by Akim Reinhardt
There’s a lot we can learn about today’s America by observing the Mormon Church.
Last month the Church of Latter Day Saints, as its officially known, issued a strong, positive directive to its 16.5 million members. Vaccines had been proven safe and effective, it reminded them. And please wear a mask in public gatherings, it implored them. The statement’s language was uplifting and unifying: “We can win this war if everyone will follow the wise and thoughtful recommendations of medical experts and government leaders,”
It led to a backlash.
Despite this urging from the LDS’ top ranks, nearly a fifth of church members say they will not get vaccinated. Another 15% are hesitant. Some anti-vax and anti-mask members complain the church is restricting their freedoms. In response, some Mormon vaccination and mask supporters are accusing the mask and vaccine holdouts of apostasy. Even bishops (regional church leaders) are divided. In one Idaho church, bishops stood in front of their congregation unmasked to read the official proclamation encouraging masks.
The Church of Latter Day Saints has one of the most loyal constituencies of any large social organization in America. There is no unanimity of course; small splinter groups have always existed, and as with any religion, some people are always distancing themselves from the church or leaving it altogether. Nonetheless, for two centuries practicing Mormons have been bound together by faith; a history of persecution; geography; relative cultural homogeneity here in the U.S.; a rigorous schedule of activities in the home, at church, and elsewhere, all designed to reinforce membership and belonging; and by a highly organized, hierarchical, patriarchal, and doctrinaire leadership that has wielded tremendous influence over its loyal followers, who typically follow specific dictates such as no alcohol, coffee, or tea.
So if even the Mormon Church is having trouble getting its truehearted constituents to follow simple health directives overwhelmingly backed by science and designed for their own benefit, then you know this about something much bigger than masks and shots. This is about what has happened in America during the last four decades.
In 2009, a family member of mine left the Latter Day Saints after twenty-two years (she joined at age 14) precisely because she found that members had begun spending more of their time and energy talking about politics than about religion. That they were becoming more exclusive and less inclusive; not in their attitudes about gentiles (their words for non-Mormons), whom they look to convert, but about immigrants and especially “liberals.” That they were becoming political extremists. Not church leaders, so far as she could tell, but rather regular church-going members who watched Fox News, listened to AM radio, and tooled around on the internet back when it was still newish and social media was in its infancy.
You do not need to be Mormon for this story to sound familiar.
Since the emergence of right wing, AM talk radio in the 1980s, families, churches, workplaces, and countless other social groups in America have endured increasing tensions and divisions over political hot button issues. In the 1990s, Fox News (est. 1996) amplified the hostile, dogmatic, and nasty rhetoric on cable TV. And of course here in the 21st century, the very medium through which you are reading his essay, the internet, became the bête noir of open mindedness and critical faculties, crafting and/or reinforcing our ideologies by filling our brains with what we want to believe, or are susceptible to believing.
But the medium isn’t the message. This isn’t simply the fault of cable TV or the world wide web. This is a tale of messengers pushing messages geared to manipulate followers and gain political advantage; and of how those messengers were eventually challenged, not by the loyal domestic opposition who never really found a way to slow Conservative momentum, but by new breeds of messengers altogether: some them foreign opponents and some of them with entirely unrelated agendas. It’s about how America’s fire-breathing, right wing prophets stirred up the crowd, then began losing control of their message and their followers, leaving the U.S. political landscape, and even the larger society, divided to the point of dysfunction.
And that story begins with Senator Barry Goldwater.
Goldwater (R-AZ) was actually a lousy messenger. Which is why he lost the 1964 presidential election to Lyndon Johnson in record-setting fashion. But his campaign was nonetheless pivotal because it marked the return of a Conservative message to the highest ranks of American political discourse nearly four decades after it had been thoroughly discredited by the Great Depression it had helped spawn and failed to stem. So while Johnson vanquished Goldwater, the Conservative message had regained a foothold. And its supporters, still quite small in number, recognized they needed two more pieces to succeed: a broader political coalition, and a much better messenger.
They eventually found their mouthpiece in Ronald Regan. No overnight success, by the time he was elected president in 1980, the actor-turned-politician had received a quarter-century of grooming and support from the nation’s Conservative elite. And they had finally gathered around him a large, complex coalition to lead.
Wealthy Conservatives who wanted to pay less tax on their personal income. Business leaders who wanted lower corporate taxes and less regulation. Fiscal Conservatives who wanted to reduce government budget deficits. Social Conservatives who emphasized personal freedoms, reviled government bureaucracy, and wanted to slash government spending on social programs. Cold War Hawks who demanded increased military budgets, more direct enmity with the Soviet Union, more robust intervention overseas, and more rah-rah nationalism at home. Civil Rights backlashers seeking to negate recent gains by African Americans, women, and gay people, or simply stir up voters by peddling white resentment, heteronormativity, and male chauvinism. Cultural Conservatives who echoed the hawks’ calls for patriotism, bemoaned the sexual revolution and spread of drugs, and attacked supposedly degenerate individuals and institutions in the arts and education. And religious Conservatives who pushed for school prayers and public financing for private schools while attacking abortion rights and Evolutionary Theory.
There were many natural alliance points in this coalition. At the same time, it was also an unwieldy gathering of allies from the start, as is any broad coalition with widespread appeal in a nation this large. Could the fiscal Conservatives looking to cut government spending and deficits get along with War Hawks demanding massive increases in federal military spending? Could the social Conservatives and libertarians who cherished personal choice and freedom, and abhorred government interference in people’s lives, make peace with the religious conservatives who wanted to use government as a bludgeon to insert religion into schools and deprive women of control over their own bodies?
But the Conservative coalition held. In part because under Reagan and his Bush successors, each group got some of what they wanted. And in part because the Reagan Revolution coincided with and was strengthened by the Conservative media revolution, first on AM radio and then on cable TV. These outlets, which since their founding have largely served as propaganda outlets for the GOP and for various Conservative agendas, celebrated and railed. On the one hand they enthusiastically championed Conservative politicians, and dogmatically pushed Conservatives causes. On the other, they not only angrily blamed Democrats when they didn’t get what they want, but also lambasted Liberal bogeymen (and especially bogeywomen), even when Republicans were winning. No longer the loyal opposition and fellow Americans with whom they disagreed, Dems and “Libtards” became the permanent, irredeemable enemy. And any Republicans who failed to follow the Conservative agenda in lockstep were treated as apostates and branded as RINOs (Republicans In Name Only). This blustery, antagonistic approach proved so popular with an increasingly indoctrinated Republican base that the party eventually purged itself of moderates. In national discourse, the hostility was palpable.
In the formal political arena, Reagan and the Bushes were willing to negotiate and compromise with Democrats to get what they wanted. And the U.S. Senate had a long fashioned itself as an elite gentleman’s club that prized decorum and civil debate. It was in the unruly House of Representatives where America’s post-WWII consensus politics first buckled in national politics, while similar dramas played out in statehouses across the country. And the Republicans’ patron saint of divisiveness was Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-GA).
First elected to the House in 1979, Gingrich worked his way up the ranks to Minority Whip in 1989. In 1994 he co-authored the Contract With America and spearheaded the Republicans’ anti-Clinton electoral campaign. The GOP picked up dozens of seats that November and controlled the House for the first time since 1933. The party rewarded Gingrich by naming him Speaker of the House in 1995, a position he held until 1999.
Throughout the 1990s, Gingrich pushed a win-at-all-costs approach. Nothing mattered but electoral victories, legislative gains, and just as importantly, Democratic defeats and setbacks. And there would no longer be any room for moderates, much less liberals, in his Republican Party. His ultimate political ascendance came on the heels of Fox News’ debut. The Reagan Revolution was being filed down to a sharp point. The Republican Party was becoming synonymous with the Conservative movement, something Reagan himself may have approved of, however, partisan animosity was moving far beyond anything he ever advocated. For example, there was certainly much to dislike about the Clintons if one was so inclined, but the Conservative fixation with hating them, deeply and personally, occasionally drifted into the realm of the unhinged. The Vince Foster conspiracy theory might seem quaint compared today’s Lizard People lunacy, but it was a forerunner of all the Crazy Town conspiracy theories to come. And even in the 1990s, the bellowing rhetoric of some Republican politicians was sounding evermore like the brash nastiness of AM radio and cable TV than the upbeat, avuncular tones of Ronald Reagan.
The September 11th attacks briefly galvanized the nation. Yet that sense of shared tragedy, challenge, and sacrifice did not last nearly as long as many hoped, even with a throwback, aw-shucks, self-described “uniter not divider” Republican in the White House from 2001–2009. George W. Bush’s feckless wars, which are only now finally ending, were one quick source of division. But in retrospect, even 9-11 could not long contain the right wing propaganda organs. After briefly emphasizing American patriotism, they were soon back to their spewing, while more and more Republican politicians followed their lead.
Then came the black president.
Barack Obama initially appealed to the political center with great success, and firmly perched himself there even as the center shrank and nearly collapsed. But despite his relentless dignity and best conciliatory efforts at comprise, the right wing attacked him with intense ferocity from the start. Many of those attacks were personal, and they ran rampant on the new social media platforms; even the most absurd attacks, such as the certifiable lie that Obama was born in Kenya, found seed and flourished with phenomenal speed on the newfangled online social media platforms.
Were bizarre conspiracy theories such as birtherism how Republican party leaders really wanted to manage their anti-Obama message? Probably not. But as they spread like wildfire among Republican voters, many politicians played along with this and other whackadoo assertions, such as ObamaCare death panels, while some of the newer fringe pols seemed to even believe the nonsense themselves.
Perhaps the first sign that the GOP was truly losing control of its constituency came with the Tea Party’s antics in 2009. What had begun years earlier as a Koch-funded astroturf group dedicated to bedrock fiscal and social Conservative principles dear to the hearts of greedy billionaires such as the Kochs, the Tea Party now rose up and remade itself up in unexpected ways. Frankenstein’s monster began to take on a life of its own amid the swirling turbulence of the financial collapse, the Great Recession, and Obama’s ascendance. In addition to opposing Obamacare and TARP’s corporate bailouts, the Tea Party soon became a home for Birthers and other head-turners fueled by religious extremism and internet conspiracy theories. Tea Party voters rallied around unstable populist cranks and extremists such as Sarah Palin, Joe Walsh, Michele Bachmann, and even bizarre, fringe figures such as Delaware U.S. Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell.
The Republican Party tried to incorporate and co-opt the Tea Party, but it was too acidic. It was indigestible. The Tea Party began devouring the GOP from the inside. Establishment Conservatives such House Minority Leader (2007–2011) and Speaker of the House (2011–2015) John Boehner could not reign in the new wave of Tea Party Republicans elected to the House of Representatives in 2010. Party discipline was breaking down and stable politics were becoming a thing of the past. Then in 2012, even the U.S. Senate became infected when Texas Tea Partiers helped elect Ted Cruz. Increasingly frustrated and stymied, Boehner eventually just gave up and quit, trading his House gavel for piles of cash working as a hack for big tobacco. A year later, he called Cruz “Lucifer in the flesh.”
That same year, 2016, the wheels came off completely as Donald Trump won the GOP nomination despite the party establishment’s efforts to stop him. He then ever so narrowly defeated Hilary Clinton, a centrist woman whom Conservatives had been sticking voodoo pins into for a quarter-century. At the time, Trump’s victories were unfathomable to many. In retrospect, they makes perfect sense. The Republican mainstream was rallying around the ultimate fire breathing nut job, his massive popularity made possible by decades of right wing nastiness. And it was now compounded by Americans who had spent years on social media, first screaming at each other, and then moving into online echo chambers where they reinforced and hardened each their views, and became more vulnerable to lies, some of them neatly bundled into conspiracy theories. However, the foreign online interference that facilitated Trump’s victory didn’t innovate much. Bulgarian troll farms and the like merely followed and updated a well established play book for American divisiveness, while taking full advantage of new communications technologies that Americans invented and embraced.
And now most successful GOP politicians are divided between those who honestly buy into all the nasty hooey, and those who hold their noses in private while cynically siding with as much as they need to in public in order to remain in office.
Because if the Mormon Church, an institution far more centralized, organizationally adept, and generally engendering more loyalty than the Republican Party, can’t get more than a third of its own members to take a vaccine that will possibly save their lives, or even wear a mask to protect fellow members of the flock, then what chance does the average GOP politician have of making it through a primary without kowtowing to the nastiness and the insanity?
Akim Reinhardt’s website, totally free of conspiracy theories, is ThePublicProfessor.com