The real question facing America right now is how long it will be before the lunatics outnumber sane folks.
I’m not talking about the recent spectacle of Todd Akin, or the ongoing self-parody that is Michelle Bachmann. If they were anomalies, they’d be entertainment; as it is, they are just two of a terrifyingly large number of political figures who reject science and reality–with very negative consequences for the rest of us.
A few days ago, Timothy Egan wrote a piece for the New York Times titled “The Crackpot Caucus.” In what he called a “quick tour of the crazies in the House,” he quoted Rep. John Shimkus–chair of a subcommittee that oversees climate-change issues–pooh-poohing the very notion of climate change, and explaining that “The earth will end when God declares it to be over.” More God talk came from Texas Rep. Joe Barton, who opposes wind energy because “Wind is God’s way of balancing heat. Clean energy would slow the winds down and make it hotter.” Mitch McConnell is among those who dismiss climate change as “a conspiracy and a hoax.”
John Huntsman was the only presidential candidate running in the Republican primary who was willing to say he accepted the theory of evolution. Jack Kingston of Georgia rejects evolution because there’s no indentation where our tails used to be. I’m not kidding.
There are literally hundreds of similar examples.
In Atlanta, Tea Party activists are claiming responsibility for defeating a 1 cent sales tax add-on that would have paid for highway and transit improvements in a ten-county area. The measure was backed by a bipartisan, urban-suburban consortium, and ran afoul of another rampant conspiracy theory: the U.N.’s “Agenda 21.”
Agenda 21, also known as the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, along with a Statement of principles for the Sustainable Management of Forests, was adopted by more than 178 Governments at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janerio in June of 1992. It’s a non-binding declaration of an intent to address climate issues, but it has sparked fierce resistance from the more loosely-tethered-to-reality fringes, who have labeled it a scheme to destroy private property rights and “urbanize” America. Alabama has actually passed a law forbidding its “implementation” in that state.
Now, despite the claims of the Tea Party, Atlanta’s transportation tax didn’t fail simply because some fearful folks bought into the Agenda 21 conspiracy. As Neal Pierce notes in “Region Shoots Self in the Foot,” decades of anti-tax and anti-government rhetoric, rural resentment of urban Atlanta, and poor strategic decisions all played a role. But these elements were mutually reinforcing, and the consequences for the region–where congestion is already a nightmare–are likely to be profound. In the words of the Atlanta Chamber president, failure of the measure spells “economic disaster for Georgia.” (But hey–they sure showed those “anti-liberty” internationalists from the UN!)
Modern life requires a level of cognitive ability and reason that is in dangerously short supply.
Large numbers of Americans, including uncomfortably large numbers of elected officials, believe in a variety of far-fetched conspiracies that defy elementary logic (exactly how did Obama’s “Kenyan” family manage to plant that birth announcement in Hawaiian newspapers 40+ years ago? How did they know he’d be President??).
In the case of the “birthers,” the conspiracy persists because it de-legitimizes a black man who somehow became President. Those who deny climate-change and evolution are rejecting ideas that make them profoundly uncomfortable–facts that challenge limited and rigid worldviews, or (in the case of some elected officials) run contrary to the interests of their bigger campaign donors. Those who see dark motives (and black helicopters) emanating from the United Nations probably need something concrete to which they can anchor free-floating anxieties.
There have always been reality-challenged people at the fringes of society. What is so terrifying is that they have been normalized. We elect them. Politicians who do know better pander to them. Pundits take them seriously, or at least act as if they do.
Sociologists and political scientists tell us that the past 25 years has seen a profound shift to the political Right. I don’t think that’s what has happened; I know many sound and sane conservatives, and they aren’t the ones who worry me. We haven’t gone Right; we’ve gone unhinged.
I worry that we aren’t very far from the day when the inmates control the asylum.