Thursday, August 19, 2004


The Big Lie: How Reactionaries Hoodwink Conservatives By Demonizing Liberals

When I talk about the structure of lies, I don’t just mean how different lies fit together, supporting one another. I also mean the way a single lie can have two or more facets, even conveying different messages to different audiences—which inevitably makes it harder to refute.

Take, for example, the lie that liberals are a hostile, alien force, our to destroy everything good and dear about America. It’s a bizarre lie, which completely ignores the fact that our country was the first in the world to be founded on the principles of political liberalism, inherited from towering figures such as Locke, Montesque, and Voltaire.

But this lie—which comes from the reactionary right—is not just aimed at demonizing liberals. It aims at moderates, to convince them that liberals are beyond the pale, and they themselves are the left wing of legitimate political discourse. "Better watch your step, or you could be next," goes the subtext. Have you heard Rush Limbaugh lambaste moderates? I have—and I’m only an accidental listener.

More importantly, though, this lie aims at conservatives, giving them a hated, rather than a respected opposition, and blinding them to the underlying nature of the reactionary agenda, which is falsely portrayed as conservative. Prime example: Leading reactionary activist Grover Norquist has said, " I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." In contrast, 30+ years of public opinion research from the General Social Survey (GSS) shows overwhelming conservative opposition to cutting any of America’s core social spending functions. That’s right. Taken as a whole, a substantial majority of self-identified conservatives favor maintaining or expanding spending on Social Security, health care, education, the environment, urban problems…even aid to blacks. You would never know it, though, to hear from "conservative" activists, political leaders, or media figures.

The reason is simple—these leaders aren’t conservatives—they’re reactionaries, part of a 20-40 percent minority of self-identified conservatives that is far outside the mainstream of American public opinion, and yet has come to dominate political discourse and control all three branches of the government—at least when it counted most. Ironically, the higher up you go, the more the reactionary fringe dominates over the majority conservative opinion. There is, indeed, a reactionary elite—the mirror image of the liberal elite you hear about so often. There are just three differences: The reactionary elite actually exists, it wields real power, and it is outside even the conservative mainstream.

I know this must sound like crazy talk, so let me be more specific. Since 1972, the GSS has regularly asked if people want more, less, or about the same level of federal spending on a broad range of topics. According to stereotypical images, conservatives should be 100 percent for cutting spending—except, of course, for national defense—while liberals should be 100 percent for spending more—again, except for defense. The reality is far different. Among ordinary people, the categories "liberal" and "conservative" are fuzzy, not sharp, with lots of overlap. Looking at cumulative results since 1972, in seven issue areas—national defense, education, the environment, health care, social security, aid to cities and aid to blacks, the difference between self-identified liberals and conservatives ranged from a high of 26.7 percent to a low of 11.6 percent—far below 50 percent, much less 100. In short, there are differences between liberals and conservatives—differences, not polar opposition.

What’s more, usually more conservatives wanted to raise spending, rather than lower it. This was true every time for education (22-0), the environment (22-0), health care (22-0), and social security (14-0), and most of the time for aid to cities (19-3) and defense (14-8). The conservatives only split decision came on aid to blacks (11-11). But when you add in those who want to keep spending the same, those who favor cutting spending are a minority every time.

Old-style conservatives like Bob Dole accurately reflected this conservative consensus. But his style of conservative is a distinct minority in higher office today, lost in a sea of reactionaries.

Those at the top have long been more right-wing than those they represent, as demonstrated by Canadian researcher Robert Altemeyer, author of The Authoritarian Specter. Altemeyer has spent more than 30 years studying rightwing authoritarianism (RWA), a measure of conventionalism, submission to authority, and aggressiveness toward socially designated "others." It’s important to note that RWA is a social psychological measure, not an ideological one. It can attach to any suitable ideology. In the old Soviet Union, hardline Communists scored highest in RWA.

Altemeyer found that RWA was only weakly correlated with political party identification, either in Canada or the United States. However, the correlation was stronger among party activists, and striking at the level of elected state-level representatives, where Republicans showed a striking degree of RWA as a group, with relatively little variation, compared to Democrats who varied considerably, but were far less authoritarian overall. In short, there really is an authoritarian elite on the political right, which is significantly more authoritarian than the everyday people whose votes support it.

Of course, I expect reactionaries to dismiss Altemeyer’s findings out of hand—and probably the GSS results as well. These are results of "liberal academics" they will say. And Altemeyer is a Canadian, to boot. This is how reactionaries deal with information they don’t like—they demonize the messenger. It’s a tendency that all of us share to a certain extent, a human foible for us to struggle against. Instead, reactionaries have honed it to a high art.

It is widely acknowledged that culture-war politics seduces working-class and middle-class Americans into voting against their own economic interests. The GSS and Altemeyer tell us something more fundamental—that demonizing liberals helps seduce conservatives into voting against their own values. Thus, as I write about the structure of lies that emanate from the right, I am not accusing conservatives of being the original perpetrators. The original perpetrators are reactionaries. Conservatives only become perpetrators of these lies when they have been victims first.

Next : Deconstructing a popular lie used to cast anti-war activists as unpatriotic—even traitorous.

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