Introduction: Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason

Book Excerpt




Introduction: The Politics of Antireason

After my book Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans was released in the summer of 2012, I had an opportunity to tour much of the country to speak about the culture wars, with visits to many college campuses. In chatting with an undergraduate student at a stop at Ohio State University, I mentioned the fact that many Americans think negatively of atheism because they associate it with communism. Although I considered this statement to be common knowledge, not a point that would be contested, the undergrad looked very puzzled. After a few seconds she smiled, shook her head, and replied: “That’s so twentieth century!”

What an eye-opening response! And she was right. Those of us who grew up during the Cold War still carry the cosmic ideological clashes of that era with us, whereas younger people have an entirely different view. Most college students today weren’t even alive when the Soviet Union fell in 1991, and they certainly don’t go about their lives with a Cold War mentality. Unburdened by outdated prejudices, they are more likely to realize that any attempt to vilify atheists as presumptive communist sympathizers—a baseless allegation even back then—would be ludicrous.

In fact, her casual statement exposes issues much broader than the public’s view of nonbelievers. In the realm of politics and public policy, even on the liberal/progressive side of the spectrum (where many consider themselves forward-looking), much of the predominant thinking is so twentieth century, grounded on turf that allows little consideration of a truly progressive agenda. Just as many Americans—liberal, moderate, and conservative—carry around outdated stereotypes about atheists, too often their views on politics, the economy, the role of government, education, the environment, and foreign policy are also rooted in paradigms that should have faded long ago.

Because of this, conservative assumptions rule the day, and we live with the results: Wall Street thrives while Main Street boards up its buildings; multinational corporate interests control the system, enjoying immense wealth and enormous public subsidies while simultaneously complaining about “big government” and regulation; public education is in crisis; ordinary citizens are powerless, as the middle class shrinks and the gap between rich and poor grows; huge percentages of the population are incarcerated, many for nonviolent crimes; and the richest nation on the planet struggles to provide universal health care and affordable higher education to its citizens. All of this happens in a climate of anti-intellectualism, where men and women frequently are elected to high offices on platforms that openly and proudly reject science and embrace fundamentalist theology.

A central premise of this book is that we owe the dismal state of affairs in America to the failure of rational, human-centered public policy to gain traction—and that this failure is a direct result of a multipronged attack on reason. The promotion of antireason, which comes in a variety of forms, is often encouraged and guided by the large institutional interests that benefit most from it—corporations and industries as well as certain governmental and religious interests—but it would not be possible without a broad base of popular acceptance. That is, while the “reason deficit” primarily serves nonhuman, institutional interests, the system that allows it is dependent on a passive, obedient public.

Consider comments such as those of Representative Paul Broun, a Georgia Republican, who told an audience in 2012 that the Big Bang and the theory of evolution are “lies straight from the pit of hell.”[1] Understandably, many rational Americans simply brushed off this statement as the ranting of yet another fundamentalist legislator from the Deep South; but as we will see, it’s a symptom of a problem far more serious and pervasive than many would like to admit. There is a direct causal link between this level of anti-intellectualism and the demise of human-centered, progressive policy, and by examining the assault on reason in American public life both historically and currently—including the question of why, in a democracy, the voting public has been largely unsuccessful in repelling it—we’ll see what might be possible if sensible Americans rethink their strategies.


I use the term “the Right” in this book in its usual context, to mean the conservative side of the political spectrum. In American politics, of course, Republicans are generally to the right of Democrats on both economic and social issues, but most observers would agree that today’s Democrats are far from what the rest of the world would call “the Left.” Thus, the title “Fighting Back the Right” shouldn’t be interpreted merely as opposing the GOP agenda—although that’s part of it—but rather as fighting back against the pervasive conservative presumptions that dominate the entire American political system today.

As we’ll see, those presumptions affect all kinds of policy—social, economic, even foreign policy—and are often rooted in an outright rejection of reason that arises from several sources: conservative religion, apprehension about modernity, overzealous patriotism, the distortion of science, fear of both internal minorities and external enemies, and an obsession with short-term corporate profit and growth. Though they may often appear unrelated, these forces have individually and collectively fueled what we today call “the Right.” With such a foundation, it’s little wonder that our current environment is anti-egalitarian, anti-intellectual, and more responsive to institutional interests than those of real humans.

Since I will often use the term “conservatives” interchangeably with “the Right,” I should mention that conservatism has not always been synonymous with antireason. In its more benign form, conservatism can refer simply to a belief that change should come slowly, or alternatively to a preference for limited government; but in modern usage, especially in America, conservatism has a distinct ideological definition that is antigovernment (often rabidly so), militaristic, moralistic, pro-corporate, and sympathetic to the entanglement of religion in government. This is the conservatism of today’s Right, and it is an ideology that is shared by disparate groups—religious fundamentalists, foreign policy hawks, economic libertarians, multinational corporate interests—whose unifying thread is a willingness to set aside reason for political and financial gain.

Opposition to the Right frequently implies an advocacy for a progressive vision—and I accept that framing here—but my aim is not to portray traditional liberalism (again using the modern American definition of the term) as always being enlightened. Keeping in mind the need to avoid thinking that is “so twentieth century,” this book is not an exaltation of failed liberal/progressive strategies and solutions. Instead, in a nonideological manner, we will examine and critique those strategies and solutions to see why they failed; and most important, we will see why there is hope for a pragmatic twenty-first-century approach to progressivism that balances the important values of egalitarianism, individual rights and liberties, critical thinking, and a willingness to question institutional authority.


Those who mourn the demise of American liberalism often point to particular factors as being key to that decline. The weakening of labor unions, for example, is cited by many.[2] Others see the GOP’s exploitation of white social conservatives, starting with Nixon’s southern strategy and then reaching full stride with the rise of the Religious Right in the 1980s, as being critical.[3] Still others explain the conservative tide as a reaction to the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly America’s disastrous escapade in Vietnam, and the collective national desire to move past those experiences.[4] And of course, especially within the modern GOP, there is no shortage of those who attribute the success of conservatism primarily to the sheer personal dynamism of Ronald Reagan, who almost single-handedly turned “liberal” into a dirty word.[5]

None of these explanations, however, quite get to the heart of why American public policy, with just a few significant exceptions (such as the success of the gay rights movement), has lurched rightward over the last three-plus decades. For example, although the collapse of American labor has no doubt contributed to the decline of liberal public policy, one could argue that it’s as much a result of that decline as a cause. And while socially conservative white voters have been mobilized by Nixon, Reagan, and every GOP presidential candidate since, often with hot-button, culture-war issues playing a prominent role, that doesn’t explain why such mobilization is possible.

As we will see, when fairly considered, these phenomena and others reveal a puzzling common denominator: an aversion to reason. That is, no matter how we dissect the success of modern American conservatism to find its causal roots and ongoing motivating forces, we discover some combination of fear-based thinking, anti-intellectualism, racism and sexism, emotional appeals to religion and patriotism, an unquestioned acceptance of corporate power, and incessant psychological manipulation of the public—with resulting policy that caters to institutional interests over those of real humans.


Since progressive policy should be synonymous with human-centered policy, the fight against the Right can accurately be described as an effort by real people to take back the system from institutional, nonhuman interests; and since the Right consistently relies on antireason (in its various forms) for staying power, any strategy to reverse course must actively promote reason. Of course, the common subcategories and subissues of progressivism—women’s rights, social justice, environmentalism, labor, militarism and peace, the regulation of commerce, secular government, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) rights, and others—remain important, but for too long progressives engaging in these issues have failed to address them with collective cohesion, and this has surely empowered the opposition. As we’ll see, since the conservative position in all of these areas relies in one way or another on antireason, rational Americans stand to gain by promoting their full agenda from a broader, integrated standpoint that recognizes the assault on reason, exposes it, and forcibly rebuffs it.


On an encouraging note, once we look beyond the formidable interests promoting antireason, we find a general public that is otherwise eager for progressive, human-centered policy. In fact, if we accept the common description of the crisis in American politics and culture as a clash between the Right (loosely defined as an alliance of religious conservatives, corporate interests, and antigovernment populists) and the Left (loosely defined as those advocating secular government, worker and consumer rights, and egalitarian social and economic policy), there is little doubt that the public is on our side in much of the country, and even on the national level. As we’ll see, polling indicates that the policy flowing from Washington is well to the right of public sentiments.

In fact, the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012 were won with rhetoric and imagery—hope, change, and a fair shake for average working people—that was ardently progressive. Interestingly, however, despite Obama’s riding to election on a wave of popular enthusiasm for egalitarian change, most would agree that the actual policy flowing from his administration has fallen far short of such progressive trailblazing. Therefore, we need to consider the disparity between the progressivism that people want and the underwhelming policy that their leaders consistently deliver.

We’ll find that the successful progressive coalitions that have elected Obama and others need not be content with policy that is so unprogressive—so twentieth century. By strategizing better, rational Americans can reject policymaking that is presumptively confined by outdated conservative framework. Almost all other developed countries, for example, take for granted universal health care, affordable higher education, relatively modest military spending, and strong social safety nets—progressive principles that are generally accepted by even their conservative political parties—because there is consensus in these societies that ordinary citizens expect such policies and will resist large institutional interests that attempt to manipulate the system for profit.

Those same countries look at the United States, meanwhile, and they see a nation with rates of incarceration, violent crime, teen pregnancy, and other social ills that are at or near the worst in the developed world. For all our national pride—and we have much to be proud about—we are perceived with some accuracy as anti-intellectual, violent, ultra-patriotic, hyperreligious, and hostile to human-centered public policy. Europeans and others from around the world see America routinely electing politicians who deny evolution, proudly proclaim themselves to be biblical literalists, and question the wisdom of affordable birth control—baffling characteristics for a nation that claims economic and military leadership in the world.

Many of these embarrassing facts are attributable, directly or indirectly, to conservative political domination and the diminished role of reason in policymaking that has accompanied it. To reverse the damage, we’ll consider why the American public dialogue has become so irrational, who is responsible for obstructing human-centered policy, and what strategies are needed for real change.

Make no mistake: Any lasting turnaround will require not just single-issue advocacy, but a more macro view that recognizes and addresses the widespread antireason upon which the conservative movement has relied. By affirming the higher American values of sensible egalitarianism, pragmatism, individual autonomy, and reason and critical thinking, while simultaneously defusing the opposition’s simplistic appeals to fear and ideology, ordinary Americans can reclaim their country.

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[1] Elise Viebeck, “Republican Says Evolution, Big Bang Theory ‘Lies Straight from the Pit of Hell,’” The Hill, October 6, 2012.

[2] See, for example, Kevin Drum, “Why Screwing Unions Screws the Entire Middle Class,” Mother Jones (March/April 2011).

[3] See, for example, Allen Clifton, “The Truth about Republican Racism and the ‘Southern Strategy,’”, June 4, 2013.

[4] References to Reagan and the conservative movement renewing a demoralized nation after the 1960s and 1970s are widespread. See, for example, Ed Rollins, “Ronald Reagan Restored Faith in America,”, February 2, 2011; and Gil Troy, “The Age of Reagan,” Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

[5] See, for example, Liz Sidoti, “GOP Contenders Embrace Reagan Legacy,” USA Today, May 4, 2007.