07/13/2011 11:11 am ET Updated Sep 12, 2011

Post-Reality Politics, Part Two: The Mainstreaming of Political Paranoia

For decades now conservatives have been aided by the knee-jerk tendency of many journalists to assert a false equivalency between truth claims. ("Does the sun revolve around the earth? We'll hear both sides of this fierce debate.")

In the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections Republicans deftly exploited this tendency. Following the revelations of massive election fraud and open voter suppression by the GOP, Bush campaign flacks rapidly disseminated accusations (with no evidence) of Democratic voter fraud. When CNN reported on the extensive disenfranchisement of voters, it bemoaned "problems on both sides." The fictitious symmetry was effective at making the issue go away as a significant story and preempting any serious investigation.

In general, radical right pundits can make patently false assertions, or offer up fantastical narratives of liberal evil, and count on suckering the credulous infotainers who populate corporate journalism into giving these dissembling spinmeisters a forum, doing no investigation, and asking no hard questions.

Similarly, as I have argued elsewhere, Republicans have had the perfect partner in the mushy relativism and moral cowardice of Democratic politicians, who have demonstrated an unfailing instinct to surrender in the face of right wing bluster, and have consistently strained to try to find a "middle ground" between themselves and crazy.

Most Americans to the left of the Tea Party are hoping that, when it come to the negotiations over the totemic "debt ceiling", the past will not become prologue - that Obama will not cave on cuts to Social Security and Medicare, and then declare a victory for reasonableness and bipartisanship. There is no question that the president's job in this process is an excruciating one; he has, in the Republicans, adversaries who are sociopathic enough to blithely impoverish millions and destroy the country in order to deny paternity of the deficit, and win the next election. However, they surely know that when it comes to the interests of ordinary Americans, they can count on Obama to offer little more than flowery exhortations, and certainly no aggressive leadership. Of course John Boehner and his team are breaking no sweat; a game of chicken is no contest when one's opponent refuses to get his feathers ruffled.

Since so many among the Tea Party wing of the party become spontaneously, sincerely, and often comically untethered from the world of facts and history, it is easy to forget that, at the highest levels, the GOP's post-reality political strategy has been a shrewd and conscious methodology for decades. The skillful brand managers of the George W. Bush administration were particularly effective at turning the repudiation of reality into a politically potent if nihilistic art form.

Many bloggers and readers commenting in these pages have made oblique references to the astonishing October 17, 2004 New York Times article by Ron Suskind that included an interview with a senior presidential advisor who admonished the naïve members of the "reality-based community." But it would be instructive to look more closely at that famous conversation with Bush's highly placed but anonymous advisor. Bracingly honest, though dripping with scornful condescension, he told Suskind,

[You people] believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That's not the way the world works anymore. We are an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality - judiciously as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realties, which you can study too. And, that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors...and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

Occasionally, though, the stage magic fails, and the artifice shows through. There was a moment in John McCain's presidential campaign when one of its fictional characters, Joe the Plumber, was revealed as a fabrication. The person who played him, Samuel Wurzelbacher, who was not a plumber, failed to show up at a McCain rally. "Well," announced the embarrassed candidate, "you can all be Joe the Plumber." Indeed they could. (With the emergence of GOP-sponsored fake Democratic candidates running in Wisconsin, let's hope that Republican casting directors are not reading this or my last post as an advice column.)

The casualties in this war on reality have turned out to be more profound and disturbing than even Karl Rove might have anticipated. With the recent ascent to Congress of what would have been regarded in the era of William Buckley as the tin-foil hat wacko right, the monster is starting to turn on Dr. Frankenstein. A week after the shooting of Gabriel Giffords there were multiple resignations by Republican officials in Arizona who feared for their lives because of death threats by local Tea Baggers.

One effective meme that Republicans have successfully introduced into the national conversation has been the disdainful label of "intellectual elite." On the surface this is framed as populist (shamelessly for the party that openly battles for the interests of the upper 1% of Americans and against the interests of everyone else). More fundamentally, however, this has been a rhetorical assault on science and any discourse that insists that assertions be grounded in evidence.

We have seen this at work in defense policy, in the response to climate science, in the ongoing efforts (at the school board level) to literally rewrite history books, and in seven GOP-dominated states where bills have been introduced to include creationism in science curricula. In many of these cases, "faith" has been driven less by a deeply felt piety than a need to neutralize the impact of inconvenient data that might interfere with the imperatives of empire, such as going to war or ramping up fossil fuel production. It seems clear that the right's anti-intellectualism is not anti-elitist but anti-reality.

When reporters take a stand of neutrality towards this discourse, they are not only aiding the right's efforts to replace truth with truthiness. They are also encouraging American citizens to substitute psychic reality for external reality. When a paranoid world view, like that of Michelle Bachmann and her fellow Tea Baggers, goes unchallenged by a detached and stenographic media, wishes and terrors can eclipse facts.

Once there is no discernible truth outside one's inner world, it is easy for disturbing qualities of the self to be disavowed and projected onto others, who can then get transformed into enemies that must be annihilated. We are becoming a nation in which psychosis is moving from being a quality of deranged individuals to becoming a trait of deranged collectivities, at least for a sizable minority of Americans. Meanwhile, as the sincerely paranoid (facilitated by the deliberately mendacious) position themselves to exercise state power in 2012, those of us who stubbornly maintain our membership in the reality-based community are in danger of being abducted into the nightmares of others.