People who are participants in human systems that are fractured tend to perceive the problems in the system as residing entirely on the other side of the fracture. But the parts of the system do not evolve independently from what’s going on in the other parts. And when pathology develops in one area, as in our politics in recent years, the problem is best understood as growing out of the system as a whole.
There’s no doubt that something very ugly and destructive has taken over the Republican Party. But that didn’t happen overnight. So the question arises: What did Liberal America do while the other side was going over into darkness?
And a big part of the answer is: Liberal America was forfeiting battles that needed to be fought.
One thing the election of 2016 demonstrated for certain is that the state of thought and feeling in the Republican base had become a highly toxic reservoir of brokenness. After all, it was that base — not the GOP organization — who made Trump the nominee and then provided most of the support to make him president. The Republican Party establishment didn’t want him.
So it is clear that the state of consciousness on the American right is currently right at the heart of the American crisis.
Not, of course, that the powers of the Republican Party are innocent. And it’s not just that, since Trump came along and swept up the Republican base, the Party establishment has shown an utter lack of moral integrity as it has embraced this Republican-nominated President, and has even chosen to protect him at the expense of the constitutional order they took an oath to defend. More than that, and more to the present point, it was the Republican Party (in cahoots with its right-wing media allies) whose poisoning of the minds of the Republican base set the stage for them to look upon a human monster and think him fit to be President of the United States.
From the Republican voters who supported Reagan in the 1980s to those who chose Trump in 2016 was a very long, downhill road. Whatever his defects in terms of policy, Reagan was a gentleman. The man the Republicans made president a generation later is a thug and a bully.
And it is not very hard to identify the means by which these Americans were led along that long, downhill road.
Back in the early 1990s, as Rush Limbaugh was becoming “the Godzilla of talk radio,” he fashioned out of his huge audience some 20 million “dittoheads.” His dishonest discourse pandered to people’s prejudices and inflamed their resentments. For three hours a day, five days a week, Limbaugh trained people in the patterns of thought and feeling that led directly — a quarter of a century later — to those millions being able to look at a lying, ignorant bully such as Donald Trump and like what they saw.
So it could not be clearer that — for the transformation of consciousness that has occurred on the right (a transformation which Limbaugh did much to kick-start, and to which the likes of Gingrich, Fox News, and Karl Rove contributed greatly) — all Americans are now paying a huge price.
Clearly, the battle for the hearts and minds of conservative Americans was crucial for the destiny of the nation. Except one might reasonably ask: What battle? For the force taking over the conservative side was fully dedicated to their propaganda mission, while Liberal America forfeited the battle.
But who could have known that there was so much at stake, when Liberal America basically looked away during the 1990s, abandoning the conservative part of the American electorate to the propagandists who were manipulating them?
And if Liberal America had understood the stakes, and had wanted to join the battle for the hearts and minds that Limbaugh et al. were corrupting, what could they have done.
Well, as for who could have known, I can offer my own example. And as for what could they have done, I can tell what I tried to do.
By 1992, I was deeply concerned with the kind of conversation Rush Limbaugh was creating in the nation. It seemed clear to me that it would only increase the divisions and antagonisms in the American body politic, and that it would prevent Americans from talking constructively together about the challenges the nation faces, and about how best to achieve our common purposes.
(Beyond that, I did not see what that future might look like. And, as I recall, I did not yet perceive the Limbaugh propaganda campaign as part of a “divide and conquer” strategy to disable the American people and allow another force — the one of which Limbaugh, Fox News, etc. were expressions — to gain control over the nation’s destiny.)
As a result of my perception, by 1992, of the threat that Limbaugh posed to the integrity of our democracy, I made it my central mission to do everything I could to counter his pernicious effects by creating a different kind of radio conversation. By “different kind of radio conversation,” I did not mean one that did the same thing as Limbaugh did but did it with a liberal bias. Rather, I meant a conversation that was honest and respectful in contrast to Limbaugh’s pervasive intellectual dishonesty and habitual sneering tone of contempt.
When I got my own radio show in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, where I live, I began each program by calling for a conversation “in a spirit of genuine inquiry and mutual respect, as if we might actually learn something from each other. My show was on the dominant AM radio station in Harrisonburg, VA, which also broadcast Limbaugh’s program three hours a day.
So I perceived the threat, and did something to counter it. And my efforts were not in vain. Over the course of the decade, my conservative callers and I created an increasingly humane and rich conversational space in which we discussed various topics– some on controversial issues that divide liberals and conservatives, some on matters of our common humanity. As time passed, the proportion of unpleasant contentiousness diminished greatly, and the proportion of constructive and respectful engagement increased.
I know of no other liberal who felt the alarm I did at the propaganda campaign being waged by Limbaugh (and his allies and imitators). But my understanding of liberal’s relative indifference and inaction in the face of this threat went beyond just passive observation.
For most of the 90s, I made an all-out effort to expand my radio niche. My quest brought me into conversation with a number of people — including many liberals — in the media world. Although I was able to develop small niches in various markets — doing guest appearances, some of them regular, on various shows — I found that there was no real interest in finding ways of countering Limbaugh’s influence.
It was not that the people who did radio programming wanted someone better than I to do a “Not-Rush-Limbaugh” show. (All other things being equal, a more polished and professional radio performer would have been preferable.) No, they weren’t looking for anyone to fill that role. And no one did.
(And indeed, until well into the following decade, liberals hardly even ventured into the battle on the airwaves.)
While the political beliefs and attitudes of 20 million dittoheads were continually degraded, Liberal America just stood by.
The question arises: why didn’t Liberal America more generally rouse itself to counter the way Limbaugh (and others) were poisoning the minds of our conservative fellow citizens? The answer, I believe, has two main components:
One of those components is blindness.
The danger was visible, but Liberal America did not see it– did not see very deeply into the nature of Limbaugh’s mission; and it did not envision how what he was doing to the patterns of thought and feeling of conservatives could transmit brokenness through the nation as people expressed that kind of consciousness through their participation in the power system of American democracy.
As I argued at length in the previous series (“A Better Human Story”) and in my 2015 book (WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST), the worldview dominant in Liberal America does not equip people well to understand such a thing as “a coherent force that spreads a pattern of brokenness onto everything it touches.” That is, Liberal America doesn’t well put the pieces of the picture together to perceive the workings of (what might reasonably be called) “Evil.”
But here’s what I want to say to those in the liberal world who reject the idea that we should now include in the overall strategy to save America from the force of brokenness that’s gained its apogee in the presidency of Donald Trump:
If Liberal America made a serious mistake back in the 1990s when it forfeited the battle for the hearts and minds of our conservative fellow citizens, should that not give you pause in advocating — once again — that we surrender them – once again – to their deceivers?
And if I was right back in the 1990s, when I dedicated myself fully to trying to combat the toxic influences of Limbaugh et al. on the conservatives among whom I lived, should that not give you pause in declaring that I’m wrong in advocating we press the battle now to reclaim those people from the darkness and brokenness into which they’ve been led?
It can easily be shown that the liberal forfeiting of the battle that Limbaugh (and his backers) were waging was not an isolated instance. Nor was the blindness to the need for a battle to be fought.
Indeed, in the next installment — “Liberalism’s Telling Blind Spot” — I will try to illustrate some dramatic ways that the blindness and weakness of Liberal America has been disastrous in recent years. And I’ll present evidence that even in this time of welcome and heightened liberal activism, liberalism suffers still from an inability to perceive the battlefield that could cripple our efforts to turn back the tide of darkness.