Monday, November 21, 2011

Conspiracy Theories and the Fantasy of "Common Sense"

One thing uniting both American populist movements of the past few years, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, is the belief that their obviously correct ideas are being thwarted by malign forces. Julian Sanchez analyzes this notion in a little essay about OWS:

For most of human history, we’ve spent our whole lives in social clusters of a few hundred people—we’re basically hardwired for groups of that size. That makes it easy to look at a throng of a few thousand out at a rally and tell yourself, as another familiar chant has it: “This is what democracy looks like.”

Except, of course, it isn’t really. Or at any rate, it’s only a tiny part of what democracy looks like.

A small group of people self-selected for their commitment to some set of shared goals and values may be able to pick a set of slogans to chant in unison, or resolve their limited disagreements by consensus process. But real democracy in a pluralist society involves deep and often ineradicable disagreement—and not just on the optimal uses of public parks and other commons. It’s true, of course, that concentrated and wealthy interests routinely capture the apparatus of government, and use it to serve ends inimical to the general good. But a frame that sets up an opposition between “the 99%” and “the 1%” —or, if you prefer, between “Washington/media elites” and “Real America”—suggests a vain hope that profound political differences are, at least in some spheres, an illusion manufactured by some small minority. . . .

Spend a few weeks in a self-selected community, and perhaps it becomes possible to believe that 99% of us really are all on the same page—or at least, would be if we weren’t brainwashed by the 1%. This has long been a major strain in conservative thinking: Everyone would see that our views are just simple common sense—obviously correct!—if not for a liberal media cabal systematically lying to people all day. Dark as this sounds, it’s utopian in one sense: It implies we’d all agree but for the malign influence of this or that small but powerful group.

Will Wilkinson adds:

But we will never all agree. Refractory disagreement is a bedrock fact of liberal society. As is, I would add, the darkly utopian idea Mr Sanchez identifies: the notion that disagreement is a product of malign, illegitimate, external influence. We are much too confident in our political beliefs, and our over-confidence is sustained in part by just-so stories about why others fail to see things our way. The liberal media! Right-wing think tanks! The socialist indoctrination camps known as "colleges"! George Soros! The Koch brothers! The Bilderbergers! Corporations! The state! The military-industrial complex!

There is something profoundly satisfying about believing that one's own team alone has seen through the fog of disinformation and propaganda to the real truth about the treacherous interests that stand between our condition and the reign of justice. And there is something terrifically exciting about the sense, often engendered by visible protest movements, that one's own team is growing, that its narrative is catching on. Conversely, there is something profoundly dissatisfying, and a little bit demoralising, in acknowledging that most people will never accept many of ones' most ardently- held convictions, and that, therefore, none of us will ever get to live in a society that closely matches, or even roughly approximates, our beloved ideals. But it's true all the same. And it's true all the same that our actual democracy, for all its problems, does about as well as democracy can be realistically expected to do, given the size and diversity of this country. Frankly, we're pretty lucky our democracy works as well as it does. There's a great deal we can do to make it a little better, but there's very little we can do to make it a lot better, because we'll almost never agree enough about the really big stuff.

The longing for agreement, to have everyone pulling together toward the same goal, is at the root of both utopian projects and authoritarian government. Real democracy, in contrast, must be built on a foundation of disagreement. Real freedom only begins when we accept they many people are not like us. This means that democracy is always in danger of collapsing in the face of irreconcilable differences. It can only endure if we all adapt a live and let live attitude toward our fellow citizens, however horrific we find their beliefs.

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