In his new book Year Zero: A History of 1945 (Penguin, 2013) Ian Buruma paints a powerful picture of conditions in that signal year in Asia and Europe. Much of Germany and its sister nations in Europe and a share of Asia were in ruins and that stark reality, along with deepening awareness of the sheer scale and wanton cruelty of the Nazi holocaust particularly, colored the thinking of observers as the year progressed. That year, too, saw the beginning of efforts in the affected nations as well as among the Western powers to help those countries’ populations move toward recognition of their defeat and out of their collective madness. As Charles Simic observed memorably in his review of Buruma’s effort in the current issue of the New York Review of Books:
Once defeat sinks in, and the lies people lived on for years lose their power to delude them, civic virtues and the renewed interest in the welfare of fellow citizens begin to flourish (October 10, 2013 p.23).
Put differently the German, Italian and Japanese populations had first to disabuse themselves of the myths and misrepresentations that had fueled their collective certainty in their omnipotence and had led to world-wide disaster, before they could begin to move ahead to address the consequences their tyrannical fantasy-driven psychology had wrought, not only for themselves, but also for the millions they had slain or injured, or on whom they had otherwise imposed costs along the way.
I raise this example as a sobering reminder of the effects that can result from absolute belief in an ideological credo or view of the world. The German, Italian and Japanese leaders were convinced of the appropriateness of their assault on humanity and of the parasitic character of those they sought to dominate. We now know the result of the mass “duping” of these populations by their leaders was not only ruinous and tragic for millions, but also cataclysmic in global history.
I also share this reminder of the ugly power of fear and scapegoating used by these World War II leaders to help to fuel mass delusion and to foment world war in order to point up the conceptual similarity of today’s situation in our nation to that time period. I was struck recently (September 21, 2013) when the conservative columnist Russ Douthat argued in the New York Times that leading members of the Republican Party had systematically misled their constituents into believing that the nation’s new health care reform law could be repealed, were they only “tough” enough to do so. This sort of rhetorical game always has consequences, as discovered in World War II. Here is how Douthat characterized the current political scenario in our nation:
Instead, (Senator Mike) Lee (Utah) and (Senator Rand) Paul (KY) were in the news—with the ubiquitous, less innovative senator from Texas, Ted Cruz— because they’re part of the so-called ‘defund Obamacare’ effort, an elaborate game of make believe in which Republicans are supposed to pretend, for the sake of political leverage, that they’ll actually shut down the government if the president refuses to go along with the repeal of his own signature legislative achievement. (How Republicans gain leverage by threatening a shutdown they’d be blamed for has never been adequately explained). Except that the game isn’t make-believe to the many conservative voters who have been suckered into actually believing that the health care law could be rolled back tomorrow if only Republicans would just stop ‘surrendering’ and use the power of ‘True Conservatism’ to bend the White House to their will. This is what makes the defund movement’s style of populism so depressing: In addition to throwing sand into the gears of government for no clear purpose, it’s effectively deceiving precisely the voters it claims to represent.
I agree with Douthat on his specific point and wish to broaden his claim to suggest that it is true more generally of the current radical shift in the GOP. That party and its leaders are now mobilizing adherents around false claims and in a fashion that not only deludes, but also actively creates still deeper misunderstanding among supporters that the statements on offer are superior to all others, and any people who offer contrary views can be dismissed as reprehensible or worse. This, for example, was the clear implication of Mitt Romney’s contention that nearly half of the American electorate could be dismissed as “dependent.” More generally, the GOP has blamed government and governance for virtually all of the nation’s economic and social maladies in the last three decades and has convinced its base supporters, in the South particularly, that virtually any effort to oversee markets or to regulate capitalism’s workings or to take actions aimed at assisting citizens other than those who are already rich, are tyrannical, wasteful or worse. In so doing, the Party’s members have not only misled their supporters profoundly, but also taken large strides toward delegitimating common democratic (government) action among many in their constituencies. Not surprisingly, this effort has increasingly worked at cross-purposes to effective governance and to democracy itself. Consider just three prominent recent examples:
- The GOP heaped contempt on the Obama administration’s effort to stimulate the economy to assist the nation’s recovery from its near depression in 2009-2010, arguing the initiative was wasteful and unneeded. As it happened, a consensus of economists has since declared the government’s effort not only successful, but also have suggested that it likely also saved the nation from depression. Indeed, many economists argue the nation’s aid effort should have been larger, but such was not feasible given intransigent GOP ideology-driven opposition. The Republican Party worked assiduously to undermine the credibility of the initiative throughout its life span.
- The GOP has embraced a sustained effort, on apparently ideological grounds (at least), to prevent implementation of the Affordable Care Act by seeking not only to mislead concerning its status (Sen. Cruz argued in the Senate in recent days that there is widespread agreement that the law’s implementation has failed. That assertion simply cannot be so since the major share of the statute’s provisions have not yet been implemented. Cruz’s rhetoric was not just a turning of the facts to suit his appeal, but a fanciful claim with no relationship to reality), but also to pretend it has actually wrought harm when no such thing has occurred. The same might be said of Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s nearly identical declaration.
- The Republican Party has likewise threatened, and recently managed, to shut down the national government in an attempt to blackmail other legislators and the President to repeal or weaken the Affordable Care Act, causing widespread and wholly unnecessary disruption to government services and to the nation’s economy on the basis of groundless allegations concerning the supposed hurtful consequences of the health reform effort. The House caucus of the Party threatens more of the same shameless absolutism, only this time with major implications for the global economy as well as the United States, in the coming negotiation concerning the nation’s debt ceiling.
These few examples suffice to suggest that the Republican Party’s direction today is being determined by extremist ideologues. Whether they believe what they say or not, these individuals have managed to persuade their adherents, via their appeals to a fantasy narrative concerning government, that much of the nation’s population and a strong share of its leaders merit only contempt. They have attained this result even as they have undertaken a series of actions that did not serve either the country at large or the interests of those supporting them. The GOP has now fallen prey to its own form of collective madness via the profound misunderstandings represented in the ideology that now animates many of its leaders and base devotees. The results have already been deeply perverse. One may hope that it does not take the equivalent of a national catastrophe to bring the party’s most zealous, if deeply misguided, adherents to their collective senses.