From populist to individualist to populist in the blink of an eye
Tim Wise has written an interesting post about the rising popularity of Ayn Rand and Rand’s own youthful infatuation with a young man who killed and mutilated a 12-year-old girl, who Rand admired because here was a man that just took what he pleased him and saw social norms as the tedious restraints on brilliant minds like his own. No, I’m not kidding. You can read more here. It’s initially sort of surprising, but it actually makes sense. Sociopathy—remember, not all sociopathy is sadistic—is the purest expression of Rand’s “philosophy”. It’s not that Rand though chopping up little girls and leaving half their torsos for their fathers to find when they expected to find a live girl was a great idea. Indeed, it seems she didn’t think much of the act either way. She was just enamored of the idea of someone who had shaken off that pesky burden of considering the little people to be human beings whose pain counted, and whose lives matter. The story of Rand’s time as a murder groupie is interesting, and I recommend following the links, but this post is about something else, something Paul Rosenberg has labeled the cultural contradictions of conservatism. As we’ve learned in the past year, right wingers will portray themselves as:
a) Joe and Jane Six Pack, the salt of the earth who are pushing back against the evils perpetuated by the liberal elites, who you can tell are evil because they think they’re so smart and ignore the homespun wisdom of Joe and Jane. Joe and Jane’s very lack of extraordinariness is their greatest virtue. They are Christian, conformist, and incredibly hostile to sexual deviancy. Sarah Palin sneering at anyone who had too much erudition or sophistication to be just folks is straight out of the right wing populist handbook.
Or, depending on the circumstances:
b) Randian superheroes, standing up bravely for the few who truly produce against the teeming masses of parasites that want to steal wealth away, individualists who idolize Social Darwinism, and who believe that the inadequate—which would be most of us—are better off dying anyway, so why should we have health care? Who are you mewling workers who want your tedious doctors appointments to get in the way of the captains of industry, the few who have proven their worth and genius?
It’s tempting to suggest these are two different groups of people and they rise and fall depending on the circumstances, and there’s some truth to that. But the bigger picture suggests that there’s more overlap than not. Indeed, so tightly are these two strategies intertwined that you had people shaking John Galt signs at the teabagger protest, and then immediately moving on to widely exaggerating the crowd size to suggest that they speak for a majority of just folks average Americans. If they were being even remotely consistent, they’d be proud of having a tiny crowd, which could then be used to prove that it was just the few and the worthy who showed up.
A good example of how both trains of thought preside in the same people is the anti-choice movement’s role in the teabagger protests. If you take their arguments at face value, anti-choicers are the purest expression of right wing populism: They argue that abortion and sexual liberation in general are selfish, and have be stomped out because they’re evidence of individuals prizing themselves over the collective. They romanticize themselves and Joe and Jane Six Packs, who may not have a lot of book learning, but they know they like babies and they don’t like the idea of girls getting themselves involved in all that decadent sex stuff. And yet, there they are at the forefront of the teabagger protests, shilling for the idea that you shouldn’t have to consider your neighbor a human being with medical needs that should be met. It was, after all, an anti-choice group who came up with the signs that said, “Bury Obamacare with Ted Kennedy”, since celebrating a man’s death is “pro-life” now. But what they have in common with the Rand-bots is a shared belief that women are inferior to men, that women are objects to be acted on by male force and power. Rand did write romance-by-rape in Fountainhead, after all.
Of course, the reason conservatives swing back and forth between these contradictory viewpoints is that these are merely rationalizations papered over their actual views, which are consistently racist, sexist, and hierarchical. The justifications change, but the villains remain the same: college professors, Hollywood liberals, racial minorities, gays, women, hippies, etc. When conservatives are in mindspace #1, they tend to see women and racial minorities as hapless victims of evil socialist liberals, since we’re all too stupid to realize that we’re better off submitting to the conservative men who naturally know better than us. When they’re in mindspace #2, women and racial minorities become more ominous villains, out to rob and emasculate. #1 is when wingnuts are talking up welfare creating a “cycle of dependency”, and #2 is when they’re talking up thugs rising up, and why conservatives need to hoard guns.
It’s not surprising that Randian pouting is ascendant now that the right wing has lost power, or that right wing populism was the thing when the right wing was in power. All people are a bundle of competing desires to be popular and to be individualist, which means we’re capable of both leaning on popularity of an opinion of ours to justify it and using the unpopularity of an opinion of ours to justify ourselves as mavericks who are misunderstood by the powers that be. Mature people realize that popularity or lack of it is not a reliable measure of the rightness of an opinion, that at the end of the day popularity is simply neutral. Good ideas take off sometimes, and sometimes they wither on the vine. Bad ideas become fads sometimes, and sometimes they’re rejected. It’s nothing to get bent out of shape about, and narratives about “selling out” or being “elitist” are usually bullshit someone else is imposing on you to justify why they don’t like your art or your ideas.
Using popularity as a measurement of the worth of something—both good and bad—is the lazy man’s strategy. It’s appealing because it helps you avoid having to look at the thing itself’s value. For the racists and sexists and otherwise authority-and-hierarchy-obsessed conservatives, using popularity as a shortcut is doubly appealing, not just because they’re lazy, but because they know that presenting a bundle of prejudices as ideas isn’t going to fly. So instead, they lean on popularity arguments. If their ideas seem unpopular, the crosses disappear and the copies of Atlas Shrugged come out, and they’re individualists who are being used by the parasitic masses. If they’re on top, the crosses come out and they’re good Christians promoting a sacrificial conservative ideal with populist backing. Of course, this is an oversimplification, because as the protesters and their enablers demonstrated, their justifications can change by the minute, depending on what they think will give them the advantage right then.