How to disassemble a society

by John MacBeath Watkins

When America entered World War II, our society worked together with remarkable social cohesion, and the end of that war, which revealed the evil of the Holocaust, seemed to confirm the good we had done and the validity of American ideals.

During the 1950s, this cohesion seemed secure, although there was an ugly side to it.  The House Un-American Activities Committee attempted to enforce conformity of thought by weeding out Communists, and fear-mongering became a technique used by some politicians with great success.  But in the end, the Army-McCarthy hearings showed the excesses of this tendency, and the urge to apply the American principles of freedom, equality and self-government seemed secure.

Then came the civil rights movement, an extension of the urge to apply those ideals, and with is civil unrest.  This was resolved through the democratic process as progressives from both major parties helped pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

The urge to spread the American way of life, however, led to an unpopular war in Viet Nam, and again, to civil unrest.  Our draft laws tended to concentrate anti-war people of draft age in the universities, leading to student riots.  To many Americans, it looked like the country was tearing itself apart.  The Democratic Party, which had been ascendant since the 1930s, began tearing itself apart at its violent 1968 convention.  Conservative Democrats began leaving the party and joining the Republicans, in part because of the Southern strategy of Richard Nixon.

George Packer, in his New Yorker article, The Fall of Conservatism, explored the history of this strategy.  I recommend you follow the link and read the entire article.  Here's an excerpt quoting Patrick Buchanan:

“From Day One, Nixon and I talked about creating a new majority,” Buchanan told me recently, sitting in the library of his Greek-revival house in McLean, Virginia, on a secluded lane bordering the fenced grounds of the Central Intelligence Agency. “What we talked about, basically, was shearing off huge segments of F.D.R.’s New Deal coalition, which L.B.J. had held together: Northern Catholic ethnics and Southern Protestant conservatives—what we called the Daley-Rizzo Democrats in the North and, frankly, the Wallace Democrats in the South.”

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Packer recounts a memo Buchanan prepared for Nixon:
" recommended that the White House “exacerbate the ideological division” between the Old and New Left by praising Democrats who supported any of Nixon’s policies; highlight “the elitism and quasi-anti-Americanism of the National Democratic Party”; nominate for the Supreme Court a Southern strict constructionist who would divide Democrats regionally; use abortion and parochial-school aid to deepen the split between Catholics and social liberals; elicit white working-class support with tax relief and denunciations of welfare. Finally, the memo recommended exploiting racial tensions among Democrats. “Bumper stickers calling for black Presidential and especially Vice-Presidential candidates should be spread out in the ghettoes of the country,” Buchanan wrote. “We should do what is within our power to have a black nominated for Number Two, at least at the Democratic National Convention.” Such gambits, he added, could “cut the Democratic Party and country in half; my view is that we would have far the larger half.”

Exacerbating divisions in the electorate became standard procedure for Republican candidates.  To this day, the culture wars, veiled appeals to racial fears, distrust of elites, denunciations of welfare and appeals to the divisions in religious belief of the electorate are visible in our politics.

There was also another attack on elites.  By the 1950s, there was a broad scientific consensus that smoking tobacco caused cancer.  To avoid regulation that would make their product unprofitable, they funded skeptics and research into possible alternate causes of lung cancer, started a program to reassure smokers about their health and in general, tried to argue that the case against tobacco was not closed.

Robert N. Proctor, a professor of history at Stanford, has quoted a tobacco company memo as saying "doubt is our product."  Proctor said: "There's a saying in the PR business that for every PhD there's an equal and opposite PhD. And if there's not one then you can create one through funding. And if you put a lot of money into manufacturing ignorance, it can actually work."
At the same 2007 symposium, University of California-San Diego history and science studies Professor Naomi Oreskes discussed a similar topic in a paper titled "Confounding Science: The Tobacco Road to Global Warming," and journalist Paul Thacker gave a talk titled "Thank You for Polluting: How Campaigns to Create Scientific Confusion Kill Product Regulation."
At the same time as people were being told they couldn't trust government elites, they were being taught not to believe scientific elites.  And while they were funding confusion and obfuscation in science, the same regulation-adverse companies were funding Republican politicians.  The Republican party has long been the party of business, so there was a natural alliance between those undermining political and scientific elites.

In addition, Nixon began an attack on the news media.  Those who bought into all of these attacks on elites could not trust government, intellectuals and scientists, or the news media that brought them information on the basis of which they would make their decisions.

And now, the success of the tea party candidates in knocking off candidates endorsed by the Republican party shows that the conservative distrust they have nourished has now turned on the Republican party elite.  Where does this lead?  Perhaps it's a momentary movement, a reaction to the state of the economy and residual racial fears awakened by having a black president and a black head of the Republican National Committee.

Or perhaps, it's the beginning of an ant mill.