Mike Lofgren: ‘The GOP and the rise of anti-knowledge’

Back in 2011, I posted about an important article from Mike Lofgren, a Republican staff member serving the Senate Finance Committee. Lofgren published an insightful analysis at Truthout that is a must-read warning about our political system and the Republican Party. Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult (snippet):

gop-elephant-w-flag-crossIt should have been evident to clear-eyed observers that the Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe. This trend has several implications, none of them pleasant.

Four years later, Mike Lofgren has again written another important article titled The GOP and the Rise of Anti-Knowledge:

In the realm of physics, the opposite of matter is not nothingness, but antimatter. In the realm of practical epistemology, the opposite of knowledge is not ignorance but anti-knowledge. This seldom recognized fact is one of the prime forces behind the decay of political and civic culture in America.

Some common-sense philosophers have observed this point over the years. “Genuine ignorance is . . . profitable because it is likely to be accompanied by humility, curiosity, and open mindedness; whereas ability to repeat catch-phrases, cant terms, familiar propositions, gives the conceit of learning and coats the mind with varnish waterproof to new ideas,” observed psychologist John Dewey.

Or, as humorist Josh Billings put it, “The trouble with people is not that they don’t know, but that they know so much that ain’t so.”

Fifty years ago, if a person did not know who the prime minister of Great Britain was, what the conflict in Vietnam was about, or the barest rudiments of how a nuclear reaction worked, he would shrug his shoulders and move on. And if he didn’t bother to know those things, he was in all likelihood politically apathetic and confined his passionate arguing to topics like sports or the attributes of the opposite sex.

There were exceptions, like the Birchers’ theory that fluoridation was a monstrous communist conspiracy, but they were mostly confined to the fringes. Certainly, political candidates with national aspirations steered clear of such balderdash.

At present, however, a person can be blissfully ignorant of how to locate Kenya on a map, but know to a metaphysical certitude that Barack Obama was born there, because he learned it from Fox News. Likewise, he can be unable to differentiate a species from a phylum but be confident from viewing the 700 Club that evolution is “politically correct” hooey and that the earth is 6,000 years old.

And he may never have read the Constitution and have no clue about the Commerce Clause, but believe with an angry righteousness that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional.

Ben Carson Makes Announcement About Seeking Republican Presidential NominationThis brings us inevitably to celebrity presidential candidate Ben Carson. The man is anti-knowledge incarnated, a walking compendium of every imbecility ever uttered during the last three decades. Obamacare is worse than chattel slavery. Women who have abortions are like slave owners. If Jews had firearms they could have stopped the Holocaust (author’s note: they obtained at least some weapons during the Warsaw Ghetto rising, and no, it didn’t). Victims of a mass shooting in Oregon enabled their own deaths by their behavior. And so on, ad nauseam.

It is highly revealing that, according to a Bloomberg/Des Moines Register poll of likely Republican caucus attendees, the stolid Iowa burghers liked Carson all the more for such moronic utterances. And sure enough, the New York Times tells us that Carson has pulled ahead of Donald Trump in a national poll of Republican voters. Apparently, Trump was just not crazy enough for their tastes.

Why the Ignorance?

Journalist Michael Tomasky has attempted to answer the question as to what Ben Carson’s popularity tells us about the American people after making a detour into asking a question about the man himself: why is an accomplished neurosurgeon such a nincompoop in another field? “Because usually, if a man (or woman) is a good and knowledgeable and sure-footed doctor, or lawyer or department chair or any other position that could have been attained only through repeated displays of excellence and probity, then that person will also be a pretty solid human being across the board.”

Well, not necessarily. English unfortunately doesn’t have a precise word for the German “Fachidiot,” a narrowly specialized person accomplished in his own field but a blithering idiot outside it. In any case, a surgeon is basically a skilled auto mechanic who is not bothered by the sight of blood and palpitating organs (and an owner of a high-dollar ride like a Porsche knows that a specialized mechanic commands labor rates roughly comparable to a doctor).

We need the surgeon’s skills on pain of agonizing death, and reward him commensurately, but that does not make him a Voltaire. Still, it makes one wonder: if Carson the surgeon believes evolution is a hoax, where does he think the antibiotic-resistant bacteria that plague hospitals come from?

Tomasky expresses astonishment that Carson’s jaw-dropping comments make him more popular among Republican voters, but he concludes without fully answering the question he posed. It is an important question: what has happened to the American people, or at least a significant portion of them?

Anti-knowledge is a subset of anti-intellectualism, and as Richard Hofstadter has pointed out, anti-intellectualism has been a recurrent feature in American life, generally rising and receding in synchronism with fundamentalist revivalism.

The current wave, which now threatens to swamp our political culture, began in a similar fashion with the rise to prominence in the 1970s of fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. But to a far greater degree than previous outbreaks, fundamentalism has merged its personnel, its policies, its tactics and its fate with a major American political party, the Republicans.

An Infrastructure of Know-Nothing-ism

fox-news-gop-logoButtressing this merger is a vast support structure of media, foundations, pressure groups and even a thriving cottage industry of fake historians and phony scientists. From Fox News to the Discovery Institute (which exists solely to “disprove” evolution), and from the Heritage Foundation (which propagandizes that tax cuts increase revenue despite massive empirical evidence to the contrary) to bogus “historians” like David Barton (who confected a fraudulent biography of a piously devout Thomas Jefferson that had to be withdrawn by the publisher), the anti-knowledge crowd has created an immense ecosystem of political disinformation.

Thanks to publishing houses like Regnery and the conservative boutique imprints of more respectable houses like Simon & Schuster (a division of CBS), America has been flooded with cut-and-paste rants by Michelle Malkin and Mark Levin, Parson Weems-style ghosted biographies allegedly by Bill O’Reilly, and the inimitable stream of consciousness hallucinating of Glenn Beck.

Whether retail customers actually buy all these screeds, or whether foundations and rich conservative donors buy them in bulk and give them out as door prizes at right-wing clambakes, anti-knowledge infects the political bloodstream in the United States.

Thanks to these overlapping and mutually reinforcing segments of the right-wing media-entertainment-“educational” complex, it is now possible for the true believer to sail on an ocean of political, historical, and scientific disinformation without ever sighting the dry land of empirical fact. This effect is fortified by the substantial overlap between conservative Republicans and fundamentalist Christians.

The latter group begins with the core belief that truth is revealed in a subjective process involving the will to believe (“faith”) rather than discovered by objectively corroberable means. Likewise, there is a baseline opposition to the prevailing secular culture, and adherents are frequently warned by church authority figures against succumbing to the snares and temptations of “the world.” Consequently, they retreat into the echo chamber of their own counterculture: if they didn’t hear it on Fox News or from a televangelist, it never happened.

For these culture warriors, belief in demonstrably false propositions is no longer a stigma of ignorance, but a defiantly worn badge of political resistance.

We saw this mindset on display during the Republican debate in Boulder, Colorado . . . The candidates drew cheers from the hard-core believers in the audience, however, by attacking the media, as if moderators Lawrence Kudlow and Rick Santelli, both notorious shills for Wall Street, were I.F. Stone and Noam Chomsky. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus nearly had an aneurism over the candidates’ alleged harsh treatment.

State-Sponsored Stupidity

 It is when these forces of anti-knowledge seize the power of government that the real damage gets done. Under Virginia’s Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Virginia government harassed with subpoenas a University of Virginia professor whose academic views contradicted Cuccinelli’s political agenda.

Numerous states like Louisiana now mandate that public schools teach the wholly imaginary “controversy” about evolution. A school textbook in Texas, whose state school board has long been infested with reactionary kooks, referred to chattel slaves as “workers”  (the implication was obvious: neo-Confederate elements in the South have been trying to minimize slavery for a century and a half, to the point of insinuating it had nothing to do with the Civil War).

This brings us back to Ben Carson. He now suggests that, rather than abolishing the Department of Education, a perennial Republican goal, the department should be used to investigate professors who say something he doesn’t agree with. The mechanism to bring these heretics to the government’s attention should be denunciations from students, a technique once in vogue in the old Soviet Union.

It is not surprising that Carson, himself a Seventh Day Adventist, should receive his core support from Republicans who identify as fundamentalists. Among the rest of the GOP pack, it is noteworthy that it is precisely those seeking the fundamentalist vote, like Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who are also notorious for making inflammatory and unhinged comments that sound like little more than deliberate trolling to those who haven’t drunk the Kool-Aid (Donald Trump is sui generis).

In all probability, Carson will flame out like Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and all the other former panjandrums of a theological movement conservatism that revels in anti-knowledge. But he will have left his mark, as they did, on a Republican Party that inexorably moves further to the right, and the eventual nominee will have to tailor his campaign to a base that gets ever more intransigent as each new messiah of the month promises to lead them into a New Jerusalem unmoored to a stubborn and profane thing called facts.

Mike Lofgren is a former congressional staff member who served on both the House and Senate budget committees. His book about Congress, The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, was published in paperback in 2013. His new book, The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, will be published in January 2016.

6 responses to “Mike Lofgren: ‘The GOP and the rise of anti-knowledge’

  1. AZ BlueMeanie

    Last week Robert Reich posted a conversation on Facebook that he had with a former Republican member of Congress. Reich asked him what he thought of the current crop of Republican candidates for president. https://www.facebook.com/RBReich/posts/1097137623632166

    The other night I phoned a former Republican member of Congress with whom I’d worked in the 1990s on various pieces of legislation. I consider him a friend. I wanted his take on the Republican candidates because I felt I needed a reality check. Was I becoming excessively crotchety and partisan, or are these people really as weird as they seem? We got right into it:

    Him: “They’re all nuts.”

    Me: “Seriously. What do you really think of them?”

    Him: “I just told you. They’re bonkers. Bizarre. They’re like a Star Wars bar room.”

    Me: “How did it happen? How did your party manage to come up with this collection?”

    Him: “We didn’t. They came up with themselves. There’s no party any more. It’s chaos. Anybody can just decide they want to be the Republican nominee, and make a run for it. Carson? Trump? They’re in the lead, and they’re both out of their f*cking minds.”

    Me: “That’s not reassuring.”

    Him: “It’s a disaster. I’m telling you, if either of them is elected, this country is going to hell. The rest of them aren’t much better. I mean, Carly Fiorina? Really? Rubio? Please. Ted Cruz? Oh my god. And the people we thought had it sewn up, who are halfway sane — Bush and Christie — they’re sounding almost as batty as the rest.”

    Me: “Who’s to blame for this mess?”

    Him: “Roger Ailes, David and Charles Koch, Rupert Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh. I could go on. They’ve poisoned the American mind and destroyed the Republican Party.

    Me: “Nice talking with you.”

    Him: “Sleep well.”

  2. John Huppenthal

    “The truth (knowledge) shall set you free.” The cure for anti knowledge is truth. Having 41 respected economists say that tax rate cuts don’t result in higher revenues is not “massive evidence.”
    When Ignaz Semmelweis discovered the germ theory of disease (without knowing it) and reduced the death rate in his obstetrics hospital by 70% through hand washing, the leading scientists and journals of the day ignored the direct and overwhelming evidence right in front of them and heaped scorn on Ignaz.

    Ignaz was outnumbered, not 40 to 1 but hundreds to one.

    But, that’s not overwhelming evidence. Truth is not established by a public opinion poll. The truth is that the evidence for supply side economics is overwhelming. These 43 economists have done an impressive job of covering up the truth with mathematical splines, data panels and massive specification distortion. The sweet spot for revenue maximization is a lower tax rate for small businesses (the 1%), not higher than where we currently are. Paradoxically, a much lower rate of 29% would cause their average tax rate to go up, not down as they quit dodging taxes. The same with corporations, their tax rate of 35 percent is meaningless, the average taxes paid is 12%. A lower posted tax rate would cause the average paid to go up and revenues to go way up.

  3. “Anti knowledge comes in many forms: from the right in terms of values expression and from the left from slickster intellectuals knowing the sheep will line up because they themselves are the first sheep.”

    Yeah, the right is principled, my ass, and nice to know that you view your liberal, fellow Americans as slickster sheep. You completely prove Bob’s point.

  4. John Huppenthal

    Massive evidence that tax cuts don’t increase revenue indeed. 43 name economists publishing in over 20 level one economics journals and posting technical papers internal to Treasury, the Joint Taxation Committee and the Congressional Budget Office. From Auten, Diamand and Giertz to Goolsbee, Picketty and Saenz – all attempting to persuade us that tax rate cuts don’t increase revenue.

    Not since the journals spent a hundred years working to convince us of Marx theory that Motor Vehicle Department can do a much better job of producing computers than Apple have we seen such an orchestrated and vicious campaign.

    Here is a straightforward study that you can check in a few minutes. In 1980, 930,000 taxpayers earned more than 80,000 adjusted gross income ($230,000 in 2008 dollars) ( 1% of all filers) paid 47 billion in taxes (124 billion in 2008 dollars) , 34% of their income.

    In 2008, there were a staggering 4.1 million taxpayers posting agi of $230,000 paying a staggering 520 billion in taxes at an average rate of only 22%.

    124 billion to 520 billion is a massive supply side effect. All at lower tax rates.

    The supply side effect was massive and not shared by Europe which took a different path.

    Anti knowledge comes in many forms: from the right in terms of values expression and from the left from slickster intellectuals knowing the sheep will line up because they themselves are the first sheep.

    • It’s unbelievable what a simpleton you are. Of course the total paid by the top 1% increase if you concentrate more of the income in the top 1%. The income share of the top 1% doubled between 1980 and 2008. Moreover, between 1980 and 2008, the number of two-earner couples increased dramatically.

      When you move income from those at the bottom to the those at the top, you generally increase total tax receipts, because you’re pushing the income from those in the lowest marginal brackets to those in the highest, but that’s not a good thing.

      If all of the income in the entire country were concentrated in just one guy, we could lower rates while increasing total receipts. Would you be invoking that scenario to prove your supply-side theory?

      We’ve had this sort of back and forth for a long time now. You just don’t seem to have the capacity to understand this stuff. You recite numbers, but you have no idea what’s going on conceptually.

    • Kansas:
      Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax policies are causing the sun to sink on Kansas’ future
      http://www.kansascity.com/opinion/editorials/article43535655.html