Do These People Ever Go Outside and Look Around?

  • Paul Krugman asks why the Right hates America;
  • Like Mike Johnson, Rick Santorum is skeptical of democracy (when results don’t go his way);
  • Adam Lee on the allure of tribalism.

Paul Krugman responds to the Damon Linker piece that I posted about four days ago.  Here we go again: is there anything new here, about how those on the right (conservatives, Republicans, whatever) have become anti-democratic religious-zealot conspiracy-mongers?

NY Times, Opinion, Paul Krugman, 6 Nov 23: Why Does the Right Hate America?

U.S. democracy is clearly in crisis. It’s entirely possible that in less than two years dissenters will face the power of a government with an authoritarian bent; if that sounds to you like hyperbole, you aren’t paying attention.

But is America beyond the political realm also in crisis? Are the very foundations of society eroding? Many people on the right apparently think so. A recent essay by Damon Linker in The Times profiled conservative intellectuals whose writing, he argued, helps explain where the MAGA right is coming from. What struck me, reading some of their work, is the dire portrait they paint of the state of our nation.

These so-called intellectual writers sound no different than the people-on-the-street who know what they know by watching Fox News.

For example, Patrick Deneen’s “Regime Change” describes America thus: “Once-beautiful cities and towns around the nation have succumbed to an ugly blight. Cratering rates of childbirth, rising numbers of ‘deaths of despair,’ widespread addictions to pharmaceuticals and electronic distractions testify to the prevalence of a dull ennui and psychic despair.” And he attributes all of this to the malign effects of liberalism.

When I read such things, I always wonder, do these people ever go outside and look around? Do they have any sense, from personal memory or reading, of what America was like 30 or 50 years ago?

It’s true that U.S. society has changed immensely over the past half-century or so, and not entirely in good ways: Inequality has soared, and deaths of despair are a real phenomenon. (More about that later.) But many right-wing critiques of modern America seem rooted not just in dystopian fantasies but in dystopian fantasies that are generations out of date. There seems to be a part of the conservative mind for which it’s always 1975.

Krugman then steps through ways they are mistaken, or are deliberately misrepresenting reality: about urban blight; family life; declining birthrates (actually because of the decline in teenage pregnancies); deaths of despair (more common rural regions, actually). And then concludes, with the familiar take about the conservative preference for the simple life they imagine once existed:

Social change is never an unalloyed good thing. I look at how America has changed over my adult lifetime and see some things I don’t like, especially the return to extreme economic inequality. But I also see a society that offers much more individual freedom, especially for women and minorities but for the rest of us too.

Not everyone considers this a positive change. Indeed, some people on the right clearly hate the America we actually live in, a complex, diverse nation, as opposed to the simpler, purer nation of their imaginations.

And if you would prefer a society with more traditional social relationships, more people practicing traditional forms of religion and so on, that’s your right. But don’t claim, falsely, that society is collapsing because it doesn’t match your preferences or blame liberalism for every social problem.

I think the secret key to this kind of thinking, rarely spelled out, is that conservatives don’t value individual freedom. They are, ironically, more like the totalitarian societies in which conformity is valued above all. North Korea, in which everyone worships Great Leader.


First Mike Johnson, now Rick Santorum. (Here’s a New Republic piece I don’t think I’ve linked. MAGA Mike Johnson Once Warned About Dangers of Living Under Democracy, subtitled “Republicans’ new House speaker tried to warn people about why democracy isn’t actually good.”)

Salon, 8 Nov 2023: “Trying to scare women”: Fox News struggles to cope after brutal election night for GOP, subtitled “And over on Newsmax, Rick Santorum lamented that ‘pure democracies are not the way to run a country'”

(Of course, the US *isn’t* a pure democracy. Thus the electoral college, and the senate mediated by state rather than population. Those are how the conservatives have maintained their dominance thus far, despite popular votes.)

Media Matters, 8 Nov 2023: Rick Santorum complains that “very sexy things like abortion and marijuana” were on the ballot in Ohio: “Pure democracies are not the way to run a country”

Key quote in both pieces, from Santorum:

“We’ve seen this now for the last several years, and so a base election, they — Democrats — outspend, and you put very sexy things like abortion and marijuana on the ballot, and a lot of young people come out and vote. It was a secret sauce for disaster in Ohio,” he said. “I don’t know what they were thinking, but that’s why I thank goodness that most of the states in this country don’t allow you to put everything on the ballot because pure democracies are not the way to run a country.”

I’m guessing his opinion would be different had the results gone the way he prefers. Perhaps we should just let Santorum make all these decisions for the rest of us.


One more piece for today about the broader picture.

Adam Lee, OnlySky, 6 Nov 2023: The allure of tribalism in dangerous times

Moral codes based on tribalism—defining the in-group and the out-group, whether by culture, religion or race—offer no solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict or any of the other wars wracking our world. The only path to peace is a morality based on empathy and universal humanity, yet it seems further from our grasp than ever.

Moral codes evolved (though he doesn’t use that word) in the context of life tens and hundreds of thousands of years ago, when humans lived in small tribes. And those ancient codes — captured in the Bible and other religious books — are today doing more harm than good. We live in a global society, not tiny tribes.

What we need is a moral code built on recognition of our common humanity. We need an ethics that treats all people as fundamentally alike, and all deserving of equal rights, whatever their culture and whichever side of the border they happen to be standing on.

Most moral codes don’t do this. For the most part, the moral codes that guide us today come from times when the family or the village or the tribe was the only unit of society. They’re small and parochial, looking no further than the next hilltop. In those times, the outside world was a strange and frightening place. Banding together promised safety, and to be outside the group spelled doom.

This kind of thinking is the animating idea behind nationalism, religious orthodoxy, and cultural tribalism. These concepts of morality are different on the surface, but underneath, they’re fundamentally alike. They’re all about the in-group versus the out-group. The only thing that varies is the criteria for who’s in and who’s out.

This mindset splits the world into binary opposites. Everyone is either an ally or an enemy, a good person or an evildoer, a saint or a sinner. It’s appealingly straightforward, which makes it satisfying. Tribalism is one of those tendencies that just hits the right buttons in the human brain.

And this conclusion:

In the olden days, one could argue, tribalism was the only option. After all, belief in universal brotherhood was no good to anyone if the invaders from over the next hill didn’t share that view. When culture and language and religion were much deeper rifts that separated humans from each other, cleaving to the tribe was the only way to survive.

But that survival instinct is a crutch we no longer need. We live in a world where anyone can travel anywhere, learn about any culture, translate any language. We know more about each other than we ever have. We no longer have any excuse for treating other humans as aliens or dangerous creatures. By all rights, we should find it easier to get along.

Instead, millions cling fiercely to their tribalisms, even when we no longer have any need for them. Because of these imaginary distinctions, real human beings are hating each other, shedding blood, waging war, killing, and dying. It’s a tragic absurdity that should have no place in a rational world.

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