Is there a balance point in a society of extremes?

“That decadence is a cumulative thing. Certainly, it is nurtured both by dogma and nihilism. Only a sceptical meaningfulness can push forward in a creative way.”
~ Paul Adkin, Decadence & Stagnation

Many liberals in the United States have become or always were rather conservative in personality and/or ideology. This is an old complaint made by many further to the left, myself included.

Quite a few liberals maybe would have identified as conservatives at a different time or in a different society. The US political spectrum is shifted so far right that moderate conservatives appear as liberals and typically portray themselves as liberals, but even these moderate conservatives long to push society further right into neoliberal corporatism and neocon authoritarianism. That is how so much of the political left gets excluded from mainstream respectability and legitimacy for, in big biz media and plutocratic politics, even a moderate liberal gets portrayed as a radical.

But the other thing about our society is how reactionary it is, not merely right-wing in the way seen a century ago. This forces the entire political left into an oppositional position that gets defined by what it isn’t and so leftists are forced into a narrow corner of the dominant paradigm. This causes many left-wingers to be constantly on the defensive or to be overly preoccupied with the other side.

And it is so easy to become more like what is opposed. There is a surprising number of left-wingers who become right-wingers or otherwise fall into reactionary thinking, who become obsessed with fringe ideologies and movements that feed into authoritarianism or get lost in dark fantasies of dystopia and apocalypse. Many others on the political left simply lose hope, becoming cynical and apathetic.

In a society like this, it’s very difficult to remain solidly on the political left while maintaining balance. One hopes there is a sweet spot between what goes for liberalism and the far left, these two in themselves forming extremes on a spectrum.

The danger on the political right is far different. Conservative, right-wing, and reactionary have all become conflated into an ideological confusion that is held together by an authoritarian streak. This is a vague set of overlapping visons involving dominance and oppression, fear and anxiety, righteousness and resentment, nostalgia and pseudo-realism, theocracy and nationalism, crude libertarianism and fascist-like futurism.

This scattered political left and mixed-up political right is what goes for American politics.

How does an individual as a member of the public gain enough distance from the very social order that dominates the public mind and frames public debate, manages public perception and manipulates public behavior? And where does one find solid ground to make a stand?

* * *

Let me add some thoughts.

We Americans live in an authoritarian society. There is a long history of authoritarianism: genocide, slavery, land theft, population displacement, reservations, internment camps, re-enslavement through chain gangs, Jim Crow, sundown towns, race wars, redlining, eugenics, human medical testing, tough-on-crime laws, war on drugs, war on the poor, racial profiling, mass incarceration, police brutality, military-industrial complex, near continuous war-mongering, anti-democratic covert operations (foreign and domestic), intelligence-security state, plutocratic corporatism, inverted totalitarianism, etc.

In America, there were openly stated racist laws on the books for several centuries. Of course, we inherited this authoritarian tradition from Britain and Europe. They have their own long histories of imperialism, colonialism, genocide, pogroms, Holocaust, eugenics, ghettoization, exploitation, oppression, prejudice, violence, state terrorism, wars of aggression, world war, and on and on. We can’t rationalize this as being just human nature, as not all humans have acted this way. There are societies like the Piraha that wouldn’t even understand authoritarianism, much less be prone to it. But even among modern nation-states, not all of them have an extensive past of conquering and dominating other people.

Anyway, what other societies do is a moot issue, as far as dealing with one’s own society and one’s own culpability and complicity. So you say that you’re an anti-authoritarian. Well, good for you. What does that mean?

Our lives are ruled over by authoritarianism. But it’s not just something that comes from above for it is built into every aspect of our society and economy. On a daily basis, we act out scripts of authoritarianism and play by its rules. Our lives are dependent on the internalized benefits of externalized costs, the latter being mostly paid by the worst victims of authoritarianism, typically poor dark-skinned people in distant countries. The cheap gas and cheap products you consume were paid for by the blood and suffering of untold others who remain unseen and unheard.

Even to embrace anti-authoritarianism is to remain captured within the gravity of authoritarianism’s pull. The challenge is that maybe authoritarianism can’t ever be directly opposed because opposition is part of the language of authoritarianism. Opposition can always be co-opted, subverted, or redirected. There is either authoritarianism or there is not. For it to end, something entirely new would have to take its place.

This is where radical imagination comes in. We need entirely different thinking made possible through a paradigm shift, a revolution of the mind. We aren’t going to debate or analyze, petition or vote our way out of authoritarianism. That puts us in a tricky spot, for those of us dissatisfied with the options being forced upon us.

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Little House: Political Storytelling

The making of the “Little House” books is fascinating. It was written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. But it appears that her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, heavily edited and informed the writing process, some considering her to have co-written it as she was already a published professional writer. The letters between them show how closely they worked in creating the series.

That relationship was central. There seems to have been an odd and sometimes unhappy relationship between mother and daughter. Yet they shared some common views of the world that framed their work together. Maybe this is because they both were born into the same era following the Civil War, only 19 years separating their births. It was a time of change and destabilization, not just because of war and the following Reconstruction but also because of a mix of violent frontier life, ongoing genocide of Native Americans, mass immigration, increasing racial and ethnic conflicts, poverty along with growing inequality, Gilded Age industrialization, labor conflict, and much else.

They were of two generations, Missionary and Lost. But they were close enough in age to face the challenges from the forming of a new order (socially, economically, and politically). There were important differences, though. Wilder spent her entire life in rural farm communities. But even there the entire world was shifting around her. Lane, as with many in her generation, went to the cities where opportunities were great but so were risks and costs. Cities were brutal places at the time, bustling concentrations of opulent wealth and desperate poverty, along with a small middle class beginning to grow. Lane was able to get a toehold into the middle class, although she always struggled and fell back into poverty during the Great Depression. Her mother, Wilder, never knew any of that.

What they did share was both having grown up in that last era of pioneer life. They used that common bond to shape the ideological world of the fictionalized Wilder family. And it was heavily fictionalized, removed from it were all the darkness and ugliness, all the struggle and suffering, all the violence and sexual debauchery, all the sickness and death, but also all of the support from community and government that made pioneer life possible. They created an ideological fantasy that struck a chord for many Americans.

Interestingly, their political beliefs took many decades to form. The late 1800s was a time of populism, a strange mix of ideologies, movements, and alliances. The Soviet Union didn’t come into existence until 1922, when Wilder was 55 and Lane 36. And the New Deal wasn’t to happen until 11 years after that. So, during the Populist Era, there was no clear distinction between impulses toward Marxism, commmunism, communitarianism, Christian socialism, labor organizing, anarchism, anti-statism, and libertarianism.

When you look at the views held by mother and daughter across their lives, it’s hard to find much consistency other than an attempt to make sense of their personal experience in terms of changing politics, not to mention a heavy dose of nostalgia that grew over time. For Lane, there was also a worsening sense of isolation, depression, anger, and bitterness; probably from untreated mental illness and lack of healthcare in general through most of her life. Even though her mother was much more stoical, self-denying and emotionally unexpressive, the two of them turned ever more toward right-wing libertarianism, verging on a harsh social Darwinism. The basic attitude seems to be that they had suffered horribly with few opportunities and somehow survived, and so no one should have anything they had lacked.

This ignores all that they were given, all that government made possible: ‘free’ land taken from Native Americans, subsidized-building of railroads, publicly-funded schools, etc. That is also to overlook how rural farmers were absolutely dependent on their neighbors and communities. Neither of them was ever as self-made as they liked to believe. There were many conflicts in their worldview, such as a conflict between how government helped them and how it helped others, a conflict between agrarianism and industrialization, etc. An example of this is how ‘libertarians’ like Lane came to be among the strongest supporters of Cold War militaristic neo imperialism, such as Lane’s later support of the Vietnam War.

In this, they were like many other Americans. The entire country was conflicted between rhetoric and reality, between competing economic interests and political visions. Americans were looking for stories that made sense of what didn’t actually fit into a simplistic narrative. A failure in terms of historical accuracy and moral accountability, the “Little House” series nonetheless offered such a compelling story to paper over the cracks. Generations since have had their minds shaped by this vision, the kind of rhetoric that would make possible the election of Ronald Reagan and the creation of our own conflicted age of neoliberalism and neoconservatism. Lane supported Reagan when Goldwater introduced him into politics and, in return, one of Reagan’s favorite tv shows was the adaptation of the “Little House” series which he watched while in the White House.

Never doubt the power of stories.

* * *

Little House with a Bigger Story
by Kjerstin Johnson, Bitch Media

Rose and her mother supported populist politics, but “ultimately, both women’s experience of adversity—or their selective recall of it—made them less sympathetic to the homeless and jobless.” Rose, who had supported union organizer Eugene Debs, lived with bohemians, and mixed with Soviet communists, eventually became known as one of the “mothers of Libertarianism” along with Ayn Rand and Isabel Paterson. While one could wonder if her socially conservative politics made it way into my bedtime stories, it seems that Rose saved most of her politics for her later works, which didn’t meet with the critical success of her best-selling pioneer novels.

Autobiographical Sketch of Rose Wilder Lane
by Rose Wilder Lane, Library of Congress

Politically, I cast my first vote — on a sample ballot — for Cleveland, at the age of three. I was an ardent if uncomprehending Populist; I saw America ruined forever when the soulless corporations in 1896, defeated Bryan and Free Silver. I was a Christian Socialist with Debs, and distributed untold numbers of the Appeal to Reason. From 1914 to 1920 — when I first went to Europe — I was a pacifist; innocently, if criminally, I thought war stupid, cruel, wasteful and unnecessary. I voted for Wilson because he kept us out of it.

In 1917 I became convinced, though not practicing communist. In Russia, for some reason, I wasn’t and I said so, but my understanding of [Bolsdevism?] made everything pleasant when the Cheka arrested me a few times.

Wilder Women
by Judith Thurman, The New Yorker

“Little House in the Big Woods” was a great success, critically and commercially. Seven months after it was published, Franklin Delano Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover. His victory bitterly dismayed the Wilders—Rose, in particular. Shortly after the Inauguration, she noted in her journal, “We have a dictator.”

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Wilders, along with other disillusioned pioneers, had briefly rallied to the incendiary populism of William Jennings Bryan. By the middle of the decade, Rose had become a follower of Eugene Debs, the union organizer and Socialist candidate for President. In her days as a bohemian, she had flirted with Communism. Laura was a Democrat until the late nineteen-twenties; after the First World War, she served as the local secretary of a national loan association that dispersed federal money to farmers, and as the chairwoman of her county’s Democratic Committee. But, ultimately, both women’s experience of adversity—or their selective recall of it—made them less sympathetic to the homeless and the jobless. “The Greatest Good to the Greatest Number,” Rose argued in a letter to Dorothy Thompson, “will obviously be reached when each individual of the greatest number is doing the greatest good to himself.”

Laura had kept in touch fitfully with her sisters, and when she began to research her childhood they sometimes provided details that she’d forgotten. Mary had died in 1928, but Grace, a farmer’s wife, and Carrie, a journalist, were both still living in South Dakota—Grace and her husband receiving welfare and surplus food. Nevertheless, from Rocky Ridge, the predicament of the urban poor was a remote abstraction, and the Wilders blamed rural poverty on the Democrats’ support, as they saw it, of industry at the expense of agriculture. They opposed legislation that compelled farmers to plow crops under as a strategy for price support. Miller writes that, according to Rose, Almanzo was ready to run off an agent from the Agriculture Department with a shotgun, telling him, “I’ll plant whatever I damn please on my own farm.” In 1943, the year that Laura published “These Happy Golden Years” (the final installment of her saga), she told a Republican congressman from Malone, New York, “What we accomplished was without help of any kind, from anyone.”

The Wilders had, in fact, received unacknowledged help from their families, and the Ingallses, like all pioneers, were dependent, to some degree, on the railroads; on taxpayer-financed schools (Mary’s tuition at a college for the blind, Hill points out, was paid for by the Dakota Territory); on credit—which is to say, the savings of their fellow-citizens; on “boughten” supplies they couldn’t make or grow; and, most of all, on the federal government, which had cleared their land of its previous owners. “There were no people” on the prairie, Laura, or Rose, had written. “Only Indians lived there.” (Hill writes that Wilder agreed to amend the sentence when an outraged reader objected, calling it “a stupid blunder.” It now reads, “There were no settlers.”) […]

Last June, Anita Clair Fellman, a professor emerita of history at Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Virginia, published “Little House, Long Shadow,” a survey of the Wilders’ “core” beliefs, and of their influence on American political culture. Two streams of conservatism, she argues—not in themselves inherently compatible—converge in the series. One is Lane’s libertarianism, and the other is Wilder’s image of a poster family for Republican “value voters”: a devoted couple of Christian patriots and their unspoiled children; the father a heroic provider and benign disciplinarian, the mother a pious homemaker and an example of feminine self-sacrifice. (In that respect, Rose considered herself an abject failure. “My life has been arid and sterile,” she wrote, “because I have been a human being instead of a woman.”)

Fellman concludes, “The popularity of the Little House books . . . helped create a constituency for politicians like Reagan who sought to unsettle the so-called liberal consensus established by New Deal politics.”

Lane’s Forgotten Writings on Race
by Roderick T. Long, Austro-Athenian Empire

Before her discovery of the Courier, Lane by her own admission had had a blindspot on the issue of race; she had “heard of lynchings and other racial injustice, but had assumed they were isolated incidents.” After she began reading the Courier’s documentation of the extent of racial oppression in the u.s., she declared that she had been an “utter fool” and a “traitor” to the “cause of human rights.” (p. 284) Soon she had joined the paper’s campaign against racism by becoming one of its regular writers.

Race was not the only topic of her columns; she advanced libertarian ideas across the board, often taking left-libertarian positions. For example, she defended the striking United Mine Workers for “refusing to submit to tyranny” (p. 288); praised Samuel Gompers as a proponent of an antistatist form of labour activism (for Gompers’ actual merits or otherwise, see here); championed “free mutual associations” as an alternative to the welfare state (p. 285); expressed concern about the tendency of women to subordinate their interests and identity to those of men and family (p. 286); and saw the “Big Boys” – politically connected plutocrats – as the chief enemies of the free market, declaring that “they can get themselves murdered in cellars for all I’d care.” (p. 285) (Her views on such subjects could be complicated, though. During her early flirtation with Marxism she’d even written a book praising Henry Ford as a practical implementer of Marxism.)

Little Squatter on the Osage Diminished Reserve
by Frances W. Kaye, University of Nebraska

Laura Ingalls Wilder was a person of her time and place. She fictionalized her memories to give what she honestly believed was the truest possible account-true in deeply human ways as well as in accurate details-of one family’s settlement history on the Great Plains frontier. I have never really liked her work. While my sister read all the Little House books, I read … Zane Grey. That I do not share Wilder’s values and point of view is no argument against the books-I do not share Zane Grey’s values and point of view, either. But Zane Grey is not held up to contemporary parents, teachers, and children as a moral exemplar. We accurately recognize him as a prolific popular writer whose work is violent, sexist, racist, and almost self-parodically anti-Mormon and, after 1914, anti-German. Laura Ingalls Wilder, on the other hand, has spawned a minor industry in criticism. Her work, and particularly Little House on the Prairie, has been almost universally praised, especially by feminist critics, as a humane and feminist alternative to the myth of “regeneration through violence” of the masculine frontier of Zane Grey and the Wild West. What we think about the Little House books matters. It seems to me that Wilder’s proponents are fundamentally mistaken. I honestly cannot read Little House on the Prairie as other than apology for the “ethnic cleansing” of the Great Plains. That her thought was unremarkable, perhaps even progressive, for the time in which she lived and wrote should not exempt her books from sending up red flags for contemporary critics who believe in diversity, multiculturalism, and human rights.

“Can you imagine, a real, live Indian right here in Walnut Grove?”: American Indians in Television Adaptations of Little House on the Prairie
by Amy S. Fatzinger, Dialogue

When Mary enthusiastically exclaims, “Can you imagine, a real, live Indian right here in Walnut Grove?” in a 1977 television episode of Little House on the Prairie (“Injun Kid”), it would seem that the Ingalls family’s attitudes toward Native people have evolved considerably since they first appeared in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 1935 novel of the same name. In the novel, Wilder’s depictions of Native characters are often associated with negative imagery and fear; Laura’s sister, Mary, and their mother, were particularly terrified by even the prospect of encountering Native people. Fans and critics alike will recall times that Native people—most likely Osage men—visited the Ingalls home, nights the family stayed awake in terror as they listened to the “Indian jamboree” nearby, and Laura problematically longing for a papoose of her own—the epitome of non-Native appropriation of Native culture—as the Ingalls family watches the long line of Osage people file past their “little house.”

Little imperialist on the prairie
by Will Braun, Geez Magazine

In these books, Indians are wild, exotic and threatening, yet also dignified and peaceable. When the white neighbour says, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” Pa objects. They have reason to dislike white folk, given how often they have been forced to move. “But,” he says, honing in on the crux of his colonial justification, “an Indian ought to have sense enough to know when he was licked.”

In Wilder’s world, Indians are not entitled to the land. Indeed, if she believed otherwise, her life’s story, and the entire story of the continent, would fall apart. To maintain her belief she must portray Indians as inferior – interesting, even friendly, but ultimately uncivilized.

This classic colonial narrative is easy to critique. Yet it persists because it is nearly impossible for non-indigenous North Americans to truly untangle ourselves from it without getting back on the boat. We might not share Ma’s disdain for Indians, but our existence here constitutes a tainted sense of entitlement.

Historical Perspective or Racism in Little House on the Prairie?
by Laura McLemore, Little House on the Prairie

News of the impending opening of Indian Territory reached land-hungry settlers back east and caused an illegal land rush into the area.  Congress refused to ratify the Sturgis Treaty, fearing backlash from their constituents who favored free settlement of the land under the Homestead Act of 1862.  The Ingalls family was part of the wave of squatters or illegal settlers who entered and established homes in Montgomery County.  Whether Pa knew this or not is open for debate, but it is highly unlikely that he would have been ignorant of this fact.  In Little House on the Prairie Ma tells Laura that “Pa had word from a man in Washington that the Indian Territory would be open to settlement soon.  It might already be open to settlement.  They could not know because Washington was so far away.”   Pa was most likely betting that the government would allow squatters to claim homesteads once the Osage were removed.

When most of the settlers arrived in Indian Territory the Osage people were off on their annual hunting trips further west and it may have appeared that the land was unoccupied.  Although the land that Pa chose was obviously next to a well-used trail, he preferred to think of the land as unsettled.  In the early pages of Little House on the Prairie, Laura quotes Pa as saying that animals wandered “in a pasture that stretched much farther than a man could see, and there were no settlers.  Only Indians lived there.”  As did all of the settlers, Pa chose to ignore the fact that the land and everything on it belonged to the Osage people.  He freely cut logs to build a house, hunted wild game for food and furs, dug a well and broke the land for farming.  When the Osage returned from their trip they found their home and their lands occupied by all kinds of settlers who, in their minds, were stealing from them.

Under the provisions of earlier treaties, the Osage had the right to charge squatters rent if they wanted to.  Laura tells several stories of Indians coming to the Ingalls’ home and demanding food and other goods.  They sometimes just came and took whatever they wanted.  The Osage saw it as collecting rent.  Ma saw it as an intrusion by uninvited guests.  Ma was terrified of these visits.  Wilder says that Jack, the Ingalls’ bulldog, hated the Indians and Ma said she didn’t blame him.  Laura asks Ma, “Why don’t you like Indians, Ma…This is Indian country, isn’t it? What did we come to their country for, if you don’t like them?”  But why was Ma so afraid of the Osage? In order for readers to understand Ma, you need to understand where she was coming from.

Before moving to Kansas, the Ingalls lived near the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin.  In late 1862 during the Civil War, many men left their families in Minnesota to fight in the war.  Local militias stretched to their limits, were unable to protect their communities.  The federal government denied any responsibility for protecting the settlers in Minnesota.  The Indians in the area saw this as an opportunity to retake land that they felt belonged to them.  The Sioux Uprising or Dakota Wars resulted in the looting and burning of homesteads and the killing of white settlers in the area, including women and children.  The newspapers were full of graphic accounts of the “Minnesota Massacre.”  Undoubtedly Ma had read these accounts.  Wilder mentions the Minnesota Massacre in her account of Mrs. Scott’s hatred for the Osage: “The only good Indian was a dead Indian.  The very thought of Indians made her blood run cold.  She said, ‘I can’t forget the Minnesota massacre.  My Pa and brothers went out with the rest of the settlers…Ma made a sharp sound in her throat, and Mrs. Scott stopped.  Whatever a massacre was, it was something that grown-ups would not talk about when little girls were listening.”

The whiteness of Laura Ingalls Wilder
by Abagond

In 1998 when this book was read at a grade school in Minnesota, one eight-year-old Indian girl came home in tears, having learned from this Beloved Classic that, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Another girl did not cry. When asked why, she said, “I just pretend I’m not Indian.”

Waziyatawin, the Dakota writer, was the mother of the crying child. After she showed the school board how racist the book was, they agreed to stop using it. But when the news got out it was turned into a censorship issue of banning books and the school, backed by the ACLU, changed its mind.

Waziyatawin was told she has a “chip on her shoulder”. Linda Ellerbee on Nickelodeon’s “Nick News” told children across America that all books are offensive to someone. The school defended the book as “history” – yet her daughter’s teacher was not taking apart its racist messages, which has the effect of normalizing them. That, no less, at a white-run school that stands on land stolen from the Dakotas.

The Ku Klux Klan and Nazi Germany are “part of history” too, yet no one thinks of reading their youth literature to schoolchildren without examining their racism. Why is “Little House on the Prairie” any different?

A letter to Mama Bess (a.k.a. Laura Ingalls Wilder)
by Mollie Wilson O’Reilly, Commonweal Magazine

Last week, Rebecca Onion at Slate dug up and posted a document that might be of interest to all you Laura Ingalls Wilder fans out there: a letter from Rose Wilder Lane, Wilder’s daughter, critiquing the first draft of Wilder’s book By the Shores of Silver Lake. […]

The biggest revelation in the letter is this bit of editing advice from Lane:

You have the brief scene in which Laura threatens to kill Charley with a knife, but that has to be cut out.

Wilder did accept that advice, which is why any fan of her books reads that sentence and thinks, Wait, what?! Preadolescent Laura pulling a knife on her cousin would certainly stick in the memory. Lane gives her mother a lot of psychological blarney about why it isn’t “credible” — which seems awfully presumptuous considering she’s talking to her mother about something the latter (apparently) experienced in real life. But what I would guess convinced Wilder to take the scene out was Lane’s admonishment that “if you do make it credible it’s not a child’s book.”

Wilder, as we know from her own words, was very concerned about keeping her books appropriate for children to read. Is Lane right that Wilder “can not have [Laura] suddenly acting like a slum child who has protected her virginity from street gangs since she was seven or eight”? Or is she just, as it seems to me, in love with her own worldly cleverness? (See also her weird notions about working men and “sexual degeneracy on the frontier,” elsewhere in the cited letter.) Regardless, the very thought of a character “protecting her virginity,” however authentic to Wilder’s life, must on reflection have seemed beyond the limits of what would be appropriate for young readers. And so it went — although, in subtler ways, Silver Lake still addresses Laura’s ambivalent transition from childhood to womanhood.

Little Government in the Big Woods
by Mary Pilon, Longreads

Although the “Little House” books are universally familiar to adults, Lane and Wilder didn’t publish the series until they were in their forties and sixties, respectively. They spent most of their formative years and adulthood toiling under conditions similar to what had been described in their pages, infusing the lens of the Great Depression on post-Civil War 1870s and 1880s.

In “Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Impact on American Culture,” Anita Clair Fellman argues that Wilder’s and Lane’s dark narratives greatly fueled their reflections on the era, which are rife with anti-government, pro-family views of America’s more rugged patches, a contrast to the more chipper, image of Laura and Mary regaling themselves with simple pastimes like tossing a pig bladder that many readers carried for generations. The notion doesn’t sit well with some readers, who have long formed their own relationship with the fiction; finding out that a treasured children’s classic may, actually have been a political polemic.

Wilder and Lane were not alone in their criticism of the New Deal. Others had argued that it was “fascist,” a charged term considering the rise of dictators in Europe at the time, or compared it to Communism. Lane said she would “vote for anybody—Hoover, Harding, Al Capone—who will stop the New Deal” and that it is “killing…the American pioneering spirit.” She even wrote: “I hoped that Roosevelt would be killed in 1933….I would make a try at killing FDR now.” (Holtz, in his analysis of this comment, wrote that Lane’s harshness toward the president “was probably not so much a threat as it was a rhetorical symptom of her anxiety.”) […]

Now, scenes from the books, and later the TV show, like Pa going to the store and discussing prices or Laura and Almanzo farming and refusing welfare, seem like free market anecdotes, Woodside said. Yet, and paradoxically, government action like the subsidization of railroad construction and the Homestead Act is part of what created Wilder’s American frontier culture, Woodside said. “Still, the books have this message of, ‘We need to push on, because we’re Americans.’”

Some scholars posit that the messaging of “Little House” books helped contribute to the rise of conservatism, particularly in the 1980s as another actor-turned-candidate, Ronald Reagan, reframed the Republican party. (The television adaptation was his favorite television show, according to the New Yorker.) Businessman and noted political donor Charles Koch attended the Freedom School, a small institution in Colorado that Lane had championed, and had served as a trustee. Today, the “Little House” books are still an academic mainstay, particularly among homeschooled students, even if their full political context isn’t always known or discussed.

Finding America, Both Red and Blue, in the ‘Little House’ Books
by Maria Russo, The New York Times

“Little House in the Big Woods” was published in 1932, when Laura was 65 and Rose, her only child, was long divorced, an accomplished, but increasingly broke journalist and author. Rose Wilder Lane had lost both her own money and money she invested for her parents in the 1929 stock market crash, and they were scrounging by, with Almanzo hauling loads and Laura selling eggs and apples and writing occasional pieces about farm life.

Out of desperation Rose suggested that her mother write down the stories of her pioneer childhood, heavily revised the resulting manuscript, and found a publisher. In the rest of the books, as well, she provided substantial editing. Some historians insist that Rose — who later became an outspoken anti-government polemicist and is called one of the godmothers of the libertarian movement, along with Ayn Rand — should be considered the books’ ghostwriter [see Wikipedia on Rose Wilder Lane, above]. Christine Woodside’s recent book, “Libertarians on the Prairie,” makes this case, cataloging libertarian messages Rose embedded in the books. (Some are overt: “The politicians are a-swarming in already,” says one character in “The Long Winter.” “They’ll tax the lining out’n a man’s pockets,” he cries. “I don’t see nary use for a county, nohow.”)

Still, it was Laura’s life story, not Rose’s, and Laura’s patient, precise voice, filled with awe at the wonders of the natural world, the fascination of making useful things, and the joys of everyday family love, never goes missing in the books for too long.

Both more interesting and more disturbing to me now are the ways the books massaged reality to support the pioneer fantasy of a self-sustaining family living in relative isolation. Newer research on the American West debunks that mythology, showing that settlers lived in close proximity, often as a matter of life and death. The “Little House” books take every opportunity to show the Ingallses as an independent unit. “The Long Winter” portrays family members as alone in their house, while in fact they took in an irksome couple who begged them for shelter.

But farming could not support the family, and Pa took jobs including one as a justice of the peace. Laura worked in later life as an administrator of a federal farm loan program. Mary’s tuition at the college for the blind was paid for by the government of Iowa, though the later books make it seem as though the extra money from Laura’s small jobs paid those bills.

When the New Deal began, Laura and Rose expressed outrage that struggling people were going to get “handouts,” when they had had to tough out so many hard, lean years. Maybe there was a lingering bitterness about the true sacrifices of both pioneer life and the small-family-farm life Laura and Almanzo pursued in Missouri, where Rose grew up and the family was often in penury. Both women attributed their painful dental problems and diabetes to poor childhood nutrition. Rose told piteous tales of having to go to school in town without shoes. When you’re raised with the belief that you don’t need society, that you’re better off suffering through every hardship than accepting help, it’s a small step toward believing that anyone who takes assistance is a drag on others. […]

But personal integrity and strength are not always enough. I came to see something sad about how it all turned out for the Ingallses and the Wilders, these two pioneer families etched onto our national consciousness. “I am the only one of the C. P. Ingalls family left, and Rose is the only grandchild,” Wilder wrote in a 1946 letter. None of Laura’s sisters had children, nor did Rose, so “the Almanzo Wilder branch will die out with us.” I thought of the hunger, illnesses and injuries in the books: the scarlet fever that left Mary blind, the diphtheria that withered Almanzo’s leg. Rose, who several times approached suicide, was clearly in the throes of untreated mental illness most of her life. Ma, Pa and Almanzo had come from large families that lived relatively comfortably. The hardscrabble way they raised their own children yielded adventure but also ill health.

Some of the blanks Wilder left have been filled in by other voices. Alongside the “Little House” version of the American westward push, we now also have Birchbark House, the cunning children’s series by the acclaimed novelist Louise Erdrich, which tells the story of white expansion in the upper Midwest from the point of view of a Native American girl. The books, engaging and addictive in their own right, have the satisfying ring of corrective truth about them.

Little Libertarians on the prairie
by Christine Woodside, Boston Globe

Unlike her parents and grandparents, Lane turned up her nose at manual labor, and there’s little evidence to suggest she felt any reverence for the hardscrabble people of the plains. In 1933, Lane sketched an outline, never finished, for a “big American novel.” One of the characters was the pioneer, whom she described as “a poor man, of obscure or debased birth, without ability to rise from the mass.” In a letter to her old boss in April 1929, six months before the stock market crash, she had written: “Personally, I believe what we need—what every social group needs—is a peasant class.”

When Black Tuesday did come, the Wilder-Lane households began a painful two-year downslide, as Lane’s savings deflated from $20,000 to almost nothing. Magazine work dried up. Wilder, too, lost some money but, characteristically, scraped together savings and paid off the farm. Lane fretted about money, missed rent payments to her parents, borrowed thousands from friends, and continued to call herself the head of the household. She also began to consider other possible writing projects.

For a decade already Lane had milked various snippets from her parents’ lives for short stories. Now she saw an opportunity for her mother. Pioneer struggles could eerily mirror the struggles of the Great Depression, and Lane thought Americans were ready to hear about covered-wagon childhoods. After magazines rejected Wilder’s real-life account, Lane began reworking some of the memoir into what would become the first children’s book, “Little House in the Big Woods.”

Published in 1932 by Harper & Brothers, the book was praised by book critics for its honesty and caught the interest of readers nationwide. The Junior Literary Guild, a national book club, paid them an additional fee to print its own run. The income crisis at the Wilders’ ended. In the shadow of the crash, tales of overcoming great adversity resonated, and the editors wanted more.

Wilder and Lane responded with their now-famous sequels. From the start, there was tension between their approaches. Wilder argued for strict accuracy, while Lane, the seasoned commercial writer, injected made-up dialogue, took out stories about criminals and murder, and—most significantly—recast the stoic, sometimes confused pioneers as optimistic, capable people who achieved success without any government help.

Laura Ingalls Wilder never got used to Lane’s heavy rewrites, but the evidence suggests that on the main approach, playing up toughness in adversity, she agreed with her daughter. Both women believed fervently that the nation in the depths of the Depression had become too soft. In 1937, Wilder wrote Lane that people’s complaints about having no jobs made her sick. (“People drive me wild,” she wrote. “They as a whole are getting just what they deserve.”)

The early books celebrated Laura’s early childhood in a cozy log cabin in Wisconsin. They celebrated Pa Ingalls’s storytelling abilities and described in gripping detail how backwoods and prairie farmers took care of themselves—hunted, butchered, cooked, built, and made things like soap and bullets—in the 1860s and 1870s. The third book, “Farmer Boy,” was about Wilder’s husband Almanzo’s life on a New York State farm. In the fourth book, “On the Banks of Plum Creek,” the Ingalls family relocated to Minnesota (the locale of the TV show), where they built a house and became wheat farmers despite a grasshopper plague.

In shaping the memoirs into novels, Lane consistently left out the kinds of setbacks and behavior that cast doubt on the pioneer enterprise; the family’s story became a testament to the possibilities of self-sufficiency rather than its limitations. The last four books—which tell the story of the Ingalls family’s attempt to homestead in the future state of South Dakota—are particularly fired by Libertarian themes.

Comparing Wilder’s original memoirs to the contents of the published books, it’s possible to see a pattern of strategic omissions and additions. In the fifth book, for example, “By the Shores of Silver Lake,” Laura promises to become a teacher to pay for her older sister Mary to attend a college for the blind. Wilder’s own account of her life reveals that although Wilder’s sister did attend a college for the blind, in reality it was the government of Dakota Territory—and not the family’s hard work—that covered the bills.

The next book, “The Long Winter,” stops for a moment of free-market speechifying almost certainly added by Lane. When a storekeeper tries to overcharge starving neighbors who want to buy the last stock of wheat available, a riot seems imminent until the character based on Wilder’s father, Pa, Charles Ingalls, brings him into line: “This is a free country and every man’s got a right to do as he pleases with his own property….Don’t forget that every one of us is free and independent, Loftus. This winter won’t last forever and maybe you want to go on doing business after it’s over.” It’s an appealing, if perhaps wishful, distillation of the idea that a free market can regulate itself perfectly well. Wilder rarely wrote extended dialogue in her own recollections, the manuscripts show; her daughter most likely invented this long exchange.

The Little House books barely mention the obvious, which is that the impoverished Ingallses never could have gone to Dakota Territory without a government grant: Like most pioneers, their livelihoods relied on the federal Homestead Act, which gave settlers 160 acres for the cost of a $14 filing fee—one of the largest acts of federal largesse in US history.

Wilder’s memoirs offer a picture of the costs and risks of isolation that never made it into the book series: A baby brother who died at 9 months. A miserable year working and living in an Iowa tavern. A pair of innkeepers who murdered guests and buried them out back. Another pioneer couple who boarded with them during the Long Winter whose attitudes were far more whining than stoic.

Perhaps the most telling omission is the book that almost never was. Wilder wrote one final volume, never revised by Lane, and not published until after they’d both died. “The First Four Years,” the ninth book, told of the drought that led to the failure of the Wilders’ first homestead after they were married in 1885. No one is sure why Lane did not revise that book, but it’s no stretch to imagine that she found herself at a loss to mold its dire underlying story—struggling, borrowing more and more money, losing the homestead anyway—into another celebration of self-sufficiency.

How ‘Little House on the Prairie’ Built Modern Conservatism
by Christine Woodside, Politico

It’s not hard to detect this impulse to celebrate individual freedom in the books, and it often appears in almost didactic form—“Don’t forget that every one of us is free and independent, Loftus,” Pa lectures a storekeeper in an argument over wheat profits during a winter famine. In Little Town on the Prairie, Laura, then a young teenager, has an epiphany about being responsible for herself after she hears a speech about independence at a Fourth of July ceremony. Elsewhere, the books minimize the role of government in the life of a family that sometimes did have to rely on it, as they took free land and benefited from state funds that paid sister Mary Ingalls’s tuition at the Iowa School for the Blind for seven years, a public subsidy the books quietly omit.

During the years they worked together, Lane—we know from her diaries, idea notebooks and letters to friends—began to think seriously about the relationship between the family’s farming roots and what makes America strong. Both Wilder and Lane thought that the solution to the Great Depression was to let people ride it out and learn to get by on less. The resulting books were best-sellers that celebrated the power of the individual over the government as an American principle just when that debate was raging over Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

These ideas fit with an anti-government-regulation movement that was beginning to light a fire under political conservatives. And they reached more readers with those ideas than a political manifesto could ever have done. […]

As early as the 1930s, she had started to connect with New Deal skeptics in the business community, and these ties only strengthened over the next 30 years. The greatest rapport with these business leaders was with former DuPont Chemical Executive Vice President Jasper Crane, with whom she corresponded at length through the 1940s. Crane committed himself in retirement “to the cause of freedom in America, which he feared was in great peril,” as Kim Phillips-Fein, a historian at New York University and expert on the conservative movement, has written.

Rose’s influence on Crane’s ideas can’t precisely be tracked, but they exchanged hundreds of letters, most of which I have read. In one of them, just three years after she and her mother finished the last Little House book, she wrote, “These are the most dangerous times in history and I am convinced that they will get much worse before they are better in any obvious or concrete terms. Since 1933 I have not been able to see anything in the near future but a terrific political, economic, social crash and chaos, with violence.”

Crane was just one of a large group of businessmen who banded together over their opposition to FDR and his New Deal. They included Leonard Read, manager of the western division of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who’d grown up on a poor farm, and William Clinton Mullendore, who presided over Southern California Edison. These anti-New Deal activists admired the ideas of Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, economists who met in Austria in the 1920s and who argued that a strong economy rode on the freedom of buyers to determine value. These economists figured strongly in the growth of the libertarian movement in America—many years later, former Senator Ron Paul, who ran for president as a Libertarian in 1988, said he raised his son Rand Paul on their ideas.

In the mid-1950s, Rose found a new way to press her influence. Robert LeFevre, a businessman and champion of laissez-faire government and property rights, had written admiringly to Rose about her book The Discovery of Freedom. He began holding classes on an idyllic tract with comfortable rustic buildings north of Colorado Springs, calling the place the Freedom School and welcoming everyone from teenagers through the elderly for two-week sessions. LeFevre and his invited guests lectured for six hours a day, including weekends, on the theory of “nonarchism” (or “stateless capitalism,” an extremely minimalist form of government) and other concepts of the growing libertarian movement. LeFevre argued to his students that labor unions were coercive, foreign intervention was wrong and private enterprise could do better work than governments.

His school, despite its pro-business leanings, wasn’t much of a moneymaker, and he was at risk of closing. A timely, much-needed donation came from Rose’s ample income from the Little House royalties. In 1962, LeFevre named the main log building Rose Wilder Lane Hall. Rose attended the dedication ceremony. Two of the young students who sat under its roof for classes were the sons of industrialist Fred Koch, MIT-trained engineers named Charles and David Koch.

“Little House on the Prairie”: Tea Party manifesto
by Caroline Fraser, Salon

Wilder is now detained at those crossroads by Meghan Clyne, managing editor of National Affairs, former speechwriter for Laura and George W. Bush and contributor to the New York Post (where she worried that an Obama nominee might introduce sharia law). Clyne calls for building an “historical-appreciation movement” around Wilder, who is to model self-reliance for millions of less worthy Americans currently receiving Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and “food stamps or other nutrition benefits.” Citing Jefferson, Clyne warns against “degeneracy” in the dependent, commending Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 paper for its depiction of “the conquest of this last unsettled frontier,” without remarking on the removal of natives that made it possible, paid for by the federal government and intended as the type of benefit she condemns. She takes no notice of the fact that Indians occupy a great deal of real estate in Little House on the Prairie, with its references to the 1862 “Minnesota massacre,” when Sioux warriors angered by treaty violations killed hundreds of soldiers and settlers and were then captured, tried, and hung in the largest mass execution in our history. Or that the little house in question was built illegally on an Osage reserve, which may explain why the Ingallses relinquished it.

Condemning “welfare-state redistribution,” Clyne embraces the 1862 Homestead Act, central to the later Little House books. Yet it was one of the biggest federal handouts in American history. Clyne praises it as policy that “encouraged habits of self-reliance rather than undermining them,” but it sought to give away a trillion acres of “free land,” as it was called, in 160-acre parcels to those over twenty-one if they could live on it and improve it over five years. Homesteading was no picnic, as Wilder makes clear, but everyone at the time knew it was a giveaway. Wilder remembers her father singing, “Uncle Sam is rich enough / To give us all a farm!” a popular ditty that hardly comports with Clyne’s contempt for “the crutch of government support.” The Homestead Act was not a particularly succesful incubator of self-reliance, as only a fifth of the land went to small farmers, and less than half of all homesteaders managed to make the necessary improvements to keep it. The Act was also undermined by fraud and land speculation: Much of the property was acquired by railroads and large ranching interests. […]

In the chapter “Indians Ride Away,” the family “looked and looked” again as a seemingly endless single file of Osage Indians rides by. Earlier, the Ingalls girls have been terrified of “naked wild men,” witnessing their mother’s fear as “fierce-looking men” clothed in skunk skins and armed with hatchets and knives arrive at their cabin while her father is away, demanding food. But watching the Osage file away, Laura’s response is immediate, unfiltered. Entranced by the ponies and ornaments — blankets, beads, fringe, eagle feathers — Laura looks into the eyes of an Indian papoose, “black as a night when no stars shine,” and pleads with her father: “‘get me that little Indian baby!’” Pa tells her to hush, but to her parents’ dismay she begs — “‘Oh, I want it! I want it!’” — as “that long line of Indians slowly pulled itself over the western edge of the world.” It is a singular moment of pure naivete in the literature of the American west, capturing the primitive attitude of white settlers toward Indians: their fears, simplistic admiration, and essential acquisitiveness toward everything possessed by the people they are displacing. While Indians are largely absent from the books that follow, Laura’s cry is the childlike echo of her parents’ appropriation of land from its original owners, human and wild. It becomes her own such act, when Wilder describes her fictional self — casting off her sunbonnet with her mother’s strictures — as “brown as an Indian.”

Pa presents an unlikely fit with conservative ethics. In life, Charles Ingalls was a Populist, a party which opposed railroad interests and promoted those of wheat farmers. In fiction, with his tan skin and unruly brown hair and whiskers, he is a wild man himself: He plays “mad dog” with his daughters, growling on all fours. He tells tales of hunting bears and panthers but sometimes becomes lost in admiration at his prey: At the end of Little House in the Big Woods he returns empty-handed from a hunting trip, telling his daughters that he lured a bear and a family of deer to a salt lick but couldn’t bring himself to shoot them, they were so “‘strong and free and wild.’” This is a very different vision of freedom than that of the Tea Party, at least its hunting wing. Laura listens carefully and says, “‘I’m glad you didn’t shoot them!’” Wilder, who later described the novels as “a memorial for my father,” sees him as the quintessential human animal, forever longing to lose himself in an idealized, depopulated west: “Wild animals would not stay in a country where there were so many people. Pa did not like to stay, either. He liked a country where the wild animals lived without being afraid.”

While Clyne emphasizes “community,” Laura rebels against it, as the family retreats from Kansas to relatively settled Minnesota in On the Banks of Plum Creek. As they prepare to move into their new home, a dugout carved into a riverbank, Ma says, “‘It is all so tame and peaceful. […] There will be no wolves or Indians howling tonight. I haven’t felt so safe and at rest since I don’t know when.’” Her husband’s reply is ambiguous: “‘We’re safe enough, all right. Nothing can happen here.’” Their daughter is disappointed: “Laura lay in bed and listened to the water talking and the willows whispering. She would rather sleep outdoors, even if she heard wolves, than be so safe in this house dug under the ground.”

Crops, cattle, and profits, central to conservative notions of the frontier, are portrayed as false promises. Locust swarms consume the wheat. A pair of oxen runs away with the wagon bearing Laura’s mother and baby sister, threatening to dash them against a bluff. Her father heads them off and later comforts his daughters with hoarhound candy. Savoring it, Laura tells him, “‘I think I like wolves better than cattle.’” In a 1936 letter to her daughter, Wilder describes her emphasis on her mother’s search for a safe harbor as an explicit narrative choice: “The idea is that […] [Plum Creek] was safety and then look what happened. Laura preferred wolves.” […]

Lost in the discussion of whether she was a libertarian or a mere purveyor of liberty is the Wilder who rejoiced in wilderness. “She loved the beautiful world,” she says of herself in The Long Winter. Like those praised by the Sage of Concord, her books “smell of pines and resound with the hum of insects.” They do not celebrate the exploitation of nature, as conservative pundits do, but mourn it. They do not promote anything like the shooting wolves from helicopters, a right cherished by those Emerson called “parlour soldiers” and supported by Sarah Palin. Last year, the governor of Idaho, C. L. “Butch” Otter, declared wolves a “Disaster Emergency,” expressing his desire to “bid for the first ticket to shoot a wolf myself.” By this spring, Idahoans had killed some 500, around half the state’s population. Wyoming is poised to do the same. With taxpayer funds, a host of state and federal agencies, including the Department of Agriculture’s “Wildlife Services” — created in 1915 to exterminate wolves — still seeks to “control” the species and eliminate animals the federal government has spent millions to reintroduce, by poisoning, trapping, and aerial gunning. (For more on this federal program, see the three-part series, “The Killing Agency: Wildlife Services’ Brutal Methods Leave a Trail of Animal Death,” Sacramento Bee, April 29, April 30, and May 6, 2012.)

Wilder was a practical farm woman protective of her life and livelihood, but it is impossible to imagine her supporting such wasteful savagery. Indeed, her shift from Democrat to Republican was sparked by a disgust with New Deal policies after she heard that crops were to be plowed under to stabilize agricultural prices. This was an outrage to a woman who had lived with hunger and been forced by debt and crop failures to leave the Dakota prairies and her beloved parents.

The Little House books have always been stranger, deeper, and darker than any ideology. While celebrating family life and domesticity, they undercut those cozy values at every turn, contrasting the pleasures of home (firelight, companionship, song) with the immensity of the wilderness, its nobility and its power to resist cultivation and civilization. In her hymn to the American west, Wilder treasures forest, grasslands, wetlands, and wildlife in terms that verge on the transcendental. Alive in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s memory of it, the wilderness she knew — now lost — continues to reflect her longing for a vanishing world, a rough paradise from which we are excluded by a helpless devotion to our own survival.

Libertarians on the Prairie
by Christine Woodside
Kindle Locations 227-246

The factual details of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life seem harsh when held up against the atmosphere of her autobiographical Little House novels. Between Laura’s third and thirteenth years, the Ingalls family moved six times. Her father, Charles “Pa” Ingalls, was a fiddle-playing, poetry-reading adventurer. He and Laura’s mother, Caroline or “Ma,” took Laura and her sisters by covered wagon on a multistage pilgrimage seeking fertile land, good hunting, and wide-open spaces. What reality brought were natural disasters, crop failures, and hunted-out regions. Each time they decided to leave a place, Charles and Caroline loaded the wagon with the most basic supplies—cornmeal, live chickens, a few dishes, iron pots, and blankets—and set off, camping on the prairie or in creek bottoms each night. Until they were big enough to sit up, Laura and the other children sat in their mother’s lap; once they were older (she wrote), they perched on a board placed across the wagon’s sideboards.

In fall 1869, Ma and Pa loaded her and her older sister, Mary, into the wagon. They left their log cabin in Wisconsin—their “little house in the big woods”—and made their way, along with possibly thousands of other settlers, onto a small band of land that the federal government had kept closed to all but some thirty-one tribes of Plains Indians in the future state of Kansas, near the Oklahoma border. The region was called the Osage Diminished Reserve because the Osage had been there the longest and lost the most. The Osage had signed a treaty to relinquish the land just before the Ingallses headed there, but the treaty had never been ratified. In Little House on the Prairie, Laura would call this land Indian Territory, although it lay just north of the actual Indian Territory (another region also closed to non-Indians at that time).

Laura recalled little from the year they tried to farm there, but she and Rose combined family stories with best guesses and some invention in writing Little House on the Prairie. We do know that Pa built a house of logs from the creek bottoms and the family began breaking land for crops and planted a garden. Their third daughter, Carrie (Caroline), was born there. With the tending of the vegetables and livestock and the planting of crops, daily life settled in, but tensions rose between the settlers and the Osage Indians. Later, in a letter to Rose, Laura would remind her daughter that the family had had no right to be there, since the treaty hadn’t been ratified. She called Pa a squatter, and he was one of many.

It seems likely they left in 1871, in part because of mounting worry about conflict between the settlers, the Osage, and the federal government.

Bloodland
by Dennis McAuliffe
Kindle Locations 1352-1442

One day, I was staring at a map of the Osages’ rectangle of reservation in Kansas, and my eyes stuck on a red dot in the middle of it, signifying a “Point of Interest.” The words “Little House on the Prairie” came into focus.

Little Laura Ingalls, her sisters and their beloved Ma and Pa were illegal legal squatters on Osage land. She left that detail out of her 1935 children’s dren’s book, Little House on the Prairie, as well as any mention of ongoing outrages-including killings, burnings, beatings, horse thefts and grave robberies-committed by white settlers, such as Charles Ingalls, against Osages living in villages not more than a mile or two away from the Ingallses’ gallses’ little house.

Mrs. Wilder’s unwitting association with the Osages would last a lifetime. She started writing the “Little House” children’s books-there were nine-in the 1930s, in her sixties, while living in a big house located on former Osage land in the Missouri Ozarks. The “Little House” books-especially especially the one that took place “on the Prairie” of the Osage reservation in Kansas-would be much read, broadcast and beloved. Shortly after World War II, the State Department ordered Mrs. Wilder’s books translated lated into German and Japanese, the languages of the United States’ most recently defeated enemies, who had just joined the list of America’s other Vanquished, including American Indians. The “Little House” books were “positive representations of America,” the U.S. government decreed, a good way to show other peoples of the world the American Way. Obviously ously someone in government forgot to consult the Osages.

After the Civil War, caravans of white settlers started overrunning the Osage reservation, and the Ingalls family joined them in 1869. They were drawn there by the U.S. government’s giveaway of 160-acre plots of free land to each adult settler under the Homestead Act of 1862, signed by Abraham Lincoln early in the Civil War as a way to keep the hearts and minds of poor northern people planted firmly in the Union, and maybe win some from the South. The subliminal message of the law was “Stick with us, and we’ll reward you-if you win this war. Trade in your slums for the wide-open spaces of the West, where you can be your own boss, on your own land. All you have to do is kill a couple of Confederates.” Railroads roads passed the good news to Europe-or at least to northern Europeans such as the hard-working Swedes, Norwegians and Germans. The railroads’ roads’ flyers, however, never made it to the Italians or Slavs. A song was even written to give settlers something to sing while traveling west, either to America or to their new homesteads west of the Mississippi:

Oh, come to this country
And don’t you feel alarm
For Uncle Same is rich enough
To give us all a farm!

[… The Osage] appear in her book only as beggars and thieves, and she adds injury to insult by comparing the Osages-who turned Thomas Jefferson’s head with their dignity and grace-to reptiles, to garbage or scum (depending on the definition of the word she actually uses). Mrs. Wilder assigns them descriptive adjectives that connote barbarism, brutality, and bloodthirstiness, and makes much ado about their odor. But she makes light of their obvious plight: In one passage, she describes almost mockingly the skeletal figures of two Osages who are fed cornbread by Ma, the eating noises they make and the pitiful sight of them stooping to eat specks of food they spot on the floor.

The Osages were hungry because white men such as her father were burning their fields, forcing them at gunpoint from their homes and threatening them with death if they returned, stealing their food and horses, even robbing their graves-all to force them to abandon their land. There is no proof, of course, that Charles Ingalls took part in these crimes, but I assume that he did, since he was sleazy enough to willfully steal their land, their most valuable possession. He did disappear for four days-according according to the book, it took that long to get to Independence and back, all of ten miles away-and returned with food and other supplies. He unabashedly abashedly told little Laura, trying to explain why he had moved the family to the Osage reservation, that because they and other whites were there, the Army would drive the Indians away.

In the words of the Osages’ U.S. agent in 1870, even being “kind and generous to the Indians . . . [does) not relieve these men from the reproach of being trespassers, intruders, and violators of the nation’s law.”

The annual reports of the Osages’ U.S. agent to his superiors in Washington, the commissioners of Indian affairs, provide the chapter of Little House on the Prairie that Laura Ingalls Wilder failed to write:

The Ingallses moved onto Osage land in 1869, about ten miles southwest of Independence, and only about five miles from the Kansas border with Indian Territory. The Ingallses were not alone. That year, more than 500 families trespassed on the reservation and “built their cabins ins near the [main} Indian camps”-in the Ingallses’ case, only a mile or so away. The 1870 U.S. census listed the Little House-and the Ingallses as its occupants-as “the 89th residence of Rutland Township,” although “a claim was not filed because the land was part of the Osage . . . Reserve.” serve.”

Squatters had “taken possession of [the Osages’) cornfields, and forbidden bidden them cutting firewood on `their claims,’ ” wrote agent G. C. Snow. “Their horses are constantly being driven off by the white men,” he said. The Osages “have had, to my certain knowledge, over 100 of their best horses stolen [in the past month). I learn that scarcely a day passes that they do not lose from five to twenty horses. . . . Not one of [the horse thieves has] as yet been brought to justice, or one in a hundred of the Indians’ ans’ horses returned to them.”

The settlers “threaten me with Crawford’s militia, and say they will hang me if I interfere with them,” the Indian agent complained, referring to the Kansas governor. Samuel J. Crawford was so opposed to Indians in general and Osages in particular that he once told a white constituent, Theodore Reynolds, complaining about problems over filing a claim because cause of a mixed-blood Osage, Augustus Captain: “Shoot the half-breed renegade and I will pardon you before the smoke gets away from your gun.”

U.S. agent Isaac T. Gibson wrote in his annual report for 1870 that settlers had grown bolder, forming vigilante groups “pledged to defend each other in the occupation of claims, without regard to the improvements, possession, or rights of the Indians. Many of the latter were turned out of their homes, and threatened with death if they persisted in claiming them. Others were made homeless by cunning and fraud.

“While absent on their winter hunt, [the Osages’} cribs of corn, and other provisions, so hardly earned by their women’s toil, were robbed. Their principal village was pillaged of a large amount of [casks), and wagon-loads of matting hauled away and used by the settlers in building and finishing houses for themselves. Even new-made graves were plundered, with the view of finding treasures, which the Indians often bury with their dead. . . .

“The question will suggest itself, which of these peoples are the savages?”

The outrages of 1870 were a turning point for the Osages. At that spring’s payment in provisions of promised treaty annuities, the government again pressed the Osages to sell their Kansas lands. In 1865, the Osages ceded under pressure nearly 4 million acres on the northern and eastern perimeters of their reservation, and in 1868 were forced to agree to sell their 8-million-acre “diminished reserve,” as the government called the remainder of their land, to a railroad corporation for 19 cents an acre. But President Ulysses S. Grant withdrew the treaty in 1870 when it became came obvious that the Senate would not ratify it amid an explosion of outrage rage from settlers that the sale would put the Osage lands in the hands of the railroads and not in theirs. Gibson noted the weariness of the Osages at the 1870 spring annuity payment, quoting “one of their head-men” as complaining, “Why is it that our Great Father can never even send us our annuities, without asking us to sell and move once more?” The Indian added, “We are tired of all this.” Gibson described the Osage as having “the look and tone of a man without hope.” […]

The morning after they signed the treaty, “the air was filled with the cries of the old people, especially the women, who lamented over the graves of their children, which they were about to leave forever,” a Kansas newspaper reported.

Most of the Osages left Kansas in late fall for their annual winter buffalo hunt on the plains, and did not return, staying instead in Indian Territory. Laura Ingalls—and her readers—did not know it, but she witnessed a watershed moment in the history of the Osages—their removal from Kansas—when one morning she looked out the window of the little house and saw a traffic jam of Indians riding past. They came from the creek bottoms to the east and rode west, past the house, on an old Indian trail that later was paved and became U.S. Route 75.

One of the Osage warriors who rode past the little house that day was my great-great-grandfather, and one of the Osage women Laura saw was my great-great-grandmother.

The Ingalls family left Kansas a few weeks later. Mrs. Wilder claimed that a cavalry troop rode in one day and warned Pa to vacate or be evicted, since the house was located just inside the Osages’ diminished reservation. But that could not have been the reason the Ingallses left Kansas and moved back to Wisconsin. The U.S. Army had not moved one squatter off the Osages’ land when it was their reservation, so why would that happen when there no longer was an Osage reservation in Kansas?

The Ingallses’ neighbors were not through with the Osages yet. Nearly twenty mixed-blood Osages had decided to remain on farms they had developed and improved over the years, and to formally enter the white man’s world by becoming U.S. citizens. They secured a special treaty with the good citizens of Independence to allow them to stay. But in the weeks after the main body of Osages left Kansas, the mixed-bloods’ farmhouses, one after another, were burned down.

One night, the white neighbors of Joseph Mosher broke into his house-a mile or two from the Little House on the Prairie-dragged him, his wife and children out of their beds and into the yard, where they beat them and torched the house.

Then they took the Osage man to the nearby woods, and pistol-whipped whipped him to death.

Ghost in the Little House
by William Holtz
pp. 72-73

Her ingrained assumptions were essentially Protestant and individualistic, the inheritance from her pioneer parents, however tempered by her infatuation with Eugene Debs. But her naive faith in Debs had waned during her real estate days, she recalled, as she “fought for commissions and sales, too busy getting them to worry about the Golden Rule in business, especially as I never happened to encounter it there.” And the religious certitude of that inheritance would be set aside: “there wasn’t any Eden ever, you know,” she wrote to Mama Bess. “Drunk on Darwin, Huxley, Spender, my generation nonchalantaly abolished God,” she later observed and Marx and Freud were part of the heady drink as well. Moral absolutes, under the eye of science, became simply conventions she and her cohorts sought to ground themselves in a newly discovered natural order that underlay the shattered culture of the nineteenth century.

What fell into place was a melange of ideas that essentially substituted a romantic naturalism for the departed theism and a social meliorism for the discredited gospels. As she had come to maturity in an urban business world, she had encountered the easy adaptation of the earlier tradition of individual struggle to the Darwinian hypothesis: social Darwinism had become a cliche by her adult years, and she had read Herbert Spencer while still a telegrapher. […] the instinctive, self-serving energies that had carried her in her business career found a new challenge in the vaguely socialist liberalism of many of her friends. Certainly the limitations of social Darwinism were on her mind as she wrote not merely in her willingness to consider government solutions to social problems in “Soldiers of the Soil” and “The Building of Hetch-Hetchy,” but also in her fiction and her local color pieces. In “Myself” her heroine is lectured on “survival of the fittest” by her business-school teacher, whereupon she immediately gets her first job by keeping from a more needy classmate news of an opening that she might fill it herself. And in one episode of “The City at Night,” Rose ironically invokes the Darwinian phrase as a hard-working immigrant boy, sole support of his family, learns of the death by disease of his infant sister. Years later Rose would proclaim at one time she had been a Communist, which was probably an overstatement; but from this period until her visit to Europe she accepted as more or less inevitable the eventual arrival of a benign socialist order. She was attracted to Jack London’s theoretical socialism, and when she recalled in a letter to Dorothy Thompson their generation’s enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution (“The sun is rising in Russia,” they said to each other), she was remembering an attitude, if not a creed, that she shared with many of her contemporaries. That she was willing to debate the Bolshevik war resisters who organized under Jack London’s name shows the pragmatic streak underlying her fling with socialism, but it is likewise no surprise to find in her FBI file that in 1919 her name was on the mailing list of the Finnish Singing Society, identified by the FBI as a propaganda group associated with the IWW. The mailing address was 1413 Montgomery, The Little House on Telegraph Hill.

Little House, Long Shadow
by Anita Clair Fellman
XVII-XVIII

As I was beginning to flirt with the idea of working on the Little House books someday, Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States. During that first election campaign, I was very much struck by the individualist, antigovernment nature of his rhetoric: his view of government (and taxes) as burdensome and an impediment to individual autonomy; his insistence that individuals are essentially responsible for themselves and that government is not needed or wanted to protect them from the fluctuations of the market or other misfortunes. We have become accustomed to such ideas and language now, but in 1980 it had been a long time since such language was used so fulsomely and frequently in the national political arena, regardless of similar rhetoric in business circles and the trend toward federal government downsizing in the Carter administration. Because the New Deal had changed the nature of American political discourse, the language of conservatism, from the 1930s until the mid-1970s, was usually more traditionalist and anticommunist than it was expressly antigovernment. Interestingly, Rose Wilder Lane’s papers indicated that she had had a positive response to Reagan’s rhetoric very early as he spoke on behalf of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential campaign, which, in its assault on the welfare state, was labeled extremist at the time.

Whatever I thought of the match between Reagan’s rhetoric and the actuality of most Americans’ daily lives in the complex economy had siphoned a stream of laissez-faire assumptions that ran forcefully and persistently just under the surface of American life. What fed that stream? I wondered. What kept such ideas alive? What gave them such emotional force? How were they conveyed? Beyond the relatively small core of people who were consciously developing a new conservatism in those years, most Americans had not heard a strongly articulated individualist perspective in mainstream politics for more than a generation, save for the rhetoric of the Goldwater campaign that was undercut by his cold war hawkishness. Why did Reagan’s antistate ideas immediately resonate for them? Why did they sound so familiar? How did such ideas get transmitted, generation after generation? I considered the possibility that other sources besides mainstream political rhetoric were responsible for maintaining an individualist vision among the population at large. Although I started studying the Little House books trying in general to understand their “hook,” I began wondering if the books’ appeal had something to do with that vision.

pp. 44-59

The only letter from a reader that Lane ever copied into her diary expressed appreciation that her serial on pioneer life, unlike the pessimistic writings of Hamlin Garland and Willa Cather, could help “lead the world back from the defeatist thinking of the socialistic militarist” European patterns, toward a vindication of the individual’s ability under stress to endure and flourish. Her book publishers, in the midst of the economic depression, used the political dimensions of this theme in their advertisements of the book: “What these two heroic young pioneers in con trast to much other advertising in the thirties that played on people’s fears and anxieties and promised security of one kind or another. […]

Watchful and at first neutral, Wilder and Lane became increasingly alarmed by President Roosevelt’s efforts to combat the Depression. Wilder left the Democratic Party and firmly opposed Roosevelt. In later years Lane liked to depict herself as a 1920 convert from near-communism to firm individualism, claiming to have attended meetings establishing the founding of the American Communist Party when she lived in Greenwich Village immediately after World War I, and becoming disabused of her ideas when she traveled in the Soviet Union in 1920. In actuality, she was cautiously feeling her way in the late 1920s and early 1930s from vague liberalism and internationalism toward an increasingly strong conviction that altruism stood in the way of progress, and that anything more than minimal government was an unnecessary evil. Unlike her parents, Lane seems always to have been vulnerable to the political currents of the times. She remembered being fervently in favor of William Jennings Bryan and the free coinage of silver, in opposition to the Republican-promoted gold standard in the 1896 election. Influenced by her aunt Eliza Jane during the year she spent living with her in Louisiana, she considered herself a socialist and an enthusiastic Eugene Debs supporter during his 1904 try at the presidency. Lane’s San Francisco and Greenwich Village sojourns as a young adult reinforced her inclination to be critical of the political status quo in the United States and interested in the Georgia remained just observations and not criticisms for almost a decade.

Living isolated on the Missouri farm in the early 1930s, save for occasional trips and visitors, Lane was left more on her own to dig down to her own intellectual bedrock. Everything, positive and negative, she had experienced and was then undergoing contributed to her evolving political perspective. Traveling and even living in some of the world’s trouble spots, combined with putting together a good if uneven living as a freelance writer, gave her a sense of the inevitable precariousness of life. Helping to support her parents, involvement with her mother on many levels, and writing about her family’s history led her to perceive how difficult it was to maintain the proper balance between care for others and for oneself. Feeling abandoned by many of her friends and battling ongoing psychological depression and periodic ill health exacerbated the sense that, in the final analysis, she was on her own in the world.

Wilder’s political outlook underwent fewer changes. No matter that Laura in These Happy Golden Years had disclaimed any interest in women obtaining the vote, the middle-aged Laura Ingalls Wilder had long been active in local politics in Mansfield. Like her sister Carrie, she and Almanzo apparently were loyal Democrats. Throughout the nineteenth century, during the couple’s formative years, the ideology of the Democratic Party, though strongly predisposed to the yeoman farmer as an independent producer, was consistently antistatist. Political scientist John Gerring characterizes the national party’s opposition to the federal government in those years as “virulent,” explaining, “No other single issue was repeated so adamantly or so persistently as limited government.” Charles Ingalls apparently had Populist leanings, along with a firm commitment to state rather than federal resolution of problems, but the Wilders do not seem to have been involved in the various farmers’ protest movements in the nineteenth century. William Jennings Bryan, in his long tenure as leader of the Democratic Party, from 1896 to 1912, worked to reform-minded goals, but as John Milton Cooper puts it, “Many aspects of the party’s ultimate reformation appeared only tentatively during Wilson’s time and would not fully capture the hearts and minds of party stalwarts—much less the country as a whole—until decades later.”

It is very possible that the Wilders were among those who never accepted substantial aspects of the evolving Democratic platform. Laura Ingalls Wilder was not opposed to all the federal regulatory agencies that had emerged during World War I, but thought that they should be evaluated for retention on a case-by-case basis. She could make an argument for the sugar board, for instance, because the existing monopoly on output had contributed to the exorbitant prices of sugar. It was when the reach of federal regulatory agencies penetrated their local community that the Wilders reassessed the implications of government power. Their fundamental expectations of the federal government were largely that it cease favoring industry over agriculture. In 1918 Wilder helped organize the Mansfield National Farm Loan Association, of which she served as secretary for ten years. The association dispersed money from the U.S. government in the form of loans to farmers at the reasonable rate of 5.5 percent. “I believe,” Wilder wrote in 1925, “that this amount of money [more than one hundred thousand dollars], brought into our community from the government, has increased our prosperity by that much, and has been of direct or indirect value to us all.” Presumably administered by farmers themselves rather than by bureaucrats, the association, in the Wilders’ view, evened the odds a bit for farmers in relation to the protected industrial sector. […]

Despite their long affiliation as Democrats, the Wilders were not prepared to make the shift in philosophy implied by the New Deal. Not only were they likely to have been influenced by their daughter, but the upending of economic and moral verities and the transformation in conceptions of the role of government also ran counter to their interpretation of their own experiences. Thinking back over their family’s struggles—the battle with the weather in South Dakota; Almanzo’s crippling illness; their survival of the 1893 panic; the long, slow transformation of a small, unpromising piece of rocky Missouri land into a moderate-size, productive farm; the eventual realization of their dream farmhouse—the Wilders and Lane increasingly became angered by government farm-relief programs that implied that individuals were incapable of coping with setbacks on their own. This may have been the Democratic policy that pushed them out of the party. As Lane wrote to her literary agent in April 1933, “My father is opposed to all ‘farm-relief’ measures, as such. Agriculture’s dilemma as we see it has been caused by industrialism’s having had special political favors; we believe the balance would be restored by giving agriculture equality with industry in tariff protection, available market data, and easy credit facilities for short-time loans, and that farming needs no direct governmental aid.” Three years later she made her indictment more sweeping: “Government’s paternal interference in agriculture has always done harm, and to date no visible good.”

Having spent fifty years in trying to wrest crops from recalcitrant soils, the Wilders were aghast at the prospect of plowing crops under so as to cut down on so-called surpluses. To do so seemed to violate the natural order and common sense. […]

In many ways besides the grasshopper invasion, Mansfield was deeply affected by the Depression. Even before the crash, the town had been in the doldrums, ceasing to grow economically and losing ground to other towns around it. Like others of its size, it had experienced changes owing to the delayed aftermath of national industrialization. However, without the dynamism and optimism accompanying growth, these changes seemed merely disruptive rather than challenging or promising. This, in turn, fostered resistance to changes in values and nostalgia for the old ways, as exemplified by the old-time fiddling and chicken-calling contests that took place in Mansfield in the late 1920s.

The Ozarks had never taken kindly to change. The transition from a subsistence to a cash economy, which had occurred only a short time before the Wilders arrived, had been accompanied by significant amounts of resistance and violence. Once the 1929 Depression hit, unemployment, high in Missouri, was even higher in the Ozarks. Although the two local Mansfield banks managed to stay open, stretches of area railroad were abandoned. Agricultural prices plummeted, as did farm income and land values. As had happened in 1893, drought exacerbated the economic decline. legislative sessions in Missouri for infighting rather than for tackling the ongoing economic disintegration of the state. But unlike 1893, this time the federal government was prepared to step in to alleviate the distress of at least some affected individuals. What John E. Miller characterizes as “a considerable number” of local farmers and unemployed workers obtained jobs through various New Deal projects in Mansfield, building roads and a new grade school, working in sewing rooms and workshops sponsored by the Works Progress Administration. Wilder complained about the shortage of farm labor, which she believed was owing to the work-relief programs. […]

None of these programs helped the Democrats win votes locally. Mansfield was normally Republican, and although the town supported Roosevelt by a slight margin in 1932, it reverted to its usual pattern of voting in 1934. That was also the year in which conservative Republican Dewey Short, a favorite of Wilder’s, regained his congressional seat for the district, which he maintained for the next twenty-two years on the basis of his opposition to liberal New Deal–type programs. Unlike the rest of the state, which Roosevelt carried by a two-to-one margin, the Ozarks went for Alf Landon in 1936. Consequently, throughout and Lane were surrounded by people also hostile to Roosevelt and presumably to the New Deal. […]

Theirs was a vision nourished by their experiences as mother and daughter in a specific historical context that reinforced their austere view. Their childhoods on the American frontier and their adult experiences as self-employed people evoked the virtues of self-sufficiency to them. The transition that occurred in their lifetimes to a more collectivist notion of society and a more interventionist role for government violated their interpretations of their own histories. “The old spirit of sturdy independence seems to be vanishing,” Wilder noted in her later years. “We all depend too much on others. As modern life is lived, we have to do so, and more and more the individual alone is helpless.” The two women’s final assessments of what people could realistically expect from one another, greatly influenced by their own family relationships, predisposed them to a kind of “ontological individualism,” a perception of the solitary individual as the true social and political unit, more basic than any entity termed society. It led them to a belief in political individualism, the notion that government should do as little as possible to intrude in the lives of individuals. “She is an extreme individualist,” Lane wrote of her mother in the 1940s, adding, “(so am I).” Of course, such a stance has other sources as well, outside the dynamics of family life. Nonetheless, Wilder’s and Lane’s responses to their relationship and to their life histories contributed to a view of the world that was at once uniquely theirs yet resonant Americans.

Each woman in her way turned her sense of deprivation into a moral principle by which to gauge the world. To both, the material world—Mother Earth—although for moments beautiful, was ultimately an unyielding place that granted nothing without a struggle. In parallel fashion, their beliefs about human society provided the individual with no sure allies. For Rose Wilder Lane, these beliefs led to an individualist libertarian philosophy that has gained in influence since 1940. The warm and broad reception of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books shows that aspects of a more extreme vision of individualism are widely shared by Americans and, in fact, are so generally accepted as truthful as to not be deemed “political” in implication.

Outpost of Humanity

There have been certain thoughts on my mind. I’ve been focused on the issue of who I want to be in terms of what I do with my time and how I relate to others. To phrase it in the negative, I don’t want to waste time and promote frustration for myself or others.

I’ve come to the conclusion that we humans tend to consciously focus on that which matters the least. We are easily drawn in and distracted. Those in power understand this and use it to create political conflicts and charades to manipulate us. Sadly, the distance between Hollywood and the District of Columbia is nearly non-existent within the public mind. Americans worry about the division of church and state or business and state when what they should be worried most about is the division of entertainment and state, the nexus of spectacle and propaganda. I’m looking at you, mainstream media.

A notion I’ve had is that maybe politics, as with economics, is more of a result than a cause (until recent times, few would have ever seriously considered politics and economics as the primary cause of much of anything; even as late as the 19th century, public debate about such things was often thought of as unseemly). We focus on what is easy to see, which is to say the paradigm that defines our society and so dominates our minds. Politics and economics are ways of simplistically framing what in reality is complex. We don’t know how to deal with the complex reality, confusing and discomforting as it is, and so we mostly ignore it. Besides, politics and economics makes for a more entertaining narrative that plays well on mass media.

It’s like the joke about the man looking for car keys under a streetlamp. When asked if he lost his car keys by the streetlamp, he explains he lost them elsewhere but the lighting is better there. Still, people will go on looking under that streetlamp, no matter what anybody else says. There is no point in arguing about it. Just wish them well on their fool’s errand. I guess we all have to keep ourselves preoccupied somehow.

Here is an even more basic point. It appears that rationality and facts have almost nothing to do with much of anything that has any significance, outside of the precise constraints of particular activities such as scientific research or philosophical analysis. I’m specifically thinking of the abovementioned frames of politics and economics. Rationality must operate within a frame, but it can’t precede the act of framing. That is as true for the political left as for the political right, as true for me as for the rest of humanity. Critical thinking is not what centrally motivates people and not what, on those rare occasions, allows for genuine change. Our ability to think well based on valid info is important in society and is a useful as a tool, but it isn’t what drives human behavior.

By the time an issue gets framed as politics or economics, it is already beyond the point of much influence and improvement. Arguing about such things won’t change anything. Even activism by itself won’t change anything. They are results and not causes. Or at best, they are tools and not the hand that wields the tool nor the mind that determines its use. I’m no longer in the mood to bash my head against the brick wall of public debate. It’s not about feeling superior. Rather, it’s about focusing on what matters.

I barely know what motivates myself and I’m not likely to figure out what makes other people tick. It’s not a lack of curiosity on my part, not a lack of effort in trying to understand. This isn’t to say I plan on ending my obsessive focus on human nature and society. But I realize that focusing on politics, economics, etc doesn’t make me happy or anyone else happy either, much less making the world a better place. It seems like the wrong way to look at things, distracting us from the possibilities of genuine insight and understanding, the point of leverage where the world might be moved. These dominant frames can’t give us the inspiration and vision that is necessary for profound change, the only game that interests me in these times when profound change is desperately needed.

There is another avenue of thought I’ve been following. To find what intrigues and interests you is one of the most important things in the world. Without it, even the best life can feel without meaning or purpose. And with it, even the worst can be tolerable. It’s having something of value to focus upon, to look toward with hope and excitement, to give life direction.

I doubt politics or economics plays this role for anyone. What we care about is always beyond that superficial level. The inspiring pamphleteers of the American Revolution weren’t offering mere political change and economic ideas but an entirely new vision of humanity and society. Some of the American founders even admitted that their own official activities bored them. They’d rather have pursued other interests—to have read edifying books, done scientific research, invented something of value, contributed to their communities, spent more time with their families, or whatever. Something like politics (or economics) was a means, not an end. But too often it gets portrayed as an end, a purpose it is ill-suited to serve.

We spend too little time getting clear in our hearts and minds what it is we want. We use words and throw out ideals while rarely wrestling with what they mean. To shift our focus would require a soul-searching far beyond any election campaigning, political activism, career development, financial investment strategy, or whatever. That isn’t to argue for apathy and disinterest, much less cynicism and fatalism. Let me point to some real world examples. You can hear the kind of deeper engagement in the words of someone like Martin Luther King jr or, upon his death, the speech given by Robert F. Kennedy jr. Sometime really listen to speeches like that, feel the resonance of emotion beyond words.

When politics matters the most is when it stops being about politics, when our shared humanity peeks through. In brief moments of stark human reality, as in tank man on Tiananmen Square, our minds are brought up short and a space opens up for something new. Then the emptiness of ideological rhetoric and campaign slogans becomes painfully apparent. And we ache for something more.

Yet I realize that what I present here is not what you’ll see on the mainstream media, not what you’ll hear from any politician or pundit, not what your career guidance counselor or financial adviser is going to offer. I suspect most people would understand what I’m saying, at least on some level, but it’s not what we normally talk about in our society. It touches a raw nerve. In writing these words, I might not be telling most people what they want to hear. I’m offering no comforting rationalizations, no easy narrative, no plausible deniability. Instead, I’m suggesting people think for themselves and to do so as honestly as possible.

I’ve only come to this view myself after a lifetime of struggle. It comes easy for no one, to question and wonder this deeply. But once one has come to such a view, what does one do with it? All I know to do is to give voice to it, as best I can, however limited my audience. I have no desire to try to force anyone to understand. This is my view and my voice. Others will understand it, maybe even embrace it and find common bond in it or they won’t. My only purpose is to open up a quiet space amidst the rattling noise and flashing lights. All who can meet me as equals in this understanding are welcome. As for those who see it differently, they are free to go elsewhere on the free market of opinions.

I know that I’m a freak, according to mainstream society. I know there are those who don’t understand my views and don’t agree. That is fine. I’ll leave them alone, if they leave me alone. But here in my space, I will let my freak flag fly. It might even turn out that there are more freaks than some have assumed, which is to say maybe people like me are more normal than those in power would like to let on. One day the silenced majority might find its collective voice. We all might be surprised when we finally hear what they have to say.

Until then, I’ll go on doing my own thing in my own way, here at this outpost of humanity.

The Unmasked Face of Our Society

My views on many things have been shifting lately. Recent events and interactions have forced me to rethink some assumptions and conclusions. One relevant issue is lesser evilism. It seems to me now that this misses the point. In thinking about supporters of Hillary Clinton, I offered a different view:

“What if we take at face value how people vote? Maybe they aren’t voting for a lesser evil. Maybe it is no mere unintended side effect the harm done by the politicians who represent them. Maybe, just maybe voters really do get exactly what they want.”

I’m starting to think the same thing about Trump supporters. Maybe it isn’t really about a mere protest vote. It’s possible they actually like Trump as a person and what he stands for.

Some people like that he is a plutocrat, a supposedly successful businessman. They see the business world as a meritocracy and that the country should be run like a business. As such, Trump has proven himself worthy of power. In a strange way, some people see him as something like an enlightened aristocrat (related to Plato’s philosopher king) who is independently wealthy and so can do what needs to be done. It’s sort of a hope for a modern noblessse oblige.

There is a historical basis for this worldview. Some of the American founders, of course, were slaveholding aristocrats and they liked to envision themselves as a noble vanguard for a new kind of ruling elite, an enlightened aristocracy. The idea was that being independently wealthy would make them politically independent. They would be above it all.

Few of the early ruling elite ever were independently wealthy. Their lifestyle was dependent on the profits made from their plantations and such. Quite a few were even in debt. But that isn’t the case for Trump, as long as you ignore all the times he declared bankruptcy.

It didn’t originally occur to me that Trump was anything more than the spokesperson for blind outrage against the system. I assumed even his followers didn’t take him seriously, as the majority of them don’t seem to mind that he sometimes promotes policies they don’t like (e.g., universal healthcare). I really thought it was just a protest vote in an a campaign season filled with so many horrible candidates.

I’m beginning to think there is more going on, similar to those in the Clinton camp. What helped me to see this other view is a person I know who claims to be a libertarian. But I’ve never been clear about his actual ideology. One of his favorite shows is Star Trek: The Next Generation*, a show that portrays a communist utopia.

I noticed that he was supporting Trump. But, knowing he is smart and educated, I took it as a protest vote. This guy shattered my assumptions by making a case for enlightened plutocracy, with the implication being that Trump will be an enlightened plutocrat. To his mind, libertarian values must be protected from the dirty masses by a ruling elite. He hates democracy and understandably sees it as a failure. Trump is the man for the job. He won’t let democracy get in his way.

I don’t see how a ruling elite ruling over a disenfranchised public is libertarian in any possible interpretation. Then again, I don’t see how Clinton’s neoconservatism and neoliberalism has anything to do with with progressive liberalism. This is the strange way ideology operates in some people’s minds. It’s not about principled consistency. Many people just want their side to win, however they they perceive their group identity. Such things aren’t ever fully conscious and rational.

I’m becoming convinced that lesser evilism can’t explain what is going on. Many people who support Hillary Clinton and Trump do so because they represent precisely what they want. In both cases, it’s a worldview of power and defense of the system, even though different visions of power and of the system.

This was more hidden in the past. But conflict has forced issues to the surface like pus oozing from a wound. We are seeing the unmasked face of our society. And it ain’t pretty.

* * *

*This gives me a hint why someone like this ‘libertarian’ guy would like Star Trek: The Next Generation. The perspective on that society for the show is a semi-military ship that explores and patrols the galaxy. The captain of the ship, Jean-Luc Picard, is essentially a wise and benevolent patriarch.

The viewer rarely sees any outward signs of political democracy such as elections, although the society is a social democracy and a massive welfare state. The only aspect of democracy is the rule of law and judicial process where people are given the opportunity to defend themselves against charges. But one never sees any full-fledged example of democracy.

So, at least on the ship, it is mostly a utopia of a ruling elite and a clear social hierarchy. It’s vaguely libertarian in that people have basic protected civil liberties.

Politics On My Mind: March 1-8, 2016

March 1

There is one thing I suspect many don’t understand. It took a long time to get where we are now. Someone like Trump didn’t come out of nowhere. And it can’t be blamed just on crazy right-wing rhetoric.

Decades of lesser evil voting by Democrats made someone like Trump inevitable. It’s because the political left was unwilling to offer real solutions and reform that the American public finally has become so frustrated and angry that they are willing to take serious a ranting demagogue.

That is the problem of always being distracted by the short term results of the next election. Those in power have taken a long view. You want to see successful strategy, consider the Southern Strategy. Those who gained power didn’t do so by constantly compromising.

I understand the seeming failure of the Democratic Party is in reality a success for the Establishment. Those like the Clintons don’t want solutions to problems because, from their perspective, the status quo isn’t a problem. But what perplexes me is that average Democrats who claim to want solutions haven’t figured out this game yet, even though it keeps leading to the same sad results.

When will Democrats get as frustrated and angry as the supporters of Trump are right now? Will it take Trump getting elected before all the good liberals will finally get serious about what they claim to believe in? But when they do wake up, will it already be too late?

Another set of questions that are neither hypothetical nor idle. These are genuine concerns. People should be asking themselves these questions and taking serious the answers. The hour is getting late.

I think about earlier times in American history: American Revolution, Civil War, and Great Depression. It goes in about 80 year cycles or 4 generations. We are at such a point again. How bad will it have to get this time?

I understand the reasons.

The Democratic base consists of two groups: liberals and minorities. Liberals on average are wealthier, well educated professionals who live comfortable lives. They generally don’t experience the problems other Americans face. It’s not personally real to them. It is real for minorities. But they have a long history of getting a bad deal. They’ve come to expect that they either accept the lesser evil or else the greater evil may win and they will suffer for it.

Both liberals and minorities realize how precarious is progress in this society. And the earlier assassinations of major leaders was collectively traumatizing. For a half a century now, the American political left has been paralyzed in fear, playing dead in hope that the grizzly bear would stop mauling them.

It is changing. The divide between supporters of Clinton and Sanders isn’t race or gender. It is a generational divide. And not just the very young. Sanders has the 46 and under demographic, a large part of the population. These are the Americans who have little to no memory of the Cold War. The old fearmongering, red baiting, and culture wars don’t have as much power over their minds.

March 2

One reason it is hard to talk about politics in America is because everything has become so skewed. The political spectrum is far to the right than it was in the past.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was way more of a left-winger than is Bernie Sanders. Someone like Dwight Eisenhower is more equivalent to Sanders, at least on domestic issues. The Birchers did call Ike a commie, but back then the views of Birchers were considered radical and yet today they are part of the mainstream.

The moderate centrist position from earlier last century now looks left-wing. I suppose Sanders calls himself a socialist because it is the only way to communicate what people used to mean when calling themselves a liberal. In the rest of the Western world, Sanders would still be considered centrist and moderate.

As for Clinton, in many ways she is to the right of Nixon. Americans often forget how liberal he was, such as creating the EPA.

Back in that era, Clinton was a conservative and a Goldwater Republican. It was Goldwater who helped end the liberalism that dominated both parties back then.

There used to be a left and a right wing in each party. The liberal centrism could operate back then because the liberal framing of politics acted as a moderating force that allowed compromise and cooperation.

Without that center, American politics can’t hold.

Eisenhower made a statement that was representative of his time. He said that conservatism is good for the private sphere, in how people live their lives and in their own economic concerns. But in the public sphere, liberalism is the proper attitude for politics. This is to say liberalism should frame the public good and how society operates over all.

Lacking this liberal frame, conservatism will fall out of balance and become extremist. This is because liberalism has never actually been the left-wing to conservatism’s right-wing. Liberalism instead has always been about moderation. You still see that in how, in polls, a majority of liberals support compromise while conservatives don’t. And in how Democrats, in polls, state stronger support for the presidency no matter who is in power whereas Republicans only support when Republicans are president—although this would have been different earlier last century when the GOP was more liberal and moderate.

What we have seen in recent decades is a severely weakened liberalism. Liberals know they don’t dominate politics. They are constantly on the defense. The thing about liberalism is that it wilts like a flower when the temperature turns freezing. Conservatism can operate in a liberal frame, but liberalism can’t operate in a conservative frame. A social democratic free society simply is not possible under anti-liberal conditions. This is why even conservatives are better off in a liberal society.

I was thinking about Sanders warning about the CIA. He stated the CIA was dangerous to a free society more than four decaes ago and he still stands by that strong criticism. It is reminiscent of Ike’s warning about the military-industrial complex. Neither Ike nor Sanders were/are doves on foreign policy, but both have expressed a wariness about the radical neocon vision of military imperialism, specifically in its corporatist form. That is an old school liberalism that sought moderation between the extremes of isolationist pacfism and expansionist militarism. That view was drowned out in recent years with the post-911 revenge fantasies dominating politics and the revival of Cold War style dreams of globalization. Sanders is a calm voice of sanity in insane times, refusing to bow down to fear.

I was also thinking of Reagan. He was a union leader and a FDR Democrat. He never lost his admiration for FDR and, even after becoming a Republican, kept a picture of FDR above his desk. Like FDR, Reagan believed in an activist government, but instead of that activis being directed to the people it was directed to the military and corporations. He helped further establish what Ike had warned about. The right-wing turn for Reagan represented a right-wing turn for the entire political and economic system.

It was the Goldwater campaign that allowed the right-wingers to take over the GOP and this made possible the election of Reagan. Hillary Clinton worked in the Goldwater campaign. Even when switching parties, she remained a Goldwater conservative. Goldwater and Reagan were both quite socially liberal on many issues, but this was contained wthin a larger conservative worldview. The same goes for Hillary. The innovation of the Clintons was to bring that conservative sensibility into the Democratic Party,what came to be known as the New Denocrats who cut welfare, deregulated markets, and were tough on crime. Conservatism became the new dominant paradigm, replacing the old liberal worldview that had been in place for generations.

March 3

I don’t think Trump is quite comparable to Hitler. Born into immense wealth, Trump is invested in and a part of the system. He has always had close ties to the political establishment.

OTOH Hitler was an outsider with humble beginnings: common soldier, failed artist, poor, even homeless at one point. The same goes for an authoritarian like Stalin, another outsider who had experienced poverty and social problems: hounded by the police, imprisoned, etc.

Trump’s life is too comfortable and he has too much to lose by overturning the entire social order, along with the political and economic system. But as a highly effective demagogue, Trump could set the stage for an authoritarian movement to further develop.

March 3

There is an unusual dynamic in this campaign season. The wild card isn’t just that there are outsider candidates challenging the two main parties. A greater uncertainty is how the political establishment will respond to this challenge and what results it will lead to.

I’ve argued that some of the Democratic political elite would rather lose the election than to lose power to the Sanders campaign. They fear the threat of political reform as demanded by the political left.

A similar fear is seen among the Republican leadership. They know how easy it is to lose power. The right-wing took control of the party with the Goldwater campaign. And more recently the Tea Party seized yet more power. Fighting Trump is the GOP establishment’s last stand.

The entrenched ruling elite on both sides wants to defend their respective political machines and to maintain their respective party’s brand image. With this motivation in mind, I see a possible convergence of forces. Many Democratic leaders might rather Trump be elected than take a chance on Sanders. On the other side, many Republican leaders might prefer Clinton to either Trump or Sanders.

As such, the two party system might put its full support behind Clinton. The establishment on both sides will place defending the establishment before all else. Clinton just happens to be the only viable establishment candidate.

Trump and Sanders are pitted against the entire Washington status quo. The last thing the establishment wants to see is a contest between these two outsiders. This could mean that a Clinton presidency is more inevitable than I first thought. Trump probably could beat Clinton, if the GOP leadership doesn’t turn against him, but that is seeming unlikely at this point.

A Clinton presidency is the only way the two party establishment can guarantee nothing will really change. We might be looking at a Clinton presidency, after all.

This is something I hadn’t considered before. But it makes sense. The establishment ultimately doesn’t care about parties, except to the extent they are useful. All establishment politics is realpolitik.

I originally didn’t think Clinton had a chance aginst Trump, but if she gets the full force of the two party establisment behind her she’ll have campaign to be reckoned with. That would be a game changer for standard American politics.

Will partisanship keep the ruling elite divided? Or will they make a historical truce to fight the outside challengers? I don’t know the answer to that.

How would either Trump or Sanders defend against a unified establishment? It would be hard, not impossible, but quite challenging.

Part of the difficulty is that the populist vote is split between two candidates. There are a surprising number of frustrated Americans who could just as easily vote for either Trump or Sanders. So there isn’t a unified voice to the populist unrest.

Sanders is holding his own at the moment. He has a good chance, but it depends who ends up backing him. I keep waiting to see if the tide will turn.

March 4

What would either tank Clinton’s campaign or guarantee a victory? I was wondering about that.

If enough of the establishment supports her, even drawing some odd bedfellows from the political right, she will be in a strong position. But if something like legal issues become more central and get media attention, she might really struggle. Or if Sanders with the support of black leaders starts drawing away black voters, she might not get the nomination.

Even if she gets the nomination, can she compete against Trump? She has so many weaknesses for Trump to attack. Does it matter that Republican leaders are now trying to tear Trump down? Or will that just make Trump even more popular and make him harder to defeat?

Sanders has the best chances against Trump. He first has to win the nomination, though. If black leaders had come out earlier for Sanders, I doubt Clinton would have had any chance of winning anything. But the Clinton-supporting mainstream media has so effectively shut Sanders out that it took so long for most Americans to even learn anything about him.

There are all these factors that could shift in different directions. It’s not really a matter of the best candidate winning. The election process isn’t a meritocracy. It isn’t even a popularity contest. It’s about maintaining or gaining control of the political narrative. Trump, of course, has been a master at that.

March 4

The media and political elite obviously underestimated Trump. And so they miscalculated their strategies. This is most clear with the mainstream media. They were manipulated and played like fools by Trump.

I suspect much of the media thought that, if they gave him enough rope, he’d hang himself. Or maybe that the novelty would eventually wear off. But likely they weren’t thinking at all, beyond the entertainment value for selling advertising.

Many have watched Trump like a car race. They’ve been hoping for a crash and burn. Trump has disappointed his detractors by not self-destructing.

The guy is a media mastermind. He controls the media. He stays on message. And he dominates the competition.

Unknowingly, the maistream media helped him every step of the way. Now no one knows what to do with the monster they helped create. But it is getting late for any effective counter-measures.

The other Republican candidates are weak sauce. Clinton can’t cobble together a coherent political narrative to save her life. And the mainstream media and Democratic political machine has done everything in their power to ignore and undermine Sanders.

We are moving toward the home stretch of the nomination process. Unless Sanders can gain strong support and pull to the front of the pack, Trump could easily slide home into the presidency. More people should have backed Sanders earlier, of course.

Some maybe are still hoping that God will intervene and take Trump out of the race. But it is hard to imagine what could stop him at this point, without some amazingly effective organizing to fight back.

More Americans should have taken Trump’s challenge more seriously. Instead, too many people who could have made a difference played right into his hand.

March 4

Along with underestimating Trump, I think others may overestimate him. Or else mischaracterize him.

He isn’t just a joke or a clown. He is a smart guy. I bet he understands more than he lets on.

I do give him credit for being a media mastermind. But he is no evil genius like Hitler scheming to take over the world. Just a standard American egotistic plutocrat who happens to be a talented media personality.

He is also not really an outsider. Yes, he became a Republican candidate from outside the GOP. But he didn’t come out of nowhere. He was born into wealth and power, automatically a part of the establishment. He has been schmoozing with the political and economic elite for his entire life, both in the US and around the world, including wealthy Arabs.

Everyone wants to categorize him, as though that will help deal with him. He is many things. But first and foremost he is a plutocrat. All the rest is mere rhetoric and spectacle.

Trump represents American hyper-indivdualist capitalism. He is the dark side of the so-called American Dream.

Even though Trump’s rhetoric fits more closely to the populist ethno-nationalism of Mussolini and Hitler, I worry more about the kind of fascism has become normalized through the ruling elite. A demagogue is probably less of a threat in the present US than the oligarchy represented by the Bush family and Clinton family.

The latter is a creeping almost invisible fascism, growing like an undetected cancer. Trump is like going to the doctor and finally being diagnosed with cancer. Now that we know, are there enough Americans willing to get treatment? Or are we just hoping that the cancer will go away on its own?

March 5

Some people wonder why Hillary Clinton does so well in the South, specifically among minorities. I’d argue it isn’t centrally about the Civil Rights movement and the role of the Democratic Party.

It’s important to keep in mind that the South is extremely conservative. Even minority Democrats in the South are conservative. Hillary Clinton is a conservative Democrat. It’s why Bill won the presidency. He brought Southern conservatism back into the Democratic Party, and so was able to compete against the GOP’s Southern Strategy.

The fight between Clinton and Sanders isn’t between mainstream liberalism and radical socialism. Sanders supposed socialism is simply what used to be called liberalism earlier last century.

It is also important to keep in mind that Clinton is mostly getting support from the older demographic. This is even shown in how support is split among women and minorities. The Clintons have been strong defenders of the conservative policy of tough on crime. But older blacks also wanted this, because of the violent crime increases in their communities, no one understanding at the time that it probably was caused by lead toxicity rates.

Once you realize that Clinton is a conservative, everything begins to make sense. She isn’t a radical right-winger, like Ayn Rand libertarians and Evangelical theocrats. But she is what used to be considered a standard conservative, before the word was taken over by right-wingers.

I have nothing against conservatives, Southern or otherwise. I just like truth in advertising. Clinton is a conservative.

If she represents your beliefs and values, then embrace your conservatism openly. We’ll have more honest debate that way. Then the likes of Sanders can drop the socialist label. Let’s have a real debate about real liberalism and real conservatism.

The muddled language and thinking in US politics is the opposite of helpful.

I also understand why a certain kind of liberal finds Clinton appealing. Some of it is compromise and lesser evil thinking. But there is more to it than that.

In the South, even liberals are relatively more conservative-minded. I see the same thing in the Midwest as well. Midwestern liberals will use conservative style arguments, invoking values of community, family and work ethic.

My hometown of Iowa City is a center of liberalism in Iowa. One resident, Zach Wahls, gained public attention a while back because of his defense of same sex marriage. What was interesting was that his use of Midwestern values that much of the rest of the country would consider conservative.

Politics get messy like that. But this messiness doesn’t really effect the issue I was dealing with in my post above.

Blacks, in and outside of the South, don’t generally identify as liberal. Just because you’re a Democrat, it doesn’t follow you have to be a liberal. Minorities are among the most socially conservative and religious of any demographics in the US, far more fundamentalist and evangelical than the average white.

It’s just that we’ve forgotten about this strain of conservatism. Or rather the mainstream has ignored it, as minorities tend to be ignored, except when their votes are being considered.

March 7

It seems strange that Hillary Clinton gets so much support. From a strategic perspective, her campaign is a disaster. Many polls show her being weak against republican candidates, compared to Sanders showing as strong. She is facing major legal issues that could blow up at any moment. And if this happens, this could tarnish the party for a generation.

Last but not least, the younger demographics are against her, and this include GenXers in their 40s (not exactly youngins). Even young minorities are shifting away from mainstream politics. Hillary is heavily corporatist, something that the younger generations despise, including young minorities, as seen in polls.

The young have a more favorable view of socialism than capitalism. Of course, socialism like progressivism has largely just become a new way Americans speak of genuine liberalism, i.e., not corporatist neoliberalism. A corporatist professional politician like Clinton does not represent the world that most Americans want to live in, especially not the young.

The one demographic that Clinton should be winning are women. But the same generational divide is seen there as well.

It’s true that older people tend to vote at higher rates. Elections can sometimes be won entirely focused on the older demographic. Republicans have used that strategy for a long time, although now they are up against a demographic wall. I doubt Democrats want to emulate Republican strategy, even it would lead to short term gains for the party establishment.

For Hillary to win the nomination would mean for the Democrats to lose the future. That is not a recipe for success. Or is the Democratic ruling elite betting on that, no matter how much they fail, that the game will be won by failing a little bit less than the Republicans. Are they just hoping that the GOP will be utterly destroyed and Democrats will then be able to rule without competition?

That doesn’t seem like a safe bet. Both parties could be mortally wounded in this contest. There hasn’t been a time so ripe for a third party challenge as right now. No matter who wins this election, we might be seeing different political parties competing more strongly in the coming elections.

March 7

Most Millennials don’t believe that Social Security benefits will be there when they are old. Yet 90% of Millennials, like most Americans, see Social Security as good for America.

The moral of the story is that Americans realize that Social Security is broken. But they don’t want to eliminate it. Instead, they want it fixed.

Part of the reason is that they see how their own grandparents are being helped with these benefits. It’s the same reason Social Security was created in the first place.

The Lost Generation had high rates of old age poverty. For this reason, the Lost Generation promoted Social Security, even though they knew few of their generation would ever benefit from it. The Lost Generation believed in sacrificing for others. It’s why they promoted the younger generations to get the public education they themselves rarely had.

Sacrifice is an American value that gets forgotten about and dismissed in mainstream politics. Many Americans still believe in improving the world, no matter how cynical politicians are. Most Americans want to revive the American Dream that was created with the New Deal.

Sacrifice and the American Dream are two sides of the same coin. The more people are left behind the harder it is for individuals to get ahead. In low inequality and high mobility societies, everyone does better, both poor and wealthy. That used to be what America stood for, why so many immigrants came here.

Despite the bad times, Millennials still have hope for America.

A certain kind of person on the political right argues that Americans only vote for what benefits them personally. They say this is what inevitably causes democracy to fail. This is a view promoted by pundits and professional politicians, along with reactionary activists.

That might be true for how the most far right-wingers think, out for themselves and their own. But right-wingers might want to keep in mind that not everyone thinks like them.

In fact, most Americans, including most conservatives, are fine with sacrificing for their fellow Americans. Polls show this to be true. It’s time for mainstream politics and media to reflect this strong public opinion.

March 7

Some people have predicted that we are seeing the self-destruction of the Republican Party. It’s possible.

The Republican establishment has been tempting fate for a long time. They brought in the reactionaries and allowed them to gain power. In the process, they increasingly became disconnected from most Americans. This has forced them to rely upon an ever aging base.

In some ways, Republicans have had the more dynamic party, in how much the party has changed over relatively short periods of time. Being dynamic can be both a strength and a weakness. The Democratic Party is the oldest political party in the world and has changed more slowly over its history. Both parties used to have a left and right wing, but now only the Democrats have maintained this balance, however imperfectly.

The Democrats have an old lineage of being part of the establishment. It has roots going back to the founding generation. It would be much harder, though not impossible, for it to be mortally wounded. Republicans, on the other hand, began as a radical third party. Early on, many people referred to them as Red Republicans because of this radicalism, which included free labor, feminism, abolitionism, and Marxism.

The Republicans are at a dangerous point. Maybe the party of the Southern Strategy is doomed. There will likely have to be a new strategy that flips it in an entirely new direction if they are to survive. Maybe they should consider returning to their roots. They are already partway there by returning to populist rhetoric.

I’m not a fan of the Republican party failing. It creates a power vacuum. Democracy requires many options. Even limited to two main parties isn’t enough for a functioning democracy. A single party dominating certainly wouldn’t be desirable. I want loyal opposition—in an ideal world with multiple parties across the political spectrum. That is the only way to ensure genuine public debate and so an informed public.

March 7

There was a snippet on tv of the debate between Clinton and Sanders. It was about the gun issue. I was reminded what distinguishes the two candidates.

Sanders was interested in actually debating the topic. I could tell that he was concerned about finding real solutions. But Clinton just wanted to rile the crowd up with empty rhetoric. It really doesn’t matter what Clinton says, because it won’t change her behavior in Washington.

Sanders refused to play that game. He wasn’t scapegoating. He wasn’t trying to rally the base. Instead, he was speaking to all Americans. His view was that this is a problem that isn’t left vs right. It is a shared problem and we can only solve it by seeking a shared solution.

The thing is most Americans, according to the polls, agree with Sanders. Most Americans simultaneously support stronger, more effective gun regulation and support strong protection of gun rights. But such a unifying message of majority opinion doesn’t fit the narrative of partisan politics and mainstream media.

It is hard to communicate a message of real solutions. That is the challenge we face as a society.

Clinton doesn’t mean anything she says. She’ll attack the NRA in the campaign. But once back in Washington she will never do anything to make the NRA unhappy. It’s all a show that is put on for the public.

This is what bothers me. I realize that politicians lie and obfuscate. But the media is supposed to be a free press that challenges those lies and obfuscation.

Shouldn’t the media be doing their job by informing the American public that Sanders is giving voice to majority opinion? Shouldn’t they explain that neither the extremes of the NRA or Clinton represent more than a minority of the population?

On the gun issues, most of the political right doesn’t agree with the NRA and most of the political left doesn’t agree with Clinton. Most Americans are closer to the middle on these issues.

March 7

There is a reason why this campaign season interests me more than most.

I’ve been paying close attention to demographic and polling data (along with social science research) for a long time now. My interest goes back at least to the early years of the Bush jr presidency, although my interest in generations theory might go back to the mid 1990s. I’ve been particularly focused on the thorough Pew data, specifically Beyond Red vs. Blue.

I’ve been watching developments happen for a long time. I saw the various shifts begin to click into place years ago. Much of what we are seeing now has been predictable for a long time. For a decade or longer, the favorable opinion of ‘socialism’ has been increasing, among the youngest generation most of all.

I always wondered why most of this data has received so little mainstream attention. All of this is easily found data from respectable sources. Yet I notice how many people in media and politics act surprised at the changes finally becoming too obvious to ignore.

Even more important, I’ve stated again and again for years that the majority public opinion doesn’t fit what gets portrayed in the mainstream. A while back, I scoured the internet and books for all the data I could find. I was amazed at how increasingly liberal the public is on so many major issues, a consistent trend across decades. But I was also curious how indifferent so many Americans were about issues that were supposed to be divisive, such as simultaneously supporting gun regulation and gun rights or such as simultaneously supporting abortion limits and abortion rights.

Often, the politicians in neither party represents the views of most voters. Special interests and big money dominates nearly all public debate and the political narrative. The average American doesn’t seem to realize how deceived and manipulated they are. The mainstream media and politics leaves so many people uninformed and disinformed.

It wasn’t that long ago when outsiders like Ralph Nader and Ron Paul were being condescendingly dismissed. And their supporters were ignored or criticized for wasting their vote and not submitting to partisan groupthink. Where we are now has been a long time coming. But many in the mainstream wanted to pretend the status quo could last forever. It was naive.

No matter who wins the election this time around, the changes that have occurred will be permanent. There is no way for the establishment of either party to win this election, for even in winning they will lose. This leaves many people scared and others demoralized. But instead people should look at it as opportunity.

March 8

I must admit I have a hard time getting excited about who will get elected. It’s not that it doesn’t matter. I’ve just lost faith in the US having a functioning democracy. No matter who becomes president, it doesn’t change the larger system of entrenched wealth and power, dysfunction and corruption.

The entire government needs a complete overhaul, one way or another, reform or revolution. Elections can hardly put a dent in this problem because the whole system is rigged. But change has to start somewhere.

How do we get the leverage to make that change? How do we get the American public to realize we need real change? And how do we get people to be willing to demand change with the force of threat behind it?

Will the rising populist movement finally be enough to awake America’s conscience and moral imagination? If not, what will it take?

I know how many Americans would take these as the words of a crank or conspiracy theorist. It just doesn’t seem real and relevant to so many.

If it was really so important, wouldn’t the MSM report on it? Well, no, they wouldn’t. That is a major part of the problem. The people who understand what I’m saying are the poor, struggling, and disenfranchised. But those people have no voice or influence in our system. Yet another major part of the problem.

How do we break through the contented haze of the mainstream and the middle class? We are long past the point of pretending this problem doesn’t exist.

These are the kinds of questions I’ve been asking my entire adult life. But few people take any of it seriously, much less try to answer them. And that is why we are now at a point where someone like Trump has a real chance of becoming president. Almost no one wants to take responsibility for having helped create this situation. People act like this came out of nowhere, as if it hadn’t been utterly predictable all along.

Sanders will sometimes speak of the need for a political revolution. If and when people hear this, I wonder what they think it means. Are more people beginning to realize this state of affairs? How many people does it take to get to a tipping point?

It isn’t just that many don’t think about these problems. Even among those who are aware, informed and concerned, few are willing to speak out and to act according to what they know.

So many people feel isolated in silence, afraid of what would happen if they stood up for what is right. Others might judge them. Or it might lead to arguments and unhappy feelings. Some worry about how it might effect their relationships or their job, if others found out what they truly think.

I know many people who have similar thoughts as I have but for various reasons they don’t speak up.

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

Old Forms of Power

This description of volunteer firemen associations is intriguing.

“They were essentially fraternal orders . . . They had also been political organizations since the 1830s”
~ Leonard L. Richards (See more at end of post.)

American society and politics used to be dominated by such associations. I’ve written about some of them before. They were powerful organizations that were at times forces for good and at other times merely forces of local power.

I wonder how much of that world has survived into present-day. Many of those kinds of associations have disappeared. But I know that at least a few, like Kiwanis, have grown and gone international.

More specifically, I was wondering about the volunteer firemen associations. There are still many volunteer firemen in small towns and rural areas.

For example, in nearby West Branch, IA, they use volunteers. It is a small town, but it isn’t as poor as most small towns in the area, because a section of the town is part of well-funded county. They had enough money to build a quite expensive fire station, partly used as a clubhouse, and added an extension for an inside wash area, mostly used to wash their personal vehicles.

From what I understand, the West Branch volunteer firemen have a lot of power and influence in that town, such as getting funds directed their way, even as the sidewalks are crumbling. Also, I’ve been told that the volunteer firemen form a multi-generational legacy of volunteers, which makes one wonder about the process for getting approved as a member.

These are the remaining old families that still hold much sway. The last fire chief, Dick Stoolman, only stepped down because of a promise that his son, Kevin Stoolman, would take over. To quote his exact words, “I wouldn’t give it up unless he got it.” Old School nepotism, how quaintly charming.

It’s not as if holding power in a town of a couple of thousand is all that significant in the big scheme of things. But it is interesting as an example of how old forms of power can persist.

* * *

The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War
By Leonard L. Richards
Kindle Locations 458-466

Both were old New York firemen, Broderick as a member of Howard Engine Company No. 34 and Kohler as an assistant engineer of the New York Volunteer Fire Department and a member of Protection Engine No. 5. In New York, as well as other eastern cities, volunteer fire companies did more than fight fires. They were also the premier social clubs in working-class neighborhoods. They were essentially fraternal orders with their own badges, mottoes, and initiation procedures. They tried to outdo one another in staging prizefights, dogfights, dances, parades, and an occasional formal ball. They had also been political organizations since the 1830s, initially used by elite politicians to get out the vote, but now used as a voice for men like themselves. Out of their ranks would come six mayors of the city.39

For Broderick, as well as many others, service as a fireman had been a stepping-stone to a political career. Shortly after he joined the Howard Company, one of the oldest in New York, he had been elected foreman, even though he was not yet old enough to vote.

Kindle Locations 547-555

Simultaneously, and more important to Broderick, he became a force in San Francisco politics. Money never mattered much to him. He was a bachelor with no kin. His personal expenses were modest. He just wanted enough money so that he didn’t have to worry about it. But political power was a different matter. The more he had, the better. Here again he had the help of Stevenson, along with some of Stevenson’s disbanded New York Volunteers. Together, they introduced a modification of the Tammany system into San Francisco.

The system, as they fashioned it, depended heavily on volunteer fire companies. Fires were common in San Francisco, far more so than in New York, and they were far more dangerous, as they wiped out not just a building or two but buildings, shacks, and tents in all directions. So firemen in San Francisco were heroes with plenty of work to do. Broderick did more than his share and in one fire, in particular, distinguished himself by his bravery. But he never regarded his company and others as just firefighters. He made sure that they functioned also as political clubs, getting out the vote on Election Day and providing a training ground for up-and-coming politicians.

Economic Predispositions?

Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences
John R. Hibbing, Kevin B. Smith, and John R. Alford
Kindle Locations 1295-1332

Classical economic theory has very precise predictions about what you will do with the money. In the dictator game you will not give the stranger anything. Why should you, since you will probably never see him or her again? The rational thing to do is to maximize your benefit and that means holding onto the fistful of dollar bills. You cannot be similarly Scrooge-like in the ultimatum game, though, because the stranger has a veto. Give the stranger nothing and you are likely to get nothing. The problem is how much to give. Economic theory predicts that you will give the least amount required to avoid a veto. If you are holding 20 one-dollar bills, that amounts to a measly dollar. Here’s the logic: Walking away with a dollar is better than walking away with nothing, so a dollar should be enough to prevent a rational stranger from exercising a veto.

These sorts of games have been repeated thousands of times in an amazing variety of contexts, and with an amazing variety of twists and minor modifications. The clear message from all this research— a message that is surprising only to economists— is that classical economic theory stinks at predicting how people will divide their 20 dollars. People are wildly more generous to strangers than they need to be. The average amount passed along in a dictator game is not zero but rather about $ 8 of the $ 20; in other words, pretty close to an even split and way more than rational maximizing behavior would suggest.

The results of ultimatum games are even more interesting. Remember, a rational person should accept any positive amount because one dollar is more than no dollars. In reality it is very common for small offers to be rejected. If you keep $ 19 and offer just $ 1, many strangers will exercise their veto and your 19 bucks will go poof. Splits of $ 18– $ 2, $ 17– $ 3, $ 16– $ 4 also are frequently turned down; even $ 15– $ 5 splits are occasionally nixed. What all this tells us is that people routinely deviate from rationality in order to be generous to a powerless stranger or to stick it to a greedy bastard. These findings probably are not big news to you but they create serious problems for the theory that humans are rational maximizing actors because, well, they don’t seem to act very rationally.

This basic message stays the same even when researchers tinker with the setting or format of the basic script. These games have been played in Siberia, in Western universities, and in hunter-gatherer societies. 3 The stakes of the games have been altered by taking them to regions of the world where $ 20 is the equivalent of several months’ wages. 4 The $ 20 has been described as a blind (an unseen resource) or a pot rather than as a fund belonging to the divider. 5 The physical attractiveness of the “stranger” has been altered. 6 And the “stranger” has been rendered less strange by altering the extent to which the players know each other. 7 These changes make a difference, driving non-maximizing behavior up or down, but none alters the basic conclusion that people are not the single-minded pursuers of profit that economic theory holds them out to be.

Just as Milgram’s results are presented as indicating that people are subservient to authority, the divide the dollar outcomes are presented as evidence that people are irrational; and just as the common interpretation of Milgram’s research is mistaken, so too is the common interpretation of the research on economic games. A closer look at the game results indicates tremendous individual variation in the decisions people make— even when the locale and experimental manipulations are the same . Some people are simply more generous than other people; some are more punitive; some are more strategic; some are more consistent; and some are more sensitive to the setting.

A significant minority of people— our best guess is around 20 percent— play economic games in a manner that is quite consistent with classic microeconomic theory in that they do not share unless they have to and they do not punish those who do not share with them . Others are relentlessly generous and the decisions of still others are variable and contingent upon context. The common conclusion growing out of the economic games research— that people are not rational maximizers— badly misses the point. Whether the topic is obeying authority figures or sharing resources with strangers, the real message of empirical research on human behavior is that people are fundamentally different. “People” are not lemmings in the face of authority— but some are. “People” are not rational maximizers —but some are.

Kindle Locations 1344-1361

Milgram’s focus on the situation as the key explanation of behavior and his abject indifference to behavioral variation within the same situation is disconcertingly typical of social science research. As an illustration of the value that could be added if this research tendency were altered, consider a fascinating study conducted some time ago by economist Kevin McCabe and colleagues. They had participants play a variant of divide the dollar games called a “trust” game while their brains were being imaged. The twist in this case was that players sometimes interacted with another human being and sometimes with a computer that was programmed to follow a preset sequence. McCabe found that people’s brain activation patterns are quite different in these two situations.

Told they are playing a computer, little activity registered in the emotional (or limbic) areas of the brain or in the prefrontal cortex of participants. In this situation the brain appears to be on autopilot, doing nothing more than calculating the way to get the most money (in other words, to be rational). Against a human being, in contrast, limbic areas such as the amygdala are activated, as is the prefrontal cortex, which presumably must resolve the conflict created by the rational desire to acquire more money and the emotional feelings that might accompany an exchange situation. 9

If it ended there, this research would be another example of the kind of approach that we are cautioning against: general statements that “people” display different brain activation patterns depending on the situation. This particular study, however , has a feature that illustrates the value of looking at individual differences. When the five most uncooperative individuals , as determined by the decisions they made in earlier economic games, were observed in the scanner, their brain activation patterns, unlike other participants, tended to be no different when they were playing against another human being than when they were playing against a computer. Thus, at least some people appear to be surprisingly devoid of the emotional responses that typically accompany human interaction. 10

Kindle Locations 1452-1467

Classical economic theory is in much the same boat. We have already noted this theory’s spectacularly inaccurate predictions with regard to various divide the dollar games. Classical microeconomic theory ends up in the same situational place as behaviorism and gets there much faster than evolutionary psychology. This is because it, too , is built on a worldview of presumed human universality, specifically humans as preference-maximizing machines. We might prefer beer and you might prefer wine, but the reasons we have different preferences is not of interest to most economists. They are more excited by the presumed universal process people employ to maximize those preferences in a given situation (rational utility maximization, as it’s called in the trade).

Classical economists rarely recognize the relevance of behavioral morphs. While psychologists study introverts and extroverts and political scientists study liberals and conservatives, economists have no parallel widely accepted terms that are indicative of fundamental economic types. 22 The situation determines what people need to do to maximize preferences so there is no need to worry about the fiddle-faddle of people having different preferences in the same situation. Preferences are taken as given (in other words, assumed away), and when deciding what to do, it is assumed that all humans crank through a universal cost-benefit calculation. The perceived pros and cons in that calculation are determined not by variation in personality, or neural architecture, or cognitive processing styles, but by the situation. As Dennis Mueller wisely notes, “homo economicus … bears a close resemblance to Skinner’s rat.” 23 The point is that broad swathes of the most prominent social science theories are based on the assumption that the human condition is monolithic and that any variations in human behavior are exclusively the product of the situation. The problem with this assertion is that it is simply not true.

Kindle Locations 3420-3422

At least among males , the more buff you are, the more likely you are to push strongly for positions that further your own economic interest (socialistic redistribution if you are poor; laissez-faire capitalism if you are rich). 44

Kindle Locations 4567-4577

We believe that traits such as orientation toward out-groups, openness to new experiences, and a heightened negativity bias fit more naturally with social than economic issues, and we tend to agree with Congressman Weaver that economic positions are typically secondary. He points out that “ethnocentrics do not give a fig for individual rights” and sees the connection between conservatism and free market principles as a relatively recent development. Similarly , he does not view Marxism as connecting to the deeper forces shaping empathics and believes that accounts that do make this connection “totally ignore our biological origins.” 55 The deep forces that shape political predispositions likely do not act directly on controversies over the role of government in society (after all, for how long in evolutionary time has the size of government been an issue?) or, relatedly, on controversies over the glories of the free market relative to the social welfare state. But if the issue becomes whether or not to open up a country’s social welfare system to recent or future out-group members (that is, immigrants ), deeper forces quickly come into play. Economic issues are certainly crucial in modern politics—sometimes the most crucial— but this does not mean fault lines on these issues are as biologically rooted as social issues.

 

The Science of Politics

Many have noted the odd relationship American conservatives have to science. It isn’t just anti-intellectualism. Nor is it even necessarily a broad attack against all science. It is highly selective and not consistent whatsoever. It is a reactionary attitude and so must be understood in that light.

I regularly interact with a number of conservatives. It gives me a personal sense of what it might mean.

There is a sense behind it that scientists are mere technocrats, puppets of political power. This mindset doesn’t separate science from politics. There is no appreciation that most scientists probably think little about politics while they are focused on the practical issues of doing research and writing papers. Most scientists aren’t trying to make a political argument or to change anything within or through politics. Scientists just have their small corner of expertise that they obsess over.

There is a paranoia in this mindset, typically unacknowledged. There is a suspicion that scientists somehow are an organized political elite conspiring to force their will on the public. In reality, scientists are constantly arguing and fighting with one another. The main politics most scientists are worried about is most often the politics of academia, nothing so grand as control of the government. Science involves more disagreement than anything else.

Getting all scientists to cooperate on some grand conspiracy isn’t likely to ever happen, especially as scientists work within diverse institutions and organizations, public and private, across many countries. They don’t even share a single funding source. Scientists get funding from various government agencies, from various non-profit organizations, and increasingly from corporations. All these different funding sources have different agendas and create different incentives. For example, a lot of climatology research gets funded by big oil because climatology predictions are important in working with big oil rigs out in the ocean.

There is also another even stranger aspect. I get this feeling that some conservatives consider science to almost be unAmerican. I had a conservative tell me that science should have no influence over politics whatsoever. That politics should be about a competition of ideas. a marketplace of ideas if you will, and may the best idea win or profit, as the case may be. That reality is too complex for scientists too understand and so we shouldn’t try to understand that complexity. So, trying to understand is more dangerous than simply embracing our ignorance.

This goes so far as to create its own vision of history. Many conservatives believe that the founders were a wise elite who simply knew the answers. They may have taken up science as a hobby, but it had absolutely nothing to do with their politics. The founders were smart, unlike today’s intellectual liberal elite and scientific technocrats. The founders understood that science had nothing to offer other than the development of technology for the marketplace. That is the only use science has, as a tool of capitalism.

This is a bizarre mentality. It is also historically ungrounded. The founders didn’t separate their interest in science from their interest in politics. They saw both science and politics as the sphere of ideas and experimentation. They didn’t just take someone’s word for something. If they had a question or a debate, it wasn’t unusual for them to test it out and find what would happen. They were very hands-on people. For many of them, politics was just another scientific experiment. The new American system was a hypothesis to be tested, not simply a belief system to be declared and enforced.

This view of science is widespread. This isn’t just an issue of cynical reactionaries, ignorant right-wingers, and scientifically clueless fundies. This worldview also includes middle and upper class conservatives with college education, some even in academia itself. Many of these people are intelligent and informed. Very few of them are overt conspiracy theorists and denialists. Much of what I’ve said here they would dismiss as an outlandish caricature. They are rational and they know they are rational. Their skepticism of science is perfectly sound and based on valid concerns.

When these people on the right speak of science, they are speaking of it as symbolizing something greater in their worldview. It isn’t just science they are speaking of. They fear something that is represented by science. They fear the change and uncertainty that science offers. They distrust scientists challenging their cherished views of present reality in the same way they distrust academic historians revising established historical myths about America. These intellectual elites are undermining the entire world they grew up in, everything they consider great and worthy about this country.

Conservatives aren’t wrong to fear and distrust. Indeed, their world is being threatened. Change is inevitable and no one has a clue about what the end results might be. But they should stop attacking the messenger. Scientists are simply telling us to face reality, to face the future with our eyes wide open.

* * * *

Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries:
The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment
by Tom Shachtman

Science and the Founding Fathers:
Science in the Political Thought of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and James Madison
by I. Bernard Cohen

The Invention of Air:
A Story Of Science, Faith, Revolution, And The Birth Of America
by Steven Johnson

 

 

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.