Blinding Us By Not Teaching Science

Not long before I turned eight, my grandparents on my mother's side bought me a telescope and a mini star-chart for Christmas. I loved it. For a few years, I spent a couple hours a week looking out of my bedroom window at stars and planets. Sometimes my father would help me, and for a period of a few months I even kept a diary about what I saw.

I now have an eight-year niece named Claudia, and every night I have seen her since last Thanksgiving when I first showed her the telescope I received as a boy, she has wanted me to help her look at the moon, the planets and the stars. Unfortunately, most of the time there have been too many clouds to see anything (my family lives in Rochester and Syracuse), but this past Christmas, I bought Claudia a beginner's book on star gazing to go along with the telescope my parents bought her for Christmas. As long as the clouds ever clear, I am sure that she will spend many nights looking up at the sky just as I did.

Claudia may not go on to study astronomy or any other natural science. I myself never took a science course after the one required for graduation when I was an undergrad. However, it does take a society open to the possibility and wonder of scientific discovery to produce achievements like this:

New, refined pictures from Saturn's moon Titan released Saturday show a pale orange surface covered by a thin haze of methane and what appears to be a methane sea complete with islands and a mist-shrouded coastline.

Space officials worked through the night to sharpen the new photos taken by the space probe Huygens, which snapped the images Friday as it plunged through Titan's atmosphere before landing by parachute on the surface.

America has been involved in some of the greatest scientific achievements of the last one hundred and fifty years. From the telephone to the lightbulb, from mass production to nuclear power, from landing a man on the moon to developing the Internet, from refrigeration to improved medicine, we have frequently been at the forefront of innovative technologies that have allowed our country to prosper, and our minds to dream of better days. However, even as the European Union is landing a probe on Titan, moves are being made in this country to stamp out science among our children: When U.S. President George W. Bush takes his oath of office next week in the midst of a $40-million, four-day orgy of Republican euphoria, he will be carrying the dreams of a newly emboldened conservative movement. The American right is ascendant. It is empowered. And it is impatient.>p> Evangelicals and ``faith-based'' groups are looking to Bush to do nothing less than entrench a conservative philosophy, one they believe has long been trampled and one they expect will last a generation or more.

Their fundamental beliefs have changed little with the times. They want gay marriage outlawed by the U.S. Constitution. They want the Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision overturned. They want abstinence taught over contraception and creationism over evolution. They want the airwaves, the cinemas and the Internet purged of all things perceived prurient.

Now, they have the money and the power. And they believe they have one of their own in the White House.

To not teach natural selection to our children would be one of the most dangerous things we could do as a country. To abandon our children to ignorance of even the most basic scientific principles will not allow us, as a nation, to produce the sort of innovation and progress necessary to keep our economy afloat, especially now that most of our blue-collar jobs have been exported overseas. Now, more than ever, we need innovation to survive.

Granted, the fundamentalists will not succeed everywhere, and the likely result of abandoning science in public schools will be a significant brain-drain in the areas that do the abandoning. This is already happening to red states that are banning stem cell research. However, with rising conservative dominance of the federal government, there can be little doubt that federal scientific funding will take a significant hit, and that as a nation we may begin to slip behind other regions of the world in terms of innovation and progress. When I was a boy, my love for scientific discovery was regularly fueled by the magical images and information retrieved by well-funded programs like Voyager, the Space Shuttles, and (formerly) the Hubble telescope. With conservatism firmly on the ascendancy, I have to wonder if the love Claudia currently has for science at her young age will be regularly kindled the same way mine was.

Proof of the Ideological Coalition Shift

My main contention in all of the various election post-mortems I have written on this site has been that the single greatest problem Democrats face, now that the two coalitions are primarily ideological, is the gap between the number of self-identifying conservatives and the number of self-identifying liberals. Most of my post-election arguments have revolved around this idea, to the point where regular readers might be tired of hearing about it (or maybe you are not tired of it, since to date all book club discussions have been about understanding what conservatism is, how their advantage was built, and what we can do about it). I have argued that we need to grow liberalism, and close the gap between liberals and conservatives, by bringing non-ideological reformers into the liberal coalition. I have argued that we need to grow liberalism, and close the gap between liberals and conservatives, by finally telling the truth about conservatism, and dropping our self-defeating rhetoric about how people like Bush are not "real conservatives." I have argued that we need to grow liberalism, and close the gap between liberals and conservatives, not by moving to the center, but by finally articulating and better framing the liberal worldview. At the same time, I have argued that our problems in the South are ideological, rather than cultural, and that the only way we can win there in the short term is to run a conservative. In short, I have argued that the only way to fix our problems long term is to grow liberalism and shrink conservatism. Now that the two coalitions are primarily ideological, and conservatives outnumber liberals, quite frankly I believe we have no other choice.

Now, no one can dispute that there are more self-identifying conservatives than there are self-identifying liberals, but I admit that my entire argument is based on the assumption that the two coalitions are now primarily ideological rather than regional and ethnic. To date, I have not had the hard evidence to back this assumption up, and instead I have attempted to infer it from my studies on the partisan index. However, today I finally came across exit polls for every presidential election since 1976. Looking at these polls leads me to believe that I now have the proof of this ideological coalition shift that I always desired.

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Republicans Moving

While we have a huge amount of work to do on our own, one of the best things that could happen to liberalism in this country would be if more Republicans started talking like SchwarzeneggerCalifornia Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger suggested in a German newspaper interview published Saturday that the Republican Party should move "a little to the left," a shift that he said would allow it to pick up new voters.(...)

"I would like the Republican Party to cross this line, move a little further left and place more weight on the center," he was quoted as saying. "This would immediately give the party 5% more votes without it losing anything elsewhere."

It would be great if more Republicans started talking like this, especially if they were running for President in 2007 and 2008. The more Republicans who openly argue for the need to distance their party from conservative ideas and toward liberal ones, the more the political center in the country will move left. Republicans may not lose votes by moving to the center, but conservatism certainly will, the same way liberals lost votes as a result of the DLC well before the 1994 Republican takeover of congress. In a two-party system, the two parties will always be fairly competitive. The same is not necessarily true of ideologies in such a system.

Of course, as the ultimate physical and pop culture manifestation of the strict father conservative worldview, Schwarzenegger could probably run on the Green Party Platform and still excite the conservative base. He personally would probably never lose votes by moving to the left. Further, his interview was in German and will not be widely publicized. What are widely publicized are the calls from neo-Christians who wish to push the country even further right:

Conservatives to challenge Bush

By Andrea Stone, USA TODAY

Emboldened conservatives in Congress say they will oppose the White House next year on at least a half-dozen issues where they say President Bush has strayed from Republican values.

Conservatives increased their numbers in the Senate and House of Representatives last month and claim a mandate to push their views. Now that Bush has been re-elected, they plan to take a harder line on issues such as federal spending and prescription drug coverage for seniors.

This is one reason why conservatism is winning even when, like in 1992, Republicans are not. Rather than running away from their ideas, they seemingly always feel emboldened enough to push them center stage. The vast majority of Republicans never argue that the party needs to move to the left. Like true evangelicals, they seek to convert others to their ideology, rather than joining up with the other side in a naked political gambit to win more votes.

The Final Words On Moving to the Center

I still believe we need to seize the mantle of reform, but as far as moving to the center, I will let Lakoff and Arianna Huffington to the talking: As cognitive psychologist George Lakoff told me: "Democrats moving to the middle is a double disaster that alienates the party's progressive base while simultaneously sending a message to swing voters that the other side is where the good ideas are." It unconsciously locks in the notion that the other side's positions are worth moving toward, while your side's positions are the ones to move away from. From the Rockridge Institute Website: There are clear distinctions between the Nurturant Parent (NP) family and the Strict Father (SF) family. The logic of the models are contradictory, but we all have both models present in the synapses of our brains--either actively or passively.(...)

What determines how we vote is which model is active and dominant for understanding politics at that time.(...)

Our goal is to activate the progressive model in the non-aligned voters. Activation is done through language--by using a consistent language that reflects and activates progressive values. The same language that rallies a base activates the same worldview for those in the middle.

Conservatives have already figured this out. What they have learned about winning elections is that they have to activate the Strict Father model in more than half of the electorate. Fear is a good way to trigger the strict father model, making it active in our minds, because fear reinforces the basic ideas that the world is a dangerous place and that strict discipline is therefore needed for safety.(...)

There is a myth that voters are lined up in a left-to-right line, and that to gain the support of swing voters, you must move to the center. When progressives move to the right, they lose in two ways, setting up a self-defeating double-whammy:

1) Moving to the right alienates your progressive base.
2) It actually helps conservatives because it activates their model in swing voters.

Notice that conservatives do not gain more voters by moving to the Left. What they do is stick to their strict ideology to activate their model in swing voters by being clear and consistent in policies and messages framed in terms of conservative values.

Short version: arguing that we need to move to the center openly implies that Bush and Republicans win elections because they are right on issues and we are wrong. This is dangerous and self-defeating. Instead, we need to do a much better job of articulating our own ideas, especially to ourselves.

The Potential of the Great Backlash Narrative

For the Republican Party to present itself as the champion of working class America strikes liberals as such an egregious denial of political reality that they dismiss the whole phenomenon, refusing to take it seriously. The Great Backlash, they believe, is nothing but crypto-racism, or a disease of the elderly, or the random gripings of religious rednecks, or the protests of "angry white men" feeling left behind by history.

But to understand the backlash in this way is to miss its power as an idea and its broad popular vitality. It keeps coming despite everything, a plague of bitterness capable of spreading from the old to the young, from Protestant fundamentalists to Catholics and Jews, and from the angry white man to every demographic shading imaginable.

--Thomas Frank, What's the Matter With Kansas? p.8

Frank's sweeping claim of the wide potential of the Great Backlash narrative is perhaps a little overwrought. However, understanding the potential of the Great Backlash narrative is important, both for its implications as a broad social trend and because of its profound electoral implications. What is its remaining growth potential? How many more people can the narrative ensnare and further push the country to the right? In the extended entry, this post attempts to provide answers to these questions.

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