Remember Sarah Palin? I know she hasn’t really gone anywhere (except back home to Alaska until her bus tour resumes, on some date known only to her and possibly her staff), hope as we may that she will some day. No, I mean remember Sarah Palin circa 2008, after her big speech at the GOP convention, when she went from being “Sarah Who?” to Sarah Palin. Remember the insanity that took hold of both the left, right, and the commentariat? One minute, she was dismissed as joke. The next minute, we were told we should all take her very seriously.
Remember that insanity?. Well, it’s back. Only this time, the infectious agent is Michele Bachmann. And from now to 2012, it looks like we’re in for a full-fledged epidemic of Bachmannia.
Bachmannia (I only wish I could take credit for the name) can refer the insanity of the candidate herself, or the insanity she inspires in pundits, bloggers, etc. It manifests itself somewhat differently in the candidate/carrier than in the rest of the population.
My first experience with Bachmannia was in 2008, when Bachmann said she was proud to be from a state where many people had to work two jobs.
At a press conference today unveiling the stimulus proposal, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) justified the conservative plan to give tax breaks to corporations — instead of working Americans — by arguing that people actually like working long hours:
I am so proud to be from the state of Minnesota. We’re the workingest state in the country, and the reason why we are, we have more people that are working longer hours, we have people that are working two jobs.
Bachmann’s version of the American Dream is apparently working two full-time jobs and struggling to get by.
I'd no idea at the time, but that was my introduction to Bachmannia. I mistakenly assumed that (a) she was crazy and (b) I'd probably never hear about her again. I was half right. Bachmann herself would go on to prove me right on my first assumption, and wrong on the second, simply by being Bachmann.
Next to the hard core conservative GOP base — the people who kept George W. Bush's approval ratings in the double digits, though just barely towards the end of his term — progressive bloggers and late night talk show hosts were probably sadder than anyone to see Dubya go, leaving us to what we feared would be severe Bushism withdrawal. Palinisms saved us from that, but her lack of elected office keeps us from getting a regular fix.
The collection will never be complete, because she keeps adding to them. Her latest elicited chuckles all over the web, though none summed it up better than Christopher Hitchens.
That was actually three dripping custard pies, rather than just the one, with which Rep. Michele Bachmann assailed her own face by bragging to Fox News about her small-town Iowa roots. Having hymned the incomparable Dairy Queen and Wonder Bread facilities boasted by the sturdy small town of her girlhood, she went on to claim that "John Wayne was from Waterloo, Iowa," adding, "That's the kind of spirit that I have, too."
John Wayne was from Winterset, Iowa, which can be found about 150 miles to the southwest of Waterloo. It was his namesake John Wayne Gacy, serial rapist and killer of 33 teenage boys and young men, who spent time in Waterloo. (I long ago pointed out that having "John Wayne" in your lineup of given names is a bad predictor: John Wayne Bobbitt was reduced by an infuriated partner to hunting in the weeds for his abruptly severed penis.)
Traditionally, the phrase "to meet your Waterloo" means to encounter a final and unarguable defeat. Perhaps it's too early to say that, but really. In one stroke, Bachmann shows that she can't tell one folksy Iowa town from another. Then she compounds the error by confusing a folk hero with a villain and psycho. Finally, and having never done or said anything that would stand a second's comparison to the spirit of The Duke (whatever you may think of him), she tries to borrow the mantle of a husky gunfighter in the very week that she is pathetically advocating that we leave Col. Qaddafi alone. The old parochialism meets the not-so-new isolationism. A very shaky start.
But her latest isn't likely to be her Waterloo. That doesn't mean she'll get the GOP nod for President, let alone move her office down Pennsylvania Avenue. It means, instead, that her latest gaffe is unlikely to sink her popularity with her base, which — if you ask me — is the same base that kept Dubya's approval ratings circling the bowl when when they would otherwise have gone down the drain. It's the same base Karl Rove spoke of when he laughed at liberals for deriding Bush's, urging them to "Keep it up," because the more the left laughed at Bush's the more ardently the base embraced Bush.
They were dubbed the "25 percenters," when Bush's approval ratings hit 25% back in 2007. (His low, in the end, was 22%.)
It's possible that the parallel universe created by the Right has gotten so complex that it's become exclusionary. I've tried to get a handle on this before, though I don't think I've quite managed to pin it down yet. I've mentioned before that it seems that members of the movement Right demand that their candidates buy into the Entire Package of Wingnuttia. This isn't simply political purism, it's about validating a worldview. There are all these articles of faith in wingnuttia which have been given to them by the wingnut noise machine, and failure to embrace them all is a signal that you aren't really part of the club.
But this wingnut worldview has gotten complex and sprawling. Its cast of characters, bizarre understanding of history, and policy positions have grown and expanded so that only obsessed true believers can really feel a part of it. They've established an entire mythology, and its adherents have become cultlike.
The noise machine still has a great impact on our mainstream discourse, but only the real hardcore wingnuts can really identify with the full wingnut package anymore. The beast has grown too large.
We couldn't have known it at the time, but effect was to pave the way for the "Palinization" of America.
What exactly is Palinization?
As I define it, it is the culmination of many years of unfortunate decisions regarding child rearing — ill-conceived self-image programs, rewarding mere participation, the alienization of punishment, and the emergence of political correctness.
It is the failure of the education system; the dumbing down of America.
It's the self-righteousness and vitriol of religious factions.
The loss of civility due, in-part, to an erosion of communication skills.
It's the lies of politicians and corporate executives. The slow decay of integrity and honesty.
it's unreality television.
And, it's an uninformed and ignorant electorate; partially the result of a deficient media.
The lowest common denominators.
This has never been in more evidence than the rise of Sarah Palin. She is neither enlightened nor learned, but that doesn't seem to deter her or those that have followed her example. This lack of intelligence or knowledge is not isolated to Palin. There is a growing number of people who have been elected or threaten to run for office that have little understanding of history, the Constitution, government, or the law. Most are lacking common sense.
Those include Michele Bachmann, Louis Gohmert, Marsha Blackburn, Thaddeaus McCotter, Virginia Foxx, Rick Santorum, the Donald, and many others — each hysterically and Constitutionally challenged.
The election of Barack Obama made some of us a bit giddy. We were so understandably eager to say goodbye to anti-intellectualism that we forgot about Palin, though she hung around like a nagging cough from a cold we thought the body politic was finally over. It turned out that persistent cough was a sign of our weakened resistance. Like the body can harbor a bacteria that holds the potential to destroy it, our political petri dish has cultured a "culture of belief" in which what you believe is more important than what you know.
I don’t know if I’ve written this before, but I think that Beard and some other figures on the right — Sarah Palin is one, and George W. Bush another — represent a whole culture of American conservatism that I and others on the left find mystifying.
We rail against it as “anti-intellectualism”, but often find ourselves thunderstruck, and sometimes reduced to incoherent sputtering at its both its utter impenetrability and its unbreakable hold on its adherents.
I haven’t figured out what to call it, myself, but it’s a culture in which what you believe is more important than what you know, and what you know — or could know if you wanted to and tried to learn — can be dangerous if it undermines what you believe. Especially if it undermines what you must believe.
When you have to believe something in order to get into heaven, and you will spend all of in hell if you don’t believe it or if you believe anything else, at some point you stop asking questions. You have to, if you don’t want to go to hell.
It is as though you are standing in a room, and at the other end of that room is the gate to hell. You arm is outstretched, and in your hand is the key to that gate. Every question asked and answered by scientific inquiry is a step that takes you closer to that gate. Ask one question, and you take a step closer. Answer another one and you take another step. Keep asking and you’re walking across the room. Before you know it, the key is in the lock, and one more question may turn the key.
I think P.I. Thomas got it about right when he called it a culture of belief.
The US is unique compared to the rest of Western world, which tends to accept evolution, but the comparison is less significant than the inference we can draw about the US and the associated impacts visible in our disdain for not only education, but also the well-educated, the informed: the predominant culture in the US is a belief culture.
By “belief,” I do not refer to religious faith per se. This discussion is about a belief culture that is secular, political and, ultimately, ideological, even when belief is connected to religious traditions and stances.
As Einstein offered, both belief and science have value, even as complements to each other: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind” – especially as faith informs our ethics. But in the US, we are apt to misuse belief and ignore (or misunderstand) science when we need it most.
And this is where I think Hitchens either underestimates the "25 percenters" or overestimates everyone else.
Where does it come from, this silly and feigned idea that it's good to be able to claim a small-town background? It was once said that rural America moved to the cities as fast as it could, and then from urban to suburban as fast as it could after that. Every census for decades has confirmed this trend. Overall demographic impulses to one side, there is nothing about a bucolic upbringing that breeds the skills necessary to govern a complex society in an age of globalization and violent unease. We need candidates who know about laboratories, drones, trade cycles, and polychrome conurbations both here and overseas. Yet the media make us complicit in the myth — all politics is yokel? — that the fast-vanishing small-town life is the key to ancient virtues. Wasilla, Alaska, is only the most vivid recent demonstration of the severe limitations of this worldview. But still it goes on. Hence one's glee at the resulting helpings of custard.
It's easy and tempting to dismiss Bachmann, along with other GOP candidates jockeying for a spot on the 2012 ticket. But her appeal to the "25 percenters" — the people to whom it didn't matter that Bush didn't know Shiite from Sunni when we invaded Iraq, and even the beltway types who believed Palin's utter lack of knowledge about foreign policy (or much else) made her any less qualified to be president — is as great as Bush's or Palin's, because to "25 percenters" ignorance is an asset.
Or, at least, ignorance is no liability as long as a candidate has the "right beliefs." And when it comes to this crowd, few candidates in this race so far can beat Bachmann in that category.
Her views on the minimum wage (she'd like to "abolish it") are outside the general mainstream, for example, but are in line with the Republican mainstream.
As Joan McCarter (here, here, and here) and DemFromCT (here) have documented, in the past few weeks leading Republican candidates have come out against the minimum wage, either calling for it to be lowered or for eliminating it altogether because they think it's unconstitutional. And now West Virginia GOP Senate nominee Joe Raese is once again vowing to repeal the Fair Labor Standards Act which established the minimum wage.
The key thing about the GOP position is that it's not just the minimum wage that they want to get rid of. They want to nuke virtually every law and regulation that protects workers. And that includes another provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act: overtime pay. Without that provision, hourly workers would not get time-and-a-half if they work more than 40 hours in a week. Indeed, without the FLSA workers could be required to work more than 40 hours without getting paid anything extra at all.
So while eliminating the minimum wage is a perfect example of the kind of policies these reactionary Republicans will pursue, it is by no means the only example. If they have their way, they will fundamentally change America, but in the wrong direction. They will, as Scott McAdams said, attempt to repeal the 20th century. They want to party like it's 1810, not 2010.
What's scary about Bachmann isn't that she's "crazy" — a wild-eyed wingnut, who shouldn't be anywhere near the oval office. Granted it's for those of us in the "reality-based community," it's hard to see her as anything but unhinged. She's no outlier. She's the most recent link in the devolution of of the American right — from Duybya, to Palin, to Bachmann. She's dead center of today's conservative mainstream.
No, the real demon we must name and exorcise is that Bachmann is no anomaly, a freakish exception to the rule. She is, like Sarah Palin or George W. Bush, a "real 'Murcan" just as much as thee and me and all our brethren piloting Toyota Priuses to Whole Foods.
In this regard, it's important to remember that, while the ideology she embraces is clearly destructive and therefore pathological, she herself is probably not clinical in any diagnosable way.
More to the point, the dominionist, authoritarian, hyper-nationalistic and, ultimately, racism-tainted ideology she embraces is not antithetical to, but on a continuum with, normative American values, although they are admittedly at one end of the spectrum.
Just as the crime, domestic violence, widespread substance abuse, broken homes, and other social pathologies of the inner city are merely distilled versions of social pathologies present throughout American society, a product of a culture that breeds despair and its attendant addictive behaviors, so Bachmann's belief system is just a more concentrated form of exceptionalism, with its corresponding conviction that we are not bound by the same laws of necessity that govern the rest of the world: that, at heart, the catchphrase, "The American Dream," translates into a God-given right to lead the unexamined life. Whatever the cost.
The big challenge facing liberals and progressives is to acknowledge that we, too, are infected by the same notion of exceptionalism ("America's high consumption lifestyle is a blessed lifestyle," as George Bush so eloquently put it). Failing that, we will continue to disarm ourselves in the face of the power and influence of individuals like Michele Bachmann.
What's scary about Bachmann is that to those with her virulent strain of Bachmannia, she makes perfect sense. What even scarier is that many of us may be infected with weaker, but no less deadly, strains of the same sickness. What should be terrifying is that we may not even know it. Thus it spreads. Finally, if everyone's got a touch of the same sickness, eventually we stop calling it a sickness. We call it normal. That’s how nonsense becomes “common sense”; as in “common sense conservatism.”
Bachmannia's big threat is just that. Left untreated, allowed to spread, it can make a candidate like Michele Bachmann seem normal. It might even win her Iowa.