Ideology in America

As we leave behind a 20th century defined more by ideological struggle than nationalism or religious conflict it’s interesting to think about the role of ideology in politics, especially during a time of such turmoil.   Ideologies are odd creatures.   They are simplifications of reality built around assumptions or beliefs about the world through which people interpret experience.   At base ideologies are unfalsifiable and internally coherent, meaning that you can usually interpret reality equally well through different ideological lenses.   And, while one can make persuasive arguments that one interpretation is better than another, persistent ideologies defy efforts to disprove them.   Ideologies fail not because of logical argument, but because of politics — people veer to some ideologies, and reject others.

Many people engage in “ideological jihad,” treating ideological belief akin to religious faith.   This makes politics a “holy war” where one side is convinced it is right, and must therefore defeat the other side.   These people are “idealists” in the sense that they compromise little in pursuit of the ideal, or make tactical compromises without losing the long term vision.   Others view ideologies as tools to glimpse different aspects of reality.   Much like the six blind scholars and the elephant metaphor, ideologies are seen as giving incomplete and biased versions of reality.   Just as the scholar who felt the trunk concluded the elephant was like a snake, and the scholar who felt the leg concluded the elephant was like a tree, we interpret reality imprecisely through these ideological lenses.

Those who view ideology this way are “perspectivists,” who tend towards pragmatism because they do not think it possible to find one true coherent ideological story about a complex reality subject to numerous interpretations.   They hope that by understanding a variety of perspectives one can make choices that work better in the world.   This is pragmatism.   Most people are somewhere along a continuum between idealism and pragmatism.   Idealists like to have the “right answer,” are themselves willing to judge, and prefer to see reality as objective and clear.   Pragmatists are more likely to hold paradoxical beliefs, see reality as subjective and unclear, and are comfortable with ambiguity and lack of certainty.   Whether one is an idealist or a pragmatist is probably a result of personality more than academic inquiry.

In the US three dominant ideologies compete for support, with numerous alternatives occupying niche regions.    The dominant ideology is a form of liberalism called neo-liberalism.  It is made up of Democrats and Republicans, and represents the post-war consensus which has defined the American center.   It is distrustful of big government, believes in capitalism and markets as the best form of social organization, generally focuses on individual choice as the driver of reality, and rests on a belief that the best society is one where individuals are able to freely determine their own destiny through their choices.

On the left is an alternative ideology, primarily held by Democrats seen as being “on the left wing” of their party, such as Dennis Kucinich or Ralph Nader.   They believe that humans are denied freedom and liberty by the way in which the wealthy elite are able to control the game and structure reality to benefit some at the expense of others.   Their main prinicples are equality (not necessarily in terms of material outcomes, but in real opportunity), justice, human rights, and empowerment.   Communism and government planning are extreme forms on the left.   They see big business and transnational corporations as exploiting the poor, destroying the environment, and condemning millions to lives to poverty and struggle.      They share the neo-liberal desire for freedom and individual choice, but believe social structures created by the wealthy and powerful limit that choice.   The only solution is through rational governance, via regulation and taxation.   They support a public health care system, increased taxes, strict environmental laws, and strong regulation of business and finance.   They do not trust markets to provide justice — markets serve those with money, not all humans.

On the right is an alternate ideology that is built on nationalism, tradition, and a fear of difference.   While both neo-liberals and leftists share a sense of wanting individual liberation and a belief in enlightenment reason, the right distrusts intellectualism, is driven more by emotion, and finds great comfort in the symbols of the nation or sometimes religion.   Fascism is an extreme form of this kind of ideology, as is Islamic jihadism.    In the US the shock radio jocks (who openly use emotion to garner listeners) and politicians like Sarah Palin occupy this space.   They are not as extreme as fascists, but the roots of their politics comes from the same place.    They tend towards xenophobia and militarism, and often believe that the “left” and “neo-liberals” are destroying the country they know and love.   They turn their anger as intently on neo-liberal Republicans (so called ‘Rinos,’ or establishment Republicans like John McCain) as they do on the left.   Ironically, they share some of the left’s distrust of markets and big money.    They can also be anti-war, may distrust the support the US gives Israel, and often internally at odds.   Being more emotion-based than reason-based, the right lacks a clear ideological story.

One reason the right is more successful with, say, talk radio is that the left remains very much entangled in an enlightenment mindset that distrusts emotional fervor.   This means the left is more comfortable with NPR than Air America, and in fact sees the market success of talk radio as an indication that markets do not serve truth but whim.

Neo-liberals are the majority, and while Democratic neo-liberals share some of the concerns of the left (they both believe in enlightenment thought), the Republican party is more split by ideological difference.   Republican neo-liberals (the so-called ‘libertarian’ wing) are not comfortable with the motion stirred up by the “tea party” movement, the support someone as apparently uninformed as Sarah Palin receives, and the pressure to try to purge the party of diverse perspectives.   For someone like Olympia Snowe, a committed neo-liberal Republican, the party appears to be taking a very negative path if it follows those who want ideological war.

Neo-liberals on both sides tend towards pragmatism, but on the right and left there are pragmatists who are willing to work within the system to change it.    However, a tripartite ideological divide leaves some issues out.   Gender is generally ignored, environmental concerns get second fiddle, and concerns on human rights get subsumed in a larger ideological debate.  Indeed, race, gender, environment, human rights, and ethics get defined through the ideology, warping those issues in a way.   This leaves open space for feminist, green, and human rights movements, though they tend to operate on the political fringe.   They can, however, influence the larger groups, especially if they mobilize youth or alter the political discourse.  Finally utopian socialism, new age spiritualism/humanism and romanticism represent currently fringe movements on the “left” associated with emotion and rejection of enlightenment logic.

As the country undergoes a severe transition due to economic decline, the ideological battles may well get worse.   Lacking a coherent sense that all is well, people will be more willing to put faith in ideological voices that promise that they have the answer.   In a sense, people will gravitate to ideology as an ersatz religion, finding meaning in the struggle to change the country in the way they prefer, fighting clear “enemies.”    During the Great Depression ideological conflict destroyed democracies in Europe.   Only the UK, defined by a strong sense of pragmatism, survived.   The US has always had a more pragmatic response to ideological debate — pragmatism is a fundamental American trait.

We can’t operate in the world without beliefs, so at some level we have make ideological assumptions.   The key is to try to understand the assumptions others make, respect diverse views, avoid a level of idealism which leads to ‘ideological holy war,’ and recognize that we’re in this together, and we can find ways to compromise, work together and respect each other as we work through this crisis.

UPDATE: In the comments there has been some discussion of emotion.   I think I made my point a bit unclearly.  I do not think emotion is necessarily wrong; in fact, I’ve been critical of the emphasis on enlightenment inspired ideology to focus solely on rational/material ideas and ignore sentiment and the emotive part of the human psyche.  Empathy, for instance, is a trait that is fundamentally important (and I want in all my politicians and Supreme Court justices!).    Moreover, the extreme left’s errors of communism have been if anything deadlier because of the way reason makes it seem to proponents that they have the right cause and anything goes to implement it.    Finally, left and right will use emotion to inspire support.

Moreover, I neglected the traditional right, those who focus on preserving traditional values and culture, and are critical of neo-liberalism and others on the left and right.   Like in Germany between the wars the traditional right often gets seduced by the far right, but fascism is ultimately anti-conservative as well.   Simply, the roots of the politics of the so-called “right wing” are generally based on an appeal to emotion (often fear — fear we’re losing our country, welfare cheats are stealing our money, the President has betrayed us to the Chinese, the birthers, those who think Obama has a conspiracy to bring socialism to the US, etc.) rather than a reason-based ideological vision.   This is happening increasingly on the Left too, Obama’s appeal was also to emotion.   Emotion isn’t bad — I personally prefer hope and empathy to fear and anger, and hope love trumps hate — and neither left nor right has a monopoly on positive or negative emotions.   George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was intriguing, even if it didn’t end up leading anywhere.

  1. #1 by apocalypsecakes on November 24, 2009 - 16:06

    I agree — Jihad is now fueled by fevered politics. But doesn’t ideology in action mandate political action? Here, take a load off.

  2. #2 by Josh on November 25, 2009 - 00:01

    It’s interesting how both Republicans and Democrats view each other as “emotional” and “anti-intellectual”. I know in my experience, I find that Democratic voters are more apt to cry (literally) when they lose an election. I witnessed this first hand when Bush was reelected. I also find Democrats are more attached to their politicians than Republicans. Perhaps its because they trust the government more. I also find Democrats to become easily emotional about ambiguous ideas like “change” and “hope”.

    Republicans tend to use patriotism to sway their followers. For them, life is about “freedom” and the “American way”.

    Concerning right-wingers being more “anti-intellectual”, I’m not sure. Where I live, I know many right-wing mathematicians, engineers, and computer scientists. Many, however, don’t care for politics at all (something I find very true of these type of people).

    I think, however, what we make of right and left wing folks depends on who we hang out with. If we hang out with more liberal than conservative individuals, of course we’ll think Republicans are emotional and anti-intellectual. I’m sure I’ve characterized liberals inaccurately plenty of times myself (probably in this comment!)

    • #3 by Scott Erb on November 25, 2009 - 02:11

      Way back when I was 16 I drove voters to the polls for Gerald Ford, and was at GOP headquarters as the results came in and Carter narrowly defeated Ford. There were tears from a number of the young workers that night — I think that’s going to be the case for people in both parties on close elections. I think you’re right that there is emotion in terms of elections on all sides. I think a lot of people who are called “right wing” are neo-liberals (most of the Republican party are in the neo-liberal category) and not really on the right (same with Democrats — the vast majority are neo-liberal at some level).

      The talk radio fans (the ones who take it seriously) and those who demonize Obama are usually, I think, more emotion driven. There clearly was that on the left against Bush too. The ideology of the left, thanks to Marx and those who came after him, remains more focused on building a coherent rational argument. It often gets sold with emotion. I think I’m using “right wing” in a more restrictive way than you, I’m not putting most Republicans in that category.

      • #4 by Josh on November 25, 2009 - 05:23

        Yeah, I agree with your comment. Actually, now that I think about it, I was probably at a place where there were way more liberals than conservatives anyway. So of course I would see more reaction from them. If I was, say, at my church when Obama won, I probably would have seen many cry, too.

        I agree with you about the hard-core talk radio fans, but I don’t think many of them are extremely politically motivated (unlike Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck themselves). Many talk radio hosts seem to hold values similar to their own, and they just react to that. Like politicians, I prefer to blame those with the power rather than the followers.

        I guess I should view folks on the extreme left that way, too. We’re all human, who hasn’t been tempted to judge or criticize prematurely.

    • #5 by classicliberal2 on November 25, 2009 - 05:28

      “It’s interesting how both Republicans and Democrats view each other as ’emotional’ and ‘anti-intellectual’.”

      The extreme anti-intellectual character of conservative Republicans isn’t some editorial assertion–it can be documented. Bush waged an unceasing war on science on behalf of his ideological base (the Republicans had been waging a war on it long before he came along). He flatly declared global warming didn’t exist, and ordered the EPA’s documentation of it suppressed (though science isn’t divided on the subject, the position of nearly 70% of Republicans, earlier this year, is that it’s either “exaggerated” or non-existent), banned funding of stem-cell research, pimped the fictional claim that abortion is linked to breast cancer, and so on. The American right has spent decades pressing for “abstinence” education that uses lies and misinformation to try to terrorize teens about sex, and that make insanely false claims about contraceptive failure rates (the only context in which contraception is mentioned in the programs). They’re the driving force behind putting garbage creationism into schools. And so on.

      What really gets their motors running? We’ve seen, only this year, an astroturf “movement” on the right organized entirely around the claims that Barack Obama is a socialist, a fascist, a secret Muslim, not a U.S. citizen (72% of Republicans tell pollsters they either don’t believe him to be a citizen, or don’t know if he is), a purveyor of “death panels” intended to kill granny (57% of Republicans tell pollsters they either believe this is in health care reform, or won’t rule it out), and the latest, from only a few days ago, a fellow for whom ACORN stole the last election (Obama won overwhelmingly–something in the neighborhood of 10 million votes–but 52% of Republicans now flatly tell pollsters they think ACORN stole the election for him, and only 27% say he won legitimately).

      And I could continue on that dismal subject all day without running out of examples.

      All very emotional appeals. None, however, having any factual basis whatsoever. It has taken its toll on the party, as well. As Republican columnist David Brooks wrote near the end of the 2008 election cycle,

      “The Republicans have alienated whole professions. Lawyers now donate to the Democratic Party over the Republican Party at 4-to-1 rates. With doctors, it’s 2-to-1. With tech executives, it’s 5-to-1.”

      When it came to education levels in voter demographics, Obama won across the entire spectrum, but among the most educated (those with post-graduate educations), he destroyed McCain, 58% to only 40%. And keep in mind, when looking at that figure, that McCain–a lifelong, hardcore conservative–was rejected as too “moderate” by those who now control the party.

      “I also find Democrats are more attached to their politicians than Republicans.”

      The conservative cult-of-personality around Sarah Palin, George Bush, and even Ronald Reagan (“Ronaldus Maximus,” as they call him, and Limbaugh says he should be carved on to Mt. Rushmore) says otherwise. They’re only the three examples that come immediately to mind, and they have no equivalent among Democrats.

      Democrats are caricatured by Republicans as deifying Obama, but, in fact, Obama’s approval among Democrats, as measured by Gallup, has been dropping. It now stands at 82%. Overwhelming, right? Not exactly: the ABC News/Washington Post poll asked respondents in January, to offer an overall rating of Bush’s administration: With him at the low-point of his popularity, the economy and government in ruins, and the Republicans having just been destroyed in the election in November, a whopping 82% of conservative Republicans STILL rated him a success; 53% “strongly.” Obama has, in other words, already bled as much Democratic support in a few months in office as Bush bled conservative Republicans in 8 disastrous years.

      • #6 by Scott Erb on November 25, 2009 - 15:07

        The only people I’ve ever heard refer to Obama as “the savior” or “the one” come from the right, perhaps with a clip of someone like Oprah making a statement on the spur of the moment. As seen in the criticism Obama gets from the left, he certainly is seen as human and someone who can be harshly criticized by the left as well as the right!

        Limbaugh and his gang deify Reagan, but not the real Reagan. They’ve created a myth that never existed. Reagan had immigration amnesty. Reagan had a huge tax increase. Reagan dramatically inflated debt and deficits. Reagan stopped defense spending increases and made real compromises with Gorbachev, allowing Gorbachev to claim he’d “tamed” Reagan so the Soviet military would go along with new treaties. The teaparty crowd would villify and hate the real Reagan.

  3. #7 by Scott Erb on November 25, 2009 - 15:10

    Post updated to try to address the emotion issue. One other point: conservatism itself was not an ideology based on enlightenment reason, it was originally an effort to protect the status quo and tradition from liberalism and capitalism. As such, it’s not surprising the more emotion-based response came from the right. The far left originally saw Marx trying to come up with a “scientific” objective theory of reality. Marx is similar in that to Ayn Rand on the libertarian side (not right wing), and each made tremendous errors, though Marx’s contributions have been much more productive than Rand’s.

  4. #8 by Josh on November 25, 2009 - 16:07

    Actually, about your comment two posts back, I agree with you about the increase in liberals criticizing Obama. You’re right about that.

    My comments about liberals being more emotional was really just in my experience. I usually am around more liberals than conservatives, but I am friends with mostly conservatives and independents (many who don’t like politicians in general). I think I see more emotional Democrats because I am around so many. If I went to a school like Bob Jones University, I’d probably see the same thing there (except with conservatives).

    Even though you may accurately say conservatism was traditionally steeped in emotion, do we really know if there are more rational Democrats than Republicans? I don’t know. Again, most of the conservatives I know are math and science people. It really makes me believe the opposite of what you say (even though I certainly may be wrong!)

    • #9 by Scott Erb on November 25, 2009 - 16:28

      I’m not making a statement about whether Democrats or Republicans are more emotional, but looking at the sources of the ideology. An ideology might have its roots in emotion but those who believe it then rationally try to follow it, while one might have its roots in enlightenment logic, but then adhere to it with emotional fervor. Also, remember that I said most Democrats and most Republicans are neo-liberal. Neo-liberalism is a reason-based enlightenment ideology, though it gets interpreted slightly differently across the political spectrum. Finally, are you saying math and science people are unemotional? 🙂

      • #10 by Josh on November 25, 2009 - 17:10

        Yeah, I think I see what your saying. That makes sense to me.

        About science people being emotional:

        In my experience, I find people like mathematicians, computer scientists, and engineers to be less emotional. Partly because they care only for what is fact or truth. They tend to think at the most abstract level where it SEEMS there exists no humanity (I certainly don’t agree with that last statement, the pursuit of mathematics is VERY human). I find they are also less apt to show frustration or displeasure. On the flip side, they don’t show extreme excitement, either.

        There is really no way to quantify this kind of thing, and it is sort of narrow-minded to call math/cs/eng folks unemotional. I want to repeat: this is only MY impression.

        Also, I have no problem with emotional or unemotional people. In fact, I’m sure math/cs people get emotional, too (perhaps they just don’t show it in public). I know for myself, I try to avoid showing too much of my feelings. Not because I study math, but because I’m a typical male.

        Gulp, I hope I haven’t offended the science or humanities crowd. 😦

      • #11 by Mike Lovell on November 25, 2009 - 17:20

        I once thought math/scinece guys were the unemotional type. My high school science teacehr was about as exciting as Ben Steins character in “The Wonder Years”. But then one day, an upperclassmen taking our freshman science class (AGAIN) was goofing off or something…I’m not entirely sure, the commotion actually woke me up…but I saw him fly into a rage and used his old Hockey skills to rip this kid out of his seat and throw him out the door into the hallway across to the lockers in one fell swoop. The redness on his face was probably a blend of having exerted himself physically and having flipped into a very irate mood!

      • #12 by Josh on November 25, 2009 - 19:27

        Holy crap.

        I didn’t have anything like that happen to me, but I was homeschooled for most of my high-school life so I didn’t get the full experience. I did take an earth science class when I was in 9th grade (at a public school) and was very afraid of the teacher. But she was not the type to blow up.

        Now that I think about it, maybe more math teachers should blow up more. I bet that kid didn’t goof off again! Maybe he finally passed the class, too!

  5. #13 by Mike Lovell on November 25, 2009 - 16:17

    Overall I can agree more or less with most of what has been written, but in the nature of my tendency to get technical over the real ‘small fry stuff’
    and yes, Classicliberal2, your statement is my target..specifically: “…banned funding of stem-cell research,…”
    I sure wish for once those who seem to be on a trip about this particular action would be kind enough to get it right in its technicality, instead of putting out a misleading statement of generalized nature.

    W…love him or hate him (I’m a bit more ambiguous, although towards the end, he started acting like a total moron..more so than in the beginning.) did no ban funding stem cell research….he cut off FEDERAL funding for EMBRYONIC stem cell research….it was still more than able to be funded frm other sources, be they state level, or private donations (Lord knows George Soros has billions to blow….he finds new ways to do it everyday, in addition to any worthy causes). ONE of the main reasons was (in addition to any abortion arguments) was that embryonic stem cell research was pretty much a bust thus far. Adult stem cells on the other hand were showing actual promise.

    All I ask, and I think its pretty little thing to ask, is to get a bit more specific, especially when the rest of the argument is filled with real stats.

    Sorry, I had to rant.’ve made mention of many things tht have helped me understand issues or events a bit better than I would have otherwise, and are by far more intelligent and educated than I probably will ever conceive to be. And I know we disagree on a lot of things, but I wanted to let you know I appreciate your input into Scott’s blog (btw, thanks for the forum Scott!) more than I’ll ever let on. I guess, as I see it, you have set yourself up for greater expectations from me, than to let such a generality slip out like that.

    • #14 by classicliberal2 on November 25, 2009 - 20:20

      On stem cells, I just used shorthand, as with most of the other examples (everyone knows what I’m talking about). You’re wrong about adult vs. embryonic stem cells, though. Adult cells have shown more “promise” because they’ve gotten the funding; to put it in terms that aren’t too nerdy, adult stem cells have to go through a long process of manipulation that essentially makes them faux embryonic before they’re of any use. It’s easier just to start with embryonic stem cells.

      • #15 by Mike Lovell on November 26, 2009 - 15:52

        It was my understanding that prior to the bush doctrine on stem cells that they had been receiving federal funding, but the desired results were falling far short of the adult stem cells. But then again, you may have, again, gone and furthered my education. If so, I stand corrected, and apologize.

        As for breaching the technicality point, I’m aware that most of the regular followers here understand the shorthand, but you’d be amazed at the amount of people in this world (and maybe its just Iowa showing a bit of backwaterness) that really would have accepted it as complete nonfunding of stem cell research period. I have gotten myself in quite a few pointless and fruitless arguments over such little points before, as I’m sure you can just imagine happens with me!

  6. #16 by renaissanceguy on November 28, 2009 - 15:54

    Though I think you made good points in general, I take exception to several things. However, I will only discuss one (in this comment, at least).

    I want to talk about fear and anger. Those on the left are motivated by it just as much as those on the right. The left are angry at big business, especially big oil, because they make money. They are angry at abortion protestors and at those who voted against Proposition 8 in California. They are angry at wealthy white men for being wealthy and white and men. They fear that the earth is going to be overpopulated and globally warmed. They fear that the right wingers are going to set up a theocracy and reinstitute the Inquistion. They fear that millions of children are going to starve to death or die of curable illnesses because the government is not doing anything about those problems. They fear that children will get STD’s because there is no sex ed in schools (there actually is, of course). They fear that Muslims might get offended if people say Merry Christmas or point out that there are terrorists among their ranks.

    I could go on. . .

    • #17 by Scott Erb on November 29, 2009 - 02:22

      Ok, you must be talking about the very extreme fringe of the so-called “left” there. Given that Democratic donors and activists are making money in business, I doubt very much that people are angry that business makes money. Most Democrats I know are involved in business in some way and want companies to make legitimate profits. Also, I think socialists have a more intellectual (if also wrong) view of big business. They simply think the profits are not at all earned by those who make them, so they are mad at big business for perceived theft.

      I don’t see how one can say there is anger at white men — that seems a strange thing to accuse anyone of. Maybe some extreme feminists, but even most feminists I know don’t fit that category. Who is angry at white men? I do know people angry about abortion opponents, but often theirs is a personal anger at other people trying to take away their freedom (why are others afraid of freedom, they might ask). I don’t know of anyone angry or afraid of offending Muslims. A lot of people prefer “Happy Holidays” as a generic greeting, but mostly that was due to concerns about Jews and wanting to include them. In general, a lot of people prefer not to offend others, but not out of fear or anger — just because as a matter of ethics and manners, trying not to offend people is seen as a virtuous thing.

      However, as I noted, I’m not saying either party or the people are less emotional, only that the roots of the ideologies are different. Neo-liberalism (closest to libertarianism) is rooted in a reason-based materialist ideology, as are most variants of modern socialism on the left. The capitalist-socialist spectrum is usually rooted in reason and claims to have objective valid and defensible truth claims. The ideology of the right (again, not pro-capitalist libertarian types) tends to historically been rooted in appeals to emotion, something obvious in the talk radio fad — which is all about emotion.

      • #18 by classicliberal2 on November 29, 2009 - 09:10

        “Ok, you must be talking about the very extreme fringe of the so-called ‘left’ there.”

        No, he isn’t talking about “the left” at all; he’s talking up a caricature of liberals offered by the extreme fringe right for years, one that has very little basis in reality.

  7. #19 by Scott Erb on November 29, 2009 - 14:17

    From Manfred Steger, “Globalisms,” pp. 133-34 (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009):

    “Although populism cuts across the ideological spectrum, its latest and most powerful manifestations have been skewed towards the Right. Indeed, the alleged concern of contemporary national populists with the ‘corrupt party system’ or the ‘liberal media’ mixes all too easily with the fondness of right wing authoritarians for paternalist policies, their aversion to participatory and critical debate, pluralism, compromise between conflicting interests, and their hostility to the political agenda of liberals, feminists, gays and lesbians, and multiculturalists. In spite of its rhetorical power, however, national populism lacks the developed ideational structure of comprehensive political belief systems. As Paul Taggart points out, national populism’s ’empty heart’ is responsible for both its conceptual thinness and its potential ubiquity. Incapable of standing on its own ideological feet, it attaches itself to various host vessels in the form of a ‘persistent yet mutable style of political rhetoric.’…Fond of airtight Manichaen divisions between Good and Evil, they divide the population into the vast majority of ordinary people (“us”) and a small but powerful elite (“them”). ‘The people’ are idealized as decent good natured folk susceptible to the corrupt machinations of the privileged few.”

    • #20 by classicliberal2 on November 29, 2009 - 19:27

      A sort-of aside: Right-wing “populism” isn’t populism at all, though. It’s like Nazi “socialism”; platitudes without a hint of substance, intended to get out the vote for the elites who are really behind it. It’s true the us-vs.-them-ism of populist rhetoric easily lends itself to this sort of manipulation, and that’s always been a criticism of the populist style, but I think it’s also largely misplaced criticism. Populism does, indeed, portray the general public as being at odds with an elite that dominates, exploits, and otherwise screws it over. It has maintained a significant place in our politics for so long because, as simplified as that may be, it is basically true. Real populism, though definitely fond of those “airtight Manichean divisions between Good and Evil,” at least aims at the actual “privileged few” in this formulation. Right-wing “populism,” on the other hand, aims at targets like homosexuals, “anti-American” radicals, and other powerless groups, or creates a fairy-tale wherein absurdist caricatures of “liberals,” such as that offered by renaissanceguy above, are said to be running everything (and running it in the ground). Who has more power in the U.S. though, Ward Churchill (one of the favorite targets of right-wing “populism” in recent years) or Rupert Murdoch?

      Right-wing “populism” is well-financed by the American elite because, on the one hand, it keeps people fighting among themselves, making it difficult for them to combine and potentially threaten the privileges of that elite, and, on the other, because it provides emotion-based “issues” by which the elite can attract the votes necessary to elect the government they need to maintain and extend their privileges. Run on a platform of deindustrializing the country and giving tax-cuts to the wealthy at everyone else’s expense? Doesn’t get a lot of votes. Run against gays and abortionists? Lots and lots of votes. And, once elected, those politicians deindustrialize the country and give tax-cuts to the wealthy, while legal abortion continues as always, and homosexuals are very conspicuously NOT rounded up and placed in ovens.

      I’ve written quite a bit, over the years, about various elements of this. It’s an important topic, even if it is a bit of an aside for this thread. About 15 years ago, I was working on a book about–heaven help us–Rush Limbaugh, and, looking over it recently, I discovered that’s what I was writing back then as well, from a slightly different angle. I cleaned up a rough of a chapter and posted it online:

      Limbaugh is an old-school right-wing social Darwinist who adopts a populist pose to draw his audience, but it isn’t real, and because it isn’t anything he really thinks, he isn’t able to give it any sort of consistency.

      • #21 by Scott Erb on November 30, 2009 - 02:10

        Have you read Chris Hedges book “Empire of Illusion.” If not, I recommend it highly — you’ll like it. It’s also a kind of direction my research is going, with a focus on the media, blogs, and why people believe “absurdities.” As a scholar of German politics including political history, I am constantly frustrated by the inability people have in accepting comparisons of politicians or movements to National Socialism. There are many ways movements today are much like the Nazi movement was in rhetoric and core beliefs. That does NOT mean they want another holocaust — many are very pro-Israel. But even showing those comparisons cause people to wave a dismissive hand and say “Goodwin’s law” and ignore the evidence/arugment.

  8. #22 by renaissanceguy on November 30, 2009 - 10:09

    Classical Liberal, I’ve had people say such things to my face. I have read blog posts and heard lectures and speeches that make every point that I listed. You can say that such views are minority views, but do not claim that people on the right simply make them up out of thin air. If you do, then my tactic will be to say that the stereotypical rightwinger is a fiction made up by those on the left. That certainly isn’t true.

    Even though only a few on the left are so radical as to qualify for my list, the entire left has those views to a lesser extent. Is Nancy Pelosi a radical leftist? She has balsted “big oil” right and left. And how many female editoralists im the mainstream media routinely dismiss all traditional history because it is written by and about “white men”?

    Enough. I do not want to ramble. 🙂

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