Sunday, January 10, 2021

Exploiting the Stupids: The Intellectual Foundation of Movement Conservatism

 From about the age of 8-12 I read a lot of sci-fi.  Along the way I stumbled across Robert Heinlein, in particular his novel The Day After Tomorrow, initially published as The Sixth Column.  It was so crudely racist I avoided from then on anything with Heinlein’s name on it.

The plot went like this: The evil PanAsians have conquered America and set up a vicious tyranny.  A few scientists, holed up in a secret lab in the mountains of Colorado, have discovered a powerful weapon that can turn the tide.  They’ve tweaked it so it can kill only “Asians”, leaving white people unaffected.  How to organize a nationwide resistance that can take advantage of it?

The PanAsians, to pacify their subjects, have permitted religious activity to continue, so the scientists organize a new religion.  They use their skills to perform “miracles” that suck in the ignorant masses.  Meanwhile, a cadre is secretly recruited who use the religion as a front in order to disseminate the new weapon and train an underground army who know how to deploy it.  

The crisis arrives when the time comes to kill all the Asians, but it turns out that one of the inner group is a “good” Asian who will be killed as well.  If that’s your idea of a moral dilemma, you’re a lot more twisted than I was when I was hitting double digits.

Later, as I became more politically aware and started noticing the emergence of a cult of William F. Buckley acolytes at my high school in Wisconsin, I could see that Heinlein was on to something.  No, not that we needed a weapon of racist annihilation, but that the conservative mood had an underlying narrative:  We who have discovered the truth are smart, but most people are stupid.  You can tell them almost anything and they will believe it.  By taking advantage of their dumb credulity, smart conservatives can rule.  Incidentally, the same background narrative lurks in the world of Ayn Rand; self-conscious Objectivists are the intellectual elite and their success depends on dropping their scruples about misleading the easily herded crowd.

You might think of it as a form of vulgar Straussianism.  High Strauss holds that the need for virtue is the perennial truth at the heart of philosophy, but most people are not virtuous.  To avoid the wrath of these lesser souls, philosophers have been forced to speak in code.  (Yes, this is a cartoon version, but since we’re talking about the dumbing down process, that’s OK here.)  The vulgar version replaces virtue with smarts.  Most people are stupid, and if smart people treat the masses as if they were smart too they will talk over them and fail.  The path to success is speaking in code, making up lies for the gullible but signaling to those capable of discerning the inner truth that the movement is for them.

(Incidentally, this parallels in certain ways the Leninist strategy of front groups and cadres.  It may be that the Right picked up this trope from their nemesis; I recall Ayn Rand saying this explicitly, although I don’t have a citation.  Can someone help me out?)

Movement conservatism in America cultivated this two-tiered philosophy for decades before Trump came along.  Recall the fictitious stories Reagan told to goose his political career?  Conservative insiders knew they were made up, but that was fine because what difference does it make whether what you say to stupid people is true of false?  They will swallow what you give them if you appeal to their hopes and prejudices.  Do you really think the core neocons of the W Bush era, some of whom actually studied under Strauss, really believed in the Saddam-has-weapons-of-mass-destruction fairy tale?  They weren’t dumb enough to fall for it; on the contrary, they thought they were smart enough to concoct and exploit it.

Which brings us to January 2021.  Movement conservatives realized they could assemble a useful nationwide army of “election-truthers” by creating a myth about millions of fake votes, a vast conspiracy of treasonous or even satanic election officials, etc.  They were sure the stupids, or at least enough of them, would swallow it whole, so why not?

Take Josh Hawley, with degrees from Stanford and Yale.  Is he dumb enough to actually believe what he’s saying?  It’s possible—lots of dummies in those fancy schools—but I wouldn’t count on it.  I think the odds are better than 50-50 he knows exactly what the game is and thinks throwing meat to the stupids is how smart people win.

Just to be clear, for the record, I don’t think most people are stupid, but I do think most of us come to our beliefs through a social process in which the balance of evidence and logic play at most a supporting role.

7 comments: said...


How is it only now I am learning you grew wp in Wisconsin, or at least went to junior and senior high school there? I always thought you were one of those East Coast guys. Oh well.

Somehow I never read that book of Heinlein's, wow, pretty awful. I read a lot of his stuff and was largely a fan of his, although a couple of works were sort of creepily overly militaristic and reactionary. But I did grok Stranger in a Strange Land, and By His Bootstraps is the original time paradox story along with a serious reflexivity contemplation, actually my logician late father's fave sci fi story of them all, and he was a very big sci fi fan with a multi-decade collection of Astounding and Analog sci fi mags that my nephew inherited.

Regarding your group of Straussians I think it is simpler than that: Trump and his cult followers, 88 million strong, sweeping along all the Hawleys and the rest. It was Trump who pushed the "Stop the Steal" narrative, eventually pressuring the rest of these to go along, with some still doing so despite what happened on 1/6.

Peter Dorman said...

I grew up in Racine, Bark, cheesehead by birth.

About Trump, I'm trying to say (a) his big lie stuff, while it partakes of his own unique personality, fits a longstanding pattern on the right, and (b) I think there's an underlying vulgar Straussian presumption at work that (b1) conservatism is the political philosophy of really smart people, (b2) most people are stupid and (b3) smart people need to chuck their scruples and make up stories for stupid people in order to achieve victory.

I'm writing this because I would like the targets of conservative mythifying to realize they are being viewed as stupid (they might resent this), and because I think it's a mistake to assume that people like Cruz and Hawley have made some sort of intellectual mistake that can be fixed by rational argumentation.

Fred C. Dobbs said...

In my youth I was a huge Heinlein fan, back when
he was writing 'juvenile fiction'. Then, he went
over the the dark side.

This from the Von Mises Institute...

Was Robert A. Heinlein a Libertarian?

... In the early 1970s, according to a survey undertaken at the time by SIL, the Society for Individual Liberty, one libertarian activist in six had been led to libertarianism by reading the novels and short stories of Robert A. Heinlein. Among the prominent libertarians of the late 20th Century who have named Heinlein as an important influence on the development of their own political thinking were Dave Nolan (the founder of the Libertarian Party) and the late Samuel Edward Konkin III.

But was Heinlein a libertarian? There certainly are libertarian ideas in some of his books. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, for example, the winner of the Hugo award as the best science fiction novel of 1966, is the story of a libertarian revolution on the moon — a revolution designed to free Luna from the control of politicians and bureaucrats on Terra, that is, the Earth.

One of the leaders of the revolution is a "distinguished man with wavy white hair, dimples in cheeks, and [a] voice that smiled," Professor Bernardo de la Paz, who speaks of "the most basic human right, the right to bargain in a free marketplace." De la Paz calls himself "a rational anarchist" and argues that the question we need to put to ourselves when thinking about political issues is this one: "Under what circumstances is it moral for a group to do that which is not moral for a member of the group to do alone?" According to Professor de la Paz, this is "the key question … [a] radical question that strikes to the root of the whole dilemma of government." ...

Anonymous said...

A brilliantly important and necessary post, however frightening.

Fred C. Dobbs said...

Wikipedia: Sixth Column, also known under the title The Day After Tomorrow, is a science fiction novel by American writer Robert A. Heinlein, based on a story by editor John W. Campbell, and set in a United States that has been conquered by the PanAsians, who are asserted to be neither Japanese nor Chinese.

Originally published as a serial in Astounding Science Fiction (January, February, March 1941, using the pen name Anson MacDonald) it was published in hardcover in 1949. It is most known for its race-based premise. ...

(This was shortly after China became a People's Republic, a few years before
they 'challenged' us in Korea (to put it mildly), but already had a devastating
effect on American politics, an effect that lasted all through the fifties and
sixties and into the seventies. Until Richard Nixon opened up China. US people
were nervous; this sold books. Go figure.)

Dimitris said...

The ignorant masses assumption is a very old and defining feature of what we could call reactionary right, an aftermath of the French Revolution.
It was "scientifically" formulated in Le Bon's "The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind" and popularized ever since.
I would argue that being right-wing nowadays, almost always means that you subscribe more or less to such a point of view.
"Less" in this context means those in the mild center-right who nevertheless believe that unelected MBAs
are better suited to govern the state than elected (but probably ignorant) politicians.
(Basically that is what happens in the EU right now, where the highest echelons of the bureaucracy in Brussels are mostly not elected).
As for "More", well, there is no limit to the contempt shown towards the masses.
Or rather, there is a limit but it stands right next to the gates of hell.
This is from mein kampf:
"The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is
small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these
facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must
harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what
you want him to understand by your slogan."

Calgacus said...

Heinlein had started out as socialist, or near that. He was a major figure in Upton Sinclair's nearly successful campaign for California's governorship, before his health problems forced him to turn to writing. He never strayed completely from that outlook, imho. An early socialistic "Looking Backward" type novel of his was published a few years back. Libertarianism has its good points, and as Fred Dobbs notes his juveniles were very good and some bore traces of his liberal / socialist views.