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Political Religion

by digby

Following up on my earlier post, I just realized that Andrew Sullivan entitled his piece "Religious Left" which is very interesting. This latest dialog began with Glenn Greenwald's great post earlier this week in which he proclaimed modern Republicanism a Bush cult. It was widely read and discussed on the right as well as the left blogopshere. I disagreed a little bit with Glenn's analysis and called it a Republican Authoritarian Cult because I can already see beginning to detach from Bush and prepare the ground for whoever the next object of their authoritarian passion turns out to be.

The other day Elizabeth Bumiller did an article on Bruce Bartlett, who was portrayed as being "out in the cold;"

What happens if you're a Republican commentator and you write a book critical of President George W. Bush that gets you fired from your job at a conservative think tank?

For starters, no other conservative institution rushes in with an offer for your superb analytical skills.

"Nobody will touch me," said Bruce Bartlett, the author of the forthcoming "Impostor: Why George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy." He added, "I think I'm just kind of radioactive at the moment."

Bartlett, a domestic policy aide at the White House in the Reagan administration and a deputy assistant Treasury secretary under the first President Bush, talked last week at his suburban Washington home about his dismissal, his book and a growing disquiet among conservatives about Bush.

Although "Impostor" is flamboyant in its anti-Bush sentiments - on the first page Bartlett calls Bush a "pretend conservative" and compares him to Richard M. Nixon, "a man who used the right to pursue his agenda" - its basic message reflects the frustration of many conservatives who say that Bush has been on a five-year government spending binge. Like them, Bartlett is particularly upset about Bush's Medicare prescription drug plan, which is expected to cost more than $700 billion over the next decade.

He is unhappy, too, with the president's education and campaign finance bills and his proposal to overhaul the nation's immigration laws, which many Republicans call a dressed-up amnesty plan. The book, to be published by Doubleday on Feb. 28, also criticizes the White House for "an anti-intellectual distrust of facts and analysis" and an obsession with secrecy.

"The Clinton people were vastly more open and easier to deal with and, quite frankly, a lot better on the issues," Bartlett said in the interview, in the kitchen of his pared-down modern house on a street of big new homes in Great Falls. Bartlett hastened to add that although he admired Clinton's economic policies, that did not mean he had changed sides.

"I haven't switched to the Democratic Party," he said. "I wrote this for Republicans."

Bartlet's true apostasy is in saying that Clinton was better on the issues. (I certainly would agree that Clinton was the best Republican president of my lifetime.) As for the rest of his criticsm, he's just laying the groundwork for the eventual purge of Bushism --- a purge that is already gaining steam.

Bill Schneider had this report today on CNN:

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Cracks are beginning to appear in President Bush's conservative base. One leading conservative characterizes the view of Bush this way.


SCHNEIDER: But what? Well, consider this. Nearly half of self- described conservatives say President Bush has done something to make them angry. Like what? Many conservatives have problems with the Bush administration's expansive view of government. They're outraged by the deficit.

REP. MIKE PENCE (R), INDIANA: It's simply morally wrong for us to allow the expansion of government and pass that bill along to our children and grandchildren.

SCHNEIDER: This week, an all-Republican congressional committee examining the government's response to Hurricane Katrina issued a scathingly critical report. REP. TOM DAVIS (R), VIRGINIA: The president or the secretary or Andy Card or someone who'd say, "Do you have everything you need?" And he'd say yes. But there was no supervision. And they were just not engaged.

SCHNEIDER: President Bush's immigration policies have angered many conservatives.

REP. TOM TANCREDO (R), COLORADO: And if the president of the United States really wanted to, he could secure the border tomorrow.

SCHNEIDER: Some conservatives are asking, should the U.S. be engaged in nation building in Iraq?

KEENE: Part of the base belief of conservatives is that the people in Washington have neither the confidence nor the ability to tell the people of Peoria, Illinois, how to order their lives. It therefore sort of seems inconsistent to say that, "Well, we may not be able to do that, but we do know how to organize societies halfway across the globe."

George W Bush has won two elections with the unquestioning support of conservatives. In his first term he made it quite obvious that he was not a conservative in any sense that I understood conservative. From out of control spending to federalizing education to nation building and messianic foreign policy, he has simply not been conservative by any common definition of the term. None of that stopped conservatives from virtually worshipping the man. It is only now that he has become unpopular and his policies are failing that his brand of conservatism is being criticized on the right. And he's being criticized for being

George W. Bush will not achieve a place in the Republican pantheon. Conservatism cannot fail, it can only be failed. (And a conservative can only fail because he is too liberal.)

Dave Neiwert chimed in on this discussion yesterday and wrote a very intriguing post in which he posits that the modern Republican party might more aptly be called a political religion, which, as it happens, is an acknowledged sociological designation. He writes:

I wonder if there isn't another way of framing this that can help progressives get a handle on what we're dealing with. Particularly, I wonder if it wouldn't help to think of the discrete conservative movement as a political religion.

Here's the Wikepedia entry, which is actually rather accurate on the subject:

In the terminology of some scholars working in sociology, a political religion is a political ideology with cultural and political power equivalent to those of a religion, and often having many sociological and ideological similarities with religion. Quintessential examples are Marxism and Nazism, but totalitarianism is not a requirement (for example neo-liberalism can be analysed as a political religion).

... The term political religion is a sociological one, drawing on the sociological aspects of religion which can be often be found in certain secular ideologies. A political religion occupies much the same psychological and sociological space as a theistic religion, and as a result it often displaces or coopts existing religious organisations and beliefs; this is described as a "sacralisation" of politics. However, although a political religion may coopt existing religious structures or symbolism, it does not itself have any independent spiritual or theocratic elements - it is essentially secular, using religion only for political purposes, if it does not reject religious faith outright.

Obviously, this movement embraces religious faith outright, which may give it certain advantages over more secular political religions, since it so readily taps into ordinary people's deeply held beliefs and exploits them.

Nonetheless, when we begin to run down the various aspects of political religions, the resemblance becomes even sharper:

Key memetic qualities often (not all are always strongly present) shared by religion (particularly cults) and political religion include:


-- differentiation between self and other, and demonisation of other (in theistic religion, the differentiation usually depends on adherence to certain dogmas and social behaviours; in political religion, differentiation may be on grounds such as race, class, or nationality instead)

-- a charismatic figurehead, with messianic tendencies; if figurehead is deceased, powerful successors;

-- strong, hierarchical organisational structures

-- a desire to control education, in order to ensure the security of the system


-- a coherent belief system for imposing symbolic meaning on the external world, with an emphasis on security through purity;

-- an intolerance of other ideologies of the same type

-- a degree of utopianism and the aim of radically transforming society into an end-state (an end of history)

-- the belief that the ideology is in some way natural or obvious, so that (at least for certain groups of people) those who reject it are in some way "blind"

-- a genuine desire on the part of individuals to convert others to the cause

-- a willingness to place ends over means -- in particular, a willingness to use violence

-- fatalism -- a belief that the ideology will inevitably triumph in the end

David Brooks says that the left is Stalinist. I assume that's what Sullivan's title refers to as well. Communism is often considered a secular religion, although that clearly underestimates the huge power of state coercion. If the American left is Stalinist, it certainly has been extremely ineffective. After all, conservatism now dominates all three branches of government. And I can't help but find this argument amusing considering that the primary critique of Democrats is that we have no convictions and are constantly fighting amongst ourselves. We are remarkably undisciplined totalitarians.

In one way both parties share the same religion: an all-American obsession with winning. In this I actually envy the right. When they fail, as everyone inevitably does at times, they don't lose their faith. Indeed, failure actually reinforces it.
Liberals, on the other hand, have nothing like that. We hate our leaders for failing us. It's a personal thing --- as if we are in a bad marriage and we have lost all respect for our partners. But then that's how most Americans are these days. You are a winner or a loser and nobody wants to be associated with a loser. The Republicans are smart enough to rid themselves of failure by always being able to convince themselves that the failure had nothing to do with their belief system. It must be very nice to live in a world in which you can never, ever be wrong.