The first Democratic presidential primary debate was a great example of “normal politics” in action. To that end, the participating candidates -- Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O'Malley, Jim Webb, and Lincoln Chafee -- had a mostly intelligent discussion of matters of public concern, and their various approaches to addressing those issues. Compared with this year’s crop of Republican candidates, none of the Democrats on stage offered any comment or idea that would leave a reasonable person to believe that they were a threat to the safety, security, or future of the republic.
However, the question remains: Will the normal, functional politics of the Democratic Party be enough to win over the persuadable Independents and undecided voters in the 2016 election.
Normal politics in the Age of Obama face a daunting and dangerous foe. The power and appeal of the Republican Party lies in how its consultants and media accomplices have created a highly entertaining and confusing type of absurdist political theater. While wealth and income inequality are central to America’s political polarization and dysfunction, the alternate reality cultivated by political leaders and right-wing media has a heavy impact on a political culture where broken politics is not just an aberration or outlier, but rather the norm.
Movement conservatism is compelling for so many people because of its visceral emotional appeal, and how the mindsets of conservative authoritarians are oriented toward accepting a Manichaean, binary, fear-centered, and dominance-oriented perspective of the world.
Moreover, movement conservatism is obsessed with protecting “real America.” This functions both as salvation and as something at risk by “liberals,” “progressives,” people of color, immigrants, gays, or whatever other group is viewed as a threat to the status quo of the "good old days.” Alas, this “real America” never truly existed.
Nevertheless, this illusory world must be protected at all costs because it is central to the “politics of disorientation,” a vaudevillian and spectacular political belief system that today’s conservatism uses to make sense of the world.
The politics of disorientation has several elements:
Apocalypticism: Historian Richard Hofstadter, most famously in his seminal work "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," noted how conservatives, even in the 1950s and 1960s, were creating a cult-like political system that prized orthodoxy over critical thought, alternative evidence, or empirical reality. This is the shadow under which the politics of disorientation operates for movement conservatives. On this point, historian Robert Toplin explains at the History News Network how:
Individuals who seek a broader understanding of the present political standoff in Washington may find Hofstadter’s judgments thought-provoking.
Richard Hofstadter recognized that evangelical leaders were playing a significant role in right-wing movements of his time, but he noticed that a “fundamentalist” style of mind was not confined to matters of religious doctrine. It affected opinions about secular affairs, especially political battles. Hofstadter associated that mentality with a “Manichean and apocalyptic” mode of thought. He noticed that right-wing spokesmen applied the methods and messages of evangelical revivalists to U.S. politics. Agitated partisans on the right talked about epic clashes between good and evil, and they recommended extraordinary measures to resist liberalism. The American way of life was at stake, they argued. Compromise was unsatisfactory; the situation required militancy. Nothing but complete victory would do.
Spectacle: The culture of illusion and distraction, wherein entertainment is a stand-in for full and authentic human experiences, enables the Reality TV-esque popularity of demagogues like Donald Trump, and the litany of ridiculous policy positions -- again divorced from empirical fact or reality -- offered by the leading Republican candidates. Here, Fox News, a “news” operation that has made right-wing talking points interchangeable with “facts,” represents the culture of illusion in full operation. That Fox News is America's highest rated “news station” and actually has the most ignorant and uninformed viewership of any major news media outlet, signals to how entertainment is confused with substance in the culture of illusion and distraction. The masses are asses in such a system, not because such behavior is “natural,” but because such behavior is normalized and encouraged.
The right-wing media is one of the most effective propaganda operations in modern history.
Lies and Deception: The Right-wing media, the elites in the Republican Party, and its various interest groups, are engaged in a systematic campaign of deception toward the American people. This is philosopher Leo Strauss’s theories on truth and leadership in action.
As explained by political writer Jim Lobe:
…Not only did Strauss have few qualms about using deception in politics, he saw it as a necessity. While professing deep respect for American democracy, Strauss believed that societies should be hierarchical – divided between an elite who should lead, and the masses who should follow. But unlike fellow elitists like Plato, he was less concerned with the moral character of these leaders. According to Shadia Drury, who teaches politics at the University of Calgary, Strauss believed that "those who are fit to rule are those who realize there is no morality and that there is only one natural right – the right of the superior to rule over the inferior."
This dichotomy requires "perpetual deception" between the rulers and the ruled, according to Drury. Robert Locke, another Strauss analyst says,"The people are told what they need to know and no more." While the elite few are capable of absorbing the absence of any moral truth, Strauss thought, the masses could not cope. If exposed to the absence of absolute truth, they would quickly fall into nihilism or anarchy, according to Drury, author of 'Leo Strauss and the American Right' (St. Martin's 1999).
Movement conservatives, and Republican voters, en masse, are utterly confused about the nature of reality, and respond with rage and anger when confronted by facts -- a version of the Dunning-Krueger effect, in which where people are ignorant but do not have the expertise or awareness even to know just how ignorant they are -- because they have been systematically misled.
A hallucinatory ideology. This is a dangerous system of belief wherein people are unmoored from reality and embrace distorted views of the world and the people around them, often driven by stereotypes or other types of hatred, which then works to legitimate destructive behavior.
Authoritarian political attitudes are on the increase in the United States. This trend is especially prominent among conservatives. Authoritarianism, with its intolerance, appeals to violence, and eliminationist rhetoric about “liberals,” “progressives,” and any type of “Other,” are fixtures and habits of the right-wing media and conservative political elites.
Hallucinatory ideology helps to create the intractability and hostility to political compromise and good governance that form the brand name of conservatism and the Republican Party in the Age of Obama.
Thus we find ourselves. And the question -- one that has lingered over American politics since the election of a Black and Democratic president drove movement conservatives to mouth-frothing derangement in 2008 and 2012 -- still remains: Will normal politics on display in last week's Democratic debate be able to defeat the madness and insanity of the Republican Party in November of 2016?
Or will a Republican win the White House, not because they are serious people with serious thoughts about how best to serve the Common Good, but rather because they are demagogues, more captivating than their Democratic rivals? The latter is a distinct possibility, as the politics of disorientation are a difficult foe for the rational and the reasonable to battle and overcome.
Only time will tell.