Truth Is Not an Option: The Manning/Crowley Affair

This immediately struck a chord with me, since one of the more noteworthy findings of Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics by Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler was that Obama voters during the primary were considerable more non-authoritarian than Clinton voters. (Greenwald himself called this “a certain-to-be-controversial chapter” in the book.)

To understand what’s going on here, I think one other factor that Hetherington and Weiler draw attention to needs to be considered, concerning what is most salient about authoritarianism. Quoting from a passage in the book that I quoted in my own comments as part of the TPMCafe discussion of the book:

Our treatment places a need for order at the center. Much emerging work in cognitive science depicts a struggle in all humans to achieve clarity in the face of confusion. To use terms more often used by social scientists, people hope to impose order on ambiguous situations….

Thinking about authoritarianism in terms of order rather than authority itself also helps explain why those scoring high are more inclined to simplify the world into black and white categories while those scoring lower in authoritarianism feel more comfortable with shades of gray. Black and white categories provide order. So, too, does a propensity to submit to authorities, but only to those who promise a black and white understanding of the world. Authoritarians do not view Barack Obama as the same type of authority as, say, George W. Bush. Hence it is not so much the submission that is important but rather a preference for concreteness that is important.

Bush’s language was the very essence of concreteness, as well as dividing the world strakly into black and white. Obama’s language was quite the opposite. And yet, as soon as Obama took power, his actions began paralleling Bush’s actions, rather than his own rhetoric. The reason for this can be seen as quite pedestrian, tracing back to an underlying consistency: Even from the beginnings of Obama’s campaign, he was very concerned about controlling the message and maintianing the discipline of his campaign–arguably even obsessively so. He even managed to convince major donors and outside organizations to silence themselves and allow his campaign virtually exclusive message control over everything coming from the Democratic side.

Thus, even as the campaign encouraged vigorous discussion and “bottom-up input” in its online fora, this had virtually no role in the broader campaign. It could even be seen as a way of allowing supports to ‘let off steam’ so as not to get in the way of the “grownups”. Indeed, within weeks of taking power, Obama completely dispensed with taking any notice of such input, first rejecting calls for holding Bush/Cheney war criminals accountable, then mocking his own supporters for calling for the decriminalization of marijuana.

It’s often been noted that Obama seems to care more about process than end results, and so it’s completely consistent for his own authoritarian bent to emerge almost effortlessly out of his organizational penchant for a smoothly-running machine. For him, much more than Bush or Cheney, it’s the order side of things that drives his authoritarianism, even though the black-and-white categories he ends up embracing are not rooted in anything deeper than the backroom political battles inside his own administration.

Most of his liberal supporters still have yet to catch on precisely because Obama’s authoritarianism comes out of left field for them–not just from a purported “liberal” who even now uses more sophisticated language most of the time, but from someone motivated more by a bureaucrtic need for control in line with battles waged behind closed doors along lines that are often being fluidly redrawn according to criteria that are difficult for non-partipant to follow. Of course, participants and active critics see things quite differently. The numerous parallels between Bush and Obama that Greenwald draws attention to are anything but obscure to active, engaged critics. But decades of research tell us quite clearly that the mass public doesn’t read politics based on this sort of information. Obama’s manner–as well as his most prominent critics–continus to reinforce his appearance as a non-authoritarian, carefully considering and balancing a wide range of factors.

Page 2 of 3 | Previous page | Next page