Confused Liberalism

Here are some thoughts on ideological labels and mindsets in the United States. I had a larger post I was working on, which I may or may not post. But the following is bite-sized commentary. Just some things to throw out there.

These views are not exactly new to my writing. They are issues my mind often returns to, because I’m never quite satisfied that I fully understand. I can’t shake the feeling that something is being misunderstood or overlooked, whether or not my own preferred interpretations turn out to be correct.

The two thoughts below are in response to this question:

What do we mean when we speak of liberalism?

* * *

We live in a liberal society, in that we live in a post-Enlightenment age where the liberal paradigm is dominant. But what exactly is this liberalism?

What I find interesting is that conservatives in a liberal society aren’t traditionalists and can never be traditionalists. They are anti-traditionalists and would be entirely out of place in a traditional society. These conservatives are forced to define themselves according to the liberal paradigm and so their only choice is to either become moderate liberals or reactionaries against liberalism.

Even if they choose the latter, they still don’t escape liberalism because our identities are shaped as much by what we react to as by what we embrace. In some ways, we become what we react to, just in a distorted way. That is why reactionary conservatives use liberal rhetoric, often unconsciously.

Ironically, the illiberalism of such reactionary politics is only possible in a liberal society. And, sadly, that reactionary politics has become the dominant ideology in a liberal society like this. The liberal and the reactionary are two sides of the same coin.

This is quite the conundrum for the liberal and reactionary alike. Both are chained together, as they pull in opposite directions.

* * *

There are a large number (how many?) of self-identified liberals who aren’t strongly liberal-minded and maybe a bit conservative-minded, aren’t consistent supporters of liberal politics, are wary of liberal economic reforms, are unsure about the liberalism of human nature, and/or doubt a liberal society is possible. These kinds of ‘liberals’ are their own worst enemies. They make it easy for the political right to dominate, for the authoritarians and social dominance orientation types to gain and maintain power.

I’ve come to a suspicion. It’s not just that many of these supposed liberals aren’t particularly liberal. I’d go further than that. Some of them, possibly a large number of them, could be more accurately described as status quo conservatives. But this isn’t to say that some liberals aren’t strongly liberal-minded. My thought goes in a different direction, though. Maybe the crux of the matter isn’t self-identified liberals at all.

Self-identified liberals have proven themselves easily swayed by the rhetoric of reactionaries, authoritarians, and social dominance orientation types. Because of this, the label of ‘liberal’ has become associated with weakly liberal positions and what are sometimes illiberal attitudes. Liberalism has become identified with the liberal class and bourgeois capitalism, with mainstream society and the status quo social order, with a waffling fence-sitting and Washington centrism.

My thought is that most liberal-minded people (specifically in the US) don’t identify as liberals and never have. Instead, the strongly liberal-minded have taken up other labels to identify themselves: independents, non-partisans, social democrats, progressives, leftists, left-wingers, socialists, democratic socialists, communists, communalists, communitarians, Marxiststs, unionists, anarchists, anarcho-syndialists, left-libertarians, etc. Pretty much anything but ‘liberal’.

This is where mainstream thought goes off the rails. The most liberal-minded tend to be ignored or overlooked. They don’t fit into the mainstream framework of ideological labels. These strongly liberal-minded people might be a fairly large part of the population, but they can’t be seen.

We don’t have the language to talk about them, much less study them. We have nuanced language to distinguish people on the political right and this nuanced language is regularly used in collecting and analyzing data. Pollsters and social scientists are often careful to separate conservatives from libertarians, authoritarians, and social dominance orientation types. Such nuance is rarely seen in mainstream thought about the political left.

It seems, in the mainstream, that it is assumed that ‘liberals’ can be taken as mostly representative of the entire political left. This is based on the assumption that leftists in the US are so small in number and therefore insignificant and irrelevant. But if we define leftists as all those who are to the left of the liberal class found in the Democratic Party establishment and the mainstream corporate media, we might discover there are more leftists than there are so-called liberals. And if many of those leftists are far more liberal-minded than the self-identified liberals, then how useful is the social science research that uses self-identified liberals as a proxy for all liberal-mindedness?

Non-Identifying Environmentalists And Liberals

According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans identifying as environmentalists is about half of what it was a quarter century ago, when I was a young teenager. Yet the other polls show that Americans are more concerned with environmental issues than ever before.

This is similar to how fewer Americans identify as liberal precisely during this time when polls showing majority of Americans hold liberal positions on diverse issues. Older labels have lost their former meaning. They no longer resonate.

It isn’t as if Americans are becoming anti-environmentalist conservatives. Quite the opposite. It’s just that an increasing number of Americans, when given a choice, would rather identify as progressive, moderate, independent, or even socialist. In fact, the socialist label gets more favorable opinion than the Tea Party label, although libertarianism is gaining favor.

Young Americans are the most liberal of any age demographic, in terms of their politics. They are more liberal than even the supposed liberal class, despite the young not self-identifying as liberal. They are so liberal as to be leaning leftist.

Conservatives are mistaken when they put too much stock in ideological labels and too little stock in substance of views. Their confusion is understandable. Many pollsters have had a hard time keeping up with changing labels, not initially realizing they needed to offer choices beyond the standard binary of liberal or conservative.

Not all of this can be blamed on pollsters, though. There was enough polling data to show major shifts were afoot. Some pollsters were able to discern that Millennials had a majority positive opinion of the ‘socialism’. That interesting fact of public opinion began showing up about a decade ago, but apparently few in the mainstream were paying attention until Sanders’ candidacy came along.

The older generations are shocked. As children of Cold War propaganda, they unsurprisingly have a knee jerk reaction to the word ‘socialism’. More interesting is that these older Americans also dislike libertarianism. For the young, socialism and libertarianism are two expressions of their growing extremes of liberal-mindedness.

So, it’s more of a divide of generations than of ideology.

Central to this are environmental concerns. Most older Americans probably assume they will die before major environmental catastrophes happen, allowing them to shut these problems out of their minds and pretend they aren’t fully real. Younger Americans, on the other hand, realize they’ll be forced to deal with these problems they’re inheriting.

* * *

Americans’ Identification as “Environmentalists” Down to 42%

Americans’ Concerns About Water Pollution Edge Up

U.S. Concern About Global Warming at Eight-Year High

For First Time, Majority in U.S. Oppose Nuclear Energy

Opposition to Fracking Mounts in the U.S.

In U.S., 73% Now Prioritize Alternative Energy Over Oil, Gas

Uncomfortable Questions About Ideology

On Quora, someone asked, “What is the link between conservatism and paranoid schizophrenia?” It’s an intriguing and provocative question. One could also ask it of other ideologies in relation to other mental illnesses. (Just the other day, I speculated a bit about depression and schizophrenia, in a similar line of thought).

The responses on Quora were mostly dismissive, some in knee-jerk fashion. I’m not sure why that is. I actually think this is a fair question. It’s too bad some people are unable or unwilling to engage, just because it makes them uncomfortable. This kind of thing doesn’t bother me as long as it is being discussed sincerely and honestly, and I find it odd that others are resistant to even considering it.

There are clear differences in how the brain functions for liberals and conservatives, along with many other ideological demographics you might want to consider: left-wingers and right-wingers, socialists and capitalists, anarchists and authoritarians, etc. And these proven differences in brain functioning presumedly would include how the brain malfunctions (or, if you prefer, functions neuroatypically).

For example, some data shows liberals have higher rates of drug use (“fairly steady increase in amount of drug use as one moves from the conservative to the radical end of the scale.”) and alcohol use (“when a state becomes more liberal politically, its consumption of beer and spirits rises”) and this leads to higher rates of addiction and alcoholism. Some of this is just demographic, as substance abuse increases with increasing wealth and increasing IQ, both correlated with liberalism (i.e., liberals on average are wealthier and higher IQ than all other demographics, besides libertarians). But others argue that it is an inherent tendency to liberal psychology, related to high ‘openness to experience’ and low ‘conscientiousness’. Liberals are prone to curiosity and experimentation, rule-breaking and authority-challenging.

Another example is that some have found that liberals have higher rates of depression. This makes sense, as liberals have lower rates of such things as religiosity (e.g., church attendance) that is negatively correlated to depression. So, either the liberal personality itself predisposes one to depression or predisposes one to behaviors that make one vulnerable to depression. There is also a link between depression and both high and low IQ, liberals on average being on the high end.

On a related note, some research shows that conservatives aren’t actually happier, despite self-reporting as happier. In some studies, liberals were observed as smiling more often and more naturally, and also using more positive words (University of California, New Yorker, Time, Washington Post, NYT, & FiveThirtyEight). Then again, maybe there is some psychological benefit to reporting one is happy, specifically as a desire to fit into social norms and so to be socially accepted (happiness or its appearance most definitely is a social norm in American society). But it could be that liberals have both higher rates of depression and happiness, which is to say they are disproportionately represented at both ends (similar to how Democrats include more people at the low and high IQ extremes, whereas Republicans are disproportionately found in the average IQ range)—or maybe liberals are just moody.

Anyway, it would be beyond bizarre if we didn’t find these kinds of correlations across the political spectrum, including for conservatives. Every ideological predisposition has its problems and deficiencies (I have a lovely post about the weaknesses and failures of liberalism). With almost anything pushed to an extreme, one would reasonably expect to find such things as mental illnesses. This relates to personality traits, for when imbalanced they lead to all kinds of psychological and behavioral issues.

Let me get back to the original question. Schizophrenia is an interesting issue. But it is complex. There may or may not be a correlation to conservatism. I don’t know. More probable would be correlations found between conservatism and certain mood disorders, specifically those involving fear, anxiety and conscientiousness. One possibility is something like obsessive-compulsive disorder (“These findings support the view that OCPD does represent a maladaptive variant of normal-range conscientiousness”). Still, there are those who argue that there is a link between schizophrenia and conservatism, and some might consider their theories to be scientifically plausible—from Neuropolitics.org:

“Previc’s review of religiosity and mental disorders also adds fuel to the fire of a schizophrenic-conservative link. Previc writes “psychotic delusions are a common feature of mania, [temporal lobe epileptic] psychosis, and paranoid schizophrenia…all of these disorders are to varying degrees associated with overactivity of the fronto-temporal pathways (mostly on the left side), elevated [dopamine], and a bias toward extrapersonal space”. […] The conservatives seem to be more prone to mental disorders of the left hemisphere, while, based on the evidence we’ve gathered, liberals are more prone towards depression and anxiety disorders, which are predominately right hemispheric in origin. The mental disorder evidence supports both Brack’s hemisphericity theory of political orientation and Previc’s dopaminergic-spatial theory of religiosity.”

I’m not familiar with that research. But it seems a reasonable hypothesis. I can think of no justifiable criticism, other than political correctness, for not taking it seriously and for scientists to not study it. If it isn’t worthy of further appraisal and analysis, some counter-evidence would need to be offered to explain why it is unworthy—such as a critique of this research or, better yet, other research with alternate conclusions.

Let’s look at this dispassionately. Think of this in terms of other distinctions, as shown in diverse social science research. Do different people measure differently on personality traits/types? Yes. Do people who measure differently on personality traits/types have different rates of ideological tendencies? Yes. Different rates of psychological conditions? Yes. All of this is entirely non-controversial.

In this context, let me give a basic example that could explain possible higher rates of schizophrenia among conservatives. Liberalism correlates to high ‘openness to experience’ and the opposite for conservatism. So, how do schizophrenics measure on ‘openness’? According to one scientific study—Personality traits in schizophrenia and related personality disorders (where SZ refers to “a diagnosis of schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder”):

“On the five-factor personality scales, SZ subjects showed higher levels of neuroticism, and lower levels of openness, agreeableness, extraversion, and conscientiousness than control subjects.”

The psychological trait of ‘openness’ is one of the most defining features of liberalism. This has been found in endless studies. That schizophrenics rate lower levels of this is extremely telling. It doesn’t prove the hypothesis of a conservatism-schizophrenic link. But it does indicates that it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

To shift to a different perspective, consider it in terms of something like gender. Are gender differences real? Yes. They can even be seen in brain scans, as can personality traits/types and even ideological differences. Is there gender differences in measures of personality traits/ types and ideological differences? Yes. In MBTI, a disproportionate number of women measure as Feeling types and a disproportionate number of men measure as Thinking types. As for ideology, a disproportionate number of women are Democrats, but men are more evenly divided between the parties (disproportionate number of men, instead, are found among Libertarians and Independents).

Well, what about mental illnesses? Are there gender differences in mental illnesses? Yes. Emily Deans, at Psychology Today, wrote:

“Psychiatrically speaking, it is probably not a coincidence that dopamine related disorders, such as schizophrenia, addiction, ADHD and autism are more common in men, whereas the serotonin/norepinephrine linked anxiety and depressive disorders are more common in women. Of course dopamine is also associated with depression and opiates with addiction, and men get depressed and anxious while women have ADHD and autism. These are obviously not absolutes, just trends.”

I saved one of the most compelling pieces of evidence for last.

A major discovery about conservatism and liberalism involves brain structure. Conservatives on average have a larger amygdala (i.e., emotional learning and relating) and liberals on average have a larger ACC (i.e., emotional regulation and cognitive control/flexibility). Both are important, and so an emphasis of one over the other creates different tendencies.

The amygdala sometimes gets associated with fear responses, but it is also necessary for empathy and without it functioning well you could become a psychopath. Also, this emotional learning is what builds emotional bonding, which isn’t just about empathy but also group identity. This is probably why conservatives are inclined to identify with family, church, ethno-nationalism, etc.

It’s not that liberals lack empathy. It just expresses differently, less of a strong emotional pull from conservative group-mindedness. Instead, liberals are prone to an abstract, universalizing empathy—which is why conservatives will, for example, argue that liberals sympathize with the enemy and to an extent they’re right (at the same time, liberals are right that conservatives lack this broader empathy toward those outside of some narrow group identity). Conservatives are much more loyal than liberals, because they are more group-minded, related to their being more partisan as well and less tolerant of cooperation and compromise.

If you want to see the extreme of liberalism, look to libertarians who promote a hyper-individualistic laissez-faire worldview that is the complete opposite of conservative group-mindedness. Indeed, libertarians show the least amount of empathy than any other ideological demographic, not even showing the liberal non-groupish empathy. As such, liberals could be seen as in the middle between the extremes of conservatism and libertarianism. If the problem of liberal politics is the difficulty of herding cats, then the challenge of libertarian politics is that of trying to train lizards for synchronized swimming. Almost any trait of liberalism is going to be found even higher among libertarians. Libertarianism is liberalism on drugs or rather on more drugs—quite literally, as libertarians do have very high drug use. Liberals are downright conservative-minded compared to libertarians (and I’d expect brain scans to show this).

The difference between conservatives and liberals has more to do with who they empathize with and to what degree. As National Review discusses, conservatives place their empathy of US soldiers above even the innocent foreigners that US soldiers kill, whereas liberals don’t place US soldiers so high in the empathy scale and actually see them as equal to foreigners—so who has more empathy? Overall, liberals tend to favor those perceived as outsiders and underdogs, which is why they aren’t overly loyal and patriotic. On some measures (e.g., empathic concern), liberals even rate higher than conservatives. This probably has to do with other factors besides just the amygdala, but surely the amygdala plays a role. From a conservative standpoint, liberals (as with libertarians) have a deficiency in group-mindedness, to the point of being seen as a danger to society, which is to say the conservative’s society.

If a liberal becomes deficient enough in this area, they likely will be drawn to libertarianism. Does that mean libertarianism itself is a mental illness? No, but to have any less empathy than the average libertarian would clearly push one toward psychopathic territory. At the same time, the libertarian’s lack of emotional response is what makes them so idealistic about rationality, which is why they are the most idealistic of post-Enlightenment classical liberals. Conservatives are right that group concern is important, just as libertarians are right that groupthink can be oppressive, but one could argue that conservatives are making the stronger point considering humans are first and foremost social animals. For a social animal to disregard and devalue the group obviously would be less than optimal according to social norms, including psychological and behavioral norms (i.e., mental health). Libertarianism taken to the extreme would be severely dysfunctional and even dangerous, but that is true for almost anything taken to an extreme.

As a side note, gender plays into this, as I noted earlier. Matt Ridley has a WSJ article, in which he writes that: “The researchers found that libertarians had the most “masculine” psychological profile, while liberals had the most feminine, and these results held up even when they examined each gender separately, which “may explain why libertarianism appeals to men more than women.”” On this scale, I guess conservatives are in the middle—one might call them ideologically bisexual (I couldn’t help myself).

I got a bit distracted there. The data is so fascinating. To get back to my point, my last point, the brain structure issue hits home what is so central, at least in terms of conservatives and liberals (I don’t know about libertarians, much less anarchists, socialists, communists, Marxists, etc). What struck me is something Chris Mooney said in a Discover article:

“People with some forms of schizophrenia, Paranoid Type, for instance, typically have a poorly functioning ACC, so they have trouble discerning relevant patterns from irrelevant ones, giving equal weight to all of them.”

The one part of the brain liberals clearly express high function is with the ACC (anterior cintulate cortex). And this is precisely what is relatively smaller for conservatives. This biological variance is one of the main defining distinctions in ideological expression, what makes liberals liberal-minded and conservatives conservative-minded. Isn’t it interesting that highly functioning ACC correlates both to lower rates of conservatism and schizophrenia? It’s just a correlation, but one has to admit that it is interesting, to say the least.

It is the opposite of surprising that different rates of various psychological illnesses, disorders, and behaviors would be found disproportionately among various demographics. This is true in terms of gender, class, and even race. In the US, whites are more likely than blacks to commit suicide. So, why not look at ideologies in this light? None of this proves a causal link. There are endless confounding factors. Correlations aren’t necessarily meaningful, but they aren’t necessarily meaningless either. They are just evidence to be considered.

American Populism, From Frustration to Hope

Every movement fails. Until it succeeds. And then, when it does, everyone says, of course it succeeded, it had to succeed. No, actually, it didn’t have to succeed. But what made it succeed—or at least helped it succeed—was that men and women, for a time, shook off the need for certitude, let go of the bannisters of certainty, remembered that they are not scientists, and put themselves into motion. Without knowing where they’d end up.
~ Corey Robin

There is a lot of frustration and demoralization in the air. It is quite the downer. The campaigns are moving into their nasty phase, and the rest of the population is following suit, those of us who aren’t simply feeling burned out and beat up by the endless harangue. It can lead to doubts and pessimism about the entire political system.

I noticed the effect of this with my dad who is showing signs of emotional fatigue. He utterly despises Trump. And he finds Cruz to be mean-spirited and divisive. As a last resort, he supported Rubio in the caucus, even though he sees him as a weak candidate against Democrats.

My dad has been in a despondent mood. Trump’s campaign, in particular, maybe makes him more sad than outraged. He can’t comprehend what it all means or why it’s happening. I could point out that the conservative movement has been intentionally pushing the GOP to ever greater reactionary extremism for a long time, but I don’t feel like putting my finger into that wound and wiggling it around.

I want to send my love out to the world. I know it’s bad. Instead of inspiration, we get politics as usual or else something worse. I hate seeing people turn on one another, especially average people who for decades have been dumped on by both parties. The voters on the other side aren’t the source of your problem. We don’t live in a functioning democracy and those people far off in Washington don’t represent you. If you want to take back America, whatever that might mean, then you’ll have to do it with more than a vote and a fight for your party, your candidate, your group.

Let’s get straight about the basics. Bernie Sanders isn’t a radical communist. Hillary Clinton isn’t a progressive feminist. Cruz isn’t a principled libertarian. Trump isn’t anything other than a car salesman in a fancy suit. And fergodsake NO! Sanders and Trump are not the same, populist rhetoric aside. Is that clear?

That is what these candidates aren’t. But the campaigns all share a commonality in responding to the public mood. People want something different and the candidates are all trying to present themselves in that light. For this reason, I suspect voters could so easily switch their loyalties as the campaign season continues. It’s not exactly politics as usual, although not as different as some like to pretend.

Let me further clarify a point. This campaign season isn’t an ideological battle. No, Americans aren’t particularly divided, at least not in the ways typically portrayed in the mainstream media (not even Obama has divided the public). When you look at polls, most Americans agree about most things, including healthcare and tax reform, even including taxing the wealthy more. Populism is in the air, all across the spectrum.

Even so, let me note something. Pew states that there is increasing polarization, although I’d point out that it is mostly among the activists and political elite. Anyway, Pew goes on to say that (Beyond Red vs. Blue, 2014):

Even so, most Americans do not view politics through uniformly liberal or conservative lenses, and more tend to stand apart from partisan antipathy than engage in it. But the typology shows that the center is hardly unified. Rather, it is a combination of groups, each with their own mix of political values, often held just
as strongly as those on the left and the right, but just not organized in consistently liberal or conservative terms. Taken together, this “center” looks like it is halfway between the partisan wings. But when disaggregated, it becomes clear that there are many distinct voices in the center, often with as little in common with each other as with those who are on the left and the right.

Looking at various data, I’ve noted that this mix or confusion even exists within ideological demographics and, of course, within the parties. For example, Pew data (Beyond Red vs. Blue, 2011) showed that 9% of Solid Liberals self-identify as ‘conservative’. That is a broad conservative movement that includes a significant number of people who are liberal across most issues. This is how symbolic ideology can trump all else, at least under the right conditions.

Categories that seem distinct can be porous and overlapping. Plus, there are larger patterns that cut across the seeming divides. How we group people can at times seem almost arbitrary.

The following is some data from a 2011 Pew poll. Progressivism has found favored opinion in both parties and among independents, with more support than even conservatism. Meanwhile, both ‘socialism’ and ‘libertarianism’ have found growing support. Libertarianism oddly gets a more positive response from Democrats than Republicans. More interesting is the comparison of socialism and capitalism, as explained by Sarah van Gelder:

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

The most telling part is the numbers among Republicans. Libertarianism and the Tea Party have lost favor, among those who are supposedly its strongest supporters. At the same time, only 66% of conservative Republicans have a positive view of capitalism, while 25% (1 in 4) of moderate-to-liberal Republicans have a positive view of socialism. Even though that means 90% of Republicans overall still dislike socialism (as of 2011), that leaves 1 in 10 with either a positive or neutral position and I bet that latter group has been growing, especially among young Republicans. Then again, the younger generation has turned away from the Republican Party and this might have played a part, as after a while it would be hard to maintain the cognitive dissonance of listening to candidates of your party who attack what you support.

The youth vote is up in the air, for both parties—as described by Morgan Gilbard:

Millennials, usually categorized as individuals between 18 and 33, are less willing to identify with a party than ever before, according to a Pew Research study in April 2015. Only 18 percent identified as Republican and 28 percent as Democrat. A staggering 48 percent considered themselves independent, compared with 40 percent in 2008.

This is particularly true of a demographic Pew calls Young Outsiders. They are 14% of the general public, 15% of registered voters, and 11% of the politically engaged. Even Pew’s Next Gen Left (12%, 13%, 11%) could be pulled right based on their weaker support for a social safety net. And the relatively young Bystanders, 10% of the general population, could be inspired to become registered and politically engaged.

Although social liberalism is popular for Millennials, including among young Republicans, there are key issues that split the youth vote and could tip the balance in either direction. Frustration with the government could lead many otherwise liberal Millennials to vote Republican, just as frustration with the economy could lead many otherwise conservative Millennials to vote Democratic. Yet much of the frustration is basically the same across the board—Siraj Hashmi reports:

“Why are we fighting the Iraq War? Why are we spending billions of dollars trying to rebuild Afghanistan, which looks like the Moon, than spending money on our cities like Detroit? Why do we not care about putting Americans first? Those are very appealing questions,” Girdusky said. “They’re [Trump and Sanders] coming at different answers, but it’s the questions that millennials are asking themselves as well.”

The youth of today aren’t the same as the youth of the past. It is today’s youngest generation of voters that has the strongest support for both socialism and libertarianism (the opposite for older generations, including when they were younger), which maybe puts libertarian socialists such as Noam Chomsky in a new position of influence. It might even explain some of the appeal of Sanders, even for rural conservatives in his state, as his ‘socialism’ includes defense of gun rights. Among several demographics, there isn’t always a perfect alignment in their opinions about various labels. Blacks, for example, have a majority with positive views of conservatism, liberalism, and socialism. This seems to be related to what Pew recently has called the Faith and Family Left (30% Black, 19% Hispanic), 51% of which “hold an equal mix of liberal and conservative values”—while religiously and socially conservative in many ways, their liberalism being specifically a “strong support for government and a commitment to the social safety net.” So, conservatism can go along with ‘socialism’ just fine but even more strangely doesn’t even have to be opposed to liberalism. Ha!

This might partly relate to what “scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology” (Jost, Federico, & Napier). Few people seem to grasp this distinction. This explains the power of culture war rhetoric (i.e., symbolic ideology) and why that rhetoric will lose power as conditions change. Populist eras tend to defy easy ideological categorizations, and the public during such times isn’t as predictably easy to manipulate by machine politics. Symbolic ideology can quickly shift and morph, allowing the operational side to emerge. When people are hurting on a basic level of making a living and getting by, the symbolic and operational can come into alignment. That is the power and potential of populism, and also its danger.

Related to this, there have been many articles about Republicans turning to join the Sanders campaign. Who are these Republicans feeling the Bern? The more recent 2014 Pew poll (Beyond Red vs. Blue) tells us who they are. But first let me tell you who they aren’t. What Pew calls Business Conservatives is a demographic that is more socially liberal and pro-immigration, while of course being strong in their economic conservatism—74% of them believe that “Wall Street helps economy more than it hurts.” That is unsurpising. Now for the other major group on the political right, Steadfast Conservatives. Close to half of them (41%) disagree with this faith in Wall Street. Most Americans (62%) think that “Economic system unfairly favors powerful,” with Steadfast Conservatives being divided on this issue (48% unfair; 47% fair), but even almost a third (31%) of Business Conservatives agree that it is unfair. A larger majority of Americans (78%) think that “Too much power is concentrated in hands of few large companies”—in response to this, division is even greater on the political right with 71% of Steadfast Conservatives agreeing and once again about a third (35%) of Business Conservatives agreeing as well, although it should be noted that it is a small majority (only 57%) of the latter who state that the “Largest companies do not have too much power.”

These are the populists that Trump is also able to tap, but also the type of person who might choose Sanders over someone like Cruz. The era of culture wars is coming to an end and class war is taking its place. A divide is growing even among upper and lower classes in the conservative movement. Also, among Independents (even those who lean Republican: Pew’s Young Outsiders), the majority sees the Democratic Party as more caring about the middle class, an attitude that puts some wind in Sanders’ sails. In US politics, rhetoric about the middle class has immense symbolic force, as it speaks to both the fears of the shrinking middle class and the throttled aspirations of the working class.

On a slightly different note, some see nationalist fervor as being an area of divisiveness and conflict, that which could negate or mute all else. Conservatives supposedly think America is the best and anyone who disagrees should leave. It is true that many ‘conservative’ politicians and pundits talk that way, but it isn’t what most conservatives think in private. The majority of all Americans across the spectrum don’t believe that “The U.S. stands above all other countries,” even as they do think it’s a great country. On this note, most Americans don’t believe the US should use its capacity of ‘overwhelming’ force to fight terrorism. And, in a different area of policy, most Americans support a path to citizenship for immigrants and support affirmative action—a majority of conservatives supporting the former and a third of conservatives supporting the latter. Patriotic and prejudicial rhetoric is effective for getting strident activists and loyal supporters excited at GOP campaigns. It’s just not likely to sway most potential voters come election time. The average American simply isn’t all that concerned about such things, specifically not in terms of a chest-beating fear-mongering attitude.

Even religion isn’t going to do much for conservatives and Republicans, not even from Evangelicals. The majority of young believers are progressive and liberal, increasingly both in terms of how they label themselves and in what they support (e.g., same sex marriage). Minorities have higher rates of religiosity than even white conservatives. According to Pew’s 2014 Beyond Red vs. Blue, the most religiously-oriented demographic is the Democratic-voting Faith and Family Left—91% affirming that it is “Necessary to believe in God to be moral,” whereas this agreed to by only 69% of Steadfast Conservatives and 31% of Business Conservatives. As for the majority of Americans, they don’t hold this religious view of morality.

Similarly, most Americans don’t take the Bible literally, do acknowledge Darwinian evolution, think homosexuality should be accepted and favor gay marriage, support abortion in all/most cases, see no reason to expect people to prioritize marriage and children over all else, don’t believe Islam is inherently violent, etc. I could point to dozens of other issues that demonstrate the liberalism of Americans (e.g., majority support of global warming and need of improved environmental regulations, such as 71% saying “should do whatever it takes to protect the environment”), at least in terms of operational ideology and I’d argue increasingly in terms of symbolic ideology as well (e.g., the progressive label now being more popular than the conservative label).

The real Silent Majority, left and right, are those tired of the divisive and mean-spirited culture war rhetoric. Only the political and media elite remain divided by their own rhetoric. Still, the divisive minority is disproportionately vocal and influential, but my sense is that most Americans are growing tired of this minority dominating politics.

Obviously, people are beginning to see labels and ideologies in new ways, as they more and more question the status quo. You can begin to feel the change in the air. How the American public and the two main parties get described in the MSM simply no longer matches reality on the ground. The real divide is older and wealthier non-Hispanic white people versus everyone else. It’s ultimately a class divide, since most of the wealth is concentrated among the older generations and among non-Hispanic whites. The rest of the population is economically struggling or, at best, stuck and stagnating.

Let me return to the issue of what does and doesn’t divide most Americans. Over the years, I’ve talked to a variety of my fellow citizens, online and in my everyday life. I’m often surprised by the amount of agreement that exists, if and when you get past superficial divisive rhetoric. You wouldn’t know that by paying attention to the mainstream media and the partisan campaigning.

All the time, I find points of agreement with my dad who is a lifelong Republican, and this agreement usually involves the issues that get ignored by the mainstream. My mom, an old school conservative and former public school teacher, defends public education and she also supports a return of a New Deal work program for the unemployed. My second cousin is a right-wing libertarian and Tea Partier, and yet we both are inspired by the same ‘socialist’ vision of Star Wars: The Next Generation.

Heck, Sander’s own ‘socialism’ simply represents much of what most Americans state they already support in polls. One of the strongest arguments many Hillary Clinton supporters make is that they want a woman for president, but I doubt many other Americans oppose that, not even Republicans with their own female candidate. Likewise with libertarianism, even many on the political left (including many minorities) might be fine with a president who was a genuine libertarian, that is to say not an authoritarian corporatist theocon—see Reason Magazine’s take on this:

A majority—53 percent—of millennials say they would support a candidate who described him or herself as socially liberal and economically conservative, 16 percent were unsure, and 31 percent would oppose such a candidate.

Interestingly, besides libertarians, liberal millennials are the most supportive of a libertarian-leaning candidate by a margin of 60 to 27 percent. Conservative millennials are most opposed (43% to 48% opposed).

A libertarian-leaning candidate would appeal to both Democratic and Republican voters. For instance, 60 percent of Hillary Clinton voters, 61 percent of Rand Paul voters, 71 percent of Chris Christie voters, and 56 percent of those who approve of President Obama all say they would support a fiscally conservative, socially liberal candidate.

As for Trump’s followers, that is a whole other ball of wax. They are just outraged beyond all sense or reason. It really doesn’t matter what Trump says or advocates. I suspect his followers would follow him all the way to Soviet-style communism without blinking an eye, proclaiming conservative rhetoric all the while. The outrage may get a lot of attention and the mainstream media loves it for its entertainment value (i.e., advertising dollars), but it has little to do with what most Americans want, not even among Republicans.

Americans aren’t ideological in the sense that word is normally used. Social science research has shown this. Most Americans support liberal and progressive policies, even as they support symbolic conservatism. The latter is why culture war rhetoric is so persuasive. The thing about symbolic conservatism, though, is that it has no inherent meaning. It captures a mood, a sensibility, or an attitude—not so much a specific political system or worldview. When you look at the present and former communist countries, they are all socially conservative. It’s important to remember that conservatism isn’t the same thing as right-wing, which is particularly clear when one considers how socially liberal are most libertarians. Economic populism in the US in the past was strongly supported by conservatives. There is even an old history of Christian socialism.

In the end, labels are mostly meaningless. That is being demonstrated with Sanders campaign. It doesn’t matter what he calls himself. He is drawing support from many Independents and even is luring a surprising number of Republicans who are fed up with the GOP circus. In reality, Sanders is just an old school New Dealer. So was Reagan before he became a neoliberal (he never lost his admiration for FDR). There is nothing contradictory between conservatism as a general view and the economic left. Russell Kirk was the mid-20th century thinker who made American conservatism respectable again and yet he saw no problem voting for a Socialist Party candidate.

Clinton and other mainstream types point to Sanders’ history on gun policy. They see this as harsh criticism, proving he is no liberal. Such an argument merely proves how disconnected are the political and media elite. Most liberals, like most conservatives, are for gun rights. Just as most conservatives, like most liberals, are for stronger gun regulation. There is no contradiction here. As a politician, Sanders doesn’t just represent urbanites but also many rural folk. As in Iowa that usually votes for Democratic candidates in presidential elections, you don’t have to be a crazy right-winger to own a gun. On the political left, there is between a quarter and a third who have a gun in their homes (depending on the Pew demographic). That isn’t extremely different from the half of those on the political right who have a gun in their homes. It is important to remember also that conservation, a major issue supposedly for liberals, has always been strongly defended by gun-toting hunters.

None of this is about ideology in a simple sense. Nor is it about parties. Voters switch parties easier than do most politicians and candidates. Even entire parties shift over time, as with the GOP once having been the home of radical left-wingers—critics having called them Red Republicans. As for Democrats, it was common to find white supremacists among their ranks earlier last century. Obviously, the parties have changed… and they will keep changing. Until a short while ago, Sanders wasn’t even a Democrat. If an Independent politician can become a Democratic candidate, then maybe many Independent voters will follow suit.

Older Americans still live in the shadow of McCarthyism and many tremble with fear at being associated with communism and socialism, but younger Americans simply don’t give a frack about Cold War propaganda since they never knew the Cold War. Those among us who do remember it are simply tired of it and are ready for something new.

I’ll tell you what I care about—democracy! That is always the first victim of the US campaign season. I’m not a political animal. It doesn’t even take a Trump to make me despondent. Still, I care about democracy, if only as a vision and a glimmer of potential.

The first political candidate I ever cared about was Ralph Nader. That was back in 2000. I was entirely apolitical before that. It was a shock to the system when I heard Nader speak. Holy shit! This was a politician who had principles and actually believed them. You could hear it in his voice. I had never come across that before.

That was the first time I voted for a presidential candidate. It was a strange campaign to which to lose my political virginity. I felt dirty afterwards. The ugliness of that campaign season put this one to shame. Nader supporters like me got blamed for everything going wrong, even though the Democratic candidate won the election before it was handed over to Bush by the Supreme Court. Shouldn’t the Democrats instead have been mad at a system that was proven corrupt and been mad at their own candidate who bowed down before that corruption, refusing to challenge it?

It was disturbing that the members of a party called Democratic would be so accepting of a process that was shown to be so blatantly undemocratic. To many Americans, it was just corrupt politics as usual, as if there was nothing that could be done about it other than to repeat the same insanity and idiocy four years later.

Of course, the kind of Democrat that attacked Nader voters in the past are now attacking Sanders supporters now, with the DNC leadership trying to tilt the field in Clinton’s favor (e.g., shutting down debates or scheduling them when few would watch). It’s the same old game: defend the status quo at all costs, even as the status quo grows worse and worse. The reason given is that the only alternative to present problems are even worse problems. So, vote for the lesser evil, going down a road paved of good intentions, until by slow descent we all end up in hell. Third Way politics has turned out to be nothing more than an appeasement to the powers that be. More of the same will just get us more of the same, all the while expecting something different, what some define as madness.

Even Sanders isn’t some extreme alternative. On military issues, he might not be all that different from Obama who has followed the example of Bush. Even his economic views are really just mainstream social democracy, rather moderate and tame, and popular as well. The main advantage Sanders offers is the possibility of a shift in the political narrative, a chance to widen the range of allowable opinion. He isn’t much of a socialist, but just the ability to use that word in a national campaign is a breath of fresh air. It’s a sign of new options being put on the table. I’m so tired of replaying the Cold War endlessly. The Russians aren’t going to invade. We don’t need to constantly act in permanent panic mode—America against all the world, including too often American against other Americans. It’s time to look not to the past, but to the future, to new possibilities.

This is what gives me hope. The younger generations don’t carry all that baggage from last century. And it really is a heavy load on the shoulders of the Cold War generations. Americans haven’t been able to think straight about almost anything for a long time, our minds being in the vice grip of paralyzing rhetoric.

In the Cold War battle between left-wing communism and right-wing fascism (or what others call corporatism, crony capitalism, inverted totalitarianism, etc), the latter won and we are living with the results of that. Instead of Godless communism, the ruling elite promoted a religious-tinged culture war both in the US and around the world. The US and other Western governments took out the communist governments in places like the Middle East and helped to replace them with Islamic nationalism (or else ruthless dictators), in the hope that it would keep the oil flowing and neoliberal markets open. How did that work out? The youth today wouldn’t mind a bit of Godlessness at this point, maybe even a moderate dose of genuine leftism for a change.

I do believe that shifting public perception is one of the most important things we can do right now. It doesn’t matter that Sanders isn’t actually a socialist. I realize that electing him president won’t lead to revolutionary changes that will transform our government toward a functioning democracy nor our economy toward socialism. What it will do is open up a space where dialogue can begin. No other mainstream candidate is offering such an opportunity. That shouldn’t be dismissed with cynicism and supposed realpolitik pragmatism.

I sense many Americans agree with me on this. What we need right now is a way of speaking across the many divides of generations and skin color, parties and ideologies. As Americans, our concerns, our lives, and our fate is held in common. It’s not about finding the right leader to solve our problems, but to reenvision who we are as a people. We don’t need to take America back. We are America, all of us.

* * *

(I should make note of something. I wasn’t ignoring third party candidates. I actually despise the two-party system. I like that Sanders’ campaign is opening up discussion of important issues, such as what does and could socialism mean in a democracy, and heck what does and could democracy mean in a corporatist political system. Yet, all in all, I’m more likely to vote third party. But in a sense this post isn’t really about the presidential election. My interest is in what this all means for the American people, where is it that we are heading, what is possible.)

* * *

Political Revolution and the Third-Party Imperative

Bernie Sanders Wins Historically Accurate Mock Election

My Prediction: Bernie Sanders Will Win the White House

Shock Poll: Sanders Catches Clinton and Crushes Trump in Iowa and New Hampshire

The Blast That Swept Him Came Off New Hampshire Snowfields and Ice-Hung Forests

When you ask me to vote for Hillary

The Establishment’s Last Gasp

On Electability

90% of what goes on at The New Yorker can be explained by Vulgar Marxism

Hillary Clinton: The Ultimate Outsider

BERNIE SANDERS’ LACK OF PARTY ENDORSEMENTS IS A GOOD THING

Why Is Hillary Clinton Using Republican Talking Points to Attack Bernie Sanders?

Hillary Clinton Is Using GOP Fear Tactics Against Bernie Sanders’ Health Care Plan

The Escalating Media Assault on Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders Will Become President, Despite Rigged Debate Schedules, Skewed Polls, and Clinton’s ‘Inevitability’

Bernie Won All the Focus Groups & Online Polls, So Why Is the Media Saying Hillary Won the Debate?

Did Hillary Clinton really win the Democratic debate?

Sanders: Timing of debates structured to help Clinton

Clinton bias accusations chase top Democrat Wasserman Schultz

Why Did the DNC Let the Bernie-Hillary Tech Story Leak?

Sanders Adviser Suggests Staffer That Breached Voter Data May Have Been DNC Plant

AUDITOR PROBING SANDERS BREACH HAS A REPUTATION FOR BRIBERY, ILLEGAL WIRETAPPING, AND MORE

DISGRACEFUL: DNC Compromises Clinton Campaign Data, Then Blames Bernie Sanders

The Scandal of the DNC Data Breach

SANDERS BREACH PUTS DATA VENDOR BATTLE FRONT AND CENTER

Bernie Sanders campaign claims DNC voter data was leaked multiple times

Report: Sanders campaign told DNC of data issue months ago

The “electability” argument is bogus: Why Bernie Sanders isn’t the second coming of George McGovern

Bernie Sanders is no Ron Paul: What the press gets all wrong about the Vermont senator

Bernie Sanders, First Libertarian Socialist?

HOW I EVOLVED FROM A RON PAUL SUPPORTER TO A BERNIE SANDERS SUPPORTER

Libertarian voting for Bernie Sanders in primary

How Bernie Sanders Helped Kill Rand Paul’s Campaign

How Reddit (and Bernie Sanders) helped kill Rand Paul’s campaign

Ron Paul Gives Bernie Sanders a Boost… Sort Of

The Republicans who love Bernie Sanders

The Lifelong Republicans Who Love Bernie Sanders

Republicans for Bernie

Republicans for Bernie Sanders

Why Surprising Numbers of Republicans Have Been Voting for Bernie Sanders in Vermont

Bernie Sanders Is a Loud, Stubborn Socialist. Republicans Like Him Anyway.

GOP Senator: I’d Vote For Bernie Sanders Over Ted Cruz

Millennials in Poll Fake Right, Go Left

Millennials have a higher opinion of socialism than of capitalism

Hey, GOP, Here’s Why Millennials Hate Us

CLINTON’S UNPOPULARITY WITH YOUNG VOTERS OFFERS GOP AN OPENING [WITH COMMENT BY JOHN]

Clinton looks to sisterhood, but votes may go to Sanders

Cold War Ideology and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

I learned of a new author, Andrew Alexander, the same year he died. I came across him because of a book he wrote on the Cold War, America and the Imperialism of Ignorance: How America Won the War and Lost the Peace – US Foreign Policy Since 1945. I’ll add that book to my reading list for all Americans, even if Oprah doesn’t include it in her book club list.

Alexander was highly critical of Cold War policies and propaganda (and its continuing influence), having seen it as some combination of ignorance and delusion. But he was no radical activist, academic revisionist, or dogmatic ideologue trying to defend left-wing politics. Besides being a respectable editor, journalist and columnist for The Daily Mail, he was a Tory conservative (and once a Conservative candidate), Thatcher neoliberal, right-wing British patriot, and hardline anti-communist. As Simon Jenkins at the Guardian puts it, “No one could possibly call him leftwing, let alone a pacifist appeaser. He has no illusions about the evil of Stalin or Mao, any more than he has about Saddam and al-Qaida.” David Duff, in an Al Aribaya News article, states it simply when he calls Alexander “a crusty Tory of the old school.”

Alexander’s social circle included many in the British political and economic elite. He wasn’t some nobody attacking his perceived superiors in hoping to make a name for himself. His career has been well established for a long time. His is not an angry commentary from an outsider, but a set of long considered concerns directed toward his own ideological peers and associates. He makes this clear in the dedication to his book: “To my numerous friends in the Conservative Party whose relentless belief remains to this day that the Cold war arose from the aggressive ambitions of the Kremlin, thwarted by the bold response of our American friends. Their refusal to contemplate any other explanation has spurred me on in this, my survey of US foreign policy over the last sixty-five years.” His book was an offering to friends, not an attack against enemies. It was his love of country that made him take this issue so seriously, as he worried about the costs wasted and damages done.

It is interesting to read the views of someone like him. It is hard to imagine a conservative of that variety in the mainstream media of the United States. From a Guardian article more than a decade old, he offered this gem (The Soviet threat was a myth):

“One can, of course, understand why few in the west want the orthodox view overturned. If that were to happen, the whole edifice of postwar politics would crumble. Could it be that the heavy burden of postwar rearmament was unnecessary, that the transatlantic alliance actually imperilled rather than saved us? Could it be that the world teetered on the verge of annihilation because post-war western leaders, particularly in Washington, lacked imagination, intelligence and understanding? The gloomy answer is yes.”

That is a damning conclusion, especially considering it comes from a conservative. To give some perspective, here is a passage from his book’s first chapter, The Flawed Cold War Orthodoxy (Kindle Locations 137-154):

“A wider look at history shows that a strongly interventionist US foreign policy is nothing new – though the current power to intervene globally is. A century ago, an American incomprehension of the outside world was exemplified by President Woodrow Wilson, so determined to remake countries in the American image after the First World War. His mixture of benevolence and ruthlessness may be summed up in a dispute with Mexico in 1913, when he announced ‘I will teach the Latin-Americans to elect good men’ followed by bombarding the town of Vera Cruz. His gunboat diplomacy intensified such feelings of nationalism and anti-Americanism that Germany hoped to make Mexico an ally in an attack on the USA in 1917 – famously exposed in the Zimmermann telegram, decoded by London.

“In 1945, the USA dedicated itself in Wilsonian language to bringing ‘democracy and freedom’ to the countries occupied by the Soviets at the end of the Second World War. The goal was high-minded. But there was a puzzling refusal to acknowledge the Soviet claim that two invasions by Germany in twenty-seven years made the firm control of Eastern Europe essential to Russian security. Truman insisted on seeing the Soviets as the determinedly expansionist enemy of the free world almost from the day he assumed office. They were, he said, ‘planning world conquest’.2

“The United States over which he presided had emerged from the Second World War with a military and economic supremacy unparalleled in history. Of the three powers which defeated the Axis alliance, the USA was unique in ending the war wealthier than when it began. By contrast, Britain’s income was down by a third with much of its overseas assets sold to buy armaments from the USA. In the case of Russia, which had been responsible for destroying the vast bulk of Hitler’s forces, the loss of income was immeasurable. Soviet statistics, always dubious, have never provided a wholly reliable picture of national income. But the scale of the devastation, involving at least twenty-two million and possibly twenty-seven million military and civilian deaths, speaks for itself.

“There was in fact no evidence in 1945 that the Soviet Union had a sinister plan to conquer the West. The threat perceived by Truman and others was imaginary – though no less powerful for that – stoked up by years of fearing the deadly spread of Communism.”

Alexander is able to write with such authority because he has gone to the direct words of Stalin and others. Mining records that weren’t available to earlier historians and journalists, his writings on the Cold War includes many telling quotes. What becomes clear is that Stalin was simply another nationalist despot with nationalist concerns. He worried about his own power and position, and of course he took seriously his role as leader of the country he ruled. He was a Russian nationalist, not an ideological communist and Trotsky internationalist (Stalin, by the way, assassinated Trotsky). Alexander states this in no uncertain terms (Kindle Locations 195-202):

“Given the German invasions, it would not have mattered whether the government in Moscow had been Communist, Tsarist or Social Democrat. It would still have insisted on firm control of these countries through which invasion had come; and bound to regard with deep suspicion any attempts to prevent it. In any case, Moscow could never forget that it was British and French policy in the interwar years to make Eastern Europe a barrier against the Soviet Union, even to consider – crucially – allowing Hitler a free hand against Russia. Colonel, later President, de Gaulle noted that even after the start of the Second World War:

“Certain circles saw the enemy in Stalin rather than Hitler. They busied themselves with finding means of striking Russia, either by aiding Finland or bombarding Baku or landing at Istanbul, much more than in coming to grips with Hitler.”

There is an intriguing insight about Stalin and non-Russian revolutions. Alexander explains that (Kindle Locations 161-165):

“Stalin’s attitude to the so-called world proletarian revolution is essential to understanding his personal and political motivation. He was, like the despot throughout the ages, principally concerned with his own survival rather than with ideological issues. He abandoned the grand global ambition of the world proletarian revolution in 1924 when he proclaimed that, henceforth, the aim was to be ‘socialism in one country’. To believe that he remained at all times a devout ideologue is to misread his character.”

One suspects those who saw Stalin as an ideologue were maybe projecting their own dogmatic tendencies. These Western ruling elites wanted an ideological war, whether or not Stalin wished to participate. “The determination of the West to see every Soviet move as explicable in terms of the pursuit of the world proletarian revolution provides one of history’s great ironies: the West took Communist doctrine more seriously than Stalin” (Kindle Locations 180-181). These ideologues were eventually able to force the hand of the Soviets to join this game of ideological battle, as they insisted on goading the Soviet government into aggression. In discussing the “European powers’ readiness to follow the American lead,” Alexander makes the point that “ironically…” (Kindle Locations 114-121),

“the launch of the Cold War by the USA did in due course bring into existence the very danger which had been imagined. It made frantic defence measures seem sensible. Threatened by President Truman, Russia responded by a vigorous programme of rearmament and an even tighter clampdown on Eastern Europe. With the refusal of the USA to respond to peace initiatives launched by the Soviet leadership on the death of Stalin in 1953, the Kremlin fought back under the new and more assertive leadership of Nikita Khrushchev. American and Western power in general was challenged wherever it could be found. It became rational to talk of a Communist threat and of the danger of a Soviet Union with a nuclear armoury. What was inaccurate was the assumption that a new military threat had come into being when the wartime allies finally came face to face in Germany.”

I sometimes find myself talking about the Cold War. I’m on the tail end of the Cold War generations, when that era was winding down. It’s just a childhood memory to me, mostly as portrayed in the fictionalized accounts of Hollywood movies and tv shows. I sense how different older Americans often respond to Cold War history. What to me just seems like propaganda to many who are older seems tangibly real. The ideological terms of capitalism versus communism so fully define and determine their sense of reality.

I found it interesting that even the Soviets talked about defending freedom and democracy from American greed, immorality, and destructiveness. Both sides were often making similar arguments. I’ve come to the conclusion that it never was about ideology. You can see evidence of that in how easily formerly communist Russia and Maoist China have come to embrace variants of capitalism.

It seems to me that the greatest threat to the United States has always been fascism, not communism. You can also see the evidence of that in how easily this country has taken on forms of crony capitalism, corporatism, and inverted totalitarianism. But it isn’t an ideological issue, per se. It is partly just about power and in the US power has always been tied up with capitalism, not any opposing ideologies. Even the most left-wing progressivism in the US merely sought to reform capitalism and did so to protect against anything further left.

Plus, I see the cultural angle being so much more important. That is seen with Stalin. He was a Russian nationalist, first and foremost, through and through. The United States has never been an ethnically homogeneous country like any of the communist countries or, for that matter, any of the traditionally fascist countries. Diversity has been a great protection for the US against the worst forms of authoritarian takeover.

In terms of Russia and Eastern Europe, there was never much of an issue, since only a small part of America’s population comes from that part of the world. The main reason fascism was a threat in this country wasn’t even the dominance of plutocratic capitalism, but because so many Americans came from countries that became fascist. Many German-Americans, the single largest ancestry in the US, proudly marched in the streets carrying flags and banners with the swastika. The characteristics of the American people that resonated with fascism were cultural rather than ideological. Even ignoring ancestry and issues of national loyalty, this resonance included America’s populist folk religiosity, a defining feature of fascism and quite opposite of official communist ideology. The same social and political forces that brought fascism to Europe also brought the German Bund and Second Klan to America.

Yet we go on arguing about ideology. It never was about ideology. It still isn’t. So many ideological debates ring hollow. Like the Cold War, the culture wars were simply a spectacle of distraction. Most Americans agree about most things. There is no grand ideological conflict in America, although there is a class war between the economic elite and everyone else (Joe Bageant made the argument that 60-70% of Americans are actually working class, those with little economic freedom and self-determination), but a class war in raw form is still not directly an issue of ideology. There certainly isn’t any threat of communist takeover. Even Bernie Sanders is simply a moderate mainstream social democrat and not a radical dogmatic ideologue.

I doubt the ideological Cold War will end until the last person with living memory of that era has left this earth. It has been such a powerful force in ruling over our collective psyche, strangling our ability to imagine anything else. We can only hope that with historical distance its grip will loosen and its influence fade.

I’m a Confused Hypocrite

“Identity is the Ur-form of ideology.”
~ Theodor Adorno

I was considering my confused identity.

I typically identify as a liberal, but I always mean that in the broadest sense. First and foremost, I’m psychologically liberal. This means I’m generous in attitude, if not always perfectly so in practice. More specifically, I am or seek to be: open-minded, curious, not ideologically dogmatic, lacking in group loyalty (especially in terms of groupthink, although I’m strong in personal loyalty to those I care about), tolerant of differences, tolerant of cognitive dissonance (tolerant of the differences within myself and hence tolerant of my own confused identity), etc.

I’m accepting of ambiguity even as I’m desirous of clarity. I’m critical of hypocrisy and try to avoid it, but I know that I fail. I’m inconsistent and it seems to me all humans are inconsistent. Inconsistency isn’t problematic as such. Rather, it is the unawareness of one’s inconsistency. I try to lessen my sin of hypocrisy with a dose of humility.

One of my favorite sayings is that, “It’s complex”. That is my way of saying that, although I have many opinions based on what I hope is good info and careful thought, in the end I just don’t feel all that certain about lots of things. I could be wrong, to put it lightly. No doubt, there is more that I don’t know than I do know.

On a more personal level, I’m both an idealist and a philosophical pessimist. I’m a radical skeptic (zetetic), which translates to my being skeptical of even skepticism. I’m an equal opportunity agnostic. I question and doubt everything, and that can be a quite demoralizing attitude at times when coupled with my streak of depression. I’m agnostic about belief and unbelief. I sometimes identify as an agnostic gnostic, just for shits and giggles.

All in all, my liberalism is one of the most central aspects to my identity. It is at the heart of my confusion. In ideological terms, I have many tendencies and concerns. I’m equal parts: progressive, communitarian, civil libertarian, social democrat, “rat park” municipal socialist, and on and on.

I’m socially globalist/internationalist (a humanitarian or maybe better yet a Gaian), but I simultaneously lean toward minarchism in my politics and anarchism in my economics (e.g., anarcho-syndicalism). Yet I’m not against big government or big anything on principle. It’s more of a practical emphasis, of wanting to bring the world back down to the human level, to the level of lived experience and living reality (non-human included), of personal relationships and communities, of a sense of place and a sense of home.

On the other hand, I can’t say I’m against such things bureaucracy or technocracy, per se. Nor am I necessarily opposed to capitalism and big biz. I really don’t care about such things in and of themselves. What I do care about is democracy and hence freedom, which to me are always most fundamentally personal and interpersonal, not mere abstractions or theories.

If any particular ideological system can be made to align and support democracy and freedom, then more power to it. I don’t feel I’m in a position to predict what new forms and directions society might take, but I wouldn’t mind a bureaucracy and technocracy of the variety portrayed in Star Trek: The Next Generation. As for capitalism and big biz, I just want a genuine free market which means a democratized and socially responsible economics, whatever that may be (obviously, present capitalism and big biz fails that standard to an extreme degree).

My biggest concern is about externalized costs, the free rider problem, and the precautionary principle (all of which I consider to be most fundamentally conservative-minded and so, at least superficially, opposed to my more typical liberal predisposition). More than anything, I’d like to live in a society that (1) is wise and (2) is not self-destructive. Our present society is highly dysfunctional and I feel that I have internalized much of that dysfunction. I’m a confused person because that seems like the inevitable fate right now of any person who is self-aware and of a concerned attitude.

I want to live in a world that is worth caring about. I want to live in a society that considers me worth caring about.

Because I’m a liberal, I’d like to believe such a world and society is possible. The disconnect from what I’d like to believe and what is present reality is more than a bit disconcerting. It’s downright irritating and frustrating. It would be easier to be righteous than confused, but I’m never able to maintain an attitude of righteousness for very long. Righteousness is more tiresome than even depression.

My inner child just wants the bad people to stop doing bad things. But my cynical adult self points out that I’m part of this problematic society. How can I be anything other than confused and hypocritical? How can I not fail my own idealistic standards and aspirations? Still, apathetically accepting the status quo of soul-crushing misery and injustice would be a far worse fate.

The Case of the Missing Concepts

Hypocognition, in cognitive linguistics, means missing and being unable to communicate cognitive and linguistic representations because there are no words for particular concepts.”

* * *

The enthusiasm for evidence-based medicine (EBM) has not been accompanied by the same success in bridging the gap between theory and practice. This paper advances the hypothesis that the phenomenon psychologists call hypocognition may hinder the development of EBM. People tend to respond to frames rather than to facts. To be accepted, a theory, however robust, must fit into a person’s mental framework. The absence of a simple, consolidated framework is referred to as hypocognition. Hypocognition might limit the application of EBM in three ways. First, it fails to provide an analytical framework by which to orient the physician in the direction of continuous medical development and variability in individual people’s responses. Second, little emphasis is placed on teaching clinical reasoning. Third, there is an imbalance between the enormous mass of available information and the practical possibilities. Possible solutions are described. We not only need more evidence to help clinicians make better decisions, but also need more research on why some clinicians make better decisions than others, how to teach clinical reasoning, and whether computerised supports can promote a higher quality of individualised care.”

* * *

Americans, especially, suffer from what linguists call hypocognition: the lack of a core concept we need in order to thrive. The missing concept is of democracy as a way of life; democracy not as a set system–something done to us, for us, finished and done–but as a set of system values that usefully apply in all arenas of life. In the dominant, failing idea of democracy, society is a subset of economic life. To make the needed planetary turn to life, we must envision the opposite: economic life re-embedded in society guided by shared human values, including fairness, inclusion, and mutual accountability.”

* * *

Frances Moore Lappe (Hope’s Edge, 2002) makes the case that often politicians and corporations use terms that leave us suffering from “hypocognition.” Hypocognition results when a term is used to conjure up all-positive images to prevent us from understanding what is really going on. For example, hypocognition makes it hard for the public to believe there can be anything wrong with “globalism” or “free trade,” which sound like the apple pie and motherhood of the 21st century. It is easy for the press to portray those who protest against “free trade” as fringe lunatics.

“Ms. Lappe coined the term “primitive marketism” as a more appropriate name for what has become the accepted standard of world trade over the last 20 years — that the single principle of highest return to existing wealth is the sole driver of the world-wide system of production and exchange. That leaves cultural integrity, human rights, environmental protection, and even the ability of people to feed themselves as inconsequential to multinational corporations reaching around the world for opportunities for the highest return to existing wealth.

“As much as the term “primitive marketism” helps identify problems inherent to the way global trade is structured today, it takes a bit of bending of the mind and tongue to use it. It seems to me that a term that more immediately and clearly identifies where we are headed with world trade — a term which leaves no room for hypocognition — is “corporate colonialism.””

* * *

This perspective on reason matters to the discussion in this forum about global warming, because many people engaged in environmentalism still have the old, false view of reason and language. Folks trained in public policy, science, economics, and law are often given the old, false view. As a result, they may believe that if you just tell people the facts, they will reason to the right conclusion. What actually happens is that the facts must make sense in terms of their system of frames, or they will be ignored. The facts, to be communicated, must be framed properly. Furthermore, to understand something complex, a person must have a system of frames in place that can make sense of the facts. In the case of global warming, all too many people do not have such a system of frames in the conceptual systems in their brains. Such frame systems have to be built up over a period of time. This has not been done.” (pp. 72-73)

“Have you ever wondered why conservatives can communicate easily in a few words, while liberals take paragraphs? The reason is that conservatives have spent decades, day after day building up frames in people’s brains, and building a better communication system to get their ideas out in public. Progressives have not done that.” (p. 73)

“The right language is absolutely necessary for communicating ‘‘the real crisis.’’(p. 74)

“‘Hypocognition’ is the lack of ideas we need. We are suffering from massive hypocognition in the case of the environment.” (p. 76)

“An important frame is in throes of being born: The Regulated Commons – the idea of common, non-transferable ownership of aspects of the natural world, such as the atmosphere, the airwaves, the waterways, the oceans, and so on.” (p. 78)

* * *

Not all corrections to hypocognition have to be heavy stuff, like grief and scientific advancement. One of my favorite authors tried to give everything a word. Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, put out a book with John Lloyd called, The Meaning of Liff. It started as a slightly-drunken party game, during which Adams and his friends picked out the names of English towns and pretended the names were words that they had to define. As they were coming up with different definitions, they realized that, as humans, they all shared common experiences that don’t have names.

“My favorite word of the book is “shoeburyness,” which is defined as “the vague uncomfortable feeling you get when sitting on a seat which is still warm from somebody else’s bottom.” Everyone has felt that. One author I read went to a strict college at which men were forbidden to sit in a seat directly after a woman vacated it, because he would feel her residual body heat and the dean of women considered that too sexual. But no one came up with a word for it. Once there is a word for it, people can begin to refer to it. What concept do you think needs a word? I nominate “splincing” — when you’re completely in the wrong, and hate it, and you daydream about someone wronging you so you can feel righteously aggrieved about something.”

Political Appetitions

Appetition

Definitions
n. Desire; a longing for, or seeking after, something.

Etymologies
From Latin appetītiō (“a longing for or desire”).

Leibniz’s Philosophy of Mind
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Appetitions are explained as “tendencies from one perception to another” (Principles of Nature and Grace, sec.2 (1714)). Thus, we represent the world in our perceptions, and these representations are linked with an internal principle of activity and change (Monadology, sec.15 (1714)) which, in its expression in appetitions, urges us ever onward in the constantly changing flow of mental life. More technically explained, the principle of action, that is, the primitive force which is our essence, expresses itself in momentary derivative forces involving two aspects: on the one hand, there is a representative aspect (perception), by which that the many without are expressed within the one, the simple substance; on the other, there is a dynamical aspect, a tendency or striving towards new perceptions, which inclines us to change our representative state, to move towards new perceptions. (See Carlin 2004.)

Leibniz: truth, knowledge and metaphysics
Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias

This is the famous doctrine of unconscious perceptions. Here it is helpful to recall Leibniz’s hierarchical arrangement of monads. All monads perceive, but they differ vastly in terms of the quality of their perceptions. Human minds or spirits are distinguished not only by reason but also by ‘apperception’ which means consciousness or perhaps even selfconsciousness. But though Leibniz holds that human minds are set apart from lower monads by their capacity for (self)-conscious awareness, he further believes that they also have unconscious or little perceptions (petites perceptions); such perceptions are little because they are low in intensity. Not merely do large stretches of our mental life consist wholly in little perceptions, but even conscious mental states are composed of such perceptions. The doctrine of unconscious perceptions is perhaps Leibniz’s principal innovation in psychology, and it is of course profoundly anti-Cartesian in its implications. For Descartes subscribes to the view that the mind is transparent to itself; he is explicit that there is nothing in the mind of which we are not conscious.80 In the New Essays on Human Understanding, his reply to Locke, Leibniz remarks that there are ‘thousands of indications’ in favour of unconscious perceptions.81

Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences
By John R. Hibbing, Kevin B. Smith, and John R. Alford
Kindle Locations 429-488

People are not fully conscious of their predispositions. Gottfried Leibniz, a seventeeth-century mathematician and scientist, called them “appetitions” and argued that, though unconscious , appetitions drive human actions. His ideas so troubled Descartes-addled Enlightenment minds that they were not published until well after Leibniz’s death. Even then, they were not taken seriously for a long time. Recent science, though, is fully on board with Leibniz’s ideas and is providing ever -increasing evidence that people grossly overestimate the role in their decisions of rational, conscious thought , just as they grossly overestimate the extent to which sensory input is objective.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman goes so far as to claim that “the brain is properly thought of as a mostly closed system that runs on its own internally generated activity … internal data is not generated by external sensory data but merely modulated by it.” 14 Noting that people often do things because of forces of which they are not aware and then produce a bogus reason for these actions after the fact, Stephen Pinker refers to the portion of the brain involved in constructing this post hoc narrative as the “baloney generator.” 15 The baloney generator is so effective that people believe they know the reasons for their actions and beliefs even when these reasons are inaccurate and patently untrue. 16

Need examples of physiology affecting attitudes and behavior, even when people think they are being rational? Consider this: Job applicant resumes reviewed on heavy clipboards are judged more worthy than identical resumes on lighter clipboards; holding a warm or hot drink can influence whether opinions of other people are positive or negative; when people reach out to pick up an orange while smelling strawberries they unwittingly spread their fingers less widely— as if they were picking up a strawberry rather than an orange. 17 People sitting in a messy, smelly room tend to make harsher moral judgments than those who are in a neutral room; disgusting ambient odors also increase expressed dislike of gay men. 18 Judges’ sentencing practices are measurably more lenient when they are fresh and haven’t just dealt with a string of prior cases. 19 Sitting on a hard, uncomfortable chair leads people to be less flexible in their stances than if they are seated on a soft , comfortable chair, and people reminded of physical cleansing, perhaps by being located near a hand sanitizer, are more likely to render stern judgments than those who were not given such a reminder. 20 People even can be made to change their moral judgments as a result of hypnotic suggestion. 21

In all these cases the baloney generator can produce a convincing case that the pertinent decision was made on the merits rather than as a result of irrelevant factors. People actively deny that a chunky clipboard has anything to do with their assessment of job applicants or that a funky odor has anything to do with their moral judgments. Judges certainly refuse to believe that the length of time since their last break has anything to do with their sentencing decisions; after all, they are meting out objective justice . Leibniz was right, though, and the baloney generator is full of it. The way we respond—biologically, physiologically, and in many cases unwittingly— to our environments influences attitudes and behavior. People much prefer to believe, however , that their decisions and opinions are rational rather than rationalized.

This desire to believe we are rational is certainly in effect when it comes to politics, where an unwillingness to acknowledge the role of extraneous forces of which we may not even be aware is especially strong. Many pretend that politics is a product of citizens taking their civic obligations seriously, sifting through political messages and information, and then carefully and deliberately considering the candidates and issue positions before making a consciously informed decision. Doubtful. In truth, people’s political judgments are affected by all kinds of factors they assume to be wholly irrelevant.

Compared to people (not just judges) with full stomachs, those who have not eaten for several hours are more sympathetic to the plight of welfare recipients. 22 Americans whose polling place happens to be a church are more likely to vote for right-of-center candidates and ideas than those whose polling place is a public school. 23 People are more likely to accept the realities of global warming if their air conditioning is broken. 24 Italians insisting they were neutral in the lead-up to a referendum on expanding a U.S . military base, but who implicitly associated pictures of the base with negative terms, were more likely to vote against the referendum; in other words, people who genuinely believed themselves to be undecided were not. 25 People shown a cartoon happy face for just a few milliseconds (too quick to register consciously) list fewer arguments against immigration than those individuals who were shown a frowning cartoon face. 26 Political views are influenced not only by forces believed to be irrelevant but by forces that have not entered into conscious awareness. People think they know the reasons they vote for the candidates they do or espouse particular political positions or beliefs, but there is at least a slice of baloney in that thinking.

Responses to political stimuli are animated by emotional and not always conscious bodily processes. Political scientist Milt Lodge studies “hot cognition” or “automaticity.” His research shows that people tag familiar objects and concepts with an emotional response and that political stimuli such as a picture of Sarah Palin or the word “Obamacare” are particularly likely to generate emotional or affective (and therefore physiologically detectable) responses. In fact, Lodge and his colleague Charles Taber claim that “all political leaders, groups, issues, symbols, and ideas previously thought about and evaluated in the past become affectively charged— positively or negatively.” 27 Responses to a range of individual concepts and objects frequently become integrated in a network that can be thought of as the tangible manifestation of a broader political ideology.

The fact that extraneous forces that may not have crossed the threshold of awareness (sometimes called sub-threshold) shape political orientations and actions makes it possible for individual variation in nonpolitical variables to affect politics. If hotter ambient temperatures in a room increase acceptance of global warming, maybe people whose internal thermostats incline them to feeling hot are also more likely to be accepting of global warming. Likewise, sensitivity to clutter and disorder, to smell, to disgust, and to threats becomes potentially relevant to political views. Since elements of these sensitivities often are outside of conscious awareness, it becomes possible that political views are shaped by psychological and physiological patterns.

Communication Failure, Again

I was in another debate with a feminist about rape. My last such discussion was a few months ago. It was equally frustrating this time. I really don’t like ideologues and I really don’t like political correctness, either from the left or the right.

It isn’t even about whether I agree with someone or not. In this case, I think I may have been more in agreement. But it is pointless because such a person wants to hide behind their beliefs and opinions, hide behind their righteousness indignation, and I suppose hide behind their sense of suffering and victimization.

Life sucks and there plenty of reasons to be angry. I understand that. It is easy to get defensive and polarized into a position. I also understand that. But all my attempts at understanding came to nothing, so it seemed.

It sure can be frustrating trying to talk to someone who is stuck in that mentality. The person I was dealing with never came around to understanding that we were probably completely in agreement, at least about the central issues at hand. She so much wanted to make me into an enemy that divisiveness and heated argument was the near inevitable endpoint.

I wish I was better at communicating in such situations.

Ideological Realism & Scarcity of Imagination

I’m always fascinated and frustrated about the relationship of ideology to ‘realism. There are all kinds of ways for realism to manifest: race realism, communist realism, capitalist realism, religious realism, etc. But all of them share the same basic mentality.

The realism I’ve been most focused on lately is capitalist realism. But in our society it goes hand in hand with race realism. The two then give birth to a third realism: Social Darwinism.

Realism as an ideology forms a reality tunnel that declares nothing else is possible. This isn’t a passive lack of insight and vision. Rather, it is an active occluding of perception and an active suppression of alternatives. Realism taken to its extreme becomes dominant over all else.

In capitalist realism, scarcity is a central tenet of faith, the wall of ‘reality’ beyond which we don’t speak of, beyond which we don’t even know how to speak of. But if you step back for a moment you can see how much scarcity is self-imposed and so artificial.

Diamonds are a famous example as one company controls almost all the mines in the world and you know they are using some devious means to maintain that control. A less well known example is how the US Fed used hard money policies to suppress wages. Another less well known example is how Reagan used an artificially created Starve the Beast strategy by unnecessarily creating a permanent Federal debt.

This scarcity never applies to the rich. It is always the rich who are forcing scarcity onto the public. And it is the media and politicians owned by the rich who spread the scarcity message.

We live in the wealthiest country in the world. We have enough money to house, feed, educate and give healthcare to every American citizen. But our government chooses not to do so. Instead, the plutocrats choose corporate subsidies and the building of a military-prison-industrial complex.

A different kind of realism exists in China and another in North Korea. Those are more obviously oppressive, but in the big picture the US-style realism is more oppressive across the globe. In the end, it doesn’t really matter which ideological realism you choose. Oppression is oppression is oppression.

All forms of ideological realism have their preferred scarcity for that is just the other side of concentrated power. Behind any ideological realism, concentrated power will be found. Scarcity of all other things is determined by the scarcity of power, i.e., the hording of power.

The ultimate scarcity, though, that this leads to is a scarcity of freedom and imagination, the disempowerment of mind. To imagine other possibilities is to that extent to make yourself free. It is the force of vision that is behind any genuine claim to freedom. There is no greater revolutionary act.