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Liberalism and group-think
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Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst
May 10, 2012

Originally published July 13, 2004

As I was sitting in a restaurant eating breakfast and reading the newspaper, I perused the voting records of the nine Supreme Court justices during 2003. We had three conservative justices: Rehnquist, Thomas, and Scalia; three liberal justices: Stevens, Ginsberg, and Souter; and three moderate and/or unpredictable justices: O'Connor, Kennedy, and Breyer. The conventional wisdom is that the conservatives and liberals typically vote as a block and the moderate/unpredictable judges determine the outcomes. I decided to check to see if this was really true.

I scanned over the 5-4 and the 6-3 votes and did a quick and dirty tabulation by scribbling on the margins of the newsprint. I found that the three liberal justices voted as a block 95% of the time for the 5-4 and 6-3 votes. The three conservative justices voted as a block 60% of the time on these votes. Thus, the conservative judges seemed to have far more independence of mind than the liberal justices.

Why did the three liberal justices almost always vote the same? I brainstormed and lined up all of possible answers I could think of. I systematically eliminated most of them as inadequate or implausible. In the end, the only explanation on my list which made sense was that the three justices came from the same ideological faction. But that could only be a partial answer. Supreme Court judges are appointed for life, are very independent, and can think and write what they like. Ideological similarity of background could account for the 60% agreement among the three conservative judges. It is an inadequate explanation for the astounding 95% agreement of the three liberal judges. Something was missing. I put forward the proposition that the missing ingredient was the phenomenon of group-think.

Group-think cliques and cults

Is postmodern liberalism a group-think phenomenon? It is not an unthinkable proposition because the group-think syndrome appears in every human society.

Heretical religious cults and high school cliques are prone to group-think as a form of mind control. Dissension from group dogma is not tolerated. Cliques and cults develop their own internal mythology, social code, and set of taboos. To play the game, you must accept the myths, codes, and taboos as unquestionable. To question a myth, violate a code or taboo, or reject a group-imposed role-playing game will result in severe penalties. The maximum penalty is expulsion and public censure.

These myths, codes, and taboos are fabricated by a self-interested and manipulative in-group. Sometimes the in-group has an individual leader and sometimes there is a controlling core group (an elite with social prestige) which is surrounded by servile groupies. The manipulative peer pressures have the effect of compressing the minds of the cult members into a narrow mold. It produces a closed society of the narrow-minded — a cult of scripted thinking and blinkered perceiving.

Occasionally a family, a business, a government agency, an organization, an ingrown church, a small ingrown town, or a political faction will succumb to group-think. Group-think preys upon the insecurities of people who have unstable self-concepts and a tendency towards co-dependency. That is precisely why it is so common.

Group-think should not be confused with conspiracy theories, even though they both are drawn towards the political extremes and sometimes work together. Paranoia is essential to conspiracy theories. It is compatible with, but not essential to, group-think. However, the paranoia of a declining faction can indeed energize group-think. Conspiracy theories are often cooked up by solitary, narcissistic, anti-social cranks. In contrast, group-think is a social pathology of insecure hyper-social extroverts.

But how can proud, accomplished, confident, highly independent judges ever be co-dependent enough to succumb to group-think? It is unlikely that they will fall into group-think on the bench. If a judge exhibited group-think, he probably has contracted it before he rose to the bench. He might have picked it up in college or in law school. A judge's habitual processes and predilections of thought can have long-lasting momentum and are easily reinforced when he hears the ideas of like-minded peers. Some groupies die of old age unreformed. Postmodern liberals sometimes get worse in retirement because there is plenty of time for obsessive thoughts to run in circles.

Group-think in corporations

The corporate sycophant or "yes-man" is so familiar to popular culture that the word has become a cliche. Careful studies of the corporate life cycle indicates that the yes-man is more prominent at certain stages of corporate development than others. The presence of yes-men is not always a sign of group-think.

Corporate Lifecycles by Ichak Adizes describes a series of stages in the typical corporate life cycle. The immature firm sometimes goes through a hyper-growth phase which Adizes calls the "go-go" phase. Yes men who don't perform are often fired during the go-go phase. Obnoxious persons who get a lot of work done are tolerated and rewarded because the company is in a chaotic growth panic and can scarcely get the orders filled. In contrast, yes-men become prominent in mature businesses with established markets.

There is a phase called "bureaucracy" which comes late in the life of an old declining business. During the bureaucracy phase, group-think emerges. Group-think is a little different than individual sycophancy, although the two can overlap.

During the bureaucracy phase, the corporate in-group becomes an end in itself. The in-group comes to believe that the corporation ultimately exists to serve them. The aging corporation loses the vision it once had to serve the customer. The customer can be taken for granted for a while if the firm is well established and has momentum. In time, complacence towards customers gives way to contempt. The in-group becomes senile and begins to regard the customer as a nuisance.

I shall never forget the Boston restaurant with a group-think teenage staff. When I complained to the young head waiter that I was being neglected while the waiters and waitresses were merrily chattering in little groups, he said, "I don't have to listen to this." If he was protected in a group-think cocoon, he really did not have to listen. But he was deluded. His boss was shocked that he refused to listen to me — and gave me a free meal including service.

In-group members become role-playing co-dependents who derive their identity and sense of meaning from the group. This is the situation in which the capacity for independent thought is forfeited and an amazing uniformity of opinion is realized. Non-conformity with group opinion is severely censured and chastened by the group. The threat of expulsion is terrifying to the groupies who fear they would cease to exist as persons if they were thrown out of the group. Indeed, an in-group sometimes treats those they expel as non-entities. The group-think teen waiters and waitresses in the Boston restaurant were more eager to please their peers than they were to please management. Social censure had more terrors for them than getting fired.

A bureaucratic business organization is a failing organization, unless it has a monopoly, or is in a regulated industry. A bureaucratic government agency is subsidized with taxes and is not allowed to fail. The senility of bureaucracy can be perpetuated indefinitely.

The politically correct mind-control of many of our universities resembles the group-think of an aging bureaucracy. Professors who have tenure sometimes care only for the approval of their tenured peers. A professor who is safely enfolded in tenure and academic group-think can safely say to non-tenured individuals, "I don't have to listen to this."

Group-think judgments can deny reality. The validation of evidence comes from the artificial world of the group — with its myths and fantasies. Our liberal press sometimes verifies stories by looking within the closed system of their own group-think society. The group-think of the New York Times a while back facilitated a long run of false stories by a young reporter playing con man — who was being rapidly promoted by management. Give the in-group what it wants and they it will be blind to your faults.

A group-think consensus of opinion can be incredibly inferior in its artistic and literary preferences. Hideous postmodern art on public display is chosen by group-think committees of credentialed mediocrities. Michael Moore'sFahrenheit 9/11 was heavy handed, sophomoric, and packed with false allegations and innuendoes. Were the liberals embarrassed? Nope. Some of the national leaders of the Democratic party attended the opening night — and praised the movie. Most movie reviewers in the liberal press gave it three or four stars. Give the movie groupies the myths they want and you can do no wrong. Group-think triumphant — over reason, judgment, taste, and truth! Mediocrities of the world unite!

Group-think in history

I know of two books that deal with the history of folly — Barbara Tuchman'sThe March of Folly, and James F. Welles' The Story of Stupidity. Tuchman tells the story of governments that purse disastrous policies contrary to their own interest. Her general theme is that leaders are sometimes blinded by a bad policy which they pursue in spite of bad results. Welles agrees with Tuchman that certain kinds of folly are nearly universal and can be found at every time and in every society. Welles' book lacks the craftsmanship, erudition, and brilliance of the books by Tuchman and Adizes. His forte is explaining concepts. He offers a clear explanation of group-think and fills a gap left by Tuchman and Adizes.

"What is stupidity?" Welles asks. "Stupidity promotes maladaptive behavior by denying us information" and thus corrupts learning. This is achieved through the use of an inappropriate 'schema' — a master cognitive plan by which each person organizes information. It provides a 'mental set' which provides a context for interpreting behavior and a program of behavior. We become emotionally involved with the schemas we identify with and follow them to our own detriment. The schema rationalizes the believer's relationship to the world while defining what he considers proper behavior in it. Invariably, each schema is accompanied by an ideology....The self-deceptive aspect of human nature is due to the role the schema plays in binding people together."(Underlines are mine.)

Comments: 1) Group-think habits have momentum because we personally identify with and get emotionally involved in the schema. The momentum can endure long after the peer pressures that formed the group-think have fallen away. 2) The false worldview of postmodern liberalism is the master schema. This schema is reduced into a simplistic ideology — for use as a personal schema for individual groupies. Subtlety, depth, or complexity of thought is impossible in the mentally regimented world of group-think. Some of our group-think professors are educated simpletons — but the students already know that — and use it as grist for their jokes and pantomimes.

Language is manipulated by group-think and "...affects the process of perception and makes it so ambiguous that people can accept clear discrepancies between their beliefs and actions in many important ego-defining situations....With perception rendered so ambiguous and subjective, stupidity is invited, if not promoted, as people usually can find some verbal framework in which they can rationalize their behavior and (find) some scapegoat or excuse to explain away their behaviors. Thus, it appears that the verbal nature of our schemas shapes human perception by blurring the boundary between unwelcomed fact and desired fancy."

Comments: 1) The universal human tendency towards rationalization, denial, and blame-shifting gives group-think great power. 2) The politically correct language of liberalism creates a fuzzy, subjective, and biased selectivity in the interpretation of events. The mental distortion includes fanciful illusions, odd presumptions, wishful thinking, selective amnesia, and historical revisionism. We associate these pathologies with narcissistic adolescence. Group-think can produce an exaggerated version of the pathologies of adolescence in middle-aged adults.

"While linguistic systems act as screens or sieves between people and their environment, they promote cooperation among group members by fostering common perceptions." (Group-think ahoy!) "...With everyone using the same biased language, it is unlikely that members could develop original, self-correcting ideas. Hence, it is difficult to offer an objective, critical analysis....Any attempt to do so would be regarded as heresy and the critic shunned or dismissed as a threat to group integrity."

Comments: 1) This passage explains why a number of liberal judges and liberal movie reviewers cannot think independently. 2) Two or three conservative pundits have reflected upon how there once were amicable relationships between liberals and conservatives in the newsroom. Today, conservatives are shunned as pariahs in some liberal newsrooms. These pundits are disappointed but not intimidated. (Oh group-think, where is thy sting?)

"People indulging in group-think find themselves not only invincible but invariably right according to their own standards...The members are likely simply to ignore ethical and moral consequences of their acts, since they assume they are right and what they are trying to accomplish is obviously good. Of course, if actions against an out-group are under consideration, the enemy is stereotypically viewed as evil, weak and stupid, and is accordingly referred to in disparaging terminology."

Comment: 1) Group-think leads to the demonization of enemies. 2) Liberals have the uncanny ability to retain their unabashed presumption of moral superiority while they are misbehaving! I hold out Michael Moore and Al Franken — the chief demonizers of liberal enemies — as a case in point. The tendency to ignore ethical and moral consequences puts Postmodern liberalism in a collision course with the universal moral law. Group-think has a social code that the in-groups try use as a replacement for the universal moral law. When one is preoccupied with the social penalties for violating a group-think taboo, one tends to ignore the protests of conscience and to neglect or deny the real-world consequences of bad behavior.

Welles points out the tendency of group-think to regard out-groups as the enemy. Groupies develop a language of demonization expressly for out-group members. Postmodern liberals generally regard conservatives, traditional moralists, and doctrinally orthodox Christians as the out-group's enemies. Liberals often salt their debates with ad hominum attacks against these opponents. The liberal often shows no sign of shame after his eruption but retains the personae of moral superiority and self-righteousness. They regard their opponents as "...evil, weak, and stupid." Group-think often has a cartoon-like quality, and its cartoon thinking invariably contradicts reality. Reason is replaced with caricature.

Where do we go from here?

Ideological group-think has taken possession of Postmodern liberalism. Group-think partisans have layers of defenses built around their minds. It is futile to try to change their minds through discussion and debate. Like a Chinese finger trap, the more you tug at their minds with reason, the more they close off their minds. People sometimes work their way out of cliques, cults, and ideological closed systems when their personal survival instincts awaken them to the reality that their co-dependent group-think is smothering them. But this is unlikely to happen through verbal jousts.

Group think has corrupted the language too much and is too slippery in its ways for that to happen. Debates in public or in print addressed to liberals must be geared to reach the audience listening in the galleries.

The left has been severely criticized for its recent stunts. Liberals who had been justifying the bad behavior have retreated and fallen back to the moral equivalence gambit — "Your extremists are just as bad as our extremists." Then they compare the likes of Michael Moore and Al Franken with the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly. But it doesn't work. Mike and Al are products of a mind-numbing group-think. Rush and Bill, for all their faults, are the products of a mind-sharpening debate. That is their secret for winning and holding huge audiences.

"Your extremists are just a bad as our extremists" reminds me of a line by C. S. Lewis. No one ever says, "I'm as good as you," unless it is a lie. No pretty girl ever said to a homely girl, "I'm as good as you." A genius never says to a mediocrity, "I'm as good as you." No independent thinker will ever say to a group-think conformist, "I'm as good as you." No conservative has ever said or ever will ever say to a liberal, "Our judges are just as good as your judges."

Unfortunately, moderates sometimes fall for the claim by liberals that they are no worse than the conservatives. This can close the ears of moderates to conservative arguments. We must be very careful not to get enraged by the mischievous tactics of the left, to sink down to their level, and to respond in kind. If we do, they will cry, We must behave differently so that the general audience can discern the difference.

I won a public debate with a leftist during my college days in front of a large audience that was mostly hostile at the start. I gave them logic while my opponent gave them slogans. I remained calm and polite while my opponent was having a temper tantrum and threatening violence. He lost the audience that had initially belonged to him. (We debated in teams of two against two, but the real showdown came between me, the lead leftist, invited questioners, and uninvited hecklers in the audience. When leftists can't win the debate, they try to start a riot.)

Finally, do not forget what is at the root of these debates. The question is whether or not there is a universal moral law. Postmodern liberalism is in total war against this proposition. But we can win this debate because the moral law is written upon the hearts of all people, including those in the audience. That is why we can appeal to the moral conscience of the audience. If our appeal is clear and true, we can win their hearts.

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at Amazon.com.

© Fred Hutchison

 

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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31