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Amorality and False Consciousness

The Mass Psychology of Newt Gingrich

by DAVID ROSEN

Are hypocrites born or made?  Is false consciousness a social disease?  These are among the unasked questions haunting the 2012 Republican presidential race.

The four surviving candidates are hypocrites.  Mitt Romney is the guy-next-door everyman with a quarter-billion-dollars in his pocket; Rick Santorum is the blue-collar everyman who has learned to work the corporate con for self-serving ends; Ron Paul is the white everyman standing before a giant Confederate flag proclaiming that the South was right seceding from the Union; and then there is Newt Gingrich, the shameless everyman who sheds his past like a snake loses its old skin.

Gingrich is the most hypocritical presidential candidate in modern history.  But the significance of his hypocrisy can only be fully appreciated in terms of his surprising Jan. 21st primary victory in South Carolina.  Approximately 40 percent of registered Republicans willingly accepting his fiction.  This is the politics of false consciousness.

What happens in Florida on Jan. 31st will be illuminating.  It may well cut the Republican primary field being cut to two plus one; Santorum may exit while Paul hangs on like Ralph Nader did in 2000.

* * *

The 2012 Republican primary will long be remembered as one of the most vicious, nasty, backbiting, exposé-driven campaigns since Nixon v Kennedy way back when.  But even more disturbing, even in the face of scandalous revelations about his public, professional and personal misdeeds, Gingrich won in South Carolina!  And he may win in Florida.

Many commentators have recognized that Romney is this campaign’s grand flipper; all that he once was for has become it’s other.  He once accepted abortion choice, public health care and gay relations, but has now turned into his opposite.  He is now a devout anti-choice, moment-of-conception advocate, anti-“Obama-care” proponent and hetero-militant.

But Gingrich is another story, one sick puppy … and he might become America’s next president.  He is a candidate who not only treats those he ostensibly once most loved (his two x-wives) hideously, but conducted a political campaign to impeach a president for engaging in an extra-marital affair while he was engaged in one.  While railing against Pres. Obama’s handling of the housing crisis, he pocketed between $1.6 and $1.8 million as a “consultant” to Fanny Mac.  And, in all likelihood, his wife #2’s accusation that he wanted an “open” marriage is true.  He is the 21st century’s amoral man.

Most disturbing, this all seemed to matter little to the SC primary voter.  Some 243,000 people voted for him, knowing full well that that he was a shameless opportunist, a nasty piece of work, an amoral hypocrite.  The truth was out; nothing he says or promises can be accepted as a genuine commitment; today’s commitments are always compromised by tomorrow’s opportunities.  His scam was self-evident, starkly revealed in numerous candidate debates and media exposés.  And it didn’t matter!

Amidst the intensifying social crisis of America’s great recession, a mean spirited, false consciousness runs rampant, gripping a sizeable, scary segment of the body politic.  It finds its champion in Gingrich.

* * *

Newt Gingrich is a 21st century Superman.  He fearlessly walks through debates, press conferences, media exposé and voter glad-handing meet-ups shielded from threatening questions, covered by only his cloak of invincibility, a papist robe, a religious conversion.

This amoral man presents himself as the savior of the nation … and voters believe him.  Jon Stewart and other comedians mock Gingrich, poking fun at the obvious hypocrisy that underscores his candidacy.   But a growing coalition of Tea Party small-government advocates, evangelical culture-war activists and anti-immigrant/racist adherents are coalescing around his candidacy.  They are a freighting force.

It’s hard to fathom, to grog.  How can a totally discredited political hack “rebrand” himself and become a leading contender for the Republican presidential candidacy?  It’s an amazing story of not only amoral hypocrisy but social false consciousness as well.

The “facts” are scandalous:

•  As a politician – Gingrich drove Congress’ impeachment of Pres. Clinton over an illicit sexual tryst while involved in an extra-marital affair.

•  As a huckster – Gingrich was reprimanded and fined $300,000 for an ethics violation by an overwhelming vote (395-28) from his House colleagues, both Republicans and Democrats; it was the first time in the history of the House that a Speaker was disciplined for an ethics violation.

•   As a hustler – Gingrich pocketed between $1.6 and $1.8 million as a “consultant” to Fanny Mac.

•   As a man – Gingrich divorces his two previous wives under conditions (which from the outside) seem gruesome, immoral.

This man could be the next president.

* * *

However despicable Gingrich might be, whether politically, personally or morally, the bigger question is how was he able to get 240,000 votes, 40 percent of the Republican electorate?

SC is a predominately white (66% white, 28% black) and poor state; for 2008, the Census Dept. ranked SC the fifth poorest state in the nation with average per capita income at $32,666 – for comparison, Connecticut ranked as the wealthiest state with per capita income at $56,272.

The state runs an “open” primary, meaning that voters don’t register by party so Democrats and independents could participate.  While this year’s Republican primary draw predominantly white Republican voters, a band of Democratic spoilers cast their vote for Gingrich.

People vote for a candidate for various reasons and media exit polls provide a snapshot of voter attitudes.  According to the New York Times,

“Mr. Gingrich was supported by men and women alike, evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics, those who support the Tea Party and those who are neutral about it.”

Key features of his support include:

•   Six in 10 voters said it was important that a candidate shared their religious beliefs; nearly half of them backed Gingrich.

•   Nearly two-thirds of voters described themselves as evangelical or born-again Christian; Gingrich beat Romney by 2-1 margin.

•  Gingrich got strong support from conservatives and Tea Party supporters, beating Romney by a nearly 2-1 margin.

Perhaps most surprising, the accusations of infidelity and for an “open” marriage by Gingrich’s 2nd wife, Marianne Gingrich, seemed to have had only a slight toll in terms of voter support.

Little information seems available as to how these voters squared their ostensible “religious beliefs” with support for an obviously amoral man.  Hopefully, an investigative post mortem will shed light on this apparent contradiction.

Gingrich’s SC victory signals how moral values can be trumped by economic reality.  People are hurting, feel threatened and they want somebody to fight for them.  That was why Obama was elected in 2008, Tea Party Republicans took Congress in 2010 and Gingrich won in SC.  One can only wonder whether this fury will determine the 2012 election.

* * *

The concept of false consciousness has long been in disfavor, rejected as a trope of old-fashioned Marxist analysis.  If recalled at all, it stood as a failed ideological category long deposited in the dustbin of great 19th and 20th century social struggles.

Nevertheless, it is the underlying analytic category of two essential works of the 20th century – Wilhelm Reich’s Mass Psychology of Fascism and Theodor Adorno & company’s The Authoritarian Personality.  In the face of today’s socio-economic crisis, like the concept of class, the notion of false consciousness is returning as a useful analytic category.

For centuries, many members of socially subordinate classes, whether serfs, peasants or workers, blamed themselves for the suffering that deformed their lives.  Religion, education and custom, alone with the brute force of the police and judiciary, shaped their intellectual and ideological representation of the world and their place in it.  This misrepresentation is false consciousness.

False consciousness conceals the economic and social relations that cause the material exploitation, personal sense of inferiority, and physical and emotional suffering that a sizable plurality of Americans experience as normal life.   False consciousness is the self-misunderstanding of suffering, whether accepted as a personal failing or due to a targeted, inferior other or expressed as racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant beliefs.

False consciousness has long been rejected as a pre-World War II condition, affecting only workers and other lower-class people.  It essentially evaporated during the American Century, the half-century that culminated in today’s great recession.  In the face of the great post-war recovery, not only did class disappear as a social category but so to did false consciousness, the inability to understand one’s personal suffering as a socio-economic condition.

Post-war capitalism genuinely improved the quality-of-life of millions of Americans; a spirit of social mobility was articulated in advertising, psychotherapy and the media.  The American Century put class issues into hibernation.  In the decades following the WWII, U.S. capitalism was triumphant and the dynamic contradictions of American society – race, women and sex — were contained; in the decades since the ‘70s, a new America has incubated.

Herbert Marcuse, part of the remarkable intellectual current known as the Frankfurt School, recognized how false consciousness helped stabilize capitalism.  In his invaluable work, One-Dimensional Man, he wrote:

To the degree to which they correspond to the given reality, thought and behavior express a false consciousness, responding to and contributing to the preservation of a false order of facts. And this false consciousness has become embodied in the prevailing technical apparatus which in turn reproduces it.

The current crisis is a battle over social restructuring, in which the top 1% is seizing more of the shrinking wealth of the vast majority.  False consciousness is mechanism by which all-too-many of the 99% identify with their own repression.

David Rosen can be reached at drosennyc@verizion.net.