WASHINGTON, May 15, 2013 ― Spend a little time in the far-right blogosphere and you will be exposed to some shocking insights. The Fast and Furious operation was not just a failed sting, it was a deliberate setup designed to take away your guns.
The school shooting in Newtown was staged. The attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was engineered by the Obama Administration. And, as any reasonable person can plainly see, the Boston Marathon bombing was an inside job.
Though the claims are completely nuts, you will hear them spouted by folks who are as sane as the day is long. A startling number of people who make sound, well-reasoned decisions in their personal lives are comfortable peddling political narratives that are empirically, provably false and sometimes downright ridiculous.
There is nothing new about conspiracy theories in politics, but the degree to which they have entered mainstream political discourse is worrying and unprecedented. The Benghazi and Fast and Furious conspiracy theories have actually spawned lengthy Congressional investigations.
From Obama’s birth certificate to Agenda 21, there seem to be no filters remaining to prevent ludicrous ideas from reaching the highest levels of policymaking. Somewhere over the past decade or so, the politics of crazy jumped the tin-foil barrier and started to influence the political opinions of ordinary people who are otherwise competent, intelligent and even educated.
Reason in politics does not come from the same sources as individual reason. In our personal lives, we learn to shun stupid or loony ideas because we recognize or experience first-hand the damage they produce. Many of the same people who are scanning the skies for UN helicopters nonetheless do a very good job caring for their children, performing surgery or operating heavy machinery.
We seldom apply the same rigor to politics that we bring to decisions affecting our work or families. The consequences of accepting poor advice in our personal lives can often be sharp, immediate and expensive. The consequences of believing stupid political rumors are usually distant, deferred and diluted among millions of people.
We account for the lack of individual feedback in politics by filtering public opinion in two ways. First, instead of direct democracy, we have a system of representative democracy in which we elect trustworthy citizens to decide political matters on our behalf. We hold these representatives accountable in broad sweeps, but we defer to their judgment on the finer details.
Second, a dense network of social capital institutions has always mediated our political environment, filtering out the stupid and the crazy while promoting into higher positions people who show promise in dealing with local matters. The stark, sudden decline of reason in our politics can be traced to the combined effects of a generation of social and political changes that have left us more distant from public affairs, undermined our interest in responsible citizenship and corroded the social institutions that once filtered the toxins from our political swamp.
The factors behind those changes seem to be the spread of a consumer-focused version of capitalism and the decline of social capital.
In 1995, Benjamin Barber published Jihad vs. McWorld, predicting that unrestrained global capitalism would destroy the traditional social bonds that formed the foundation of participatory politics. Barber claimed that consumerism kills real democracy by replacing traditional social ties with an emphasis on individual pleasure. He believed that the rise of consumerism in politics leaves in its wake a choice between reactionary tribalism and a cold commercial society unable to govern itself.
Barber’s work was not taken all that seriously for a couple of reasons. First, as an old-school leftist he was far too skeptical of capitalism, failing to appreciate the degree to which this consumer ethic he hated would bring new freedom and opportunity to people he claimed to care deeply about.
Second, he made the mistake of branding tribalism with the term “Jihad” which confused readers. That mistake inspired readers to overlook the truly global implications of his theories and fail to fully consider their impact on the U.S.
Nonetheless, Barber was dead-on in his assessment of how consumerism would crush older, critical “social capital” institutions. McWorld has evolved into a far freer, more inviting place than Barber ever imagined, but its impact on the social capital that makes American politics work has been even more devastating than he warned.
The consumerism Barber described has encouraged us to view politics as we would any other product. As citizenship steadily dies, politics is taking on the shape of a sport whose sole purpose is to entertain us.
Our enthusiasm for politics has less to do with any investment in practical outcomes than with a sense of loyalty to a team. Instead of representatives, we are sending to Washington a colorful collection of entertaining mascots (see Cruz, Ted). We have moved away from electing trusted characters and listening to their judgment, instead choosing our most enthusiastic partisans and expecting to dictate their every move.
Consumer culture is also taking a toll on the latticework of largely apolitical social institutions that once strengthened the foundation of our public life. It would be hard to find an element of our social capital infrastructure that is not in steep decline. From shrinking participation in kid’s sports leagues to steadily falling church attendance, we are rapidly becoming a nation of people who are, as Robert Putnam described, “Bowling Alone.” With that network of mediating institutions losing their punch, there are few forces left to check the creeping expansion of crazy.
What can we do to stem the tide of stupidity lapping at our political foundations? Frankly, it is tough to say. The forces of freedom and capitalism that are contributing to this problem are also our greatest allies in spreading liberty and prosperity. We do not need to stop them; we just need to adapt our politics to live with them.
Perhaps by merely recognizing the nature of this problem we will be taking the first steps toward alleviating its effects. If we were more conscious of the ways that irresponsible discourse pollutes our political ecosystem, maybe we would take more caution.
Like anti-litter campaigns, simple social pressure against wildly irresponsible claims might bring that critical degree of humility we require in order to maintain open institutions. Perhaps a nation of smart people can have smart government just by figuring how to better handle our garbage.
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