07/05/2011 11:40 am ET | Updated Sep 04, 2011

Post-Reality Politics, Part One: Down the Rabbit Hole With the New GOP

Some readers may be old enough to remember that affable confabulator-in-chief, Ronald Reagan, who notoriously conflated movie roles with real events, insisted that 80 percent of air pollution came from trees (30 years before California Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher's similar assertion in May), and claimed that, "in the Russian language there isn't even a word for freedom." Nevertheless, he and his handlers were masters of media management. As the sign on the desk of his press secretary, Larry Speakes, famously read, "You don't tell us how to stage the news and we don't tell you how to cover it.'

Since Reagan's subsequent beatification by those have sought to rewrite the history of his administration, GOP politicians and political consultants have gone from adeptly putting a self-serving spin on events to making them up out of whole cloth. But this is not to say that the Republican Party is monolithic. There is a significant if dwindling plurality among GOP voters who despair over the loss of that now extinct species of conservative leader, the moderate Republican. The trait that most defines the majority of present day conservative politicians is their reflexive tendency to invent reality. But even among them there are important distinctions; some are delusional, while others are merely liars.

Embodying these two remaining species of Republican politician are the current front-runners for the GOP presidential nomination, Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney. Bachmann's crackpot politics are grounded in genuine ignorance and a sincere belief in right-wing religious and historical fairy tales, along with the usual Tea Party brew of paranoid political fantasy. Romney, the most oleaginous of the wingtip Machiavellians that populate the GOP old guard, is smart enough to know he must play dumb. This has meant going along with the prevailing idiocy of the day -- even to the point where it seems he's insisting that his own creation (the Massachusetts health plan) is the spawn of Satan.

This brings to mind the old Woody Allen joke about the man complaining to the psychiatrist about his brother who thinks he's a chicken. When asked by the doctor why the man doesn't seek treatment for his brother, the man replies, "I would. But I need the eggs." Republicans like Romney, as well as reborn birther, Donald Trump, need the political eggs too much to challenge the delusions of their more untethered constituents or colleagues.

Whichever candidates get anointed to the top spots on the 2012 ticket can be expected to zealously embrace the ever-shifting catechism of crazy emerging from the GOP's Tea Party contingent, either because they believe it or because they need to look like they believe it. But regardless of the nominees' real or feigned beliefs, they can be counted on to be unwaveringly reality-based in pushing policies and high-court appointments that will redound to the economic and political benefit of the global corporate imperium.

Of course, vital to the conservative crusade against reality has been Fox News. Sadly, Roger Ailes, a veteran GOP propagandist and current Fox News manager, will not be able to set up shop in Canada due to a pesky Canadian regulation that stipulates, "a licenser may not broadcast... any false or misleading news." But back in the US, where false is true, faith is science, and fantasy is fact, Fox News is free to pioneer a brave new genre, unreality TV.

24 hours a day their considerable resources are devoted to manufacturing delusional problems and fictitious threats, for which the solutions are always elect more Republicans, cut taxes for the rich, and remove all constraints on corporate behavior. While making stuff up is their main tactic, generating fear is their chief strategy. And there is a good reason that this is so effective.

A recent study conducted by neuroscientists at the University College of London and published in Current Biology found significant brain differences between liberals and conservatives. Liberals are more likely to have a large anterior cingulate cortex, an area important for the management and tolerance of uncertainty, complexity, and conflict. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to have a bigger amygdala, an area of the brain specialized for the processing of fear and disgust. Given the brain's plasticity, politics and neuroanatomical differences are each likely to be a cause and an effect.

Of course, depending on the context, each of these traits could be either an advantage or a disadvantage. As I have argued elsewhere, liberal tolerance of complexity could lead to moral and practical paralysis, and conservative fear and disgust could prime one to respond boldly to real threats.

Whether informed by this research or simply guided by intuition and observation, the programmers at Fox have wrought great ratings and political benefit from constantly jerking on the tender, hypertrophied amygdlae of their anxious viewers. "Beware," they warn. "There is a malevolent socialist/Muslim Kenyan-born terrorist-sympathizing president in the White House who wants to take away our guns, abolish Christmas, force our elderly citizens to appear before death panels, and mandate Koran reading in government-run reeducation camps." Not waiting for Democrats to establish the new Caliphate, a year ago ever-vigilant Oklahoma Republicans passed legislation banning the establishment of Sharia law within its borders. Thanks to the quick thinking of its conservative leaders, Al Qaeda's plan for an Islamic Republic of Oklahoma has been foiled. Since then, 13 red states have introduced similar laws.

While paranoia has long been an aspect of American politics, especially on the right, the post-9/11 GOP and its megaphones on Fox have succeeded in taking a disordered way of thinking confined to lone schizophrenics in private life, and to the lunatic margins of public life (like Timothy McVeigh and his anti-government Christian Identity brethren) -- and normalizing it. The delusions of Tea Party activists are now accorded the status of respected political speech, and are often featured in point-counterpoint debates across the mainstream media-scape. In part two of this series, "The Mainstreaming of Political Paranoia," I'll look at the role that the non-Fox media, like CNN and the networks, as well as the Democratic Party, have played in the growing obsolescence of reality-based politics.