War, xenophobia and other downsides to group selection | Evolutionary logic pt.II

“the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly”

If anyone managed to come away from Part I: Humans: not just selfish with an overly sentimental view of human nature, this post will rob you of that delusion.  Yes, we humans have a remarkably developed faculty for cooperation and group-oriented behavior, in comparison to most other species.  That’s an encouraging thing to know.  And it may even become useful, if you start to identify the conditions that tend to set us up for cooperation.  However, as Charles Darwin, David Sloan Wilson, and many others have suggested, the processes of group selection that helped us evolve to be cooperative within our groups probably also encouraged competition (to put it mildly) between groups.

Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson explain in their book, Unto Others:

…our goal … is not to paint a rosy picture of universal benevolence. Group selection does provide a setting in which helping behavior directed at members of one’s own group can evolve; however, it equally provides a context in which hurting individuals in other groups can be selectively advantageous. Group selection favors within-group niceness and between-group nastiness. Group selection theory does not abandon the idea of competition that forms the core of the theory of natural selection…

And here’s Wilson again in The New Fable of the Bees: Multilevel Selection, Adaptive Societies, and the Concept of Self Interest:

[Multilevel selection theory] has the capacity to explain the behavior of individuals who demonically work to undermine their groups (within-group selection), individuals who angelically work on behalf of their groups (the bright side of among-group selection) and avenging angels who work on behalf of their groups to destroy other groups (the dark side of among-group selection). We might not like the dark sides of animal and human nature, but they exist and require a theory to explain them. …multilevel selection theory has the potential to explain the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.

Why do you build me up, buttercup, just to let me down and mess me around?  Seriously though, this just underscores that the purpose of this series is to use the lens of evolutionary theory not to idealize but to examine and better understand how humans and groups work, particularly in relation to collective action – and hopefully make practical use of that understanding.

Clearly we’re not the first ones to wrestle with this very long-term problem.  And while the evolutionary lens is novel and may explain much, others have through observation come to similar analyses about humankind’s immense capacity for ruthlessness toward other groups.  Reinhold Niebuhr was one of the most astute observers of this phenomenon.  The title of his 1932 classic Moral Man & Immoral Society suggests that human beings tend to behave morally toward each other within small groups, but that our moral code rarely extends, at least as fully, to the societal (between-group) level.  He laments how “…group relations can never be as ethical as those which characterise individual relations.” The book is a comprehensive treatise on the subject:

As individuals, men [sic] believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command.

(Disclaimer: Niebuhr is a fascinatingly complicated figure, who went from leading the pacifist organization Fellowship of Reconciliation and running for Congress as a Socialist to advocating for some US military interventions and lending intellectual support for the Cold War.  I’m quoting Moral Man & Immoral Society throughout this article on the merits and relevancy of its content, not because of Niebuhr’s specific politics.)

So whether you explain it through evolution and group selection, or, like Niebuhr, you just observe human behavior and notice the pattern, it seems that we humans tend to struggle to extend the circle of compassion beyond our more proximate relations. And this fact sets us up to be all-to-easily manipulated to fear the bogeymen and barbarians. (The word barbarian, by the way, originated in Greece.  It meant “anyone who is not Greek.” Along similar lines, David Sloan Wilson laments in Evolution for Everyone how, “In many indigenous cultures, the word for ‘our people’ is ‘human’ and outsiders are classified as a type of animal.”)

war & civilization

George W. Bush declared after 9/11, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” and proceeded to lead the nation into two major wars (which are both still happening, by the way).

For anyone who thought rationally about it at the time, this was transparently preposterous framing.  “Okay, okay, I got it.  Anyone who says anything that I don’t like, is a… is a… a TERRORIST!!! Yeah! That’s the ticket!” Anyone who might consider disagreeing with the President’s agenda was preemptively depicted as being in league with the people who had just attacked the nation.

It worked though, because enough people weren’t thinking rationally.  Glued to our television sets, watching repeating loops of passenger jets destroying national symbols and killing thousands of our fellow citizens, most of us felt some combination of terror and outrage.  Fear is a powerful primal motivator that tends to shut down our rational faculties.  When “the group” is threatened or attacked, we instinctively band together.  And we are primed for a counter-attack from “our side.”  While this may in some senses be a perfectly rational reaction, it is not the rational part of the brain that is driving the car.

The good news here is that, in the absence of a perceived threat, most people are generally not eager for their nations to go to war.  The theory of group selection in humans may predict an evolved faculty for group against group fighting, but it would still only make sense for groups to fight with each other if there were something compelling enough to fight for.  War and fighting are costly. Head-on collisions don’t usually benefit the passengers in either vehicle, so we damn well should have evolved to avoid at least some of them.  On the other hand, it would also make evolutionary sense for human groups to have evolved to defend themselves against aggressive groups.  Moreover, extending the automobile metaphor, not all vehicles are equal in terms of size or power.  What’s to stop a monster truck from running a compact off the road?  Isn’t that, after all, kind of the whole story of agricultural civilization?

Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá seem to think something along these lines. While the central thesis of their recent book Sex at Dawn is that the advent of agriculture dramatically changed human reproductive strategies and sexual behavior-seriously a must read for all you sexual libertines who want to arm your desire with a scientific theory!-they also discuss major non-sexual behavior shifts that came along with agriculture:

It makes perfect Darwinian sense to suppose that prehistoric humans would choose the path that offered the best chance of survival-even if that path required egalitarian sharing of resources rather than the self-interested hoarding of resources many contemporary Western societies insist is basic human nature.

The advent of agriculture is really a pretty recent phenomenon, in terms of the whole scope of human evolution.  There are still pre-agricultural groups among us; there were a lot more just a hundred years ago, and a lot more a hundred years before that, and so on.  Genetically, we haven’t changed a whole lot – we’re still the same species. So we’re a highly complex accumulation of genes that took millions and millions of years to evolve and then suddenly started to behave dramatically differently – just a moment ago in evolutionary time. What happened?

What agriculture changed, Ryan and Jethá argue (and they’re certainly not the first ones), was the ability to store and accumulate resources, to concentrate wealth, and to consolidate power.  This is the X factor that changed the whole equation of human social behavior, both within groups and among groups.

give us the bananas!

Now there was something substantial to fight about: storehouses and accumulated treasure, as well as control of arable land, water access, and more.  There’s evidence to suggest that the ability to systematically store food is enough by itself to radically change behavior – or at least that’s the case with some of our primate cousins.  Jane Goodall and Richard Wrangham observed that wild chimpanzees in Tanzania-which, like human forager societies, are fiercely egalitarian with food when foraging in the wild-became remarkably aggressive when humans started providing a regular supply of bananas.  Franz de Waal describes in Chimpanzee Politics how Jan van Hooff observed similar aggression in a chimpanzee colony in captivity: “Violent fights broke out at every meal because some of the apes tried to monopolize the food.  The tension began to build up long before feeding time.”

Ryan and Jethá say that the same is true of us:

Human groups tend to respond to food surplus and storage with behavior like that observed in chimps: heightened hierarchical social organization, intergroup violence, territorial perimeter defense, and Machiavellian alliances.  In other words, humans-like chimps-tend to fight when there’s something worth fighting over.  But for most of prehistory, there was no food surplus to win or lose and no home base to defend.

In yesterday’s post, I asserted that our “primal switches” are “being flipped about every which way all the time. Human beings in modern society are like fish out of water. Our primal brains (including our pro-social strategies) evolved under different conditions than the ones we now know.” Shit gets weird when somebody’s controlling all the bananas.

But again, our genetics shouldn’t have changed significantly in such a short time. Our environment changed dramatically, but our adaptations have so far been mostly behavioral, cultural and psychological. The encouraging thing here is that underneath all the confusion of modern life-yeah, sure, we got issues, but-we should have a strong underlying preference for cooperation and pro-social behavior. Again, group selection can help explain our evolved faculty for highly cooperative behavior within our social groups. It can also explain why a faculty for aggression would be somewhere in our repertoire (as one tactic for among-group competition), but it would still make sense for groups to evolve to be wary of war and conflict; because, with all else equal in pre-agricultural life, groups that avoided costly conflict should have done better than groups that didn’t.  

So, unless I’m missing something, this helps explain what I’ve known since I was a kid – that most people I meet, under most circumstances, are not jumping at the opportunity to kill or get into a fight with others, even people outside of their group. And it would explain why, even with a lot of resources at their disposal, it is still at least somewhat of a challenge for political leaders to lead a people to war.  The warmongers have to bang on those drums for a while to get us in the rhythm.  The bad news is that they have a lot of knowledge about how to do that.

Hermann Wilhelm Göring, a notorious leading member of the Nazi party, candidly explained:

Naturally the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. …voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country. [my emphasis]

Just look at those phrases!

“tell them they are being attacked”

“lack of patriotism”

“exposing the country to danger”

These phrases aren’t just about frightening people, they’re also about framing their fear in particular group-oriented terms.  There is a dangerous enemy threatening us (the nation), and you, “Mr. Commie Internationalist,” don’t seem to care that much about us… you selfish, indulgent traitor.  You lack patriotism (identity with the group), and as such you’re as much of a threat to us as the menacing enemy.

Fear has the power to activate the most aggressive aspects of our among-group competition instincts.  Hermann Wilhelm Göring wrote a handy guide for nation states of all stripes for how to stoke fear to accomplish precisely that.

power of identity

Rosa Luxenburg understood the powerful “evil magic” of this formula well before Göring did, but she couldn’t stop it despite her best efforts.  She pleaded passionately with the unionists and the German Social Democrats to not get pulled into World War I.  This from her essay Either Or (1916):

On August 4th, 1914, official German Social Democracy, and with it the Inter-national, collapsed miserably. Everything that, during the preceding fifty years, we had preached to the people, that we had declared to be our sacred principles, that we had proclaimed countless times in speeches, in brochures, in newspapers, in leaflets – all at once all that proved to be empty clap-trap.Suddenly,  as though by evil magic, the party of the proletarian international class struggle has become a national liberal party … In other countries, socialism has fallen more or less deeply and the proud old cry, ‘Proletarians of all countries, unite! ‘ has been transformed on the battlefields into the command, ‘Proletarians of all countries, cut each other’s throats!’…

The world war has decimated the results of forty years’ work of European socialism by: devaluing the significance of the revolutionary working class as a factor of political power, destroying the prestige of socialism, breaking up the proletarian International, leading its sections into a fratricidal war against each other and chaining the desires and hopes of the masses in the most important capitalist countries to the course of imperialism… [my emphasis]

…and chained to the cognitive frame of nationalism – meaning that the nation state was the “group” with which the Germans of 1914 were pressured to cast their lot and identity. How we define our identity is how we label some pretty important folders in the filing cabinets of our brains.  Sorry for the filing cabinet metaphor – that’s not actually how brains work.  How they work is a lot more interesting.  We don’t “file” information.  We associate and cluster new information and experiences with dynamic memories-they change a little with each remembering-of old information and experiences, and with the feelings these memories evoke. Rosa Luxenberg could have almost been a lay neuroscientist with her phrase “chaining the desires and hopes of the masses … to the course of imperialism.” That is exactly how the process of cognitive frames works. We are evolutionarily and neurologically predisposed as human beings to “chain our desires and hopes” to the groups we identify with, because we evolved in a context where our survival as individuals was highly dependent on the survival and health of the group.

Thus the rallying cry of the Industrial Workers of the World: “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Within the cognitive frame of class consciousness, the members of a worker’s economic class constitute the “group” with which she casts her lot and identity.  Her hopes and desires are chained to her fellow workers – including the ones on the other side of the border and on the other side of the ocean. The threat that she perceives and mobilizes with her group to overcome is the threat of a social system that concentrates into the hands of a few the wealth produced by the many; a system that turns a blind eye to the poverty, misery and degradation of her fellow human beings.

If this language seems overly glorious, naive, or outdated to you, I encourage you to think again. Perhaps it’s not the exact wording to fit our times, but we do desperately need a highly moral and moralizing progressive narrative and framework. We need to be willing to step boldly out of our resignation, to hope, and to inspire hope in others. Reinhold Niebuhr encouraged approaching social justice struggles with the tools of science, but also admonished that “cool objectivity” cannot meet the moral and emotional demands of collective mobilization:

Contending factions in a social struggle require morale; and morale is created by the right dogmas, symbols and emotionally potent oversimplifications. These are at least as necessary as the scientific spirit of tentatively. …[Industrial workers] will have to believe rather more firmly in the justice and in the probable triumph of their cause, than any impartial science would give them the right to believe, if they are to have enough energy to contest the power of the strong. They may be very scientific in projecting their social goal and in choosing the most effective instruments for its attainment, but a motive force will be required to nerve them for their task which is not easily derived from the cool objectivity of science. …The world of history, particularly man’s collective behavior, will never be conquered by reason, unless reason uses tools, and is itself driven by forces which are not rational.

Dear reader, it is nearly 3:00AM and I have stayed up too late and kept you reading too long. In another post I will return to the subject of fear, and discuss strategies for “inoculating” against fearmongering.  I’ll explore cognition and culture as extensions of the human immune system and of evolution itself. And I’ll resume this discussion of how group-oriented behavior, identity, cognitive frames, a moral and moralizing hegemonic progressive narrative, and collective action all fit together.

For tonight, I’ll sign off with this thought… We have a lot of “space” in our brains that evolved to deal with threats. The impulse to collectively mobilize to overcome a genuine common threat is not an inherently negative thing. Indeed, evolutionarily, it’s an impulse to which we owe our very survival as a species… so far.  If we are to continue to survive as a species on planet earth, we humans will have to make sure that this impulse is cognitively connected-in enough people’s brains-to the huge looming threats we face. We can’t afford to keep being duped into fearing the wrong things, and into waging wars of aggression and scapegoating immigrants and people who appear different than ourselves.  The trick is to wire our primal switches to the right lightbulbs! This is what grassroots organizing is all about: building relationships and feeding pro-social identities that are broad enough, strong enough, and instructive enough to tilt us toward investing together in our collective interest.

Stephen Colbert is physically altering your brain

originally published on October 28, 2010

Stephen Colbert’s much-publicized March to Keep Fear Alive tomorrow-and his whole schtick really-may be making a far greater political impact than you consciously realize.  I’m no neuroscientist, but I might even argue that the faux right-wing pundit is physically altering the very structure of your brain.

Such an outlandish allegation requires a little set-up. Ready for an adventure into the political brain?

Let’s start with rats.

In a brilliant Radiolab episode called Memory and Forgetting (I highly recommend listening to the first 21 minutes here), hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich discuss a memory experiment with rats.  They play an audio tone for a rat, just before giving it a slight electrical shock. Predictably, the next time the tone is played, the rat reacts. Here’s Jad:

The moment it hears the tone and then feels the shock, inside its head a bunch of neurons start to build a connection… Memory is a structure that connects one brain cell to another.  So the next time that the rat hears that damn tone, since inside its brain tone brain cells are physically connected to shock brain cells, it’s gonna know that after this [tone sound plays] comes this [shock sound effect plays].  Instead of just listening passively, it’s gonna freeze, bracing itself for what is about to happen.

Ok, duh, but here’s a little more about how it happens physically inside the brain.  Memory is “a physical thing,” explains regular Radiolab contributor Jonah Leher (author of the book How We Decide), “It’s not simply an idea. It’s a physical trace left in your brain. [A trace made largely of] proteins. Proteins are the building blocks of memory.”

Neuroscientists figured this out through experiments with the drug anisomycin, which inhibits the formation of new proteins.  They found that without new proteins there can be no new memory.  So when they repeated the experiment but this time gave the rats anisomycin as they played the tone (right before the shock), these rats did not react to the tone afterward.  They could not learn a correlation between tone and shock, because they could not form proteins to make this experience into a memory.

And then it got a little weird.

Karim Nader, a doctoral student at the time, came up with an unconventional idea.  Here’s Jad paraphrasing Nader:

What do you think would happen if instead of giving the drug while the rat was making the memory, what if, way after the fact, we gave it the drug while it was remembering the memory?  Could we mess with the memory then? …Could we zap a memory that was already there?  Could we go in and erase old memories?

The idea was dismissed as absurd, but Nader went ahead and tested it anyway. He did the same experiment as before, playing a tone followed by an electrical charge.  Then he waited 60 days.  (Rats that are conditioned this way have the reaction to the tone for the rest of their lives.)  Nader then played the tone, and while the rats were remembering the memory of the shock, he gave them the drug.

And it turned out that Nader’s crazy idea was right.  The rats that got the drugs behaved from that moment forward as if they hadn’t been shocked in the first place.  They no longer had a Pavolvian response to the tone.  Here’s Lehrer:

That was the shocking result of the Nader experiment.  The rat is already terrified of the shock.  But if you inject the chemical as the rat is remembering what the sound means, the memory disappears.  It’s as if the memory had never been there in the first place.

Then they did it with people! They did a similar experiment with people suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  And it worked.  As the patients recalled traumatic memories, they were given the drug.  The next time they remembered those memories, they weren’t as painful.

Here’s Jad arriving at some troubling conclusions:

There really isn’t anything like a real memory.  I mean, think about it… If you can erase a memory while it’s being created… and now we learned you can erase a memory while it’s being remembered-using the same drug-what that really means is that every time you’re remembering something, you’re actually recreating it.  That’s the only reason the drug works.  And so if you’re recreating it each time, then each time you’re remembering something it’s a brand new memory.

Alright, that’s amazing and somewhat disturbing, but what does it have to do with Stephen Colbert? Well, stay with me for one more pit-stop… braking for a different sort of rat…

Bush as Neural Networker

The attacks on September 11, 2001 can be described in many horrific ways.  In the language of psychology though, 9/11 was above all else deeply traumatic.  The dramatic images of passenger airlines disappearing on impact into horrifically spectacular explosions; of people like us forced to jump to their deaths; of marvelously tall buildings collapsing into a lowly pile of rubble; of the symbols of the power, prestige and invincibility of our nation made vulnerable – all running as a repeating loop on our television screens – arguably made for the most synchronistically traumatizing moment in the history of our country.

You may remember talking to a lot of people in the days and weeks following September 11th.  When something happens that shakes our sense of safety and our picture of the world, we typically become eager to process and understand what happened.  In these moments, we tend to engage in a lot more conversations – sometimes widening the circle of folks we talk with, even to include total strangers.  I remember several such conversations initiated by strangers on the DC Metro.

We do this in order to narrate and assimilate the unfamiliar and the traumatic into something we can explain and feel some control over; into our worldview.  This is part of the process of recovering from the trauma.  As we remember together, we “recreate” the traumatic events into a form that we can cope with.

They weren’t discussing September 11th on Radiolab, but some of their assertions about memory certainly apply.  Here’s Jonah Lehrer:

“The act of remembering, on a literal level is an act of creation.  Every memory is rebuilt anew every time you remember it…

One of the ironies of this research is that the more you remember something, in a sense, the less accurate it becomes; the more it becomes about you and the less it becomes about what actually happened.

This is the neurological basis of cognitive therapy methods like Prolonged Exposure Therapy and

Narrative Therapy.  Therapists support patients as they focus conscious attention on traumatic events – re-imagining, re-narrating and re-membering those events.  Patients actually physically change their own brains, creating new neuropathways that connect traumatic and anxiety-producing memories with more positive and empowered feelings. Then when the traumatic memories are triggered in the future, the brain activates those positive feelings and associations too, diminishing the power of the negative feelings.

Bush and the neocons didn’t appear interested in healing or therapy after 9/11, but that doesn’t mean they lacked a sophisticated neurological analysis of our collective trauma.  Whether consciously or just intuitively, they re-narrated the events of 9/11 to channel collective trauma and fear into widespread acceptance of an authoritarian mindset that enabled them to consolidate power and carry out an aggressive agenda.  With each retelling of 9/11, Bush became a stronger and stricter father figure, who would protect and deliver us from evil and punish the evil-doers.  They imbued the images of falling towers with specific meanings and emotions, neurologically fusing these memories with concepts of punishment, revenge, and blind submission to authority.

While the Administration clearly understood the effect of their messaging, it’s important to recognize that it also came naturally for them.  They were re-narrating 9/11 to fit and further their existing worldview, values, and agenda.  They were as caught up in it as anyone, and they felt more empowered with each retelling.

They had hit their stride.  They were in their zone.  They held the 2004 Republican National Convention in NYC, and it looked like a 9/11-themed party.  Rudy Giuliani seemed incapable of uttering a sentence that didn’t reference September 11th and terrorism.

Today Glenn Beck (and the base he appeals to) is so nostalgic for 9/11 that he started the “9-12 Movement” – which purports to be “designed to bring us all back to the place we were on September 12, 2001.”  Who on God’s green earth would want us to be back in the place we were after such a horrible attack?  People who felt empowered by the retelling, re-membering, and neurological rewiring of the events of 9/11.  That’s who.

Colbert Recasts the Authoritarian Character

Colbert’s brilliantly performed caricature of the authoritarian fear-mongering personality activates the places in our brains that actually house authoritarian fear-mongering thoughts and associations.  He triggers the very same neural networks that Bush, Rove, Beck, Gingerich and company have characteristically activated.  But Colbert’s satire fuses these networks with very different feelings than the anxiety and fear that actual authoritarians intend for us to feel.  This may seem far-fetched, but it’s not entirely unlike the cognitive therapy methods discussed above.  Colbert strips fear-based, anxiety-producing thought patterns of their potency.  We can revisit and remember something as horrible as September 11th, and move from paralysis to an empowered and grounded response.

Political psychologist and neuroscientist Drew Westen explains in The Political Brain how inoculation works:

Psychologists discovered years ago that a . . . technique for reducing the power of a negative appeal from the other side is inoculation.  Inoculation means building up “resistance” to an appeal by forewarning against it or presenting (and answering) weak arguments in favor of it before the other side can offer a stronger version.  Much as a vaccine builds the body’s defenses through exposure to small, inert amounts of a virus, weak and easily assailable arguments supporting the other point of view prompt people to accept or spontaneously generate counterarguments that serve as emotional “antibodies.”

Unlike Westen’s description though, Colbert isn’t inoculating preemptively.  In fact, Colbert came to prominence after the Bush Administration had already shot its wad on Iraq.  The Administration’s colossal failures are the main reason why more people in society built up immunity to some of their tactics.  Colbert is riding that wave more than he is creating it.

Nonetheless, what he’s doing – especially what he’s doing tomorrow – is making waves.  The framing, “March to Keep Fear Alive” provides the perfect antidote to the so-called Tea Party on the eve of the mid-term elections.  Conservative leaders are kind of one-trick ponies when it comes to fear.  It’s always been their main game.  So when someone like Colbert can call out all their moves – in a way that makes them a laughing stock – he’s taking some of the wind out of their sails.

Colbert is recasting the authoritarian personality as greedy, self-interested, delusional, pathetic, and marginal. Meanwhile Jon Stewart’s “counter-rally” (they’re actually the same event) effectively brands our side as the mainstream. This is no small framing feat considering that a staple strategy of conservatives for the past four decades has been to brand progressives as, in the words of Newt Gingerich, “the enemy of normal Americans.”

Of course, negatively branding the conservative narrative isn’t exactly the same thing as projecting a salient progressive narrative.  And – to point out one important problem with tomorrow’s events – a “Million Moderate March” isn’t the kind of frame that will produce the level of passion and commitment that is absolutely vital to building movements strong enough to challenge the entrenched interests that stand in the way of progressive change.  Colbert can spar with the worst of our opponents – and I hope we can learn from some of his moves.  But what will really rewire our neural networks on the scale we need – what will create popular positive associations with progressive social change – is the telling and constant retelling of a salient, values-based, social justice narrative.  We need to figure out how to tell that better and more consistently – not just at a well-timed, well-framed, comedian-called rally before the mid-term elections, and not just during a dynamic and rare presidential campaign – until it becomes the conventional wisdom that shapes how a majority of Americans make sense of the world.

The Stakes in this Election: Incredibly High | Mike Lux discusses “The Progressive Revolution”

originally published on October 20, 2010

Welcome to the second interview in our series.  This week we feature progressive organizer, strategist, blogger, and author Mike Lux.  Mike is the CEO of Progressive Strategies, the Co-founder of Open Left, and he has been active for thirty years on many progressive issues.

Mike is the “outsider’s insider.”  He has one foot in the door (having worked on five presidential campaigns, and having served in the Clinton White House health care reform war room), and he has the other foot on the outside (having worked on many issue advocacy campaigns and on building independent progressive infrastructure).

Mike wrote a book called The Progressive Revolution which looks at the threads of conservative and progressive thought and action in the United States since the Declaration of Independence.

Listen to the full interview with Mike Lux here:


Read the full interview here:

BTC: Why don’t we start by you introducing yourself – a little bit about yourself and your work.

Mike Lux: I’m Mike Lux.  I have been involved in politics full-time for 30 years now.  This is my 30-year anniversary, actually.  I have done a lot of different things in progressive politics: community organizer, state-wide consumer group, labor organizer and leader. I’ve worked on a lot of different campaigns. I’ve worked inside of five different presidential campaigns.  And I’ve also done a lot of projects outside of campaigns to affect those campaigns.  I worked in the Clinton White House.  I’ve done consulting work with a wide range of progressive organizations.  I cofounded a blog called Open Left about… I think it was three years ago now.  And I am now working with MoveOn on some major projects, and with Daily Kos on some major projects, and writing for Huffington Post quite a bit.  So, I’m in the middle of a lot of different things.

BTC: Thanks for taking a little bit of time out in the middle of it.  Really appreciate it.  You wrote a book called The Progressive Revolution.  What is it?  And why did you write it?

Mike Lux: The reason that I wrote it is that I’ve always been a lover of history.  And I would be out working on campaigns or working on issue fights in my day job, and I would come home and catch a few minutes of reading a good history book.  And what I kept finding over the course of the years was that the arguments echoed each other; that in fact, you can trace back all the way back to 1776 consistent lines of arguments from progressive- and conservative-minded political leaders and activists and newspaper columnists – all the way back.  And you can find them arguing with each other, sometimes using more blatant language about certain things.  And of course the issues have changed over the years in some areas, not in others.  But the sort of basic argument about what kind of society that we have has gone on.  And so basically I decided to write a book tracing that argument, talking about how I thought of progressives and conservatives over time, viewing the world, and how those arguments have played out in American history.

BTC: Great.  And the political parties associated with that framework of progressive and conservative have not always been the same…

Mike Lux: No.  In fact, that has sort of shifted and morphed over the years.  I mean, we haven’t had the same set of political parties for one thing.  In our first century the parties were sort of changing more often.  But even after the Republicans and Democrats both got firmly established, there was a period where the Republicans were actually more the party of reform, in their early days.  They were the party that was pressing for a fuller equality for blacks; a fuller equality for immigrants; progressive income tax; the Homestead Act; the land-grant university system.  All of those things were pushed by the Republicans in the early years.  But sadly, they became very much captured by big business, as the 1800s progressed.  And eventually what happened is that that reform spirit got taken up by populists and progressives in the 1890s, 1900s, and they ended up kind of merging into the Democratic Party.  And the Democratic Party went from being a more conservative, southern-based party, in the middle of the 1800s, to being a much more progressive party – although obviously not entirely that way, as we know.

BTC: Yes, and we’ll discuss the Democratic Party a little more later.  Now, this is kind of a big question, but if you could kind of reduce to a couple of paragraphs, what is your “theory of change?”  How does social change happen?  How does political change happen?  How do we make it happen?

Mike Lux: My theory of change is that there has to be an outside progressive movement pushing on the inside, but there also… I don’t think change happens unless you have insiders who also want to make change.  And I think it has to be a combination.  It can’t… at least in American history-and I’ve not studied how change happens in other regions of the world-but if you look back on American history, and look at every major change that has happened-progressive change at least-it has always come when there were people in office, presidency and congress both, who were interested in change, open to it, not necessarily pushing it themselves, not necessarily bold, courageous in every instance, but at least open to the idea of change, at least interested in new ideas.  But that’s not enough by itself.  Cause there have been people like that and nothing’s gotten done.  The magic is when there’s an outside movement that is strong, innovative, pushing hard, that figures out how to work constructively with folks on the inside.  I think it takes that combination.  One by itself doesn’t do it.  No matter how strong the outside movement is, the change doesn’t happen until you’ve got both.

BTC: You’ve been described as a “progressive insider.”  Is that a label you identify with?

Mike Lux: Yeah, it is.  I have a foot both inside and outside the sort of traditional establishment.  I have spent most of my life, you know, in the labor movement, community organizations, the blogosphere, the outside groups sector.  So in many ways I’m an outsider.  On the other hand, I’ve lived in Washington for close to two decades.  I’ve worked in the White House.  I’ve worked in presidential campaigns in senior levels.  So I kind of know what the inside looks like, and still have a lot of friends on the inside.  I still talk to people and email with people at the White House and in Congress on a regular basis.  I guess I have both aspects to my biography.  And I also, I think it’s kind of reflected, I’ve always sort of seen myself-because I knew both sides and could talk to both sides, I’ve always kind of felt like I’m a bit of a bridge between the two.

BTC: And I’ll bet you get a lot of crap from both sides at times too!

Mike Lux: Oh, absolutely!  I get enormous crap from pretty much all my friends.  That sort of comes with this role.  The insiders are always like, “Your friends in the blogosphere are insane!”  And the outsiders are like, “Your friends on the inside are all sellouts!”  So, yeah, I get a lot of grief from both sides.  I had a colleague in the White House who once introduced me to somebody and said, “This is Mike Lux.  His job is to have his friends yell at him.”

BTC: I would imagine you can’t be too thin-skinned in your line of work.  At the same time-I read your posts at Open Left, and your book-and you seem to intentionally cultivate a very compassionate attitude toward all sides, including your political opponents…  The theme of BeyondtheChoir.org is, well, going beyond the choir, and recognizing that to accomplish the kinds of change we imagine we need to go past the usual suspects and build a very big movement for change.  What do you see as key ways of doing that?  Or, alternatively, what are some things that prevent us from doing that well?

Mike Lux: I think part of it is… I think sometimes when people sort of land in a certain culture they have trouble seeing their way out of it.  They start to talk like, think like, react to everything from their own perspective.  And their friends become people who have the same perspective.  Their political allies are people who have the same perspective.  I think that is part of what limits us.

I also think, I mean, honestly, there are real differences in point of view about how you solve some of the big issues in this country – and I think very legitimate fights.  People sometimes complain about all the bickering in politics.  To me the bickering in politics is frequently quite healthy, because it means people are wrestling with, you know, do we save the economy by saving the banks, or do we save the economy by investing in regular people?  So I think that’s a second thing.

A third thing that I would say is I think that people have different sort of views about the nature of change and the nature of history.  And some people get very focused on a specific thing, like, within a bill for example.  And then if that’s not there then it’s not real change or it’s not progress.  So I think there get to be a lot of debates about how much you compromise, whether you should compromise.  And I think this is particularly the area I think where insiders and outsiders don’t understand each other.  I think insiders understand how hard it is to get change, because they sort of deal with it every day.  They fight these battles every day.  And so when they see an opening to get something done, they want to grab it.  Whereas folks on the outside are like, “Well, that’s not the right approach.  If it doesn’t have X, Y and Z in it, we’re going to fail.”  And they get very frustrated with some of the shorter term compromises.  So I think that difference in perspective and difference in how you view things is a lot of why people in politics fight with each other.

BTC: You discuss in your book how, coming out of the dramatic upheavals in the 1960s and early 1970s, the right-conservatives-dug in to build long-term infrastructure, and succeeded in constructing remarkable echo chambers that saturate the country with their messages and narrative.  And then you contrast that with progressives, saying that, “The movement quite literally allowed itself to fall to pieces by focusing on identity politics and single-issue causes.”  Will you say a little more about that?

Mike Lux: Yeah, I think that the theory that I kind of lay out in my book is that back in the 1960s-and I think this lasted a while-Democrats and progressives had been doing pretty well for about 30 to 40 years, in politics.  And they kind of felt like they were the natural majority.  And so I think their… ideologically they kind of grew flabby.  And they started focusing on, okay, “We’ve got all these good progressive things that we’ve passed.  Maybe now we should just focus on this little area or that little area.” We got too sort of narrow-focused on specific bills, specific policies, specific programs.

Whereas the right knew that it was a minority.  They knew that they’d lost-been losing-elections for a while.  They were on the verge of being marginalized.  And so they used their corporate connections. There were some business people who had a lot of money, and they were able to say, “Look, let’s make long-term investments.  Let’s think about what kind of power centers we need to build up over time that are not just about this issue, that issue-we’ll fight them too-but how do we create a narrative?  How do we create a frame?  And how do we create a movement that’s much broader than this issue or that issue?”  And so I think that’s how things developed.  I think that reached its peak actually in the 90s, where on our side single issue groups were so bad at working with each other that they couldn’t figure out how to help Clinton pass anything big – the health care issue being the flaming example.  And on the Republican side, all their work on infrastructure over the years kind of came to fruition with the Gingerich Speakership and all the things that happened there.  And when Bush was able to become president, they were able to keep building that.

I think now progressives and Democrats have seen that they need to be more, think more long-term.  And I think the country reaped the negatives of having the Republicans in power.  So I think we’re still, over the long haul-even though we’re having a rough year this year-we can still project a more progressive movement and ideas over time.  But we’ve had a rough time since the 60s and 70s.

BTC: So much so.  It was interesting for me reading the book, being somewhat next generation in this, and [you] talking about how progressives assumed they were the majority.  When I came of age, there was kind of an assumption that there was hardly anyone progressive…

Mike Lux: Right.

BTC: That we were up against the culture.  You talk in your book… you quote Newt Gingerich’s categorization of progressives as “the enemy of normal Americans.”

Mike Lux: One of my all-time favorite quotes.

BTC: Does it ever feel to you that some on the left actually internalized this, as if we’re inherently up against the culture?

Mike Lux: Oh I don’t think there’s any doubt that folks on the left internalize it.  I think that, if I were going to have one message for a lot of my progressive and liberal friends, I would say, “Stop watching Fox News so much.”  I think that people get all worked up and they start seeing Republicans and conservatives as the majority.  And they get frustrated about that.

I think that it’s really important for folks on our side to take the long view; to, number one, understand the incredible financial odds that we’re up against.  I mean the other side just has so much more money than we do – it’s crazy how much more money than we do.  So I think we need to understand that from a resource point of view.  But we also need to understand… it’s not like we have lost election after election.  It’s not like we fail at everything.  You look back over the last 20 years.  You just go through the list.  We gained seats in the 1990 congressional election.  We won the presidency and both houses of Congress in 1992.  We had a very bad year in ’94.  ’96 we came back; we gained seats in Congress, we won the presidency.  In ’98 we gained seats in Congress.  In 2000 we gained seats in Congress and won the majority vote in the election.  Then we had a couple of bad years.  Then in 2006 and 2008 we swept everything in front of us.  So it’s not like Democrats… I think there’s this myth that Democrats are always losers, and the Republicans have the edge.  But I don’t think that’s really true.

BTC: It’s interesting.  You say “we” and you’re saying Democrats.  In your book you seem pretty careful to not equate progressives and Democrats.  You’re intentional about your terms.  And I’m sure some of the people listening to this identify as progressive, but not as Democrats.  It seems particularly pronounced in the past year and a half… where progressives are fed up with and feel no particular loyalty to the Democratic Party.  Would you make the case for why and how such folks should engage the Democratic Party – maybe specifically addressing the upcoming mid-term elections?  Why is it important, in your opinion, to engage the Democratic Party, as progressives?  And within that, how do you go about doing that?

Mike Lux: I don’t think we have any choice, first of all.  I think that people talk about, “Wouldn’t it be great if there was a third party?” or, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had parliamentary elections?” or wouldn’t it be great if we had X, Y, Z?  Yeah.  It would.  But the fact is, we don’t.  And I’m not one-having been in politics a long time, and having studied the history of it-I’m not one who thinks any of that stuff is going to happen anytime soon.  You don’t tend to win process arguments in this country.  They’re very hard to do.  And people have tried, and they’re just very hard to do.  You might be able to get something – some nice process change in San Francisco or Cambridge, Massachusetts.  But getting it nationwide is a different story.

So I think the situation we have now, as progressives now-when I was speaking earlier I was talking about Democrats because we were talking about elections and who was winning elections-but as progressives, we have to understand that, number one, the Republicans have been taken over by complete extremists.  Republicans can no longer run in elections as moderates and win in primaries.  And all of the people who ever had a moderate thought in their life are scared of looking like they’re ever going to cooperate or compromise with Democrats on anything.  So the notion of working with the Republicans is just out the door.

On the Democratic side, we need to do everything in our power to run primaries against conservative Democrats.  I think we need to do everything in our power to do issue campaigns and broader sort of narrative campaigns that move the country’s dialogue to the left.  I think it’s incredibly important that we build our own media centers, through the blogosphere and through other new media ways of doing things.  We need to do all of those things to build infrastructure, and understand that progressives and Democrats are not the same thing, but that progressives have a big stake, a big toehold, in the Democratic Party.  We don’t own it.  We’re not identical.  You know, the progressives and Democrats are not identical.  But the fact is, that’s the party that we have; we have to fight our battles in, and try to make them as progressive as possible.

And so I am all for engagement on every level with the Democratics. We need to beat conservative Democrats in primaries, but we also need to figure out how do we work with conservative Democrats to free up the politics for them to be able to vote for us in some things.  Cause some of these folks are genuinely personally conservative.  Some of them are just scared of the districts they’re in.  So I think figuring that dynamic out is another thing we have to think about as well.

BTC: This kind of builds on the last question.  In your book you say that conservatives, “have always viewed government as best used as an instrument to benefit business and wealthy elites.”  I know a lot of progressives who would agree that this is the primary historical purpose of government.  But you treat government as a contested space.  You contrast the conservative vision with FDR’s description of “modern society acting through its government,” and Truman’s contention that, “It is the business of government to see that the little fellow gets a square deal.”  Why is it important to view government as contested space?

Mike Lux: Well, again, I go back to my answer on your earlier question.  I don’t think we have a choice.  In democratic society, government is a reflection of the society’s values.  And government is how many of the things in society get done.  So I don’t think we have any choice at all but to view it as contested space.

I think we need to understand very clearly though that it’s not all good.  One of the things that actually I don’t like about some progressive messaging is the defensiveness about government.  I get into arguments with people because I sometimes talk about all the waste in government – cause there is waste in government.  Government contractors are ripping off government agencies for hundreds of billions of dollars a year.  Defense contractors are wasting money like it was going out of business.  There’s waste all over in government; corporate subsidies for agribusiness – government subsidies for agribusiness, I mean.  I don’t think we should, as progressives, be defensive about government.  I don’t think we should be reflexively for government in all situations.

I think government is an important tool and we have to try to make it be so that it’s on the side of working people and poor people.  That’s our job.  In government you have to pick beneficiaries and you have to pick people who get nicked a little bit.  That’s the nature of government.  We should be fighting to make sure it’s on the side of the right people.  But that doesn’t mean that we’re for government in every situation, or that it never wastes money, or that there’s never been a program that shouldn’t be eliminated.  We should be for government that fights for regular people, and that should be the definition of progressivism.

BTC: And one of those specific fights in the past year and a half, that’s been the most prominent fight, is the health care fight.  I know you’ve done a lot of work before this round-I think it’s probably been one of the biggest issues of your lifetime-on health care.  As a strategist, as an organizer, as a Clinton White House staffer… what was your role there?

Mike Lux: I was in the Clinton war room on health care.  I was one of the earliest staffers assigned to work with Hillary on the task force.  So I was in that fight from the very beginning.

BTC: And how are you feeling about the outcome?

Mike Lux: Well, you know, mixed, of course.  I think that the health care bill could have been a lot better, with a little bit different focus and strategy from the White House.  I wish very much that they had pushed harder and fought harder for certain things.

BTC: Such as?

Mike Lux: Such as the public option, to be obvious.  That’s something we all-the entire progressive movement-fought hard for and we didn’t get.  I didn’t like the deal with the drug industry that was cut early on.  There’s a whole bunch of things in the health care bill that I didn’t like.  But what the health care bill did do was establish the idea, for the first time ever in America, that everyone ought to be covered; that health care was a right, not a privilege; that the system should be a federal system; and that people had rights against insurance companies; that insurance companies should be regulated in a new, more comprehensive way.

So I think the health care bill was an important step forward.  I wish it would have been a stronger bill.  But I also know, again… you know, change is a motherfucker!  I mean, change is really hard.  And I think sometimes people get frustrated, but they kind of forget, I mean, we’ve been trying to do this for a hundred years.  And some very talented politicians have tried to make it happen.  FDR, for all of his successes, didn’t get it done.  LBJ, for all of his successes, didn’t get it done.  And we managed to get it done.

And now we’re going to have to do the hard work of trying to get it improved.  There is no battle in politics that is ever over.  I think that’s one of the things people need to understand.  You fight these battles over and over again.  And if you get a toehold, you build on the toehold.  You try to get higher and better the next year, the next fight.  And that’s the nature of politics.  Even if you get something done, that doesn’t mean it can’t be taken away.  And we see that every day too.  So I think rather than be discouraged, I think we see health care as a step forward.  And now we try to make it better.

BTC: Do you have any reflections on the process and the struggle – particularly the past year and a half?  Any big insights that came out that you would like to share?

Mike Lux: I have a lot of impressions.  And I may write about that someday more at length.  I think… I’m trying to think if there’s anything in particular from that struggle…

BTC: Do you have a favorite moment from the struggle?

Mike Lux: My favorite moment was passing the damn thing!  I was very happy when that finally happened!  Getting the votes – when we knew, finally, that we had the votes, that was my favorite moment.  You can’t beat that.

BTC: A lot of folks treat the parties as monolithic.  There’s the Republican Party and the Democratic Party.  From what I hear you saying in your book, that’s a bit more true of the Republican Party these days than it is of the Democratic Party.  In the health care fight in particular, it seemed that there were a handful of people that you could count on one or two hands-in the Democratic Party-who were the primary problem.  What do we do about that?

Mike Lux: I think it is increasingly true.  In my political lifetime, we have gone from a Republican Party that really was quite a bit more diverse… you know, when I first started getting interested in politics, when I was in junior high, high school, you had these people like Ed Brooke and Matt Mathias, Jacob Javits, Nelson Rockefeller, who were pro-business conservatives on some things, but mostly they were very, very progressive guys. That has evaporated over the years to where, now, the only moderates left are just scared of the right-wing shadow; scared of right-wing primaries; don’t want to take too many chances.  And so the party has become much more lockstep.

I think for us, with the conservative Democrats, we absolutely need to make sure that those big problems get primaries.  So that’s one thing.

I think the second thing is, there are some places-my home state of Nebraska is an example of this-where you could primary Ben Nelson.  You could probably beat him if you primaried him.  I don’t know – it’d be a close call, but you’d certainly have the potential to beat him.  But then you’d have almost no chance in a general election.

One of the things I think progressives have failed at over the years is putting more progressive infrastructure in some of these small, more conservative states.  And I am a complete believer that if we did do that, we could be successful.  You look at a state like South Dakota, that elected people like George McGovern and Jim Abourezk, who was a great progressive senator, and Tom Daschle – all these folks who came up in South Dakota, because they built that kind of political organization.  You look at a state today like Montana, you know, a Republican state in many ways, but you got this crazy populist governor, Brian Schweitzer, two Democratic senators-one of whom is not very good, the other of whom is decent-you’ve got real sort of play in that state.  I think we need to do a much better job in the small, especially the western states…

BTC: That’s a lot of what the 50-State Strategy was about – Howard Dean’s strategy…

Mike Lux: Absolutely.  Yeah, absolutely.  Getting into some of those states, creating more infrastructure – I guarantee you, if there were more progressive infrastructure, stronger progressive infrastructure in the state of Nebraska, Ben Nelson wouldn’t have been so hard to get his vote on health care or on any range of other issues.  You would force him to move, whether he wanted to or not.  In Ben’s case, he actually wanted to on some things, but he was just scared of Nebraska voters.

BTC: The “Make me do it” dynamic?

Mike Lux: Yeah.  Yeah.  Now, Ben’s a pretty conservative guy.  And I’m not saying that he would suddenly become Ted Kennedy or anything.  But I just think that it makes a huge difference when you have more progressive infrastructure in those states.  And that’s something, frankly, that we’ve failed at on our side.  I think we should have invested far more in those states than we have.

BTC: Your book was written before the emergence of the Tea Party.  You do, however, discuss in your book the John Birch Society.  You say, “The Birch approach was McCarthyism on steroids.  But despite, or maybe because of, the craziness, the movement spread quickly and gained power.  And some politicians began to align themselves with the Birchers.”  And then, speaking of Barry Goldwater, who embraced the Birchers, you say that, “Although he was slaughtered by LBJ in 1964, in winning the nomination fight Goldwater fundamentally reshaped the Republican Party.”  How does that political moment, and the John Birch Society, compare to our present political moment, with the Tea Party?

Mike Lux: Well, I want to kid you about the way you started that question, where you said I wrote the book before the emergence of the Tea Party.  In fact, the Tea Party emerged long before I wrote the book.  The Tea Party is 200-some years old.  And I don’t mean in the sense of the Revolutionary Founders who were actually pretty radical folks.  I mean, there has been this extremely conservative, violent many times, angry always, racist most of the time, nativist most of the time, movement in American politics that just keeps reoccurring.  And every time there is hope for progressive change, every time there is a moderately progressive, even slightly left-of-center president, you’re going to have that kind of thing emerge.

I can tell you from the Clinton years.  The only thing that kept it at a lower pitch in the Clinton years was the Oklahoma City bombing, which I think freaked people out so much that they kind of backed down from some of the worst of the rhetoric.  But, you know, you look at those years.  You had Rush Limbaugh spewing racist stuff every other day.  You had people like Jerry Falwell peddling tapes about how Clinton had murdered people in Arkansas.  These folks were not moderates.  There was no moderation to their rhetoric.

I think the only difference that I see between the Tea Party, what was going on in the ’90s, the Birchers in the ’60s, is that because we now have a black president with a foreign-sounding name, I think that has leant a certain edge and spike to the right-wing.  It has ginned them up in a new and different kind of way, and made them more radical in their own approach.

I have a friend who’s actually tracked quite a bit the different segments of the Tea Party – cause it’s not, you know, monolithic itself.  And he’s basically identified several different elements.  One is this kind of Dick Armey economic libertarian element.  There’s the Koch brothers and everything they’re doing, and they’re kind of aligned with Armey.  But, in his view, three of the five major elements feeding into the Tea Party demonstrations and the Tea Party movement come out of militias and right-wing movements – like far right-wing movements of various kinds; scary, racist right-wing movements.  So I think that element has become energized in American politics in a way we haven’t seen.  I think if Bill Clinton or LBJ had been a different color, we would have seen more of this.  I think that’s a lot of what’s going on.

BTC: You do talk a lot in your book about fear.  You also talk a lot about race.  How is fear being used as a political tool?  You identify it as a primary message and tool of conservatives.  And you talk about hope as the essential strength of progressives.  What does fear do to people?  How does it work as a political tool?  And what can we do about it?

Mike Lux: Progressives want change.  Change can be painted as very scary.  And conservatives’ fundamental argument has always been to fear change because we don’t know the unintended consequences; we don’t want the rabble to get too much power; we don’t people who don’t know what they’re doing to have control of government.  Their basic argument is tradition trumps justice; that the people who’ve been in control for a long time ought to stay in control because they know what they’re doing.  Those are their basic arguments.

So you’ve got this sort of-as Sarah Palin calls it-the changy, hopey thing.  And it’s very easy to paint a fearful picture of that because, when you’re changing something, you don’t exactly know what it’s going to mean.  The fear rhetoric has been used on every major issue, every major reform in American life.  It was used on the abolition of slavery.  It was used on women getting the vote; the rhetoric around the destruction of families and the end of the world as we know it.  Social Security was described as the first step in the door for the totalitarian state.

So you’ve got this very, very strong rhetoric.  I mean, in 1993 the Clinton economic package was described as utterly catastrophic, like it will destroy the American economy.  The kind of crazy rhetoric that these guys use – that’s a very traditional tactic of the right, and it fits their over all messages.  Because their over all message is, you know, the people with power and money who have control… we ought to let those guys keep control, cause otherwise we don’t know what’s going to happen.

BTC: And when that’s internalized it becomes what you call the “culture of caution?”

Mike Lux: Well, the culture of caution is a… I don’t think that’s so much a progressive/conservative thing.  I think it’s the biggest single detriment to the Democrats and the Democratic Party.  I think what happens is that fear drives the conservative message.  And Democrats’ reaction to that, rather than to push back, rather than to get bolder about change and response, the reaction has been, oh, well let’s be careful, let’s go slow, let’s be cautious.  And the problem with that is that’s not very inspiring.  It doesn’t build movement.  It doesn’t create real change.  It keeps the system as it is in place.

I think I said in my book, I talked about how the Republicans’ big problem in building a majority is that their policies don’t work, and they overreach.  They do crazy, extreme stuff.  The Democrats’ big problem in building a majority is that they get into power and then they get cautious.  They get scared about doing too much.  And as a result nobody ever sees change happen.  It’s a reflection of what’s going on in this country right now in this election.  Barack Obama promised change.  And people haven’t seen that much change.  And they’re wondering, like, “What the fuck?  Where’s the change?  I thought our lives were going to get better.  I thought the economy was going to get better.  I thought things were going to be more about helping the middle class.”  And they don’t see it yet.  And I think it’s because we’ve moved too slow and been too cautious.

BTC: Thanks.  We’re at time.  I want to respect your time, but last question, do you want to say anything about what’s at stake with this election – that’s coming up in a matter of days?

Mike Lux: Well, every election everything is at stake.  Every single election everybody talks about, “Oh, this is the most important election of our lifetime.”  I think every election is the most important election, because every single election you’re fighting out who is going to run things.  Are we going to do things for regular folks, or are we going to do things for the elites?  Are we going in a worse or a better direction?  In a democracy, you can’t get any more important that that.

So the stakes in this election: incredibly high.  We just passed health care reform, financial reform, and already the banks and insurance companies are trying to retrench and take stuff away.  And if the Republicans get in, they will.  They’ll have a lot more power to do that, even with Obama still in office.  So it’s incredibly important.  Just like it’s going to be in 2012, just like it was last time.  So people need to take their politics seriously and not take vacations in October during an election year.

BTC: Maybe that’s aimed at me!  Thanks, Mike, for talking.  Where can folks find your book and more of your writing?

Mike Lux: We do have a website.  Go to www.theprogressiverevolution.com.  It is the website for the book.  All of my writing is on Open Left.  So if you want to go back and read blog posts, my various rantings and ravings over the years, people are welcome to do that.

BTC: Great.  Thanks a lot, Mike.

The Centrality of Fear in Right-wing Hegemony

originally published on September 11, 2010

Paul Rosenberg nailed it yesterday in his article on Taxes & Terrorism (Open Left):

…the basis of conservative politics is fear.  The basis of liberal politics is reason.  The conservative try to flood the zone with fear, so that people can’t think straight . . . If the GOP can turn anything into a flashpoint of fear, then they can keep on repeating it, and all thought shuts down–perhaps not for everyone, but for enough. But for them to be really secure, they need the Democrats to buy into their logic as well.  Once the Democrats are gripped with fear, and unwilling to talk about a given issue, then that issue belongs to the GOP.  Their position on it doesn’t have to make any sense.  Making sense is beside the point.  The point is scaring people.  The point is, in a word, terrorism.

As today is September 11, it’s fitting to address the subject of fear – especially considering the chorus of stupid that’s been ringing from Gainsville to Manhattan.

Paul’s spot-on analysis reminded me of a few related articles on the subject. The first is something I wrote in 2007 on fear-based narrative strategies. This is from Beyond the Choir’s Building a Successful Antiwar Movement (PDF):

9/11 jostled Americans’ anxieties like a rock on a hornets’ nest. Many people struggled to make sense of the attacks, working through feelings of anger, fear and sadness. The Bush Administration quickly wove together a story to explain the attacks in ways that would channel people’s emotions and draw lessons favorable to the neo-cons’ ambitious agenda. Their story was first and foremost about why we must go to war. They used classic narrative devices; America was the victim, al Queda the clear villain. The story started on what would have been a pleasant Tuesday morning in September, with America waking up to a new day, only to be savagely surprise-attacked by a villain so evil that his only rationale was a rabid hatred of freedom itself. He might have destroyed freedom and “our way of life” entirely, unless…

In stepped our hero, George W. Bush, already resolute while most Americans were still reeling. He knew who did it, and he knew what he was going to do to them. The only thing America could do in this story was to fight back, to not be a victim. These colors don’t run! The story demanded that we go to war. It precluded any other options.

I discuss how “coining and parroting phrases like War on Terror, Homeland Security, Axis of Evil, and so on” was a narrative strategy to “preclude alternatives or dissent.”

False dichotomies are a hallmark of fear-based control narratives… “You’re with either with us or you’re with the terrorists.” In the thick of the political climate of fear that followed 9/11, to argue with this statement was to be relegated to the latter of the two options.

But there’s an important psychological component that I didn’t discuss in this essay. It reads as if the Bush Administration operated as a 100% cold and calculating Machiavellian control machine. I mean, that’s mostly true – operatives on the right understand the playbook for stoking and manipulating fear. But what this misses is that fear-mongering comes so very naturally for most of them. It’s not only their strategy. It’s also their psychological disposition – and their morality.

Progressives like to view far right-wingers as either crazy or evil or both. It’s challenging to think of someone who wants to burn a Koran – or someone who wants to invade and occupy another country – as moral. But if we want to get anywhere in understanding the foundations of what we’re up against, we need to look through the lens of morality. I use the word morality very neutrally here.  I’m certainly not saying that Newt Gingrich and company are acting on my moral code when they try to stop an Islamic community center in Manhattan.  But they are acting on their morals. They are operating under a different moral system, in which authority is more important than nurturance – so fear becomes a primary tool.

Linguist George Lakoff has done amazing work in mapping the two primary moral systems most people operate under (Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think is a good Lakoff book to start with).  He calls these systems Strict Father Morality and Nurturant Parent Morality. Choose your label. They actually contain many of the same components, but in a different order. Strict Father Moralists, for example, also value nurturance (who knew?) – but it’s further down the checklist.  These contrasting sets of values are based on our conceptions of the family and how to raise children – which we project onto government’s relationship to society. So a person who believes that fathers should show love by first and foremost instilling discipline and obedience in their children, and a person who believes parents should first and foremost nurture their children, will tend to make very different moral judgments on most every political issue.

One of Lakoff’s key assertions is that “conservatives understand the moral dimension of our politics better than liberals do,” and have therefore been able to “use politics in the service of a much larger moral and cultural agenda for America,” while “liberals have been helpless to stop them . . . because they don’t understand the conservative worldview and the role of moral idealism…”

Progressives need to understand both the calculated game of fear-mongering and the underlying moral system and psychology that enables the Gingrichs and Roves to win that game. Paul’s breakdown that “the basis of conservative politics is fear” and “of liberal politics is reason” makes me picture a bully and a nerd in a school playground. It’s not a winning equation for the nerd and all his smart reasoning skills. The bully commands fear. We feel the need to respond to him and accommodate him because when he doesn’t get his way he’ll hit us and kick us and bite us and pinch us (yes, he fights dirty) or call us a terrorist-lover or a Muslim or a communist.

We need a better story than the story of the bully and the nerd.