But we all need a political force that can undercut their power
When hordes of angry protesters descended on town hall meetings two weeks ago, conservative zealots celebrated what liberal zealots have long admired: the ability of small mobs to shut down discussion on an issue.
Now the left is fighting back. Congressman Barney Frank cut down a woman who compared Obama to the Nazis (reportedly a follower of liberal idiot Lyndon Larouche, as it turns out) by asking her "what planet" she spent most of her time on. And WalMart and other advertisers are pulling their dollars from Glenn Beck's program, under pressure from the left.
But both the right and left have their idiots. They are useful -- press their buttons, and they're off, legions of true-believers that follow their pipers, yelling, screaming, and voting just as they have been programmed to, for the candidate that panders most shamelessly to them.
Idiocy does not need to be a permanent state, however. We all are part-time idiots, on a wide variety of matters. If we are lucky, our friends and spouses point out our idiocies, and gradually we learn. They don't have a stake in our being idiots -- they would like us to be better.
But when it comes to politics, we very rarely attempt to teach our idiots. They are too valuable as idiots.
For example, Glenn Beck is an idiot. That's not a secret. Pretty much everyone knows it. Except Glenn. He is either unaware or doesn't care. He has too many handlers who celebrate his idiocy. Any lingering self-awareness he may have is overwhelmed by the pandering acclaim and ill-gotten gains which are temporarily his.
I know, Beck is "embarrassed all the way to the bank." I don't buy it. No amount of money could make someone consciously choose to be that much of an idiot.
You might think I am using the term "idiot" in a pejorative sense. Nothing, however, could be further from a lie. In truth, "idiot" describes what we do when we allow our buttons to be pushed, and let our instincts get ahead of our genuine, thoughtful good sense.
In order to mobilize the legions of idiots, it is useful to have notorious idiots like Glenn, who can boldly play to their worst fears and prejudices. He gives apparent legitimacy to hare-brained conspiracy theories -- like his latest, predictable, slander-of-the-week charge that Obama is, according to his tortuous logic, a communist to advocate "green" jobs, a socialist to push health care, and now a racist.
Beck has the legitimacy of a major network behind him, and smarter commentators fighting to get onto his show to tap his ratings. People who could be learning to think are instead just getting angrier and angrier.
This is a bad thing. In case that needs explaining, here's why.
When any of us see threats to our well-being, we become afraid, and look for a cause or an enemy at which to direct our anger. It's in our genes, and we're better off because of it.
Because we evolved in tribes, for millions of years the enemy or cause was often someone or something outside the tribe. So we are quick to find "others" that everyone in the tribe can blame.
In today's world, those instincts can be easily manipulated for political gain. It's easy, for example, to slip a villain into that ready-made mental model. It's easy to paint a whole category of outsiders as the enemy. We're pre-programmed with the narrative, we just need to have the characters filled in.
As a result, the idiots -- that's all of us, remember -- reinforce our wild fears and prejudices, and fail to learn to be smarter. It's partly our fault: We should know better. But it's also partly the fault of those in a position to manipulate us.
No one, by the way, is orchestrating all this. Beck does his thing, and gets ratings. Smarter people pander to him, to tap his power. Listeners become glued to their radios, TVs, and prejudices. And while they're listening, operating on instinct, advertisers slip in their messages, and the listeners go out and buy stuff, unaware. The advertisers then buy more ads, financing the whole thing, and insist that they have nothing to do with the messages conveyed -- those are driven, after all, by public demand.
Result: No one takes responsibility. We get a dysfunctional Congress with Democrats and Republicans who won't play together because, if they did, the idiots would take them down.
Now that WalMart and other advertisers are pulling their business from Beck, will we solve the problem? Or will it just provoke the right to pressure advertisers to pull away from left-leaning messengers?
There's a better way. It's time we stopped focusing just on the "other" side's idiots, and acknowledged our own as well. It's time we looked at ourselves.
What can we do? Issue the traditional call for "a return to civility" in political discourse? That's a waste of time. There have always been demagogues, paranoids, and idiots, and always will be.
Even more idiotic would be to try to restrict speech -- to threaten broadcasters with legal sanctions for being idiots. The only alternative to idiocy in free speech is the imposed idiocy of restricted speech.
A better approach is to outsmart the idiots, and those who use them.
Here's my strategy: Form a strategic political force that can render the idiots impotent. It's not that hard. We need a third political movement in this country -- not today's ideological right or left, who pander to idiots, but a group of radical centrists who step past their initial ignorance, fear, and prejudice, and actually think through solutions to our problems, borrowing ideas from all sides.
We don't need 51% of the population. In our democracy, all we need to do is to control the middle -- the large body of people who, despite the rhetoric, are not fooled by extremism. We need only win 5 or 10 percent. We could put the idiots and their panderers in their place - out of politics, and in school.
This third force can't be a new political party -- the system is stacked against that. We simply need to get between the two parties, and control the balance of power between them, tipping elections to one or the other, depending on which candidates support radical centrist policies.
That means -- get ready -- it has to be able to endorse, and campaign for, non-idiots from both parties.
I wish I could send you to the website of this third political force. But there is none yet. So, if you would like to join, sign on to my Twitter, and I will keep you informed as such an alliance comes into being.
Or, one of you passionate activists can form the alliance, and draw the pent-up energy of the millions waiting for you.
So let's not be idiots, and get to work.
Follow Bill Shireman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Future500