Conservatism's Version of the "Big Lie"

The idea of the "Big Lie" is usually associated with Adolf Hitler and is usually discussed in connection with Nazi propaganda.  It turns out the term was coined by Hitler in Mein Kampf, but it was used to refer to his claim that the Jews (of course) blamed Germany's defeat in World War I on poor military leadership, as opposed to laying the blame where it should go, which is on themselves (in Hitler's mind--this is of course nonsense).  In any event, the notion here is to make a simple statement that is repeated often, and eventually people will begin to believe the statement to be true.  Or, said in a pithy way "Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it."

In the case of Nazi version of the Big Lie, the statement they chose was, well, a complete lie--the idea that conspiratorial Jews were behind everything.  Tragically, their version of the Big Lie worked, leading to the horrible consequences we all know.  But there are more subtle versions of the Big Lie.  Lies, in general, are more effective when they contain an element of the truth that is distorted, or where the lie leaves out some key piece of the truth.  These subtle Big Lies work in this way--taking things that are true and distorting them or omitting something critical.

I have come to see that conservatism, in both its political and religious forms, is based on one of these subtle Big Lies.  And it is all the same Big Lie.  It explains why conservatism is attractive to many people, and why it is naturally repellent to others.  It explains in large measure the current state of politics, both here and in Europe, as well as much of the story of Christianity in the 21st Century.  It has a ton of explanatory power.

It goes like this.  Conservatism, distilled to its essence, asserts that things now are not as good as they were in the past in one or more dimensions, and this decline is the result of some change or set of changes.  Thus, if we just roll back those changes, or at least arrest the changes, then things will move back toward the "way things were," which, remember, was better than things are now.

It is in its description of "the way things were" that conservatism's Big Lie rests.  If you look very carefully at the description of "the way things were," you will find that it very often describes how things were for some discrete segment of folks, usually the folks in charge and/or the people to whom conservatives are speaking.  As applied to this discrete segment, the description of how things were is is often basically accurate.  But, in its presentation, it omits or minimizes the degree to which that reality was predicated on the existence of other segments of the population existing in a state that is radically different from, and almost always inferior to, the folks to whom conservatives are talking to.

In doing this, the conservative narrative sets up an apples-to-oranges comparison--the "way things were" in the past for a select group versus the way things are now in the aggregate for everyone.  This makes the past look better than it actually was.  And, because people tend to focus on their relative position as opposed to their actual position, it allows conservatives to stigmatize any attempt to raise up the folks who are not included in the conservative description of the past.

Here's two examples.  First, let's look at Donald Trump and his campaign slogan "Make America Great Again."  Notwithstanding that some self-described conservatives have repudiated Trump, this slogan articulates a classic conservative narrative---things were better then, and we can go back and make things the way they used to be.  Judging from all surveys, this message has found purchase almost exclusively with white people, especially white men, especially non-college educated, working class white men.  And this is not surprising--especially in relative terms, non-college educated, working class white men did better and were more prominent in U.S society in previous generations than they are now.

But that was a product of that the fact that many other groups were artificially held down--women, African-Americans, and Latinos, to name three.  In removing the artificial restraints on those groups which had previously existed, the relative status of Trump's core demographic has been reduced.  Not in absolute terms, mind you--by almost every statistical measure, we are living longer, healthier, more prosperous lives now than we did fifty or one hundred years ago.  But white men no longer have as many social, political, economic and cultural advantages--advantages that were often enforced by law--that caused them to be guaranteed an elevated place in society.

The Trumpian narrative admits none of this, and instead exploits the (admittedly not that pleasant) feeling of no longer being at the top of the heap for the purpose of advancing its political program.  By not admitting the source of this relative change in status for white men, it allows Trump to gloss over the true nature of its program--if the artificially inflated status of white men is to be restored, then this can be achieved only be reimposing the old restrictions that guaranteed that status.  No one will say that, of course, but that is both the logical end point of his proposals and the only way that they could possibly be achieved.  Whether or not the people articulating it understand what they are saying, "Make America Great Again" as conceived by Trump necessarily requires racial and gender discrimination.  That's the only way it can be made to work.

Or, take another example--Ross Douthat's column this Sunday.  In what was maybe the most "Douthat-y" take of all time, he places the blame for our current state on the fact that no one has big families any more.  Patricia Miller does a good job of establishing that massive families were not as universal in the past as Douthat makes them out to be, and I find Douthat's basic idea that generational ennui causes you to support Trump to require far more support than he provides in his column.  But let us accept for the sake of argument Douthat's thesis is correct, and the reduction in family size is causing folks (especially, it seems, men) to rage against the dying of the light.

Take a look at the picture at the top of Douthat's column, and look to far right.  At the end of that line of kids, we see the mother.  The caption tells us that she is 39 years old.  I say this with no disrespect to Mrs. Wega, but she looks much older than that.  And, no surprise, as she spent the bulk of her adult life pregnant, which is taxing on the body.  Having 13 children has clearly taken a toll on Mrs. Wega, a toll that has to be accounted for in our balancing of the pros and cons of the present versus the past.

Moreover, Mrs. Wega in all likelihood had no meaningful choice in the trajectory of her life.  Her economic and cultural opportunities were severely limited, especially as (as it appears from the photo) that she did not come from the economic elite.  No Smith or Wellesley for her, in all likelihood.  If she wanted economic security, she needed to marry someone.  And, if she married someone, she was more or less guaranteed to be spending her adult life raising children, provided that no reliable or available birth control acted as a barrier to the whims of her and her husband's fertility (which, of course, Douthat would condemn in any event).  If she wanted to be economically independent, she likely faced and entirely binary choice between being a "working woman" and having a husband and family.  She likely did not think about her situation in those big picture terms, but that was the universe of options available to her.

None of this is acknowledged in Douthat's telling.  The big families that Douthat praises require (again, unless we are talking about the very wealthy) the woman to essentially sacrifice herself entirely to the enterprise--her career, her choices, and even her body itself.  It is easy for men to lament the passing of big families where the costs of such families fall entirely on women.  It is costless for them to praise, as Douthat does, the nebulous and intangible benefits of being the patriarch of a big family when you don't have to reckon with the complete and utter denial of opportunities for your wife that are necessary to make that a reality.

If you want a society that promotes and incentivizes big families, the only real way to do that is to drastically limit the economic and social options available to women, and of course to outlaw or restrict access to birth control (which is, in essence, another vector of taking away options for women).  We have decided, and in particular women have decided, that we are not willing to wind back the clock, and it is not hard to see why.  This is going to result in smaller families, and that may cause some folks to lament that their family tree does not spread as wide as it once did.  But, like with racial equality, if you do an accounting of the full measure of the costs and benefits involved in the choice, I think it is clearly the better part.

But, if you artificially exclude some of the costs and benefits involved, it is easy to come up with a set of cooked books that make it seem like a bad deal.  That is in essence what we have here with these two examples, and that is fundamental to conservative thought.  It's easy to say that America now sucks if you exclude entirely the situation of everyone who is not white; it is easy to say that family life is now worse if you don't account for giving women any meaningful choice in the nature of their lives.  It's a rigged comparison.  It's a Big Lie.


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