Why, in Politics, Crazy Goes With Mean

08/25/2012 11:23 am ET | Updated Oct 25, 2012
  • Cheryl Mendelson Author, 'The Good Life: The Moral Individual in an Antimoral World'

This campaign cycle raises an old question with renewed force. Why is it that in politics crazy goes with mean? What explains why the political faction with all the barmy ideas is also the one that promotes cruelty and injustice? By now the connection seems so inevitable and obvious that no one asks anymore. It isn't, though, and seeing as how "know thy enemy" is good advice, here is a brief, two-part answer to the question. Crazy goes with mean, first, because right-wing politics is now, and always and everywhere has been, a disturbance of the moral part of the mind and, second, because that's the part of the mind that controls rationality.

Conscience, or morality -- what we call it doesn't matter -- is what enables us to be rational, and conscience demands that we try to be as rational as we can. The important truth isn't, as we usually hear, that reason demands morality. It's the reverse; morality asks us to be rational, especially in politics. Sometimes, in other words, believing in crazy ideas is a kind of wrongdoing.

Racial prejudice is a straightforward, familiar example of this. People who are prejudiced believe false, irrational things about others, and they do so because offloading feelings of rage or worthlessness onto the targeted group gives them a comforting sense of superiority. They let themselves be tempted out of rational belief into beliefs that are both irrational -- false, inconsistent and so forth -- and very cruel. But even in overtly racist societies, like, say, Mississippi in 1940, there are always some people who are able to resist the insidious temptations to enjoy the ego boost of prejudice, to think as everyone else thinks, and to ignore facts. They are able to hold their wishes, ego, fears, and anger in check and see the world and other people as they are, not as they might look through those distorting lenses. They are people with a strong conscience.

We can only succeed in being rational if conscience is strong enough. If it isn't, logic gets overruled by id and interest. As a result we rationalize, exaggerate, deny and contradict ourselves. When our moral center does not hold, we are prone to blind ourselves to uncomfortable facts and inconsistencies, to fall back on superstition, to believe what serves our own interests or our rageful desire for vengeance, or to think as everyone else thinks or some authority dictates. Ego dominates our sense of reality, and wishes, fears, sadism, and rage are in control. Crazy and mean go together.

This tie between irrationality and moral wrong has become the central fact of contemporary American politics. Yet for 40 years the political faction in which this tie is most obvious has touted itself as the party of "morality." We have a burgeoning radical right that is both the unreasonable party and, despite its moral pretensions, the party of cruelty, greed and dishonesty. This isn't to say that conservatism is immoral and liberalism isn't. Both conservatism and liberalism are built on moral insights of one kind or another, and no one rational can fail to see that moral flaws like greed and dishonesty exist all along the political spectrum. The problem is that on the right, irrationality and opposition to moral values are not merely personal flaws. They are policy.

The ways in which this is true are discouragingly familiar and numerous. On the one hand, rightist politicians question the science of evolution and climate change, endorse wacky economics, and insist that Obama is a muslim who was born in Africa. On the other, they promote rage politics, tell fibs and destroy jobs and wages and families in order to enrich a tiny group of bankers and businessmen. To evade the central moral ideals of kindness, mercy, and forgiveness, the right dismisses those who defend them as weak, effeminate, whining, bleeding hearts. Then it enacts laws that make the United States the prison and death penalty capital of the world. In fact, the right promotes vengeance and heartlessness throughout the law and, against all reason and in defiance of obvious fact, denies both that waterboarding and other horrors are torture and that law and morality forbid us to torture prisoners. These policies reflect failures of conscience -- a lack of empathy or a habit of overruling empathy when it is inconvenient or conflicts with self-interest or self-approval, and a surrender to sadism and vengefulness.

To preserve its image as the party of virtue, the right defends a smug pseudomorality, detached from any real sense of guilt or obligation or compassion and aiming first at control and punishment of others rather than, as with true conscience, self-judgment and self-control. So rightists inveigh against homosexuality and gay marriage, deny any moral difference between live human tissue and real human lives, and sentimentalize that doing so protects families. This false moral fervor lets them deceive themselves and others about their own greed and crookedness. The worse they are in reality, the more rabidly they defends these fake, self-serving "convictions." In the end, they conclude that they are so good, and their enemies so evil, that they must be in power at all costs, even if this means undermining rational government and fair elections. And rather than lose a campaign debate about reality with some pointy-headed, high-IQ economist or geologist or climatologist, they choose instead simply to abandon truth and reality altogether. Instead, they opt to undermine the voters' understanding -- manipulating their rage, inflating their prejudices, and feeding them misinformation.

Though the wrongs of the right have been exposed and analyzed over and over, a huge swath of the voting public continues to accept this group's self-description as the party of morality and of ordinary people. Among the bitterest ironies of the rise of an American right, with its sham "family values" and its claim to the moral mantle, is the continuing harm it wreaks on families and on the genuine moral culture that was once the backbone of American democracy. There is no easy way out of this grip of wrong and unreason on us, and hard to imagine one that does not depend on an awakening of conscience.