January 2, 2017: Revenge politics: America’s Culture Wars just get hotter

America’s November 8, 2016 presidential election was not a tectonic shift, it was a supernova. From years of wide-ranging observations, wondering where this would end, this essay descends from political philosophy to politics. One thing is clear, both Right and Left find right-reason an obstacle. We live in an age of emotion now, the Clan Age.

Last time we considered systemic flaws in America’s political system. A system incrementally revamped toward direct democracy in opposition to what our Founders created: stable governance of, by, and for naturally unstable humans. Reason will always be in combat with passion because humans are first and foremost emotional creatures, not intellects. Yet we can check emotions with institutional barriers to block us when emotion takes over as we know it will. The Founders invented a system to save us from ourselves.

They knew the difference between right-reason and motivated-reason. Right-reason accepts evidence for reality, regardless of how it makes us feel. It accepts evidence conditionally, as new discoveries can modify understanding, or even upend it. This does not necessarily make what we know incorrect, but incomplete. Newton’s laws were incomplete without Einstein. And yet we use Newton to build devices that work, more today than ever, because his laws apply to our everyday world. On the other hand, motivated-reason in such abundance today, accepts only that evidence supporting what we already believe, rejecting evidence that makes us uneasy. Devices engineered to this standard wouldn’t function. But just such a design now dominates America. Welcome to America’s revenge politics, a reflection of our Culture Wars.

Democratic forms of governance around the world are threatened for the same reasons. The Economist, headlined What’s gone wrong with democracy, blames lost jobs to China, and economic upheaval of the 2007 crash. Since the Great Recession democracies have inched backward as the number of free people declines. [1]

Foreign Affairs journal multiplies our suspects with the rise of authoritarian populism. Populism further stimulated by incompetent leadership, mass multiethnic migrations (too many humans on earth), and destabilizing effects of Internet fake-news. [2] As Fareed Zakaria has it, “All [populist] versions [Left & Right] share a suspicion and hostility toward elites, mainstream politics, and established institutions.” [3] Populism does not want that rational barrier to emotional excess. In the everlasting contest of political philosophies the world is watching. And the last time democracy fell in Athens, it lay dead worldwide for 2000 years.

Populism is the political face of our Culture Wars, with many of its battles over territory that doesn’t exist: Republican President George Bush tried to fabricate an emergency in his waning term to seize dictatorial power, Democratic President Obama established elaborate programs to steal our guns and ammo. Our echo chambers and social media make the old Chinese saying current, “One dog barks at a shadow, and a hundred dogs respond to make it a fact.”

Such thinking cannot survive right-reason, but it thrives on motivated-reason. With its central principle of revenge, populism appeals to our emotions, not our intellect. This is of particular interest to me, not only by its collective impact on the West, but because of the battle I fight with it daily. I come from what we Americans call the blue collar working class. We tend to be emotional about things we don’t understand. Employing a great deal of what I label the 2/98 Rule: 2% knowledge 98% bluster, common in taverns. In argument our pitch elevates in uptalk, the finger wags, and we display what biologists designate the threat face, a snarl that mammals use to intimidate opponents. This behavior was on persistent display during our election, and served to communicate tribal affiliation. It’s also a cover for self-doubt, a diversion as we try to bluff our way to certainty. Deep down it’s a plea, to ourselves. Impossibly complex society makes us feel helpless. We're desperate to convince ourselves that we’re in control when we know we’re not. We are the targets of populism.

I committed to change through higher education, though upbringing is never distant, and much I’d not want to lose. I also got lucky with a career in science and engineering where abstract learning meets practical application. These disciplines require challenge, test, checks and rechecks of every detail, all day every day in search of Truth. Nature passes judgment. Get it wrong and what you build will fail. That career gave me the ability to confront every belief, especially my own, inside or outside the workplace. Eventually, I realized I had to divorce my tribe, because so long as I identified with it I couldn’t stop lying for it. There are other ways to hone critical thinking, but I suggest none better than science. Unfortunately, America ranks near bottom in science education in the industrialized world, and poorly among all nations. [4] This makes us easy marks for emotionally satisfying answers.

Where do these answers come from? First, on the popular, not intellectual, Right: America’s talk radio host, Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh has competition from the Left in MSNBC television, but Limbaugh is the best propagandist we have. Entertaining, endearing (when he talks about his cat), he sounds like a regular guy. His weave of revision, truth, and lie in a single paragraph is a thing of beauty. Punctuated with his signature, “Don’t doubt me.” Republican ex-presidents, ex-vice presidents, presidential candidates, and Speaker of the House have all called into Limbaugh’s show. Certain not to face scrutiny, they curry his blessing and influence in what Limbaugh calls “Realville.”

Realville is a place where good economic news was no thanks to ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), and Limbaugh’s nemesis, Obama, because ARRA money would not be spent for years. Same week, bad economic news. Realville’s response? How could this be, now that we spent all that ARRA money? Frequently, we Americans care very little for truth, but we care very much about winning.

Limbaugh has a dogma to nurture. He knows paper defenses burn easy. Following our election, he provided the best characterization for populist motivated-reason I’ve ever heard him say: “The default reaction to any media story that has anything incredulously stupid, dumb or negative about Trump is to not believe it, folks… The default position has to be—if we’re going to be intellectually honest with ourselves—is rejection.” [5]

Yes, in this explicit self-contradiction, Limbaugh uttered the words, “intellectually,” and “honest.” He told listeners they dare not fact check negative stories they hear, a kind of blasphemy. And while this is listener prep for what’s coming, there’s more to it. As Eric Hoffer wrote in The True Believer, “Mass movements… interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and realities of the world… [The true believer] cannot be frightened by danger nor baffled by contradictions because he denies their existence.” [6]

Limbaugh’s job is to boil the blood, rally troops, define the creed. It’s the National Conservative Crusade against the National Liberal Crusade. Any waver from purist absolutism wins the label of liberal from the High Priest. Per Hoffer, “All [mass movements] irrespective of doctrine… demand blind faith and singlehearted allegiance.”

Populism is a mass movement, but it’s not a policy. It’s a tool for demagogues to manipulate those who can be. Energized by, “Whites ages 25 to 54 lost about 6.5 million jobs more than they gained [since the recession].” [7] Which explains some of the Right’s enthusiasm for internet conspiracy, hoax, email viruses, and fake-news otherwise known as lies [8]; Christian hypocrisy according to some Christians [9]; embrace of Russia’s hack of the American people, not necessarily their machines, with a Mid-Eastern perspective of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” making Reagan’s GOP read like GOPP, the Great Old Putin Party [10]; and of great significance we’ll examine next time, a 12th-century-Islam-like science denial that’s about more than adolescent defiance of authority. All this from what used to see itself as the “family values” Party.

Influence from the Left begins with some science-free sectors on campus. UCLA’s Sandra Harding claims that Western technocracy is “modeled on men’s most misogynistic relations to women—rape, torture, [and] choosing mistresses” [11]; university postmodernists asserted in 1950s France the persistent notion that the truth is, there is no truth [12], an assault on Western reason and tradition, now embraced by the Right [13]; and wailing students offended by micro-aggressions, soon to be nano, pico, and femto-aggressions serve as fodder for Limbaugh. [14] Where’s the space between these and superstition?

On his last official tour through Europe, President Obama urged nations to resist “crude nationalism that drowns out dissenting views.” Excellent. So too our political correctness. Racist, sexist, and homophobe are cast about with generosity to ostracize and muzzle.

Post-election, PBS Newshour’s Judy Woodruff said to a guest, “I hear you saying we’ve missed a whole chunk of the county in our effort to be diverse.” Steve Deace responded, lack of diversity was ideological, not ethnic. He added, “Those of us who think that we shouldn’t have men in bathrooms next to our young daughters are called bigots, when we used to just call them parents.” [15] Now, Bernie Sanders and others are at last voicing concerns over identity politics. In America’s constant fear of the tyranny of majority, Democrats fell victim to a tyranny of minority. Modern identity under the flag of diversity looks a lot like tribal segregation with a posture of opposition, not inclusivity. As liberal Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. lamented, our once vaunted melting pot that strived to confer an American character is dead. [16]

Neal Gabler’s assessment asked, “Who knew that tens of millions of white men felt so emasculated by women and challenged by minorities… in seething resentment…” [17] Enunciating utter blindness to liberal bias in popular culture, all the way down to television commercials. Consider the Boost ad as obese white men clothed only in bras, panties, and high heels stumble about to fuel Danica Patrick’s Formula One race car. The white man seated on a bus blundering to make breakfast on a hot plate as a black woman stands over him, looks down, shakes her head, and enjoys her Kellogg’s breakfast bar. Or those three white and one black man, frantic for food from their Honda hatchback, who smash chips in their face, pour beer in their eyes, as a white women records their primate behavior from a forest blind. Imagine gender and/or race swapped. Not about history, the boardroom boys club, or comic book heroes to the contrary, but what the common man who feels discarded by this society receives from it at every intermission. He just voted. Pop culture or politics, it’s the message not the messaging.

Ever vengeful, our sides are now divided more by Culture War than income. After 8-years, 15% of Obama judge appointments remain unfilled by the now standard practice of Republican governance: obstruction. Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley, denied even to hold hearings on Obama’s final Supreme Court appointment of moderate, Judge Merrick Garland. [18] “These elections are just too contentious. The people should decide our next Justice.” But they already had, in as much as our Founders wanted by distancing the Court from passions of the people, who elected Obama. Given we swap parties every eight years, do Republicans imagine Democrats will forget their blatant abuse of this Republic they claim so much to love? The way Republicans didn’t forget Judge Robert Bork? Tit-for-tat is not governance for long.

So what have systemic flaws and this social miasma produced? The most untrustworthy candidates to simultaneously compete for office. In our hyper-individualist society creating creatures like these, has America finally lost its capacity to produce virtuous leaders? What does this say about us in that cycle of civilization’s rise and fall, or do we even care? Can Americans divorce their tribe to remove that “fact-proof screen”? We are losing the system that saved us from ourselves.

Until next time. Monday March 6, 2017.



[1] What’s gone wrong with democracy, The Economist, March 1-7, 2014
[2] Foreign Affairs, The Power of Populism, November/December, 2016
[3] Emphasis added. Fareed Zakaria, Populism on the March: Why the West In in Trouble, Foreign Affairs, November/December, 2016
[4] Pew Research Center , February 2015
[5] Rush Limbaugh November 15, 2016
[6] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer, Harper Perennial, 1966
[7] Eduardo Porter, We Tracked Down A Fake-News Creator In The Suburbs. Here’s What We Learned , All Things Considered, NPR, November 23, 2016. Note also the man who read an Internet story that led him to drive from North Carolina with his loaded rifle to Washington DC (300 miles). He did this based on fake news that children kidnapped by presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s pedophile syndicate were housed at a Pizza parlor, where the man fired one round into the floor to emphasize demands. In Washington Pizzeria Attack, Fake News Brought Real Guns , Cecilia Kang, Adam Goldman, New York Times, December 5, 2016. Shortly after this: “The son of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s pick for national security adviser, embraced a baseless conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton…” Incoming national security adviser's son spreads fake news about D.C. pizza shop , POLITICO, 12/4/2016
[9] Eric Sammons, Christians’ Support For Trump Undermines Their Public Witness , The Federalist, October 12, 2016
Neil J. Young, Dear Evangelicals, A “Begrudging” Vote for Trump Is Still a Vote for Trump , Religion Dispatches, October 4, 2016
Russell Mooresept, Have Evangelicals Who Support Trump Lost Their Values? , New York Times, September 17, 2015
[10] AP, FBI chief backs CIA’s conclusion Russia interfered with election , December 16, 2016
[11] Sandra Harding, The Science Question In Feminism, Cornell University Press, 1986
[12] Ferry & Renaut, French Philosophy of the Sixties, University of Massachusetts Press, 1985
[13] Erik Wemple, CNN commentator Scottie Nell Hughes: Facts no longer exist , Washington Post, December 1, 2016
[14] Lukianoff and Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind , The Atlantic, September 2015
[15] How the mainstream media missed Trump’s momentum , PBS Newshour, November 9, 2016
[16] Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. The Disuniting of America, Norton, 1992
[17] Neal Gabler, Farewell, America: No matter how the rest of the world looked at us on Nov. 7, they will now look at us differently , Moyers & Company, November 10, 2016
[18] Malvika Menon, The Republicans’ Rash Rejection of Merrick Garland , Harvard Political Review, April 24, 2016
Revised for the joy of nit-picking word choice. 1/17/19
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Published on January 02, 2017 07:50
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