The Moderate Republicans of the Democratic Party

“I don’t know that there are a lot of Cubans or Venezuelans, Americans who believe that. The truth of the matter is that my policies are so mainstream that if I had set the same policies that I had back in the 1980s, I would be considered a moderate Republican.”
~Barack Obama, 2012 interview (via DarkSkintDostoyevsky)

Not just a moderate but a moderate Republican. His argument was that GOP has moved so far right that he is now holding what was once a standard position among Republicans.

This is supported by his having continued Bush era policies, further legalized the War on Terror, and deported more immigrants than any president before, even a higher rate than Trump. His crown achievement was to pass Romneycare healthcare reform that originated from a right-wing think tank, while refusing to consider that most Americans being far to his left were demanding universal healthcare or single payer. Heck, he even expanded gun rights by allowing guns to be carried on federal land.

The unstated implication is, in order to occupy what once was Republican territory, that has involved the Democrats also moving right. But this didn’t begin with Obama. Mick Arran notes that, “In ’92 or 93 Bill Clinton said, in public, on the record, that his admin would be a ‘moderate Republican administration’. It was.” It’s easy to forget how that decade transformed the Democratic Party. This is made clear by E.J. Dionne jr. in 1996 piece from the Washington Post (Clinton Swipes the GOP’s Lyrics):

The president was among the first to broach the notion of Clinton as Republican — albeit more in frustration than pleasure. “Where are all the Democrats?” Clinton cried out at a White House meeting early in his administration, according to “The Agenda,” Bob Woodward’s account of the first part of the Clinton presidency. “I hope you’re all aware we’re all Eisenhower Republicans. We’re Eisenhower Republicans here, and we are fighting the Reagan Republicans. We stand for lower deficits and free trade and the bond market. Isn’t that great?”

To be fair, this shift began much earlier. What we call Reaganomics actually began under Jimmy Carter. This change included ushering in deregulation. From CounterPunch, Chris Macavel writes that (The Missing Link to the Democratic Party’s Pivot to Wall Street):

As eminent historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., an aide to President Kennedy, posited, Carter was a Democrat in name only; his actions were more characteristically Republican. He observes: “[T]he reason for Carter’s horrible failure in economic policy is plain enough. He is not a Democrat — at least in anything more recent than the Grover Cleveland sense of the word.” Grover Cleveland, it must be remembered, was an austerity Democratic who presided over an economic depression in the late 19th century. According to Schlesinger, Carter is “an alleged Democrat” who “won the presidency with demagogic attacks on the horrible federal bureaucracy and as president made clear in the most explicit way his rejection of… affirmative government…. But what voters repudiated in 1980 [Carter’s defeat] was not liberalism but the miserable result of the conservative economic policies of the last half dozen years.” (Leuchtenburg 17)

It was Carter who, as the first Evangelical president, helped to create a new era of politicized religion. He was a conservative culture warrior seeking moral reform, as part of the Cold War fight against Godless communism — of course, conservatism meant something far different back then, as it still could be distinguished from the reactionary right-wing. Strange as it seems, Carter was a conservative who wanted to conserve, although he didn’t want conserve a progressive worldview. His austerity economics went hand in hand with an antagonism toward welfare, unions, and leftist activists. New Deal Progressivism was mortally wounded under the Carter administration.

As fellow Southerners, Carter and Clinton were responding to Nixon’s Southern Strategy by rebranding the Democratic Party with conservative rhetoric and policies. There was a more business-friendly attitude. In place of progressivism, what took hold was realpolitik pessimism but with a friendly face.

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GOP Power Grab and the Coming Backlash

The only thing more impressive than the cluelessness of the Democratic establishment is the cluelessness of the Republicans in their power grab.

I doubt the GOP actually believes they have a mandate from the American public. They simply want to force their political will onto the entire country, no matter the costs. But it is total insanity. They have already overreached and the backlash will be like nothing seen in living memory. This backlash will bring down the Republican Party, delegitimize the entire political right, popularize left-wing ideologies. and radicalize the public.

Steve Bannon is the demented mastermind behind Donald Trump. He is a student of generations theory, which he did a documentary about. So, he should know better. In generations theory, Strauss and Howe stated that whichever political party is in power when the crisis hits will be out of power for a generation. Bannon was hoping to take advantage of the crisis to seize power and force through his agenda. But it turns out that Bannon, along with Trump and the GOP, is the crisis.

Even many who supported Trump will quickly turn against the GOP. The white working class in particular is going to be even angrier and more outraged… and it will all be directed at the GOP, since the Democrats are out of power. We might be seeing a national protest movement that won’t be controlled by either party. And once it gets rolling, nothing will be able to stop it until changes happen.

Bannon, Trump, and the GOP won’t likely be happy with the results. Neither will the Dems. It’s not clear even the American public will be happy. But that is irrelevant now. The status quo can no longer be maintained and the immediate consequences won’t be likely be happy for anyone. The difference for those on the bottom is that they don’t care about happiness, as they don’t feel like they have much left to lose.

It’s a dangerous situation. The political elite are playing with dynamite.

Trump the Train Wreck

If I was an evil mastermind who wanted to destroy the Republican Party, it’s hard to imagine a better possibility than getting someone like Trump elected president. The next four years will be a train wreck in slow motion. Trump will destroy the GOP as it so far has existed. That may or may not destroy it as a functioning political party. But for sure it will never be the same.

I had such thoughts back during the campaigns. It occurred to me that, once Clinton and Trump were nominated, this was an election neither party should want to win. Either was going to be a disaster for their respective party. The president now will get blamed for so much. And both of these people were severely disliked and distrusted.

There is a difference, though. Most of the people who voted for Clinton were simply Democratic partisans. They were hoping to save their party, even though pushing out Sanders did long term harm. The dynamic was different on the other side.

There are also partisan Republicans who held their nose while voting for Trump, assuming that he was better than nothing. But there were many other Trump supporters who weren’t partisan Republicans and they couldn’t care less if the GOP goes down in flames. They are a frustrated group who just want to be heard, by any means necessary. They might even take pride in destroying the GOP.

The GOP has a tiger by the tail and is afraid to let go. They might discover, though, that they don’t have the tiger. The tiger has them. I wish them luck, as I’d rather see both parties reformed than destroyed. The two party system has been a failure, but at the moment what would replace it might be worse. What we really need, if we were to be honest, is a constitutional convention. The system needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up.

If reform fails, as it seems it will, there are those who’d rather push failure to its inevitable conclusion of self-destruction. The same frustration and outrage that led to obstruction of Obama now has infected the heart of the GOP. The beast will turn on itself, devouring its own entrails. I’ll leave you with that pleasant image.

“That party could find itself out of power for a generation.”

What this election means will become more clear over time. The demographic data during the campaigns was interesting, indicating a voting public that was in flux with shifting patterns. It will be interesting to look at the data about who did (and did not) vote and how they voted.

The long term consequences might mean parties that no longer resemble anything from the past. The two parties might essentially switch places. Democrats could become the new big biz party, if the Clinton cronies maintain power. Meanwhile, Republicans might become the new working class party with strong union member support and an economic populist agenda.

Another possibility is that we might see the eventual death of one of the main parties. At the moment, Republicans could be in the more dangerous position. They have the numbers and power in Washington DC to do almost anything they want. They better pick their battles wisely and ensure they gain victories worth winning. They have one shot to show themselves to be a party of reform. If they fail, they could be facing a dire situation far beyond merely losing the mid-term elections.

In a book published in 1997, William Strauss and Neil Howe made a prediction. I read that book not long after that and so the prediction has been on my mind for a while. They wrote that whichever party was in power when the crisis hit “could find itself out of power for a generation.” They saw the beginning of the Fourth Turning as happening sometime early in this century and then in the years following would come the crisis, but this involves predictions of large historical cycles that could be off by a decade or so. Here is the full quote (The Fourth Turning, p. 312):

“Come the Fourth Turning, America will need both personal sacrifice and public authority. The saeculum will favor whichever party moves more quickly and persuasively toward a paradigm that accommodates both. Both parties should lend seasonality to their thinking: Democrats a concept of civic duty that limits the harvest, Republicans a concept of civic authority that limits the scattering. If they do not, the opportunity will arise for a third party to fill the void – after which one or both of today’s two dominant parties could go the way of the Whigs.

“History warns that when a Crisis catalyzes, a previously dominant political party (or regime) can find itself directly blamed for perceived “mistakes” that led to the national emergency. Whoever holds power when the Fourth Turning arrives could join the unlucky roster of the circa 1470 Lancastrians, circa 1570 Catholics, circa 1680 Stuarts, circa 1770 Tories, circa 1860 Democrats, and circa 1929 Republicans. That party could find itself out of power for a generation. Key persons associated with it could find themselves defamed, stigmatized, harassed, economically ruined, personally punished—or worse.”

Barack Obama’s presidency didn’t seem to fit this prediction, despite some fearing it would. He has retained his favorable ratings and nothing horrible went wrong during his administration. It’s just that he turned out to be an ordinary professional politician, but still he succeeded in creating healthcare (insurance) ‘reform’ and under his watch the US military took out Osama bin Laden who was America’s most hated enemy. Even the earlier Bush presidency is still remembered without too much negativity, as it was a time of growing patriotic fervor, even with it having ended on the sour note of the Great Recession.

Donald Trump, however, is an entirely different kind of creature. He will either take Republicans in a new direction or he will take them over a cliff. Upwards and onwards or down and out. It’s hard to see a third option of maintaining stasis. The problems that might come barreling down on the Trump administration could be more than can be handled, even if the Republicans had a worthy vision to offer and workable plans to implement.

Democrats are lucky for power having slipped from their grasp. Now that Clinton lost the election, her sins will slowly but surely disappear from public awareness. She might as well be a non-entity at this point. Anything that happens in the immediate future won’t be blamed on Democrats. They have been sent to wander in the political desert. Upon their return, they can act as prophets from the wilderness, pretending they were never a part of what caused all the problems in the first place.

Voters have short memories. It doesn’t matter who is to blame. What wins elections is who gets blamed. I almost feel sorry for Republicans in their victory. They have some tough years ahead of them. It could very well turn out to be a no-win situation, no matter what they try to do.

Even some on the political right have had these exact same concerns, based on the same prediction of Strauss and Howe. Back in March over at Red State, Ausonius wrote about “this ominous warning for Republicans, who think Trump is the answer for 2016”. The author continues:

“Since 1992, we have endured three Baby-Boomer presidents, a mediocrity, a passable one, and one complete disaster. We currently have two more Baby-Boomer candidates near 70 years of age, whose characters are less than savory, and whose ideas are stale, ridiculous, or formulas for destruction. It is quite possible that a Trump or H.R. Clinton presidency will not address the crisis, but will instead contribute to it by a combination of egotism, incompetence, and ideological blindness. […]

“Republicans could become 21st-century versions of their 1929 ancestors, if they select candidates – and not only for the presidency – incapable of dealing with the chaos around us. Our politicians, and certainly the president, must have a character derived from virtues: the charming, smooth-talking, tell-’em-what-they-wanna-hear techniques of the sociopathic salesman are dominant because a large minority (I hope it is not a majority) of the electorate is thinking on the 12-year old level used by television, the only level it can use.”

* * *

The Most Significant U.S. Political Development In Over 30 Years
by Neil Howe, Hedgeye

Neil Howe Warns The ‘Professional Class’ Is Still In Denial Of The Fourth Turning
by Tyler Durden, Zero Hedge

Has The Fourth Turning Brought Us Trump?
by Scott Beeken, Bee Line

From Generational Theory Forum:
Presidential election, 2016
The Most Significant U.S. Political Development In Over 30 Years
Neil Howe: It’s going to get worse; more financial crises coming
Neil Howe: ‘Civil War Is More Likely Than People Think’
It Ain’t Over, Folks
Grey Champions and the Election of 2016
Has the regeneracy arrived?
A Realignment Theory
Will a nationalist/cosmopolitan divide be the political axis of the coming saeculum?
Political Polarity To Reverse On Gun Control, States’ Rights?

 

Different Republican Responses to Changing Times

I know a number of Republicans who hate Trump. They are refusing to vote Republican because of this. Some are considering the Libertarian candidate or else not voting at all. I suspect some might even vote for Hillary Clinton, God forbid!

One Republican I know well is really struggling with what to do. He has voted Republican for nearly every election in his in adult life and, as far as I know, he always votes. He is an old school mainstream conservative.

I overheard a conversation he had with his brother. Like him, his brother is a lifelong Republican. But his brother has a different bent, such as his having defended social liberal positions. I guess he might be a Rockefeller Republican or something like that, although probably not as far left as a Theodore Roosevelt Bull Moose Republican. Both of them are more conservative on economic issues. They can agree on much, despite key differences.

The brother is even more put off by Trump. It sounds like he is going to register as a Democrat. I know the brother fairly well. He is on the city council in the small town he lives in, and he ran as a Republican. If he does switch to Democrat, that could upset many people who voted for him and that likely would be a big deal in a small town.

Trump isn’t just temporarily turning some away from voting Republican. He may be permanently driving away quite a few. The GOP will likely never be the same again. Goldwater eliminated most of the moderate and liberal Republicans. Now the few remaining will be gone. It will leave nothing but the authoritarian extremists, the hardcore partisans, and I suppose the establishment politicians who have nowhere else to go. I’m not sure what kind of Republican party that will be (or what kind of Democratic party as well, once all those former Republicans join).

I heard the first guy I mentioned above talk to another Republican, a Trump supporter. It was interesting. I could feel the tension of worldviews. The two of them have been acquaintances for decades, but they never were the same kind of Republican. Still, I couldn’t tell if even this supposed Trump supporter actually took Trump’s campaign seriously, as he seemed amused by the whole thing. I guess he is for Trump simply because he is entertaining and because he isn’t a Democrat.

All three of these Republicans are Christians (and all older white males). Yet they are of entirely different varieties. The Republican-turning-Democrat is a socially liberal Christian. The Trump supporter is more of a fundamentalist, unsurprisingly. The Republican who knows both of these other two is more centrist in his Christianity, a moderate conservative, although moreso in the family values camp.

In talking to the Trump supporter, this moderate conservative ended up defending the morally relativistic position that scripture can be interpreted differently in terms of views about such things as homosexuality. It was interesting to hear a conservative Christian make such an argument in opposition to a fundamentalist. Maybe the socially liberal brother has influenced his views.

Strange times. Even old white males and conservative Republicans aren’t immune to change.

Who was Ronald Reagan? And what was the Reagan Revolution?

When Reagan was a Democrat, he was a union leader, socially liberal Hollywood actor, starry-eyed liberal progressive, anti-communist, pro-capitalist, ultra-nationalist, big-spending FDR New Deal supporter, big government public welfare state promoter, and patriotic cold warrior.

And then when Reagan became a Republican, he instead was a union opponent (although still able to get labor union support to get elected), socially liberal political actor, starry-eyed neoliberal progressive, anti-communist, pro-capitalist, ultra-nationalist, big-spending permanent debt-creating militarist, big government corporate welfare state promoter, and patriotic cold warrior.

Nothing fundamentally changed about Reagan, as he admitted. He liked to say that the Democratic Party left him. This is in a sense true as Democrats turned away from their racist past. Other things were involved as well.

I’d say that his shifting attitude about the New Deal welfare state was more situational, as many white Americans were less willing to support a welfare state after the Civil Rights movement because it meant blacks would have equal access to those public benefits. Reagan probably was always a racist, but it remained hidden behind progressivism until black rights forced it out into the open. Even his union views were more of a situational change, rather than an ideological change, for the Cold War reframed many issues.

The combination of Civil Rights movement and Cold War were a powerful force, the latter helping to make the former possible. The Cold War was a propaganda war. To prove democracy was genuinely better, the US government suddenly felt the pressure to live up to its own rhetoric about civil rights. Black activists pushed this to their advantage, and many whites in response went from liberalism to conservatism. This created a strange form of conservatism that was dominated by former progressives turned reactionary, which in some ways just meant a reactionary progressivism that hid behind conservative rhetoric.

This is how Reagan went from a standard progressive liberal to the ideal personification of reactionary conservatism. Yet he did this while politically remaining basically the same. Reagan didn’t change. The world around him changed. There was a society-wide political realignment that went beyond any individual person.

Still, it wasn’t just a party realignment with the old racist Southern Democrats switching loyalties to the Republicans. There was that, but also more than that. Many old school Democrats, even those outside of the South, changed party identification and voting patterns. Prior to the shift, many Republicans would praise liberalism (from Eisenhower to Nixon) and there was room for a left-wing within the party itself. After the switch, all of that was replaced by a mix of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, an alliance between economic libertarians and war hawks. So-called conservatism became a radical and revolutionary force of globalization.

The deeper shift involved not just to the political spectrum but the entire political framework and foundation. Everything shifted and became redefined, as if an earthquake had rearranged the geography of the country to such an extent that the old maps no longer matched reality.

One major change is that the noblesse oblige paternalism of the likes of the Roosevelts (TR and FDR) simply disappeared from mainstream politics, like Atlantis sinking below the waves never to be seen or heard from again. Politics became  unmoored from the past. Conservatism went full reactionary, leaving behind any trace of Old World traditionalism. Meanwhile, liberals became weak-minded centrists who have since then always been on the defense and leftists, as far as the mainstream was concerned, became near non-entities whose only use was for occasional resurrection as scapegoats (even then only as straw man scapegoats).

Two world wars had turned the Western world on its head. Following that mass destruction, the Cold War warped the collective psyche, especially in America. It’s as if someone took a baseball bat to Uncle Sam’s head and now he forever sees the world cross-eyed and with a few lost IQ points.

As with Reagan, nothing changed and yet everything changed. The Reagan Revolution was greater than just Reagan.

* * * *

http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1894529_1894528_1894518,00.html

He may be the patron saint of limited government, but Ronald Reagan started out as a registered Democrat and New Deal supporter. An F.D.R. fan, the Gipper campaigned for Helen Gahagan Douglas in her fruitless 1950 Senate race against Richard Nixon and encouraged Dwight D. Eisenhower to run for President as a Democrat in 1952. While he was working as a spokesman for General Electric, however, his views shifted right. “Under the tousled boyish haircut,” he wrote Vice President Nixon of John F. Kennedy in 1960, “is still old Karl Marx.” By the time it actually happened in 1962, Reagan’s decision to cross over to the GOP didn’t come as much of a surprise. “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party,” he famously said. “The party left me.”

http://www.politifact.com/florida/statements/2010/mar/30/charlie-crist/crist-says-reagan-was-democrat-converting-gop/

Giller said Reagan endorsed the presidential candidacies of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 as well as that of Nixon in 1960 “while remaining a Democrat.” [ . . . ]

Historian Edward Yager, a government professor at Western Kentucky University and author of the 2006 biography Ronald Reagan’s Journey: Democrat to Republican, said Reagan “was registered Democrat from the time that he voted for FDR in 1932, when he was 21.”

Yager said he’s never seen copies of the voter registration cards, but noted “virtually all the sources that refer to” Reagan’s party affiliation indicate that he was registered as a Democrat and that “he has two autobiographies in which he refers to his voting for FDR four times, then for Truman.” Reagan was a Democrat, added Yager, even when he voted for Dwight D. Eisenhower.

http://www.shmoop.com/reagan-era/ideology.html

Interestingly, Ronald Reagan himself did not always espouse the firm anti-government beliefs that eventually came to define Reaganism. As a young man, Reagan was actually a Roosevelt Democrat. The Reagan family only survived the Great Depression because Jack Reagan, young Ronnie’s unemployed father, was able to find a job in one of the New Deal’s work-relief programs. A few years later, Ronald Reagan found himself admiring Roosevelt’s leadership of America’s World War II effort to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. (Reagan joined the military but performed his wartime service in Hollywood, acting in American propaganda films.)

http://www.firstprinciplesjournal.com/articles.aspx?article=1082

Reagan was a New Deal Democrat. He joked that he had probably become a Democrat by birth, given that his father, Jack, was so devoted to the Democratic Party. The younger Reagan cast his first presidential vote in 1932 for Franklin Roosevelt, and did so again in the succeeding three presidential contests. His faith in FDR remained undimmed even after World War II, when he called himself “a New Dealer to the core.” He summarized his views in this way: “I thought government could solve all our postwar problems just as it had ended the Depression and won the war. I didn’t trust big business. I thought government, not private companies, should own our big public utilities; if there wasn’t enough housing to shelter the American people, I thought government should build it; if we needed better medical care, the answer was socialized medicine.” When his brother, Moon, became a Republican and argued with his sibling, the younger Reagan concluded “he was just spouting Republican propaganda.”

http://www.politicususa.com/2014/02/11/barack-obama-tax-spend-liberal-ronald-reagan.html

http://my.firedoglake.com/cenkuygur/2010/07/08/who-is-more-conservative-ronald-reagan-or-barack-obama/

http://mises.org/library/sad-legacy-ronald-reagan-0

http://open.salon.com/blog/rogerf1953/2010/01/29/the_myth_of_ronald_reagans_iconic_conservative_image

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/15/opinion/15herbert.html?_r=0

http://www.forwardprogressives.com/4-things-conservatives-hate-to-admit-about-ronald-reagan/

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/07/21/997013/-Ronald-Reagan-officially-too-liberal-for-modern-GOP

http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2003/0301.green.html

http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2011/02/05/142288/reagan-centennial/

http://www.nationalmemo.com/5-reasons-ronald-reagan-couldnt-make-it-in-todays-gop/

http://www.msnbc.com/the-last-word/watch/when-reagan-was-a-liberal-democrat-219696195576

https://books.google.com/books?id=U2cs7IHERBwC&pg=PA5&lpg=PA5&dq=Ronald+Reagan%E2%80%99s+Journey:+Democrat+to+Republican&source=bl&ots=iYjMx2KM_g&sig=gQtw5ENydTFPXhmJ0bOiAwIp_uE&hl=en&sa=X&ei=HyjAVLe2AYuVyATR8oKYBg&ved=0CCsQ6AEwBQ

Broad Liberalism and Red Republicans

I noticed two things about my thinking.

First, I focus quite a bit on the topic of liberalism more than on the topic of conservatism. This makes sense. I am, after all, a liberal… or at least I usually identify as a liberal. I’ve struggled with liberalism and have come to an uneasy truce with it.

The second thing could be seen as harder to explain. I focus more on the Republican Party than the Democratic Party. Yet I have never voted Republican nor do I have any personal investment in the GOP. Maybe I care more about it, for the simple reason that my parents are Republicans. Then again, my parents are also conservatives, but that doesn’t alter my heavy emphasis on liberalism.

So, why is this?

I have a theory. There is a commonality between liberalism and the Republican Party, as contrasted to conservatism and the Democratic Party. To my curious mind, they are simply more interesting.

Liberalism is more interesting than conservatism for a number of reasons. It is a broader category, more inclusive and diverse. It is a more ambiguous label. A conservative can identify as a classical liberal, but a liberal cannot identify as a classical conservative. As such, liberalism as a political tradition includes modern conservatism.

This is exaggerated even further in the United States that lacks much of a tradition of traditionalism. This country was founded on liberal values of the Enlightenment. The ancien regime never dominated and ruled in this territory to any significant extent. American conservatism is distinct from European traditionalism. Because of this, American conservatism is unrooted in the deep soils of the past. It is forced, instead, to be permanently in reactionary mode to liberalism and hence defined by liberalism.

The Republican Party is more interesting than The Democratic Party for one major reason. It is a younger party that is fully American. The Democratic Party is old, oldest in the world, and is rooted more in English political traditions from the founding generation of this country. The Democrats have always been a mainstream party, always been one of the two major parties. The Republicans began as a radical third party that arose to power alongside the heightening conflict that led to the Civil War.

I know the history of the Democratic Party. Most Americans who are reasonably well-educated know the history of the Democratic Party. But fewer Americans know about the history of the Republican Party, despite it being a shorter history. I’m constantly surprised how few Republicans know of the party’s radical beginnings. Those early third party activists were called Red Republicans for a good reason, and yet few people today stop to think why Republicans are associated with the color red. The Republican Party has become mainstream and respectable. The very notion of ‘republicanism’ has for many become identified with a conservative status quo. But when the Republican Party came on the scene it threatened to tear our country apart with its radical politics, so radical that during the Civil War it garnered the support of the likes of Marx.

There ya go. That is the best explanation I can offer for why I spend so much time contemplating such things. At one point, both liberalism and the Republican Party were extremely radical, completely altering the world around them. I find that interesting.

“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:

https://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.”

https://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.”

https://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.””

https://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.””

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.

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):