Tag Archives: authoritarianism

We’re Number One!

As Americans head for the polls to decide whether rampant Trumpism will at least be somewhat contained, we should probably acknowledge the real significance of the votes Americans will cast tomorrow.

We love to proclaim that America “is number one!” We love to believe that we have a democratic system–that whether you label it a republic or a democracy, it is an exercise in self-government. If we are honest, however, and at all informed, we have to admit that such an assertion has become dangerously close to a lie.

A recent article from Salon began with a survey of our social ills.

The United States, by many measures, appears to be a sick society. It has one of the highest rates of wealth and income inequality in the world. Despite being one of the richest countries on the planet it has some of the highest rates of infant mortality. Poverty among the elderly is also increasing. As a whole, the country’s health care system is inadequate; life expectancy is declining. The United States has the highest rate of mass murder by gun in the world and the highest rate of incarceration.

American infrastructure is failing. There is a deep crisis of faith in the country’s political and social institutions. The environment is being despoiled by large corporations who increasingly act with impunity. Loneliness and suicide are at epidemic levels. Consumerism has supplanted democracy and meaningful engaged citizenship. White hate groups and other right-wing domestic terrorist organizations have killed and injured hundreds of people during the last few decades. America’s elites are wholly out of touch with the people and largely indifferent to their demands.

It is impossible for any intellectually honest person to deny the accuracy of that analysis. Let’s also concede that Donald Trump is the beneficiary–not the cause–of democratic dysfunction.

That said, if the America we thought we lived in is to be saved, it is absolutely critical that we contain–and ultimately defeat–Trump and the authoritarian bigots to whom he appeals.

In a column for the New York Times, a psychiatrist recently explained how the President’s rhetoric triggers and facilitates violence and hatred. I encourage you to click through and read the column in its entirety, but here are some of his important insights:

You don’t need to be a psychiatrist to understand that the kind of hate and fear-mongering that is the stock-in-trade of Mr. Trump and his enablers can goad deranged people to action. But psychology and neuroscience can give us some important insights into the power of powerful people’s words.

We know that repeated exposure to hate speech can increase prejudice, as a series of Polish studies confirmed last year. It can also desensitize individuals to verbal aggression, in part because it normalizes what is usually socially condemned behavior….politicians like Mr. Trump who stoke anger and fear in their supporters provoke a surge of stress hormones, like cortisol and norepinephrine, and engage the amygdala, the brain center for threat. One study, for example, that focused on “the processing of danger” showed that threatening language can directly activate the amygdala. This makes it hard for people to dial down their emotions and think before they act….

Susan Fiske, a psychologist at Princeton, and colleagues have shown that distrust of a out-group is linked to anger and impulses toward violence. This is particularly true when a society faces economic hardship and people are led to see outsiders as competitors for their jobs….

There is something else that Mr. Trump does to facilitate violence against those he dislikes: He dehumanizes them. “These aren’t people,” he once said about undocumented immigrants suspected of gang ties. “These are animals.”

Research by Dr. Cikara and others shows that when one group feels threatened, it makes it much easier to think about people in another group as less than human and to have little empathy for them — two psychological conditions that are conducive to violence….

Using brain M.R.I., researchers showed that images of members of dehumanized groups failed to activate brain regions implicated in normal social cognition and instead activated the subjects’ insula, a region implicated in feelings of disgust.

As Dr. Fiske has written, “Both science and history suggest that people will nurture and act on their prejudices in the worst ways when these people are put under stress, pressured by peers, or receive approval from authority figures to do so.” (my emphasis.)

 

And I Thought I Was Being Too Negative….

I sometimes feel guilty about the fact that so many of my posts to this blog are dispiriting. Then a friend shared a link to an article in Salon, saying “read it and weep.”

I’m weeping.

The article analyzed recent polling, and found that 96% of those who voted for Donald Trump say they would do so again. Only 85% of Hillary Clinton voters, however, would stick with her.

That’s not because former Clinton supporters would now back Trump; only 2 percent of them say they’d do so, similar to the 1 percent of Trump voters who say they’d switch to Clinton. Instead, they’re more apt to say they’d vote for a third-party candidate or wouldn’t vote.

President Donald Trump is the antithesis of what Hillary Clinton’s voters desired in a candidate. And in many ways Donald Trump’s incompetent, ignorant, reckless, racist, demagogic and cruel behavior in office is worse than even his most concerned and cynical critics had predicted. This outcome should motivate Clinton’s voters to become more engaged and more active, instead of making a decision in a hypothetical election that might actually give Trump a victory in the popular vote.

The findings from this new poll are troubling. But they should not come as a surprise.

Political scientists and other researchers have repeatedly documented that the American public does not have a sophisticated knowledge on political matters. The average American also does not use a coherent and consistent political ideology to make voting decisions. As Larry Bartels and Christopher Achen demonstrate in their new book “Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government,” Americans have identities and values that elites manipulate, which voters in turn use to process information — however incorrectly.

I have read the Bartels and Achen book, and it is hard to argue with their thesis. I also have a young colleague who studies “correct” voting–defined as casting a vote for the candidate whose positions come closest to the positions the voter has identified as important and motivating. (Spoiler alert: a lot of voters don’t vote “correctly.”) As the Salon article puts it,

American voters en masse are not rational actors who seriously consider the available information, develop knowledge and expertise about their specific worries and then make political choices that would maximize their goals.

These matters are further complicated when considering right-wing voters. While Trump may have failed in most of his policy goals, he has succeeded symbolically in terms of his racist and nativist crusade against people of color and Muslims. Given the centrality of racism and white supremacy in today’s Republican Party specifically, and movement conservatism more generally, Trump’s hostility to people of color can be counted as a type of “success” by his racially resentful white voters.

American conservatives and right-leaning independents are also ensconced in an alternative news media universe that rejects empirical reality. A combination of disinformation and outright lies from the right-wing media, in combination with “fake news” circulated online by Russian operatives and others, has conditioned Trump voters and other Republicans to make decisions with no basis in fact. American conservatives do, however, possess a surplus of incorrect information. In that context, their political decisions may actually make sense to them: This is a version of “garbage in, garbage out.”

Republican voters also tend to be have more authoritarian views than the general public. As a type of motivated social cognition, conservatism is typified by deference to authority, groupthink, conformity, social dominance behavior and hostility to new experiences and new information. These attributes combine to make Trump voters less likely to regret supporting him and in some cases — because of a phenomenon known as “information backfire“— to become more recalcitrant when shown that Trump’s policies have failed in practice.

There’s a wealth of social science research confirming these observations.

The 64-thousand-dollar question (as we used to say back when sixty-four thousand dollars was a lot of money) is: what the hell are we going to do about it?

 

Fear Itself…

Al Jazeera recently had a thought-provoking interview with a Polish political philosopher I’d never previously come across: Zygmunt Bauman. The subject-matter was the growing civic unrest that is by no means limited to the United States.

In Western Europe it has been a summer of great change and discontent.

The European Union is facing major upheaval as the United Kingdom gets ready to withdraw its membership, in the process possibly jeopardising the composition of the country itself.

In fact, under the surface, people across Europe seem to be on edge. As European nations deal with migration and various economic uncertainties, the political landscape is changing, and a feeling that old social structures are being replaced or challenged is widespread.

It’s the same for the United States, where the race for the White House is anything but ordinary. Political rhetoric this year is tougher and there’s a feeling the country is seriously divided on race and economic prosperity.

What has brought us to this situation? And what are the possible scenarios going forward?

Bauman thinks our problems are the consequence of what he has dubbed “liquid fear,” and what I would call “fear of random and unforeseeable dangers.”

“Liquid fear,” Bauman explains, “means fear flowing on our own court, not staying in one place but diffuse. And the trouble with liquid fear, unlike the concrete specific danger which you know and are familiar with, is that you don’t know where from it will strike.

“We are walking, that’s my favourite metaphor, as if on a minefield. We are aware that the field is full of explosives, but we can’t tell where there will be an explosion and when. There are no solid structures around us all on which we can rely, in which we can invest our hopes and expectations. Even the most powerful governments, very often, cannot deliver on their promise. They don’t have enough power to do so.”

Bauman says we live in a state of “continuous uncertainty, which makes us afraid.” This fear, this uncertainty, increases the desire for security, the appeal of politicians who say “If you give me power, I’ll take responsibility for your future. I can keep you safe.” He also notes that people’s memories of totalitarian governments and their dangers have faded, making “strongman” promises attractive.

Bauman’s minefield metaphor is so powerful because it accurately describes human reaction to unknown and unpredictable danger. We humans are pretty good at coping with the known: a hurricane, an automobile accident, a disease. These threats are comprehensible; there are experts who can predict their occurrence and deal with them if they appear. Terrorism, economic downturns, pandemics–dangers over which individuals have no control–generate more fear precisely because we feel helpless to either predict or avoid them.

So we look for reassurance, for someone who can convince us that he (and let’s be honest, it’s always been a he) can avert tragedy. We may have to suspend disbelief, close our eyes to the inconsistencies and facts that cast doubt on the assurances, but at least someone is telling us what we want to hear. It’s only later that we remember why listening to siren songs is never a good idea.

It’s because of our very human, very predictable reaction to our anxieties that FDR’s admonition was so important: what we should really fear is “fear itself.”

 

 

A Not-So-Brave New World

So Trump took New Hampshire. A man who could hardly be more unfit for public office won a primary election held by one of America’s major parties.

This paragraph from a recent post on Political Animal pretty much sums up the situation–and the inability or unwillingness of the media to cover it accurately:

To make better predictions about electoral politics, traditional pundits need to look in the mirror and revise their assumptions about the electorate. Americans in both parties are afraid for their futures and fed with up the current system, the Republican Party has become far more extreme on the right than the Democratic Party on the left, and the GOP electorate specifically is far more demographically isolated and less interested in small-government conservatism and far more driven by racial animus, authoritarianism and cultural backlash than most centrist pundits care to admit.

Despite all the abuse aimed at the “lame stream media” and its perceived bias, most traditional media reporters and pundits have a deep-seated urge to be seen as “playing fair”—to focus on conflict, yes, but to avoid any impression that they are playing favorites. That determination leads to what has been called false equivalence: party A does something truly awful, and when party B does something wrong that most of us would consider far less troubling, the reporter paints them as equally wrongheaded. “They both do it.”

But they aren’t equivalent.

The truth is that today’s GOP bears virtually no resemblance to the party I worked for for 35 years.In 1980, I won a Republican Congressional primary; I was pro-choice, pro separation of church and state, pro public education. That would never happen today. Today’s Republican party is dominated by inflexible ideologues and proud know-nothings; it has become home to unashamed racists and would-be theocrats. The flaws of the Democrats—and there are many—pale in comparison.

There have been other times in America’s history when one or another party has “gone off the rails.” We can only hope that we are seeing the crest of this particular wave of paranoia and anti-intellectualism. (Kasich–arguably the only sane Republican candidate– did come in second.) But we can’t defeat the forces of fear and reaction unless we name them for what they are—unless we stop pretending that this is just another instance of “politics as usual.”

It isn’t. It’s ugly and it’s very, very dangerous.

Lesson from Egypt

There’s an old saying to the effect that what you see depends upon where you stand, so the lessons we can learn from the chaos in Egypt will depend on the perspectives we bring to our analysis.

In my view, Egypt is a cautionary tale about zealotry and fanaticism, about rigid self-righteousness untempered by doubt or moderated by open-mindedness.

As Roger Cohen wrote in yesterday’s New York Times,  the Arab Spring “demanded of political Islam that it reject religious authoritarianism, respect differences and uphold citizenship based on equal rights for all.” But zealots cannot, by definition, respect the equal rights of others. They cannot concede the reasonableness of differing beliefs or judgments, nor the right of others to hold those beliefs.

 Morsi misread the Arab Spring. The uprising that ended decades of dictatorship and led to Egypt’s first free and fair presidential election last year was about the right to that vote. But at a deeper level it was about personal empowerment, a demand to join the modern world, and live in an open society under the rule of law rather than the rule of despotic whim.

In a Muslim nation, where close to 25 percent of Arabs live, it also demanded of political Islam that it reject religious authoritarianism, respect differences and uphold citizenship based on equal rights for all.

Authoritarianism, however, is indistinguishable from zealotry and fundamentalism of all kinds.

As a friend of mine noted in an email a couple of days ago, the despotic and deeply anti-libertarian impulses that are so easy to condemn when expressed by Islamic extremists are not so different from those displayed by some on the Christian Right, or in the Tea Party. If you need examples, think about Ted Cruz, Louie Gohmert, Michele Bachmann…think about the antics currently underway in statehouses across the country, as self-righteous men pass laws to control women’s bodies. Think about Indiana, where Mike Pence and Brian Bosma reacted to the DOMA and Proposition 8 decisions by doubling down on their insistence to make “sinful” gays second-class citizens in Indiana.

The lesson I take from Egypt is simple: zealotry is dangerous, no matter what its content.

As the late, famed jurist Learned Hand memorably put it, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.”