In 2007 Al Gore published a book called The Assault on Reason. In the book, the former Presidential hopeful lamented the fact that “reason, logic and truth seem to play a sharply diminished role in the way America now makes important decisions.” The context of the book was the Bush Administration and its clear disregard for evidence, it’s purely ideological drive regardless of the available evidence.
The Assault on Reason, however, was more of an intellectual endeavor than a partisan one. Gore located the problem not in the Bush Administration, but in larger social and cultural influences shaking our faith in institutions that require legitimacy derived from popular faith.
In many ways, the Bush Administration was the first openly postmodernist regime. This was all but admitted to Ron Suskind by an unnamed source who denigrated what he called “the reality-based community.” Suskind quoted the source as saying, “we’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Now other American Administrations may have felt and even sometimes acted the same way, but the Bush Administration was the first to frame this rejection of the Enlightenment values of reason and logic as an open and consistent policy.
As those of us invested in the reality-based community predicted, reality, as it is known to do, caught up to the rhetoric. Attempts to “create” reality resulted in two disastrous wars from which we have yet to extricate ourselves, the collapse of the global economy and a devastating loss of legitimacy in our governing institutions. By 2008 it was clear that Bush’s Imperial Reality Construction Project was a failed endeavor. That year we elected into office a man who embodied good, old-fashioned, Enlightenment principles.
Barack Obama was calm, almost frustratingly deliberate and thoughtful, educated and intelligent. When answering questions, it was not unusual to see him pause, close his eyes and give serious thought to his answers, not just what he wanted to say, but also how he wanted to say it. A revealing anecdote happened after AIG awarded bonuses to its executives despite their collapsing the global economy and receiving billions in taxpayer bailouts. Obama was criticized by the press for how long it took him to express outrage. Obama responded, “…I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak.”
Ah, the halcyon days of reasoned discourse!
Yeah. Not so much. Obama was thoughtful, logical, strategic. He was also one of the most bitterly attacked presidents in modern memory. These attacks came from both ends of the political spectrum, but the most visceral, cynical and machiavellian bombardments belonged to the right. Progressives excoriated him for his “politics of the possible” pragmatism, but at least the left had some reasonable arguments. The mouth-frothing right, however, created a relentless, scorched earth strategy that defied all rules of reasoned discourse.
The Right was willing to say anything, no matter how blatantly and demonstrably false, to advance this cause. And that cause was singular, expressed best by Mitch McConnell when he said, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Conservative claims often slipped well beyond rhetorical hyperbole into ludicrous propositions. Furthermore, the right had a receptive and cerebrally passive audience that accepted the most ridiculous claims as gospel truth. In the face of tragedy resulting from right-wing delusions, it was clear that the assault on reason was not over.
Indeed, the war against reason only escalated. Furthermore, much to the horror of the reality-based community, it became clear that reason was losing.
I realized Enlightenment Principles were endangered species in 2009. Up to that time, I had hoped that reason would win out. The health care debate dispelled any comfortable delusions about that. In what should have been–what needed to be–a serious, maybe wonky, debate on policy turned into a circus freak show as a result of the right wing corporate propaganda machine
The left, liberals and moderates were prepared for a rational argument. We all knew that we were up for a fight as some of the most powerful and wealthy institutions in the nation were sharpening their swords to protect their profit margins. We had our facts, however, our clear and reliable analyses. We were ready. Facts were facts.
We weren’t ready at all. We weren’t ready for “death panels” and other outrageous, intentional lies pandered by the right-wing think tanks and corporate propaganda machine. Facts were not the weapons of choice in this fight. They were nothing more than pea shooters against the corporate PR juggernaut. Health care reform advocates like myself spent more time and energy trying to convince our conservative and even our moderate friends and relatives that there were no death panels, the government was not going to pull the plug on grandma or force women to abort fetuses with Down Syndrome. This was not a government take-over of health care. Furthermore, we were arguing in vain. No matter how much reason we applied, how many facts, how many CBO studies, it didn’t matter. We might as well have been arguing about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.
The lies became all encompassing–suffocating. There was no oxygen left with which to actually discuss policy, to hash out the merits and demerits of health care reform. When we got tired of bashing our heads against the wall on death panels, there was another lie waiting. People were going to be put in prison for not signing up for Obamacare. My God! the fear whipped up by the right translated into Bedlam during summer town hall meetings. People whose heads were filled with Penny Dreadful Obamacare stories were practically handed a playbook with which to air their superstitious delusions in the public forum, disrupt meetings and, under no circumstances, allow anyone who actually knew anything to speak. Facts were government propaganda. Obamacare supporters were brainwashed with socialist/liberal Kool-Aid.
For Obama, this was the norm. Never before has reason been so overtly attacked by a phalanx of balderdash. From accusations that he was a secret Muslim (still believed) to rumors that he was not a citizen–perpetuated by our current president–to accusations of terrorism. Every day brought a new set of lies, some more outrageous than others (Mother Jones has a comprehensive chart). And there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it.
So it came as no surprise that President Obama, a man who could be the very personification of the embattled Enlightenment warrior defending the last ramparts of reason, should focus on this issue in his Farewell Address. “[I]ncreasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.”
And why shouldn’t we? After all, institutions that should be the bastions of reason, science, journalism, higher education, have been so battered by right-wing trebuchets against the truth, as well as corrupted and discredited by serving capitalist/corporate interests that their legitimacy is questioned across the board, across political ideology. To a certain extent, skepticism is warranted. Taken to the extremes promoted by the Right, this skepticism becomes existentially nihilistic.
The internet doesn’t help. In fact, one could argue, this technology only exacerbates social insularity. We have, at our fingertips, a veritable tidal wave of information, much of it valuable, valid and reliable–a great deal worthless. Discerning which is which is tiresome. That, and the sheer volume of information requires us to filter out most of it. Doing so responsibly takes significant discipline, energy, and know-how– which we do not foster in our schools. Instead, it’s easier to find comfort in information that we like, that satisfies us emotionally, rather than testing every drop of information for validity.
Furthermore, we filter this onslaught of information through our chosen reference groups. We identify ourselves according to certain knowledge structures, or associations such as political parties, religious beliefs, or other ideological constructs. These structures shape our worldview. We then turn to those sources that reinforce our worldview, thus reinforcing our identities. The internet and cable television give us plenty of options through which to reinforce our biases. We tend to avoid those sources that challenge our ideologies, our worldview. We protect our established identities. After that, in-group and out-group dynamics prevail over careful analysis and evaluation. Knowledge produced by my reference group is valid not because it satisfies some criteria of validity, but rather by virtue of its acceptance within my reference group. That information coming from the out-group is not to be trusted, especially if that information contradicts that of the in-group–the more challenging the information, the greater the lie.
Furthermore, more radical elements within each reference group are inclined to attribute conspiratorial and sinister motives to the out-group. Political, cultural or religious outgroups are not just people who have different opinions, they are not simply those with whom we disagree. Rather, they are threats to our very existence, intentionally and maliciously trying to undermine all that is good and right in order to press their own twisted agenda. They are not to be trusted. Indeed, they must be eradicated. Certainly, there can be no discussion, no debate, no compromise with “those people.” This is war!
The resulting group closure and social insularity are a threat to the very fundamentals of our society. No ideological reference group, liberal or conservative, is immune to these processes. In fact, when one group takes such a radical and blinded position, it encourages other groups to do the same, especially when such groups hold as much power and cultural influence as do political parties. This is more than a social problem. It is, potentially, an existential crisis threatening to fray and snap the very ties that have, for two hundred years, bound diverse peoples into a uniquely American culture. Obama cautioned, “America, we weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character aren’t even willing to enter into public service; so coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are seen not just as misguided but as malevolent. We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others; when we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt, and when we sit back and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.”
Of course, this puts the Democratic Party in an awkward position. Ideally, one would expect a political party to represent the interests of its constituents as well as prioritize reasonable, rational and ethical governance. Yes, we might expect a certain amount of institutional strategizing and opportunism. That’s what institutions do. However, we expect that these strategies abide by certain norms upholding responsible governance. At some point, the parties must put political gamesmanship aside, come to the table, and govern.
On the other hand, the Republican Party has made it very clear that governing is not the priority. For Mitch McConnell, the empowerment of the Republican Party, at all costs, is the endgame. The infamous Caucus Room Strategy brought the Republican Party from the political wilderness into almost total dominance in the last eight years, while Democrats continued to reach across the aisle, compromise, plead…and lose–lose badly. With such a successful strategy, there’s little incentive for McConnell Republicans to turn over a new leaf and consent to responsible government.
So what should the Democrats do? Responsible government or political gamesmanship? Are Democrats being naive to hold themselves to civilized standards when they are up against raging barbarians flowing through the gates? How do you reason with Dr. Moreau’s Monsters once they’ve broken from the cages? On the one hand, someone has to be the sensible adult in the room. If not the Republicans, it must be the Democrats. On the other hand, you can’t bring a pea-shooter to a gunfight.
Take, for instance, the coming confirmation fight for the Antonin Scalia’s open seat on the Supreme Court. President Trump has made his nomination, Neil Gorsuch. Should the Democrats even consider this, or any other nominee, for that seat? After all, the only reason the seat remains open after almost a year is due to irresponsible Republican gamesmanship. Will any attempt on the part of Democrats to play nice in the government sandbox reward Republicans and thus reinforce their immoral behavior? It’s impossible to believe that, should Democrats play nice, the Republicans will be influenced by their good example and return the favor in the future. Reciprocity is not in the Republican playbook.
This is the inherent problem with the Republican gambit, supported by the conservative propaganda machine. They’ve destroyed any incentive to good government. Closure and ideological insularity on the part of one group almost demands the same from the other, especially in a two-group dynamic. This is exactly the opposite of what is needed for good government. Ironically, dysfunctional government works for Republicans, having built their party on the Reaganite Mantra that government is bad. Ineffective government only confirms this regressive mantra, drawing more people to the Republican herd.
For the Democratic Party, however, having predicated its existence on responsible government serving the interests of the people (at least rhetorically), this strategy cannot work. Sabotaging government to hurt the current administration only reinforces their underlying philosophy. It’s as if this scenario were planned by an evil genius.
This, of all three issues brought up in Obama’s Farewell Address, is arguably the most pressing challenge to left-liberalism–one for which the left has been demonstrably unprepared to meet. As it stands, research shows that Americans, overall, prefer left policies. Americans believe that the wealthy should be expected to pay more into a system that benefits them disproportionately and that that money should be used to help working people. Americans want the government to stop companies from polluting their air, water, and communities. They want something to be done about global warming and advancing clean energy infrastructure. Public funding of education and healthcare is popular. When it comes to social and cultural issues, Americans are clearly on the left of the spectrum. They want the government to stay out of personal decisions from family planning to marital practices to reading patterns.
When asked about their social ideology, however, only about thirty-one percent identify themselves as liberal/very liberal, about even with social conservatives. On economic issues, liberals place at the bottom of the polling. This is indicative of a nation-wide identity crisis. It’s not that the left is having difficulty promoting its ideas. Progressive ideas are well supported by the public. The left is having difficulty translating these ideas into political capital. People are not associating what they want poltiically with a belief in progressive liberalism.
Part of the reason is the left’s failure to cultivate ideological identities. In the United States, identity politics is often a reference to race, ethnicity, and gender. This has backfired on the left and on the Democratic Party in general as working-class white voters, blind to the hard-fought progressive platform of the Clinton campaign, abandoned the party in favor of someone catering to their racial and ethnic fears. Identity politics is not the problem per se. The problem is that the left should return to building an identity based on class unity, recognizing racial and ethnic disparities as weapons used to keep working people impotent in the face of increasing corporate power.
Another problem has to do with education. Americans, in general, have no real idea of what liberalism and conservatism are in the United States, let alone more nuanced concepts like progressivism, socialism or even fascism. Americans seem to have little incentive to learn the ins and outs of government, let alone political philosophy. Teachers, many of whom have lost any kind of job protections, are afraid of possible parent backlash should they teach more controversial philosophies. Journalists have been bullied into presenting a he-said-she-said version of politics for fear of right-wing bullying and accusations of liberal bias. Consequently, the only structures in place for teaching political ideology are right-wing talk radio and what I call the FoxNoise machine. The left has a skeletal information infrastructure in place but has yet to develop the kind of educational networks that propelled its success in the early 20th century.
If the left wants to build a viable movement in the United States, which, based on a surge of progressivism among Millennials, is clearly within reach it must reclaim its history. President Obama said, “Let me tell you, this generation coming up — unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic — I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, and just, and inclusive America. You know that constant change has been America’s hallmark; that it’s not something to fear but something to embrace. You are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber all of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands.” This progressive generation must know that the left has a long history of fighting for these very principles. The American right, however, has a practiced genius when it comes to shaping the histories of those they oppose. With regard to the American left, that history has been muddled by right-wing propaganda about Stalin, Soviet Gulags and even Hitler. This is our fault.
The left must restore its hereditary links to liberation, equality and justice. It was liberals who overthrew the absolutists in the late 18th and early 19th century. Liberalism was the center of democratic movements all over the world. It was liberals, in the mid 19th century who realized that political liberation was not enough, that economic oppression was just as tyrannical as political oppression–if not more so. Liberals have always believed in limited government, but the Progressive Movement advanced the notion that a truly representative government should have at least as much power as is necessary to protect the rights of the people from the powerful and to level the playing field for the little guy. It was the left that ended slavery, child labor, and debt bondage. The left was responsible for minimum wages, workplace safety, unemployment insurance, even much beloved weekends.
Furthermore, it was always The Right that opposed and continue to oppose, every single one of these advances.
The left must reclaim its Enlightenment traditions of liberty, reason, and science. “It is that spirit, born of the Enlightenment, that made us an economic powerhouse — the spirit that took flight at Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral; the spirit that cures disease and put a computer in every pocket,” Obama pointed out. In fact, almost every single recognized social, economic, political and technological advance can be traced to this liberal, Enlightenment history, from secret ballots to Keynes’ General Theory, from communication satellites to Social Security. This is a history that will resonate with Millennials as well as with anyone else who actually cares about these things (which is quite a lot of people). But the left must be out there countering right-wing propaganda with the truth. We cannot just assume that the truth will win out in the end–it won’t.
At the same time, the left needs to inspire innovation and reforms relevant to the twenty-first century. Liberalism is the philosophy of new ideas, about instituting change to make the world more free, more just and more equitable. Conservatism is about stability, tradition and stasis. Lately, in the United States, liberals have engaged in a peculiar kind of conservatism. This was largely strategic. The right-wing uprising and entrenchment of the last forty years forced liberals into a defensive position, protecting the gains made during the New Deal and Great Society heydays. In our desperate attempt to protect Social SecuSecurity, Medicare, and the tattered remains of the social safety net, the Democratic Party was able to abandon the progressive base and scare usv into voting against even more destructive Republicans. This has been disastrous for liberals no less than Democrats themselves. The bottom line is, you can’t win by playing defense. The best you can do is delay your defeat.
The defining challenges of our time include the instability of a global economy moving away from human manufacturing and toward greater automation, artificial intelligence, and decentralization. The nation-state, as an economic regulator, is breaking down. Cyberspace has emerged as a locus of economic, political and cultural conflict and power struggles. In the meantime, global climate change, the threat of pandemic, and the toxification of global ecosystems are imminent concerns of modern life. A liberalism that stopped innovating in the 1960’s is not prepared to meet any of these challenges.
While liberty, justice, tolerance and reason are foundational elements of left-liberalism, these concepts must be made relevant to a more global, technologically integrated, multi-cultural world. In the meantime, we must continue to deal with issues that should have been resolved a hundred years ago, such as racism and economic injustice.
Conservatives have no answers for these challenges except to offer a dystopian update on their traditional social Darwinism. Their corporatist agenda and new feudalism are outrageously and universally unpopular. Because of this, conservatives are reduced to two strategies: lying and inciting fear.
Consequently, it is incumbent upon left-liberals to offer an alternative vision (as opposed to the alternative facts that drive The Right). The left must stand for truth, reason, and community. This means developing a new social contract that brings our diverse constituency together, framing this social contract in order to educate others outside of the left, and engaging aggressively in the ensuing debate. Look, we are not going to convince the Deplorables. They are snug in their insular bubbles. However, if we are to find our way politically, we must reach out from our own bubbles and form networks with the vast number of peoples, often unregistered, uncommitted, disenchanted and disengaged, that the left stands with them, that the left stands for something better. We must educate those who act against their own interests, and the interests of all of us, out of ignorance and fear.
Furthermore, we cannot discredit our movement by using right-wing strategies. Lies, deception, fake news are the tools of the right. A movement sprung from the Enlightenment must be dedicated to truth. We must police ourselves, as every liberal engages in this base form of gamesmanship discredits the movement as a whole in ways that are simply not true for conservatives who do the same. When you are trying to change the world, you must have the facts on your side. The Truth does not always win out. This is clear. Reality, however, always asserts itself, even if the results are calamitous to those involved.
Nor can the left countenance ignorance and violence, anger or hatred. Our movement is must be a positive and constructive endeavor. That’s why vandals like the Black Bloc, or those who might advocate violence against our perceived “enemies” must be soundly and loudly repudiated. Violence and fear may be effective tools of the right, but the left must stand for something more. The powerful will always have the advantage of might. Those who wish to stand in the face of power have their numbers and their ideas. Both of which must be cultivated by the left if it is to win against entrenched power.
President Obama was no leftist. It’s unreasonable to assume that this fact will change post-presidency. However, his Farewell Address has a lot to offer the left in terms of planning for an uncertain future.