Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Greed for something they'll never have

An excellent article in the Huffington Post the other day said a few things about the way conservatives think. It was a brilliant article (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/george-lakoff/a-good-week-for-science_b_470500.html) in that it laid out how conservatism and liberalism are much more biological in nature. Specifically, conservatism is rooted in fear and reacts most strongly to external threats. (I oversimplify.)

What does that mean for the Tea Party movement? I know they're reacting like spastic lemmings to the code words of "socialism" and so on, rending their figurative garments and figuratively gnashing their teeth over their perceived loss of freedom and the death of America. It's plain to see that there's a gripping fear underneath it, irrational though it is; modern conservatism needs an enemy, seems to thrive on having an enemy, really, and cannot justify its existence without one. They lost their dearest enemy when the Soviet Union fell, and searched for something to replace it. Well, they didn't so much replace it as transpose it to the Democrats. Their enemy is still there, it's still the Communists, only they've decided to rebrand the Democratic Party as Communists so that their worldview is still intact.

In order to make Democrats Communists, though, an elaborate and false scaffold has to be built on which to hang this. None of the Tea Party people (they're now offended by the name, "tea baggers," that they gave themselves at the outset) seem to be able to vocalize exactly what dire consequences await if the Democrats get their way, referring in generalities to "government control" and so on. They don't have an architecture for this accomplishment, in the same way the gun fanatics live in constant fear that the Gummint will try to take away their guns...not comprehending the logistical impossibility of such a task. They don't seem to be able to make the leap from, say, health care for all to Soviet-style (or, from some, Nazi-style) control without a structure of false beliefs and logical inconsistencies that beggar description. I feel sorry for them, in a way: how terrible it must be to live in constant terror, and to need to live in constant terror to constantly validate their beliefs.

That's the success of hate radio, by the way: its audience is in constant need of validation. This is why liberal talk radio doesn't succeed as well. Liberals and progressives don't need to be coached, 24/7, that something is out to take away everything they have, or ever will have. Liberals can go through their day without having their beliefs hysterically supported.

This leads me to an interesting feature about the Tea Party movement, and really most of conservatism, that defies logic. Many people have remarked in many places that a defining characteristic of Americans is that we like to believe that untold wealth and prestige live around the corner for any of us: be it the lottery, a timely invention, a fortuitous lawsuit, or an unforeseen inheritance, any one of us in America can suddenly find ourselves lifted from our mundane lives and launched into worry-free comfort. That's the American dream: not the Horatio Alger lifting-by-our-bootstraps rugged-individualism dream that with the right combination of pluck, determination, and work, we can succeed, but that at any time a bolt out of the blue will rescue us and make life a big, fluffy pillow.

So when you tell the teabaggers that, for instance, health care for all will not come out of their pockets--that they're going to get something very good on the backs of the very wealthy, to really simplify things--why do they react with fury that the American way of life, THEIR way of life, is threatened? I've become convinced that most of these people, who can't put together a plan that gets them from average life to stellar life, feel that the wealth they might have is threatened. Obama-style reforms don't threaten their way of life at all: they threaten the hazy dream of one day having everything they want at no effort at all.

So they don't want you to have something that they don't have, either. They want to keep to themselves all the wealth they don't, and won't ever, receive. There is in America a very real terror that people in the same economic strata might possibly get something without having earned it, even though they hope for the same thing themselves. They're afraid of being taxed to support the losers...once they become rich enough that the tax applies to them.

Like my earlier summary, this is a very strong oversimplification. Of course there's much more to the Tea Partiers than just the dread that someone, somewhere, might get a benefit they don't have. There's subtle racism behind a lot of it, a lot of media manipulation, a great amount of untruth, no small amount of gullibility, and a very great amount of uncertainty that comes from a roller-coaster economy. Factor into this the knowledge that our economy is supported on China's good graces, that we don't produce much of anything in this country anymore, that within one generation we've gone from the standard that even a high-school dropout could get a factory job and support a family to the frightening reality of most of those jobs being relocated to southeast Asia, and there's an understandable subcurrent of fear in every American's life. But to get Americans to reject their own best interests in favor of the wealthy took an amazing amount of trickery, orchestrated by the wealthy and their industries. And the Tea Party movement swallowed it like cherry-flavored arsenic.

It took a lot of doing to get Americans to think that something that will bring them a better life in reality is evil because it threatens the security of luxury they daydream of. But they did it.