Those Who Can Make You Believe Absurdities
One year since the insurrection.
For several years at UC Berkeley my unit shared space with the Government & Community Relations Office. One day a couple of GCR colleagues related a story about a state legislator who invited them to a constituent meeting. They were reluctant to go. It was a night-time event and a considerable drive. But the legislator begged, so they obliged. The meeting barely started when the legislator launched into a tirade about how the University of California was failing the local community, then threw out the two UCB employees before they had a chance to say a word. The crowd erupted in cheers — their legislator had stood up to the big, bad institution.
I don’t like to argue by inductive reasoning, but after a half century observing American politics it seems to me this story has a universal lesson: politicians pander. Always, always, always. Even when they insist they’re giving it to you straight. And they do so regardless of party affiliation.
The state legislator was a Democrat. But these days the greater threat from pandering comes from Republicans. Most Republican House and Senate members understand that Biden won the 2020 presidential election fair and square, and that Trump is telling an outrageous lie when he insists otherwise. They also understand the January 6 insurrection intended to subvert the Constitution through force. But with a few courageous exceptions, Republican “electeds” (a term my former colleagues would utter with a hint of disdain) have nurtured the lie and minimized the assault.
Why? Because they’re pandering.
It works for the politicians. They crave power, fame, and the wealth that follows. They know they won’t enjoy that power and fame long if they look their constituents in the eye and say “you’re wrong” even when that’s the only honest answer.
And it works for their constituents, who want their most fervent beliefs, however divorced from reality, validated by their political representatives.
So yes, shame on the politicians. Their pandering is the hand pressing democracy’s throat. But their pandering is not the root cause of democracy’s impending demise. That would be the mass delusions enthralling their constituents.
The US government is a product of Enlightenment philosophy. The words of Rousseau, Voltaire, and Locke were fresh in the minds of the Founding Fathers. But the success of an Enlightenment society depends on citizens staying informed and exercising reason and logic — requirements at odds with America’s widespread anti-intellectualism. When politicians stoke ignorance, they shirk their duty to the nation. The worst — Hawley, Cruz, Jordan, and Gosar come to mind—use their power and influence to destroy Enlightenment values. Then brazenly call themselves patriots.
The mix of exploitive politicians and fearful, angry citizens creates social gunpowder. Voltaire didn’t quite say “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities,” but that doesn’t diminish the maxim’s verity. In part because the politicians behind the Big Lie and the Insurrection have gone unrepudiated and unpunished, it’s only a matter of time before the foot soldiers of the authoritarian right perpetrate atrocities greater in frequency and severity than the one on January 6, 2021.
I’m not ready for it either.