This piece has appeared in newspapers in my very conservative congressional District (VA-06).
Over the past generation, the political right in America has accomplished something quite amazing. Something I never would have thought possible. (By “political right,” I mean the Republican Party and its media allies.)
This extraordinary accomplishment is one that is especially disturbing to me because it represents a victory over truth. And – despite the likelihood that many here regard me as a political partisan –finding and telling the truth have been the paramount goals of my life. (It was only when I saw the lie so often defeating the truth in the politics of our time that I felt impelled to get involved in politics.)
My studies, over the past 55 years, showed me how dictatorships — by controlling the flow of information — can persuade a population to believe a false picture of the world.
But I would never have thought anyone could accomplish such a thing in a society such as ours, where everyone has access to a vast universe of information– including from those professions whose ethic is dedicated to ferreting out the truth. (Professions like science, scholarship, and journalism.)
But starting with the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich, that is what the right has accomplished.
Actually, according to Terry Heaton, a former executive producer of Pat Robertson’s “700 Club,” it started still earlier, back in the early 80s. Heaton describes how he was part of a group of “political propagandists” who “deliberately compromise[d] its relationship with viewers or readers for political gain.” He tells how they trained people to accept propaganda “disguised as news.”
Heaton now recognizes that the trail his group blazed, and that he sees Limbaugh and Fox News as having followed, has led to the degradation of American democracy.
That still doesn’t explain how they did it. I.e., how – despite valid information being everywhere available — the propagandists on the right managed to persuade so many to believe a web of deceptions, a false picture impervious to correction from outside sources. (A mere sampling of these falsehoods is appended here below.)
Part of the answer is that they understood and exploited vulnerabilities already present in their target subculture. For example:
- Many of the supporters of the right come from an American subculture in which an authority, once accepted, is not to be questioned. So once Fox News, for example, persuaded people that they were “fair and balanced,” and that the nation’s real journalists were biased against their values, the people in that subculture regarded it as a kind of disloyalty to subject the pronouncements from their trusted authority to careful examination. Over time, the propagandists could exploit such unquestioning loyalty to teach their followers to suspend critical thinking and to respond instead with emotions that — while also gratifying the individual — serve the interests of the manipulators.
- Another aspect of the subculture is that there is a strong desire to fit in harmoniously with a community of belief. It is orthodoxy, not diversity, of opinion that is valued—particularly on the community-defining matters of religion and politics. To disagree with one’s community is to risk ostracism, Although history has moved away from burning heretics, the pattern of feeling behind that practice has not disappeared. Therefore once a community of belief got well-established on the right – like Limbaugh’s millions of “dittoheads”—there was a powerful emotional reward for staying aligned with it.
- The other side of the coin from community-solidarity is a tendency toward hostility to the “Other”– that is, toward those on the other side of some divide felt to be important. The “Other” could be another race, another religion, another nationality, or – in recent times – the other political party. This tendency has been utilized to discredit all potential sources of information that come from outside that right-wing community of shared belief. People can be taught, in effect, “Trust only us.” A generation of such training has apparently made it possible for the current president to persuade his followers that only his version of the news can be trusted, while all the other news — from journalists across the globe — should be dismissed as “fake.”
Utilizing these characteristics of an important American subculture, the propagandists of the right have persuaded millions of otherwise intelligent people to believe a picture of the world that is at odds with readily knowable reality.
Here are but a few of the falsehoods that– for its own political purposes — the right has inculcated in people’s minds over the years. It is false that:
- the Democratic Party represents something “extreme left” (whereas it is more conservative than the conservative parties in many other advanced democracies);
- absolutism on gun rights is a major bulwark in protecting American liberties (whereas many other societies, as free as ours, have tighter gun laws; while the recent expansion of gun rights has in no way hindered the ongoing erosion of American democracy);
- climate change is a hoax, and/or that moral responsibility requires no action from us to deal with it (whereas virtually all climate scientists around the world have for many years been saying the opposite, and the Republican Party is the only major political party in an advanced nation that denies the science);
- cutting taxes on the rich – the “job-creators”– will make everybody better off (whereas this has been tried repeatedly, with the main results being to widen the gap between the rich and the rest, and to increase the national debt);
- the Voter ID laws are a solution to a real problem of voter fraud (whereas there is virtually no voter fraud of the kind these laws would block, and the main effect – and purpose – of these laws is to prevent large numbers of legitimate American citizens from voting);
- there is no reason to suspect that any crime has been committed in the relationship between the Trump campaign and the Russians (whereas a mounting pile of suggestive evidence gives every reason for suspicion).