By David Niose
If you were writing a political novel in which senior policymakers for the world’s leading economic and military power inexplicably refuse to accept undisputed scientific facts, most publishers would probably reject the manuscript as being too far-fetched. But truth is stranger than fiction in modern America, where ignorance of science has become a necessary qualification for public office in many parts of the country.
A prime example is James Inhofe, chair of the Senate environmental committee, who ignores the 97% of climate scientists who assert that global warming is caused by human activity. The Oklahoma Republican threw a snowball on the Senate floor in February, arguing with dumbfounding logic that winter snow proves that climate concerns are a “hysteria.” Like many conservative politicians nowadays, Inhofe cites scripture to support his position. “I take my religion seriously,” he tells readers in his book The Greatest Hoax. “God is still up there, and He promised to maintain the seasons and that cold and heat would never cease as long as the earth remains.”
If Inhofe were some kind of isolated crackpot in Congress, his stature as an elite Washington power broker might be a comic anomaly, like the crazy uncle who amuses the kids at family gatherings but otherwise does little harm. The realities of today’s political scene, however, show that he’s a symptom of a much wider, and much more serious, phenomenon.
Many sensible Americans chuckled, for example, when Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia declared in 2012 that evolution and the Big Bang are “lies straight from the pit of hell,” adding (just in case any doubt remained about his world view) that the earth is only about 9000 years old and “was created in six days as we know them.” But it’s no laughing matter that Broun speaks for an enormous demographic, an anti-science faction that comprises a majority in many parts of the country.
As anyone who follows American politics knows, Inhofe and Broun reflect not some fringe element within the modern GOP, but a current that flows within the party’s mainstream. This explains why few Republican candidates, even presidential contenders, make any effort to contrast sharply with the Inhofe-Broun strain, and why none will call it out as downright stupid and dangerous.
Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, for example, when asked in February for his views on evolution, said he would have to “punt” on the issue, knowing that expressly embracing natural selection—which is the foundation of modern biology and universally accepted by the scientific establishment—would put him at odds with much of the GOP base. A recent Bloomberg report showed that all major GOP presidential hopefuls were reluctant to outwardly accept evolution, varying only in how zealous they were in advocating for creationism.
The rejection of science, however, can be a sticky wicket for GOP contenders seeking approval outside the conservative base, since anti-science positions are not so popular among the general electorate. This explains why Walker would “punt” rather than outright reject evolution, and it explains why other GOP contenders—Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, for example—have responded to questions on issues such as climate change by disqualifying themselves on competence grounds, declaring: “I’m not a scientist.”
For rational, progressive-minded Americans grappling with what has gone wrong with the country, the rejection of science should be seen as one symptom of a larger problem. A comprehensive assessment of America’s dysfunction would list a multitude of factors—racism, sexism, nationalism, fundamentalist religion, militarism, corporate power, and others—that obstruct effective policymaking.
But as I show in my recently released book, Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason, if there is a common thread that connects these phenomena, it is that each, in one way or another, results from a severe aversion to reason. By understanding America’s abandonment of reason—why ordinary people allow it to happen and how institutional interests encourage it—one can better understand the sad state of contemporary American politics, and more specifically the failure of progressivism.
Reason isn’t sexy, which perhaps explains why few politicians, left or right, tend to emphasize it. Emotional connections, charisma, enthusiasm, and momentum are key ingredients in electoral politics; and as any ad executive or political consultant knows, these have little to do with reason.
What many Americans have discovered, however, is that while reason may lack sex appeal, the total absence of reason gives rise to conditions that can make passions rise very quickly. For example, when birth control—not abortion, but birth control—suddenly became a controversial issue in America last year, the absence of reason in public policy caused widespread emotional escalation. This unpleasant development came courtesy of the Supreme Court in its Burwell v. Hobby Lobby ruling, which declared that claims of “religious freedom” can give employers the right to deny employees contraception coverage. The same rationale is being used to advocate for laws that would allow businesses to refuse service to gays and lesbians based on religious beliefs.
Seen in this light, the concept of reason—coming to the defense of sane public policy in the midst of unexpected and irrational assaults on our private lives—may inspire more passion than any Hollywood leading man. As major-party contenders debate the wisdom of contraception (and not just the Hobby Lobby case: in 2012 Rick Santorum talked openly of the evils of birth control and criticized the landmark 1965 case of Griswold v. Connecticut which overturned the criminalization of contraception), rational and critical thinking have become heroic traits amid an anti-intellectual wasteland. Their resurgence in American culture would come not a moment too soon.
Consider that in today’s America we now see major-party candidates launching their presidential campaigns with Christian prayer rallies. Texas governor Rick Perry did it for his 2012 campaign, packing 30,000 religious enthusiasts into a Houston football stadium and simulcasting the event to churches around the country. Perry came out of the event leading in GOP polls (only to subsequently fade, mainly due to poor debate performances). The concept was so successful that Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal tried to replicate it for his upcoming 2016 campaign, with an event in January held at LSU’s basketball arena. Levelheaded Americans may roll their eyes and snicker at such activity, but they should realize that this kind of campaigning is a modern phenomenon. Even in the Republican Party, launching a campaign with a revivalist prayer rally would have been political suicide not very long ago, but it has become the new normal.
The late Senator Barry Goldwater, once known as Mr. Conservative, saw the rise of the Christian right in his party in the 1980s and was stupefied, calling Pat Robertson and his fundamentalist supporters a “bunch of kooks.” Those kooks, of course, have now come to dominate the GOP and much of the political culture in many parts of the country. Moreover, the stark reality is that these crackpots greatly affect everyone, even in areas that are more moderate and liberal. Our federal system necessitates that the chambers of power in Washington are shared by all, red states and blue, from sea to shining sea, and thus we have Inhofe and Ted Cruz sitting just a few desks away from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the Senate, with red-state anti-reason ultimately influencing policy everywhere.
There can be no doubt that the rise of politically active religious fundamentalists has moved the center of gravity rightward and contributed to the attack on reason, but as suggested above there are many other factors as well. After all, biblical literalists who insist that God gave men (yes, men) the earth to exploit are not the only ones who deny global warming. In fact, there is an entire fossil fuel industry that, for reasons of economics rather than theology, often shares such views with equal or greater devotion.
And even beyond the joint enterprises of Christian fundamentalists and corporate interests to oppose environmentalism and other rational policy, there are many more layers to consider. The pacification and disengagement of the American public—even the educated, relatively secular, and seemingly moderate and liberal sectors—is an immense undertaking that defies simple explanations.
As I point out in Fighting Back the Right, there is a tendency to assume that the trajectory that America has taken over the last two centuries was inevitable, that what is today unquestionably considered “the American way”—highly charged and militarized patriotism and American exceptionalism, for example, and an economic and political system totally dominated by multinational corporate interests—was the nation’s destiny from the start. In truth, however, there were many paths that could have been taken—and more importantly, there are still choices about directions to be taken going forward.
This is where the need to push back against anti-reason, and the systemic deficiencies that encourage it, becomes apparent. As the nation gears up for another election cycle—which, if it follows recent trends, will be another embarrassing example of democracy, sadly lacking in substance, with the institutional interests that really run the show in this country as its real beneficiaries—some who feel that change is needed are looking at the situation anew, from a framework of reason.
To be sure, much of the nation will focus on the usual questions: Are the candidates wearing the mandatory flag pin on their lapels? Which would I most want to have a beer with? But increasingly, more will be looking beyond the façade of contemporary American politics to consider the underlying attack on reason. It is this attack, in all of its manifestions, that has made a farce of democracy.
I’ve been asked whether I would support a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren presidential candidacy, and I suppose I would. America has an abundance of wealth, talent, resources, and technology that should enable its people—regardless of race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation—to thrive, and like many I see a progressive political agenda as being most likely to produce that result. But to be honest, a Sanders or Warren candidacy doesn’t excite me as much as the idea of a more broad-based movement that elects more candidates like them around the country.
With America as it stands today, a Sanders or Warren presidency would stand little chance of achieving much, because the Inhofes, Rubios and Ryans of Congress would assure four years of obstruction and turmoil. This is why the fight for sane, rational policy must be broad-based and local. A progressive president would be great, but a sane legislature would be even better.
Today, an America that suddenly embraces social democracy, electing a Sanders or Warren and then passing one piece of progressive reform after another, is akin to the aforementioned political novel: an unrealistic story, too implausible to get past the editor. Real change must occur at the grassroots level, and right now the problem with the country’s grassroots is that they have been decimated by the attack on reason.
David Niose is author of Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason (Palgrave Macmillan). He serves as legal director of the Washington-based American Humanist Association.