The Right's 'Big Lie' Strategy: When Losing, Simply Rewrite History
America, the Tea Party GOP is coming for your kids.
Mike Huckabee, Republican front runner and presumptive 2012 presidential nominee is getting into the education business. He has started a project, "Learn Our History," where on a monthly basis--sort of like BMG or Columbia House music--Huckabee's organization will send subscribers Time Travel Academy, an animated children's cartoon featuring a group of intrepid time travelers who teach lessons about U.S. history "without a political bias."
If judged by its artistic qualities, the cartoon is so poorly done as to be a pitiable joke. Its main characters are a contrived group of multicultural "tweens." The history is predictable: Ronald Reagan is America's savior, America is a Judeo-Christian country preordained by God to be exceptional, and flag-waving jingoistic nationalism is a virtue and never a sin. The guiding principle of this right-wing approved version of U.S. history is simple: "What we see and hear isn't always the same as what we read in books, or see on TV. We know the truth. And that's good enough for us."
The takeaway here is simple. The "liberals," a cabal that ostensibly holds sway over public schools and universities, are corrupt and anti-American. In their fantasy, conservatives have access to a quasi-secret, pure and unadulterated version of history that is only available to true believers. The Right is the proverbial keeper of the flame. They are obligated, through a gospel of sorts, to both protect and share this "correct," self-validating (and quite inaccurate) version of American history with all who will listen -- and they're using education and the media to do it.
The Time Travel Academy is patently absurd. Huckabee’s effort at overt historical revisionism is part of a larger national trend that has been decades in the making. Here, conservatives are playing chess while the Left and progressives are playing checkers. To that end, the Right has developed a two-fold strategy.
First, they correctly understand that the educational system is one of society's primary sites for political socialization. There you create citizens. The classroom is also where citizens are equipped with the critical frameworks needed to ask hard questions about the common good, their role in society, and the State's obligation to the people.
Conservatives have made a series of bold strikes in politicizing the classroom in the service of their agenda.
1. David Horowitz, failed academic and incendiary polemicist, and his group, the Center for the Study of Popular Culture (now called the David Horowitz Freedom Center), have been policing college classrooms for years. They have compiled a McCarthy-like enemies list of professors who are "dangerous Leftists" that "poison" and "pollute" the minds of young people by criticizing the pet policy positions of conservatives. Offenders who earn the ire of Horowitz and his organization are routinely harassed. Some have even been drummed out of their positions as college professors for being too liberal and "Leftist" for Horowitz's taste.
2. The Koch brothers, the astroturf puppet masters of the New Right, have been funding academic programs and research centers that parrot the extreme gospel of trickle-down economics, anti-statism, and other policy positions that are favorable to the most extreme elements of the conservative agenda. Subverting the rules of academic freedom, the Koch brothers have also donated monies with the condition that faculty members support their policy positions.
3. Christian Nationalist pseudo-historians such as David Barton offer an uncritical view of American exceptionalism and the Constitution where the United States is portrayed as a theocracy beholden to Judeo-Christian beliefs. They have become darlings of the New Right and the Tea Party. A historian without credentials, he has become a mascot for popular conservatives and praised by Newt Gingrich as a preeminent scholar in his field. Barton has risen to fame on the backs of Glenn Beck and Fox News, who together pander his "righteous" and "correct" versions of American history to their audiences. As part of a cottage industry that features such factually challenged writers as Jonah Goldberg, their jackbooted and incorrect versions of history (synthesized by ideological pedants and hobbyists) have become the intellectual cornerstones of contemporary conservative thought.
4. The Arizona Ethnic Studies ban, along with the efforts to rewrite Texas school books to reflect a conservative view of U.S. history, are entry points for (re)educating children in a mold that fits the Right's social and political agenda. In the age of Obama these state-level moves are designed to quite literally whitewash American history and to remove the successes of liberals and progressives from the classroom. In total, these assaults on education are efforts to propagandize the country's youngest and most impressionable citizens by elevating conservative mythology to the level of historical certainty.
The second part of the Right's efforts to remake American citizenship involves the media. Aided and abetted by Fox News and the right-wing media echo chamber, there has been a concerted effort to create an alternate reality that destroys the post-Civil War consensus and the social contract that has guided this country since World War II. There are many examples that demonstrate the deleterious impact of the right-wing spin machine on the American public.
Viewers of Fox News are significantly more likely to be misinformed about politics and public policy. This effect becomes more exaggerated the longer a person watches Fox News. Conservative pundits are more likely to make erroneous predictions about political events. As documented by a range of independent media watchdog groups, Fox News and other right-wing outlets use the lie of the "liberal media" to disseminate factually incorrect information to their audiences. In a moment when political polarization is at an extreme, it is no wonder that conversations across divides of ideology and party are so difficult. Why? The right-wing media has succeeded in creating an alternate reality for its viewers. The consequences for Americans are dire: Any efforts to move forward as a community in search of solutions to our common dilemmas are damned because the basic terms of the debate cannot even be agreed upon.
The timing of these events is critical. The United States is at a crossroads. The Great Recession has exposed an empire built on a house of cards. Imperial misadventures abroad have left a hollowed-out infrastructure. The country is mired in debt as wealth inequality rises to unconceivable levels, the plutocrats earn record profits, and the average worker faces stagnant wages and severe unemployment.
As highlighted by recent polling data suggesting that the most die-hard Republicans want to split and form a third party, conservatism is in an existential dilemma. The symbolic politics of the age of Obama, when a black man is president of the United States, has triggered all manner of upset and madness on the part of the Tea Party GOP. The Right faces a set of changing demographics where their core constituency is aging and dying off (what social scientists term as "generational replacement"). And looking forward several decades, whites will no longer be the majority racial group in America. In total, the base of the Republican Party is in decline and their electoral coalition is facing obsolescence.
The Tea Party GOP's search for a nominee to challenge Barack Obama has highlighted their bankruptcy of ideas. When not flailing about in the mucky waters of white populism, birtherism, and xenophobia, the positions offered by the GOP frontrunners are a laughable recycling of the failed policies of trickle-down economics, the Laffer curve, and an almost cult-like devotion to a belief that tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, in conjunction with draconian cuts on public services for the middle, poor, and working classes, are the only way to balance the budget and reduce the deficit.
Despite all evidence to the contrary--and warnings from responsible voices within the Republican Party about the dangers of "voodoo economics"--these tired ideas remain at the cutting edge of the Right's vision for America in the 21st century. The irony here is deep: the Great Recession was caused in large part by these reckless policies and a devotion to "gangster capitalism." Nevertheless, the Tea Party GOP wants to continue these policies as a means of saving the country.
Although culture warriors such as Pat Buchanan, and carnival barker pseudo-historians such as Glenn Beck would suggest otherwise, the forces of social and political conservatism have repeatedly been shown to be on the wrong side of American history. The triumphs of the Civil Rights, women's and labor movements were high water marks for the country. While maligned by the New Right as near profanities, the long arc of American history suggests that the forces of progressive and liberal thought have expanded rights and liberties for the country's citizens, as well as provided a more certain future in the pursuit of the common good than those alternatives offered by the Right.
For contemporary conservatives the solution to this dilemma is a simple one. When losing simply rewrite the history. Change the narrative. Then disseminate this alternate version of reality through the right-wing media and the schools.
This is the foundation of the Big Lie. The right-wing echo chamber offers a different version of the facts. In turn, their audience internalizes a partisan and ideologically skewed version of reality. Thus, shared solutions to the challenges facing the American people are almost impossible to reach because we as citizens are proceeding from a different set of priors about the nature of the problem.
The assault by conservatives on education is prefaced on a need to destroy those with whom they disagree. The Right has long identified "the Ivory Tower" as one of the last bulwarks that stands against their agenda. Because they have long prayed at the mantle of anti-intellectualism (see the appeal of professional mediocrity Sarah Palin to her "mama grizzlies" and the Tea Party brigands as proof) this is an easy move. The efforts by conservatives to privatize schools, destroy teacher's unions, end tenure, and inaugurate a world where professors are all adjuncts subject to firing at any time (and compensated a pitiable salary) is the game plan to hobble their foes.
Collectively, conservatives want to create a class of consumer-citizens who are passive and ill-equipped to ask any hard questions about power, politics or society. The Right does not want critical thinkers or active citizens. Instead, they want to create drones who worship the market and live out a dystopian reality that is torn straight from the pages of one of Ayn Rand's unreadable novels.
While Huckabee and company's agenda may seem like child's play at first, this is a real and deadly serious business. The Right is playing a deep game where they are remaking the very notions of citizenship and reality. What will progressives and the left do in response? Will they roll over and play nice? Or will they rise to the challenge?
The Right has been playing for keeps. The Left has been letting the fight go to the scorecards. It is time to step up and go for the knockout punch.