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Sore groupthink

By Daniel T. Ryan
web posted December 15, 2008

Typically, prejudicial criticisms of America spring from two sources: either a misunderstanding of what America is, or a misinterpretation of American common sense. An example of the first type is the characterization of America as latently ‘fascist'. The hook is a misunderstanding of "against all enemies, foreign and domestic." A non-American who naïvely assumes that the U.S. Constitution is synonymous with the U.S. government is likely to interpret "protect the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic" as granting license to crack down on all annoying critics of Washington D.C, whether foreign or domestic. Adventures abroad, and misadventures, feed into that prejudice. So do certain stormy seasons in U.S. politics, ones which are best categorized as the "rule of the people." A blueblood would consider them to be examples of rank demagogy, which further feeds that first-type stereotype. (The domestic analog is an American citizen who considers the American people to be synonymous with the U.S. government: both exhibit a similar naïvété about the American system, though the American who does so tends to be highly patriotic.)  

Stereotypes of the second type abound too, and not all of them are expressions of fright. American leader types tend to be, to borrow two psychological classifications, "people-centered" and "atheoretical." Consensus-builders tend to be the norm at the top of the heap, and prestige clings more to pragmatists than to theoreticians. In fact, the latter tend to be shunted to the sidestreams of American life unless their work has practical applications. This businesslike ethos plays into the ‘anti-intellectual' stereotype, as well as one more serious if the foreign observers in question prefer their leadership more stiff-necked. Believe it or not, there are lots of non-Americans who believe that Americans tend towards weak leadership. Any sign of leadership that is genuinely weak simply reinforces that already-existing bias. The prevalence of said prejudice could be roughly measured by the bar tabs of American ambassadors to the United Nations.

There are more measured opinions about America similar to the above, but they tend to be conditionals that result from real study of America. The "Republic into Empire" crowd may resemble the "America is fascist" crew, but there's an important difference between the two. The former understands the American system, and points to any governmental aggrandizement as symptomatic of emergent Empire or fascism. The more thoughtful variant takes care to separate adventures from misadventures, and definite trends from aberrations that fade when normality is restored.

The most thoughtful analog to the ‘anti-intellectual' jape would have to be Alexis de Tocqueville's observations about American conformity in Democracy In America. De Tocqueville knew about Americans' practicality, of course; had he came back from the grave, he would not be surprised to see consensus-builders at the top of the current American heap. Widespread conformity is actually a downside of consensus-driven leadership, because it takes a real detachment from general society to become a serious non-conformist. People-centered leaders tend to see the odd man out as someone with a complaint; pragmatists tend to see any such complaint as a problem that needs to be solved. People-centered and atheoretical leaders will tend to see a loner as someone that needs integrating, or as just a sourpuss if integration is impracticable. As a result, a serious non-conformist has little option but to be thought of as someone who is dismissable out of hand, as just one of the malcontents (many of which basically deserve to be shunted aside.) Consequently, habitants of America's bohemian sector not only tend to become politically well-connected but also are profoundly influenced by a "came in from the storm" ethos. Great works of American literature tend to capture lifestyles that were already fading into American history as of the time of their publication.

Given these norms, it's not that surprising that de Tocqueville's observation has stuck. If anything, it has acquired more force as American political culture has become more centralized.  Many of the "conformists" of 1830s America would have given serious consideration to political ideas that seem little more than kookiness or crackpottery to a large majority of Americans today. There was actually more respect for the idea of a paper currency in 1870 America than there was for a hard currency in 1970 America. A socialist in 1860 America had more mainstream respect than a laissez-faire capitalist had in 1960 America. Back in the 1830s, the doctrine of state nullification of federal laws was about as mainstream as advocacies of federal bailouts are today. Of course, there was far less respect for what are now known as lifestyle choices back in the 19th century: the most tolerance that could be mustered for many of them would have been, "buy a plot of land and keep it there! Preferably ten miles away from anywhere!"

From time to time, though, there does emerge an abnormally tight conformity in American political thought. The early-to-mid 1960s was a now-notorious example of such a time, a time when the "end of ideology" came close to inculcating a near-end of political philosophizing. The eruptive nature of the late-1960s New Left, which began as two separate bands of future-leader social democrats and apolitical hippies, had its incubation period courtesy of too-tight marginalization criteria. As unbelievable as this may sound, there was definite conservative-student sympathy for the F.S.M. at Berkeley.  

The common-sensical seedbed of this political groupthink is the customary American treatment of grousers. In America, in everyday life, it's easy to shunt out permanent misfits as merely a bunch of "sore losers." In ordinary life, the merely disgruntled tend to be correctly identified; the detached non-losers tend to be integrated or co-opted. If this custom wanders from its people-centered/atheoretical base, if groupthink settles in, then trouble does come. People with non-mainstream points of view, regardless of relevance or sense, tend to be cast in the same mold as the town badger. When the groupthink flies high, even pragmatical dissenters get thrown in with so-called ideologues if their dissention and alternate solutions become embarrassing to those in charge.  

The most notorious era of groupthink in modern America was around Lyndon Johnson's time, when "ideology" was supposedly obsolete. Those who pointed out that the Vietnam War was not started with a Congressional declaration of war were lumped in with the "anti-war Commies." People who noted that reliance on body-count metrics led to bad strategy were lumped in with "old-fashioned Neanderthals," if not with "peace creeps." The same fate awaited those who questioned the efficacy of conscripted troops, as used in a war entered into out of ally's duty. The proto-neoconservatives who noticed implementation gaps in Great Society programs were lumped in with "right wing ideologues" that opposed the Great Society period. All of them, of course, were labeled as sore losers of one sort or another – for about five to fifteen years' running.

The moral of the story? Containment, through groupthink, does lead to real change in American politics – change as real as it is unexpected. If the cohorts of the coming Obama administration dabble in a little groupthink once they have the chance to, more change will be coming…from very unlikely sources. The extent to which score-settling is mixed in with normal marginalization will determine the extent and radicalness of that change. As the Obamaites settle into power, I'd watch for a subculture of passive cynics arising, ones that go out of their way to be non-confrontational. The spread of conflict-avoiding cynicism is a good indicator of a surprise out of nowhere incubating somewhere else… ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is a regular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and has an undamaged mail address here.


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