Back in my college years, there were a lot of articles worrying about various cults. In that case, religious cults. There were a number of new religions, or offshoots of existing ones sprouting up in the aftermath of the ’60’s, and most of them were out recruiting, much to the concern of the establishment at the time. I ran into some of them at times, because college campuses were considered a good recruiting ground. Most of us rolled our eyes at them, and moved on. We considered them “weird” but “mostly harmless.” That is, until a place called Jonestown became news. Then the “mostly harmless” became a real concern, and the subject of a number of studies. One of the aspects was that a list of “characteristics of cults” came to be developed. Over the past couple of years, that list has been springing back to mind as I watch the Tea Party and other “conservative” groups take over the Republican Party.
In reading through the checklist I linked, I’m struck by how often you can say “yes” to the characteristics when you look at today’s Republicans in Congress and elsewhere. “Zealous and unquestioning commitment to it’s leader?” Well, it’s more plural, but yes. Take a look at what happens when any Republican questions or earns the ire of Rush Limbaugh, for example. Within days, if not hours, there’s usually an abject apology and backtracking on the statement.
“Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished?” Oh yes. Just remember Senator Lugar in Indiana, or Senator Bennett in Utah. Highly respected, definitely conservative Republicans who “strayed” from the current line of belief (as the Tea Party defined it) were sent into retirement. “Obvious” (and electable) Republicans were booted from the ballot after primaries, most notably Mike Castle in Delaware. Today, any “potential” for straying is met with a threat to primary, and various “formerly secure” politicians like Senators McConnell and Graham are furiously proclaiming their obedience to try to avoid it.
A polarized “us vs. them” mentality?” Definitely, just read any right-wing blog, or the comments section on a Yahoo news article. Even the language, like defining themselves as “Real Americans” and the anti-government fear based rhetoric fit into that. They are the “true way” of America, the “defenders of the Constitution,” the “majority,” even though it doesn’t match with polls (or the Constitution).
It crosses a number of areas. Climate change is “not real,” no matter what virtually every climate scientist says. Taxes are too high, although any objective look would show that they are at near-historic lows. The deficit is increasing, even though the real figure shows it’s decreasing. In almost every case, when you look at the actual data, the science, or the real budget figures, the reality is not what they say it is.
One of the points that’s not on that checklist, although it is on others, is that when the world rejects their belief, or objective reality belies that, it’s not seen as a cause to question the belief, it’s seen as a “failure of purity.” In other words, the belief isn’t wrong, it failed because the believers weren’t pure enough. Sound familiar? It should, because that was the conservative cry in 2008, 2010, and 2012. “The conservative message wasn’t wrong, it’s that we didn’t communicate it well enough.” That’s a quote. According to them, they didn’t lose the elections in 2012 because the American public said “no,” they lost because Romney (or other candidates) didn’t “communicate well.”
The reality is that the American public, whether you’re looking at the election results, polls, or just the future demographics, have rejected the “conservative” line. There’s a number of conservative thinkers, along with various liberals, who are offering suggestions to the Republican Party to deal with that, to develop new lines of thought to deal with the challenges of today. The problem? They think they’re dealing with a responsible political party, and it’s actually more of a cult. One you can work with, the other you can’t.
The Jonestown tragedy gave rise to a new phrase: Drink the Kool-aid. It’s not really funny. It’s a metaphor for following a dogma so intensely that you’ll drink poison rather than deal with … reality. Sadly, the ones who call themselves conservatives and run the Party seem bound and determined to make the Party drink the kool-aid, whether it wants to or not.