Half measures and the limits of legitimacy in American politics

The idea that Americans can address their addiction to oil without addressing military industrial complex is ludicrous.

Americans buy about $30bn worth of Saudi oil every year, which is "largely offset by the tens of billions of dollars the Saudis and other Gulf countries spend on US weapons in return" [EPA]

As Republicans gather in Tampa for their Convention, controversy continues to swirl around the comments by Republican senatorial candidate for Missouri, Todd Akin, regarding the supposed natural ability of women’s bodies to “shut the whole thing down” when they’ve been “legitimately” raped, and in so doing avoid pregnancy. Given this supposed natural talent, it’s not surprising most Republicans have no problem cutting off funding for Planned Parenthood; women’s bodies are apparently perfectly capable of ensuring that anything truly unplanned won’t lead to pregnancy. Everyone else is out of luck, (apparently) deservedly so.

Of course, Mitt Romney wants Todd Akin to withdraw from the Senate race; not because what he said contradicts official Republican Party policies, but precisely because it so closely adheres to them. The Republican Party establishment understands that it must maintain an incredibly difficult balance between the large majority of the party who either actively support an ultra-conservative agenda and slight majority of American voters writ large who will not support the extreme social, political and economic agenda favoured by the Party’s core constituency.

It’s hard to know where the fine line is located, in good measure because Americans remain the most politically ignorant populace of any mature democracy, with the views of the average American far removed from the mainstream of science. Consider that upwards of half the US population believes that human beings were created by God “pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so”, and another third believes in intelligent design, fully eight in 10 Americans deny what is today referred to as “reality-based” science. If the numbers are this high for such a fundamental principle of modern science, it’s not surprising that Americans are so easily confused by more complex debates on other crucial public policy issues, from healthcare to drug policy.

Of course, the term “reality-based” science should be redundant, since what is supposed to differentiate science from ideology, faith or economic and political interests is precisely its grounding in observable events occurring in the real world. But as we learnt during the Bush administration, reality apparently isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and in fact those in power often scoff at the “reality-based” world of facts and non-partisan, empirical argument.

Ignorance and reality

Most Al Jazeera readers have no doubt come across the famous Bush administration quote, since attributed to Karl Rove, making light of what “we” – he and other masters of the universe – derisively referred to as the “reality-based community”. Rove defined this community (mostly composed of supposedly left-wing journalists, academics, scientists and activists) as being composed of people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality… That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re 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 realities, 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”. 

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Rove’s remarks, as the allusion to empire indicates, were made in reference to the foreign wars and occupations launched by the Bush administration. But in fact, they perfectly capture the way domestic policy was administered under Bush as well, a dynamic that has sadly continued well into the Obama administration where, despite early promises to base policy more on science and the public interest ideology and corporate greed continue to dominate most every aspect of his administration’s governance.

There are several reasons behind this dynamic. The first has to do with the immense power industries such as the chemical, petroleum, agribusiness and tobacco industries, have had for more than a century to shape public opinion and knowledge in a manner that directly contradicts science. As David Michaels showed in his 2008 book Doubt is Their Product, about the power of the tobacco industry to sew confusion over the extent of the danger posed by cigarettes to the health of smokers, when immensely wealthy and political powerful corporations have unlimited funds to discredit mainstream scientific consensus it produces a level of cognitive dissonance among the public. 

When faced with such contradictions, the majority will more often than not to turn against, or at least ignore, science rather than turning against the corporations trying to fool them, at least for a while. Corporations are selling them products which, at least in the short term, make them feel good or make their lives easier, while scientists are invariably demanding that people make exceedingly difficult changes to most every facet of their lives (what they eat, smoke, drink, drive, wear, use in their homes) or face personal and collective disaster. Until disaster is staring them in the face, most people would rather ignore reality and continue with negative behaviour.

A 2010 Boston Globe article, explained how avoiding such cognitive dissonance is “a natural defence mechanism” to avoid confronting the alarming level of political ignorance of most Americans, which is in fact “one of the best documented data in political science”. The more uninformed people are, the more likely they are to hold extreme views that are non-open to challenge by “reality-based science”, creating a feedback loop that makes it even harder to open them to empirically grounded arguments that challenge their present beliefs and actions.

One of the most important weapons to fight the kind of motivated reasoning that has brought the US to this sad state is precisely the kind of critical, humanistic educations that are under threat at all levels of its education, from elementary and high schools dominated by anti-science school boards to universities whose budgets for humanities are shrinking to historic lows.

Headed towards the cliff

Given the corporate takeover of American politics (and education), it’s not surprising that both political parties are treating citizens much as corporations do – trying to get them to buy programmes and policies that are either ineffectual or harmful to the long term health of the country, even if they channel significant resources and wealth to some sectors of the economy and segments of the population.

President Obama can make the case that he has expanded health coverage for millions of Americans will at least hold the line as on reproductive health – even here, the reality is that the number of uninsured Americans has grown during his presidency, while roughly half of women who require publicly funded reproductive services don’t get them. But the reality is that on most of the major issues, from bailing out banks to the drug war, energy policy to climate change, arms sales to foreign policy more broadly, the difference between the two parties is much more rhetorical than it is substantive.

The President’s half measure and willingness to “compromise” with Republicans has done little more than slow down a car that was speeding towards a cliff. It might take a bit longer to get to the edge, but the momentum of decades of irresponsible policies will ultimately push it over nonetheless.

The mainstream media is little better than the government, refusing to connect the dots that link so many policies together into a toxic system. I experienced this dynamic first hand last week when I appeared with the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman on the HuffPo Live, the new web-based network of the Huffington Post. The topic was America’s addiction to Saudi oil, and how it has long impacted US foreign policy in support of one of the most oppressive regimes of the last century. Friedman, who explained that he’s writing a book about current US energy policy away from reliance on fossil fuels – ironic for a man who’s most famous book argues that everyone can and should drive a Lexus and still keep their olive trees – admitted to host Ahmed Shihab-Eldin that US-Middle East policy is “all about oil”. 

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Deep states of denial

When both I and Eldin pointed out that oil policy is inseparable from the policy of arms sales and aid totally hundreds of billions of dollars, he admitted to this fact, but explained that he was only looking at the energy part of this equation. But the idea that Americans can address their addiction to oil without addressing military industrial complex that has been its complement for well over half a century, and produces tens of billions of dollars in profits for powerful corporations who are at the heart of the power system, is ludicrous (Americans buy about $30bn worth of Saudi oil every year, which is largely offset by the tens of billions of dollars the Saudis and other Gulf countries spend on US weapons in return.)

The larger “weapondollar-petrodollar coalition” of major oil and arms corporations and governments that are major purchasers or recipients of US weapons is as powerful today as it was at the height of the Bush administration and continues to have a stranglehold on the US government, one that is only strengthened by the power of other major sectors such as chemicals and agribusiness, whose products and practices are also incredibly harmful to the overall health of the country, and the planet. And so the President has continued to push for disastrous arms sales to some of the most repressive countries on earth, from Saudi Arabia to Honduras, with Israel, Egypt, Bahrain and Pakistan – to name but a few countries – in between, while increasing both imports of Gulf oil and domestic oil production through the environmentally disastrous fracking; all rather than break the US’ addiction to guns and oil. 

Sadly for Friedman and the rest of us, there is about as much chance that the US can deal with global warming or energy policy without taking the weapon-petrodollar complex as there is of the two thirds of overweight or obese Americans losing weight without eating better and exercising more. As long as the system remains in place, hundreds of billions of dollars will continue to flow yearly into corporations at the centre of American political and economic power, sustaining a veritable “deep state” that has enough power over the country’s politics and policies to prevent even the most well-intentioned President from making any substantive changes to the system.

The Republican and Democratic conventions will do little to change this dynamic; if anything they will reinforce the cognitive shortcuts people naturally create to avoid addressing the uncomfortable realities they must face squarely if there is to be any hope of achieving a real solution to the systematic problems they face. In the end, however, it’s up to citizens to become informed and force their governments and economic actors to change their policies to serve the common, rather than corporate, good. No matter how powerful corporations have become, if Americans can’t find the strength to make such a change soon they’ll have no one to blame but themselves.

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.

His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on ‘rock and resistance and the struggle for soul’ in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.

Follow Mark LeVine on Twitter: @culturejamming