An Unaccountable Turn and an Indefensible Twist
I have been reflecting on two recently published accounts of life and politics in the United States. One poignantly treated the implications for individuals and families of an ongoing partisan effort to polarize the nation’s population on the basis of racial and social difference to garner power for an economic elite. Tim Sullivan of the Associated Press reported that story, which concerned the social fracturing of the declining farm town of Benson, Minnesota, because of a campaign of misinformation and lies pressed by the Republican Party and its media allies.1 Ross Douthat, a columnist for The New York Times, often cast as a thoughtful proponent of conservatism and the Republican Party, if not of the current turn of the GOP under Trump, authored the second essay.2 Douthat contended that the source of the angst fueling the know-nothingism, cruelty and hatred embraced so openly by millions of Americans professing support for Trump and his party was not the deliberate and continuous lies and misinformation designed to inflame them, but instead the underlying flaws of modern liberalism. Together, these accounts raise significant questions concerning the state of U.S. politics today.
Long-term economic decline linked to globalization, fears related to social change, and lies and deliberate misinformation campaigns asserting voter fraud, claims of immigrant “invasions” and lies concerning COVID-19 have prompted many residents of the small community of Benson (population of 3,000) to issue threats against their long-time neighbor Reed Anfinson, the editor of that town’s weekly newspaper, the Monitor-News. Among other matters, Anfinson has sought to provide his neighbors with the facts about the pandemic and to call on them to protect themselves and their fellow citizens from a virus that has killed nearly a million Americans and that has filled their local clinics and area hospital to bursting with ill and dying citizens.3
Far from accepting this brutal reality and rallying to address it, some residents, including the local Lutheran pastor, Jason Wolter, for example, have denied it. Wolter has endorsed the view, on no evidence, that the COVID-19 vaccines kill people and has suggested flatly that he does not trust Anfinson and instead believes the lies pressed by Donald Trump and his allies:
[Wolter] also suspects Democrats are using the coronavirus pandemic as a political tool, doubts President Joe Biden was legitimately elected and is certain that COVID-19 vaccines kill people. He hasn’t seen the death certificates and hasn’t contacted health authorities, but he’s sure the vaccine deaths occurred: ‘I just know that I’m doing their funerals.’ He’s also certain that information ‘will never make it into the newspaper.’ Wolter’s frustration boils over during a late breakfast in a town I. Seated with a reporter, he starts talking as if Anfinson is there. ‘You’re lying to people,’ he says. ‘You flat-out lie about things.’4
Wolter also indicated that he relies for his information not on the Monitor-News or any other mainstream journalism outlets, but instead on, “Gab, a Twitter-like social media platform that has become home to many on America’s far right.”5 As the pastor observed to Sullivan, ‘For better or for worse I don’t really trust anything I read.’… The answer, he said, is research, probing the farthest corners of the internet.”6 Wolter has turned to Gab in that search, which is known for its extreme Anti-Semitic, racist and conspiratorial postings.7
If concerns about the changing character of the American economy and the composition of its population are setting up those such as Wolter to entertain Republican Party-endorsed and orchestrated claims to provide false scapegoats and lies to allay fears and to garner political power, the resulting costs to communities via the erosion of social trust and the growth of empty hatred have been incalculably high. If the evidence in Benson is to be believed, the Party’s embrace of misinformation is destroying the habits of mind and heart—the social fabric—that have historically protected the possibility of common claims for democracy and freedom across the United States. Anfinson still seeks to report on and speak truth in his paper’s pages, but he now must address many townspeople, who, like Wolter,
… see him as an enemy. His newspaper should bind people together, he says. Instead, America and Benson are growing angrier. Contentious midterm elections loom. ‘It’s kind of sad,’ he [Anfinson] said. ‘But it would be foolish of me not to be aware of (my safety) with the sentiments out there.’8
As Anfinson must daily address the ongoing social disintegration of the community in which he has resided his entire life, and seek to cope, as he does so, with the fact that such is occurring based on conspiracy mongering and lies, he now must also wonder whether he can continue to live safely in his hometown. Meanwhile, Douthat has argued that while the GOP turn to a politics of hate and lies is lamentable, it is predicated not on willful efforts by a faux populist elite aimed at ensuring its power, but instead on the flaws of modern liberalism. Douthat offered two essential criticisms of liberal democracy in his essay. In my view, neither is insuperable nor accurately portrayed in his piece. First, he noted that the modern GOP has fixated on limiting the suffrage of minorities, particularly, because of a fundamental skepticism among intellectual conservatives concerning the potential excesses of popular rule. As he framed this question:
First, there’s a sense in which conservatism has always had a fraught relationship to mass democracy. The fear of mob rule, of demagogues rallying the masses to destroy a fragile social order, is a common theme in many different right-wing schools of thought, showing up among traditionalist defenders of aristocracy and libertarians alike.9
Few analysts who have written on democracy would quibble with the proposition that it has too often fallen prey to the fact that individuals frequently succumb to siren calls to hate or to vote in uninformed ways, and thereby yield their ruling privilege to tyrannical demagogues and mobs alike. Indeed, our nation’s Founders were deeply aware of this reality of history, even as they embraced a cautious form of popular rule. Nonetheless, this fact has nothing to do with Trump or the GOP’s false targeted attacks on the suffrage of many Americans in the name of a non-existent fraud. Trump lost the election and has never produced any evidence to the contrary. What he and his Party and allies have fashioned since is a massive campaign of lies and conspiratorial misinformation that has convinced many individuals of a deceit that never occurred, even as it has weakened respect for this nation’s institutions and its rule of law to historically low levels.
The GOP has promoted a form of tyranny predicated on lies that is diminishing the rights and protections of all in society, not merely those targeted by its vitriol. While doubtless pointing up a sound concern in principle, Douthat’s analysis erred profoundly in not connecting that issue to the salient facts of today’s political context: a demagogue and a political party in his thrall who have shown themselves repeatedly willing to embrace complete fabrications aimed at disenfranchising supposed enemies—that is, fellow Americans—in their quest for power.
Douthat’s second principal contention was that modern democratic liberalism has shown itself too willing to accede to rule by experts and key stakeholder groups. Whatever the virtues of this argument, they are lost in his zealous belief that somehow individuals know better, for example, than public health professionals how to address COVID-19, or that parents per se know more than educators what their children should learn. More, he suggested that it is the Democrats who have fallen wholly into a supposed spell of obeyance to experts. The first of these propositions, when pressed absolutely as he framed it, is absurd on its face while the second is patently false. What Douthat missed was that experts are accountable to elected leaders ultimately and that the reach and efficacy of their roles depends finally on the deliberative reasonableness of those officials and not alone on their own.
Trump and the GOP and their allies have relentlessly and demagogically attacked expertise in sweeping terms, and in so doing, in the case of the pandemic, have cost thousands their lives while sickening countless others. There is no question that mobilized stakeholders and experts (often, but not always, represented by stakeholder groups), must be accountable to elected leaders and thereby to the citizenry, but in the present case, that concern is not the issue. The matter is whether and how expertise will be permitted any role in policymaking amidst the lies and misinformation aimed at undermining it in favor of convincing substantial swathes of the electorate that only the GOP and its leaders should be accorded standing in the consideration of all social and political concerns. That is, the problem is not expertise, as Douthat framed it, but a failure to ensure the wielding of that capacity on behalf of the public weal in a deliberative way in favor of attacking it wholesale in wildly misleading ways. The latter represents one key characteristic of fascist authoritarianism.10
These two essays yield at least three conclusions. First, the Benson story reminds one that the costs of the present GOP propaganda campaigns are very human and very real. Indeed, they are tearing communities apart and dividing their citizens from one another from the bottom-up. Disinformation and conspiracy mongering on so grand a scale not only connotes partisan mobilization, but also massive social collapse. Second, unlike Douthat’s conclusion that expertise is at the root of the present governance crisis, it is the failure of officials to mobilize expert knowledge in a prudential way and instead to attack its role and importance, that now constitutes a central threat to American politics. Finally, we are unlikely to overcome our collective governance woes and the twisted and tormented thinking and hatreds that GOP misinformation has unleashed until that Party’s leaders choose to behave otherwise. Nonetheless, there are few signs those officials will soon do so, whether out of a cynical quest for power, racist extremism or some combination of these or other factors.
None of this is to suggest that millions of individuals are not working to address the Republican Party’s attack on deliberation and democracy. Their good efforts will continue. It is instead to contend that a dearth of prudential reflection lies at the heart of our nation’s present malaise. That crisis of deliberation is not the responsibility of public health officials and educators seeking to assist those to whom they are responsible, but of elected leaders who have foresworn their sacred duty to serve their population with accountability, probity and respect, and with citizens willing to follow hate-fueled fantasies, rather than to persevere and to seek to address the ambiguities and vicissitudes of life’s realities and self-government’s challenges in a reasoned way. The way forward can only come when citizens demand a reckoning concerning those officials most responsible for the nation’s present crisis of governance and legitimacy.
1 Sullivan, Tim. “In One Small Town, Two Warring Visions of America,” The Associated Press, January 27, 2022, https://apnews.com/article/in-one-small-prairie-town-two-warring-visions-of-america-9574b717faebdba81f749a0501a8167b?fbclid=IwAR3wM6eowtBbJFExxDhYHr66HrxssTQz2lvZIh1g0mrrHB-tfCua4ytQQUE, Accessed February 3, 2022.
2 Douthat, Ross. “So, You Think the Republican Party No Longer Represents the American People,” The New York Times, February 2, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/02/opinion/liberals-conservatives-democracy.html, Accessed February 10, 2022.
3 Mueller, Benjamin and Eleanor Lutz. “U.S. Has Far higher COVID Death Rate Than Other Wealthy Countries,” The New York Times, February 1, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/02/01/science/covid-deaths-united-states.html, Accessed February 5, 2022.
4 Sullivan, “In One Small Town.”
5 Sullivan, “In One Small Town.”
6 Sullivan, “In One Small Town.”
7 Brustein, Joshua. “Gab, an Online Haven for White Supremacists, Plots its Future,” Bloomberg, October 30, 2018, https://web.archive.org/web/20181031003944/https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-10-30/gab-an-online-haven-for-white-supremacists-plots-its-future, Accessed February 13, 2022.
8 Sullivan, “In One Small Town.”
9 Douthat, “So, You Think the Republican Party No Longer Represents the American People.”
10 Stanley, Jason. How Fascism Works. Random House: New York, New York, 2018, 24-56 esp. 26-28.
February 21, 2022