when public fury and fear start calling the shots

October 20, 2010

Ordinarily, science blogs wouldn’t spend a whole lot of time on politics in general. After all, even if any science blogger has a thing for playing pundit, actual science should still make up most of the blog and there are few subjects that take up more bandwidth than political gossip already. But the upcoming election is getting quite a bit of traction across the science blogging world as more and more scientists and science writers see very disturbing patterns between politicians’ attitudes and the quality of scientific education in the U.S., especially when it comes to the state and local level. In an election slated to be dominated by politicians whose scientific education is either severely lacking, or who adamantly promote ridiculous anti-scientific dogmatism, there’s a very reasonable fear for the future of science in a nation which, at least publicly, used to hold is scientists and their work as the engine of its technological and military clout, and economic firepower not so long ago.

Now, anti-intellectualism reigns in the mass media and science that was once considered to be crucial for a global superpower is being dismissed by loud and proud Luddites and religious fundamentalists who lunge towards Tea Party activists, people who are generally angry about anything and everything, incorporating every possible grievance about the modern world into the tsunami of rage they’re trying to fashion into a platform for electoral contests. While according to Matt Taibbi’s much talked about op-ed on the Tea Party, those willing and ready to wrap themselves in a noxious mix of nationalism, pseudo-piety, and contempt, if not outright and broiling hatred, towards anyone in the amorphous entity they call Big Government are just narcissists, there’s more to the Tea Party mindset than that. Certainly this is a crowd that really cares about itself and would really like for you to keep the government out of the Medicare program the same government runs because they like when taxes are being spent on them, but consider having their tax money spent on someone else analogous to being robbed. But they’re also more prone to conspiracy theories, religious fundamentalism, and a general fear of change. Actually, Taibbi partially captures what terrifies them in one paragraph.

The world is changing all around the Tea Party. The country is becoming more black and Hispanic by the day. The economy is becoming more and more complex, and access to capital for ordinary individuals more and more remote, the ability to live simply and own a business without worrying about Chinese labor or the depreciating dollar vanished more or less for good. They want to pick up their ball and go home, but they can’t; thus, the difficulties and the rancor with those of us who are resigned to life on this planet.

Why did the Tea Party set sit quietly during the Bush years? Yes, political partisanship definitely played a role, but it was also the fact that until the last three years, the economy mostly appeared to be doing ok. Even when the first tremors of the Great Recession began, it looked like a temporary correction, a simple rough patch, an idea played up by the government while it constructed its first wave of bailouts and stimuli. But when the crisis really hit and we discovered that the last three decades loaded the government with unsustainable debt while eroding our economy, and that the future would be very, very different than what we were used to, the once tiny membership of the Tea Party was flooded with new members who wanted to vent their unfocused terror and rage to let everyone around them know that something’s wrong, that something’s desperately broken. And as odd as it may sound, I agree that there are a lot of very broken things around us. When the Great Recession’s shockwave engulfed Wall Street, I was writing about the cons of giving banks money in BusinessWeek as I struggled to think of any potential justification for bailouts to meet the desired debate format.

But here’s the big difference between people like myself, who think the political system we have now is in dire need of major repairs and that we’re not ready for the future, and the Tea Party. Instead of accepting that we’re long past the point of arguing against globalization and multicultural societies united around commerce more than nations and trying to find ways to adjust to this new reality, they want to slam on the breaks and reverse a huge country which still steers global affairs into their idealized, simplified past when they were kings and the world was their oyster. And in their devotion to this dream of reversal, they reject anything and everything that’s in the way of their mission as a conspiracy to stop them or a plot to subjugate them. Rather than saying that a cap and trade agreement isn’t going to help with global warming, they say that the warming itself is a hoax by greedy trillionaire scientists and Al Gore. Instead of realizing that scientists can build our future, they dismiss all scientists as pretentious, elitist know-it-alls and cling to fundamentalism. Instead of considering how we’d have to change American healthcare to save money and deal with the future, they declare that the U.S. has the hands down best healthcare system in the world and any attempt to change it is a communist scam.

Are these the kind of people we want steering the country? Do we really need denialists who instead of trying to deal with real world problems simply deny the problems exist? And should we trust them with setting future policies for the military while we’re at it, with their xenophobic streak and conviction that firepower solves any and all problems if applied enough times? In their zeal to return to the Golden Old Days and their denial of an evolving, changing world where alliances and global power structures have intertwined and grown to be a lot more complex than they once were, they can easily make us even more fragile and diminish our influence in global affairs if we let them call the shots. What’s even worse is what would happen if we let them have a run, then elect their ideological brethren because we’re now even more upset with the state of the nation, since the policies the Tea Party 2.0 will purpose will be just another misguided, fervent quest for yesteryear’s glory.

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  • I’m not surprised that individuals like this exist. Having grown up in the deep south, I’ve even known my share personally. Now living on the west coast, I’ve been able to add a few more categories to my oddball list (new wavers, raw foodies, and scientologists).

    What disturbs me is not their existence, but that it appears that in some areas there are close to 50% or more of the voting population that thinks voting for them is a good idea.

  • Bruce Coulson

    People are angry; people are desperate; people want answers. And in the United States, there has always been a trend to look for one simple, single answer to any problem, no matter how complex. Implement it, and voila! No more problem. And despite the fact that this has failed, time and time again, people keep trying to find that one simple answer. And there are always people who see a way to gain power by supplying that answer. If that means ignoring social trends, scientific discoveries, and progress in order to march backward towards a Golden Age that never was, so be it; as long as they’re in power. Science means finding the answers that are correct; not necessarily the answers you want to find. Politics, sometimes, means finding answers people will live with, whether or not they’re the right answers. The two approaches sometimes aren’t very compatible.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    The world is changing all around the Tea Party.

    I’ve long thought that the rapid pace of modernization strengthens reactionary movements of all kinds, with the Iranian Revolution being the prototypical case study.

    Bruce Coulson: And in the United States, there has always been a trend to look for one simple, single answer to any problem, no matter how complex.

    That’s how it works on the TeeVee – every time!!! Tendencies toward simplemindedness in any electorate cause problems, but one which has been miseducated 20-30 hrs/wk for generations is going to suffer much more from collective stupidity.

    Add to that the recent deliberate removal of constraints on corporate influence in electioneering, the rise of a “new generation” of ruthlessly negative politicians and pundits, and continuing economic deterioration across all but the top tiers of society, and the stage is set for some ferocious scapegoating far beyond what we’re seeing now.

    The damage done to science will be only a small part of the story.

  • HikerTom

    This all seems so consistent with the other concerns captures elsewhere on your blog, Greg and fear seems to be driving all of it. On that note, I would like to hear a psychologist weigh in on what it is that makes some people so fearful of anything like rational thought . For that reason it would seem to me that we have entered the Age of Unreason.

  • Paul

    (Pardon the Godwin…)

    Through Europe during the Great Depression, you saw the rise of fringe parties, communists and fascists, ultimately leading to the Nazi’s. It took a particular weakness of the post-WWI German political system, but also a weakness of the major parties.

    I wonder if there are parallels with the US today. The Democrats hold the Whitehouse, and both houses of Congress, but still fail to pass their agenda and now face being electorally wiped out at the midterms. That shows a significant weakness within the party. That, plus the GFC meltdown, plus the failures/humiliation of the two Bush wars. (Hell, there’s even an anti-semitic association of “Liberal Elites” with “New York Jews”, as there was between Jews and communism in 1930’s Germany.)

    If the US economy continues choking for the next decade, will the Tea Party evolve into something that we all look back on, in twenty years, with the same horror that we have for fascism/etc?

  • Greg Fish

    “… it would seem to me that we have entered the Age of Unreason.”

    And some historians would argue that anti-intellectualism was always around, it’s just really in vogue today and thanks to mass media, you see more and more of it exposed.

    “… will the Tea Party evolve into something that we all look back on, in twenty years, with the same horror that we have for fascism/etc?”

    I doubt it. Your comparison of the Democrats to the last throes of the Wiemar Republic seems to be way too much. The Tea Party may have some radical right wing members, but those people lack the support to make a real electoral impact. There are no violent and bloody putches, and the Tea Party spends more time focused on trying to weed out the “ideologically impure” and complain to each other than marching on Capitol Hill. They don’t want absolute power over the U.S. They just want to be placated.

    They want to complain and lash out at Big Government and “radical leftists” far more than anything else. Worst case scenario is that they’ll be a constant pain in the GOP’s side and their hysterics will be aired on Fox News at every opportunity. I wouldn’t even try to compare them to reactionary tyrants of post-WW1 Europe.

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