April 2, 2008
The Left Trades PlacesBy Larrey Anderson
One sign that the left is losing (and subconsciously knows it) is the prominence of conspiracy thinking in its fantasies.
When I was in the ninth grade I decided to run for student body president of my junior high school, and became suddenly and vitally interested in all things political. My father's friend had given him some copies of right wing conspiracy publications of the time. I read them cover-to-cover.
I learned that the Trilateralists, the CFR, the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers, the Bildebergers, the Jews, and the Imperial House of Hapsburg really ran America and-for that matter-the entire world. And they did it in secret.
I distinctly remember marching into the kitchen with the literature. I was panicky over the impending junior high election, but my misgivings had not stopped my family from spreading word of my campaign throughout the neighborhood and beyond. "How come ... if nobody in this family can keep a secret ... how come all these guys could keep all these secrets all these years?" I demanded of my father.
Dad grinned down at me and answered, "They couldn't and they didn't. Politics are public. You can't run for student body president without people knowing. People love to talk ... even when they don't know what they're talking about." He took the magazines from me and threw them in the trash.
My dad should have been a political philosopher, instead of a building contractor, because with those few sentences, and that one toss, he helped me understand two fundamental political truths: (1) conspiracy theories are rarely valid; and (2), conspiracy theories are almost always promulgated by people who do not currently wield political power. In other words, by people who do not know what they are talking about.
In 1969, the year I ran for student body president, conservatism was a wisp of a dream. Utterly powerless in any meaningful political sense. There were only a handful of conservative members of Congress. Ronald Reagan had just been elected governor of California. Conservatives had, effectively, no political voice in the United States.
The political right had no power; but it had plenty of ridiculous excuses. In addition to the Trilateralists, et al., conspiracy of the Birch Society, there was a communist conspiracy, a Jewish conspiracy, a "Negroid" conspiracy, and even, in 1975 when the Liberty Lobby started printing its weekly rag, The Spotlight, a communist/Jewish/ "Negroid" conspiracy. Outside of the vanguard led by William.F. Buckley, it seemed intellectually embarrasing to be a conservative in those days in most places; and conservatives with a lick of sense, like my father, knew it.
Then something strange happened. Instead of spinning yarns about how other people had usurped political authority, conservatives started to fight for it. Instead of making excuses, conservatives started to offer solutions.
The lion's share of credit for this change in conservative thought and attitude must go to ... the lion. Ronald Reagan was a positive person. He believed in conservative ideas. He saw communism for the disastrous ideology that it was, not as a hand wringing excuse for conservatism's failures. He was determined to change the idiom of conservatism from a second person party's derogatory deraignment of multiple conspiracies to a primary party's passion for ideas.
Then something stranger happened. It began to work. Conservatism got out of the illusory business of conspiracy theories and into the rough and tumble real world of politics. Conservatism stopped peddling its fears and started marketing its ideas. And the American people started buying them.
Then the strangest thing happened. It worked. Jimmy Carter's existential, and whiny, "malaise" became Bill Clinton's end of "the era of big government." Openly practicing liberals, for the first time in over fifty years, found themselves out of power.
What happened next may seem strange but it wasn't -- unless one finds human nature strange. Out of power liberals began to wonder where their power had gone. There were two possible explanations: (a) they had been beaten, fairly and squarely, in the marketplace of ideas or (b) conservatives had cheated.
It is difficult for human beings to acknowledge defeat, especially in ideological struggles, because admitting you have lost in the marketplace of ideas means admitting that you may have been wrong. All but the most practical and well-grounded on the left (Senator Joseph Lieberman comes to mind as one of these very few exceptions) sincerely believe that conservatives have taken control because they have cheated.
Whether they know it or not, liberals have taken over the feverish territory once occupied by the John Birch Society.
The parallels between the once rabid right and the new loony left are staggering. The conspiracy is exactly the same: secret worldwide domination by a few tightly controlled special interest groups. Most of the names of the organizations in charge of the conspiracy have been changed, to convince the credulous. For the Trilateralists, the CFR, the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers, the Bildebergers, the Jews, and the Imperial House of Hapsburg simply substitute Haliburton, Big Oil, Pharmacuticals, Multinationals, The Military Industrial Complex, the Jews, and The Imperial House of Bush.
Thinking and speaking about the parallels between the rabid right and the loony left would be risible if it were not both sad and dangerous. It is sad because liberals should know better. Generally speaking, my liberal friends and family are wider-read, better educated and more informed than my conservative friends and family. Intellectually speaking, I expect more from liberal acquaintances than from conservative ones. Unfortunately, I can no longer have a rational conversation with more than half of my liberal friends about anything remotely dealing with politics. Every sentence that they speak is either a non sequitur ("We stole Iraq's oil.") or is viciously ad hominem ("Bush is Hitler.")
The loony left is dangerous because there are so many of them. Membership in The John Birch Society peaked at about 100,000 nitwits. MoveOn.org can count on millions. Never in the history of the United States have so many people bought in to conspiratorial theories. Conspiracy theorists, of any political stripe, are dangerous because they cannot think and act rationally about the world that they live in. It can't be good for a country when many of its best and brightest are totally convinced that every time they lose an election that the election was rigged.
There is one theme that haunts the conspiratorial hallucinations of both the rabid right and the loony left. It is both sad and dangerous. Only one group's name appears on both of the lists we saw above: The Jews. Anti-Semitism has fueled conspiracy theories for centuries. The fact that it is now being embraced by the loony left in America is one of the most frightening things I have seen in my life. It is two very short steps in conspiratorial logic from: "Our soldiers are dying to protect Zionism." To "Let the Jews take care of themselves." To "Kill the Jews." History screams that each step follows the next.
There is a glimmer of hope. Conservatives were able to shake off the coils of the rabid right once they remembered what it was that they believed in and started to market their ideas. Why not liberals?
For decades the left was a powerhouse of ideas and compassion. They saw the real evils of racism and poverty and they did something about it. America will always be indebted to them for that. So, there is a chance that America's liberals will come to their senses, stop tilting at invisible windmills, and start fighting, again, for what they really believe in. But first, they will have to stop making excuses.
Larrey Anderson is a philosopher and writer living in Idaho. He can be reached at ldandersonbooks.com