It looks a lot like it's the latter. We can infer this eagerness to kick down on those at the bottom from how much conservatives of this kind are willing to distort reality to justify their attitude of blame and attack.
Remember Mitt Romney's infamous "47%" comment in the 2012 presidential election? However much that comment reflected Romney's own beliefs, he surely had reason to believe that this condemnation of half the country as "takers" suited the beliefs of the Republican fat-cats to whom he was speaking.
After that 47% remark was made public, many came forward to expose how distorted was the notion that all these millions of Americans were somehow parasitic on the American bounty the fat-cats prided themselves on creating. This 47%, it was pointed out, included not only people who had retired after years of hard work, but also people supporting families, sometimes needing to work more than one job to make ends meet. Hardly parasites.
Somehow, it served a purpose for these rich Republicans to imagine that the bottom half of America were leeches on the body of the American economy.
But on the right, it's not only the rich who seem drawn to this distorted fantasy. This I know from years discussing politics with a conservative radui audience in my part of Virginia.
Summary: Americans think the nation is heading in the wrong direction. My biggest worries are 1) that our democracy is increasingly being transformed by the influence of big money into a plutocracy, and 2) we are failing to act vigorously to address the pressing emergency of global climate change. On both issues, the Republicans are playing a darkly destructive role, while the Democrats are failing to press the battle with the necessary vigor. That pattern reveals the essential core of America's national crisis. (This piece ran as an op/ed in the Richmond Times Dispatch this spring.)
Are you, like me, unhappy about where you sense our nation is heading? Do you, like me, fear that the prospects for our children and grandchildren will be darker than what we have known?
For years, the polls show, a substantial majority of Americans have been unhappy about where our nation is headed. But we don't all see the same dangers or agree on what to do about them. For example, the fear of millions that Obamacare is another step toward a socialist tyranny has little to do with reality. This distraction is indeed just one more symptom of what's gone wrong.
Here are my two most important areas of concern:
** The accelerating replacement of government by and for the people by government by and for big money.
** The disruption of the earth's climate system, on which our lives depend, is gaining momentum, while our nation remains incapable of responding appropriately.
Both crises reveal a pathological political dynamic darkening the prospects for our nation and its people.
The plutocratic threat to our democracy has long been visible, but not in living memory has our descent into the rule of the money system gone so deep.
Conservatives like O'Reilly do have some kernels of truth on their side. They rightly think people should develop good character, including virtues such as discipline and responsibility for oneself. And they are rightly concerned to assure that social policies don't discourage people from developing such virtues.
But after those kernels of truth, their map of the world is dominated by a river of denial.
First, as Jon Stewart pointed out in his confrontation with O'Reilly, they deny how much their own ascent was boosted by the advantages their culture gave them. As Chris Hayes put it in his October 16 segment on the O'Reilly/Stewart confrontation, there are "two types of people--those who recognize they're standing on something built to help them, and those who believe they are natural giants."
(Hayes cited a poll conducted by researchers at Cornell University in 2008, asking people if they had ever used government social program. 57% said no, but the researchers established that 94% of those people were mistaken and had used at least one. On average, they'd benefited from four.)
In his effort to get Bill O'Reilly to acknowledge "white privilege," Jon Stewart focused on the advantages O'Reilly got from growing up in the new, post-war, middle-class community of Levittown. It was a community that supported O'Reilly's becoming the so-called "self-made man" that he is.
Those advantages amount to "white privilege," Stewart argued, because the town was closed to black families (until a federal housing law passed in the late 1960s forced those gates open).
The right-wingers are eager to scold blacks for not developing a culture of responsibility. But if you want people to develop the virtues of discipline and responsibility, it is folly - or perhaps hypocrisy - not to be equally concerned that the society provides those people the opportunities to reap the rewards to which those virtues are supposed to lead.
Summary: Why does that the line from Yeats apply to America in our times? "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are filled with a passionate intensity."
One important reason is that the battle playing out in our politics is fundamentally a moral and spiritual battle, and while the right is connected to their moral and spiritual passions (even though that connection has been made on the basis of lies) Liberal America is not.
Much of that disconnection in Liberal America is due misguided beliefs, including: 1) that "value" is not really real, and 2) that there is nothing in the dynamics of the human world that warrants being called "evil," an "evil force," or "the battle between good and evil."
These beliefs, I will argue, are not only a source of weakness, but also mistaken.
The crucial battle in America today is being fought in the political arena, but the heart of it goes deeper than politics. It is at the moral and spiritual level. The issue in America today is this: will constructive or destructive, life-serving or life-degrading forces prevail in shaping this nation's future?
The battle to decide this question has not been going well. The lamentable core dynamic of this battle is all too well captured by the line from Yeats: "the best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are filled with a passionate intensity."
In response to my piece, "Liberal America, You Don't See What We're Up Against," where it appeared on Huffington Post, one reader posted a comment suggesting that perhaps a reason people don't see it is that seeing it only compounds feelings of despair and hopelessness. He quoted from a new book by Bob Herbert, reporting that in his travels across America he'd discerned "a sense of powerlessness and resignation among ordinary people that I hadn't been used to seeing."
I thought it an excellent comment, and I followed up by raising the question, why is it that people feel this hopelessness. That our situation is quite difficult is part of it, of course, but it is not a sufficient explanation. In those heroic times discussed in "Not Our Finest Hour," there were dark times in which those American heroes might have given into despair, but did not.
So the question arises: why on some occasions do those facing great adversity give in to despair, while in others they maintain their resilience and a sense of possibility?
The following, published in the newspapers of my conservative area in Virginia offers what I believe is an important piece of an another.
But there's something about all the objections I don't get. My critique of Obama rests on a handful of points. Many of the criticisms directed my way seem to me irrelevant to these points, as if they are attacking an argument different from the one I'm making.
For example, some people seem to think I don't realize just how bad -- how determined to thwart Obama -- these Republicans have been.
On the contrary, my whole "Press the Battle" campaign is an attempt to convey that what's animating these Republicans is much worse than too many people in Liberal America recognize. If there is one point I want to convey in my whole enterprise, it is this: "That the Republican Party has become the instrument of a destructive -- I would say "evil" -- force.
What Obama has been up against is not just an "extreme" party, not just the unscrupulous plutocrats who bankroll their scandalous political strategies, not just some rogues who got elected to office. Obama -- and the rest of us -- are up against a rather pure case of the kind of thing that creates historical nightmares.
The the destructive force that has arisen on the right is only one side of America's present national crisis. The other side is the weakness of the response from Liberal America to this profound threat to our nation's well-being.
I've described President Obama's failure to wage the battle that must be waged. But the problem of liberal weakness - and of its blindness - is not confined to the president. These defects were evident among Democratic leaders before Mr. Obama assumed the presidency, and they are manifested, I would assert, by Liberal America taken as a whole.
It is important that we understand the sources of this weakness.
It's not that we don't know how to respond to an "evil force," for this is something our society's culture (popular and otherwise) has taught us well.
Consider how three of the most salient narratives of modern American popular culture put us through our paces-- evoking the pain and outrage of seeing injustice done and sacred things destroyed, and instilling in our hearts the will to fight the necessary battle to prevail over evil and set things right.
But regarding the piece Professor Krugman just published in Rolling Stone, arguing that "Obama has emerged as "one of the most ... successful presidents in American history," I must - regretfully, but strongly--disagree.
Our differences here are matters of how we weigh different parts of the picture. Krugman goes through a list of Obama's achievements - such as health care reform, financial reform, and others - and I largely agree about those.
At the same time, Krugman acknowledges that failure of Obama's that's salient for me, when he writes: "He faced scorched-earth Republican opposition from Day One, and it took him years to start dealing with that opposition realistically."
So which should be weighed more heavily, the achievements or that failure to deal rightly with this "scorched-earth Republican opposition"?
I say it's the latter, and here's my case.
I've undertaken to present this "Press the Battle" series because, believing it might make an important contribution, I feel a moral obligation to do so. At the age of 68, and after a whole decade of fighting against this ugly force that's taken over the right, I'm certainly not doing it for fun.
Maybe now is a good time to explain why I think what I'm presenting here might just possibly help turn the tide of battle. A reader recently wrote me privately wondering when I was going to stop the preliminaries and explain what I'm proposing to do. The fellow evidently has missed the point: this -- getting the picture I'm painting in "Press the Battle" into the national conversation as far as possible -- is what I think is important to do.
How could it be important? What is it about this picture I'm painting that I think could have a meaningful impact on the battle over what kind of nation America will become?
The answer begins with the title here: "Liberal America, You Don't See What We're Up Against, and It Matters."
In the second entry of the series, after listing various components of The Republican Party's Extraordinary Pattern of Destructiveness, I asked: "What is it that would express itself in all these ways?" I described that question as "too long unasked." (Indeed, has it been asked anywhere?)
But that "It" is what we're up against.
This post just adds fuel to the fire of a shameful, hateful cycle of Us vs. Them. Don't focus on belittling people who don't agree with your views; seek common ground and understanding. Liberals cannot claim to be compassionate if they can't find compassion for their detractors. Be the change!And here's how I replied:
The first entry in my series had the title, "#1 Many Liberals Don't Like the Idea of Battle, But the Alternative in America Today is Much Worse." You, [reader's name], are an illustration.
Yes, it would be nice to be able to have a decent world while always being "nice," but not every situation allows for that choice. Unfortunately, history sometimes gives people "the undesirable choice ... either to fall under the domination of aggressors, or to match their power in order to defend what is held dear."
One tool does not fit all situations. So it is necessary to have a diversity of tools in one's toolbox: tools for building bridges, and tools for waging battle.
Seeking common ground is a good thing, and I've already told the story of my background in doing just that throughout the 80s and 90s. (See that history in the second part of this second entry.)