boxing that entails, wild punches being blindly thrown and haphazardly landing upon the innocent. Their only sense of the entire Left is a fantastical phantasm that would instantly dissipate in the light of self-awareness, but that would require them to lift it up into open-eyed scrutiny. How does one talk to someone on the Right when their words drop off into empty air filled with the insubstantial imaginings and frightening specters that only they can see? Yet in being part of the same society, how can we not talk to these others, how can we not attempt to reach out? After all, they are our family and friends, our neighbors and coworkers. They aren’t really other, even if that is how they perceive us or rather how the media they consume portrays us.