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Monday, May 21, 2012

Republicans Are Trying to Destroy the Most Successful Government Program in History

The top 1% have been waiting their turn on Wall Street for many years now, patiently awaiting the day when their bible-thumping, gay-bashing, gun-toting and embarrassingly uninformed constituency will deliver them a presidency, house and senate majorities and the requisite right-wing courts that will open the floodgates to trillions upon trillions of your dollars and mine to their upturned palms until earth flames out.

It’s the grandest prize in all the political realm and it goes by the name of Social Security. And the Romney-types want to pry it from the hands of the government and deliver it to the green-tinted (tainted?) canyons of the Street to the eager clutches of venerable bank/brokerage money-houses.

Though a blue dress stain delayed a proposed step toward semi-privatization in a deal worked out between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, the DINO president did give the scheme some momentum in the late 90’s. Republican successor, Bush eagerly embraced it and expanded upon it.

Social Security has been with us for over three-quarters of a century (passed in 1935; it became fully operational in 1939) and has worked beautifully for all that time and will continue to serve us in our old age and disabilities with the simple steps of raising the maximum earnings amount where employees and employers have to contribute a payroll tax into the Federal Insurance Contributions Tax Act (FICA). The current maximum is $110,100 a bump from the most recent $106,800. It should continue to climb as average salaries increase. It should also be doubled tomorrow. Social Security can tap into outside government funding sources as well. These sources plus a realistic tax increase (as in pre-Bush tax rates on the wealthy) and more ‘chop, chop’ in the absurdly bloated military budget would protect the trust fund as long as need be. It wouldn’t hurt if the government kept its paws off the trust fund as well.
In the 2005 State of the Union speech, newly re-elected President George W. Bush revealed Republican plans for social security ‘reform’ in some detail. Bush established the template for millionaires and billionaires to add exponentially to their lucre.  These are some of his exact words; “…a half century ago, about 16 workers paid into the system for each person drawing benefits. It wouldn’t be a Republican speech without at least 1 blatant lie. The actual figure from 1960 was 5.1 workers. But that’s not nearly as frightening as tripling the real number.
Bush continued, “…we must join together to strengthen and save Social Security. For younger workers, the Social Security system has serious problems that will grow worse with time. He pointed out that today people are living longer and therefore benefits “are scheduled to rise dramatically over the next few decades.”

He threw out all sorts of unsupported numbers. Social Security will pay out more than it takes in by 2018;  in 2027 the government will need to scare up $200 billion to keep the system afloat;  by 2042, the whole kit and kaboodle will be “exhausted and bankrupt.”  I’m exhausted just listening to his BS.

But, BS aside – Bush claims there’s a fix out there – voluntary personal retirement accounts. “Here is why the personal accounts are a better deal: Your money will grow, over time, at a greater rate than anything the current system can deliver.” Thus Spake Bush. Still a little hesitant? “We’ll MAKE SURE the money can only go into a conservative mix of bonds and stock funds.” Phew, what a relief. Funds are sure to appreciate no doubt. Just like the Dot-Com funds of the roaring 90’s. They appreciated like crazy. Venture capitalist were buying up companies designing new mouse pads with their international headquarters in their bedroom closets. What an era. The NASDAQ hit 5,048.62 March 10, 2000. Hello new millennium.

Then the Dot-com Bird of Paradise flew into the closed window of stock market reality. A bear market of gargantuan proportions rose up overnight. In just over two years some five trillion in market value was lost.

NASDAQ plunged to an intra-day low of 1,108 in October of 2002. Amazon went from $107 to $7.00 a share. Cisco lost 86% of its market value.  It took seven years for the composite to recover just half it’s peak value. Even today, it’s not that much over half. Sure it’ll eventually recover, but how close will you be to retirement age?

Still want to play the privatization game? OK, hand your money over to Bernie Madoff. He relieved investors of about $65 billion all by himself. Bottom line, you can invest on your own any damn time you feel like it and not risk one penny of your Social Security. And, there are always 401k’s and lots of companies will sell employees their own stock if you’re a big believer in their future.

The current 112th congress has H.R. 1104 Privatization Act of 2011 floating around somewhere right this minute. The bill estimates the net gain from privatization will be $10-$20 trillion dollars. Sounds about right for the legislator’s investment cronies fees. The same cronies who load up legislative campaign coffers. A $10 trillion estimate differential shows they’re just pulling this one out of their a**.  It’s also stated that the number of workers to pay for baby boomers is not increasing.  Really? Rounding off, in 1980 there were 227 million souls in the U.S. In 1990, that  number was 250 million; It was 281 million in 2000 and the Census Bureau puts the number at almost 312 million in 2011. No new workers?  Surely Romney and company can’t send that many jobs overseas.

The real calculation is that Republicans expect wages to be comparatively lower if they get their way. So it’s not the paucity of workers, it’s the paucity of wage increases.

The goal is to eventually eliminate the FICA tax and allow workers to designate a certain amount of their pay to be invested privately. They will be no longer be ‘forced’ (as stated in the bill) to pay into the Social Security fund.
Don’t know where H.R. 1104 has gone. Maybe still snoozing in Ways & Means or it could be dead and buried. There was also a later privatization bill introduced by a Michigan Representative, Thad McCotter. It was H.R. 2889 and it seems lost in the shuffle as was McCotter who had an eye on the Republican presidential nomination at one time.

As for Mitt Romney; he’s enthusiastically supported privatization; he’s cautiously opposed it. This much we do know. He wants to reduce Social Security benefits and increase the age of eligibility. Guys worth a quarter of a billion can afford to make those sacrifices.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Republicans Will Never Admit that America’s Economic Woes Are Solely Their Fault

Republicans Will Never Admit that America’s Economic Woes Are Solely Their Fault

Listening to Republicans speak about the shape of the economy, it must be difficult for average Americans to discern whether they are bewildered by finances or just lying to cover over their malfeasance.  After the Republican’s shenanigans during past three years regarding fiscal matters such as spending cuts, the budget and deficit , there is no doubt the GOP is lying to promote support for their economic ideology of giving most of America’s wealth to the very rich. So far this week, Republicans have made a concerted effort to pin the nation’s slow-growing economy on President Obama, and they have particularly singled out the nation’s deficit as the biggest hindrance to economic growth and job creation even though their policies are singularly responsible for deterring a robust recovery. On Tuesday, Speaker of the House John Boehner signaled that Republicans will revisit the debt ceiling debacle that nearly shut down the government last year and cost America its first credit downgrade in history.

Boehner promised that Republicans would offset any debt limit increase with larger spending cuts, and to make sure the deficit continues growing, reject letting the Bush-era tax cuts expire or increase taxes on the wealthy. If those comments sound familiar, they were exactly what S&P cited as why they downgraded America’s stellar credit rating. As a quick refresher, President Obama asked for $4 trillion in across-the-board cuts to reduce the deficit coupled with increased revenue, but the Republicans held out for $2 trillion and no increased revenue with all the spending cuts coming from social safety nets and government programs. The Republican plan created no jobs, and besides rejecting increased revenue, would eliminate millions of Americans’ jobs in the public and private sector. It is important to remember that when the Republicans first proposed spending cuts that killed over a million jobs, Boehner said, “so be it.”

Boehner did have some good news for the wealthiest Americans when he announced that Republicans would extend the Bush tax cuts before the November general election in what promises to be another hostage situation, and he called on legislators on both sides of the aisle to reach a long-term deal on spending and tax changes, but promised there would be no additional taxes on the wealthy. The tax changes must be the Ryan and Romney budget plans that raises taxes on the poor and middle class while giving lower tax rates to the wealthy; or as Republicans refer to them, job creators.

The Republicans are not serious about reducing the deficit if they continue stonewalling on increased revenue sources, and as if to belabor the point, there are four different budgets for fiscal 2013 that begins on October 1 of this year and each one serves the same purpose; shrinking the government and giving the wealthy more tax cuts. The Ryan Path to Prosperity (for the rich) privatizes Medicare, cuts social safety net spending drastically, and gives a 10% tax cut to the wealthy while raising taxes on the poor; although Draconian, it is the most liberal of the Republican budgets. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) proposes eliminating Departments of Education, Commerce and Energy, cutting the National Park Service by 30% and NASA by 25%, and totally eliminate Medicare in 2014. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) proposes cutting government in half, end payroll taxes, and cut  investment taxes by 10%. All of the Republican budgets will eliminate millions of jobs that besides sending the unemployment rate skyrocketing, will increase the deficit because of lost revenue from taxes coupled with more tax cuts for the rich.

Republicans are not serious about cutting the deficit any more than they are serious about creating jobs. There is not one Republican who can cite how reducing the nation’s debt will create one job, but they have done their best to fool Americans into believing that deficit reduction and more tax cuts for the wealthy will create full employment; it is stunning in its foolishness. If cutting spending created jobs, then every American who is not filthy rich would be employed and the jobs issue would be moot. Every family in America has had to cut expenses just to survive because of declining wages and higher prices, and yet unemployment has hovered around 8%.

What Republicans will never admit is that America’s economic woes are solely their fault and especially the deficit they created with unfunded wars, tax cuts, and a Medicare prescription plan. Willard Romney weighed in on the deficit and claimed he “will lead us out of this debt and spending inferno. I will bring us together to put out the fire.” It is another lie from the king of liars. Romney’s tax and spending plan will increase the budget with lower tax rates for the top 1/10th of 1%, and expand military spending as well as “broaden the tax base” which is code for increasing taxes on the poor and middle class. Romney also said he would cut domestic programs by 10% and transfer some government functions to the private sector, and “streamline everything that’s left.” Romney’s deficit talk was short on specifics, but based on his sketchy economic plan and endorsement of the Ryan Path to Prosperity budget, he will certainly increase the deficit with his proposed $10.7 trillion tax cuts for the rich and corporations.

Republicans should just be honest with Americans and admit that their goal is an America of uneducated peasants subservient to the wealthy who will own and operate what is left of the government. President Obama gave them the deficit reduction they clamored for last year, and they rejected it to keep the wealthy happy and eliminate more Americans’ jobs. It is growing tiresome to hear them blame the economic malaise on President Obama, and specifically Willard Romney’s contention that President Obama has made the economy worse than when he came into office. Romney could not even acknowledge that convicted war criminal George W. Bush and Republicans caused the world’s economic recession or increased the deficit that will continue costing America for at least a decade regardless of austerity measures and privatizing what is left of the government.

There are three reasons President Obama inherited a devastated economy and they are precisely what Republicans and Willard Romney want to return to. Their propensity for unfunded wars, deregulation, and perpetual unfunded tax cuts for the wealthy created the world’s economic disaster and they cannot wait to drive America into bankruptcy so the ultra-wealthy and their corporations can step in and privatize what is left of the government. They cannot deny it and the proof is in their plans for America if they ever take control of the House, Senate, and White House. It is disheartening that many Americans are stupid enough to fall for the Republicans’ deficit talk this week, and sickening that they will support Republicans when they hold the nation hostage again as Boehner threatened to do when the debt ceiling needs to increase. America will never be conquered by a foreign enemy, but at the rate Republicans are going, this nation will fall victim to homegrown enemies of the state who have as their symbol an elephant bought and paid for by corporate money, and stupid voters who still think giving the rich America’s wealth is the Path to Prosperity.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

How the Ayn Rand-Loving Right Is Like a Bunch of Teen Boys Gone Crazy



Flowers are nice, but this Mother's Day, what I really want is for these immature boys to grow up already.

Photo Credit: ShutterStock.com
If, as George Lakoff says, we view politics through the metaphor of family, then Mother's Day is a good time to ask the question: Where's Mom in this picture? What are all those dirty socks and pizza boxes doing in the living room? (Seriously: it looks like a frat house in here.) Who's been drinking the beer I hid in the basement fridge?

And, sweet mother of God: how did we end up letting the 16-year-old boys take over the entire household?

Make no mistake: all this Ayn Rand libertarian me-first-and-the-rest-of-you-go-to-hell stuff -- the there's-no-government-like-no-government theology that's now being piously intoned as Holy Received Truth by everybody, male and female, in the GOP -- is, very precisely, the kind of politics you'd come up with if you were a 16-year-old boy trying to explain away his dependence on Mom.

Parents? I don't have any parents. I raised myself, on roots and berries and small vermin I dug up in vacant lots. That lady hanging around, feeding me and nagging me and picking up my socks and driving me to practice? She's just the nanny state. That bitch. I hate her.

Society? There's no such thing as society. There's only what I want right now, which is the ultimate good in my universe. And what I want right now is more time on the XBox, pizza money, and the keys to the family car.

The future? If I pursue everything I want now, then the future will magically take care of its self. Dinner will appear. So will clean socks and the next-gen XBox.
Obligations? I am God's gift to the world. I don't owe it anything. In fact: it owes me -- just for being so magnificent, cute and special. (Even my mom thinks so.)
On behalf of America's mothers, let me say: I have had enough of this. I don't care how cute they are: it's high time these so-called "libertarian" freeloaders get off the couch, stand up, and show some respect to the rest of us who've done the hard work that makes their cushy lives possible.

You know what I want for Mother's Day? I want these so-called "self-made men" to grow up and get a life.

No More "Nanny State" -- Ever

Also: I'm putting them on notice: I don't ever want to hear one more word about the "nanny state." Not one. Not ever again.

First of all : It's ugly. It just reeks of that 16-year-old boy being told to clean up his mess. The big sigh. The dramatic eye-roll. The drawn-out, agonized, "yyezzzz, mommmm..." that lets you know you're about to spend the rest of the evening in a passive-aggressive battle during which your teenager will generate enough inertia to bring the rotation of this and several neighboring galaxies to a dead stop.

The "nanny state" is making you do the dishes, and then it wants you to clean out the garage. You poor persecuted darling. Go dial 1-976-WAAAAAH.

Second of all: It's sexist as hell. Anti-feminist at its very core. It says that the concerns that we most identify with mothers -- cleaning up your crap, minding your manners, not annoying other people, taking responsibility for your actions -- are intrusive and unwarranted infringements on your essential freedom, instead of the basic adult responsibilities that are required of everybody if society is going to remain free and functional.

It says that the power and authority by which mothers -- "nannies," in this construction -- set the rules within the family is illegitimate. It belittles women who are bossy enough to insist on adult behavior from men.

It suggests that the things women are stereotypically most bossy about -- politically, this would be issues like child welfare and education (looking after your little brother), the environment (housework), and peace and social justice (playing fair and being nice) are beneath the attention and dignity of men. You can almost hear John Wayne: "Don't you worry about what your Mom says, boys. Dad's here, and he'll set her straight. (Big fat wink. Deep chuckle.) You go right on ahead with what you were doing."

(Of course, when the Duke said stuff like this, the result was usually a shrieking, hair-pulling fight with Maureen O'Hara, which always ended with her turned triumphantly over his knee. And then, after a good, sound spanking that put the little lady firmly back in her place, he'd wrestle her tiny hands away so she couldn't slap him, and kiss her until she stopped struggling. And she'd love every minute of it, because in this deranged view of gender relationships, that kind of manhandling is just what all pissy women are really secretly asking for.)
It implies that Real Americans are honor-bound to resist any and all exercise of female bossiness in the sacred name of preserving their almighty "freedom."
And then, as the final insult, it identifies all government action with that exaggerated feminine weakness. Corporations: the domains of independent, active men who are busy creating a better world for themselves -- and therefore, automatically, for everybody else as well. Government: the domain of dependent, passive women who are fussing about everybody's business, insisting that they clean up their stuff, eat right, play nice, and get to bed at a decent hour.

Government, like Mom, is a real buzz-killer. And also powerless. You can safely ignore her. After all: all she can do is yell at you, ground you, and dock your allowance. And Dad (or, in the case of government, his lawyers and lobbyists) is the truly sane and powerful one around here, and can be counted on to set her straight when he gets home.

How to Tell the Men From the Boys

Conservatives completely fetishize masculinity. They idolize sports heroes, warriors and the Manly Jesus of modern evangelicalism. They eagerly seek the trappings that will buttress their sense of maleness in their own minds -- guns, big trucks, enough money and power to push other people around. The further right you go, the more exaggerated this focus on hypermasculinity becomes.
Psychiatrist Stephen Ducat explained this phenomenon at long length in his book, The Wimp Factor. Ducat's research shows that right-wing men are so obsessed with the external trappings of maleness precisely because they've failed to develop the inner qualities and accept the obligations that are required of actual adult men. It's all show, with nothing solid on the inside to back it up. And the more fragile their masculinity feels to them, the more exaggerated the outer display they put on is.

Given the insecurity that lies at the heart of this sad compensation, it's especially ironic that they've got the whole country buffaloed into thinking this is appropriate adult behavior. We've ended up with a culture of maleness that emphasizes the objectification and degredation of women, a lack of male accountability for anything that happens in the culture, and a definition of masculinity that's all about empty shows of dubious might -- like peacocks preening on parade.

For the record: This is a comic-book stereotype of manhood as it's imagined by little boys. But it's not the real deal -- not even close.

The essential difference that separates the men and the boys is that men understand and accept that they have an obligation to the greater good, and are willing to unflinchingly step up to that responsibility. They commit to their families. They work to improve their homes and communities, so they're safe and nurturing places for everyone to be. They take the long view as they plan for their kids' future. They look out for people around them who are weaker than they are. And they respect and cherish the co-parents of their children as their equal partners in that effort.

Adult men do not resent being asked to contribute to the collective whole. They know that their actions have consequences, and that they are responsible for the impact of those consequences on the greater good of the community.

As a veteran mom, I understand that it's totally developmentally appropriate for a teenage boy to desperately struggle to separate from his female parent as he begins to find his way toward his adult male identity. But at some point, that oppositional process is supposed to come to an end -- usually in the early- to mid-20s, with a reconciliation and renewed acceptance of Mom as a useful guide in his life. And, if he's straight, there will be a mature acceptance of his obligations to a female partner and their children as well.

A 50-year-old CEO who's still whining because Big Bad Government is asking him to clean up his shit, look after his little brother, and not act like a psychopath in public is flat-out suffering from arrested emotional and social development. He's not a grown man, despite his thousands of employees and millions in salary. He's still that teenager, hating on Mom because she dared to remind him that he's still deeply dependent on the resources of provided by his larger family. And as a mother, I'd invite other moms to join me in calling out this immaturity for what it is, wherever we see it.

What I really want for Mother's Day is for America's Lost Boys -- the libertarian Peter Pans, the free-market feral children, the neo-liberal ramblin' men -- to stop pretending that they're something special and uniquely free because they've managed to disassociate themselves from women's care and women's concerns.

I want respect for the role mothers play -- both in our personal families, and in our national one. I want some recognition of the fact that the issues that are typically dismissed by the masculine fetishists as "women's issues" or "nanny-state meddling" are, in fact, the issues that the future of our country most depends on. And I want the common wealth and the common good -- the health and wealth of our national family -- to get the same kind of loving respect that all mothers are entitled to.

Flowers and chocolate and a nice brunch are appreciated, too. But they're a meaningless insult -- a sop to authority we don't have, and aren't seen as entitled to -- long as we let the 16-year-olds run the household the other 364 days out of the year.

Sara Robinson, MS, APF is a social futurist and the editor of AlterNet's Vision page. Follow her on Twitter, or subscribe to AlterNet's Vision newsletter for weekly updates.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

A Ban on Kissing? The Right-Wing Sexual Fears in New Abstinence Bills


Attempts to ban talk of birth control and homosexuality from classrooms reveal conservatives' deepest sexual fears.

Photo Credit: Pink Sherbet Photography
Imagine a high school teacher having to separate a smooching pair outside the classroom door to protect herself from being sued for condoning “gateway sexual activity.” Envision a sex education class where the mention of homosexuality is forbidden by law and discussion of contraception, or even puberty, is deemed unnecessary.

That’s the world that would be created by a recent raft of abstinence education bills in Tennessee, Utah and Wisconsin. These initiatives are frightening — but, viewed the right way, they shine light on extreme conservatives’ deepest, darkest fears about sex. They’re veritable inkblot tests for right-wing sexual pathos.

This week saw the passage of a Tennessee bill that has the usual aim of abstinence initiatives — to “exclusively and emphatically” promote abstinence until marriage. But the bill ultimately goes above and beyond the usual. It allows parents to seek damages in court if a teacher “promotes gateway sexual activity” to their child. It’s unclear what exactly “gateway sexual activity” is because the measure defines it vaguely as “sexual contact encouraging an individual to engage in a non-abstinent behavior.” Critics of the bill have suggested that this could include everything from hand holding to french kissing. The bill also proscribes “implicitly” promoting or “condoning” gateway sexual activity (the latter could mean simply turning a blind eye to it, hence the example above).

The potential legal implications here are what’s most important, but understanding the philosophy behind this view of “gateway” sexual activity is crucial, too. The thinking here is transparent: Premarital or extramarital sex, even physical affection, is like a drug — all-consuming, addictive and life-destroying. Sen. Margaret Dayton, a co-sponsor of the bill, actually said, as the Salt Lake Tribune paraphrased, “Teaching children about contraception is comparable to telling kids not to do drugs, then showing them how to ‘mainline’ heroin.” Here we have that fundamental fear of sex, of the power it holds over us, and of the possibility of losing ourselves (or our kids) to it.

Shortly before the “gateway” bill, Tennessee lawmakers advancedSenate Bill 49, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” which stipulated that “no public elementary or middle school shall provide any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality.” The measure managed to get Senate approval but, after intense public and legislative outcry, it was yanked by one of its sponsors before it faced a final vote in the House. An abstinence bill in Utah, which breezed through the state legislature but was ultimately vetoed last month by the governor, similarly banned any discussion of the gays. Wisconsin’s abstinence bill doesn’t prohibit the mention of homosexuality, but it does overwrite a current law requiring that teachers “use instructional methods and materials that do not promote bias against pupils of any race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnic or cultural background.”

Here we have that classic conservative view of homosexuality as a corruptive idea rather than an inherent identity; as a social virus — one that can be inoculated against through silence (or, as some of us might prefer to call it, censorship) — rather than an inborn reality. (What always strikes me about this attitude is that it seems implicitly to hold that gay sex is so  awesome that just hearing about it will make folks want to try it; otherwise, it wouldn’t pose such a threat, now, would it?) It also gets at that right-wing sore spot: The possibility of sex for love or pleasure, rather than procreation.

Of course, homosexuality is far from the only thing that treads in this forbidden territory. The Utah bill forbids any “human sexuality instruction” from covering contraception, premarital sex or “the intricacies of intercourse, sexual stimulation, or erotic behavior.” (The ultimate effect of the extreme restrictions is a ban on human sexuality classes. Either teach anti-gay, anti-contraception, abstinence-only “human sexuality,” or teach nothing at all.) Contraception helps reduce the negative consequences for engaging in pleasure- or love-based premarital sex — and abstinence-only advocates desperately want to keep the sexual stakes high. (For the same reason we see attempts to restrict access to contraception and HPV vaccines.)

Speaking of negative consequences, the Utah and Wisconsin bills share a focus on STIs and unwanted pregnancy as the inevitable result of premarital sex. The Utah measure requires that human sexuality classes underscore “the importance of abstinence from all sexual activity before marriage and fidelity after marriage as the only sure methods for preventing certain communicable diseases.” The Wisconsin initiative mandates that human sexuality classes “promote abstinence and marriage over contraception” and “emphasize that abstinence is the only reliable way to prevent pregnancy and avoid sexually transmitted infections” (which is patently false).

Even the acknowledgement of hormonal changes and natural urges is dangerous. Earlier this month, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed into law a bill that removed not only contraceptives but also puberty — puberty! — from the list of required topics in sex-ed classes. The concept of puberty itself makes natural what abstinence-only advocates desperately want to seem unnatural.
More relatable is the concern guiding the push for greater parental power in some of these bills. The Utah measure requires that guardians make up the majority of review committees for human sexuality curricula and that they be allowed to participate in the development of abstinence-only classes. This year, Arizona introduced a bill that requires schools to obtain written permission from parents in order to teach any form of sex ed and secures parents’ rights to opt out on behalf of their kids. Adults are desperate enough to control sex in their  own lives — from the content of their, or their spouse’s, fantasies to the threat of infidelity. And, of course, there’s that universal desire to protect our kids from the dangers of the world (and you don’t have to be a right-winger to believe that sex can be dangerous)

Together, these recent bills make clear several fundamental fears — of the power of sex, of losing control of our kids and of the allure of non-procreative sex without consequences. Aside from their magnitude, those worries aren’t a uniquely right-wing phenomena. What is uniquely right-wing is taking such extreme attempts to legislate against those fears.

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter.

Ayn Rand or Jesus Christ? Conservatives Can't Have It Both Ways


Many conservatives swear on a stack of Bibles that they worship Jesus Christ when they really bow down to the philosophy of Ayn Rand.

Photo Credit: pursuethepassion
Last week Paul Ryan said that his fondness for the philosophy of Ayn Rand is an "urban legend.” You have to give these wild and crazy Republicans credit for at least one thing: they have cojones the size of the elephants which are the mascots for the party.

The urban myth quote came after a career of Ayn Rand idolatry special even for right-wing Republicans: giving the book to his interns, speaking at Ayn Rand tributes, doing videos about her, saying her philosophy inspired him to get involved in politics. This was no youthful fling, but a lifelong love affair -- until last week , apparently. I've always wondered what politicians are thinking when they say something like this that is so obviously easy to check and refute. Do they really think people are that stupid? Maybe they just think that with the kind of money they can raise, and the Fox News-style, right-wing media to help support them, they can just obliterate the truth with bluster and deafening bombast.

So why is Ryan, who is on the short list for Romney’s VP candidate, so eager to erase his (very recent) past obsession with Ayn Rand, whom so many other right wingers adore as well? Because her writing really is so blatantly offensive to anyone not besotted with her. She preached not only the virtue of selfishness, but that any compassion and generosity was a moral wrong because it helped those who were weakening society. She despised not only the poor but even people with disabilities as leeches draining strength from society. She actually hated the Christianity Ryan and every other Republican is obligated by their base to claim they believe in because Jesus taught that the poor were to be cared for, making her views dangerous for Republican politicians to adhere to as much as they love all that pro-selfishness talk.

Ayn Rand vs. Jesus Christ: Choose only one

This is the ultimate irony in American political life right now, the conservatives who swear on a stack of Bibles that they worship Jesus Christ when they really bow down to the philosophy of Ayn Rand and the golden idol of the free market to be placed at the center of all other things. They preach of an American exceptionalism blessed by a Christian God, and call for America to be a shining city on a hill which can be an example to the entire world. Yet their exceptionalism isn't based on our country being moral the way Jesus would have understood it, but moral the way Rand and the Social Darwinists of the 1880s and '90s would have understood it: whoever gets rich deserves to be, and whoever is poor is a leech on society. Their vision of America is shining because of the gold the wealthy among us possess, not because our society as a whole is built on morality.

John Winthrop, the Puritan leader whose "city on a hill" quote inspired generations of Americans ever since to see our country as a model for other nations, did not understand America as a place built on greed and individualism, but a place built on community and looking out for each other. His other most famous quote went like this:
For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man, we must entertain each other in brotherly affection, we must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities for the supply of others' necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others' conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace, the Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us, as His own people and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness, and truth then formerly we have been acquainted with.
If that doesn't sound much like Rand's philosophy, it is because it is pretty much the exact opposite of it.
American exceptionalism: the reality-based version

I do share one thing with conservatives: I too believe in an American exceptionalism, that we should be a shining city on a hill. I don't think we are specially blessed or looked after by God -- if there is a God, we would have lost any special blessing privileges because of the genocide of Native Americans and allowing slavery and Jim Crow to last almost 350 years.

But I do believe our history as a diverse nation of immigrants from every part of the world, and our legitimate claim to rebirthing the idea of democracy after its spark went out in ancient Greece and Rome, gives us a special place on the world stage. But to be a shining city on the hill, to be a country that the people of the world admire and want to emulate, we need to set a good example for what a country should be, not a bad one.

We cannot be that city on a hill if we torture people, or ignore our own sacred Bill of Rights to spy on or arrest our own citizens without due process. We cannot be that city if all we care about is the wealthiest among us, and if our own economy begins to look like the economies of the third world in terms of inequality of wealth. We cannot be that city if the way we compete with other countries in a desperate race to the bottom, with wages and benefits in a never-ending spiral downward. We cannot be that city if a few major corporations so dominate our political system and economy that they are too big to fail and too big to prosecute when they commit crimes. We can't be that city when we allow our overgrown banks to crash the entire world's economy with their wanton recklessness.

To be an example for the world, we have to be a nation of morality, a nation where all our citizens are valued and given an equal opportunity to have a good life- a nation where we, in Winthrop's words, "delight in each other, make others' conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together". If we are so afraid we torture the people we fear, and so greedy we drop all value of community so that we can live in wealth while our fellow citizens are in desperate need, then we are nothing special.

There are many countries, now and throughout history, who have acted like that. But if we create a country that treats everyone with fairness, that invests in all of our citizens, and that is governed "of the people, by the people, and for the people,” we really will be a city on a hill that the people of the world look up to, respect, and want to be like.

Mike Lux is a partner in Progressive Strategies LLC, and a founding blogger of OpenLeft.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Diagnosing the Republican Brain

Mother Jones

Fact: Conservatives deny science and facts. But there's a reality check that liberals need too.

| Fri Mar. 30, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
Confused elephant

We all know that many American conservatives have issues with Charles Darwin, and the theory of evolution. But Albert Einstein, and the theory of relativity?

If you're surprised, allow me to introduce Conservapedia, the right-wing answer to Wikipedia and ground zero for all that is scientifically and factually inaccurate, for political reasons, on the Internet.

Claiming over 285 million page views since its 2006 inception, Conservapedia is the creation of Andrew Schlafly, a lawyer, engineer, homeschooler, and one of six children of Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-feminist and anti-abortion rights activist who successfully battled the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. In his mother's heyday, conservative activists were establishing vast mailing lists and newsletters, and rallying the troops. Her son learned that they also had to marshal "truth" to their side, now achieved not through the mail but the Web.

Click here to read more about the science of why we don't believe in science. 

Click here to read more from Mooney on the science of why people don't believe in science.So when Schafly realized that Wikipedia was using BCE ("Before Common Era") rather than BC ("Before Christ") to date historical events, he'd had enough. He decided to create his own contrary fact repository, declaring, "It's impossible for an encyclopedia to be neutral." Conservapedia definitely isn't neutral about science. Its 37,000 plus pages of content include items attacking evolution and global warming, wrongly claiming (contrary to psychological consensus) that homosexuality is a choice and tied to mental disorders, and incorrectly asserting (contrary to medical consensus) that abortion causes breast cancer.

The whopper, though, has to be Conservapedia's nearly 6,000 word, equation-filled entry on the theory of relativity. It's accompanied by a long webpage of "counterexamples" to Einstein's great scientific edifice, which merges insights like E=mc2 (part of the special theory of relativity) with his later account of gravitation (the general theory of relativity).

"Relativity has been met with much resistance in the scientific world," declares Conservapedia. "To date, a Nobel Prize has never been awarded for Relativity." The site goes on to catalogue the "political aspects of relativity," charging that some liberals have "extrapolated the theory" to favor their agendas. That includes President Barack Obama, who (it is claimed) helped published an article applying relativity in the legal sphere while attending Harvard Law School in the late 1980s.

"Virtually no one who is taught and believes Relativity continues to read the Bible, a book that outsells New York Times bestsellers by a hundred-fold," Conservapedia continues. But even that's not the site's most staggering claim. In its list of "counterexamples" to relativity, Conservapedia provides 36 alleged cases, including: "The action-at-a-distance by Jesus, described in John 4:46–54, Matthew 15:28, and Matthew 27:51."

If you are an American liberal or progressive and you just read the passage above, you are probably about to split your sides—or punch a wall. Sure enough, once liberal and science-focused bloggers caught wind of Conservapedia's anti-Einstein sallies, Schlafly was quickly called a "crackpot," "crazy," "dishonest," and so on.

These being liberals and scientists, there were also ample factual refutations. Take Conservapedia's bizarre claim that relativity hasn't led to any fruitful technologies. To the contrary, GPS devices rely on an understanding of relativity, as do PET scans and particle accelerators. Relativity works—if it didn't, we would have noticed by now, and the theory would never have come to enjoy its current scientific status.

It's not that liberals are never wrong or biased. Nevertheless, politicized wrongness today is clustered among Republicans, conservatives, and especially Tea Partiers.
Little changed at Conservapedia after these errors were dismantled, however (though more anti-relativity "counter-examples" and Bible references were added). For not only does the site embrace a very different firmament of "facts" about the world than modern science, it also employs a different approach to editing than Wikipedia. Schlafly has said of the founding of Conservapedia that it "strengthened my faith. I don't have to live with what's printed in the newspaper. I don't have to take what's put out by Wikipedia. We've got our own way to express knowledge, and the more that we can clear out the liberal bias that erodes our faith, the better."

You might be thinking that Conservapedia's unabashed denial of relativity is an extreme case, located in the same circle of intellectual hell as claims that HIV doesn't cause AIDS and 9-11 was an inside job. If so, I want to ask you to think again. Structurally, the denial of something so irrefutable, the elaborate rationalization of that denial, and above all the refusal to consider the overwhelming body of counterevidence and modify one's view, is something we find all around us today.

Every contentious fact- or science-based issue in American politics now plays out just like the conflict between Conservapedia and physicists over relativity. Again and again it's a fruitless battle between incompatible "truths," with no progress made and no retractions offered by those who are just plain wrong—and can be shown to be through simple fact checking mechanisms that all good journalists, not to mention open-minded and critically thinking citizens, can employ.

What's more, no matter how much the fact-checkers strive to remain "bi-partisan," it is pretty hard to argue that, today, the distribution of falsehoods is politically equal or symmetrical. It's not that liberals are never wrong or biased; in my new book,  The Republican Brain, The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality, from which this essay is excerpted, I go to great lengths to describe and debunk number of liberal errors.  Nevertheless, politicized wrongness today is clustered among Republicans, conservatives, and especially Tea Partiers. (Indeed, a new study published in American Sociological Review finds that while overall trust in science has been relatively stable since 1974, among self-identified conservatives it is at an all-time low.)

Their willingness to deny what's true may seem especially outrageous when it infects scientific topics like evolution or climate change. But the same thing happens with economics, with American history, and with any other factual matter where there's something ideological—in other words, something emotional and personal—at stake.

As soon as that occurs, today's conservatives have their own "truth," their own experts to spout it, and their own communication channels—newspapers, cable networks, talk radio shows, blogs, encyclopedias, think tanks, even universities—to broad- and narrowcast it.

We've been trained to equivocate, to not to see this trend toward anti-factualism for what it is—sweeping, systemic. This is particularly true of reporters.
Insanity has been defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome, and that's precisely where our country stands now with regard to the conservative denial of reality. For a long time, we've been trained to equivocate, to not to see it for what it is—sweeping, systemic. This is particularly true of reporters and others trained to think that objectivity will out. Yet the problem is gradually dawning on many of us, particularly as the 2012 election began to unfold and one maverick Republican, Jon Huntsman, put his party's anti-factual tendencies in focus with a Tweet heard round the world:
To be clear, I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.

The cost of this assault on reality is dramatic. Many of these falsehoods affect lives and have had—or will have—world-changing consequences. And more dangerous than any of them is the utter erosion of a shared sense of what's true—which they both generate, and perpetuate.

Consider, just briefly, some of the wrong ideas that have taken hold of significant swaths of the conservative population in the U.S:

The Identity of the President of the United States: Many conservatives believe President Obama is a Muslim. A stunning 64 percent of Republican voters in the 2010 election thought it was "not clear" whether he had been born in the United States. These people often think he was born in Kenya, and the birth certificate showing otherwise is bunk, a forgery, etc. They also think this relatively centrist Democrat is a closet—or even overt—socialist. At the extreme, they consider him a "Manchurian candidate" for an international leftist agenda.

Obamacare Many conservatives believe it is a "government takeover of health care." They also think, as Sarah Palin claimed, that it created government "death panels" to make end-of-life care decisions for the elderly. What's more, they think it will increase the federal budget deficit (and that most economists agree with this claim), cut benefits to those on Medicare, and subsidize abortions and the health care of illegal immigrants. None of these things are true.

Sexuality and Reproductive Health. Many conservatives—especially on the Christian Right—claim that having an abortion increases a woman's risk of breast cancer or mental disorders. They claim that fetuses can perceive pain at 20 weeks of gestation, that same-sex parenting is bad for kids, and that homosexuality is a disorder, or a choice, and is curable through therapy. None of this is true.

The Iraq War. The mid-2000s saw the mass dissemination of a number of falsehoods about the war in Iraq, including claims that weapons of mass destruction were found after the US invasion and that Iraq and Al Qaeda were proven collaborators. And political conservatives were much more likely than liberals to believe these falsehoods. Studies have shown as much of Fox News viewers, and also of so-called authoritarians, an increasingly significant part of the conservative base (about whom more soon). In one study, 37 percent of authoritarians (but 15 percent of non-authoritarians) believed WMD had been found in Iraq, and 55 percent of authoritarians (but 19 percent of non-authoritarians) believed that Saddam Hussein had been directly involved in the 9-11 attacks.

Perhaps most alarming of all, in mid-2011 conservatives advanced the dangerous idea that the federal government could simply "prioritize payments" if Congress failed to raise the debt ceiling—risking economic calamity.
Economics. Many conservatives hold the clearly incorrect view—explicitly espoused by former President George W. Bush—that tax cuts increase government revenue. They also think President Obama raised their income taxes, that he's responsible for current government budget deficits, and that his flagship economic stimulus bill didn't create many jobs or even caused job losses (and that most economists concur with this assessment). Perhaps most alarming of all, in mid-2011 conservatives advanced the dangerous idea that the federal government could simply "prioritize payments" if Congress failed to raise the debt ceiling. None of this is true, and the last belief, in particular, risked economic calamity.
American History. Many conservatives—especially on the Christian Right—believe the United States was founded as a "Christian nation." They consider the separation of church and state a "myth," not at all assured by the First Amendment. And they twist history in myriad other ways, large and small, including Michele Bachmann's claim that the Founding Fathers "worked tirelessly" to put an end to slavery.

Sundry Errors. Many conservatives claimed that President Obama's late 2010 trip to India would cost $200 million per day, or $2 billion for a ten day visit! And they claimed that, in 2007, Congress banned incandescent light bulbs, a truly intolerable assault on American freedoms. Only, Congress did no such thing. (To give just a few examples.)

Science. In a nationally representative survey—only 18 percent of Republicans and Tea Party members accepted the scientific consensus that global warming is caused by humans, and only 45 and 43 percent (respectively) accepted human evolution.

In other words, political conservatives have placed themselves in direct conflict with modern scientific knowledge, which shows beyond serious question that global warming is real and caused by humans, and evolution is real and the cause of humans. If you don't accept either claim, you cannot possibly understand the world or our place in it.

But why? Why are today's liberals usually right, and today's conservatives usually wrong? I devoted a book to trying to understand the science behind the political brain—and though I first wrote about some of my findings in Mother Jones let me touch on a few of its findings here.

One possible answer is what I'll call the "environmental explanation." I've told a version of it before, in my 2005 book The Republican War on Science:
At least since the time of Ronald Reagan, but arcing back further, the modern American conservative movement has taken control of the Republican Party and aligned it with a key set of interest groups who have had bones to pick with various aspects of scientific reality—most notably, corporate anti-regulatory interests and religious conservatives. And so these interests fought back against the relevant facts—and Republican leaders, dependent on their votes, joined them, making science denial an increasingly important part of the conservative and Republican political identity….Meanwhile, party allegiances created a strange bedfellows effect. The enemy of one's friend was also an enemy, so we saw conservative Christians denying climate science, and pharmaceutical companies donating heaps of money to a party whose Christian base regularly attacks biomedical research. Despite these contradictions, economic and social conservatives profited enough from their allegiance that it was in the interests of both to hold it together.
In such an account, the problem of right-wing science denial is ascribed to political opportunism—rooted in the desire to appease either religious impulses or corporate profit motives. But is this the right answer?

It isn't wrong, exactly. There's much truth to it. Yet it completely ignores what we now know about the psychology of our politics.

The environmental account ascribes Republican science denial (and for other forms of denial, the story would be similar) to the particular exigencies and alignments of American political history. That's what the party did because it had to, to get ahead. And today, goes the thinking, this leaves us with a vast gulf between Democrats and Republicans in their acceptance of modern climate science and many other scientific conclusions, with conservatives increasingly distrustful of science, and with scientists and the highly educated moving steadily to the left.

Right-wing science denial is ascribed to political opportunism—the desire to appease either religious impulses or corporate profit motives. There's much truth to it. Yet it completely ignores what we now know about the psychology of our politics.

There's just one problem: This account ignores the possibility that there might be real differences between liberals and conservatives that influence how they respond to scientific or factual information. It assumes we're all blank slates—that we all want the same basic things—and then we respond to political forces not unlike air molecules inside a balloon. We get knocked this way and that, sure. And we start out in different places, thus ensuring different trajectories. But at the end of the day, we're all just air molecules.

But what if we're not all the same kind of molecule? What if we respond to political or factual collisions in different ways, with different spins or velocities? Today there's considerable scientific evidence suggesting that this is the case.
For instance, the historic political awakening of what we now call the Religious Right was nothing if not a defense of cultural traditionalism—which had been threatened by the 1960s counterculture, Roe v. Wade, and continued inroads by feminists, gay rights activists, and many others—and a more hierarchical social structure. It was a classic counter-reaction to too much change, too much pushing of equality, and too many attacks on traditional values—all occurring too fast. And it mobilized a strong strand of right-wing authoritarianism in US politics—one that had either been dormant previously, or at least more evenly distributed across the parties.

The rise of the Religious Right was thus the epitome of conservatism on a psychological level—clutching for something certain in a changing world; wanting to preserve one's own ways in uncertain times, and one's own group in the face of difference—and can't be fully understood without putting this variable into play.

The problem is that people are deathly afraid of psychology, and never more so than when it is applied to political beliefs. Political journalists, in particular, almost uniformly avoid this kind of approach. They try to remain on the surface of things, telling endless stories of horse races and rivalries, strategies and interests, and key "turning points." All of which are, of course, real. And conveniently, by sticking with them you never have to take the dangerous journey into anybody's head.

But what if these only tell half the story?

As I began to investigate the underlying causes for the conservative denial of reality that we see all around us, I found it impossible to ignore a mounting body of evidence—from political science, social psychology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and genetics—that points to a key conclusion. Political conservatives seem to be very different from political liberals at the level of psychology and personality. And inevitably, this influences the way the two groups argue and process information.

Let's be clear: This is not a claim about intelligence. Nor am I saying that conservatives are somehow worse people than liberals; the groups are just different. Liberals have their own weaknesses grounded in psychology, and conservatives are very aware of this. (Many of the arguments in this book could be inverted and repackaged into a book called The Democratic Brain—with a Spock-like caricature of President Obama on the cover.)

Nevertheless, some of the differences between liberals and conservatives have clear implications for how they respond to evidence in political debates. Take, for instance, their divergence on a core personality measure called Openness to Experience (and the suite of characteristics that go along with it). The evidence here is quite strong: overall, liberals tend to be more open, flexible, curious and nuanced—and conservatives tend to be more closed, fixed and certain in their views.

Scientists are already showing that average "liberal" and "conservative" brains differ in suggestive ways.
What's more, since Openness is a core aspect of personality, examining this difference points us toward the study of the political brain. The field is very young, but scientists are already showing that average "liberal" and "conservative" brains differ in suggestive ways. These differences may be related to a large and still unidentified number of "political" genes—although to be sure, genes are only one influence out of many upon our political views. But they appear to be an underrated one.

What all of this means is that our inability to agree on the facts can no longer be explained solely at the surface of our politics. It has to be traced, as well, to deeper psychological and cognitive factors. And such an approach won't merely cast light on why we see so much "truthiness" today, so many postmodern fights between the left and the right over reality. Phenomena ranging from conservative brinksmanship over raising the debt ceiling to the old "What's the Matter with Kansas?" problem—why do poor conservatives vote against their economic interests?— make vastly more sense when viewed through the lens of political psychology.

Before going any further, I want to emphasize that this argument is not a form of what is often called reductionism. Just because psychology seems relevant to explaining why the left and the right have diverged over reality doesn't mean that nothing else is, or that I am reducing conservatives to just their psychology (or reducing psychology to cognitive neuroscience, or cognitive neuroscience to genes, and so on). "We can never give a complete explanation of anything interesting about human beings in psychology," explains the University of Cambridge psychologist Fraser Watts. But that doesn't mean there's nothing to be learned from the endeavor.

Complex phenomena like human political behavior always have many causes, not one. Human brains are flexible and change daily; people have choices, and those choices alter who they are. Nevertheless, there are broad tendencies in the population that really matter, and cannot be ignored.

We don't understand everything there is to know yet about the underlying reasons why conservatives and liberals are different. We don't know how all the puzzle pieces—cognitive styles, personality traits, psychological needs, moral intuitions, brain structures, and genes—fit together. And we know that the environment (or nurture) is at least as important as the genes (or nature). This means that what I'm saying applies at the level of large groups, but may founder in case of any particular individual.

Still, we know enough to begin pooling together all the scientific evidence. And when you do—even if you provide all the caveats—there's a lot of consistency. And it all makes a lot of sense. Conservatism, after all, means nothing if not supporting political and social stability and resisting change. I'm merely tracing some of the appeal of this philosophy to psychology, and then discussing what this means for how we debate what is "true" in contested areas.

Now, conservatives won't like hearing that they're often wrong and dogmatic about it, so they may dogmatically resist this conclusion. They may also try to turn the tables and pretend liberals are the closed-minded ones, ignoring volumes of science in the process. (I'm waiting, Ann Coulter.)

But what about liberals? Aren't we wrong too, and dogmatic too?

The typical waffling liberal answer is, "er . . . sort of." Liberals aren't always right,but that's not the central problem. Our particular dysfunction is, typically, more complex and even paradoxical.

We often act as though right-wing misinformation's defeat is nigh, if we could only make people wiser and get them the medicine that is correct information. In this, we both underestimate conservatives, and we fail to understand them.
On the one hand, we're absolutely outraged by partisan misinformation. Lies about "death panels." People seriously thinking that President Obama is a Muslim. Climate change denial. Debt ceiling denial. These things drive us crazy, in large part because we can't comprehend how such intellectual abominations could possibly exist. I can't tell you how many times I've heard a fellow liberal say, "I can't believe the Republicans are so stupid they can believe X!"

And not only are we enraged by lies and misinformation; we want to refute them—to argue, argue, argue about why we're right and Republicans are wrong. Indeed, we often act as though right-wing misinformation's defeat is nigh, if we could only make people wiser and more educated (just like us) and get them the medicine that is correct information.

In this, we both underestimate conservatives, and we fail to understand them.
To begin to remedy that defect, let's go back to the Conservapedia-relativity dustup, and make an observation that liberals and physicists did not always credit. Whatever else Andrew Schlafly might be—and no matter how hard it is to understand how someone could devote himself to an enterprise like Conservapedia—the man is not stupid. Quite the contrary.

He's a Harvard law graduate. He has an engineering degree from Princeton, and used to work both for Intel and for Bell Labs. His relativity entry is filled with equations that I myself can neither write nor solve. He hails from a highly intellectual right-wing family—his mother, Phyllis, is also Harvard educated and, according to her biographer, excelled in school at a time when women too rarely had the opportunity to compete with men at that level. Mother and son thus draw a neat, half-century connection between the birth of modern American conservatism on the one hand, and the insistence that conservatives have their own "facts," better than liberal facts thank you very much, on the other.

So it is not that Schlafly, or other conservatives as sophisticated as he, can't make an argument. Rather, the problem is that when Schlafly makes an argument, it's hard to believe it has anything to do with real intellectual give and take. He's not arguing out of an openness to changing his mind. He's arguing to reaffirm what he already thinks (his "faith"), to defend the authorities he trusts, and to bolster the beliefs of his compatriots, his tribe, his team.

Liberals (and scientists) have too often tried to dodge the mounting evidence that this is how people work. Perhaps because it leads to a place that terrifies them: an anti-Enlightenment world in which evidence and argument don't work to change people's minds.

But that response, too, is a form of denial—liberal denial, a doctrine whose chief delusion is not so much the failure to accept facts, but rather, the failure to understand conservatives. And that denial can't continue. Because as President Obama's first term has shown—from the healthcare battle to the debt ceiling crisis—ignoring the psychology of the right has not only left liberals frustrated and angry, but has left the country in a considerably worse state than that.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Why Is the Conservative Brain More Fearful? The Alternate Reality Right-Wingers Inhabit Is Terrifying



Walk a mile in your ideological counterparts' shoes...if you dare.

Photo Credit: ShutterStock.com
Consider for a moment just how terrifying it must be to live life as a true believer on the right. Reality is scary enough, but the alternative reality inhabited by people who watch Glenn Beck, listen to Rush Limbaugh, or think Michele Bachmann isn't a joke must be nothing less than horrifying.
Research suggests that conservatives are, on average, more susceptible to fear than those who identify themselves as liberals. Looking at MRIs of a large sample of young adults last year, researchers at University College London discovered that “greater conservatism was associated with increased volume of the right amygdala” ($$). The amygdala is an ancient brain structure that's activated during states of fear and anxiety. (The researchers also found that “greater liberalism was associated with increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex” – a region in the brain that is believed to help people manage complexity.)

That has implications for our political world. In a recent interview, Chris Mooney, author of The Republican Brain, explained, “The amygdala plays the same role in every species that has an amygdala. It basically takes over to save your life. It does other things too, but in a situation of threat, you cease to process information rationally and you're moving automatically to protect yourself.”

The finding also fits with other data. Mooney discusses studies conducted at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in which self-identified liberals and conservatives were shown images – apolitical images – that were intended to elicit different emotions. Writing at Huffington Post, Mooney explains that “there were images that caused fear and disgust -- a spider crawling on a person's face, maggots in an open wound -- but also images that made you feel happy: a smiling child, a bunny rabbit.” The researchers noted two differences between the groups. The researchers studied their subjects' reactions by tracking their eye movements and monitoring their “skin conductivity” – a measure of one's autonomic nervous system's reaction to stimuli.
Conservatives showed much stronger skin responses to negative images, compared with the positive ones. Liberals showed the opposite. And when the scientists turned to studying eye gaze or "attentional" patterns, they found that conservatives looked much more quickly at negative or threatening images, and [then] spent more time fixating on them.
Mooney concludes that this “new research suggests [that] conservatism is largely a defensive ideology -- and therefore, much more appealing to people who go through life sensitive and highly attuned to aversive or threatening aspects of their environments.”

But those cognitive biases are only part of the story of how a political movement in the wealthiest, most secure nation in the world have come to view their surroundings with such dread. The other half of the equation is a conservative media establishment that feeds members of the movement an almost endless stream of truly terrifying scenarios.

The phenomenon of media “siloing” is pretty well understood – in an era when dozens of media sources are a click away, people have a tendency to consume more of those that conform to their respective worldviews. But there is some evidence that this phenomenon is more pronounced on the right – conservative intellectuals have had a long-running debate about the significance of “epistemic closure” within their movement.

So conservatives appear to be more likely to be hard-wired to be highly sensitive to perceived threats, and their chosen media offers them plenty. But that's not the whole story because of one additional factor. Since 9/11, and especially since the election of President Barack Obama, one of the most significant trends in America's political discourse is the “mainstreaming” of what were previously considered to be fringe views on the right. Theories that were once relegated to the militia movement can now be heard on the lips of elected officials and television personalities like Glenn Beck.

Consider, then, what it must be like to be a true-blue Rush Limbaugh fan, or someone who thinks Michele Bachmann is a serious lawmaker with a grasp of the issues – put yourself into that person's shoes for a moment, and consider what a nightmarish landscape the world around them must represent:

The White House has been usurped by a Kenyan socialist named Barry Soetero, who hatched an elaborate plot to pass himself off as a citizen of the United States – a plot the media refuse to even investigate. This president doesn't just claim the right to assassinate suspected terrorists who are beyond the reach of law enforcement – he may be planning on rounding up his ideological opponents and putting them into concentration camps if he is reelected. He may have murdered a blogger who was critical of his administration, but authorities refuse to investigate. At the very least, he is plotting on disarming the American public after the election, in accordance with a secret deal cut with the UN and possibly with the assistance of foreign troops.

Again, these ideas are not relegated to the fringe of forwarded emails. Glenn Beck talked about FEMA camps on Fox News (he later debunked them, which only fueled charges of a media coverup); dozens of Republican elected officials have at least hinted that they are birthers, while an erstwhile front-runner for the GOP nomination has repeatedly claimed that Obama is not eligible to be president. The head of the NRA, and the GOP's presidential nominee have both claimed Obama is plotting to take Americans' guns.

In reality, Americans are safer and more secure today than at any point in human history. But inhabitants of the world of the hard-right are surrounded by danger – from mobs of thugs at home to a variety of powerful and deadly enemies abroad.

For the true believers, Latin American immigration isn't a phenomenon to be managed, but a grave existential threat. A plot to “take back” large swaths of the Southwest is a theory that has aired not only on obscure right-wing blogs, but on Fox and CNN. On CNN, Lou Dobbs claimed immigrants were spreading leprosy; Rick Perry, Rep. Louie Gohmert and other “mainstream” voices on the right (that is, people with platforms) agree that Hezbollah and Hamas “are using Mexico as a way to penetrate into the southern part of the United States,” possibly with the aid of “terror babies” carried in pregnant women's wombs.
In the real world, the rate of violent crime in the US is at the lowest point since 1968 – in fact, it is somewhat of a mystery that the violent crime rate has continued to decline even in the midst of the Great Recession. It's also true that 84 percent of white murder victims are killed by other whites. But if you read the Drudge Report, or check in at Fox, on any given day you will see extensive coverage of any incident in which a black person harms a white person. These fit in with the narrative – advanced by people like Glenn Beck and long-touted by Ron Paul – that we stand on the brink of a race war, led by the New Black Panthers (just consider how frightening it would be if there were more than a dozen New Black Panthers, or if they did more than say stupid things). Marauding “flash-mobs” of black teens – a near-obsession at many conservative outlets these days -- are simply a harbinger of things to come.

Continue, for a moment, to stroll in the shoes of a true believer on the right. Imagine how frightening it would be to believe Frank Gaffney, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration and leading neoconservative voice, when he claims the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the highest levels of the US government, or Newt Gingrich, when he says that “sharia law” (there isn't such a thing in the way conservatives portray it – as a discrete canon of laws) poses a grave threat to our way of life.

Imagine believing that the Democrats' business-friendly insurance reforms included panels of bureaucrats who would decide when to let you die, as Sarah Palin infamously suggested. Or that virtually the entire field of climatology is perpetrating a “hoax,” as senator James Inhofe claims, in order to undermine capitalism and impose a one-world government. Imagine seeing energy-efficient lightbulbs as part of an international plot to, again, undermine capitalism, as Michele Bachmann believes. Imagine thinking that the public school system “indoctrinates” young children into the “gay lifestyle,” as influential members of the religious right – Pat Dobson, Bryan Fischer, Anita Bryant – have claimed for years. Imagine believing our electoral system is tarnished by massive voter fraud or that union thugs are running amok or that the Department of Homeland Security is making a list of people who advocate for “limited government.” Imagine if there really were a War on Christmas!

These dark narratives come in addition to more run-of-the-mill fearmongering about the Iranian “threat,” or nonsense about how “entitlements” are leading our economy to look like Greece's. Those of us in the “reality-based community” may look at these specters haunting the right with exasperation or amusement, but just consider for a moment how bleak the world looks to those who buy into these ideas.

Perhaps the most frightening part of all of this for the true believers is that even though these things aren't just fringe ideas circulating in forwarded emails – they're discussed by influential politicians and on leading cable news outlets – the bulk of the media and most elected officials refuse to investigate what's happening to this country.

That one ideological camp is so consumed with fear also has a lot to do with why conservatives and liberals share so little common ground. Progressives tend to greet these narratives with facts and reason, but as Chris Mooney notes, when your amygdala is activated, it takes over and utterly dominates the brain structures dedicated to reason. Then the "fight-or-flight" response takes precedence over critical thinking.

Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet. He is the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy: And Everything else the Right Doesn't Want You to Know About Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America. Drop him an email or follow him on Twitter.