Why Reactionary Political Movements Should Scare You

Recently, I had two eye-opening conversations with people who appear to believe genuinely crazy things.   One of the people, a homeless man with two Harvard degrees, told me with conviction that Osama bin Laden is a secret member of the CIA and 9/11 was an inside job.  The other person, a tattoo-covered, minimum-wage-earning bartender, told me that "welfare queens who have babies like cockroaches" are really responsible for the current economic crisis.   The homeless man told me that his "political beliefs" had alienated him from his entire family but that he would never trade in the crippling isolation and depression which accompanied his conspiracy theory to believe the "Nazi-mind-control-myth" that had been perpetrated against the American people.  The other man bragged that he was an entirely self-made man (as evidenced by the fact that he had moved up from dishwasher to bartender after working at the same dive bar for five years) but that socialized medicine (he doesn’t have health care) for "welfare queens" threatened to destroy his way of living.  Given the circumstances of each conversation, I was not in the position to press these men on their contradictions or false assertions, but that didn’t interest me much anyway.  What’s far more interesting to me is the way these men seemed to have invested so much of their personal identities in being members of a persecuted political minority.

What ties these men together is not simply that they are members of political minorities but that they are a part of reactionary movements, and this is really the underlying factor that explains the insanity of their beliefs.  The major difference between a coherent political doctrine and a reactionary movement is that reactionaries don’t worry about how to reconcile competing intuitions about justice.  Usually, they don’t even worry about using a consistent or coherent definition for common political terms because defining terms like "freedom", "justice", "Nazi" or "Fascist" is not what reactionary movements are about.  Reactionaries care about defining the enemy –"Bush-Cheney-CIA-Nazi-mind-control" or "Obamacare-Hitler-take-all-our-guns"– and this makes reactionary positions very appealing to people who want to point to an enemy as the source of all trouble or injustice.  This is dangerous not only because some of the people who are attracted to reactionary positions are already prone to paranoia or delusions but because, almost by definition, a reactionary political position can’t be altered by new evidence or rational arguments.

It is important to distinguish here between reactionaries and radicals.   We can and should question the authority, honesty, and moral intent of political parties and government officials.  Wise people often (perhaps usually) find themselves in a political minority.  However, there is a huge gap between holding an uncommon political opinion -backed up by a rational thesis- and demonizing a constructed enemy.  A person can have a set of political values that are not popular and still hold a coherent position that is flexible enough to allow for new evidence and respond to rational counterarguments.   For example, right-wing libertarianism is a coherent political doctrine which rates the value of individual liberty much higher than the competing value of the common good.  This means that a right-libertarian may have to bite the bullet in arguments about popular social programs and concede that he does not support them because he does not support taxation for the public good, but he maintains a consistent position.  The right-libertarian may also adapt his theory to justify some intrusions on individual liberty (e.g. taxation to fund a military or emergency service programs) by appealing to some higher order position or value (e.g. some level of security is a pre-condition of freedom) which is consistent with his theory.  In contrast, the so called Tea-Bagger or Tea-Partier who has defined his position in reaction to Obama’s proposed health care reform legislation cannot adjust his position in light of new evidence or arguments (e.g. Leading economists agree that a public option would lower overall healthcare costs and improve care in comparison to the current system) because his position isn’t based upon a coherent set of principles but upon the unalterable belief that the policies of the enemy are the cause of injustice, regardless of what those policies are. The same rule applies to the "9/11 Truthers" who move from legitimate arguments that the current U.S. wars are unjustified and the legitimate charge that the government misled the public about intelligence information (it probably did) to the shaky and unverifiable but wholly inflammatory claim that the Bush administration actually planned the murder of thousands of U.S. citizens.

The point at which political dissent is divorced from coherent doctrine and married to fear of an evil and deceptive enemy is the point at which rational citizens should become terrified.  A person who has decided that law-makers are not simply dishonest or corrupt but actually conspiring against him or his people* is not someone who is likely to participate in the kind of political discussion that is the foundation of representative democracy.  If I believe that your bad argument is a sign that you are wrong but your good argument is a sign that you are wrong and trying to trick me, I am not going to be convinced by you either way.  Moreover, I am likely to react badly, even violently, if you continue to assault me with good reasons or evidence because I won’t view the discussion as political discourse but as insidious manipulation by an evil liar.   This is the position that reactionaries hold.

In closing, I would really like to suggest some kind of productive response to reactionary arguments, but for obvious reasons I find it hard to imagine one.  I think the best response is to continue to participate in a rational dialogue with those who will play by the rules (coherent theory, consistent definitions, etc.) and to refuse to glorify or engage those who won’t.

*I feel compelled to add here that there appears to be quite a bit of overlap between the anti-Obama "tea-party movement" and out-and-out racist reactionary groups such as the Conservative Citizens Council.  You can watch an interesting excerpt from a documentary on this connection here.

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8 Responses to “Why Reactionary Political Movements Should Scare You”

  1. Tweets that mention Why Reactionary Political Movements Should Scare You « Apple Eaters -- Topsy.com Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jim, Liza Sherburne. Liza Sherburne said: I finally got around to posting a blog: http://bit.ly/56qJSZ […]

  2. thrallofdreams Says:

    Reactionary political movements should be frightening. Unfortunately, both “liberal” and “conservative” politicians thrive on the fear incited by these tactics–though to differing extents.

  3. James Gray Says:

    What you are saying sounds good. I agree that people need to use reason as much as they can. Still, there are a couple of issues worth mentioning. One, what can be done if our leaders ever conspire against us? People in power often want more power rather than “the common good.” This sometimes has disastrous consequences.

    Two, how much influence does rational argument have in politics? It seems to be limited. I suspect that reactionary groups want to make something happen that rational argument seems to fail to achieve. Chomsky doesn’t seem like a foolish conspirator for discussing the fact that rich people will use money to influence governments to make more money. It makes perfect sense.

    Of course, he admits that somehow public opinion does influence politics, so assuming that he’s right I guess we should try to improve public opinion. But part of public opinion is about protest and so on.

    I remember that John Rawls talked about the importance of protest. Protests are basically non-rational reactions (hopefully) to non-rational systems. When the system is no longer driven by evidence people don’t want to give evidence to change the system because it becomes ineffective.

    • Liza Says:

      Perhaps I wasn’t as explicit as I intended to be. The problem with reactionary movements isn’t that they conflict with the status quo nor that the respond through protest, the problem is that they demonize an enemy (cause or person) rather than making a substantive case for a position. All of political action involves responding to emotions on some level. I don’t think this makes politics “irrational”. Political views are, ultimately, always values-driven. And our values are emotional and subjective. There is no getting around that.

      At their best, political slogans are a rhetorical device that shortly summarizes a complex political opinion. For example, the slogan “No Blood for Oil”is a shorthand for a much more complex position that asserts: 1) The real motivation for the Iraq war was to give the U.S. an advantage in procurring oil cheaply in the Middle East, and 2) This is not a legitimate justification for going to war. The first assertion is an empirical claim, and it can and should be debated based upon the available data (or, in the case of “weapons of mass destruction,” the lack thereof). The second assertion is a statement of values. It can’t be debated in quite the same way because, ultimately, it is contingent upon holding a certain value (“Human life is worth more than resource advantage.”) or rule (“It’s wrong to attack unprovoked”). However, the second assertion is rhetorically effective because the value(s) to which it appeals are fairly widespread and uncontroversial. I don’t think that use of slogans like this is bad or that appealing to values (emotions) is the wrong way to promote a political position. But, it is bad to hold a political position that entails empirical claims (e.g. “The CIA had knowledge of an imminent nuclear threat from Iraq.”) but which you refuse to alter given new or better information (e.g “The CIA had no such knowledge.”) And, I think it’s wrong to be deceptive about the values implicit your position (e.g. If your position is that it is legitimate to attack another country for a resource advantage, you ought to say so).

      A person who holds a reactionary position is unlikely to alter his position based upon new data, and he may be quite disingenuous about the values implicit in his claims. This is why reactionary movements are attractive to the angry and alienated and those prone to feeling persecuted. Of course, there may be times when you (and your group) actually are being persecuted or conspired against, and at those times it is perfectly reasonable to respond with protest. The question I would ask of any person who believes himself to be in that position is whether there is any new information that could come to light and change his belief.

      Thanks for your comment.

  4. James Gray Says:


    I agree with what you are saying. I just wanted to know more about the complexity and gray areas involved.

    It might be legitimate to claim that the government’s motivation is influenced by money, which leads to some bad things. The motivation isn’t that of a demon, but it can still be a pretty illegitimate one. When the Nazi party comes into power it seems right to protest against the moral depravity of the people in power, even though they aren’t as bad as demons.

    • Liza Says:

      It’s certainly legitimate to charge that legislators are motivated by the desire to get elected and money plays a huge role in getting elected. It’s also legitimate to call out legislators (and media figureheads, and anyone else) on the bad values (including racial superiority) that are either implicit or explicit in their stated positions. I don’t think this conflicts with my stated position. When you start breaking down political positions you find all sorts of corruption, hypocrisy, and deception, and we can and should expose these things to the scrutiny of public debate. That is the way representative democracies are supposed to work. The problem isn’t in seeing the bad but in being myopic about the cause of badness.

  5. Want Change Says:

    What scares me even more are the numbers of people believing these strange theories and how they seem to be increasing!

  6. Thomas Says:

    Reactionary what! those men you cited at the beginning of the article are not Reactionaries, they are crazy nutjobs who are one mad pseudo-revelation from shooting up a room full of people.

    Reactionaries in fact spend far time talking about state rights, individualism, and reorganizing the economy to a more localized basis than conspiracies theories(usually in the form of jokes or stuff unrelated to politics), I agree with the summary of the article that these madmen need to be watched but please get your terminology correct

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