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Democratic Truisms



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A number of events and arguments caught my attention this week that together teach some basic truisms about democratic politics that I fear our polity now too often forgets at its collective peril. First, economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman contended that much of the political support for climate change denial arises from a potent mixture of libertarian ideology and good old-fashioned anti-intellectualism. To these drivers I would add political cynicism. Those who claim climate change does not exist have typically employed anti-government rhetoric while pretending a grand conspiracy is lurking somewhere behind otherwise seemingly banal daily public actions. Officials who deny climate change do so to instill fear and garner votes from a populace already poised to blame someone or something for their uneasy economic and social situation.

Krugman rightly suggested that the bile and rancor heaped on scientists and elected leaders who have requested quick action to save the nation from the consequences of climate change reveal just how strongly those calls challenge denialists’ basic ways of knowing the world. One’s first reaction when one’s core values are challenged is anger and these voters have surely demonstrated the truth of that axiom many times over. The result is a constituency sufficient to ensure a perplexing and frustrating propensity literally to fiddle while Rome burns. Time is short and those denying climate change are simply refusing to act to save the nation and world from massive environmental damage on grounds of an ideology ultimately rooted in fear and know-nothingism. Not surprisingly, would-be political leaders have used this propensity and population to garner power.

By way of specific example, and as Krugman also neatly described, this phenomenon explains the alleged national government's “War on Coal” trumpeted by several GOP leaders, which has, in fact, never been waged. Nonetheless, for those individuals wishing to gain election in declining coal communities, blaming government for what changing technology and mechanization have wrought has proved potent at the ballot box. Krugman also correctly noted that since climate change rests on scientific argument, denialists tap into a deep strain of anti-intellectualism in American culture to reinforce libertarian beliefs. This group simply cannot imagine ideologically that government action could ever improve society, or that individual pursuit of aggrandizement could ever result in social ills. The upshot of these attitudes is that the nation has failed to act effectively to address climate change despite the fact that denialist claims bear no relationship to reality.

Together, these arguments suggest that a share of the electorate is so devoted to an abstraction, an ideology, that these voters would proverbially shoot the messenger who claimed otherwise to protect their core beliefs. This raises a second important trend highlighted this week by University of California Professor Robert Reich. The former Secretary of Labor reminded readers of his blog that Mississippi’s new voter identification requirements recently went into effect almost exactly fifty years following the torture and murder of three young civil rights workers by a group that included the sheriff of Neshoba County in that state. Not coincidentally, the “crime” perpetrated by those killed was registering African Americans to vote. Reich knew one of those who were murdered personally. Mississippians went to the polls this past week to choose candidates who would garner (particularly) the U.S. Senate GOP nomination and for the first time did so under the new identification requirements. These changes, most experts agree, will suppress, and indeed were put in place to limit, the vote of minority and African-American citizens. As I have noted previously, there is simply no evidence that this step was necessary to address fraud. The irony and poignancy of this example points up how far our recent politics has descended. Mississippi’s decision to require additional identification was a patently partisan effort to limit the franchise once again for many Americans who had historically been denied it. In this vision of politics, one does not compete for the support of one’s possible foes, but instead works to deny them their civil rights so as to ensure favorable outcomes. Now, as before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, democracy and freedom come the cropper.

Meanwhile, Timothy Egan has reminded readers of the New York Times this week that the Tea Party is now five years old and as such can justifiably be judged by its record and its primary sources of support. The political movement has attracted a largely aging cadre of white men fearful of the nation’s changing demography. The Party’s membership has also included former far-right Talk Radio hosts turned political candidates embracing science denial, serving as keynote speakers for conferences branding Abraham Lincoln a war criminal and pressing to shut down the national government last fall at a cost of $20 billion. These individuals, too, have called repeatedly for national government default. In short, this absolutist negative force in American politics is certainly full of fury, but it increasingly seems to signify little, but the degradation of the regime on which its members’ very freedom to press their claims rests. Reveling in fear and ignorance and lashing out at a diverse group of supposed evildoers, including an alleged “invasion” by illegals bringing “third world diseases with them,” or aligning with groups still nostalgic for the “Old Confederacy,” members of this group stand for little in principle except anger at the changes that seem to be occurring around them and over which they possess no control. While Tea Party adherents’ angst is perhaps understandable, their choice to blame their government and a host of additional convenient targets for their perceived woes, is not.

As Egan was writing, two Tea Party devotees undertook one of this nation’s latest multiple shootings, events that are becoming far too frequent, in Las Vegas by murdering two police officers and a civilian and then killing themselves while decrying “government.” Jerad Miller, one of the two, worked as a street performer and was given to long rants about the supposed evils of support of the unemployed and President Obama. His wife Amanda worked at a hobby shop. According to The New York Times Las Vegas police believe Miller and his spouse also participated in the Cliven Bundy stand off at the cattlemen’s ranch some weeks back when Bundy confronted Bureau of Land Management officials seeking payment of long overdue grazing fees with racist diatribe and heavily armed friends. However, those working with Bundy apparently dismissed the couple as too dangerous to remain.

These varied examples highlight lessons for those who would preserve democratic politics. First, recent events suggest that there are no limits to the hypocrisy and cynical pandering that would-be public officials are capable of rationalizing in their pursuit of power. Some of these individuals are today celebrating their victory in diminishing the civil rights of a share of their fellow citizens in the name of their collective quest for power, while others are simultaneously pressing to prevent millions of their fellow citizens from gaining access to reasonable health care and celebrating such “success” as a great accomplishment. Still others are so misguided as to continue to press for national default on the grounds of an a priori, uninformed and poorly articulated rancor against their own government and sovereignty. Only the people collectively can prevent the usurpation of their institutions and freedom by these sorts of individuals and it is clear they are not always positioned to be capable of doing so. In such instances, one might hope that individual candidates or their political parties could accept that critical responsibility, but there is scant evidence that any such thing is occurring today. The danger therefore is real that the Tea Party and libertarian minority, while disproportionately driving the GOP agenda and thereby already having degraded governance markedly, will garner still greater support and do still more grievous social harm.

Second, if our nation needed a potent reminder of the deleterious potential effects of absolutist ideology, it could have no better one than current efforts by many GOP leaders to deny climate change and to suppress the voting rights of those with whom they might disagree. Likewise, the growing militancy of a share of those adhering to the Tea Party and to far right arguments predicated on supposed massive, but unseen, public conspiracies, are cause for deep concern. Bundy, Miller and their ilk have gained broad salience in the media for their stance that essentially begins from the premise that their national government is per se illegitimate. Since democratic legitimacy rests ultimately on popular consent, these sorts of claims are disquieting, if not worse. And it is especially difficult to fathom the origins of the wild fantasies on which the actions of the Millers and others like them are increasingly predicated.

That is, finally, what makes those who are driven so absolutely by ideological beliefs so dangerous: how untethered to reality their claims so often are. Bundy risked instigating a bloody gun battle, while Miller and his wife’s murder of three innocents proved nothing beyond how crazed they had become in their devotion to an ill-founded and absolutist hatred of their national government. It is difficult to address claims that have no basis and often impossible to reason with those adhering to them, as Krugman rightly observed. We increasingly are no longer engaged in a reasoned debate about self-governance in this nation, but instead a long-running battle concerning whether we shall accept responsibility collectively for governing ourselves and are willing to legitimate the device we have created to do that, or instead succumb to wild-eyed crazy claims that enervate the very possibility of such governance. As always, I remain hopeful that our citizens will demand a stop to the ideological posturing and too zealous fantasizing of so many seeking to appeal to them and instead collectively roll up their sleeves to address the many real questions our nation confronts. But I fear the odds of such occurring in time to prevent more deaths, more suffering and long-term climate harm grow less auspicious each day.

Publication Date

June 15, 2014