Of all the ways that “evil” degrades the world, the one that seems toughest for me to take is the Lie defeating the Truth.
Had I not seen the lie gaining such power, I’d never have made America’s political situation my focus. As I explained my one (2012) campaign for political office – when I ran under the slogan, “Truth. For a change” –I saw it as “a time that truth-telling needs its champions.”
But the Lie has only gained in power since then.
And now we’ve come to the point – with the ever-shifting Republican “arguments” to defend Trump in the impeachment process – where the brazenness of the lies combine with the gravity of the stakes to make the most appalling demonstration of dishonesty by a political party in American history.
Yet it seems that the Lie is believed, even though to believe what Republicans are saying in their ever-changing defenses of a lawless president, one would have to reject not only
• the virtually unanimous testimony of witnesses, as well as
• the findings of all of the intelligence services of the United States and of
• the Republican-dominated Intelligence Committee of the U.S. Senate, and basic logic but also the evidence of one’s own eyes.
And so it is that I ponder incessantly the disturbing mystery: How can people who show reasonable intelligence elsewhere in their lives, believe for a moment all the blatant lies they’re being told by their political leaders?
I’ve come to believe that the answer has many parts working in combination. I’ve ventured some pieces of an another previously, and here is yet another possible piece of the puzzle: that in the matter of political belief, people in the Republican world are thinking as a collectivity – as a “Group Mind” – more than making judgments based on their own thinking process.
(A message from a friend got me thinking along these lines, when she wrote about a cousin she described as “generous, a loving good friend, and a natural healer.” She contrasted her cousin’s own nature with the dark fabric of lies emanating from Trump and the Trump party that the cousin buys into. My friend explained her cousin’s beliefs, saying: “All her friends and neighbors, her church, they are all banded together,” finding solidarity in beliefs that they see as “reaffirming the worth” of each other and their culture.)
Aligning our beliefs to fit in with our group is a pretty universal human practice. It can be found in cohesive groups of all kinds. The desire to fit into one’s community would seem to be a basic part of our human nature.
But different (sub)cultures have different propensities to generate conformity-of-belief in their members. (One line has it that “Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line.”)
The political culture of liberals has its group beliefs. (I myself have experienced how, in some matters, dissenting from the group consensus of liberal America can entail some costs.) But there are reasons why people use “herding cats” as an image to describe how difficult it tends to be to force the members of liberal groups into line. Disagreement is as much a part of the culture as conformity.
But America has also developed subcultures that push heavily toward conformity.
Conformity of beliefs correlates with hierarchy in the structure of power. We think of America as a democratic society of free-thinking people. But, historically, it has been more complicated than that.
It was surprising to me, as I was investigating the history that led to the Civil War, to learn that in the 1830s Southern states blocked anti-slavery materials from the mail. For generations after the Civil War, Southern schools allowed only a false version of the history of the Civil War to be taught (and scholars who deviated from that falsehood were fired from their jobs).
Freedoms of speech and the press, and “academic freedom,” were completely over-powered insistence on conformity of belief on issues central to the hierarchical power structure.
The combination of a hierarchical mindset (unquestioning adherence to the views promulgated by the trusted authorities) with the element of coercion (that a penalty will be paid for beliefs at variance with the surrounding community) can greatly strengthen the power of the “Group Mind.”
In today’s America, uniformity of political belief has also been bolstered by a media “bubble” (Fox News, etc.), which sets the terms for the beliefs held by Group Mind.
The “psychology of crowds” has long been studied: people give up a measure of autonomy of thought and enter into a collective experience of solidarity. For some people, the feeling that comes from acting collectively with a community of shared belief can outweigh any concern about “What’s really true or right?”
The mind of a lynch mob is less intelligent, and has less conscience, than the individuals who make up the crowd.
So also, when someone’s friends, neighbors, and fellow church-members “all band together,” perhaps the critical thinking – that might identify and reject patently false ideas – simply shuts down.