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ontological quagmires in American politics

[N.b., to be fair, these challenges do not apply solely to us, but that’s where my focus will be.]

For Thanksgiving, David Brooks brought us a casserole dish on the “rotting of the Republican mind.” It put me in mind of another article I read recently on the relationship between evangelical Christians and conspiracy theories by Danny Anderson in a web journal called Popular Culture & Theology. Both are efforts to explain why so many Americans on the political right believe utter nonsense to be true.

Brooks opines, “For those awash in anxiety and alienation, who feel that everything is spinning out of control, conspiracy theories are extremely effective emotional tools. For those in low status groups, they provide a sense of superiority: I possess important information most people do not have. For those who feel powerless, they provide agency: I have the power to reject “experts” and expose hidden cabals. As Cass Sunstein of Harvard Law School points out, they provide liberation: If I imagine my foes are completely malevolent, then I can use any tactic I want.

Anderson offers a more targeted view, writing, “In short, the rise of conspiratorial thinking in Evangelical churches is not a bug, but a feature. The same mainstream, reasonable Christian culture which is now publicly embarrassed by the flock’s enthusiasm for Q have, for the last 50 years at least, not only tolerated, but actively encouraged conspiratorial thinking every bit as ridiculous as that of the Satanic, pedophile-hunting, Deep State-battling Q narrative.”

All of these things can be true:

  • the internet (and social media in particular) has served as a powerful tool to produce and disseminate media, strengthen bonds across a geographically attenuated community, and to grow that community.
  • certain recent historical events and matters of concern (e.g., 9/11, the war on terror, climate change, COVID, the neoliberal capitalist intensification in the differences between haves and have-nots, global trade, economic shifts of the information economy, etc.) create opportunities ripe for conspiracy (though I’d argue there are always such opportunities).
  • for 50 years the GOP, hand in hand with the churches of the Christian Right, has deliberately pursued a disinformation campaign targeting their voters while undermining institutions that might help them resist conspiratorial thinking (e.g., schools, news media, museums, public science, etc.).
  • in broader terms, this struggle over modernization has been going on for at least 400 years: religion v. science, agrarianism v. urbanization, parochialism v. globalization, and so on.

We have never been a “Western” civilization, as if Europe was the continental version of the boy in the bubble until the Renaissance or something. There’s Buddhism in Classical Greek philosophy, to say nothing of the more immediate cultural and economic trading partners of the Middle East and Africa. There’s an always already quality to cosmopolitanism that white nationalists and fascists have misidentified as some newly arrived threat (in the form of communism or the latest wave of immigrants). In my view, conservatism, by definition really, is a resistance to difference/change, which is viewed as a threat to self and community. Conspiratorial thinking is a predictable response to a secular, scientific, technocratic, and cosmopolitan society. Conspiracies are a fellow traveler in the realm of magical thinking that sprouts mythologies and fantasies about chosen people and manifest destinies.

Brooks views these differences as epistemic. Drawing on Johnathan Rauch in National Affairs, he describes an epistemic regime as a kind of marketplace where ideas compete, are tested, and become verified (or at least further built upon). Brooks describes “In democratic, nontheocratic societies, this regime is a decentralized ecosystem of academics, clergy members, teachers, journalists and others who disagree about a lot but agree on a shared system of rules for weighing evidence and building knowledge.” To me this sounds very much like Latour’s modes of existence. The problem, as Brooks sees it, is that there are people who are left out of this regime. Being left out has significant economic as well as political consequences, and these are the people who ending up forming the political right. From this he concludes “The only solution is to reduce the distrust and anxiety that is the seedbed of this thinking. That can only be done first by contact, reducing the social chasm between the members of the epistemic regime and those who feel so alienated from it. And second, it can be done by policy, by making life more secure for those without a college degree.”

This argument has some logical flaws though. It may be true that the disaffected, conspiracy-focused political right of Trumpers do not participate in this epistemic regime (though I’d say the question of why/how this lack of participation occurs is not satisfactorily answered here). However, it is certainly not true that all of those who are not empowered to influence this epistemic regime become part of the political right. As Brooks describes it (via Rauch), this regime is largely technocratic: it is a community of experts, even if a wide range of expertise is included. It generally requires a college degree, as the last line of Brooks’ article suggests. However, we know that non-Asian people of color in the US have a lower level of educational attainment than whites, and yet they are obviously unlikely to be Trumpers. In short, Brooks’ explanation is partial at best and that really undermines the validity of his solution.

At the title of this post suggest, I see the problem we face as one of ontological commitments rather than epistemological ones. I suppose I see ontological commitments as more fundamental. That is, our assertions about the nature of our being set limits around what is knowable. In setting limits on what/how we can be, they might also (often also) define what/how we should be both in the present/short term and in the long term (as in a sense of destiny).

Basically when I look at the political right with its spectrum and mixture of religious extremism, white supremacy, and conspiratorial thinking, I see a population typified by a collection of ontological commitments, which I would characterize as tendencies and capacities. [To be clear, any population can be characterized by its tendencies and capacities; that’s an integral part to the way population thinking works.] Tendencies are qualities/conditions that a population occupies across a range of intensity. E.g., a population of water molecules has a tendency to be solid, liquid, or gas depending upon temperature/pressure. Capacities are a larger constellation of potentialities dependent upon relations. E.g., water has the capacity to douse a fire if put in relation to the fire in solid or liquid form, though not so much as steam.

And what it comes down to is that one cannot be a part of this population that concerns Brooks and also be a part of the population that has the capacity to participate in this epistemic regime. They are mutually exclusive populations. Now, I need to be careful to make clear that these populations, these social assemblages, are in no way inherent or immutable. An individual might move from one assemblage to another and the tendencies and capacities of assemblages change over time.

So really this comes back to a recurring theme for me. To enact the kind of change Brooks and Anderson are seeking requires changing the social assemblage that produces this population of beings. There’s a sad irony in Brooks’ realization at the end where he talks about reducing the “social chasm” and “making life more secure.” What does he think this epistemic regime has been saying and working toward for decades? Yes, let’s have a stronger social safety net, better healthcare, better education, and a cleaner, sustainable environment that makes us all more secure. Yes, let’s reduce the socioeconomic chasm that keeps widening between the 1% and the rest of the world. Let’s reduce the sociocultural chasm between whites and people color so that we have a more just and equitable society. Who has been most stridently opposing the efforts to achieve these things? If we manage to create these things, then the political right will feel less alienated to the epistemic regime (as Brooks suggests), but they will also cease to be the political right as a population/social assemblage.

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