The Willful World of the American Right Wing

Posted on March 2, 2012


George W. Bush's self presentation as the "decider" was mocked on the Left but was at the time welcomed by the Republican Party base. Bush's lack of domain knowledge was to those on the Left a seeming disqualification to lead while for the contemporary Right his willingness to make arbitrary decisions was considered a positive. (Photo: Eric Draper/White House)

Those to the left of center, whether they are liberals, progressives, or socialists, often have difficulty in understanding the appeal to substantial portions of the American electorate of right-wing politicians like Newt Gingrich or pundits like Rush Limbaugh.  The recently and unfortunately deceased Andrew Breitbart made a career of willful distortion of facts and assertions of his own rectitude and those of his allies, with few substantiating facts.  The right-wing of the Republican Congressional delegation is prone to stand up in Congress and make unsubstantiated assertions and suggest wild theories for occurrences in the world.  These political and media figures’ self-presentation, their sanguine embrace of self-interest, their lack of compassion for the vulnerable and their obvious mendacity and penchant for self-contradiction seem to many in the base of the Democratic Party and further left, to be by their very nature disqualifications from being taken seriously.  The actions of these pundits and politicians contradict almost exactly the morality which, until a few years ago was thought to be ‘middle-of-the-road” but is now mostly found in those to the left of center.  While it appears as though Mitt Romney, who is not the “pure representative” of this culture, may win the Republican nomination, Romney, in trying to win over the Republican base, has adopted some of the attitudes of the Republican far Right.

As the Left is often shocked or surprised by the words and deeds of the contemporary Right, Left observers of the Right are for the most part unable to use all of their powers of observation and reflection to understand the Right’s worldview.  The Left tends to view the Right through a veil of moral disgust and scorn that impairs perception of the complexities of the Right’s way of looking at and acting in the world.  However, seeing the complexities of the Right’s worldview is not the same thing as according them moral justification or giving up on the ideals of the Left.

In the area of economics and politics more generally, the Right has, until recently, achieved an almost complete victory, as leading groups within the nominally “Left” Democratic Party have reinforced the discourse of the Right by adopting welfare reform, financial deregulation, privatization of public services, and now fiscal austerity in the face of a deep financial crisis spurred on by private sector speculation. The policies of the Obama Administration have almost perfectly reflected the balance of power between Left and Right views on these two sets of issues, with Obama providing affirmation “from across the aisle” of the Republicans’ views.  While there has been in the broader society a cultural revolution over the last 40 years, in which many of the cultural values of the 1960’s and early 1970’s have been normalized, our political culture and political economy has been headed in the opposite direction for almost the same time period.

Facing a tough re-election battle in a sluggish economy with still-high levels of unemployment, Obama now faces the consequences of a too credulous view of the Right’s position and intentions in his first three years in office.  Large majorities in Congress were lost because Obama presented no unifying and forthright vision of what he and they were doing in passing health reform and other legislation.  Obama has echoed a Right-leaning view of the economy at a time when he needed some of the tools associated with the Left to actually help the economy recover from the 2007-2008 financial crisis.

One perspective that is missing for opponents of the Right’s agenda, in my opinion, is, from a principled standpoint, an exploration of the worldview of the Right that builds a believable “model” of its political, economic, psychological and cultural perspective.  This is not the same thing as adopting that worldview but rather delineating where exactly there are fundamental differences and whether these differences can become the object of reasoned discussion.

Willfulness and the Right

Elsewhere I have described the contemporary American Right as suffering from a “pathology of the will”, as possessing and/or worshiping an excessive willfulness.  This willfulness can be observed most obviously in the Right’s relationship to truth telling and inconvenient natural and social scientific realities.  The Right puts itself in the position, constantly, of attempting to “will away” scientific findings like climate change as well as “details” of economics and basic macroeconomic accounting like the paradox of thrift (that if everybody tries to save at the same time the economy shrinks and debts become more onerous).  Within the context of the culture of the Right, constructing a largely fact-free world of political and economic talk is “OK” if it supports the belief structures of the Right.  Importantly, the Right even feels entitled to its “right” to wish away the world as it exists, therefore brazen efforts to continue to try to distort the world as those on the Right would like to see it.  The Right and its sympathizers believe that they can “rage, rage against the dying of the light” and encourage each other to do so via constant mutual reinforcement of their reality-denying views, creating an “echo chamber”.

Via its cross-pollination with libertarianism and the influence of Ayn Rand’s writings, the contemporary American Right justifies much of its ideology by referring to the principle of Freedom above all.  Freedom is most often experienced by individuals in reality as the ability to exercise their own will.  Freedom/Liberty is defined by the Right in the negative, as freedom from coercion, particularly as regards claiming and exercising property rights, always citing the looming presence of “government” as infringing upon rather than as having the potential to support the exercise of actual freedoms for ordinary people and small property holders.  The Right tries to celebrate almost every and any property right as well as to be free to have every assurance that they will be written in stone forever even if their unlimited exercise negatively affects other people or the world as a whole.  In actual fact, the policies supported by the Right benefit almost exclusively the already very wealthy and certain large corporate interests, and even these benefits are laughably short-term.  The American Left has often allowed the Right to “own” the discourse of freedom by remaining silent or even sharing the Right’s view of freedom as purely a “negative” (absence of restraints) as well as not offering a balanced view or property rights.

Willfulness and Obedience

In actual fact, the picture is somewhat more complicated than saying “the Right is more willful” than the population as a whole.  Studies by psychologist Robert Altemeyer of authoritarianism, a social-psychological construct that has been historically associated with adherence to right-wing causes, have located two distinct groups within the Right:  authoritarian followers and authoritarian leaders.  Authoritarian followers are very “conformist” and have conventional views on most issues.  They may appear bland and unimaginative but they have a tendency towards resentment and a sense of feeling victimized by larger forces; these are some of your typical extreme conservatives who are motivated by and focused on various fears of loss and attack.  Authoritarian followership can be found on the Left as well, as recent polls have shown that many self-described liberals have become tolerant of authoritarian policies by Democratic President Obama that they would have criticized under Republican President Bush, for instance extra-judicial killings.  Authoritarian followers most closely resemble the authoritarians that Theodor Adorno and co-authors studied in the late 1940’s and 50’s.

New in Altemeyer’s classification are authoritarian leaders, who are openly willful and Machiavellian in their approach to human relationships and power with a very strong anti-social tendency, i.e. willingness to break rules and defy conventional morality to “get ahead” or to win political or economic prizes.  This seems to well-characterize leaders of the contemporary American Right who openly adopt and espouse the willful, defiant stance which characterizes the message of the current Right.  From the rapturous applause that displays of defiance elicit from the followers of the Right, it may be that those who are of the more obedient type seek out leaders who openly embody the willful, defiant stance.  The figure of Rick Santorum is interesting in that he blend characteristics of an authoritarian follower (obedience to the Catholic Church) with those of an authoritarian leader (facile ability to make up “facts”).

A World of Wills

However, instead of thinking of willfulness as simply a characteristic of certain individuals but, in addition, a filter or lens for looking at the world, a still greater portion of the ideology of the Right can be explained though not necessarily justified.  One defining characteristic of contemporary “conservative” or right-wing thinking is that outcomes in the world are the product of the intention of individual people.  In this view, individuals are to be blamed for their fates almost entirely; fates are chosen, a product of the Will or the Will gone awry.  My contention is that the Right lives, to a greater extent than those in the Center and on the Left, in a “world of wills”, where the individual will bleaches out the features of a mind-independent, “outside” real world and, in the Right’s fantasy version, molds the appearance of that world in its own mind to suit their feelings and beliefs.  For instance, the Right asserts that more outcomes are willed or intentional than, in my analysis, is realistically the actual case:  social systems, natural occurrences outside our control, and the history of those systems constrain and inform our real choices. Actually, in the context of civilization we have a lot of choice and can assert our wills but reality is not infinitely responsive to our wishes, like it or not.  Ironically, in practice, the Right also seeks to undermine exactly those features of civilization, like the provision of public goods by government, which enhance our ability to have more choices and more of a say in what actually goes on in our world.

Under the influence of a predominately Right influenced ideology of punishment rather than treatment or rehabilitation, America's prison system now contains over 2 million inmates, with over 7 million people under correctional supervision. This jibes with the Right's view that social ills are caused by "bad people", usually of lower socioeconomic status, who must be punished. (Photo: California Department of Corrections)

In the Right’s world of wills, punishment, a favored tool of the Right, is often the first recourse either in economics or in jurisprudence, as supposedly people in trouble (the poor or unfortunate) have necessarily chosen a “bad” path and then should be punished for it.  Antagonists to the causes of the Right, either domestically or abroad, receive a particularly high level of demonization as they are almost always thought to have willfully chosen an “evil” or wrong path.  To the Right, antagonists can very easily become “enemies” with all that this word implies.  However, the Right is not at all consistent in its world of wills, and directs its judgment most harshly on those who are “different” or outside the Right’s world.  Within parts of the contemporary right-wing “family”, they “love a sinner” who confesses past sins, even if they are a serial offender like Newt Gingrich.

The contemporary Right’s economic theory is also based on its model of the world within which the individual or individual business contains all that is relevant for prosperity. An economics that is based on a mostly fictional “free” market in which every success is justified on the basis of individual virtues or actions is also part of the Right’s idealized view of the world, though not necessarily the actual policies they support.  The right-wing policy is, in its ideal form, supposed to enhance the role of the will of the individual, though its actual politics and policy supports the wills primarily of the very wealthy and powerful.  Still, the Right insists that every outcome on markets is “deserved” and it becomes the equivalent of a willed outcome.

The Right’s ideology can function as a very soothing psychological balm to those who have already “made it”.  The already powerful and wealthy would have a strong incentive to view themselves as sole authors of their own success, i.e. that they have arrived where they have purely through force of will (certainly will had something to do with it but not “purely”).  Alternatively, there are others on the Right, not in the 0.1%, who feel as though it is their mission to protect and espouse the viewpoints of the elect, powerful few, as Corey Robin has described in his account of the Reactionary Mind.  The ideologues of the Right may not be wealthy but may and can realistically hope for material or other rewards in offering wealthy, powerful individuals political and cultural “cover”.  Certainly the proliferation of right-wing pundits and think tanks suggests that in fact large donors play a role in rewarding those who erect the thick smokescreen of misleading rhetoric and poorly supported analysis that has over the last three decades made the Right’s politics so effective beyond the circle of true believers and direct financial beneficiaries of the Right’s policy.

Academic psychology is a diverse and fragmented field but at least two of its theories can shed some light onto the Right’s tendencies.  The contemporary Right’s attribution of causality to personal factors within one’s control seems to be a preference for an “internal locus of control” as opposed to an “external locus of control”.   Alternatively, from another social psychological line of research, the Right may have a tendency towards committing the “fundamental attribution error”.  The fundamental attribution error is the tendency that many people have to attribute the actions of others to internal factors while explaining our own actions by reference to external forces.  Via the fundamental attribution error, others can be blamed for what they do but we seem to ourselves to be blameless.  Certainly the Right’s willingness to forgive “their own” and to harshly blame others seems be an intensified and politicized application of the fundamental attribution error.

Generalized Rationality as a Threat to the Willful

Another interesting feature of the culture and ideology of the Right is its opposition and fear of rationality in various forms, including scientific rationality   Despite claiming, in some contexts, to represent rationality, especially in its libertarian guises, the rationality of the Right is for the most part a rationality that is bounded by the limits of individual or corporate aims and goals.  Reason applied on a social or community level, often represented by (legitimized and/or democratic) government processes and procedures, is viewed by the Right as a threat to individual freedom.  Beyond some self-styled rationalist libertarians, portions of the Right are attracted to dogmatism and celebrate irrationalism, making no pretense of having an allegiance to rationality, other than appeals to “common sense”.

If we take the perspective of someone who starts from the basis of the individual Will which is entitled to “blot out” the features of the external world, then a socially-shared Reason becomes a threat to willed action.  A community-level of Reason would mean that individual actions could be subject to discussion and debate by others and/or potentially subject to regulation or sanction by government.  While this experience can often be unpleasant, the Right feels that it can entirely “do without” this scrutiny and the unpleasant experiences that it may entail.  In reality, there is always going to be an essential tension between individual and community rights, though the Right claims that they are diametrically opposed and, in addition, tends to reduce individual rights to property rights.  The Right also stylizes the Left’s acceptance of community rights and shared rationality as a complete annihilation of individual rights and autonomy.

Also interesting are studies that show that those who tend towards the ideology of the Right, are statistically less likely to be top performers in academic settings, i.e they are not as conventionally “smart” as those to their Left, implying that they are not as good at logical mental operations, i.e. a generalizable reason.  This doesn’t mean that everybody on the Right is not smart, but certainly its culture of willful disregard for rationality suggests that the reasoning abilities honed in school are not among its highest values.  Attacks on rationality on a social and political level can then be seen as a kind of psychological defense against feelings of inferiority for being not one of the academically gifted.  The bully-boy culture of the Right seems at times to be a direct extension of schoolyard efforts by more aggressive and perhaps less academically successful students to harass and diminish the status of more studious and conflict-avoidant children.

Unfortunately,America has a long history of anti-intellectualism, interrupted for a time by the Cold War race for scientific supremacy.  Instead of honoring intellectual achievement, Americans are just as prone to condemn it or marginalize it, unless it translates directly and quickly into monetary reward.  The Right can draw on a long history of skepticism about rationality and intellectualism, even as their actions condemnAmericato second- or third-rate status.

Contrast with the Left

The contrast with the Left, both in its “liberal” and more leftward versions, is in this regard quite stark.  The Left, almost by definition, believes that politics and policy needs to be conducted as if there is some balance of internal and external locus of control, that acting alone, individuals do not have complete control over certain critical outcomes, requiring group or government action.  The Left, at least parts of it, believes that individuals and families live in larger systems which need to be addressed as systems not just as a collection of individual actors.  For the Left, the role of politics is, in part, getting together as a group to solve these systemic problems or by means of government as representative of society or its majority.  The Left believes in the potential for a shared rationality, even though at times it celebrates individual rebellion against traditional social norms as progress.  The latter tension between the celebration of individual freedom in the area of lifestyle, sexuality and speech vs. the advocacy of group or government solutions makes the ideology of the Left complex and difficult at times to communicate.

As is emphasized by Robin and others, the Right since its beginnings in the 18th Century has often defined itself against the Left, i.e. a reactionary, counter-revolutionary force; the contemporary American Right is no different.   The Right sees itself as a bulwark against the forces which the Left champions and, perhaps more disturbingly, against an understanding of aspects of the world which the Right thinks are “bad”, favoring denialism.  Presumably, those on the Right think that the Left’s acknowledgement of factors beyond the control of the individual will is blasphemous because it lets (bad) people “off the hook” for, in the Right’s view, their individual wrongdoing.  As above, the Left’s acceptance of community rights as legitimate, especially those that might conflict with property rights, is anathema to Right, which sees itself often as defending property against the “rabble”.  To the Right, then, the Left is morally retrograde because it seeks via talk and policy preferences to undermine a culture where everything hinges on the individual will or the individual’s use of personally owned objects (i.e. property rights).

Of course, the Right may not have an actual preference for such a culture of individual responsibility in reality: as a recent article in the New York Times suggests, many on the Right are as dependent upon government spending or more so than those who tend to support the Center and Left.  Elites who support the Right seem for the most part also to have an actual preference for a right-wing flavored crony corporatist capitalism, for government contracts and favors for them, even as the Tea Party and others on the Right claim that they prefer the “free” market.

At times, the Right conceives of political struggle purely in terms of opposed wills fighting for supremacy, therefore the tendency of right-wing politicians to design “poison pills” like imposing the Keystone XL pipeline decision upon the Obama Administration.  To some on the Right, spiting the Left (or what they view as the Left) is almost a victory in itself.  The actual content and implications of policy decisions are secondary to “true believers” and/or often hidden from view, as “goring the other side’s ox” is what matters to those on the political front lines.

What the Right Doesn’t Want to Know

For many reasons, the Right is resistant to coming to terms with certain realities of life in contemporary society.  Some on the Right are cunning manipulators of others with anti-social tendencies and don’t care about right and wrong, truth and falsehood:  these are often the leaders of the radical Right.  Others, for the most part the followers, believe they are upholding morality by resisting the Left or ignoring what the Left is concerned about.  These two groups share an interest in not wanting to know certain critical features of human society and the relationship of people to the rest of the world.

In my opinion, there are two fundamental truths about the world that the Right does not want to know about, about which a fruitful political discussion across political ideologies can be had.  Firstly, the Right doesn’t want to know that government plays a critical role in stabilizing the economy and society as a whole, often by spending and running a budget deficit.  The advocacy that we use the tool of government and spend money that is not currently in the Treasury’s Federal Reserve bank accounts is not an advocacy for profligacy in all areas of life nor for private excess.  (There is some reasonable dispute, among serious, though heterodox, economists, about whether raising taxation rates are a critical discussion to have now or not, which should be discussed in terms of whether currency-issuing governments, like the US federal government, in actual fact need to use tax revenues to pay for programs that support the public good.)

The other fundamental truth is that our society and economy is unbalancing the natural foundation of the living systems we depend upon, in particular in our use of fossil fuels that are inducing fairly rapid climate change.  This is an “inconvenient truth” that is beyond the scope of our isolated individual wills to change.   We need to work together, via governments and social movements, to fundamentally change the way we interact with our environment, instead of viewing it as an unlimited dumping ground.  In the vision of the willful Right, the attachment to cheap fossil energy is fundamental, a fuel to stoke the individual will.

If there is a underlying truth uniting these two concerns that the contemporary American Right doesn’t want to know, it is that we humans depend upon each other and upon our natural environment a lot more than is currently acknowledged in our politics and economics.  Furthermore, the Right also seems to believe that acknowledging and attending to this dependency is optional, that it can be willed away.

If we want a decent, livable future, it then becomes our role to alert the Right and our society as a whole that political actions and policy based on these attitudes and beliefs do great damage to all of us, including the Right and their children.