The Marketplace of Ideas is Closed for Business


If nothing else, the political climate of the last decade, culminating in the absurd election of a man who shouldn’t have even received a postcard of the White House, let alone permission to live in “the dump”, has revealed a depressing yet unavoidable truth. It is now undeniable that what was once vaunted as a marketplace of ideas is now nothing more than a boarded up strip-mall, another rotting relic of democracy in decay. Instead of a bustling, dynamic and competitive marketplace where strong ideas attract the most “buyers” and the weakest and outdated concepts fade into obscurity, Americans are opting for a more placid and comfortable ideological environment. Like lost children, we are increasingly embracing what I call Idea Cults.

Marketplaces are too hectic, too stimulating, too competitive. Participating in the marketplace of ideas requires reason, a deep knowledge base, discernment and an exhausting openness of mind, not to mention the time and cerebral reserves dedicated to each. The advent of the information superhighway only complicates the market with a relentless sprawl of information without horizon. We are confronted by shelves stacked with efficient and equally well-packaged products, little guidance and less time between acquiring an idea and Tweeting our purchases for the world to see. It’s too much.

Consequently, we find comfort in these Idea Cults where everything we need is sanctified by the leadership and delivered to us for mindless consumption. There’s no complexity, no competition. All we have to do is accept, without question, the purity of these True Ideas and condemn any contradiction to our incorrigible propositions not as simply wrong or misguided, but as apostasy. We can join the warm embrace of the cult, but we cannot stray from its dictates. There is no sympathy with the outside world. There is nothing to debate. The opposition can be dismissed as fake news, biased, duped by the liberalmediaacademicelite-rightwingconservativepropagandamachine. Reasoned argument and discourse? We have left that world behind, cleansed ourselves in a prepackaged truth and now must preserve our purity.

These idea cults have been in the making for a long time. Yellow Journalism and the competition between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst is the best guess for the origins of idea cults, where the goal was to sell papers and dominate markets rather than inform the citizenry. This first phase likely reached its apex with the World War I propaganda complex such as that formed by the Creel Commission in the United States (Committee on Public Information).  Progressive advocates of scientifically technocratic propaganda like Walter Lippmann, as well as the advent of modern advertising, lay the foundation for linking regimes of knowledge (to borrow from Foucault) to personal identity.

With that groundwork in place, however, the origin of contemporary Idea Cults is most likely the Nixon Campaign’s 1968 Southern Strategy. This was a concerted and brilliant construction of conservatism as something more than just a political ideology but as an identity.  This movement reached its maturity under Ronald Reagan and the New Right’s assault against anything liberal. The New Right alliance of business interests, Christian evangelicals and disaffected whites was able to apply great pressure on the media to normalize right wing rhetoric and to create a false equivalence between social facts and political discourse. Any attempt to ignore or to criticise right wing talking points, no matter how absurd, was flogged by conservatives as evidence of a liberal bias in the media. To avoid such accusations, the media conformed to right wing expectations. It was and continues to be a process that Paul Krugman refers to as “working the refs. Working the refs was raised to an art form in the 1990’s as a growing right wing propaganda machine dedicated itself to attacking all things Clinton.

The nineties also saw the advent of two elements that would shape Idea Cults into its modern incarnation. First was the rise of Right Wing media, starting with talk radio mastered by Rush Limbaugh, culminating in FoxNoise. It’s as if Walter Lippmann’s students were all conservatives.

The second element was the internet. The information superhighway was expected to democratize information, to bring enlightenment to an increasingly more informed world. It appears that such hopes were mostly premature. Instead of enlightenment, the overwhelming amount of information encourages us to find select sources that appeal to us. We seek out comfortable bubbles of information. Unfortunately, the information we seek is not always the most valid and reliable, but the most reaffirming. In some ways, we can argue that the marketplace has become too vast.

Idea Cults have three characteristics (note: I’m speculating on this stuff. In essence, blogs give us the opportunity to play with ideas in the rough). First, Idea Cults encourage insularity. They produce their own knowledge structures, news sources, websites, publications. These knowledge structures can be described as a community. These communities also have their own knowledge leaders or go-to people for interpreting social events in the right way or under terms acceptable to the community.

Idea Cults also encourage closure. Ideas, forms of knowledge, regardless of validity and reliability, that do not conform to the narratives approved by the community are strictly excluded. They are discredited not through reasoned argument, but by virtue of the fact that they contradict the approved narrative. In essence, information critical of the approved narrative is defined as apostasy, not to be trusted, not to be embraced, even in part. Those spokespeople who are known to represent a contrary knowledge community are automatically suspect as liars or advocates for a sinister agenda.

Finally, Idea Cults reaffirm identity. Members of Idea Cults are not just people who share similar ideas. These ideas are incorporated into their identities as individuals. These ideas become a part of who cult members are, how they identify themselves. In many ways, this is the most constraining feature of identity cults. Information that might contradict the basic tenets of a particular idea is not just threatening to the belief system. They are a threat the individual’s very perception of self.

Now we could argue that these Idea Cults have always been around in one form or another. True enough. Historically, however, they have not been embraced by such large segments of the population. They have not been powerful enough to shape the overall social discourse. We can see the effects of this cultishness across the spectrum from the Bernie Bros to the Alt Right. The most dramatic manifestations of Idea Cults were evident a few weeks back as Nazis were chanting and saluting under swastikas in our city streets. Watching conservatives bending over backward to avoid criticizing the Alt Right without at least offering an equivalent critique of what is being called the “Alt Left” is an expression of Cultish behavior or, at the very least, the acknowledgement that a significant coalition within the Republican Party are Cult members who would see any criticism as apostasy. In a marketplace of ideas, condemning Nazis should be the lowest possible bar. In a land of Idea Cults, however, the dynamics are less forgiving.

We can also see the manifestation of Idea Cults in Donald Trump’s continued popularity. Yes, he’s the least popular president in history, but his support has been consistent around 35%. His presidency has been an unmitigated disaster. There’s no way that thirty-five percent of the population should approve of this catastrophe, yet they are holding firm. And this is a problem for liberals and Democrats who think low approval ratings predict a one term presidency. This is the floor. Those who do not approve of Trump may approve of any Democratic candidate even less.

Trump approval
How is it possible that thirty-five percent of the population approves of this guy? Idea Cults!

The bottom line is that the fall of the Marketplace of ideas and the rise of Idea Cults changes the rules for political discourse. Our assumptions about the primacy of reasoned discourse and logical argument based on valid and reliable facts simply do not apply. In this knowledge environment (to coin a term) different rules apply. If the goal is to change hearts and minds, then we might be better served using techniques designed to break through to the converted.

But the biggest challenge that we have is to protect ourselves from the cult mentality. Idea Cults are the culmination of ideal social structures, namely an established science dedicated to shaping discourse, ideological infrastructure and a knowledge environment so vast that it encourages insularity and closure. Consequently, Idea Cults are very tempting. There is a growing body of research to suggest innate psychological traits that encourage us to latch onto our presumptions over the facts.

Human civilization has made significant progress over the millennia. We have solved many of the problems that have plagued our species, albeit many of those solutions have been distributed unequally. In doing so, however, we have also created some daunting new problems: a political economy governed by the incentive to relentlessly exploit human and natural resources, a global environment that is being destroyed by the waste produced by this political economy, not to mention the prospects of nuclear annihilation.

On the other hand, we have at our disposal the means by which to create a human society free of want and deprivation and exploitation. Doing so, however, will require innovation, creativity, and compassion across all of our institutions, from our scientific organizations to our cultural contributors to the very political economy that plagues us. There is no room for antiquated ideas. Unfortunately, these requisites to solving our global problems are the first casualties of the Idea Cults that increasingly dominate our discourse.


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