Andy Shmookler: How did it get this bad?

Andy Schmookler

Andy Schmookler

A study published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that telling conservatives that a light bulb is good for the environment makes them less likely to buy it.

[This sounds like the “coal rollers” who deliberately rig their truck engines to belch out black smoke as a way of expressing hostility toward liberals in general and environmentalists in particular.]

One commentator interpreted this as signifying the attitude, “Whatever liberals are for, we’re against it.”

[That echoes how the former Republican senator from Ohio, George Voinovich, described the marching orders given Republicans in the U.S. Senate: “If [Obama] was for it, we had to be against it.”]

How did this kind of enmity enter our politics? That’s not how it was a generation ago, or two.

Some conservatives say they’re enraged at how “extreme” liberals have become. But that notion doesn’t hold water. American liberalism has not been advancing into new ground so much as trying to prevent its old achievements — like Social Security, Medicare, civil rights, environmental protection — from being rolled back.

The hostility conservatives show toward liberals appears to be less about developments on the liberal side than about radical change on the conservative side. It is today’s Republican Party, far more than the Democratic Party, that represents a departure from what had been the American mainstream for generations.

And a comparison with other advanced societies paints the same picture. In the Declaration of Independence, our founders spoke of “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” Such decent respect — for the opinions of the intelligent and educated citizens of other advanced democracies — should give pause to American conservatives tempted to denounce as “radical” the positions of America’s liberals.

That’s because, on issue after issue – on workers’ rights, on providing opportunity for the middle class, on providing health care for the population, on responding to the challenge of climate change – the United States is already far to the conservative side compared with other advanced democracies.

So, in the global perspective, it is America’s conservatives whose positions look “extreme.”

This enmity seems the result not of any reasonable argument about policy but of a spirit of enmity for its own sake.

In the 1980s, when I was part of a group of thinkers and American diplomats seeking ways to end the Cold War peacefully, a question arose about what would happen if the Cold War did end. Some people have a need for enemies, it was said, and the question arose: what would such people do if we lost the Soviet communists as the central enemy? Would those Americans find some domestic enemy to hate?

Quite possibly, the hostility many American conservatives now express toward liberals is an answer to that question.

But clearly it’s more than that. Powerful elements that have dominated the American right for the past generation have deliberately worked to demonize liberals and liberalism.

Newt Gingrich, it is known, employed tools of propaganda to establish a link in people’s minds between the notion of “liberal” and concepts like “abnormal” and “immoral.”

Rush Limbaugh has spent countless hours on the radio, over the past decades, teaching people to sneer at liberalism and all the values it stands for.

Karl Rove helped advance the idea that liberals hate America.

Although it might seem that this strategy is geared toward giving power to America’s conservative citizens, I say to those conservatives: don’t be fooled. It’s a strategy to take power away from all the people and give it to an organized power that doesn’t have the people’s interests at heart.

Divide and conquer. Divide the people against each other, and it is like 1 + (-1) = 0. And into that zero, the manipulators can exert a controlling force over the nation’s destiny. Keep people at each other’s throats, and they’ll never unite to achieve their common purposes.

That’s why, as this power has grown: the American middle class has been hollowed out, with 90 percent of American families losing ground in recent years; America’s workers no longer get their share of the increase in the productivity of their labor; and the very richest have tripled their share of America’s wealth.

Regarding the liberal half of America as “the enemy” is not only uncalled for. Not only a rejection of part of what has made America great. It is playing into the hands of those who want “the will of the people” to be canceled out so that a clever and powerful few can dominate the rest of us.

Andy Schmookler, the Sixth District Democratic nominee for Congress in 2012, is an award-winning author who lives in Shenandoah County.

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