The current political conflict in America is rooted in the same struggles that existed in the transition from the Dark Ages (Republicans) to the Renaissance (Democrats), ignorance and superstition versus enlightened humanism. This assertion may sound like hyperbole, but unfortunately it isn’t. Today’s political conflict emerges from very deeply ingrained, fundamental beliefs of what it means to be human, the nature of human understanding, human responsibility and the rights of individuals in the United States of America.
These beliefs emerged 1500 years ago in central Europe and distrubingly, many persist to this day. This conflict is manifested most starkly in the resurgence of widespread Authoritarianism among leaders of the Republican Party. In this article I provide some background that will hopefully illuminate the reasons the conflict is so intractable and suggest next steps.
• Bear With Me: A Little Background
The Dark Ages was preceded by the fall of the Western Roman Empire beginning in 476 AD, in which very backward beliefs and practices, including widespread ignorance, illiteracy, superstition and lack of reason were the norm. It is called the Dark Ages for a reason. Between the Dark Ages until the Renaissance, the Goths emerged in Eastern Europe as a source of power, including the Ostrogoths, who were headed by king Theodoric, a ruthless dictator. Feudalism spread throughout Europe.
The physical and social infrastructure that had been created over centuries under the auspices of the Roman Empire fell into utter disrepair. Europe descended into abject poverty except for the few very powerful men who presided over small feudal city-states, usually located around castles or cathedrals, which consisted of farmers, laborers and craftsmen. These communities provided service to the wealthy and powerful, and in return, were provided with protection by the local lord or nobleman, who had their own armies to defend against outside marauders.
In the Renaissance, the birth of the modern era, from the 14th to 17th centuries, science, reason, literature and the fine arts and music were in ascendency. At its core, the movement was driven to by a commitment to "the genius of man ... the unique and extraordinary ability of the human mind.” The Renaissance was marked by humanism, which sought to create a broadly educated citizenry able to speak and write with clarity and to reason independently. This was to be accomplished through the study of history, poetry and moral philosophy. Individualism and curiosity were vigorously cultivated. Though honest doubt began to replace unreasoning faith, most Renaissance humanists were Christians. Intellectual leaders of Renaissance espoused an ideology based on reason, ethics and justice, while rejecting supernatural and religious dogma as the basis for morality and decision-making. Virtually all of the advances in sciences, literature, music and the arts that are considered essential elements of modern culture emanate from this period of enlightenment. It was a period of optimism based on the notion that human beings throughout the citizenry were capable of incredible achievements if given the opportunity.
Today’s Radical Right Wing Republican zealots have roots embedded deeply in the beliefs and values of the Dark Ages, most notably ignorance, superstition and deep distrust of objective evidence and reason. In addition, they have adopted early 20th Century European authoritarianism and post Civil War racism of the American South. Today’s authoritarianism grows from the same roots as McCarthyism in the 1950s. Regrettably we seem to have forgotten those lessons of history.
“Authoritarianism” is a word like “Nazi” that raises hackles. People assume anyone using the word “authoritarian” is hurling insults rather than accurately describing reality. Authoritarianism is prospering in the American Republican Party. It is only name-calling if it is inaccurate, but it isn’t inaccurate. In this blog post I use the word to describe an actual very sorry state of affairs of the predominant component of the Republican Party in American politics.
Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson and Sanford’s (1909–1995) book, The Authoritarian Personality (1950), has been nearly lost to history. Their book is the definitive source of understanding of modern Right Wing American politics, and the source of the polarity in Washington. It is a conflict of regressive authoritarianism pitted against commitment to enlightenment and humanism.
Adorno and colleagues found in their research, a cluster of common beliefs and behavior patterns that characterized the Authoritarian Personality. The book reported a program of research that began with the aim of explaining anti-Semitism, but culminated in far more ambitious conclusions concerning psychological bases of prejudice and ethnocentrism. They found that the characteristics of people who were supporters of the policies of Hitler, the anti-Semitic (Henry Ford, Charles Coughlin, Charles Lindbergh) and anti-communist witch-hunts of the 1950s Macarthyism, and of racist politics of the American South (Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond, George Wallace), were very similar. Here are the main elements:
1. 1. Conventionalism [rigid adherence to conventional values and hostility toward science, intellectuals and the arts]
2. Submission (submissive, uncritical attitudes toward authorities). [confusing the role of religion in government, constant talk of the “original framers intent” and “Strict constructionism” as though anyone really knows exactly what Jefferson, Jay and Madison were thinking)
3. Aggression (the tendency to be on the lookout for, condemn, reject, and punish people who violate conventional values). [deport immigrants, punish gays, pregnant teenagers, poor people]
4. Opposition to the subjective, imaginative, and tender-minded. [opposing green energy proposals, stopping global warming, opposing support for the arts]
5. Superstition and stereotypy (belief in mystical determinants of the individual’s fate, and a disposition to think in rigid categories). [true Americans versus other not “real” Americans, such as Muslim Americans]
6. Power and toughness (preoccupation with the dominance-submission, strong-weak, leader-follower dimension; identification with power; exaggerated assertion of strength and toughness). [talk of attacking Iran]
7. Destructiveness and cynicism (generalized hostility, vilification of the human). [despicably disrespectful behavior of Republicans toward the President and other political leaders, hostility toward immigrants, and proving democratic institutions are unable to function)
8. Paranoid projection on the external world (a disposition to believe that wild and dangerous things go on in the world; the projection outward of unconscious emotional impulses). [Islamic terrorism, and the idea that Obama isn’t American]
9. Exaggerated concern with sexual “goings-on,” banning books containing sex, birth control and gay marriage.
• Teetering Toward Totalitarianism
In its extreme form, authoritarianism can take the form of “Totalitarianism” a political system in which the state strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life wherever feasible, like abortion, birth control, gay marriage, private communications, and free speech. Totalitarian regimes stay in political power through pervasive use of propaganda, usually disseminated through the state-controlled mass media. In the US though we have no official state-controlled media, the Republican Party has the next best thing in Fox News and Right Wing talk radio. Fox’s pseudo-news network is the unofficial propaganda arm of the Republican Party and functions like the indoctrination machine of a totalitarian state. Totalitarian governments are also marked by personality cultism, (e.g. Palin, Trump, Cain), and control over the, regulation and restriction of speech, mass surveillance and widespread use of forceful state oppression (as is occurring with the Occupy Wall Street protests).
The longer the American electorate stands idly by wringing their hands in dismay as mayors and university officials order paramilitary police to assault, beat, mace, and pepper spray unarmed American citizens, including their own sons and daughters in colleges and universities who have been taught we live in a democracy with Freedom of Speech, the closer we get to a totalitarian state. Public angst is fine, but action is a lot better.
Republicans fail to recognize the nascent totalitarian image in the mirror when they shave in the morning or put on their lipstick, but they need a new mirror, or perhaps new spectacles. In Corinthians 13:12, Paul tries to express the imperfection of mortal understanding, he compares our earthly vision to the dim and wavery view reflected by a typical Roman-era polished bronze mirror, “Through a glass darkly.”