The electromagnetic spectrum is a window on the real world in all its vast variety. In wavelength it ranges from 0.1 nanometers for gamma rays to long wave infrared waves of a 1000 meters. Humankind has invented instruments that can look out into the world at all of these wave lengths. However, when it comes to the human eye (our innate instrument for seeing) the perceptual range is very much smaller. The visible spectrum ranges from 400 nanometers (which appears to us as violet) to 700 nanometers (which appears to us as red). Leaving aside those who are blind, there are a number of defects that can limit our vision range even further.
Thus, without artificial aids, humankind’s ability to see the natural world and to understand the full range of what is real and operative is quite limited. Unfortunately, this phenomenon of restricted perception is not just physiological. Something akin to it seems to happen on the psychological level as well, inhibiting our sense of the world beyond familiar community and cultural wave lengths. A phenomenon that I call “natural localism” concentrates most people’s attention to the limited geographical area within which they live, work and study. Inside their local zone, people can have first hand knowledge, but they are also led (again quite naturally) to conform their views to those of their neighbors, their friends, their fellow workers, their religious congregations, etc. In many of these categories there will be personalities who stand out as leaders and they often have great influence in shaping the perceptions of local populations. Beyond their local zone most people know little of what is real. The rest of the world is, if you will, beyond the wave lengths they can see and understand. Many folks are simply indifferent to world beyond their own personal sphere. And, most of those who might periodically become interested in what is happening on the other side of the hill, will tend to go with the opinions of their community leaders and, of course, the mass media.
The United States certainly suffers from the drawbacks of “natural localism” and sometimes the consequences are extreme. You can see it in the periodic xenophobia that shapes the perceptions of local groups when it comes to migrant workers and immigration in general. You can see it in the periodic episodes of resurgent racism, as in the present case of Islamophobia. But perhaps the most startling extreme expression of this phenomenon is the full blown fear, suspicion and even hatred of the federal government by up to 20% of the American population. This extreme “natural localism” is expressed by a demand that the federal government go away and leave everyone alone. There should be no taxes, no regulatory agencies, no social programs, no internal revenue service and the like. In fact, within this scenario the only federal government activities that are sacrosanct are the military and the courts. All other responsibilities can be jettisoned.
If all these myopic extremists, born and bred to “natural localism,” lived in one state, they would no doubt want to secede from the union. And personally I would be glad to see “the erring sisters go in peace” (to quote Horace Greeley). Unfortunately, they are too scattered about for this, particularly in the South, Midwest and Southwest. So, disregarding the needs of the poor, the aged, the chronically ill, veterans, environmentalists, public health specialists, and all those who feel that a broader community exists which requires financial support, regulatory guidance and the like, those operating on these narrow wave lengths have found other ways to assert the primacy of their quite limited world view. A few have taken to murderous violence. But the numbers here are surprising small given this group asserts the sanctity of gun ownership and is armed to the teeth. More generally they have settled on the tactic of participating in the very politics they scorn so as to accomplish an end run into enemy territory. If and when their leaders gain high office their ultimate goal is to kill off large parts of the federal government–from the inside.
To this end the myopic extremists have infiltrated and transformed the Republican Party. If we take a look at the candidates competing for the Republican presidential nomination, all of them want to radically downsize the federal government. Some take this stand because they believe God has told them to do so. For example, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, who recently won the Iowa straw poll, sees herself fighting on the side of the angels. With a pseudo law degree from the Oral Roberts University, she has been taught that “God grants certain authority to government, the Church and the family…and if the government infringes on those rights by exceeding the authority it was granted by God, then that’s tyranny.” Bachmann was also taught at Oral Roberts that one must seek to institute “biblical law over man’s law in jurisprudence and in politics.” That is what she is out to do. Texas Governor Rick Perry, pseudo prophet and a George W. Bush want-to-be, is of the same mind. Rick “marriage is our ultimate homeland security” Santorum probably fits in here as well. Then there are those who do not rely on religion but rather push an historically bankrupt philosophy of unregulated capitalism. Here we find folks like Newt “the invention of beach volleyball is what freedom is all about” Gingrich, Mitt “corporations are people too” Romney and others. Actually, the only one of these presidential hopefuls who is, partially, in his right mind is Ron Paul. His strong desire to end the wars in the Middle East is absolutely sane. But move the discussion into domestic politics/economics and he becomes as nonsensical as the rest of the Republican field.
Behind this cadre is a hinterland of people whose perceptual capacities are dangerously narrow. These are the people who are mesmerized by right wing talk radio and the preaching of Christian right wing ministers. They are mostly white, mostly middle-aged and publically identify themselves as conservatives. Again, we are probably talking about 15 to 20% of the U.S. population. Many of them are “Tea Party” members. But the “teasters” are just the angry tip of the iceberg. There is an additional quiet but supportive group who sympathize with these radicals. This runs to about 32% of the adult population. One might think that one fifth to one third of those qualified to vote is a far cry from a governing majority, but that would be a mistake. For the last fifty years the voter turnout in federal elections has averaged about 47.5% with individual elections ranging from 36.4 to 63.1%. Given these low turnout numbers, smaller groups which are well organized and motivated can run away with an election.
What these myopic extremists do not know, or chose not to believe, can hurt us all. If they take over the federal government (and, if you have not noticed, they now control the House of Representatives) things like environmental regulations, health and safety regulations, banking and other fiscal regulations, medicare and medicaid, and even social security are all in mortal jeopardy. The consequences will make the corruption of the 19th century Gilded Age look like child’s play. And, assuming Ron Paul does not win in this fray, our new potential leaders have all indicated that they will once more take up the standard of George W. Bush and possibly lead us into war with Iran. Where will they get the money for that? Not from taxation! Not from running a deficit! They hate such things. Well, they are ideologically against social security. It has a sizable reserve fund. Maybe they will rob that.
What Bachmann, et. al. have done is to mistake their narrow range of vision for either God’s universe or some form of holy ideology. Having done so, all who can see further than they become idolaters against whom they must wage a crusade. There is no speaking sweet reason to such people. If you think you can negotiate with them and come to some sort of compromise, just take a look at President Obama’s experience dealing with the House of Representatives during the debt crisis.
What about those artificial aids I mentioned at the beginning of this essay? The ones that humankind uses to look out on the natural world and see reality across the electromagnetic spectrum. Don’t communities also have aids by which they can by-pass “natural localness” and see the world in a more cosmopolitan, broadband way? The answer, at least potentially, happens to be yes. One of the long standing aids with potential in this area is the public school system. It is quite possible to teach awareness of other cultures, other religions, other economic ideologies, other forms of government, etc. and instill in our children tolerance for that which is different. It takes teaching tolerance from K to 12 consistently over generations to do this, but it is possible.
Guess what! The myopic extremists are suspicious of public education and much more enthusiastic about “home schooling.” They think public schools are brainwashing their children and in a certain sense they are right. One of the purposes of education within the nation state context is to produce good citizens. But for the myopic crowd that means loyalty to an unholy political system. They have plans to change that. You can add federal aid to education to that long list of things that will disappear once the extreme right truly has its way.
In the end, the best prevention against these people is to motivate the rest of the voting population to actually turn out at the polls and elect sane alternative candidates. As the development of third parties seems a non-starter in America, it is up to the Democratic Party to supply those alternative candidates and to work up the necessary motivation. Can the Democrats do this? I am afraid the hard truth is, it ain’t a sure thing.
Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania. His academic work is focused on the history of American foreign relations with the Middle East. He also teaches courses in the history of science and modern European intellectual history.
"[DNC Chair Tom Perez] has gotten instructions from Bill Clinton not to let the party go to the Bernie Sanders folks." - Jonathan Allen, co-author of Shattered, revealing new material in the upcoming paperback release pic.twitter.com/dLEnwl7kIc— HootHootBerns 🌹🐦 (@HootHootBerns) May 3, 2018