THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES shows how it is “the problem of power” that introduces a strong impetus of brokenness into the system of civilized humankind: the inevitable struggle for power; power as a contaminant that spreads inexorably through the system of interacting human societies; the consequent selection for the ways of power; the often harsh demands on human beings imposed by societies shaped by power.
All that is the product of the brokenness that ensues when a species, like humankind, breaks free from its place in the order of life that had developed for several billion years, and then inadvertently unleashed a second evolutionary process that is (in some important ways) in conflict with the first.
Here — in two installments — is one glimpse into how power can spread the brokenness through a cultural system. It uses an insight into the culture of the South to help explain one of the mysteries of our present national crisis: how intelligent people come to hold foolish beliefs, and how good people come to participate in an evil force.
In this first installment, I will describe what might be called “community-enforced orthodoxy” of belief, which we can today on the political right, on those matters central to issues of power. In the second and final installment, I will venture a historical explanation of how the history of power in the South helps explain this phenomenon.
It has been a recurrent question for me this past decade: how is it that people, who are intelligent in most aspect of their lives, can be led to believe incredible things? and how is it that people who show real goodness in most areas of their lives can be enlisted in the political realm — in that arena where the issues of power get decided — to give support to an evil force?
One important part of the answer involves the means by which people come to their beliefs.
My family culture led me to focus, in arriving at my beliefs, on what is shown by the evidence, considered by disciplined reason. It also led me to expect that this was more generally the way of the world than it is, and made me slow to recognize that many people arrive at their beliefs in a very different way.
For many people — at least on some subjects — the most important criterion for what to believe is that it maintains one’s good standing with one’s community.
That need imposes more pressure in some community’s than in others. Some communities tolerate considerably more diversity of opinions than others.
The culture of today’s political right is strikingly intolerant, by American standards, of political opinions that stray from that faction’s orthodoxy. And in this intolerance, it shows its continuity with the historic nature of the political culture of the South which, as I’ve argued in a four-part series, gave us the heart of the spirit that has taken over today’s Republican Party.
This enforced conformity of political belief is why we’ve long seen a “Solid South” — solid first, since before the Civil War, as a stronghold of the Democratic Party and solid in recent times, as a reliably “red state” region.
Only some issues fall within the domain of enforced orthodoxy. People can have whatever opinion they want on whether chocolate or vanilla ice cream is better, or on a whole myriad of matters. But on issues that define the basic posture of the right on those matters that concern how power is wielded in America, the unorthodox position is heresy.
From before the Civil War until a few decades ago, the paramount issues on which orthodoxy was enforced concerned race: first there was slavery, then there was Jim Crow segregation. No white Southerner could publicly oppose the prevailing opinion on those issues without suffering severe social (and possibly even physical) consequences.
Now the enforced orthodoxy concerns anything that the power structure of the right has deemed “liberal.” For most of the ordinary people in my neck of the woods, being seen as politically liberal would carry enormous consequences in terms of a person’s relationship to their community. For many, likely most, it would mean ostracism, alienation from the people they live with, the people they work with, the people they worship with.
With a pattern this enduring, the culture has had the time to structure the socialization of children to impart the patterns that make this kind of conformity of belief possible. The culture has had generations to develop the means to inculcate this basic lesson: on some matters, one will simply believe what the community says to believe.
Thus it becomes possible for a kind of compartmentalization to develop in people’s mental and emotional habits. Intelligent people learn to turn off their intelligence when dealing with the realm of community orthodoxy, and good people will disconnect from their usual kind of moral awareness when regarding the moral qualities of that orthodoxy.
(This connects with the ideas I developed in “It’s a Mistake to Think of our Fellow Americans on the Right as ‘Stupid’ People: Here’s a Better Way,” where I wrote:
We might think of people as having different “modules” of consciousness that kick in depending on what “programs” they’ve learned to apply in each realm of their lives.)
Thus socialized, people will be responsive to the community pressures to hold the required beliefs.
Imagine a member of the white, rural, overwhelmingly Republican-voting community in which I live in the Shenandoah Valley, who strongly supports Obamacare and declares it publicly.
Imagine such a person stating publicly that climate change is real and requires action.
Imagine such a person telling his neighbors that Barack Obama is far from being the monster/traitor/America-hater that they’ve been led to believe by the powers that dominate the right.
A person who took such positions as I described above would be regarded as a heretic, I believe, and would be in some meaningful ways cut out from the community.
Although there is some social pressure in liberal circles as well to believe what others believe, and some cost to having divergent opinions, the pressure to conform is nothing like what exists on the right.
There’s been no “solid North” corresponding to the “solid South.” In the South, if you disregard the voting of blacks (who of course for generations were prevented from voting), you’d have practically a one-party system.
(This right-wing enforcement of conformity — well beyond what chaaracterizes Liberal America — can also be found also further up the hierarchy of the right’s political power system: Governor Huntsman felt compelled to recant his heresy in taking the climate science seriously, and the Republicans in the House voted unanimously against almost everything President Obama proposed. Toeing the line is nearly mandatory.)
The coercive power of sticking with the party line is manifest from the top of the right-wing system down to the level of the base.
The community exerts an essentially coercive power over the individual with respect to those beliefs central to the political force with which the community is aligned. The workings of power are top/down much more than the bottom/up of democracy.
And as we’ll see in the next installment, this “problem of power” here is not confined to the relationship between community and individual. It is also found in the way the society’s dominating power shapes the community into its coercive form.