Andy Schmookler: A culture of dogma
In a healthy democracy, differing points of view contend to shape the destiny of the society.
What does it mean, however, when a major subculture of that society is perennially of but one mind?
From the 1830s until the Civil War, there was no robust debate in the politics of white Southerners about the rightness of slavery. It was the major issue in the nation as a whole, but within the South one point of view was virtually unchallenged.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, there was no robust debate in the politics of white Southerners about the rightness of re-imposing a regime of racial domination and intimidation (Jim Crow). That regime was a blatant violation of the newly amended U.S. Constitution. The epidemic of lynchings that was intended to intimidate the black population became a blot on the reputation of the United States. But in the South, this system of terror and domination faced no major challenges.
Likewise in the 1950s and 1960s, there was no robust debate in the politics of white Southerners about the rightness of resisting the judicial mandate to end the regime of segregation. No major faction emerged to say that the fraud of “separate but equal” was an injustice that should be abandoned.
Most Americans – including most white Southerners, I suspect – would agree now that slavery was wrong, Jim Crow was wrong, and desegregation was right. But not at the time, not when it mattered.
Such uniformity of political position is unnatural. It can happen only if people have been taught by the culture not to think for themselves, or taught not to express what they think if it differs from the dogma imposed by their political community.
Either way, it is contrary to how a democracy is supposed to work.
We see that same kind of dogma in the Republican Party of today.
In that party, whose base of power lies in the South, there is no robust debate on a host of important issues that face the nation. Just take a look at the range of views – or lack of such range – among the nearly 20 Republican candidates for president.
Although many Republicans feel embarrassed by the intemperance of the statements from Donald Trump, no Republican candidate is advocating anything other than a hard-line, anti-immigrant position.
Surely there should be room in that national party for the more compassionate, path-to-citizenship position that the most recent Republican president, George W. Bush, advocated nearly a decade ago (and that is supported by a majority of the American public). But in the candidate debates, there probably will be near-uniformity on the issue.
(The one outlier, Marco Rubio, has repudiated the immigration reform legislation he proposed in 2013.)
Same with climate change. There is no sign that there will be a single strong advocate, on the Republican presidential debate stage, for the position – morally sound, and in line with the views of 97 percent of the world’s top experts on the subject — that the pope has taken on the climate crisis.
(In 2012, one Republican presidential candidate – former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman — supported the warnings of the scientific experts. But even he eventually recanted, and came back in line with the science-denial of all the other candidates.)
Likewise on other major issues America faces, where the Republicans seem unanimous on not raising taxes on the richest of the rich, who have lately tripled their share of our national wealth, (while the majority of Americans have been losing ground); and on not stopping the sale of our government to the highest bidder, by overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
The ideal of American democracy has always been a “marketplace of ideas” in which different views compete for people’s allegiance. But what this culture of dogma creates is no market but a monopoly – within which the positions taken on vital issues need contend with no competition from other views.
Unchallenged, even though history often proves those positions to have been morally wrong and bad for the country.
Andy Schmookler, the Democratic nominee for Congress in Virginia’s 6th District in 2012, is the author of the forthcoming book, “WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World– and How We Can Defeat It.”