Friday, February 26, 2010

Low information democracy

Since so much of far-right politics in the United States is based on Southern segregationist models, Gene Lyons' perspective from his familiarity with Arkansas segregationist fanatic networks is particularly valuable. In When Democrats take power, paranoia blooms Salon 02/24/10, he explains that you don't have to be condescending to recognize that many American voters really are "low-information" when it comes to relevant facts they need to know in making their votes:

Back in early 2003, with war fever against Iraq heating up, another survey showed that something like 19 percent of Americans could locate that nation on a world map. No wonder the Bush administration found it easy to persuade two-thirds of the population that Saddam Hussein masterminded the 9/11 attacks. He was the designated villain destined to confront Bruce Willis in hand-to-hand combat at the end of the movie, was he not?
I would add here that despite the lack of knowledge about Iraq, a clear majority even in early 2003 still opposed going to war without UN approval.

And he makes a point that Bill Clinton made in a speech at UC-Berkeley that same day (maybe he was listening to the Webcast):

Ignorant, frightened people are notoriously easy to fool. Manipulated by demagogues who assure them of their innocence and wisdom, in troubled times they're tempted by conspiracy theories and miracle cures. So it is with many citizens interviewed in New York Times reporter David Barstow's extraordinarily revealing article "Tea Party Lights Fuse for Rebellion on Right." (link added)
No, Gene isn't worried about offending the delicate feeling of Patriot militia nuts and Glenn Beck fans:

What we have here is less a political than a community mental-health problem. We've seen it all before. Paranoia blooms whenever Democrats take power in Washington. Remember militiamen fearful of U.N. black helicopters during Bill Clinton's first term? Remember "backward masking"? Procter & Gamble accused of Satanism? Same thing. To an excitable minority, particularly in the South and intermountain West, apocalyptic fads are encoded in their religious DNA.
I do have some reservations about his optimistic conclusion, though:

For the Obama administration, the best policy is steady as she goes. As Charles Mackay put it as long ago as 1841, "Men ... go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." As the economy gradually improves, Interpol cops fail to appear, guns aren't confiscated, the Internet percolates along and internment camps fail to materialize, most tea partiers will gravitate quietly back to TV evangelists and conservative Republicanism.
After all, it was the conspiracy-mongering Republican right of the 1990s that paved the way for the Scalia Five to give the Presidency to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and for the low-information public response to the Iraq War.

As long as the Republican Party is heavily dependent on rightwing crackpots and conspiracists, they will keep pushing the country more and more in an authoritarian direction. We see even now that the Obama administration isn't willing to prosecute known criminals - not even Dick Cheney who brags on TV about committing war crimes - and has basically left all of the legal structure for extreme government secrecy and for the torture program and abuse of prisoners in place, in some cases strengthening it. The massive NSA surveillance goes on, now legalized by Congress.

The political pendulum may have swung to the left in 2008. But that doesn't mean that it has offset the Bush administration's swing to authoritarianism.

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