Friday, September 18, 2009

Reality Based Politics: How do you fight people who don't live in the real world?

Everyone has heard, by now, about the decision to strip ACORN of federal funding. Republicans have been crowing about it. The way the news media has fixed on one non-profit political action group whose entire agenda is about helping poor Americans fully integrate into economic and political society is fascinating. It shows that the 'Reagan Revolution' really has fundamentally changed the way America views the problem of poverty. The political debate is no longer about poverty. It's about demonizing and criminalizing the poor and those who would help them.

The way that the majority of the Democrats in Congress jumped on the conservative bandwagon in this case is more disturbing. The House voted 345-75 to strip ACORN of federal support. 345 congressmen of both parties believe that scapegoating this one organization is the best solution to the Republican attacks that haven't stopped since the election? It all points to one basic fact: political perception is more important to politicians than reality.

Republicans, sadly, are still better at reframing reality to fit their political perceptions than are Democrats. In one sense, this is a good thing. We don't want both sides undertaking the same effort to warp reality to suit their political purposes. It would be great, however, if the Democrats put more effort into finding a way to frame reality as it is and communicate the facts of policies that are better fitted to the world in which we live. This problem eludes them repeatedly.

The reaction to the Republican victory over a tiny, underfunded organization that is entirely dependent on donations and federal assistance to function is a bit over the top. Not only was the enemy entirely non-threatening, but it was entirely unequipped to defend itself against the attacks of a national political machine. Even after the victory has been won, the enemies of ACORN continue to attack. Jenn Q Public writes a vociferous assault on 'child sex trafficking' and manages to somehow make ACORN the villains of the modern world of white slavery. I am certain she believes she is calling it as she sees it, which is the scary part.

Those interested can find the best answer to this kind of manic trampling on the corpse of the beaten enemy here, penned by the Anonymous Liberal:

"That the GOP and its conservative supporters would single out this particular organization for such intense demonization is telling. In September of last year, the entire world came perilously close to complete financial catastrophe. We're still not out of the woods and we're deep within one of the worst recessions in U.S. history. This situation was brought about by the recklessness and greed of our banks and financial institutions, most of which had to be bailed out at enormous cost to the American taxpayer (exponentially more than all of the tax dollars given to ACORN over the years). The people who brought about this near catastrophe, for the most, profited immensely from it. These very same institutions, propped up by the American taxpayer, are once again raking in large profits.

But rather than focus their anger on these folks, conservatives choose to go after an organization composed almost entirely of low-paid community organizers, an organization that could never hope to have even a small fraction of the clout or the ability to affect the overall direction of the country that Wall Street bankers have. ACORN's relative lack of political influence was on full display yesterday, when the U.S. Senate (in which Democrats have a supermajority) not only entertained a vote to defund ACORN, but approved it by a huge margin (with only seven Democrats opposing)."

Since he defends those who cannot defend themselves, and condemns those who would play the role of the bully so effectively, I'll move on to the real problem.

Ron Chusid of Liberal values has written about what he calls 'reality-based politics' for a long time. In a post from January of this year, he very effectively highlighted the problem with the modern political right:

"Currently the sets of views which primarily separate liberals from conservatives are 1) support for liberty by the left and opposition to the authoritarian views of the right and 2) having a reality-based viewpoint as opposed to the anti-intellectualism of the right."

It's very hard for me to disagree, and I'm not the only one who gets it.

On Huffington Post, attorney/author/psychologist Bryant Welch attacks the problem head on and holds nothing back in a shockingly clinical description of conservative political tactics and their victims.

Welch says:

"We take our sense of what is real and what is not real for granted. We shouldn't. We each actually form our own unique "reality sense" with our mind that assimilates an infinitely complex bombardment of stimuli from outside us and from within. It is no simple task, and the most miraculous part of the human mind is that it is able to create a coherent reality at all.

The problem is that in times of extreme uncertainty the mind has a hard time creating this reality sense. The mind becomes confused. This can be caused by external events in our world, such as rapid change or inner psychological states -- for example, when we are experiencing strong emotions like paranoia, envy, or challenges to our sexual identity."

Much of this is fairly straight-forward empiricism, with a touch of Immanuel Kant. It's important to keep it mind, however. While 'reality' certainly exists in an objective sense, it is very true that our perceptions of reality can vary widely from what is peering back in at us.

"And this is where things go awry. Current right-wing politics is an art form that is designed to re-define reality for a class of people who are increasingly unable to establish their own sense of reality. Instead, they succumb and become increasingly dependent on someone else to tell them what is real and what is not real. In their regressed psychological state, under certain conditions, many people will accept as real whatever they are told by an authoritative sounding figure be it Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, or Bill O'Reilly."

This is extremely cogent, and does very well to describe why otherwise intelligent people can believe that Sarah Palin is a strong feminist figure victimized by misogynist culture for her strength. It also does well to show why the dark fantasies of Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck are so appealing to people who feel adrift in a world that can't possibly be 'real' as they define reality. However, while Welch offers a clear solution:

"So what should progressives do? Do we have to be like the far right and beat them at their own game? No, not at all. But we do have to hoist them on their own petard. We have to expose the manipulations and the manipulators with a torrential counterattack that is focused on the manipulations, not a message that emphasizes some irrelevant "positive" message such as how important health reform is.

Instead, we need to harness the rage that is ubiquitous in this country because of all the uncertainty and the confusion. That is the energy that is driving health care and most political life in America at the present time. We need to harness it for constructive purposes, exposing the puppeteers and the corporate interests that are behind them. Health care is ultimately a populist issue, but we are not igniting the populist rage that drives all populism. Until progressives learn this lesson they will lose"

While I certainly agree that we are not doing enough to harness the anger in Americans, the reason the left is not engaged in this activity is because most of us on the left want to solve problems and soothe that anger. We don't want to make it worse or to exploit it. We fail to understand, too often, the difference between addressing anger legitimately and indulging it. If we can address that populist anger legitimately, then we might have a chance.

Can we do it?

I have to admit that, as I read more and more of the lies and insanity being spouted on the right, I am becoming more and more angry myself. I am sure that I am no the only one. We need to focus that anger into practical action. We are not in a debate. We are in a fight to establish a view of the real world in those who can still see it and to prevent a genuinely dark force from establishing hold of America. I hate to use that kind of mystical language, but that is the only description I can find accurate anymore.

What can one call an attempt to rewrite reality for political gain?

That's evil on the level of a comic book villain, here in the real world.

What are you going to do to fight it?

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