I picked up a few books from my local library last week:
I just finished the first book, America Hysteria: The Untold Story of Mass Political Extremism in the United States by Andrew Burt, and boy was it good! The book was published last year and is very timely with the upcoming Presidential election. I’ve been asking, as I’m sure many others asking: What the F is going on in this country?!
Burt, a former reporter at U.S. News & World Report and Visiting Fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project, describes in this book the definition of political hysteria and the circumstances that have historically contributed, explores five examples of political hysteria in U.S. history, and gives us ideas on how to respond.
Political hysteria are political movements that stem from fear that a secret network has “infiltrated American society and threatens destruction from the inside.” These are paranoid mass movements involving average American people, politicians and, yes, educated intellectuals. Sacrifices, even of Constitution rights, are considered in order to protect the country from some chosen enemy. These movements, according to Burt, typically happen during economic booms and always involve the majority’s prestige losing hold.
Burt’s list of American political hysterias are thought-provoking in that by studying our country’s history we are able to identify common themes and hopefully use this information to combat current and future ignorance. Burt lists examples of the anti-Illuminati of the late 1700s, anti-Free Mason of the 1820s, the Red Scare/anti-Russian socialism of the 19teens, McCarthyism/anti-Communism of the 1950s, and anti-Sharia law after the 9/11 attacks. I find it interesting that you can still see evidence of conspiracy theories involving these hysterias even today. Once a political hysteria has been stirred up it’s almost as if it resides in the collective unconscious until just the right time when the people are losing their power in society go looking for someone to blame. I see a lot of terminology on the ‘net about the Illuminati in Hollywood and those “pagan socialist heathens.” It’d give me a chuckle if the paranoia wasn’t so terrifying.
One of Burt’s solution to political hysteria is to accept that it’s happening and not dismissing it as some political fringe. In the U.S. the primary group having their majority status threatened are Caucasians. We now have more non-white babies being born than white babies. Our fertility rate has become quite low in that population-wise we have dipped below the replacement rate required for population growth. Yet, our population continues to grow, and it’s because of immigration. 26% of the population are immigrants, with the majority of immigrants coming from Mexico (followed mostly by India, China, and the Phillipines). White America is having trouble adjusting to the fact that it is becoming more racially diverse. The U.S. Census predicts whites will lose their majority status by 2043.
Additionally Christians have been losing their status since the “good ole days” of the 1950s, however the perceived threat is much greater than the actual threat as 70.4% of the U.S. population still identifies as Christian, according to the Pew Research Center. The thing that seems to be driving this threat is the fear of “moral decline” due to the increase of LGBT rights and an insistence on secularization by the nonreligious.
When you combine these factors of a decline on the status of white Christians with our fear of radical Islam due to the 9/11 attacks…well, it has created this perfect storm of political hysteria that, in my opinion, has made the Trump campaign so successful. Rather than name-calling people as “bigotted idiots” I choose to see them through the eyes of social psychology and as victims of political hysteria.
What can be done about it? Burt explains how political hysteria thrives off of this idea of the Other(s). Okay, I’m totally paraphrasing now and taking this idea from Lost. What Burt has to say is that we naturally only trust people in our group/clan/tribe and that this explains how otherwise smart people can reject things like evolution and climate change. If the “experts” are one of those Others it doesn’t matter what they say. Educating the ignorant is important but the only way to even get their trust is so talk about common values.
In America as a country our values are not religious, they stem from the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. In my own words: that we have a right to worship as we please (or not) without state interference or establishing a religion, that we are to be treated equally under the law, that we have a right and freedom to pursue happiness as we see fit, and that we welcome people into our country who share these values. The key, according to Burt, is to emphasize inclusion. Acknowledge the majority’s fears and remind them what really makes America great.
Next up I’ll review Kingdom Coming and let you guys know my thoughts. Should be interesting!