It seems incredible, impossible. How is it Mitt Romney can tell lie upon lie, hold multiple positions on every issue, and still be treated as a credible candidate? How can the Republicans and all the shadow groups they front for run ads so full of falsehoods and viciousness with impunity? How can FOX, Limbaugh, Coulter, Hannity and the rest of the right wing media machine peddle obvious snake oil and have their audience still lap it up? How can the Republican establishment, their political leaders down to their rank and file, engage in mendacity on such a massive scale over and over again, seemingly without consequence?
Part of it is the sheer audacity of their crimes. People simply can't believe what they do is possible - the classic Big Lie in action. Part of it is the failure of the Fourth Estate - a media that for assorted reasons gives them a free pass. Part of it is public disgust with a political process they don't believe serves them, one where they see no difference between parties. Part of it is the cumulative impact of decades of a determined effort to shape the political narrative to the point that even Democrats use GOP framing and run away from their own principles.
But at the root of it all is a cynical pathology hard at work, a huge con game where the protagonists have found a way to corral all their marks into a political movement for profit and power, and the ability to deceive is the only value they respect. Rick Perlstein has the goods on them, and the picture he paints is an eye opener.
More below the Orange Omnilepticon.
UPDATE: In response to all the recs and really good comments this diary has generated, I've added links to some additional resources at the bottom. Enjoy!
A Small Piece of the Larger Picture
The thing to keep in mind to understand the modern Republican party is that it is essentially a giant con game - and their own supporters are grist for the con. The leadership is beyond cynical - they exploit their own ruthlessly, and exploit the rest of us to the fullest extent they can get away with. One of the little noted stories of the 2012 campaign is how much of the floods of money that have been turned loose on the GOP side is disappearing into the pockets of the operatives running the shadow groups and SuperPacs. (Bill Buck has the goods. So does Paul Krugman.) As Krugthulu muses:
Remember how Rove and others were supposed to raise vast sums from billionaires and corporations, then totally saturate the country with GOP messaging, drowning out Obama’s message? Well, they certainly raised a lot of money, and ran a lot of ads. But in terms of actual number of ads the battle has been, if anything, an Obama advantage. And while we don’t know what will happen on Tuesday, state-level polls suggest both that Obama is a strong favorite and, much more surprising, that Democrats are overwhelmingly favored to hold the Senate in a year when the number of seats at risk was supposed to spell doom.emphasis added
Some of this reflects the simple fact that money can’t help all that much when you have a lousy message. But it also looks as if the money was surprisingly badly spent. What happened?
Well, what if we’ve been misunderstanding Rove? We’ve been seeing him as a man dedicated to helping angry right-wing billionaires take over America. But maybe he’s best thought of instead as an entrepreneur in the business of selling his services to angry right-wing billionaires, who believe that he can help them take over America. It’s not the same thing.
And while Rove the crusader is looking — provisionally, of course, until the votes are in — like a failure, Rove the businessman has just had an amazing, banner year.
Perlstein's Look at the Mail Order Con-Gamers of the Conservative Movement
Perlstein discovered that this is symptomatic of the way Mail Order Conservatism works. After some introductory paragraphs detailing the boundaries of Romney's mendacity, he explains how he got a look into the id of the conservative movement that underlies it.
In 2007, I signed on to the email lists of several influential magazines on the right, among them Townhall, which operates under the auspices of evangelical Stuart Epperson’s Salem Communications; Newsmax, the organ more responsible than any other for drumming up the hysteria that culminated in the impeachment of Bill Clinton; and Human Events, one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite publications. The exercise turned out to be far more revealing than I expected. Via the battery of promotional appeals that overran my email inbox, I mainlined a right-wing id that was invisible to readers who encounter conservative opinion at face value.To skip a bit, Perlstein makes a direct connection between the kind of snake oil pitches true believers are subjected to, and the way the profiteers of the conservative movement have turned their ideology into an equivalent con game. (If you want an example of the kind of pitch they subject their audience to, this link is a good example - and it tries to suck you into a "Survival Summit" pitch.)
Subscriber lists to ideological organs are pure gold to the third-party interests who rent them as catchments for potential customers. Who better suits a marketing strategy than a group that voluntarily organizes itself according to their most passionately shared beliefs? That’s why, for instance, the other day I (and probably you) got an advertisement by way of liberal magazine The American Prospect seeking donations to Mercy Corps, a charity that helps starving children in the Third World. But back when I was getting emails every day from Newsmax and Townhall, the come-ons were a little bit different.
Back in our great-grandparents’ day, the peddlers of such miracle cures and get-rich-quick schemes were known as snake-oil salesmen. You don’t see stuff like this much in mainstream culture any more; it hardly seems possible such déclassé effronteries could get anywhere in a society with a high school completion rate of 90 percent. But tenders of a 23-Cent Heart Miracle seem to work just fine on the readers of the magazine where Ann Coulter began her journalistic ascent in the late nineties by pimping the notion that liberals are all gullible rubes. In an alternate universe where Coulter would be capable of rational self-reflection, it would be fascinating to ask her what she thinks about, say, the layout of HumanEvents.com on the day it featured an article headlined “Ideas Will Drive Conservatives’ Revival.” Two inches beneath that bold pronouncement, a box headed “Health News” included the headlines “Reverse Crippling Arthritis in 2 Days,” “Clear Clogged Arteries Safely & Easily—without drugs, without surgery, and without a radical diet,” and “High Blood Pressure Cured in 3 Minutes . . . Drop Measurement 60 Points.” It would be interesting, that is, to ask Coulter about the reflex of lying that’s now sutured into the modern conservative movement’s DNA—and to get her candid assessment of why conservative leaders treat their constituents like suckers.Perlstein traces the roots of the infiltration of snake oil ethics into the conservative movement back to the 1960s and the rise of Ricard Viguerie. Starting with a mailing list of some of the most committed right wingers in the country, Viguerie built up a fund raising operation to market right wing voters to conservative candidates and vice versa - with a healthy markup. The model being established, it flourished and metastasized into the money machine that drives the con. A ready market is fed a continuing stream of messages designed to stir up their deepest fears and anger, the politicians harvest the votes - and nice little fortunes are made peddling political snake oil. As Perlstein puts it:
Dishonesty is demanded by the alarmist fundraising appeal because the real world doesn’t work anything like this. The distance from observable reality is rhetorically required; indeed, that you haven’t quite seen anything resembling any of this in your everyday life is a kind of evidence all by itself. It just goes to show how diabolical the enemy has become. He is unseen; but the redeemer, the hero who tells you the tale, can see the innermost details of the most baleful conspiracies. Trust him. Send him your money. Surrender your will—and the monster shall be banished for good.It's a perfect symbiotic relationship. The faithful get their paranoid view of the world reinforced, the politicians participate in the con to build their base and rake in money - and the middle men rake in the big bucks in both directions. When you realize this is the basic mechanism at work, it's not a stretch to see why they turn government into their own cash cow when they have power and embrace "pay to play" so enthusiastically.
Romney becomes far less of a mystery in this context. Whatever other reasons he has for lying so easily and frequently, in the conservative political environment it's like the water in which the fish swim. It's natural and invisible to them - it's just there. Perlstein again:
It’s time, in other words, to consider whether Romney’s fluidity with the truth is, in fact, a feature and not a bug: a constituent part of his appeal to conservatives. The point here is not just that he lies when he says conservative things, even if he believes something different in his heart of hearts—but that lying is what makes you sound the way a conservative is supposed to sound, in pretty much the same way that curlicuing all around the note makes you sound like a contestant on American Idol is supposed to sound.emphasis added
The entire article is a must read. It demonstrates why expecting to work with these people is a fool's hope, why they reject compromise so thoroughly, why they become ever more extreme in their positions. Their whole con depends on it. To do anything else would wreck the marketing machine they've built up, interrupting the steady flow of cash and supporters that underlies their power.
Behind the Long Con - Who Are We Talking About?
As it happens, Perlstein is not the first to first to observe the moral corruption at the heart of the conservative movement. John Dean (yes, that John Dean) came at it from another direction when he tried to understand why there were so many people with a complete lack of moral scruples running things. Conservatives Without Conscience was the result. The contempt con men have for their victims is of a piece with the kind of mindset found among authoritarians. Sara Robinson did a series of articles based on the book and her own experiences.
The short version is, an authoritarian movement is a con game that never ends. An elite group of leaders exploits a group of followers through a variety of means. Typically they create a very structured environment, a filter between them and the rest of the world. It's both a strait jacket and a security blanket. They externalize all their failures and faults onto the 'enemies' they've designated for just that purpose. They keep their followers in line by insisting they adhere to group orthodoxy or risk banishment, and they use fear of the outside world to hold them together. But, even as the leaders insist on strict control of their followers, they themselves typically place no such constraints on their own behavior. It's a predator - prey relationship based on a weird symbiosis. Their followers answer to them; they answer to no one.
The leaders typically share a number of characteristics. Here's an excerpt from Robinson's first installment that lays them out:
Leaders and Followersemphasis added
Authoritarians come in two flavors: leaders and followers. The two tiers are driven by very different motivations; and understanding these differences is the first key to understanding how authoritarian social structures work.
Leaders form just a small fraction of the group. Social scientists refer to this group as having a high "social dominance orientation (SDO)" -- a set of traits that can be readily identified with psychological testing. "These are people who seize every opportunity to lead, and who enjoy having power over others," says Dean -- and they have absolutely no qualms about objectifying people and breaking rules to advance their own ambitions. High-SDO personalities tend to emerge very early in life (which suggests at least some genetic predisposition): you probably remember a few from your own sandbox days, and almost certainly have known a few who've made your adult life a living hell as well.
High-SDO people are characterized by four core traits: they are dominating, opposed to equality, committed to expanding their own personal power, and amoral. These are usually accompanied by other unsavory traits, many of which render them patently unsuitable for leadership roles in a democracy:
Intimidating and bullying
Cheat to win
Highly prejudiced (racist, sexist, homophobic)
Tells others what they want to hear
Takes advantage of "suckers"
Specializes in creating false images to sell self
May or may not be religious
Usually politically and economically conservative/Republican
Dean notes: "Although these collations of characteristics…are not attractive portraits, the are nonetheless traits that authoritarians themselves acknowledge." In other words, these guys know what they are, and are often quite unabashedly proud of it.
High-SDO people are drawn to power, and will seek it ruthlessly and relentlessly, regardless of the consequences to others. Many cultures (including ours, up until a few decades ago) have found these people so dangerous that they've evolved counterweights and backstops that conspire to either keep them away from the levers of power, or mitigate the damage they can do (and I'll discuss some of those in the last installment). However, modern America seems to have lost all vestiges of this awareness. Now, we celebrate our most powerful social dominants, pay them obscene salaries, turn them into media stars, and hand over the keys to the empire to them almost gratefully. They have free rein to pursue their ambitions unchecked, with no cultural brakes on their rapacity. They will do whatever they can get away with; and we'll not only let them, but often cheer them on.
And what are followers like? Robinson lays that out thusly:
1. Submission to authority. "These people accept almost without question the statements and actions of established authorities, and comply with such instructions without further ado" writes Dean. "[They] are intolerant of criticism of their authorities, because they believe the authority is unassailably correct. Rather than feeling vulnerable in the presence of powerful authorities, they feel safer. For example, they are not troubled by government surveillance of citizens because they think only wrongdoers need to be concerned by such intrusions. Still, their submission to authority is not blind or automatic; [they] believe there are proper and improper authorities…and their decision to submit is shaped by whether a particular authority is compatible with their views."emphasis added
2. Aggressive support of authority. Right-wing followers do not hesitate to inflict physical, psychological, financial, social, or other forms of harm on those they see as threatening the legitimacy of their belief system and their chosen authority figure. This includes anyone they see as being too different from their norm (like gays or racial minorities). It's also what drives their extremely punitive attitude toward discipline and justice. Notes Dean: "Authoritarian aggression is fueled by fear and encouraged by a remarkable self-righteousness, which frees aggressive impulses."
3. Conventionality. Right-wing authoritarian followers prefer to see the world in stark black-and-white. They conform closely with the rules defined for them by their authorities, and do not stray far from their own communities. This extreme, unquestioning conformity makes them insular, fearful, hostile to new information, uncritical of received wisdom, and able to accept vast contradictions without perceiving the inherent hypocrisy.
Conformity also feeds their sense of themselves as more moral and righteous than others -- a perception that's usually buttressed by the use of magical absolution techniques that they use to "evaporate guilt," in Dean's words. Because they confessed, or are saved, or were just following orders, they can commit heinous crimes and still retain a serene conscience and sense that they are "righteous people." On the other hand, when it comes to outsiders, there is no absolution. Their memory for even minor transgressions is nothing short of elephantine (as Bill Clinton knows all too well).
Dean lists other traits of right-wing authoritarian followers, most of which flow directly from the three core traits above:
Both men and women
Moderate to little education
Trust untrustworthy authorities
Prejudiced (particularly against homosexuals, women, and followers of religions other than their own)
Uncritical toward chosen authority
Inconsistent and contradictory
Prone to panic easily
Demands loyalty and returns it
Usually politically conservative/Republican
I quote at length here because this is still one of the most compelling explanations for the current state of politics in this country I've yet found - but you don't hear much about it. You certainly won't hear anyone say it on the Sunday Morning talking head shows, not if they want to be invited back. It is an uncomfortable picture to confront, but necessary. It also explains so much of what is wrong with the Democrats today.
The High SDO types who run authoritarian groups have managed to make their characteristics into what most people think of as the model for our leaders. The press certainly seems to lap it up. Worse, Democratic politicians seem to believe they have to appear to embody these qualities as well, to appear as 'strong' leaders. They try to portray themselves in a way that will appeal to the authoritarian base in a mistaken belief that broadening their appeal is the key to winning elections - and in a rigged media environment where conservatives have perfected messaging over substance, it's hard to argue with that.
The problem is, they're just not as good at it as genuine High SDO types. They betray their own base to little good effect, and they undermine their core beliefs for the long term. Hence we see the modern DC Democratic establishment running towards a Grand Bargain with the Con Men, and away from the New Deal and the Great Society. Guess who wins in that scenario - the people of good faith trying to make an honest bargain, or the sociopaths without scruples?
There is no point in trying to win over High SDO types or reform them. They are what they are. They need to be isolated, controlled, regulated - and they'll fight it with everything they've got. Their followers are another matter. Robinson details how to reach them in two more installments, here and here.
A few Thoughts to Take Away
We're coming down to the wire on an election that should never have been this close to begin with. However it turns out, unless and until we understand what the conservative movement really is, how it thinks, how it acts, we're not going to be able to deal with them effectively. The biggest advantage conservative con men have is the ability to be taken at face value. This is why they spend so much time on messaging, on framing issues in a way that sells their snake oil. Use their framing, and you end up doing their job for them.
Their power is based on creating a false picture of themselves and the world. Treating that picture as simply a difference of opinion is to legitimize it. You will not find this benefit of the doubt reciprocated - the conservative movement puts a tremendous amount of energy into delegitimizing everything associated with liberals or anyone else they see as their opponents. It's a key element in their strategy of deception. It's like a horror movie where no one believes the person trying to warn everyone else until it's too late...
Reaching out, blurring the differences, compromising with con men, trying to appeal to paranoid victims is NOT going to work. We've got to reject their framing of the issues, stop trying to beat them on their own turf, and confront their lies. Howard Dean's 50 state strategy was the right answer, even in places where the odds of winning were small, because it introduced fresh air into the fog of lies in places where people had never heard anything different. Maher, Stewart, Colbert are so effective because they have one of the most effective counters to snake oil: ridicule. Kudos to Joe Biden for bringing the word Malarkey into the debate - it's long overdue.
We really don't have a choice. Much more snake oil, and there won't be a country left to save. If the conservative assault on government seems so bold, so extreme, a good part of that is their realization it's the last big score they can make before reality catches up with them. The biggest mistake we can make at this point is to forgive and forget - or they'll be right back at the old con game.
UPDATE: Thanks to everyone for the recs and the great comments. A number of people have commented that they've found this to be a valuable diary, and it has apparently connected some dots for people trying to understand the bizarre political landscape we find ourselves in. I thought I'd throw in a few links to some references here for those who want to dig deeper.
The work that inspired John Dean and Sara Robinson comes out of work done by Bob Altemeyer at the University of Manitoba. You can find pdf versions of it here and here. It was this work that John Dean drew on for much of his book "Conservatives Without Conscience", which is an important work all by itself. (It may need a second volume just to deal with the Romney-Ryan campaign and the GOP Congressional Tea Party hordes).
I quoted heavily from Sara Robinson - you can find some more work by her at the Orcinus web site. Although largely inactive, David Neiwert has kept it up. If you scroll down the page, the left hand margin has links to some excellent series by Robinson, not just Cracks in the Wall, but also Tunnels and Bridges. Robinson grew up in an authoritarian family, so she writes from personal experience. (The series on Kauffman's Rules is also well worth reading for some very pragmatic approaches to organizing human activity.)
Neiwert has some great articles there as well. He's been writing for a long time about some of the darker elements of American politics and history. He has some pieces that deal with fascism, eliminationism, Bush, Limbaugh that are all thoughtful and more relevant today than ever.
Perlstein's discussion of Conservatives and Snake Oil points up a problem for the Left: Conservatives have developed a 'product line' which they market aggressively while simultaneously delegitimizing alternatives. The low tax, small government cult they've created has done nothing but deliver the nation's wealth to a handful, corrupted our political system, and will be nothing but a continuing disaster for us and the entire world if they prevail. We need some alternatives. Here are three:
The Spirit Level is a book collecting decades of research around the world that demonstrate that the one big factor behind the quality of life in developed countries is NOT material wealth but low levels of inequality. The smaller the distance between top and bottom, the better everyone does. There's a wealth of material on the web here that documents it.
With the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy still being felt, how we rebuild the northeast is going to be critical. There's a model that needs to be held up for all to see, combining leadership from government with private partnerships, planning for the future instead of relying on market forces, an emphasis on sustainability, AND a determination to rebuild the economy that creates a viable model for the long term. It's the town of Greensburg, Kansas. Almost totally destroyed by a tornado back in 2007, they've since turned the recovery process into a path to a viable future - jobs AND sustainability. They have a lot of resources and stories at their website. Take a look around. Vision is still possible, and so is Hope for the Future if we are going to move Forward.
Finally, if you're tired of the constant stream of anti-government propaganda intended to cripple the tool the Founding Fathers crafted "in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity", you can find a powerful antidote at Government Is Good. Lots of good talking points, resources and links, it's anathema to the Snake Oil Salesmen of the Conservative Con Men. Bookmark it and keep it handy. (And it wouldn't hurt if the alleged Democratic leadership refreshed their understanding of the benefits of the public sector.)
Thanks to everyone for putting this on the rec list. Let's GOTV and take our country back