How Can We Talk About Morals and Politics?

by Bob Schober

This section is devoted to studying the local impacts of specific issues the Trump Administration or Republican Congress will propose.


Artwork by Hilary Cole

Perhaps it is human instinct to deny or forget uncomfortable thoughts. Or maybe it iswillful hypocrisy, why folks of all political persuasions tend at times to blind themselves when facing facts. And the blinders are growing larger in these days of bare-knuckle politics, raising the question of how true believers on both sides can meet and talk for the good of the country.

It won’t be easy, but it’s possible.

The British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the term “willful suspension of disbelief” to describe what our brains go through being absorbed in fictional novels (and in today’s world, movies). In more specific terms, it is the willingness to suspend one’s critical faculties and “believe the unbelievable.” But the term “deliberate ignorance” may better explain how intelligent, educated people, basically good-hearted people can willfully enamel ideology over facts. Deliberate ignorance is “the practice of refusing to consider or discuss logic or evidence disproving ideologically motivated positions.”

In a 1980 Newsweek interview, author Isaac Asimov said this: “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Ignore What’s Real
It may be inherently human, but this tendency to ignore what’s real is driving ever deeper splits between the two political parties, with evidence for it growing is all around us – fights over the Second Amendment, Planned Parenthood, global warming and many other issues are now considered zero-sum, with both Democrats and Republicans moving farther from the center. What’s even worse is the Trump attack on science and facts.

The Pew Research Center conducted surveys in June and July 2017 that found the gap in political values between Democrats and Republicans to have widened to 36 percent, compared to 15 percent in 1994. The political values considered were government, race, immigration, national security and environmental protection. The Center also found that in 2004, half of respondents had mixed conservative and liberal views compared to only one third in 2017.

Selling Distortion and Fraud
Looking back, here are examples of distortion and fraud that fooled thousands, if not millions, of people:

Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker created Praise the Lord Ministry (PTL) and built an empire including a grand hotel with gold-plated tub fixtures, a mammoth walk-in closet and a garage housing a fleet of cars, not to forget an air-conditioned doghouse, and several luxurious houses in three resorts. They ran an on-air fund-raising scam that bilked followers of $158 million with promises of buildings, programs and always new plans.

The couple’s shenanigans were always before the public eye, with a local newspaper for years covering their financial scandals. But supporters never abandoned them. In 1989, Jim Bakker was convicted in federal court of 24 counts of fraud and conspiracy, yet donations continued to flow in to PTL. Jerry Falwell took over leadership of PTL. The book, “The Evangelicals,” by Frances Fitzgerald, tells the whole story.

Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin kindled a fire of fear in the country’s grass roots of both political stripes with made-up claims of communists run amok in government and hiding under every bush. Even as he was unmasked, half the country lock-stepped behind him, while just more than a quarter disapproved of his shenanigans. William Manchester in his book, “The Glory and The Dream,” tells that tale.

Trump’s Evangelicals
And now we have white evangelical leaders, who trumpeted “family values” and “personal conduct” in the 1990s and 2000s. They are avid for Trump, a non-church goer who worships Mammon and not the Sermon on the Mount. Trump has been accused by perhaps 12 women of sexual abuse, is a congenital liar and serial philanderer — Playboy models and a porn star have claimed sexual liaisons and affairs with Trump while his wife Melania was giving birth to their son. Many white evangelical leaders who support Trump weaponized Leviticus against gay marriage and the LBGTQ lifestyle but stay silent on Leviticus 20:10 which condemns adulterers.

Evangelical leaders also say they know Trump isn’t perfect, but all sinners deserve forgiveness. But there are limits — the Book of Luke states that church members should forgive themselves 70 times 70 “if there is repentance.” Anyone heard of that?

A fact-check study of Trump’s statements showed that as of May 1, Trump gave false or misleading statements 3,001 times in the 465 days of his presidency — more than six per day. And the 2018 Presidents and Executive Politics Presidential Greatness Survey places our current president dead last.

And there’s the Lost Cause, where Southern apologists have sought to erase the reality of brutal slavery as the cornerstone of the Confederacy from historical memory of the Civil War. The polemic of secession for independence, not slavery (despite the secession documents by the 11 seceding states all mentioned slavery as the key reason for their action) enshrined the Confederate flag as a symbol of Southern pride. A May 9, 2000, Gallup poll asking about that flag, revealed that only 28 percent of Americans polled said the flag is a symbol of racism, while 59 percent said it was a symbol of Southern pride. By party, 74 percent of Republicans compared to 16 percent of Democrats, agreed.

How to explain this?

Today’s Paranoid Politics
Historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in the November 1964 issue of Harper’s Magazine about “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” And what he wrote 54 years ago still resonates today.

“The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent,” Hofstadter wrote in the introduction. The 19th century witnessed the anti-Masonic, the nativist and anti-Jesuit movements, led by folks who “were fending off threats to a still established way of life.”

“The modern right wing,” he continued, referring to the 1960s, “feels dispossessed; America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by … intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialist … schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots …” not only by outsiders and foreign agents but leaders at the center of American power. (Deep State, anyone?)

Here’s one way this plays out: Government is bad, so don’t know anything about it. Thus, only one person in four could name the three branches of government; and one in three could not name any branch of government. And 37 percent couldn’t name a single right protected by the First Amendment, a CNN broadcast of a September 2017 poll revealed.

“The level of civil ignorance in the country allows our politicians — and Donald Trump is the shining example of this — to make lowest common denominator appeals about they will do (or won’t do) in office,” Chris Cillizza, CNN editor-at-large wrote. “It also leads to huge amounts of discontent from the public when they realize that no politician can make good on the various and sundry promises they make on the campaign trail.”

Fear and uncertainty, however, underlie deliberate ignorance and elicit different responses based on political orientation, according to a September 2012 article in Scientific American. The article cites a study published in January 2012 by psychologist Michael Dodd and political scientist John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska — Lincoln “found that when viewing a collage of photographs, conservatives’ eyes unconsciously lingered 15 percent longer on repellent images, such as car wrecks and excrement — suggesting that conservatives are more attuned than liberals to assessing potential threats.”

The article also cites a 2008 college bedroom study showing, “that conservatives possessed more cleaning and organizational items such as ironing boards and calendars, confirming they are more orderly and self-disciplined. Liberals owned more books and travel-related memorabilia, confirming they are more open and novelty-seeking.”

“These are not superficial differences,” said psychologist and study co-author John T. Jost of New York University. “My hunch is that the capacity to organize the political world into left or right may be part of human nature.

Fear, threat and anxiety decrease cognitive capacity and motivation, according to psychological studies referenced in the International Society of Political Psychology.

“We hypothesize that under high (vs. low) threat, people will seek to curtail open-ended information searches and exhibit motivated closed-mindedness,” that article, also co-authored by John T. Jost, states. Several studies, indeed, conducted after the Sept.11, 2001 attacks, showed that people of all political persuasions became more conservative.

So how can liberals and conservatives reach beyond gut instincts and talk respectfully with each other?

What Underlies Deliberate Ignorance?
Liberals and conservatives curse each other over climate change, guns, abortion and myriad other issues. But our much needed, cross-political-boundary conversations could start on common ground — the Kennedy assassination. Fifty-five years after Dallas, a majority of Americans disagree with the Warren Commission’s conclusion of Oswald as a single actor. On Oct. 29, 2017, NBC News reported that 61 percent of Trump voters and 59 percent of Clinton voters believe others — Cubans, the mob, others — had a hand.

In his 2008 book, “The Righteous Mind,” psychologist Jonathan Haidt of the New York University Stern School of Business identifies areas of morality. Haidt’s argument, summarized in the Scientific American article referenced above, is a message for both sides.

“He wants the left to acknowledge that the right’s emphasis on laws, institutions, customs and religion is valuable …. Liberal values serve to ensure that the rights of weaker members of society are respected; limiting the harmful effects, such as pollution, that corporations sometimes pass on to others; and fostering innovation by supporting diverse ideas and ways of life.”

It would be a start.

Bob Schober is the managing editor of Whatcom Watch.

Bookmark the permalink.