There are moments when I really wish that my brilliant Political Science professor from my days at Carroll were still alive, so I could have his insight about what seems to be the increasing irrationality of American politics. Parties like the Know Nothings made sense in an era before universal literacy and public education, and Americans from the times of the witch trials, if not before, have shown a penchant for accepting irrational conspiratorial ideas, but it seems like many Americans are even more prone to accepting the most absurd ideas as fact and embracing increasingly irrational explanations for events on the world stage. We’re all familiar with the TEA Party crowd who believe that the president is a Muslim, and that the government is poisoning us with chemtrails, but it’s a phenomenon not limited to the right.
Just as those conservatives are bizarrely more likely to be wrong and believe they are right, there seems to be a resurgence of people who present themselves as the “enlightened left,” who use the Internet to disseminate increasingly shrill and irrational claims about the nature of the world. You can usually spot them in the wild by their reliance on entirely absurd sources, their credulous acceptance of the most juvenile conspiracy theory, their use of words like “sheeple,” and their fondness for pseudonyms, no doubt chosen to protect them from the police state that is watching their 60 hit a day WordPress.com site. And just like the members of the ill-informed reactionary right, they respond to criticism with anger and accusations that are typically the hallmark of people whose defensiveness hides the knowledge that they probably know less than they think they do.
To show how sophisticated their thinking is, the members of the enlightened left repeatedly assert that the American political system is mere theater, that politicians of both parties merely create and exploit “wedge issues” that are designed to distract those of us who aren’t as sophisticated as the crowd who read the Sparknotes version of Manufacturing Consent and imagine that only they understand the true nature of politics.
While politicians of both parties certainly employ wedge issues to drive favorability ratings one way or another, it takes a special kind of privileged stupidity endemic in straight white men to believe that politics don’t matter. As it turns out, when one party makes small, halting, and inadequate steps to treat the LGBTQ community as human beings and the other endorses the idea that they should not be able to marry, teach children, or even live, it’s not a “wedge issue”; it’s a matter of life and death. When one party largely protects women’s rights to reproductive freedom and the other argues that women should not even have autonomy over their bodies when they have been sexually assaulted, it’s not a “wedge issue”; it’s a matter of life and death. When one party wants to defund homeless shelters, privatize the safety net before eliminating it, end public education, and completely strip protections from endangered species while the other fights, often incompletely, to protect human beings and the environment, those are not “wedge issues”; they are matters of life and death.
But none of this matters to the members of the enlightened left, who refuse to accept that political action has—and does—work. Cloaked in their privilege, not having to worry about losing their next paycheck, being deprived of equal rights, or even of losing their lives, they dismiss the political system that is the best, if not only tool, for helping the millions in our country who faces those risks every day.
Where many I admire offer trenchant, sensible critiques of the politically calculated timidity of the Democratic Party, the enlightened left, in a desperate bid for moral and intellectual superiority, only seems to offer a nihilistic, absolutist position that offers nothing but the smug posturing of those who have little to fear.
In general, the truth is that we’d be better off ignoring them. Their irrational anger and logic-free claims have little appeal outside a small group of similarly privileged, similarly ignorant inactivists who somehow imagine that posting diatribes online to the same small audience will change the world. They don’t trouble themselves with understanding domestic or foreign policy, preferring to throw around words like “Zionist,” “hegemony,” and “NeoLiberal” as if those are actual arguments, not just poorly understood catchphrases.
Unfortunately, though, the members of the enlightened left can’t be ignored, because their idiocy actually empowers the most reactionary elements of our political system. The shock troops in conservative radio and Fox News, who shape Republican policy in this country, use the arguments of the enlightened left to discredit actual progressivism. When members of that community seriously suggest that the Paris attacks may have been staged or didn’t happen, as some have, conservatives use that irresponsible and moronic rhetoric to attack progressives as a whole. When they defend a brutal and autocratic regime in Russia, as some seem very inclined to do, it’s used by conservatives to suggest that liberals as a whole don’t understand the real world. If you spend any time watching Fox or listening to Rush Limbaugh, you’ve no doubt seen the way they use the arguments these people present as representative of the way liberals think, providing a platform from which to attack the policies and proposals of the real left in this country.
Had these enlightened inactivists actually read Chomsky, they’d understand exactly how they are being used by the conservatives to drive even more reactionary policies in this country.
To be clear, I have no beef with radicals. There are countless people who are braver than I am, who have put their lives and security on the line for racial, economic, and/or human justice, and who powerfully critique the flaws of the American political and economic system. Radicals have always been the agents for real social change in this country, from the abolition of slavery to the transformation of attitudes and laws about LGBTQ people. I should be fighting harder and doing more, and none of what I’m writing here should be misconstrued as an attack, as it no doubt will be, on people to my left and right who are fighting for what they believe in. I even admire people with whom I’ve had bitter arguments here and whose views I do not share, because they fight inside and outside of the political system to effect the change they seek.
And all this takes me back to wishing I had some better answers about where we’re headed and whether or not all of this irrationality matters. Are we witnessing the real emergence of more irrationality in our political lives, or is it simply that the Internet provides a platform for the same cranks who used to post billboards on their farms to spread their messages to a slightly wider audience? And is the most effective way to deal with them to call out their positions and lies or to treat them the same way many people deal with their uncle who gets his “news” from Rush Limbaugh at Thanksgiving, with polite, bemused silence?
I can’t answer for the rest of you, but as for me, I’m done engaging with them. I’ve said I’d stop engaging before, but there comes a time when one recognizes the futility of responding to irrationality with reason. Irrationality poisons political discussion just as powerfully as does hatred, and the truth is that some of these people’s anger actually frightens me just a little bit. I worry for them, and I worry just a bit for the people who make the mistake of engaging with them.