Has there ever been an administration whose appeal was so directly aimed the lower reaches of humanity? Or, to put it bluntly, an administration that depended so completely on the support of the stupid?
There was a time when the US was the best educated country in the world. Before that, Tocqueville reported, there was a time when even illiterate citizens understood how their government worked and were full participants in its implementation.
But the American system has been about dumbing down the populace for several decades now. We’ve shifted our resources from education to incarceration, and our tax base from wealth to work, thus simultaneously freeing the rich from paying their fair share and providing them with cheap labor, either from convicts or from poorly educated, non-unionized workers.
We do all this, as Thomas Frank describes in One Market Under God, in the name of efficiency. Taylorism taught us “that, in general, workers in repetitive jobs work at the slowest rate that goes unpunished”. Thus hierarchical organizations can be modeled as machines, and workers as cogs. We might well believe that the efficiency level of such a machine is significantly reduced by workers, or “individual contributors” as we were rather gloriously titled, who resist the machine, complain about the system, or in general try to change anything. Poorly educated non-union workers are thus ideal for this system. (Perhaps this explains the significant improvements in efficiency realized by the Spanish anarchists reported by Mr. Orwell.)
It’s also been important to reduce the already-miniscule opportunities for civic debate. Obviously the population wouldn’t support US government policies if it understood them, so it must not be allowed to understand them. After all, US policy largely consists of ginning up wars; our economy collapses without one. The point is, as Walter Lippmann said, to manufacture popular consent for the policies the government has chosen. Naturally this requires a lot of prevarication.
Part of this strategy has been an attempt to reduce the importance of the media, which is ironic given the uncritical support the MSM provides for any war anywhere any time.
Here’s how David Remnick describes the strategy:
More than any other White House in history, Bush’s has tried to starve, mock, weaken, bypass, devalue, intimidate, and deceive the press.
In the wake of the Administration’s record of dishonesty and incompetence in Iraq and the consequent decline in the President’s domestic polling numbers, it is not hard to discern why the White House might find a convenient enemy in the editors of the Times: this is an election year. The assault on the Times is a no-lose situation for the White House. The banking story itself showed the Administration to be doing what it had declared it was doing from the start: concertedly monitoring the financial transactions of potential terrorists. At the same time, by smearing the Times for the delectation of the Republican ‘base,’ the Administration could direct attention away from its failures, including, last week, the Supreme Court’s decision to block its plans to try Guantánamo detainees before military commissions.
So who is fooled? No one, really, except for those who’ve already fooled themselves. As Kevin Phillips says in American Theocracy:
The most intense believers split into two principal camps. The first, so-called dispensationalists, who interpret current events such as tsunamis, oil spikes, and wars as confirming that end times are at hand, usually don’t worry about energy policy. Indeed, they cite a biblical verse mentioning costly wheat, barley, and oil as predictions of shortages of food and fuel. … Reconstructionists, by contrast, believe that the world must be made over theocratically, along biblical lines, before Christ will return. Neither faction has fossil fuels, climate deterioration, or the energy efficiency of the U.S. manufacturing sector on its agenda.
Both camps deplore the efforts of geologists and climatologists to sway voters and policy makers through Hubbert-peak analyses and scientific interpretations of global-warming data. Their biblically viewed world is at most ten thousand years old, not the millions of years established by scientists, whose insistence on this longer time frame is said to usurp God’s prerogative. In considering stem-cell research or Iraq-as-Babylon, depleting oil or melting polar ice caps, the thought processes of such true believers have at best limited openness to any national secular dialogue. The Republican party entertains no such public debate. Economic conservatives in the oil and gas, coal, and automobile industries may not believe in end times, but their opposition to regulatory environmental prescriptions and tougher fuel-efficiency standards makes them ally with the economically undemanding religious right.
This facet of current U.S. energy politics may yet turn out to be one of the most pernicious. No leading world economic power has ever maintained itself on the cutting edge of innovation and development with a political coalition that panders to biblical inerrancy.
Basically, the Cheney administration is pandering to the dolts among us, those who’ve given up trying to understand the world because they’ve realized they’re not smart enough to do so. Disappointed by their own self-evaluations, they seek validation by forcing everyone else to believe the same historical lies they believe, and blaming their failure on oppression by the elite, by which they mean the smart.
For example, take the concept of Intelligent Design, based on the idea that there are parts of the universe that are “irreducibly complex”—that is, too complex for stupid people to deal with. “I can’t understand it, therefore you’re not allowed to investigate it. If you figured it out, my belief system would be shown to be foolish.” This is the path the Roman Empire followed into the Dark Ages.
Toynbee talks about civilizations rising to three challenges, and failing on the fourth. Despite the childish numbering scheme, the concept of challenge and response is a useful one. I believe we’re currently facing one of those important choices in American life. The dispensationalist and reconstructionist Christians are consciously devoting their efforts to destroying the physical world. If rationality does not intervene, policy will become irrelevant: there will not be enough humans left to need a government.
Politicians have always appealed to the lowest common denominator, following P.T. Barnum’s dictate that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. Nikita Kruschev put it this way: “Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge, even where there is no river.”
Fear-mongering is one of the oldest professions, and its combination with religion is nearly as old. Once you’ve convinced people that evil exists, the next step is to find it and destroy it. The theft of whatever evil used to own is incidental. As Richard Hofstadter says in his magnificent Anti-Intellectualism in American Life:
To be confronted with a simple and unqualified evil is no doubt a kind of luxury…
…I believe…that an unbridled passion for the total elimination of this or that evil can be as dangerous as any of the delusions of our time.
Hard to argue with that.
Basically I guess I’m complaining about how much influence stupidity has on American politics, but I’m also connecting that to end-times religious fantasies. Since the Left Behind folks are by definition either foolish or dishonest (or both), they are perfect symbols of the problem.
Here’s Hofstadter again:
To the extent that it becomes accepted in any culture that religion is largely an affair of the heart or of the intuitive qualities of mind, and that the rational mind is irrelevant or worse, so far will it be believed that the rational faculties are barren or perhaps dangerous.
Exactly the current situation, n’est-ce pas? Okay, one more…
To the most insular type of American mind, it seemed that only peoples blinded by abstractions and dead to common sense could fail to see and appropriate all the virtues of the American system, and that some fatal complex of moral weaknesses has prevented the systems of foreign societies from working, not the least of these being the acceptance of sinister ideologies.
Ideologies like, say, a belief in the human ability to understand the universe. Or the idea that “common sense” is important mainly to those with substandard intellectual faculties. Or the idea that invading the weakest country we can find does not prove our virtue.
Shouldn’t we just ban all theists from voting or holding office? I mean, society should take care of people who are that out of it, but we shouldn’t allow them to take the reins.