The Republic of T.

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Allen West and the Conservative Mind

Update: Apparently, West was talking about the Progressive Congressional Caucus.

I didn’t think that anyone — not even her fellow Republicans — could top Michelle Bachmann’s 2008 interview with Chris Matthews, in which she accused then-candidate Barack Obama — and certain members of Congress — of being “anti-American,” and urged the media to “do a penetrating expose” certain people in Congress ” and find out, ‘Are they pro-America or anti-America?’”

I should have known better. Florida Republican Rep. Allen West has added to his impressive record of bizzare statements with stunner that makes Michelle Bachmann seem almost rational. This week, West warned constituents that he has “heard” that up to 80 of the 190 Democrats in the House are Communist Party members.


U.S. Rep. Allen West told about 90 largely supportive Palm City voters Tuesday that locally prioritized federal projects — such as the St. Lucie Inlet dredging — aren’t going to matter if Washington officials don’t address a mounting deficit.

Later Tuesday evening, a Jensen Beach crowd of 100 with more than 15 protesters greeted the congressman with mixed support, cheers and jeers.

The conservative tea party icon also got in shots at Democrats and President Obama, who spoke Tuesday at Florida Atlantic University. West said Obama was “scared” to have a discussion with him. He later said “he’s heard” up to 80 U.S. House Democrats are Communist Party members, but wouldn’t name names.

Wouldn’t name names? Typical. Talking big is easy from the proper distance. You don’t want to name someone as a “communist” if you’re likely to run into them on the House floor, after all. Michelle Bachmann wouldn’t name names, even when Matthews pressed her to do so. Conservatives rarely back up claims like that, even when it comes to Democrats they say support them. Rep. Paul Ryan recently claimed that at least a dozen Democrats have come up to him and expressed support for his bloodletting budget. However, Ryan demurred when it came to naming names, refusing to “out” Democrats who secretly back him.

West’s told constituents that he has “heard” that 80 Democrats in the House are communist. He could just as early well told his constituents, “They say that up to 80 Democrats in the House are Communist Party members.” Either way, his claim is just another example of the conservatives using an old rhetorical trick I learned during my days as a debater in college: the logically fallacy known as an Appeal to Authority. Actually, in this case it’s something more specific: Appeal to an Unnamed/Anonymous Authority.

Description: When an unspecified source is used as evidence for the claim. This is commonly indicated by phrases such as “They say that…”, “It has been said…”, “I heard that…”, “Studies show…”, or generalized groups such as, “scientists say…” When we fail to specify a source of the authority, we can’t verify the source, thus the credibility of the argument. Appeals to anonymous sources are more often than not, either a way to fabricate, exaggerate, or misrepresent “facts” in order to deceive others into accepting your claim. At times, this deception is done subconsciously — it might not always be deliberate.

Logical Form:

Person 1 once heard that X was true.

Therefore X is true.

I realize it’s going to fly over the heads of some people. But it’s a pet peeve of mine, because it’s the kind of thing I’d never have gotten away with as a college debater. I’d have gotten called on it. yet right-wingers like West, Bachmann, and others get away with it all the time. It’s also key to understanding why they get away with it all the time. (Though it looks like West is getting called on his latest stunner.)

They get away with it, because it doesn’t matter. In their universe, it matters that Allen West has “heard” that 80-ish House Democrats are communists, but what we know about Allen West doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter that:

What we know about Allen West is a lot more disturbing that what Allen West says he’s “heard” about some House Democrats. But it doesn’t matter. Sure, it all drives lefties like me to distraction (and to look up just the right logical fallacy that apply to statements like West’s), but it doesn’t matter because we’re not their audience. Conservatives like West and Bachmann aren’t talking to us. And to the people they are talking to, none of the stuff I’ve mentioned above matters in the least.

This is, in part, because their audience is well-practiced in another logical fallacy: Argument by Uniformed Opinion, also known as Argument by Laziness, or Argument from Ignorance.

A person makes a statement or gives an opinion on an issue without having researched or studied the topic being discussed. When asked to defend his position, the individual demonstrates a willful ignorance with such responses as “I just know.” Nevertheless, the person is often offended if someone challenges his statement or does not agree with it because of lack of evidence, as if his opinion is as valid as anyone else’s.

West’s constituents don’t have to ask him where or from whom he “heard” that 80 House Democrats are “communists” for the same reason they don’t need to ask him who those Democrats are, any more than they needed to ask Bachmann which members of Congress were “anti-American.” They “just know” some members of Congress are “anti-American.” They “just know” some House Democrats are “communists.” (They just didn’t know how many, before West spoke up. Eighty probably sounds about right, but it’s probably a conservative estimate at best.) They don’t ask for confirmation or proof, because they don’t need it. They “just know.”

Conservatives “just know” what West “heard” about House Democrats is true, the same way that they “just knew” that Iraq had WDMs, that the country has ties with al Qaeda, and that Saddam Hussein helped plan the 9/11 attacks. They knew this the same way they “just know” that President Obama is a Muslim. They know this the same way they “just know” that President Obama is a “socialist.” They know this the same way they “just know” that Obama was born in Kenya and his birth certificate is faked. They know this the same way they “just know” that climate change is a hoax, the unemployed are just lazy drug-users with only themselves to blame, black and poor people have no work ethic, most black people are on food stamps, obesity proves no hunger is not problem in America, regulation causes unemployment, and that tax cuts will grow the economy.

But let me be clear, I’m not calling conservatives stupid. I understand that assumption can be a “misguided and self-defeating” way of looking at the them. But that creates a dilemma of just how to to address both statements and phenomena like those above.

Scientific and academic research offer some intriguing suggestions. Last month, the journal Psychological Science published a study linking low I.Q. scores to “prejudiced beliefs and conservatives politics,” and suggested that people with low intelligence might be drawn to conservatives ideologies because they’re big on “structure and order,” making it easier to understand a complicated world. This week the Huffington Post reported on a new study that links conservative ideology to “low-effort” thinking.

People endorse conservative ideology more when they have to give a first or fast response,” the study’s lead author, University of Arkansas psychologist Dr. Scott Eidelman, said in a written statement released by the university.

Does the finding suggest that conservatives are lazy thinkers?

“Not quite,” Dr. Eidelman told The Huffington Post in an email. “Our research shows that low-effort thought promotes political conservatism, not that political conservatives use low-effort thinking.”

“Keeping people from thinking too much…or just asking them to deliberate or consider information in a cursory manner can impact people’s political attitudes, and in a way that consistently promotes political conservatism,” Dr. Eidelman said in the email.

Chris Mooney, who has actually written the book on the conservative mind, writes (in an excerpt that has convinced me to buy and read his book) that the difference between progressives and conservatives on this front is less about intelligence than issues of psychology and personality that run far deeper than our “surface politics.”

Let’s be clear: This is not a claim about intelligence. Nor am I saying that conservatives are somehow worse people than liberals; the groups are just different. Liberals have their own weaknesses grounded in psychology, and conservatives are very aware of this. (Many of the arguments in this book could be inverted and repackaged into a book called The Democratic Brain—with a Spock-like caricature of President Obama on the cover.)

Nevertheless, some of the differences between liberals and conservatives have clear implications for how they respond to evidence in political debates. Take, for instance, their divergence on a core personality measure called Openness to Experience (and the suite of characteristics that go along with it). The evidence here is quite strong: overall, liberals tend to be more open, flexible, curious and nuanced—and conservatives tend to be more closed, fixed and certain in their views.

What’s more, since Openness is a core aspect of personality, examining this difference points us toward the study of the political brain. The field is very young, but scientists are already showing that average “liberal” and “conservative” brains differ in suggestive ways. These differences may be related to a large and still unidentified number of “political” genes—although to be sure, genes are only one influence out of many upon our political views. But they appear to be an underrated one.

What all of this means is that our inability to agree on the facts can no longer be explained solely at the surface of our politics. It has to be traced, as well, to deeper psychological and cognitive factors. And such an approach won’t merely cast light on why we see so much “truthiness” today, so many postmodern fights between the left and the right over reality. Phenomena ranging from conservative brinksmanship over raising the debt ceiling to the old “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” problem—why do poor conservatives vote against their economic interests? — make vastly more sense when viewed through the lens of political psychology.

It’s important because many of the things conservatives “just know” form the basis of policy and legislation from the GOP — even though the things they “just know” are either not supported by any available of evidence, or run counter to just about all the evidence we have. That doesn’t matter to conservatives or their base. But it must matter to us, because the policies and legislation spawned by what conservatives “just know” bear direct consequences for millions of Americans.

On the surface, statements like West’s are laughable. It’s tempting to dismiss them as such, but it important not to so because, to use a metaphor inspired by the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, they are the tip of the iceberg of the conservative mind, which threatens to sink the U.S. economy, taking millions of Americans down with it.

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