One Nation under Many Gods: In a Fractious and Fractured Political Age, New Age Mysticism Still Unites Americans
A version of the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States printed in a 1909 U.S. Government booklet on the Great Seal. According to Henry A. Wallace, this was the version that caught his eye, causing him to suggest to President Franklin Roosevelt to put the design on a coin, at which point Roosevelt decided to put it on the back of the dollar bill.
A newly published article at Salon by Mitch Horowitz is typically insightful and well-written, and well worth your time. And despite the headline, it’s not really about Steve Bannon. I mean, yes, it does contain the revelation that Horowitz knows Bannon, and that his view of the man diverges sharply from the widespread popular one that reigns in the mass media:
Although the media have characterized Bannon as the Disraeli of the dark side following his rise to power in the Trump administration, I knew him, and still do, as a deeply read and erudite observer of the American religious scene, with a keen appetite for mystical thought.
But the article’s overall topic is much broader, as indicated in the provided editorial teaser: “If you think New Age alternative spirituality is solely the domain of lefty hippies, you don’t know your history.” In just under two thousand words Horowitz discusses such things as the influence of Manly P. Hall on Ronald Reagan, Madame Blavatsky’s promulgation of the idea of “America as the catalyst for a revolution in human potential,” Donald Trump’s association with Norman Vincent Peale, FDR’s decision to put the eye-and-pyramid of the Great Seal of the United States on the dollar bill, Hillary Clinton’s visioneering meetings Jean Houston (who once told Bill Clinton that he was an “undeveloped shaman,” at which point he got up and walked out), and more. Horowitz’s basic point is that none of this represents a conspiracy, notwithstanding the claims of the paranoid conspiracy theorizing crowd:
Rather than fomenting secrecy or subterfuge, America’s embrace of esotericism is often characterized by a chin-out earnestness, something that many observers and conspiracy-mongers miss.. . . . Today, cable television producers and radio hosts often urge me to postulate some kind of occult “pact” between the Bushes and the dark side (cue up Skull and Bones). But such things are fantasy. The truth is, Americans have always been, well, a little strange. As a historian, I feel affection for that aspect of American life. Shadowy figures have long hung around the fringes of power in many nations; but rarely have they done so with the ingenuousness and transparency of those I’ve been considering.
And to cap it off, he ends on a note that is positively eloquent and inspiring:
If there is a central principle in American life, one valued across our political spectrum, it is a belief in the protection of the individual search for meaning. The presence and persistence of esoteric and unusual religious ideas in our political culture, including in its most conservative quarters, serves as evidence that that core principle is still working. In the U.S. military, religiously observant service members and veterans can now choose among more than 65 “emblems of belief,” including pentagrams, druidic symbols and every variety of mystical insignia. We are truly one nation under many gods — a fact that unites us across our fractured political divide.
In his 2011 book Liberal Arts at the Brink, Dr. Victor E. Ferrall, Jr., president emeritus of Beloit College, examines the way in which America’s liberal arts colleges, which have traditionally been based on “a uniquely American higher education ideal” embodied in “small classes led by professors devoted to teaching and mentoring, in a community dedicated to learning,” and which “produce a stunningly large percentage of America’s leaders in virtually every field of endeavor,” have come under assault by the culture-wide shift toward vocational education. Here’s the official description of the book and its argument by its publisher, Harvard University Press:
A former college president trained in law and economics, Ferrall shows how a spiraling demand for career-related education has pressured liberal arts colleges to become vocational, distorting their mission and core values. The relentless competition among them to attract the “best” students has driven down tuition revenues while driving up operating expenses to levels the colleges cannot cover. The weakest are being forced to sell out to vocational for-profit universities or close their doors. The handful of wealthy elite colleges risk becoming mere dispensers of employment and professional school credentials. The rest face the prospect of moving away from liberal arts and toward vocational education in order to survive.
Yesterday in a brief piece for Pacific Standard, Dr. Ferrall argued — compellingly, I think — that this trend has dire implications for an American polity already afflicted by a raging pathology: Read the rest of this entry
If you read just one bit of journalism to illuminate what’s going on during the current season of political campaigning in the United States, make it this one. Jill Lepore, writing for The New Yorker, incisively traces the birth and history of the political consulting industry to reveal its dramatic (and dreadful) impact on American politics, and also, by direct extension, on American society in general. The following strategically cherry-picked über-excerpts are just a small part of the whole story she lays out in her fine article, which bears a title that is at once metaphorical and literal, and also pretty wonderful: “The Lie Factory.”
Political consulting is often thought of as an offshoot of the advertising industry, but closer to the truth is that the advertising industry began as a form of political consulting. As the political scientist Stanley Kelley once explained, when modern advertising began, the big clients were just as interested in advancing a political agenda as a commercial one. Monopolies like Standard Oil and DuPont looked bad: they looked greedy and ruthless and, in the case of DuPont, which made munitions, sinister. They therefore hired advertising firms to sell the public on the idea of the large corporation, and, not incidentally, to advance pro-business legislation. It’s this kind of thing that Sinclair was talking about when he said that American history was a battle between business and democracy, and, “So far,” he wrote, “Big Business has won every skirmish.”
… Campaigns, Inc., the first political-consulting firm in the history of the world, was founded, in 1933, by Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter … No single development has altered the workings of American democracy in the last century so much as political consulting, an industry unknown before Campaigns, Inc. In the middle decades of the twentieth century, political consultants replaced party bosses as the wielders of political power gained not by votes but by money. Whitaker and Baxter were the first people to make politics a business. “Every voter, a consumer” was the mantra of a latter-day consulting firm, but that idea came from Campaigns, Inc. Political management is now a diversified, multibillion-dollar industry of managers, speechwriters, pollsters, and advertisers who play a role in everything from this year’s Presidential race to the campaigns of the candidates for your local school committee. (Campaigns, now, never end. And consultants not only run campaigns; they govern. Mitt Romney, asked by the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board how he would choose his Cabinet, said that he’d probably bring in McKinsey to sort that out.) But for years Whitaker and Baxter had no competition, which is one reason that, between 1933 and 1955, they won seventy out of seventy-five campaigns. The campaigns they chose to run, and the way they decided to run them, shaped the history of California, and of the country. Campaigns, Inc., is shaping American politics still.
… Whitaker and Baxter weren’t just inventing new techniques; they were writing a rule book. Never lobby; woo voters instead … Make it personal: candidates are easier to sell than issues. If your position doesn’t have an opposition, or if your candidate doesn’t have an opponent, invent one … Never underestimate the opposition … Never explain anything. “The more you have to explain,” Whitaker said, “the more difficult it is to win support” … Say the same thing over and over again … Subtlety is your enemy … Simplify, simplify, simplify. “A wall goes up,” Whitaker warned, “when you try to make Mr. and Mrs. Average American Citizen work or think.”
Fan flames. “We need more partisanship in this country,” Whitaker said. Never shy from controversy; instead, win the controversy. “The average American doesn’t want to be educated; he doesn’t want to improve his mind; he doesn’t even want to work, consciously, at being a good citizen,” Whitaker advised. “But there are two ways you can interest him in a campaign, and only two that we have ever found successful.” You can put on a fight (“he likes a good hot battle, with no punches pulled”), or you can put on a show (“he likes the movies; he likes mysteries; he likes fireworks and parades”): “So if you can’t fight, PUT ON A SHOW! And if you put on a good show, Mr. and Mrs. America will turn out to see it.”
— Jill Lepore, “The Lie Factory,” The New Yorker, September 24, 2012
Image: “I Like Ike” by Dwight D. Eisenhower Library [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Thomas E. Mann is a senior fellow at the left-leaning Brookings Institution. Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Thus, the essay that appeared by them in The Washington Post six days ago, and that set off a kind of seismic chain reaction of positive and negative responses among readers and pundits, is birpartisan in origin (although the question of Ornstein’s validity as a real Republican has been called into question. An example of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy at work, perhaps?)
The authors adapted the essay from their new book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. In my opinion, it constitutes Necessary Reading, and the book has now moved to a high spot on my must-read list.