Dissonant Notes

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The History and Beliefs of American Populist Libertarianism (Part 1)



Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

... both the U.S. and Soviet governments are controlled by the same furtive conspiratorial cabal of internationalists, greedy bankers, and corrupt politicians. If left unexposed, the traitors inside the U.S. government would betray the country's sovereignty to the United Nations for a collectivist New World Order, managed by a 'one-world socialist government'."

Robert W. Welch, Jr., founder of the John Birch Society

The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory, is that conspiracy theorists believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is actually chaotic. The truth is that it is not The Illuminati, or The Jewish Banking Conspiracy, or the Grey Alien Theory. The truth is far more frightening. Nobody is in control. The world is rudderless.

Alan Moore

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare
” 

W. B. Yeats


Since the 1990s, more and more Americans have taken to calling themselves libertarian. As a movement it had been growing steadily for most of the 20th Century; indeed it could be argued that it has always been an integral aspect of American politics but, until the arrival of the internet, it could never have been called a populist movement. Various right-wing intellectuals had grappled with libertarian ideas through the years, but the Republican Party as a whole still thought of itself as representing the silent majority who looked on in horror during the 1960s as the young behaved in ways that were scarcely believable to those born of a previous age. Devotion to the flag, to the church, and demands for modesty and restraint hardly screamed libertarian, yet it was from this uptight womb that American Populist Libertarianism was born.


When rock and roll first appeared in the 1950s, American conservatives were apoplectic. Young people were dressing in strange ways, being more open about their sexuality, and listening to music which was, at the very least, influenced by black artists. Despite their claims of wishing to increase the scope of individual freedoms, the right-wing in the 1950s wanted to do nothing of the sort. This social conservatism demanded respect for authority and enforced strict moral codes that frowned upon expanded social freedoms for anybody who was not a straight white male. The freedoms sought by conservatives in the 1950s were strictly business-related, i.e. less taxes, less regulations, and less government interference in the market. When it came to increased individual freedoms, however, conservatives were practically the opposite of libertarian.


From this mindset emerged the John Birch Society, a social conservative movement that thrived on conspiracy and anti-communist activism. They also promoted homeschooling and Christian family values while opposing feminism, civil rights, and just about anything which deviated from the white, male-dominated status quo. Along with Robert W. Welch, Jr, one of the founding members of the John Birch Society was Fred C. Koch, also founder of Koch Industries and father to Charles and David Koch, the two billionaires who helped bankroll the recent Tea Party movement (more on that later). At the time the John Birch Society was viewed as a joke by the majority of people, with conservative intellectual William F. Buckley, Jr. publicly criticising them on a number of occasions. It is ironic that Buckley’s attempt to marry social conservatism with free-market capitalism actually helped pave the way for a reemergence of the John Birch Society’s paranoid, conspiracy-laden philosophy in the 1990s. In the 1960s, however, social conservatism and unquestioning devotion to authority became the most public aspects of the Republican Party.


During the 1970s, a battle for the soul of the Republican Party was raging. On one side were the old Republican liberals who dominated the party leadership but failed to appeal to voters. These Republicans were social conservatives who took a more pragmatic approach to the economy. On the other side were the new Republicans who preached individualism, Christian morals, respect for authority, low taxes, and laissez-faire capitalism. These contradictory elements appealed to many US voters who wished for nothing more than a return to the good old days of pre-1960s America. The hero of this new Republicanism was Ronald Reagan, the closest thing the Republican Party has to a saint.


Even though Reagan preached small-government, he actually increased the national debt from $907 billion to $2.6 trillion, as well as increasing the size of the federal workforce by 324,000 to reach a total of 5.3 million (in case you’re wondering, military personnel only accounted for 26% of that increase). In truth, the Reagan revolution was a triumph of rhetoric over reality. In his time as governor of California, Reagan (who remains the only divorced US President) signed bills which, amongst other things, made abortion easier and which stopped California residents from carrying loaded firearms, both of which would be considered political suicide in the Republican Party of the 21st century. Reagan’s War on Drugs led to the creation of a more militarised police force, which in turn led to a huge increase in US citizens under correctional control. In 1980 the total number of American people in jail, prison, or on parole was 1,840,400. By 1989 that number was a staggering 4,055,600. Didn’t Reagan cut taxes? He did, but he also raised them. In 1980 the total tax revenue of the US government was $517.1 billion. In 1989 it was $991.1 billion. Now let’s compare that to government expenditure. In 1980, government spending was $590.9 billion, meaning there was a deficit of $73.8 billion. In 1989 government spending was $1.1437 trillion, meaning there was a deficit of $152.6 billion. In every category, Reagan fails to meet the most basic standards of 21st century Republicanism (Clinton was a more successful president from a conservative perspective), yet he is consistently held up as the patron saint of modern conservatism and as some kind of tearful patriarch turning in his grave as his beautiful vision is debased. Why is this the case? Reagan’s sublime status is the result of the most important element of modern conservatism: complete estrangement from, and denial of, facts.


The triumph of the Reagan years was not related in any way to Reagan’s actions (other than perhaps the fall of communist Russia, a feat for which Reagan can barely take any actual credit) but rather what he seemed to represent. Reagan managed to convince America that there was nothing contradictory about being a Christian and an unabashed capitalist. Even though America was founded on these contradictory elements, it was only under Reagan that the two were intertwined so powerfully. How did a religion whose holy book contained such statements as “Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God” and “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God" manage to demonise the poor and celebrate wealth?


According to Max Weber, the various Protestant sects which dominated colonial America had rejected the Catholic idea of entering into heaven through pious words and deeds. To the Protestants, everything was preordained from birth so going to a priest to ask forgiveness was worthless. You were either destined for heaven from day one or you were destined for hell. In an instant the great power of Rome was undone, but it was replaced by a spiritual insecurity on the part of the Protestants, who wondered whether their place in heaven was assured. Instead of going to a priest for guarantees, the Protestants instead looked for signs that God favoured them. One of the main signs was personal prosperity. Wealth began to indicate that you were one of God’s chosen people, but ostentatiousness was frowned upon. Any colonial Protestants who grew wealthy made sure that they did so in an unassuming manner, lest they be frowned upon by the community.


Victory in the American Revolutionary War led many Americans to believe that they were truly God’s chosen people. Despite the continuance of slavery and the genocidal fury unleashed on Native Americans, Protestant America felt very pleased with itself, imagining that only in America could people truly be free (by people they of course meant prosperous white males). If the Protestant white male in America avoided indiscreet displays of wealth, he didn’t avoid indiscreet displays of power. So emerged the image of the proudly humble, entitled, white American male, pious to a fault but ever ready to brutalise and belittle those whom he felt beneath him. In a sense, nothing much has changed since those times, other than some additional rights for those who have traditionally been denied any, and therein lies the new insecurity that haunts the white American male. The traditional ruler of America feels his power threatened, and when that happens it always means trouble for those who are the cause of the insecurity.


The Reagan years marked the first steps towards populist libertarianism. The extreme forces on the far right of the Republican Party scored major victories both ideologically and with the public, as Reagan convinced voters that Christian fundamentalism and laissez-faire capitalism were the perfect match. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Reagan managed to represent the humble Christian who believed, as the founding fathers did, that government should be limited. Yet the larger change was the full-on embrace of materialist individualism. In America, Christianity finally outed itself as the religion of the wealthy. The Protestant belief that wealth was a sign of God’s favour went into overdrive, and the 1980s became a decade forever connected to unbounded wealth and excess. America threw off the shackles of Protestant reserve and in doing so believed it was returning to the values that America was founded on. It was correct in many ways, but the severing of association with Protestant moderation effectively destroyed the right-wing intellectual tradition in America. Debate about the individual, civic duty, commerce, and religion were swept aside as Republicans put forth the idea that the Republican Party represented the true America, the one that was being eroded by liberal values. In truth it was the individualistic materialism of the Republican Party and capitalism which was destroying the moral underpinnings of white Protestant America. Yet even as it came undone, Protestant America desperately clung to the symbols of Christianity in the hopes of that it would cover up the moral black hole that was opening up.


If Reagan welded capitalism and Christianity together, it was communism which first brought them closer. As the Cold War began to dominate post-WWII politics in America and Europe, America sought to distance itself from godless communism by reaffirming its religious foundations and, as such, God started to emerge as a symbol of capitalism and individuality. It was in 1954 that the words “under God” were first added to the Pledge of Allegiance, in 1956 that “In God We Trust” was adopted as the official motto of America, and in 1957 that those same words appeared for the first time on paper money. Communism made America more religious and, in doing so, it prepared the ground for Reagan and the unholy marriage of capitalism and Christianity. The dreaded House of Un-American Activities, and later Joseph McCarthy, rose to fame during this time, going after some of the most famous names in the arts and sciences such as Thomas Mann, Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, Langston Hughes, Nelson Algren, Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, and Dorothy Parker. Free-thinking artists were viewed as elitist snobs who had been duped by communism, while universities were seen as communist breeding grounds with hapless students unable to resist the charms of their red professors. The Red Scare left an indelible mark on the psyche of white America, creating a twisted individualism which was anti-intellectual, religious, patriotic, and paranoid. These characteristics would shape the mindset of populist libertarians, creating a rigid, suspicious personality that fed on end-times scenarios and the inherent nobility of the average Joe; the white, American, Christian male.


After Reagan’s presidency, Bush Sr. and Clinton were cautiously conservative by comparison. Indeed, by Republican standards, Bill Clinton’s achievements dwarfed those of Reagan by quite some margin. Yet Clinton was hated by Republicans and in 1998 he became only the second president in the history of America to be impeached. The anger generated against Clinton represented something beyond mere difference of opinion in a political sense. Despite his ability to balance the budget and bring economic growth, a feeling began to emerge among many Republicans that Clinton was truly immoral and as such he had to be brought down by any means necessary. As a political tactic it moved from merely attacking a person’s political beliefs to instead insinuating something truly hostile at the heart of America. The tactic ultimately failed, but as the internet began to take off in a big way it set the tone for future Republican attacks on Barack Obama. Internet chat pages allowed isolated individuals to interact with those of a similar mindset and helped facilitate the return of John Birch-inspired paranoia. Websites dedicated to conspiracy theories multiplied at an alarming rate, but the true beginning of modern conspiracy theory was the 9/11 attack, an event which coincided with the presidency of George W. Bush.

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