Idiosyncratic Articles of Faith and Tea Party Discourse

I am still finding this story from last week’s New York Times really disturbing.

JASPER, Ind. — At a candidate forum here last week, Representative Baron P. Hill, a threatened Democratic incumbent in a largely conservative southern Indiana district, was endeavoring to explain his unpopular vote for the House cap-and-trade energy bill.

It will create jobs in Indiana, reduce foreign oil imports and address global warming, Mr. Hill said at a debate with Todd Young, a novice Republican candidate who is supported by an array of Indiana Tea Party groups and is a climate change skeptic.

“Climate change is real, and man is causing it,” Mr. Hill said, echoing most climate scientists. “That is indisputable. And we have to do something about it.”

A rain of boos showered Mr. Hill, including a hearty growl from Norman Dennison, a 50-year-old electrician and founder of the Corydon Tea Party.

“It’s a flat-out lie,” Mr. Dennison said in an interview after the debate, adding that he had based his view on the preaching of Rush Limbaugh and the teaching of Scripture. “I read my Bible,” Mr. Dennison said. “He made this earth for us to utilize.” read more

Thumping the Bible or even Rush Limbaugh (no matter how much we’d like to thump him) is no way to engage in public discourse and a really bad way to back up one’s views. Is there any dispute over that? In this public setting of a political debate—on matters of common interest—Mr. Dennison metaphorically reaches for his Bible, his idiosyncratically-read Bible (why “utilize” rather than “steward,” Genesis 1.28), to a text that is not recognized publicly as an authority.  But now we are in a vicious circle, for certainly Mr. Dennison wants us to recognize his idiosyncratic reading, his sacred (dare I say “private”) text, as a public adjudicator.

Nor was Mr. Dennison the least bit interested in civic discourse, not in either sense of the word “civic,” neither polite (he growled at the speaker) nor interested in helping to develop a shared sense of things.  It is his way or the highway, whereas civic discourse, in the political sense requires some civility in the manners sense. In all this, he certainly seems to be a good representative of the Tea Party. For a reflective kind of public opinion to emerge from any public, political conversation, participants need to present themselves as willing, at least in principle, to the possibility that they might learn something from each other, that the other might bring forward a new perspective on the matter.  I don’t see any signs of such comportment in this new “civic” movement today.

I am very disturbed.  Not just by Mr. Dennison but by an increasingly venomous public discourse in this country along with increasing hatred and discrimination against gays and Muslims. This is all worse now than it was a year ago, and it wasn’t good then. Certainly there is much that is objectively wrong in this country that might spur vitriol against political leaders who seem to have done relatively little about the economy (or pick any issue), but why is this manifesting itself as extreme bigotry?  In times of trouble, is it necessary to hold tight to one’s own idiosyncratic view of things, to “one’s own,” and denounce all things, orientations, faiths that call into question one’s own self-sovereignty?  Where is the strength in that?

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. I agree with you completely–except I think that a philosophy of democracy is not much help against “god says.” If god says, then who cares what the people say. Right? No process of deliberation can trump the holy word. Must democracy be secular? I think so. By which I don’t mean that all participants must be atheists. I mean that the process of democratic will formation cannot handle god claims, whether that will formation be aggregative or deliberative.

  2. I think you’re right that things are getting a little scary out there, but I think the problem goes a lot deeper too. Because when the Tea Party faithful hear people like Mr. Hill, they think he’s just “thumping” science in the same way people accuse them of thumping the Bible. Science is just another liberal authority figure according to them.

    And in a way, of course, they’re right. Most of us don’t know enough about climate science to know who really to trust and who not to in the scientific community. We trust it because we have faith that the peer-review process and scientific methodology will weed out the political bias that scientists themselves inevitably have.

    I think this faith is well-placed based on science’s generally good track record of legitimate discovery, but from the perspective of people like Dennison, there is no deeper reason to believe something that whose authority you can trust. We all choose our authorities and that’s how it works.

    So the problem is really a whole scale rejection of Enlightenment thinking and tradition. And the only way back from this precipice seems to be for science, philosophy, and other experts to climb down out of the ivory towers and start communicating better with their communities.

  3. I agree with Adam that the problem goes deep (it’s structural, not just conjunctural) and that it’s connected with ideas of authority and the limits of Enlightenment. Calling it a “wholescale rejection of Enlightenment” is too simple, though (that just reinscribes the opposition between reason and superstition).

    It’s not just about “experts” starting to “communicate” better, but about what communities “experts” belong to and how they exercise citizenship.

    A recent Scientific American article about climate scientist Judith Curry puts it this way: “The public at large wants to know whether or not climate is warming, by how much and when, and they want to know how bad the effects are going to be. But the answers scientists give in papers and at conferences come couched in a seemingly vague language of confidence intervals and probabilities.”

    Responsible science–but useless for public deliberation.

  4. Barry, Adam, and Rick — Thank for your comments! It is a deep problem. Adam, have you been reading Appiah lately? He makes a similar point in Cosmopolitanism about how scientific explanations can look lmplausible in a culture with different explanations. This might be going on here, but I’m not convinced. I agree with Rick’s point about responsible science often being useless for public deliberation. And this is why I like the Kettering Foundation’s emphasis on framing issues for public deliberations in public (i.e. value) terms. I think this is worthwhile, but i worry that Tea Partiers and the like (unlike the more moderate middle of America) just aren’t open to deliberation at all, that they’re angry, defensive, and on the offense; and that all the gay bashing and Islam hating are signs of a deeper dis-ease.

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