Anxiety, Willful Blindness and Democracy

            My last Soundings considered the question of the role of epistemology in democratic politics. It extended an argument I have been exploring for some time in its many facets: how it is that our polity settles on common meanings and what factors shape those choices. In February 2012, in a commentary concerning torture and United States policy, I noted that I had read W. H Auden’s The Age of Anxiety and had found it more than pertinent to current politics:

… I have lately been reading The Age of Anxiety, W. H. Auden’s masterful and dense book-length poem published soon after World War II and largely written in reaction to that conflict. In consequence, I find myself wondering if the United States’ recent use of torture reflects a deeper tendency in our nation’s and, indeed, western politics. Auden’s poem suggested that the modern world (or at least, as a practical matter, residents of its democratic nations) has lost its familiar cosmological moorings in social and faith-based hierarchy, and has therefore situated all responsibility for sense making of the human condition with individuals. These, accordingly, whatever their social and economic status, confront a situation of an unending, Sisyphean and existential search for purpose, security and meaning.

            The philosophic turn Auden memorably explored is surely a critical factor in the present role of epistemology in our nation’s politics. But, while living in an age of mutually assured destruction that places responsibility for sense making squarely with individuals conduces to popular anxiety, it is hardly the only factor now at play that might yield fears in the populace. The seemingly uncontrollable and apparently tsunami-like play of economic globalization and the pressures it has placed on wages and the workplace has likely also yielded deep concerns in the citizenry. While I suspect that is so, I am not certain it can explain the polarization and willful rejection of alternate ways of knowing and of understanding by many individuals in our current politics, even when (perhaps especially when) these appear to be more robust explanations of reality than those they espouse.

            I have in mind the persistent rejection by many Republicans of climate change, when each scientific report adds new and still more compelling evidence of the phenomenon and its causes. Likewise, in recent polls, more than two-thirds of the Republican Party’s current adherents take it as axiomatic that torture “worked” during the George W. Bush years when there is no evidence that it did anything but compromise our nation’s dearest values. And again, despite its most recent catastrophic failure in Kansas under Governor Sam Brownback, many in that party continue to contend that “supply side” economics constitutes a panacea for fiscal ills at the state and national levels. In yet another example, the GOP today steadfastly argues that the nation’s Affordable Health Care Act will result in soaring costs and tyranny, when continuing and mounting evidence suggest that the law is succeeding beyond all expectations and certainly not resulting in either of the ills the party attributes to it.

            In short, as potent as they are as producers of anxiety, the twin mega-trends of globalization and philosophic individualism cannot explain why so many GOP leaders and voters are willing to refuse to countenance all evidence that might be contrary to their existing views. More, these same people have overwhelmingly elected to assign government responsibility for their anxiety and to believe that the market can govern them in its stead. In so doing, these voters have in effect been asking something of the market it can never deliver, and meanwhile thereby have also been denying their own governance role in our democracy. Rather than grapple with how to press ahead on their concerns and anxieties with others via their public institutions, these citizens have been content to believe that government is the lone architect of those challenges and should be regarded as anathema as a result. That is, while the realities of philosophic individualism, a wildly uncertain international politics firmament along with its terroristic offshoots and globalization explain a strong share of our citizenry’s continuing disquietude, they do nothing to clarify why so many Americans blame their government for their existential situation, or why they persistently refuse to countenance evidence that might help them address their collective needs.

            One obvious reason these individuals have adopted this perspective is that they have been urged continuously to do so. For several decades now, the Republican Party has declaimed, win or lose, as it has sought political power, that government has produced citizens’ underlying anxiousness and that only more market forces in their lives can address this noxious reality. A derivative of this claim in turn, as Paul Krugman argued on January 19 in The New York Times is,

that the immovable position … is bound up with rejecting any role for government that serves the public interest… And why this hatred of government in the public interest? Well, the political scientist Corey Robin argues that most self-proclaimed conservatives are actually reactionaries. That is, they’re defenders of traditional hierarchy — the kind of hierarchy that is threatened by any expansion of government, even (or perhaps especially) when that expansion makes the lives of ordinary citizens better and more secure.

            Whatever one makes of this argument, and its emphasis on traditional hierarchy surely squares with conventional understandings of conservatism, I can think of at least three other contentions that deserve consideration as underpinnings of so many voters’ willingness to disregard evidence in their collective quest for false certainty. First, some analysts argue that the GOP is the handmaiden of economic interests that yearly give millions to the Party and many of whose representatives now openly argue against all but the most minimal government role in the American political economy on the basis of their perceived self interest (read profits). In this view, for example, the nation’s largest banks have received strong Republican support recently to roll back even modest regulation of their high-risk investment activities because party leaders benefit deeply from those institutions’ campaign contributions. This argument suggests that the interests of a (quite small) group of capitalists are dominating the nation’s politics and doing so in ways that result in higher short-term profits for them at the expense of the environment and social conditions for others. These analysts contend they have succeeded in doing so by diverting voter attention to the supposed evils of government, even as they press their claims and impose real costs on the citizens permitting their course. The GOP has abetted this result by daily aggressively arguing that government constitutes little but a pernicious drag on the political economy.

            Second, some observers suggest that many citizens, blinded by their anxiety and quest for certainty, are far too willing to cede their power and freedom to Pied Pipers of all sorts who promise stability, economic benefits and less responsibility in a trade for less freedom. To press their cases, these analysts usually cite the historic popular allure of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and others of similar ilk who led their people to catastrophe.

            Finally, one might argue that today’s willingness among many voters to demonize their government and shrug off personal responsibility for common good claims is simply a perverse extension of what is otherwise a healthy habit for a democratic people: skepticism of government power. In this view, today’s Republicans have gone off the rails not in preaching a healthy awareness of government efforts and authority and their implications, but in going further to imagine that capitalism can govern in lieu of democratic responsibility and to vilify governance itself in making that case.

            One could point to additional factors that appear to be fueling today’s odd situation of millions of Americans prepared simply to deny reality to maintain a false dogmatic certainty that government is the source and substance of their existential angst. These citizens are unlikely anytime soon to come to the realization that their government is not the source of their ills, since their leaders and those seeking to delegitimate the regime have no interest in their doing so. Meanwhile, the costs of this orientation to society, to our polity’s capacity for shared self-governance and to freedom look set only to grow.