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Michele Bachmann: does common sense win out, in the end?

by Bill Prendergast on April 21, 2012 · 2 comments

For years I’ve been pleading with Democrats not to give up against Bachmann. I continue to do so, despite the fact that there are very compelling, practical arguments on the other side: fighting against Bachmann in district gerrymandered to favor the GOP and ultra-conservatives is waste of all too precious Dem resources, so concede the district to her and move on to races that we can win against Republicans who are just as bad.

I don’t agree, and I’ve always had compelling arguments to the contrary: arguments about why efforts to end Michele Bachmann’s political are and should have always been a priority for all Dems. But I’m not going to repeat those counter-arguments here in this piece; all these arguments (from everyone) will be raised in the run-up to the election.

Instead I’m going to use this piece to talk about a deeply related issue; an issue that’s even more important. We got a commenter called “Spether” who wrote this in to the blog–voicing sentiments I identify with:

Too often we make the mistake of thinking, “That person’s so crazy no one will take her seriously.”  We have a lot of faith that common-sense will prevail.  But in reality if we let the nuts of the world keep screaming eventually they dominate the debate and they get their way.  We need to rev up and do some screaming of our own.

I agree with everything that Spether wrote there, except that last part about “screaming.” That’s all I do, is “scream” about the rising influence and presence of nuts in GOP government–and the trend continues nonetheless.

The rest of the observation is exactly on point. Where did we ever get the idea that “in the final analysis, common sense will prevail over political insanity, hatred and paranoia?” It leads to complacency. But has it ever been our general experience in our lifetimes?

I don’t think so. I think we’ve seen our political environment degenerate since the 1980s. The books analyzing the political trends in the US tend to identify division based on irrationality rather than consensus based on reason, after Reagan conservatism became fashionable.

It’s not that our culture can no longer identify lies. Lies about important public matters are still publicly identified as lies, by entire communities of experts on the particular issue in question. (Take your pick on which issue: it can climate change, energy prices, grounds for war, historical facts, whatever…) But in our day the consensus opinion on an issue by the community of relevant experts can be ignored. And in our day, the views of out-and-out professional liars and propagandists are presented as if their untruths were “legitimate alternate viewpoints.”

That’s the America we live in, these days. Instead of sending the lies to the outer margins of the debate, tens of millions of Americans will send the liars to the capitols to make law and policy. (I write about the career of Michele Bachmann, you know.)

Political propagandists of the right carry more influence with these Americans than the straight news media, than scientists or academics or experts of any given field. If right wing Americans want information about a given topic, they go to the right wing propagandists for that information–not to the experts on the subject. In fact, the right wing American considers an expert less credible than himself or his favorite propagandist–to the extent that the expert’s opinion challenges the right wingers’ opinions.

Another factor: very often a right wing propagandist simply confirms what he thinks the right wing target audience wants to hear about an important topic. So it’s not information or common sense or reason: it’s a circle-jerk. And the people in the circle-jerk exclude the experts and continue to gain majorities in the Congress, the courts and many of the state houses…

The proponents of “common sense, reason and experience that will triumph in the end?” They seem powerless to stop this migration of policy making power over to the liars and kooks.

That’s the case, right now and for the past thirty years or so. So where the hell did so many Americans get this idea that “in the end, common sense, reason and experience will triumph?”

It’s important to understand why common sense doesn’t necessarily triumph–“in the end,” “at the beginning,” or “in the middle.” We have to understand why lies and craziness often beat common sense (and wisdom.) Because the victory of lies and craziness and their entry into government–to displace common sense and the wisdom acquired by experts–makes life worse for almost everyone. (Almost everyone. The victory of lies and craziness makes life better for the liars and propagandists.)

First, here’s the origin of the misguided belief that “common sense will triumph in the end.”

In the nineteenth century, there was a lot of faith in the Western world in the notion that humanity was “progressing” at a very fast rate. Things getting better for many working people, there were more chances for ownership, life expectancy was rising and working people in the developing West were moving away from “peasant” economies.

In the Anglo-American world, this was attributed to the rise of capitalism and democracy. The societies embracing new ways and technology were sweeping away the most conservative and traditionalist cultures in the world with ease. And there was no doubt that science and freedom of inquiry and investment were combining to rapidly expand the sum of human knowledge.

In a world where science and engineering and expertise were defeating the old, providing so much, so quickly, all of the sudden–the West conferred “higher credibility” on persons with recognized expertise in their fields. Conservative ideological forces (whose beliefs were often rooted in the primacy of the irrational or supernatural) had enjoyed dominance for centuries. But now they found themselves in an on-going, never-ending struggle against the new empirical and pragmatic thinking.

And in the Western world the conservative forces were losing. They were losing because the empirical and pragmatic thinkers were producing tangible results and the conservative forces weren’t. The new expertise and empiricism were delivering valuable results in engineering, medicine, economic development–every day. All the conservatives of the nineteenth century could offer the West as a rebuttal was a rosy-colored picture of a past paradise that had never really existed; or necessarily vague and uncheckable promises about rewards in the afterlife.

If you were born in the twentieth century West, you were born into a world where irrational belief (belief contrary to reason or experience, belief base almost entirely on faith) took a back seat to empirical belief. And the predominance of reason and empiricism and expertise was reflected in the media that filled your brain with basic cultural assumptions about the society you were going to live in.

Your education, your Hollywood movies, your newspapers and television–all of these reinforced your conviction that the rational and empirical were more deserving of weight in your decision making than the irrational, the-firmly-believed-but-contrary-to-actual-experience.

And I think that’s where this belief comes from; the false belief that “common sense and reason and experience will win the day, given time.” We were trained to it, most of us. The assumption persists, particularly among educated people–simply because that’s what we were trained believed.

But it is not true. It is not true that “common sense will win out, eventually.” Common sense standards for determining truths, and empirical standards for determining truths–were successfully suppressed for hundreds of years in the West during the Dark and Middle Ages. Around the world and right here in the United States, people continue to train their children to believe that the findings of human reason and empiricism are “subject to” core matters of faith.

It seems impossible to many of us that a kind of Dark Age can come into fashion again in America, given a West based on representative democracy. All I can point to you on that score is that it is happening again.

For example: Michele Bachmann, a notorious nut, liar and bigot, can be seriously considered as an American presidential candidate–despite the fact that the experts and media identify her to the public as a nut, liar and bigot. Her rise to credibiliy is an example of a sea change in American politics. A politician who was outed as a conspiracy nut and liar could not have attained national influence at the time I was born, about fifty years ago. But in our lifetime: instead being sent out to the extremist margins of political discourse for lying and spreading lies–she can maintain significant national political influence because she’s spreading lies.

Ditto Fox News, ditto Rush Limbaugh and the thousands of conservative broadcasters who follow “the Limbaugh standards for truth.” (Limbaugh’s been one of the most influential figures in American politics for decades despite all kinds of on the record lies–including accusations against the White House of complicity in murder. Surely “if common sense prevails, in the end,” his nationally influential career would have ended decades ago?)

I think we have to conclude that the rules have changed since the end of the twentieth century. It is no longer true that “common sense, experience, and intellectually honest application of reason will win out, in the end.” Political conservatism in the US has proven that it doesn’t, that the advantage lies with the people who tell the lies and are able to manage media in order to spread them. The forces of reason and empiricism seem powerless to keep the lies and irrationality out of American policy making and government.

So: if your interest is solely in winning for personal gain–you know which side to join. Lincoln said that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time, and that’s right. What he failed to point out is that if you can fool about thirty per cent of the electorate all of the time (and a little more than twenty per cent of the electorate some of the time,) you can pretty much control the law and policy making power of the United States. That has been our experience, and helping the irrational to win control of government is a good gig (if you care nothing about your country and everything about getting a good gig.)

But in the first half of the twentieth century we saw the price that the West paid for allowing the forces of irrationality to rise. We saw the mindless nationalism and colonialism that gave rise to the First World War, the anti-rational fascism and imperialism that gave rise to the Second World War. And the murderous reign of Communism (an irrational, “unchallengeable” totalitarian faith disguising itself as scientific and empirical.)

And we saw what the rise of irrationality and admission of lies can do the United States, in the first decade of twentieth century. The Republican and conservative dominance championed by the Limbaughs, Gingrichs, and Bachmanns was achieved. It resulted in economic collapse, fraud and robbery on the billion dollar scale, and endless and sometimes unnecessary wars.

So here’s the basic political problem of our time: how to crush the politics of anger and irrationality. If we don’t–if we try to tolerate some kind of “detente” with irrationality, if we try merely to “contain” it, if our political focus is trivial and careerist and short-term–we will pay for allowing the irrational to displace the rational, as we have in the past and in the very recent past.

The commenter we got today suggested that we needed to “some screaming of our own” to get the polity back on track, to move the dialogue back to reality. I don’t know that more and better screaming from the people who believe in the primacy of reason and empirical truth is the answer.

But I’m sure that the forces of irrationality will continue to predominate in US politics, if its opponents continue to proceed on the old and disproven assumption: “that common sense will win out in the end.”

That’s not the empirical truth.  


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