In his classic travelogue of America in the early 1800s, “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Toqueville also took note of some of the anti-democratic tendencies he found in the American character. One of those less attractive characteristics was the encouragement of citizens to conform to popular opinion. De Toqueville noted the irony that a society of “rugged individualism” was populated by conformists.
You only have to spend a little time at any local convenience store here in West Virginia to see the truth of what de Toqueville was talking about. The remarkable uniformity of dress—feed caps, jeans and sneakers—is testament to both the human urge to conform (more pronounced in some cultures, like ours, than others) and to the level of corporate control of mass consumer culture.
But where conformity is more strictly enforced is in prevailing community opinion—which, in a rural, religious area like this one, is conservative. There is a wider variety of opinion in the local print media, but if you’re driving around in the hills, any kind of talk radio (unless you’re on a ridge and can get the DC stations) is either conservative loudmouths like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, or Christian fundamentalist preachers—ideologues who will reinforce local opinion and buttress local prejudices. Local opinion (and culture) is also reinforced by the practice of open public prayer that often precedes civic meetings.
Given the irregularity of local radio reception and scarcity of programming, I sometimes find myself listening to AM talk radio. I just happened to be in the truck yesterday when Rush Limbaugh was lying—his usual fare—about Senator Bernie Sanders’ 8-hour speech on Saturday, against the Obama/GOP compromise giving tax breaks to billionaires. Limbaugh—who will get a 7-figure annual bonus from the deal, so he’s very happy about it—said that Sanders was lying when he said the richest one percent of Americans own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. But then Limbaugh did a bait and switch on wealth and income numbers, and in the process, hid the truth.
The truth is, in 2009, the richest one percent of Americans owned 37.1 percent of the national wealth. The richest five percent owned 65 percent—which means that Sanders was being conservative in his figures, because the richest one percent actually own more than the bottom 95 percent. And Limbaugh, as usual, is the one who’s lying. But he’s paid well to do that. Nobody knows better than el Rushbo that he’s just another corporate whore shilling for what he accurately terms “state-controlled media,” in rare moments of honesty.
Limbaugh’s cheerleading for the tax deal seems to be paying off, because even though a majority of Americans opposes giving tax breaks to the rich, a new Pew poll shows 60 percent support for the deal—probably a combination of anti-tax conservatives, and people who are resigned to the fact that they won’t get their tax cut unless the rich get their slice, too, because that’s just the way the world works.
So once again, America—resigned, its innocence long lost—conforms its expectations to injustice.
As long as our national political life is centered around media that reinforce conformity with falsehoods, that will continue to be the case.